By Corey Gilkes
April 09, 2014
Continuing from my last long ramble, I want to offer my opinions on the issue of using sex-specific terms in Western religious tradition – in other words, the “sex” of “god.” To the deeply pious – and perhaps even the moderately pious – that kinda talk is flat out preposterous, nothing short of sacrilegious and a mockery of religious beliefs. I agree, it is…..actually no, I don’t agree, it’s not. In really progressive societies, including the colonising one that put the rubbish in we head in de firs place, these are the kinds of conversations that take place. In any event, essentially every one of the major religions, particularly the Abrahamic faiths, started out acknowledging the Divine Feminine principles and then they all in one form or another concealed and wrote them out of their narratives. The only thing that is preposterous is *why*. Hey, doh vex with me, study the history very carefully and then take it up with your minister who withheld this information all these years. They went to a seminary or theological college so they damn well supposed to know about all this.
Before going any further, for the sake of brevity, I am kinda assuming that many here are already familiar with the pre-Christian goddess cultures that existed thousands of years before the Christian era. For those who are learning of this for the first time there are many good websites and essays on the subject including an old article of mine on Trinicenter. www.trinicenter.com/Gilkes/2011/0902.htm
It’s not surprising that this kind of topic may offend or surprise some people. We were all raised hearing about “God,” the “Heavenly Father,” the “Man” upstairs, the Creator, the Redeemer (the last two letters identifying them as both masculine), so clearly “God” is male, this isn’t something that warrants any further thought, so what rubbish I coming with now?
Well, names and words are funny things; a word can exert a powerful influence over one’s perceptions and ultimately, actions. They also have ways of making ideas and people invisible, insignificant. This is clearly the case where women and femininity are concerned in divine concepts in the West. Religion is not nor has it ever been disconnected from wider cultural and socio-political issues. Dr John Henrik Clarke used to say too many of us approach and embrace religions and theological ideas in an innocent, almost myopic way, (un)consciously locking off wider contextual issues. In that delusional state of denial, we don’t understand that stemming from these theological ideas – and feeding those ideas – are specific cultural attitudes. In this case, ideas that erase or conceal the feminine from divine concepts, demonises things deemed feminine and elevate individualist, competitively aggressive behaviours associated with masculinity.
It is my firm belief that a conscious confronting and de/re-constructing of Western Christianity – the principal religious denomination that shaped, oriented and hindered Caribbean progressive development (at the same time it was providing a means by which organised social and political agitation could be fostered) – is vital to placing this civilisation we’re trying to build on the path to stability. Advancing feminine symbolism, values and images of the goddesses, into ideas of the Divine must be part of that process. It is not about pushing aside a male godly authority in favour of a “female patriarch,” as some simplistically argue. It is not about some radical feminist feel-good, one-upmanship – not for me anyway. And it eh no exercise in political correctness (a condescending term I really dislike). It is about restoring, starting at the psychological level, senses of balance in everyday living and interacting.
Indeed, that apparently is how the imbalance started. Among the earliest civilisations evidence abounds of Great Mother Goddess worship. These societies also spoke about the oneness of the Divine but there were also masculine and feminine principles each complementing the other. However, in places like Europe researchers like the late Senegalese physicist, linguist and sociologist Cheikh Anta Diop in “The Cultural Unity of Black Africa: Domains of Matriarchy and Patriarchy in Classical Antiquity” and “Civilisation or Barbarism: an Authentic Anthropology,” Charles S Finch in “Echoes of the Old Darkland,” and Michael Bradley in “The Iceman Cometh” established that the harsh conditions of the post-Ice Age period brought on patterns of behaviour among the peoples trapped in that frigid region that placed high value on mobility, militarism and hunting. Consequently, sedentary, agricultural lifestyles came to be seen as threatening to survival in the Eurasian steppes as were the matricentric lifestyle and the divine concepts that reflected that. Thus with the shift to a more nomadic, warring lifestyle, the belief systems also came to reflect that shift and consciousness.
So to be fair to Christianity, neither it, nor Judaism that came before it or Islam that came after created their anti-feminine attitudes. They all inherited these ideas. The mindset was already firmly established in Eurasian culture from as far back as the Urukagina’s Law Codes in Sumer circa 2360 BCE. Thus there has to be some establishing of connections with those ancient faiths from which the prejudices came from so as to gain a proper understanding of the rationale behind the de-feminising of the Christian stories. It will also give us an insight as to how words often reflect the invisibility of femininity (‘He’ to speak for both sexes) or place higher value on, say, the right side (masculine) over the left side (female).
As was indicated above, all my talk here about wanting to restore concepts of the Divine Feminine in the Christian and other religious traditions isn’t only connected to heaven, salvation or anything like that. I won’t deny that on a spiritual level re-introducing ideas, rituals, values and behaviours under the legitimacy of a feminine principle offers a powerful and important counter-balance to the more aggressive masculine principle. But that should be linked to some other, more tangible factors.
