Reflections on the Divine Feminine
When I first entered the Unitarian Universalist ministry back in the mid-1960s, some 55 plus years ago, one of the things I noted at the time was that there were very few women ministers engaged in the practice of ministry. UU ministerial gatherings were, sorry to say, still pretty much a boys club, with a few token exceptions here and there. I remember a ministers study group I belonged to, the Greenfield Group, taking up the topic of feminist theology, but there were no female members in the group at the time. (I think there were two in waiting as it were). But here we were a group of UU male clergy doing our best to come to terms with the challenges of feminist theology, without the benefit of first-hand direct female experience of the topic at hand. That would never happen to day, or would it?
Certainly, much less likely in UU circles. At long last the UUA has a woman minister as President of the Assocation, Susan Frederick-Gray, elected in 2017 to a six year term, and the percentage of women ministers now serving UU churches has exceeded more than 50% of the total. We are a boys club no longer. Olympia Brown, a Universalist, who was the first woman ever to be ordained with denominational recognition and support in 1863, would be proud of our accomplishments thus far. But she would no doubt caution us not to rest on our laurels, but to extend our welcoming of feminine divines, and the acceptance of the divine feminine, to the world and human culture beyond ourselves.
The idea of a female priest or minister (or a female political leader) is still a difficult thing for many people to accept in today's world especially among the religiously and politically conservative. But the times they are a-changin'.
The feminist revolution in religion has yet to be fully welcomed into the hallowed sanctuary of the Catholic Church, but there are signs that even there it is being felt. Many Catholic women have resisted their Church's masculine bias against women priests with slogans like MARY WAS A FEMINIST and EQUAL RITES FOR WOMEN.
The rationale for not recognizing the right of women to be priests is that since Christ was a man it would be improper for a woman to be his symbolic representative on earth. And yet Mary is revered, even worshiped, as the Mother of God, the one who bore host in her body to the Son of God. In terms of their own logic, if anyone should be priests it should be women, to bear the host in the sacrament of the mass as Mary once bore the birth of God in her body.
The position and role of Mary in Catholic piety today is comparable to that of the Magna Mater, the Great Mother, in ancient pagan worship. It is estimated that from about 30,000 B.C. to 2,000 B.C., and even as late 500 A.D. (or C.E.) in some areas, matriarchal religion and matriarchal culture was predominant--the Supreme Being was worshiped primarily in the feminine mode--God was a Woman--the Great Mother or Goddess--and the priests or priestesses who led all people to Her were female.
At least that's one of the theories about prehistoric cultures. A little girl is reported to have asked her Sunday School teacher, "Why isn't Mrs. God's name in the Bible? Wasn't He married to her when He wrote it?" Yes, why not a Mrs. God? Archeologists and religious scholars are beginning to marshal an impressive body of evidence that Mrs. God was around a long time before Mr. God, and that the very earliest human cultures were matriarchal with women as rulers and leaders equal to men and with female Goddesses as ruling deities.
Elizabeth Dobel, a Protestant, who attended several Catholic schools, graduated from a Presbyterian college, and married to a Jew, notes that "only
recently have we begun to understand that whatever the ancient Goddess was called, Isis in Egypt, Ishtar in Sumaria, Tiamat in Babylon, Astarte in Syria, Demeter in Greece, the Magna Mater in Rome,...or the Queen of Heaven in the Old Testament itself--the same religious impulse was being celebrated. The Great Mother in all her manifestations, was One"--just as the God of Jews, Christians and Muslims is supposedly One though worshipped in varied modes and theologies.
The former deity was feminine, worshipped in varied modes, but essentially one. The latter deity is portrayed as masculine, worshipped in varied modes, but essentially one. Could it be that the two are in fact, one, and that the human mind in its evolutionary development split the one in two, and that the next stage in the evolution of consciousness will be to make the two one again? Listen to some of these ancient invocations to the Great Mother: "Unto Her who renders decision, Goddess of all things; unto the Lady of Heaven and Earth, who receives supplications; unto Her who entertains prayer; unto the Compassionate Goddess who loves righteousness." "In the beginning was Isis, Oldest of the Old, the Goddess from whom all becoming arose, Mistress of Heaven, Mistress of the House of Life, Mistress of the word of God."
