The study of the Divine Feminine, or Thealogy (a neologism derived from Ancient Greek θεά meaning "Goddess" and λόγος, -logy, meaning "study of"), is generally understood as a discourse that reflects upon the meaning of Goddess (thea) in complement and contrast to God (theo). As such, it includes the study and reflection upon the feminine divine from a feminist perspective.
History of the term
The term's origin and initial use is open to debate, and the definition and scope of thealogy are currently being defined by the key scholars in the field. Often attributed to a neologism coined by Isaac Bonewits in 1974, Patricia 'Iolana traces the early use of the term to 1976 crediting both Bonewits and Valerie Saiving in its initial use.
In the 1979 "The Changing of the Gods," Naomi Goldenberg introduces the term as a future possibility with respect to a distinct discourse, highlighting the masculine nature of theology. Also in 1979, in the first revised edition of "Real Magic", Bonewits defined "thealogy" in his Glossary as "Intellectual speculations concerning the nature of the Goddess and Her relations to the world in general and humans in particular; rational explanations of religious doctrines, practices and beliefs, which may or may not bear any connection to any religion as actually conceived and practiced by the majority of its members." Also in the same glossary, he defined "theology" with nearly identical words, changing the feminine pronouns with masculine pronouns appropriately.
Carol P. Christ used the term in "Laughter of Aphrodite" (1987), acknowledging that those who create thealogy cannot avoid being influenced by the categories and questions posed in Christian and Jewish theologies. She further defined thealogy in her 2002 essay, "Feminist theology as post-traditional thealogy," as "the reflection on the meaning of the Goddess".
In her 1989 essay "On Mirrors, Mists and Murmurs: Toward an Asian American Thealogy," Rita Nakashima Brock defined thealogy as "the work of women reflecting on their experiences of and beliefs about divine reality". Also in 1989, Ursula King notes thealogy's growing usage as a fundamental departure from traditional male-oriented theology, characterized by its privileging of symbols over rational explanation.
In 1993, Charlotte Caron's definition of thealogy as "reflection on the divine in feminine and feminist terms" appeared in "To Make and Make Again". By this time, the concept had gained considerable status among Goddess adherents.
Thealogy as academic discipline
Situated in relationship to the fields of theology and religious studies, thealogy is a discourse that critically engages the beliefs, wisdom, practices, questions, and values of the Goddess community, both past and present. Similar to theology, thealogy grapples with questions of meaning, include reflecting on the nature of the divine, the relationship of humanity to the environment, the relationship between the spiritual and sexual self, and the nature of belief. However, in contrast to theology, which often focuses on an exclusively logical and empirical discourse, thealogy embraces a postmodern discourse of personal experience and complexity.
The term suggests a feminist approach to theism and the context of God and gender within Paganism, Neopaganism, Goddess Spirituality and various nature-based religions. However, thealogy can be described as religiously pluralistic, as thealogians come from various religious backgrounds that are often hybrid in nature. In addition to Pagans, Neopagans, and Goddess-centred faith traditions, they are also Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Quakers, etc. or define themselves as Spiritual Feminists. As such, the term thealogy has also been used by feminists within mainstream monotheistic religions describe in more detail the feminine aspect of a monotheistic deity or trinity, such as God/dess Herself, or the Heavenly Mother of the Latter Day Saint movement.
In 2000, Melissa Raphael wrote the text Introducing Thealogy: Discourse on the Goddess for the series Introductions in Feminist Theology. Written for an academic audience, it purports to introduce the main elements of thealogy within the context of Goddess feminism. She situates thealogy as a discourse that can be engaged with by Goddess feminists—those who are feminist adherents of the Goddess who may have left their church, synagogue, or mosque—or those who may still belong to their originally established religion. In the book, Raphael compares and contrasts thealogy with the Goddess movement. In 2007, Paul Reid-Bowen wrote the text "Goddess as Nature: Towards a Philosophical Thealogy", which can be regarded as another systematic approach to thealogy, but which integrates philosophical discourse.
