I do not expect this to be a particularly popular post. If you are greatly enamored of the concept of “The Divine Feminine,” you might want to skip this one, because I’ll say right up front, that I am not and this article, however brief, is going to explore the reasons why. Oh, I worship numerous Goddesses I simply don’t embrace the fuzzy thinking inherent in what I consider to be the incredibly dismissive idea of one great "Divine Feminine." After all, you don’t hear us talking about “the Divine Masculine” do you, even when we’re discussing various Gods? No, I didn’t think so—at least I haven’t and I hope I never do.
What prompted this particular article? Well, I teach at an interfaith seminary and to date, I am the only polytheistic faculty member. I’ve been surprised at the learning curve this often entails for some of my students (and I have a lovely bunch of students, deeply engaged, spiritual people who are going to make fantastic clergy) and even other faculty. I recently overheard a comment in the course of my teaching about honoring “many Gods and the Goddess.” …..so the Gods are individuals but the Goddesses are an undifferentiated, monolithic unit? “Divine Feminine,” “the Goddess”: the language itself –linguistically-implies less sentient beings and more an idea, a philosophy, a paradigm. No, I don’t think so. Moreover, I grow intensely weary of hearing otherwise sensible people talking about “the” Goddess. Which One? Which Goddess? To a hard polytheist steeped in his or her ancestral traditions, such comments are not only inaccurate but borderline disrespectful and possibly blasphemous. To a philologist, it’s just sloppy (in English we have definite and indefinite articles for a reason after all) and to a historian of religion, historically inaccurate.
Why is it so important for people, and it seems to be very important given the emotional hold this idea has on folks, that there be one unified female force? We are not monotheists. We can celebrate the glorious diversity of the Divine without the need for over-syncretization. Why is it so important to imagine that all our many Deities are One (or at best, Two)? Moreover, “feminine” in our culture, in the way we English speakers use language is not in fact synonymous with ‘female.’ Do we really want to consistently and consciously invest our many Goddesses with the issues inherent in the limited way we view “femininity”? ‘Feminine’ and ‘masculine’ are polarizing and highly charged words within our cultural matrix. Do we really want to reinforce artificial (and very binary) gender roles every single time we conceptualize Divinity?
Most of us are coming from monotheism, which is inherently binary (if there is one true way after all, then its opposite must also exist). It takes time to shed that conditioning. None of us come into our new religions completely clean of monotheistic influence. How could we? We all grew up in an adamantly monotheistic culture and I think this is very important to remember. One step between polytheism and monotheism is that of pantheism (Deity in everything, not necessarily differentiated) and panentheism (Deity in everything and also independent of everything but also largely undifferentiated). It is into this undifferentiated mass that it seems many people coming into our communities fall. Sadly, it is a step not that far removed from monotheism itself.
Historically, the Goddess spirituality movement was perhaps a necessary corrective to two thousand years of male-centric monotheism and its abuses. However, I question even the use of the term “sacred feminine,” since its origins lay in a western glorification of Hindu religious culture (a good place to start one’s own research is “Drawing Down the Moon” by M. Adler if one doubts my historiography). Instead of turning our eyes to reclaiming our own ancestral traditions, we first took a roundabout tour through Eastern religious traditions during the hippie years. Tack on second wave feminism and you have this fixation with “The Divine Feminine” along with a certain politicizing of the idea of Goddesses in general. How we engage with the Holy Powers should not be an expression of our political and social agendas. The Gods and Goddesses are not there to fix everything for us nor are They manifestations of our social angst. They’re certainly not manifestations of our own unconscious. Engagement should exist on its own, cleanly, with the goal of adoration and respect, honoring and offering, of maintaining these very ancient contracts between our world, each and every one of us, and the world of the sacred.
In fact, one of the main reasons that I am so adamantly against this idea of “Divine feminine” is where in practice it leads. Does it really matter, after all, if you pay attention to specific culturally developed rites and rituals, traditions and taboos by which individual Goddesses have been honored for generations if indeed They are all one Goddess? It’s tremendously self-serving.
I was discussing just this topic with my colleague and friend Kenaz Filan (you can find hir blog at http://kenazfilanblogspot.com) who weighed in with the following:
"I think you've hit the nail on the head here. I'm not at all sure that "the God and the Goddess" are a major improvement over "the God." Hell, in some ways I prefer the Catholic approach of turning Gods into "saints" and "angels." Saints and angels are venerated, honored and respected in their own right. I'm not sure a theology that turns Hathor, Freda, Erzulie Freda, Aphrodite, Athena, the Morrigan, Brigitte, Isis, and Lakshmi into one big bland mushy ill-defined "Goddess" does that at all. The Catholics reduce the Gods to saints: the "Divine Masculine/Feminine" folks reduce them to mere symbols which exist only as "facets" of a greater whole. And those symbols can then be co-opted for the political agenda du jour, used as "tools for personal understanding" and what have you. Instead of the seeker serving the Gods, the Gods are used to serve the seeker."
And that, my friends, is the definition of impiety, arrogance, hubris, and several other equally ill-considered things. A theology that keeps the Holy Powers safely distant from human affairs, a theology that is unlikely to impact or interfere with one's life in any way, a theology that gives the devotee nothing to fear and nothing to which to aspire, and most of all, nothing to obey is, (to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, who hit the nail on the head with this one), the absolute antithesis of what any spiritual or religious experience should be. (Thank you, again, Kenaz, for bringing the original quote by C.S. Lewis to my attention).
I'm again paraphrasing part of our conversation when I note that the idea of "The Divine Feminine" and "the Divine Masculine" do precisely that. They're overly-broad, extremely nebulous spiritual cop-outs for people who can't see their way toward actually engaging with the personification of the Powers. They turn the Deities into (again quoting Kenaz here) "spiritual clay which worshippers can fashion in their own image." Again, that is the last thing authentically engaged spiritually should be. Spiritual engagement, after all, is not about us, nor is it something that should fall under the rubric of some fuzzy self-help movement.
Now are there Deities that fall very clearly into distinct gender roles and categories? Of course. There are even those Who behave in ways that our culture views as more stereotypically "feminine" or "masculine." One of the points that Kenaz noted, however, was that 'if you look back at the myths, you'll also see that there was a great deal of gender bending. You have Odin wearing women's clothing to learn seidhr; you have the bearded Aphrodite, you have a recognition not that the Gods are constructs, but that gender roles are constructs and there is great power to be had for those who are willing to challenge them. I find that far more empowering and liberating than a Z Budapest/fratboy theology which reduces men, women, and Gods to their genitalia."
I don't think I can put it any better than that.
(thank you, Kenaz, for your willingness, while doing diaper duty with your baby girl, to hash these ideas around with me).