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Inner Space: The Spiritual Frontier
by Margot Adler

Excerpted with permission from SISTERHOOD IS FOREVER: THE WOMEN'S ANTHOLOGY FOR A NEW MILLENNIUM, compiled, edited, and with an Introduction by Robin Morgan (Washington Square Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, March 2003).

The contemporary women's spirituality movement was born in the early 1970s, after women confronted an uncomfortable truth: "God" was male. The notion that "God" is considered male in the monotheistic religions dominating our present era "legitimates all earthly Godfathers," to quote feminist philosopher Mary Daly--or, as she summed it up, "If God is male, then the male is God."

The Creative Force--God/Goddess, whatever we choose to call it--is, of course, beyond gender, perhaps beyond knowing. But though a thousand male and female deities populate the myths of Asian, African, and Native American cultures; and though powerful women, divine and mortal, figure in ancient legends from Egypt, India, Greece, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and virtually everywhere else, most of us are burdened by the dominant image of god as male. This is particularly true for women who have grown up in the Abrahamic faiths or "religions of the book": Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Women seeking a spiritual dimension to feminism have struggled, during the second half of the 20th Century, to locate or create female images of power. But they have also forged a spiritual movement emphasizing the sacredness of this world, the body, and the earth, one standing in stark contrast to extremist, proselytizing religious views--especially fundamentalisms, whether Christian, Hebrew, Islamic, or other.

The women's spirituality movement originated, in part, from insights gained in consciousness-raising (C-R) groups, in which women dared speak aloud their most intimate thoughts and feelings with no fear of being interrupted or silenced. They talked about work, motherhood, sexuality, menstruation, lesbianism, childhood, men; their discussions brought about a sharing of insights from which a new vision of power and politics emerged. A foundational insight of C-R was that one's own experience should be trusted, so many women began forming small groups to discuss their dreams, intuitions, and spiritual odysseys, believing that these also contained truths. Some feminists studied ancient civilizations to see if women had different notions of power; others examined the history of their own religious traditions and created female-centered liturgies; still others, despairing that traditions so entangled with patriarchy could ever be a source of liberation, created new, women-centered religions outside the mainstream.

Meanwhile, some women felt a call to ministry and began to fight for their place in established faiths. At this writing, in 2002, Roman Catholic women still cannot become priests ; Orthodox Jewish women still cannot be rabbis; only recently have Conservative Jewish women been able to enter the rabbinate and have Episcopal women become priests and bishops. Women who chose to fight patriarchy within their own religions brought about serious reforms, at least in the more liberal branches: rewording of prayer books and hymnals to include female imagery; creation of new ceremonies (for example, women's seders in Judaism; alternate, lay masses in Catholicism; women's prayer groups in Islam).

Meanwhile, outside the mainstream religions, women's spirituality has flowered. There are thousands of small groups all across North America, embracing multiple forms of goddess and earth-centered belief-systems. For women whose notion of the feminine had been shaped in the 1950s, images of Athena, Hecate, Artemis, Isis, Kali, and Spider Woman (to mention just a few) have been healthful medicine. Within a few years, the writings and practices of African and Native women had broadened a movement that at first was too Western and too white. Not only were the original myths and legends of almost every indigenous culture vibrant with strong, active women--often the creators of civilization, the arts, agriculture, industry, politics, and social life--but non-Western cultures also taught North American and European women new ways of perceiving humanity's relationship to the natural world.

One example: during the 1970s, The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) created a study course in women and religion for their congregations--with books, a study guide, suggestions for rituals, even a film strip. Many women and quite a few men were changed radically by the course. They began to shift the direction of their churches, designing new liturgies and music, creating women's and men's circles, adding exuberant ritual to services that had previously been dry, often boring sessions. New tensions sprang up between humanists and rationalists on one hand, and those who embraced this new, more passionate, ceremonial direction. After much debate, the UUA included earth-centered spirituality as one of its official sources. The original course had emphasized Europe (ancient goddesses of Greece and the British Isles). A second study course brought goddesses of every continent into UU congregations; new books and articles began to reflect women's experiences in a multitude of cultures, races, ethnic groups. But with the exception of the UU example, most women's spirituality groups have grown outside of official religion: small groups of women creating meaningful religious life.