There is a close connection to philosophically removing or subordinating femininity in divinity and discussing who has the right to govern or participate in building our society in the various fields and *how* they should be going about it. In other words, open interrogation of and challenging ideas about the predominant maleness of the Divine will also bring into focus all the other “male-centric” ideas of progress, development, morality, conflict resolution and of course political governance. All stem from certain assumptions about masculinity as defined by specific cultures that were steeped in nomadism and militarism.
A couple male-centric myths may be illuminating in this regard. In Greece, Zeus, the king of the gods swallows the goddess Metis (who had a serpent as one of her symbols, by the way) and gives birth to Athena through his head. This legend can be seen as a poetic recording of the overturning of the old matricentric order in which women, particularly post-menopausal women, were consulted as the final decision-makers in day-to-day activities. Researchers like Susan Pomeroy, Marilyn French, Barbara G Walker and Gerda Lerner observe that Zeus’s giving birth to Athena also shows the obsession ancient patriarchs had with arrogating unto themselves the one physical thing about women they could not do – give birth: create.
In Babylon, often identified as a starting point for the de-feminising of divine concepts, the ancient Great Mother Tiamat is killed by her son, the malevolent and intolerant Marduk. This figure is very important to us because Marduk was the model for the Levite Jews and their deity Yahweh/Jehovah.
In just these two myths, coming from cultures that fed into the thinking of the early Christian theologians, we can draw connections to changes in not just perceptions of women but also changes in economies. Generally speaking, women have been traditionally associated with the soil and with that association came systems of values and economic principles that included stability, sedentary living, reciprocity and cyclical patterns. Carol Ochs in “Behind the Sex of God” tells us that whereas in ancient matricentric societies the soil was revered as “homeland,” in the scriptures it is regarded as temptation leading men away from the higher calling of spiritual life (which is placed in the category of wandering). Wandering, nomadism, are generally features of warrior-hunter societies. Throughout the Old Testament most of those who are favoured by Yahweh/Jehovah are seen to be wandering and this notion of wandering as a higher calling transferred to economic and expansionist theories when Europe entered into the age of mercantilism in the 16th century.
Now of course, it can be argued that the Christian “God” is not like the more violent Jehovah/Yahwah. That “He” is already loving, compassionate, caring, merciful; all the qualities many use to describe the ancient Mother Goddesses. It can also be argued that many Christian women are functioning and making significant contributions within the current system as they have been for hundreds of years. True, but (1) the god of the Christians IS the god of the Hebrews and (2) those arguments open the door for many other questions and counter-arguments. Those arguments do not address the fact that there WAS a period in human history, an extremely long period at that, where feminine principles were observed side by side with masculine principles; that commercial activities, political systems, use of mineral resources and even the way wars were fought and prisoners treated, were in keeping with the value systems of both counter-balancing principles. Those arguments do not change the evidence showing that the shift to “exclusively” patricentric ideas and behaviours were for psychological and economic reasons that had nothing to do with any decree from heaven. They do not invalidate the fact that patricentric theologians saw it fit to appropriate, borrow, arrogate and plagiarise traits traditionally assigned to divine feminine principles and avatars. They do not invalidate the fact that these theologians assigned these traits to their masculine figure – partly to win converts, mostly to legitimise the new faith’s pretensions to exclusivity and superiority.
Such arguments also skirt around the somewhat inconvenient historical fact that within the Christian era, the Holy Spirit in the Catholic and Anglican Trinity was expressed in *feminine* terms in Hebrew (“ruach”) and Greek (“Sophia”). Additionally, both Jews and Christians became extremely dissatisfied with the singular, all-powerful male divine figure – be it expressed as Yahweh/Jehovah or Jesus. During the Middle Ages god was seen as a persecutor but Mary was idealised as the merciful protector and the interceder for a people ravaged by the Plague and parasitic clergymen and monarchs.
As such, they, in their respective communities, drew from and incorporated Divine Feminine worship from so-called pagan concepts whether the religious authorities liked it or not. One Canon John de Satge apparently says a lot when he wrote “the deepest roots of the Marian cultus are not to be found in the Christian tradition at all. The religious history of mankind shows a recurring tendency to worship a mother goddess. May it not be the case…that what we have here is in reality an older religion, a paganism which has been too lightly baptised into Christ and whose ancient features still persist under a thin Christian veil?” Raphael Patai, Charles S Finch MD, Carol Ochs and Gerald Massey are but four scholars who can be consulted for detailed information into such deities as the Shekhinah, Asherah/Ashtoreth, Cherubim, Matronit, Mary and Anath. Indeed, if there’s validity in the massive studies undertaken by Massey, practically every single female figure in the Old Testament can be traced back to Egyptian Goddess concepts.
The fact that there are today many women who are functioning within the existing religious structure quite well is ok; they are not doing anything their forbears weren’t doing for the last 3000-odd years. Like I said before, I have respect for those who seek to change from within – some years ago I was pleasantly surprised to hear Molly Gaskin on some TV programme speaking about the historical removal of the female element of the godhead. But there are many others who are not content with the present arrangement and yet are not prepared to come out of the Christian fold. Conversations of this nature will hopefully point them in a direction they may wish to go. They are among the ones who I am hoping will ask the difficult and serious questions because we are facing difficult and serious problems.