In the past decade, other thealogians like Patricia 'Iolana and D'vorah Grenn have generated discourses that bridge thealogy with other academic disciplines. 'Iolana's Jungian thealogy connects analytical psychology with thealogy, and Grenn's metaformic thealogy is a bridge between matriarchal studies and thealogy.
Contemporary Thealogians include Carol P. Christ, Melissa Raphael, Asphodel Long, Beverly Clack, Charlotte Caron, Naomi Goldenberg, Paul Reid-Bowen, Rita Nakashima Brock, and Patricia 'Iolana.
Criticisms of thealogy
At least one Christian theologist dismisses thealogy as the creation of a new deity made up by radical feminists. Paul Reid-Bowen and Chaone Mallory point out that essentialism is a problematic slippery slope when Goddess feminists argue that women are inherently better than men or inherently closer to the Goddess. In his book Goddess Unmasked: The Rise of Neopagan Feminist Spirituality, Philip G. Davis levies a number of criticisms against the Goddess movement, including logical fallacies, hypocrisies, and essentialism.
Thealogy has also been criticized for its objection to empiricism and reason. In this critique, thealogy is seen as flawed by rejecting a purely empirical worldview for a purely relativistic one. Meanwhile, scholars like Harding and Haraway seek a middle ground of feminist empiricism.
Divine Feminine & the Goddess
The Goddess movement includes spiritual beliefs or practices (chiefly neo-pagan) which has expanded in North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand since the 1970s. The movement grew as a reaction to perceptions of dominant organized religion as male-centric, and makes use of goddess worship and a focus on gender and femininity.
The "Goddess movement" is a widespread, non-centralized trend in Neopaganism, and therefore has no centralized tenets of belief. Practices vary widely, from the name and number of goddesses worshipped to the specific rituals and rites used to do so. Some, such as Dianic Wicca, exclusively worship female deities, while others do not. Belief systems range from monotheistic to polytheistic to pantheistic, encompassing a range of theological variety similar to that in the broader Neopaganism community. Common pluralistic belief means that a self-identified Goddess worshiper could theoretically worship any number of different goddesses from cultures all over the world.
Capitalization of terms such as "Goddess" and "Goddesses" usually vary with author or with the style guides of publications or publishers. Within the Goddess community, members generally consider it proper to capitalize the word "Goddess", but not necessary when generic references are made, as in the word "goddesses".
- Goddesses refers to a local or specific deities linked clearly to a particular culture and often to particular aspects, attributes and powers (for example: the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, the Greek goddess Athena, Hindu goddesses like Sarasvati, the goddess of learning, poetry, music, inspiration and wisdom, and Lakshmi goddess of wealth and sovereignty).
One can regard a goddess (in this sense) as an aspect of the Great Goddess as well as a specific goddess with a particular role within a pantheon. The Hindu goddess, Durga, is a case in point. The name Durga can refer to a specific aspect of the Goddess but in the Shakti forms of Hinduism generally refers to the Great Goddess as AdyaShakti: the primordial Shakti who incorporates all aspects. Anthropologists in their studies of goddesses have noted that adherents of goddesses often view their own goddess as a personal guardian or teacher.
- The Goddess or the Great Goddess is a female deity that is regarded as primary. Such a religious system existed historically in many cultures, though not under the same names and not necessarily with the same traits. If there is a male god, his powers may be seen as deriving from her. These terms are not usually understood to refer a single deity that is identical across cultures but rather a concept common in many ancient cultures, which those in the Goddess movement want to restore. When Goddess is spoken of as a personal guardian, as in 'my Goddess' it means 'my worldview in Goddess spirituality.'
- Goddess Spirituality is sometimes used as a synonym for Goddess Movement and sometimes as the spiritual practice that is part of the Goddess movement.