Starting in the late 1960s, certain feminist groups had begun to use the image of the witch as a metaphor for a powerful, self-reliant woman, someone willing to rebel, to challenge the dominant culture's ideology. Barbara Ehrenreich and Dierdre English wrote a groundbreaking pamphlet, later a book, linking the persecution of women and witches with the rise of the medical profession. The word "witch" is itself fraught with complex associations: Christians see evil and Satanism; Hollywood depicts seductresses casting spells; popular culture uses the word for someone, usually female, who tells fortunes or has psychic powers. Why would feminists identify with the word, given its negative connotations? "Witch" has associations with ancient knowledge, with women schooled in the arts of healing, herbology, midwifery. But it also evokes a person defined by herself, not by men. The word has a radical impact, resonating with a notion of spirituality based on the sacredness of nature and the life of this world, as opposed to a religion that denigrates earthly life and promotes only an abstract hereafter as valuable. Most major religions assume a hierarchy from a god on down through messiahs and prophets to gurus and disciples--with nature as a lowly servant. Because of association with childbirth, menstruation, and sexuality, women traditionally have been viewed as bound to the cycles of nature--and religions that denigrate the earthly plane tend to place women, too, at the bottom: spirit is exalted, flesh seen as inconsequential (or worse), and life regarded as something to pass through. The dichotomies characterizing our age--mind versus body, spirit versus material, sacred/secular, play/work, emotion/rationality, white/black, men/women--reflect religious and philosophical views mired in such dualisms and hierarchies.

What is truly revolutionary about feminist spirituality is that, at root, it posits a third way--and overthrows this hierarchy. Women's spirituality encourages a pluralism and egalitarianism worthy of democracy at its best.

Human beings have evolved and lived successfully as a species on this planet for hundreds of thousands of years, yet we forget this because we're taught that the only valuable part of our heritage is the "historical part" recorded over the last 6,000 years. We may believe in evolution, but we act as if the world began with the myth of Adam and Eve. We forget that our ancestors, no matter where we're from, lived, hunted, gathered, procreated, established communities, questioned their relationship to the stars, acquired knowledge of seasons and flora and fauna, and created ceremonies that helped knit their lives into relationship with the lands on which they lived, the animals and plants they knew, and the communities they created.

The so-called "great religions," the monotheistic religions that dominate our time, are all quite recent in human history--and despite the beauty and profundity of many of their scriptures, they all contain foundational texts reeking with hatred of women and denigration of the body and the material world. Whether it is the daily prayer of male Jews thanking God "for not making me a woman," or Paul's New Testament misogynistic contempt for women, or the concept in Islamic Shari'a jurisprudence that two female witnesses are needed to equal one male witness--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all are based on texts deeply problematic for women. Alongside the poetry and wisdom in the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran, are texts justifying human sacrifice, religious war, martyrdom, and a preference for an abstract heaven over a tangible earth. The resulting history has been crusades, conquests, pogroms, jihads, inquisitions, witch burnings, rape, slavery, and murder--always justifiable if against the "unbeliever," the "infidel," the other. There has rarely been a better (or more bitter) moment for us to grasp the toxicity of these scriptural texts' impact than in the post-9/11/2001 reality.

Unlike the "religions of the book," the old religions did not depend on literal texts, but on the doing and living that comprises experience. They were based on the rhythms of celestial bodies, the movement of herds, the turn of the seasons; they emphasized ceremonies of birth, life, death, regeneration. The earth religions were tied to place. Each people had its own sacred places, its own rivers and mountains, so there was no assumption that there was (or should be) a single truth. There was no missionary desire to proselytize, crusade, or convert because--though there was a sense of "oneness" in the experience of spiritual connection--different peoples had different cultures and therefore distinct sacred places, thus diverse divinities. Being based on oral tradition instead of literal text, there was no scripture to fight over. Furthermore, belief systems that perceive the world metaphorically instead of literally can adapt to new information and scientific findings. Earth-centered religions understand "god" or "gods" as immanent in nature, connected to all things, from rocks to trees to human creatures. The Sublime is not above, with humans below; everything is part of a vibrant, sacred reality.

It's perhaps no wonder that many women turned from beliefs that denigrated the body and the world, and looked to the earth-centered traditions for sustenance, sometimes recasting them in contemporary forms, seeking a metaphysics that might heal the split between material and spiritual. Nevertheless, it's important to note that large numbers of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim women are creating powerful forms of feminist spirituality within the monotheistic religions. Christian feminist writer Rosemary Radford Reuther has noted that hierarchy is not essential in the Christian tradition; God/ess is not merely mother and father but all roles and experience. Jewish feminist writer Judith Plaskow has written about how women have often felt excluded from the central moments of Jewish history--yet over the past three decades have demanded their right to pray at the Wailing Wall, and have become cantors and rabbis. Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi is one of numerous Muslim feminists who have done extensive studies reinterpreting Koranic and Shari'a texts and Hadiths to expose sexist, patriarchal interpretations and to encourage Muslim women to redefine Islam in more inclusive, humanist ways.