And why *shouldn’t* they ask? Why shouldn’t they know the history as well as the faith? Women were presbyters and even higher in the early Church. Concepts of the Divine Mother also existed. Mary, the name of the mother of the Jesus character, derives from Mari/Maya via the Hebrew Miriamne. This was a title that meant “of the sea” in ancient African Nile Valley belief systems, presumably a devout reference to amniotic fluid. It was a title of Isis/Auset. These concepts were only gradually excised as the Church became more formally structured, incorporated Greco-Roman urban mores and with them, old prejudices of women’s “proper” roles. Why isn’t that part of the history taught? Why more devotees aren’t made aware that sex and sexuality were the principal reasons why feminine elements were cut out of or subordinated within Christian ideas of divinity? Why isn’t it told that sex was and still is the “moral” benchmark to show all the so-called “pagan” beliefs as “evil,” “demonic,” “immoral,” “heathen” – again, in keeping with Greco-Roman urban prejudices. Yet, in spite of that, they saw it fit to wear the vestments of pagan priestesses – which the Catholic and Anglican priests wear to this day.
Why isn’t it taught that when Christian authorities did incorporate such feminine figures as Mary, it was sometimes done in such a way to encourage deference to the ultimate masculine authority? More than that, such compliance was often linked to wider political agendas undertaken by governments that held racist, expansionist and imperialist agendas. The late Father Tissa Balasuriya and Barbara G Walker show us in their respective works “Mary and Human Liberation” and “The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets” how the ecclesiastical elite’s developed image of Mary, what they both called Mariolatry, an image of a demure, virginal (in the usual convoluted sense of the term), passive, non-confrontational figure, has been used up to our own times to encourage conformity to enslavement, colonialism, imperialism, political corruption, corporate exploitation. The qualities that extol her gentleness were put forward and praised, often in direct contrast to Jesus who is then portrayed as the stern justice of god the father.
Here we can see quite clearly man made god in his image and likeness, as Pearl Eintou-Springer correctly put it. On the one hand this image has been held up as the epitome of the ideal woman, the “lady,” the “Madonna” that is the mother of the saviour, holy, pure, but yet not equal to him. Anastasius, one of the early theologians wrote: “Let no one call Mary the Mother of God, for Mary was but a woman and it is impossible that God should be born of a woman.” What is expressed here becomes more illuminating if one compares it to Ancient Egyptian carvings and paintings of their female deities often done in the same dimensional proportions as the male consorts. Their earthly representatives, the Pharaohs – and the title “pharaoh” denoted the person’s office (Great House) – were many times depicted sitting in the lap of Auset/Isis. The very throne was identified with Auset. It’s also instructive that whenever a statue of a Pharaoh or his wife or goddess is depicted walking, the left foot is forward – the “female” side.
My point here is that we in the Caribbean, with or without the approval of people in the North Atlantic, need to do our own self-examination to get to the root of how our Independence experiments became so mired in muck. We need to engage in some serious, intense and yes, painful conversations and this is one of them.
So again, to those who argue that this is some provocative, radical, unintellectual – not to mention heretical – revisionism, let me repeat: the real revisionism, the real falsification, took place centuries ago. As Caribbean people living in a region that from its very beginnings were set up for the benefit of European and Euro-American societies (and schooling our intellectual elites to do exactly that) we need to be pick apart everything and look at them again. Some things we may very well keep, some is to fling in the labasse. Regarding ideas of the Divine at the very least what we should be doing is exploring the vast body of works documenting this and matching them to our own ancestral traditions which are better suited to embracing gender-neutral understandings of the Divine… Of course that means we need to have an understanding of *those* too, a problem, given what passes for History and Social Studies.
Read between the lines of many articles seeking to address human, environmental, sexual violence; in trying to bring about different, more humanistic forms of politics; in looking to develop alternative ways of doing business that don’t focus on the holy grail of the bottom line. At the philosophical level, the ideas put forward to rectify these challenges, the ideas that are the most logical, all seem to be lifted straight out of matri-centred ideological constructs….but therein lies the problem, it’s rarely *understood* in that context. They are usually prescribed in a centralised, authoritarian ethic. So in light of the rapid changes taking place in our societies and the resurgence of conservatism as a way of addressing these changes, it is time one of the last bastions of patricentric pretensions to authoritarianism be faced head on.
So who wants to hide behind trite arguments like “‘god’ is beyond such carnal, physical categories,” or, as someone once tried to tell me with a straight face, that god (well, she said Jesus) is beyond human culture, ok, fine, that may be so. If that works for you, no problem. But that does not in any way change the reality that during prayer you’re calling on sex-specific terms pretending to represent one half the world. *That* has an historical, not other-worldly, origin rooted in ancient ideas positing that since nature and women were considered corrupting, inferior, non-existent, they could not possibly be elevated any higher in the spiritual world. As Dr Yosef ben-Jochannan often says “god is the deification of a culture.”
So let’s restart some of these conversations.