- Goddessing is a recent contribution to Goddess vocabulary, possibly derived from the British journal of the same name, following from Mary Daly's linguistically suspect suggestion that deity is too dynamic, too much in process and changing continually, to be a noun, and should better be spoken as a verb (Daly 1973). Goddessing may also mean Goddess culture, Goddess way of life, Goddess practice, or 'my goddessing' as in my individual interpretation and experience of Goddess.
- Priestess refers to women who dedicate themselves to one or more goddesses. It may or may not include leadership of a group, and it may or may not include legal ordination. The analogous term for men is "priest." However, not everyone who dedicates themselves to the Goddess or goddesses calls themselves a priestess (or priest).
- Thealogy is a term whose first use in the context of feminist analysis of religion and discussion of Goddess is usually credited to Naomi Goldenberg, who used the term in her book Changing of the Gods. It substitutes the Greek feminine prefix "thea-" for the supposedly generic use of the Greek masculine prefix "theo-". Frequently used to mean analysis of Goddess thought and mysticism, it can also be used more liberally to mean any kind of divine, not just deity divine, as in meditation, ethics, ritual pragmatics.
In the 19th century, some first-wave feminists such as Matilda Joslyn Gage and Elizabeth Cady Stanton published their ideas describing a female Deity, whilst anthropologists such as Johann Jakob Bachofen examined the ideas of prehistoric matriarchal Goddess cultures. However these ideas were largely ignored in the North America and much of Europe until second-wave feminism. In addition to Bachofen, second-wave feminists who became interested in the history of religion also refer to the work of Helen Diner (1965), and M. Esther Harding (1935),Elizabeth Gould Davis (1971), and Merlin Stone (1976).
Since the 1970s, Goddess Spirituality has emerged as a recognizable international cultural movement. In 1978 Carol P. Christ's widely reprinted essay "Why Women Need the Goddess", which argues in favor of the concept of there having been an ancient religion of a supreme goddess, was presented as the keynote address to an audience of over 500 at the "Great Goddess Re-emerging" conference at the University of Santa Cruz; it was first published in Heresies: The Great Goddess Issue (1978). Carol P. Christ also co-edited the classic feminist religion anthologies Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality (1989) and Womanspirit Rising (1979/1989); the latter included her essay Why Women Need the Goddess.
From 1974 to 1984, WomanSpirit, a journal edited in Oregon by Jean and Ruth Mountaingrove, published articles, poetry, and rituals by women, exploring ideas and feelings about female deity. The journal The Beltane Papers, which started publication at about the same time until mid-2011. In 1983, Jade River and Lynnie Levy founded the Re-formed Congregation of the Goddess, International (RCG-I) in Madison, Wisconsin, RCG-I continues today with groups called "Circles" in many U. S. localities, as well as an educational program, priestess training, and ordination. The Goddess movement has found voice in various films and self-published media, such as the Women and Spirituality trilogy made by Donna Read for the National Film Board of Canada.
Use of mythological materials
Participants in the Goddess movement often invoke myths. However sceptics claim that these have been reconstructed from ancient sources and others are modern inventions. These myths are not interpreted literally, but rather figuratively or metaphorically as reflecting ancient understandings and worldviews. For instance, creation myths are not seen as conflicting with scientific understanding but rather as being poetic, metaphoric statements that are compatible with, for example, the theory of evolution, modern cosmology and physics.
Myths from ancient cultures are often reinterpreted as new evidence comes to light. Because myths from religions that included goddesses, those after the Bronze Age, including Greek and Roman mythology, are believed to have patriarchal bias, reinterpretation by Goddess movement writers and women scholars help to provide a truer mirror of the social set up of the period in which the story was written. The myth of Demeter and Persephone is one that has been reinterpreted.
Goddess Spirituality characteristically shows diversity: no central body defines its dogma. Yet there is evolving consensus on some issues including: the Goddess in relation to polytheism and monotheism; immanence, transcendence and other ways to understand the nature of the Goddess.