As women's spirituality enters a new century and millennium (in Common Era terms, that is), there are issues this growing, changing movement needs to confront.

One is our scholarship. We need to be scrupulous. We do not need to exaggerate the number of witches killed under European persecutions, nor need we inflate the existence of real cultures where women held power (or women and men held equal power) into notions of a single, ancient, universal age of matriarchy.

We also need ethical clarity. Women have founded a range of support groups, from spiritual families to forms of therapy. These groups have been liberating, less patriarchal than traditional therapy/counseling. But there have been abuses (perhaps unavoidably, in a world dominated by capitalism, some women have charged money for "goddess circles," as if they were group-therapy sessions). Feminist spirituality may well have therapeutic results--but ultimately it is not therapy. Furthermore, although there's power in the idea that one's knowledge of reality springs from personal experience, in spiritual work reality is not always clear, and "trusting one's feelings" has lead many a spiritual leader down the road to self-delusion. As the feminist spirituality community matures, we can admit that women, like all humans, occasionally lie or create fantasies.

We also need to remember our politics. Women's spirituality is not a "New Age" movement; it will always be deeply entwined with feminist analysis and a sense of the material world. It has a place for mystics--and for agnostics and atheists. One can feel a bond of community and a love of ceremony without having to adhere to any particular creed. Moreover, some "New Age" ideas are problematic for most feminists--e.g. we didn't all necessarily "choose to be here" or "choose our illnesses and oppressions." One of feminism's insights is that we are all more affected than we wish to believe by gender, race, class, age, disability, etc.--and by the dominant ideologies around us.

In the U.S., whence much of the contemporary women's spirituality movement originated, both women and men must confront not only a liberation but also an impoverishment that comes with a lack of rooted traditions. No matter our ancestry, almost all of us live in a culture fairly barren regarding ceremonies, songs, stories, rituals--the juice and mystery that is part and parcel of indigenous religious experience. If our ancestors were Native American peoples, our traditions were decimated through colonialism and forced conversion. If our ancestors were brought here as slaves, our traditions were brutally suppressed. If our ancestors came here as immigrants, fleeing authoritarianism, our traditions were lost in the desire to assimilate. All of us are missing elements that bind communities together. A crucial aspect of women's spirituality involves the discovery, re-creation, and creation of stories and ceremonies that foster that sense of community--but one with a contemporary sense of democracy and egalitarianism. This is a spirituality not based on literal scripture and fanatical belief, but on experience and pluralism; one at home with flexibility and new scientific knowledge, yet one that sees clearly the burden modernity has placed on the fragile earth. Allowing ecstasy and intellectual integrity at the same time, the forms of such spirituality are many, but its coexistence with freedom and modern life is something that our whole world could use as a model.

The spiritual world is not unlike the natural world: only diversity will save it. Just as the health of a forest can be measured by the number of varied creatures who thrive there, so only by an abundance of spiritual and philosophical paths can human beings navigate a path through the murk of our epoch. Our culture has denigrated the female as evil or irrelevant. Yet women and men who embrace a sacred female principle can gain not only a new understanding of themselves as whole, sacred beings; they can envision a world complex enough to sustain--and evolve--humanity.

Margot Adler has been a priestess of Wicca since 1973. She has worked for National Public Radio since 1979, and is a correspondent reporting for "All Things Considered," "Morning Edition," and "Weekend Edition." A journalist, writer, and radio producer, she is the author of Drawing Down the Moon, Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers and Other Pagans in America Today (first edition 1979, revised edition 1986; third edition, Penguin, 1997), and of Heretic's Heart, A Journey Through Spirit and Revolution (Beacon Press, 1997), a memoir of the 1960s. A graduate of the University of California (Berkeley) and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, she was a 1982 Nieman Fellow [sic] at Harvard.

Suggested Further Reading:

Christ, Carol and Judith Plaskow, eds. Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion. San Francisco: Harper& Row, 1979.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Civilization of the Goddess. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

Sjöö, Monica, and Barbara Mor. The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth. New York: Harper & Row, 1986; second edition New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Spretnak, Charlene. The Politics of Women's Spirituality. New York: Anchor Press, 1982.

Starhawk. The Spiral Dance, A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979.

Excerpted with permission from SISTERHOOD IS FOREVER: THE WOMEN'S ANTHOLOGY FOR A NEW MILLENNIUM, compiled, edited, and with an Introduction by Robin Morgan (Washington Square Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, March 2003).

Copyright © 2003 by Robin Morgan


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