Carol P. Christ’s 1978 essay, “Why Women Need the Goddess”, argues that the gender of God is a matter of powerful symbolic meaning.
At the close of Ntosake Shange’s stupendously successful Broadway play for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, a tall beautiful black woman rises from despair to cry out, “I found God in myself and I loved her fiercely.” 1 Her discovery is echoed by women around the country who meet spontaneously in small groups on full moons, solstices, and equinoxes to celebrate the Goddess as symbol of life and death powers and waxing and waning energies in the universe and in themselves.2
It is the night of the full moon. Nine women stand in a circle, on a rocky hill about the city. The western sky is rosy with the setting sun; in the east the moon’s face begins to peer above the horizon. . . The woman pours out a cup of wine onto the earth, refills it and raises it high. “Hail, Tana, Mother of mothers!” she cries. “Awaken from your long sleep, and return to your children again!”3
What are the political and psychological effects of this fierce new love of the divine in themselves for women whose spiritual experience has been focused by the male God of Judaism and Christianity? Is the spiritual dimension of feminism a passing diversion, an escape from difficult but necessary political work? Or does the emergence of the symbol of Goddess among women have significant political and psychological ramifications for the feminist movement?
To answer this question, we must first understand the importance of religious symbols and rituals in human life and consider the effect of male symbolism of God on women. According to anthropologist Clifford Geertz, religious symbols shape a cultural ethos, defining the deepest values of a society and the persons in it. “Religion,” Geertz writes, “is a system of symbols which act to produce powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations”4 in the people of a given culture. […]
Because religion has such a compelling hold on the deep psyches of so many people, feminists cannot afford to leave it in the hands of the fathers. Even people who no longer “believe in God” or participate in the institutional structure of patriarchal religion still may not be free of the power of the symbolism of God the Father. A symbol’s effect does not depend on rational assent, for a symbol also functions on levels of the psyche other than the rational. Religion fulfills deep psychic needs by providing symbols and rituals that enable people to cope with crisis situations5 in human life (death, evil, suffering) and to pass through life’s important transitions (birth, sexuality, death). Even people who consider themselves completely secularized will often find themselves sitting in a church or synagogue when a friend or relative gets married or when a parent or friend has died. The symbols associated with these important rituals cannot fail to affect the deep or unconscious structures of the mind of even a person who has rejected these symbolisms on a conscious level especially if a person is under stress. The reason for the continuing effects of religious symbols is that the mind abhors a vacuum. Symbol systems cannot simply be rejected; they must be replaced. Where there is no replacement, the mind will revert to familiar structures at times of crisis, bafflement, or defeat.
Religions centered on the worship of a male God create “moods” and “motivations” that keep women in a state of psychological dependence on men and male authority, while at the same legitimating the political and social authority of fathers and sons in the institutions of society. Religious symbol systems focused around exclusively male images of divinity create the impression that female power can never be fully legitimate or wholly beneficent. This message need never be explicitly stated (as, for example, it is in the story of Eve) for its effect to be felt. A woman completely ignorant of the myths of female evil in biblical religion nonetheless acknowledges the anomaly of female power when she prays exclusively to a male God. She may see herself as like God (created in the image of God) only by denying her own sexual identity and affirming God’s transcendence of sexual identity. But she can never have the experience that is freely available to every man and boy in her culture, of having her full sexual identity affirmed as being in the image and likeness of God. In Geertz’s terms, her “mood” is one of trust in male power as salvia and distrust of female power in herself and other women as inferior or dangerous. Such a powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting “mood” cannot fail to become a “motivation” that translates into social and political reality.
Read the full essay here.
Carol P. Christ is a teacher and author and holds a PhD from Yale University. She is the author of the widely reprinted essay “Why Women Need the Goddess,” which argues that there was once an ancient religion of a supreme goddess. As director of the Ariadne Institute she conducts pilgrimages to sacred sites in Greece containing artifacts of matriarchal religion. She has for many years been a resident of the Greek island of Lesbos, the home of the poet Sappho.
Featured Image: Carol P. Christ Quotes