One or many?
One question often asked is whether Goddess adherents believe in one Goddess or many goddesses: Is Goddess spirituality monotheistic or polytheistic? This is not an issue for many of those in the Goddess movement, whose conceptualization of divinity is more all-encompassing. The terms "the Goddess", or "Great Goddess" may appear monotheistic because the singular noun is used. However, these terms are most commonly used as code or shorthand for one or all of the following: to refer to certain types of prehistoric goddesses; to encompass all goddesses (a form of henotheism ); to refer to a modern metaphoric concept of female deity; to describe a form of energy, or a process.
The concept of a singular divine being with many expressions is not a new development in thought: it has been a major theme in India for many centuries, at the very least as far back as the 5th century, though hymns in the early Vedas too speak of a one-Goddess-many-goddesses concept.
Within or without?
Another point of discussion is whether the Goddess is immanent, or transcendent, or both, or something else. Starhawk speaks of the Goddess as immanent (infusing all of nature) but sometimes also simultaneously transcendent (existing independently of the material world). Many Goddess authors agree and also describe Goddess as, at one and the same time, immanently pantheistic and panentheistic. The former means that Goddess flows into and through each individual aspect of nature—each tree, blade of grass, human, animal, planet; the latter means that all exist within the Goddess.
Starhawk also speaks of the Goddess as both a psychological symbol and "manifest reality. She exists and we create Her" (italics hers). Carol P. Christ (2003), describes what she sees as similarities between Goddess theology and process theology, and suggests that Goddess theologians adopt more of the process viewpoint.
Although the Goddess movement has no Ten Commandments dictating a specific code of behavior, there are commonly held tenets and concepts within the movement that form a basis for ethical behavior. Those participants in Goddess spirituality who define themselves as Wiccan/en, usually follow what is known as the Wiccan Rede: " ‘An it harm none, do what ye will", ("an" being an archaic English word understood to mean "if", or "as long as"). Many also believe in the Threefold Law, which states that "what you send (or do), returns three times over". Some traditions believe that this means it will be returned to the sender three times, or in a portion three times in volume, while others say it will instead be returned to the sender on three levels of being- physical, mental, and spiritual. Still others postulate that the number "three" is symbolic, meant to indicate a magnified karmic result for one's actions.
Some people in the Goddess movement honor the Triple Goddess of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. The Maiden aspect of the Goddess shows women how to be independent and strong; the Mother aspect shows women how to be nurturing; and the Crone aspect shows that respecting elders is important and focuses on wisdom, change, and transformation.
Because the Crone aspect of the Goddess is understood by some to be destructive at times, some consider it to contain both positive and negative imagery and to present an ethical quandary. The Hindu Goddess Kali, or Kali Ma, is often seen as an example of the Crone aspect. The concept is that the corrective force in a Dark Age must be a righteously directed dark force. Thus, to combat the demons of ignorance, ego, anger, etc., the darker aspect manifests. Later on, even her fierce image softens in the love of her devotees. Her duality is easily reconciled with the monism of Hinduism, which claims to understand the fundamental unity of truth as being impersonal and stratified in an ego-knotted existence (such as the human condition), and thus to the evil or unrighteous she is destruction personified and to the loving and moral devotee she is nothing but the love of the mother.
Other Goddess ethical beliefs are that one should not harm the interconnected web of life, and that peace and partnership should be the goals, rather than war and domination. According to Goddess theologian Carol P. Christ the following are ethical touchstones:
"Nurture life; Walk in love and beauty; Trust the knowledge that comes through the body; Speak the truth about conflict, pain, and suffering; Take only what you need; Think about the consequences of your actions for seven generations; Approach the taking of life with great restraint; Practice great generosity; Repair the web."
- Devi (Hindu goddess)
- God and gender
- Goddess movement
- Goddess worship
- Matriarchal religion
- Mother goddess
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