14 February 2013

January 2013 Notes on Teleconference with Carol P. Christ

Note from the January 16, 2013 Teleconference with Carol P. Christ

WATER thanks Carol P. Christ for her insightful presentation and her lifelong contribution to the field of feminist studies in religion. We look forward to her book, tentatively entitled Goddess and God after Feminism: Body, Nature, and Power, co-authored with Judith Plaskow. Following are notes on her recent teleconference remarks as well as her responses to questions and discussion.


Carol and Judith Plaskow are longtime colleagues who have collaborated on significant anthologies in feminist work in religion. This time they are trying to capture and expand on their conversations about the nature of the Goddess or God. They hold different views of divine power and found that no amount of rational argument could convince either of them to change her opinion. Their new work involves more than rational discourse and includes autobiography and dialogue about personal and philosophical differences. In the opening chapters they describe early experiences that shaped their views of God.

Carol grew up in California with her mother’s and father’s extended families, her mother, her father, and two brothers. Her grandmothers were Roman Catholic and Christian Scientist, and she was raised Protestant. Her sense of the divine included the idea that God is love, connection to the Blessed Mother, the assumption of health, and connection to nature. Her studies with (the early) Michael Novak taught her that theology should address existential questions and help us make sense of our lives.  She took from all of this that the earth is our home and that is nature full of wonder, that life in the body is good, and that the love of God and the Blessed Mother are always with us.

She describes the impact of the love she felt in her early years from her grandmothers and her mother. At the time of her mother’s death, she felt a powerful—revelatory—presence of love. This experience opened her to the love of friends and animals, nature and family, and helped her to stop pining for a single significant other.  She affirms that the Goddess is love—that has nothing to do with war, violence, or domination—and embraces the whole world.

Carol refers to the world as the body of the Goddess. She sees the Goddess as intelligent, embodied love that is the ground of all being, borrowing from Paul Tillich. With process theologian Charles Hartshorne, she affirms divine presence in the world. She says that panentheism expresses her sense that the Goddess is in but more than the world. She calls divine power not a power to coerce or control but a power to love, understand, persuade, and inspire. The difference between the Goddess and us is that while we sometimes love She always loves, and while we sometimes understand, She always understands.

Process philosophy provides Carol with a framework and foundation for thinking about change, relationship, and the interdependence of the web of life. The divinity is not an exception to these principles but the main exemplar of them. Evil in the world is not created by the divine power, but by human beings. We are responsible to repair the world. The divine power, the Goddess, promises to be with us all the way, and that, Carol says, makes all the difference.
Questions and discussion followed

1. The first question was whether God is personal and whether we need anthropomorphic images.  Carol agrees with Marcia Falk that we need all kinds of images of the divine, including those from nature like wind. Where she differs with Judith Plaskow is whether the divine power is impersonal or personal. Judith believes that the divine power is impersonal while Carol believes it is a personal presence that cares about human and other than human lives.

2. In response to a question about community, Carol said that it is important to have a community to share spirituality and spiritual questions. She described her own kind of “dark night of the soul” when nothing made sense, when she did not have words for certain experiences, or confidence that anyone else would understand if she could muster the words. When she found the “courage to see” (Mary Daly "The Courage to See." The Christian Century 88 (Sept 22, 1971): 1108-1111), things that felt most vulnerable and painful were affirmed by other women as part of their experiences as well. She mentioned the powerful phrase of Nelle Morton, “hearing each other into speech.” (The Journey is Home, Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1985, pp. 202-210) 

Carol said that it is hard to go against conventional religions; it is a big risk to speak out against traditional Christianity and still want to be a theologian in an academic world where Christian tradition has so much power. Carol quoted Mary E. Hunt, who said to Carol, “We’ve made the academy safe for women who are safer than we are.”

3. One participant honored Carol’s “brilliance and courage.” She asked Carol about the field of women in religion today. Carol described her disappointment. She said she had believed in the 1970s that women were “all in it together” in our quest to transform or find alternatives to patriarchal religion. But she has found that in the university/seminary system telling the truth about our lives and discussing it in rational way is not rewarded. (Editor’s note: Some would say punished!)  Carol said that she was not able to teach women and religion at an advanced level at San Jose State University, and that she was not offered a job at an institution where she could continue to develop the field with graduate students.  California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), where she is an adjunct teaching online graduate courses, is one of the few institutions with a Women’s Spirituality program that welcomes students and faculty whose interests are not tied to traditional patriarchal religions.

She also mentioned that she once heard a “feminist” scholar advise women students to do feminist work but not to acknowledge the word feminism or any relationship to methods created by feminist foremothers. She found this advice horrifying. With reference to the insight of writers like bell hooks and Paulo Freire, Carol affirmed writing in ways other people can understand and avoiding academic jargon as import aspects of feminist work in religion.

4. In response to another question, Carol talked about her work with the Green Party in Greece. She described her concern for ecology, her interest in bird watching, and her reading of Charles Hartshorne’s “Do Birds Love to Sing,” which confirmed her feeling humans are not only the species with the capacity to enjoy life. Lesbos, where she lives, is a stopping off point for migratory birds. Its wetlands are increasingly degraded. So Carol got involved in activism to save the wetlands. She met Michael Bakas of the Green Party (which was founded by Petra Kelly) who asked her to run for office in regional and national elections in Lesbos. She was pleased to discover that the Green party principles of sustainability, non-violence (in Greek, no violence), social justice, and participatory democracy expressed her own beliefs.

She spoke of the use of social media outside of academy, including where she publishes often. She also teaches online.

5. Another participant asked about Carol’s experiences of rituals. Carol replied that ritual is extremely important to her even though she does not belong to an on-going ritual group. She practices ritual during the four weeks of the year when she leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete ( Years ago, she started a ritual group in California. She admires the work of Z Budapest, Starhawk, and others. However, she is less interested in aspects of ”Wiccan” practice than she once was—especially since discovering that some practices (e.g., invocations to guardians of the watchtowers, use of knives, etc.) were taken from the Masons or other groups that are not feminist. Carol affirms building altars, pouring libations, the simple sharing of gratitude, acknowledging that we did not come from ourselves but live in interdependence with one another. She likes the song by Faith Rogow, “As we bless the source of life so are we blessed.”

6. A Buddhist colleague asked Carol whether she was influenced by Buddhist teachers since so many of Carol’s views seem compatible with Buddhism. Carol said she is “a kind of Buddhist” in that she does not believe that the world revolves around herself (her ego). But she is not a non-dualist but rather a process thinker who affirms that we are part of the whole and in relationship with each other as individuals. She sees the divine power as a personal loving presence. To quote Carol, “I do not believe that I am God or God is I. I believe I am much less than [God], much more finite than [God].”

7. In response to an inquiry about her sense that we are all related in the web of life, Carol suggested we could recognize that such relationships are very concrete. Those with ancestry from the Middle East, Europe, Australia, and Asia are related to Africans who left Africa only about 50,000 years ago. All Europeans carry mitochondrial DNA from only a dozen or so ancestral mothers. 

Carol closed by saying that unlike some people who do not want life to end when they die, she has no need for heaven or reincarnation. She feels that her life will end, and she feels fine with that. Ancient cultures, she said, focused on the continuity of communities and of life, not the continuation of individual lives. She believes that we dissolve into earth leaving memories of our lives behind.  She feels no need for individual survival; rather, she is grateful to have been given life.

WATER is grateful for Carol P. Christ’s major contribution to the field of women in religion. We look forward to the book that she and Judith Plaskow are writing and wish them well on its completion.