“A Thread of Embodiment”
I was never more excited or relieved as I was to learn that God – the old white guy sitting up in the clouds who I had long since given up on – was not the only or the first conception of the Divine. Awakening to stories of Goddess based religions and matrilineal cultures moved me profoundly. It reshaped what was possible in ways I could not have imagined. No longer was masculinity supreme and holy and all powerful. Not that I had come to view it that way over time, but to be sure it was what I was presented with – what most of us were presented with in our quite patriarchal society. Suddenly a door opened onto new planes of understanding and potential and I stepped through with eyes and arms wide open.
When I ventured into Unitarian Universalism and shared my journey, my story with the folks I met – largely women my age or older – I was briskly ushered into the fold – that being the affiliated group who engaged periodically in a study titled “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven” – perhaps some of you have heard of it or participated in it. Anyone? It is a woman honoring adult RE curriculum developed by the Rev. Dr. Shirley Ranck that focuses on Goddess based cultures and the female divine. It explores the influence of Judeo-Christian tradition and its impact on women’s lives. Back in Connecticut this group routinely invites study participants into an ongoing group – Daughters of Demeter – which began in 1995. They met and continue to meet monthly for rituals, good food, support, and general merry making, following a seasonal calendar and honoring Earth cycles. The crown I was gifted at my Croning ceremony some ten years ago is a bit dried now but sits (usually!) atop a lampshade in my home office – a reminder of the sacred meaning of connection with other women in my life.
Needless to say, there is a special place in my heart for alternatives to our norms here in the West and I am long fascinated by both theology and anthropology and the exploration of both is what initially brought me to Hartford Seminary – now the Hartford International University for Religion and Peace. When earlier this year I saw an opportunity to explore the Divine Feminine in Diverse Cultures in a three-part webinar class I couldn’t resist. And it did not disappoint as I suddenly found myself among my people again! We dove into modern day interpretations of the Divine Feminine in Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism. So, I want to share a bit of what I found there and bit of what I have been thinking about since as my theology is forever being expanded and shaped. We began the first class with a breathing ritual – wanting to bring our whole selves into the space – body and mind, because our speaker that day, Dr. Rose Aslan, a faculty member of California Lutheran University, spoke of the female divine in Islam as embodied and earthy. So, let’s begin with a few in and out breaths – opening and cleansing. I am curious – if I asked you to shout out words you associate with feminine, what you might say – so go ahead – let’s hear some!
Dr. Aslan shared ten qualities of the Divine Feminine with us, including free, courageous, assertive, harmonious, creative, power-filled, visionary, self-sustained, emotionally intelligent, and abundant. Traditionally some of these words might not have been ascribed to women – some of them sound like more masculine traits to us in the West and in Islam where men have been the producers of interpretation and have slanted the stories in their favor. This lens or perspective that she brings creates a new space for women in Islam to explore who they are. One of the many names of Allah listed in the Qur’an is Al-Rahman which translates as The Compassionate, but it is derived from a word meaning womb, symbolizing a source of protection and care, a place where being is conceived and nurtured. Woman is seen as creator according to the Prophet Muhammed. A feminine approach to Islam is gentle and love based, pluralistic and compassionate, expresses equity in leadership and balances qualities and understanding. This return to core meanings is a healing journey for many Muslim women and small groups of woman-led progressives are doing this work in women’s lives today.
Dr. Preeta Banerjee, a Hindu chaplain at Tufts University explored the Divine Feminine through Hinduism’s Shakta or Mother goddess lineages, diving into nature-based Indigenous traditions and Eco-Womanist theology. She posits the divine goddess as the universal mother whose representations exist in all traditions. Shakti represents power, energy, ability, and strength and is seen as the primordial force of creation embodying earth, fertility, and mothering, all of which women are reclaiming for themselves. In this story, the male is seen as a passive witness in the creative process while the female is imbued with dynamism; active and aware. It is this creative energy, like an ever-flowing river, always changing, that is being lifted up and celebrated.