The Great Mother ruled in heaven and on earth. Back then it was Happy Great Mother's Day everyday. An ancient Greek historian reports that in 5th Century B.C. in Egypt "the women go in the market place, transact affairs and occupy themselves with business, while the husbands stay home and weave." Even as late as 50 B.C. in Egypt, "among private citizens the husband, by the terms of the marriage agreement, appertains to the wife, and
is stipulated between them that the man shall obey the woman in all things." What happened to the rule of the Great Mother?
Somewhere in the course of history there was a masculine revolt wherein masculine gods became predominant ruling deities as human culture grew more and more patriarchal in form and structure. You can sense this change in the late ancient Babylonian epic of Marduk, a young male god, who overcomes and kills his great great great grandmother, Tiamat, the Creator, to become King of the Universe. The change in religion and culture which that myth represents was gradual, but decisive.
The worship of the Great Mother, however, did not entirely die out, but continued unabated among the masses for centuries. You can sense the strength of this continued devotion to the Queen of Heaven even among the people of Israel in the prophet Jeremiah's time. They continued to pour libations in her honor in spite of Jeremiah's ranting and raving against the practice. Their need was greater than their fear of Yahweh's wrath. Ancient habits die hard.
We find some evidence that the earlier conceptions of God in the Hebrew Scriptures were at least partly feminine. Genesis 1 opens with the verse, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The term for God in this section is "Elohim", an older term than the more widely used Yahweh (Jehovah) designation. The word Elohim is made up of Eloh, the feminine singular for goddess, plus the masculine plural ending im. And so Elohim could be translated god or goddess, or gods and goddesses, or even as god/goddess, suggesting an androgynous deity who is both male and female in one. The latter is in fact the view of a later Jewish 13th Century mystical work, the Zohar, which is part of the Kabbalah.
The Zohar states that Adam's sin was to separate the attributes of the Tree of
Knowledge (symbolic of God's right side masculine nature) from the Tree of Life (symbolic of God's left side feminine nature). Which is strangely reminiscent of what we now know about the predominant qualities of the left and right lobes of the brain--one side is the seat of the rational, verbal, legal, analytical functions--the other side is the seat of the emotional, intuitive, creative and integrative functions--commonly associated respectively with masculine and feminine qualities of consciousness. When one side predominates in psyche or culture the other side goes underground or unconscious.
Or as Carol Ochs, author of Behind The Sex of God, "When orthodox religion fails to meet the need of a people, an unorthodox religion springs up and compensates for this missing element." In Judaism the missing element was supplied in the mystical Kabbalah. In Christianity the missing element was supplied in the cult of the Virgin Mary. In Unitarian Universalism the missing element has been supplied by such groups as CUUPS, Psi Symposium, UU Mystics In Community, and a very popular feminist spirituality curriculum, "Cakes For the Queen of Heaven."
A medieval statue, the Vierge Ouvrante, depicts Mary "holding in one hand the entire world, and in the other hand, her baby Son, while a door in her body opens to reveal God the Father supporting the crucified Christ as all the saints look on.” Mary thus becomes the all-encompassing vessel of God and the universe, which is precisely the role of the Magna Mater, the Great Mother, the original feminine creator deity of paganism.
For centuries Jewish men would pray in the temple, "Blessed art thou, O Lord, King of the Universe, for not creating me as a woman." Well, some Jewish women have written a new blessing for women to be recited upon the onset of every menstrual flow:
"Blessed are You, O Lord our God, and God of our foremothers and forefathers, who have set the moon in its path and have set the order of the cycles of life. Blessed are You, O Lord, who have created me a woman."
So behind the sex of God we can see the evolution of both human psyche and culture shift from a predominantly feminine mode of consciousness to a
predominantly masculine mode of consciousness, to our own time and culture where we can sense the movement towards an integration of the two modes of consciousness, a new humanity in a new age.
The birth of this new humanity has already begun and we are the first fledgling children of the new age. In this creative process, as Carol Ochs puts, it, "God is both our creator and our creation, our ancestor and our descendent. We all together are part of the Whole, the All in All." Or the All in One, and the One in All. In the process of coming to know ourselves and one another we may finally realize that God or the Divine is beyond gender and that He, She, They, Them, We and Us are all we’ve got, because we are now and forever One with the All.
Blessed art thou, O Elohim, who hast created us male and female in thine image, for the everlasting joy of creation, through whom and in whom, we are one in life, one in death, and one in the life beyond death, worlds and universes without end. Amen.