Our last class in the series focused on Judaism. We heard from author and activist, Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kliener about how the tricky language around God and life in creation can give us clues about the meaning of femininity. Our speaker pointed to the archetypal nature of the women in these stories we have been given over time. She talked about the first woman – not Eve, but Lilith who was banished from the garden for her unwillingness to be compliant and obedient. Frequent negative interpretations of her are posited in various midrashim, but the bottom line is that she had a mind of her own and would not take a subservient role. We learned that the strongest muscle in the body is the womb, suggesting the power inherent in the feminine and noting that female roles in procreation are often devalued in our culture. Again, it is important to note who is telling the story and what lens they want us to view our world through. What we know today as Scripture was penned by men in a dominant societal role.
We explored the Kabbalistic tradition – the mystic Jewish teachings and their symbology, and here is where I began to see a way forward that was more aligned with the evolution of my thinking. Because as much as it is empowering as a woman to hear about these ancient traditions that revere the feminine and give it a place in divine realms – as much as I believe that this part of the story needs to be told in order to right a ship that has been listing toward the solely masculine in its power structure – I struggle with this concept of divinity as masculine or feminine. In fact, I find such descriptors and all their baggage incredibly limiting in terms of the sacred energy through which all of life comes.
The Kabbalistic symbology posits a third way, embodying the masculine on one side and the feminine on the other, but the center which is deeply rooted and ever expanding upward and outward embodies both in shared purpose, embracing conflict in collaborative and creative ways so necessary for our world today. Dr. Aslan, too, talked about the full picture of what holiness is and how gendered language can get in the way of our understanding of the immensity of the Divine. She was clear that all attributes of Allah – all 99+ names – are
available to all of humanity – nonbinary and nongendered. And Dr. Banerjee shared about restoring will to women and tenderness to man – this both/and way of holding the paradox of humanity, letting go of either/or thinking, a retelling of the stories of creation where all beings embody their fullness and serve as archetypes for all of us now in the world we face. In “Becoming Rooted,” Indigenous activist and scholar Randy Woodley talks about the lens through which Western worldviews are seen and handed down from one generation to the next. He cites the foundational influence of Platonic dualism derived from Greek philosophy. It places more importance on one aspect of our living than another – the abstract areas of spirit, soul and mind over the physical Earth and our bodies. In the end, reality is no longer whole.
And so much of what we seem to value in the West – hierarchy, overcategorizing, individualism, patriarchy and what is problematic for us – racism, religious intolerance, greed and thinking that places humanity over nature is empowered by dualistic understanding. What if we could view all of life as whole – however it shows up – body, mind, and spirit? All of life, possessing the same potential to shape and to teach. All of life, part of the Great Mystery that creates, sustains, and nurtures. All of it interconnected and reliant on all the other parts to be complete.
In our reading this morning, Lucia Capacchione takes up the notion that our Jewish and Christian forebears espoused – that we are created in the image and likeness of God. While I am more likely to posit that we have fashioned a God in our own image instead – that limiting of what can never be fully imagined with human attributes – I am a strong proponent of the idea of cocreation. Creativity is our divine birthright, she says. When we fully embrace our Creative Self, entering into a creative process, our limited sense of separateness disappears, and we are one instead in body, mind and spirit.
This is that thread of embodiment that I heard as I explored these diverse traditions. Creativity is a powerful tool available to all of humanity, all of nature. It is not doled out in a binary-celebrating fashion. Dualism stunts our creative growth as persons and as people. In our meditation today, Victoria Weinstein gives thanks for all who have nurtured, healed, given life.
It’s Mother’s Day and we want to honor the mothers, to be sure, but we also want to acknowledge the possibility that all of creation has the power to create – cocreate – recreate in the myriad unique ways that each has been imbued. So here we all are – this amalgamation of life – of life, giving life – creative in ways we know
well and put to use in our world, and in ways we have yet to discover. As we look to the future we do so with such potential in our midst, Sacred Opportunity you have heard me call it. Can we embody the fullness of that potential – live into it – breathe life into it? Letting go of dualisms – of either/or solutions – can we embrace with openness of heart and mind – a third way that balances the all of being - that celebrates all of being. Can we make space for all the bodies to be filled and to pour out from their vast stores of creative impulse, that Sacred gift that is theirs to shape and to share with the rest of us? A thread of embodied living and being a doing woven among us.
May it be so. Blessed be.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, May 14, 2023