It has been argued that alternative spirituality movements and alternative religions offer contemporary women greater possibilities of participation in religion and of expression oftheir religiosity.
All feminist scholars of religionhighlight the wrongs which have been done to women through the neglect offemale religious experience. They subject misogynistic views of women’s natureand their place in the world to critical examination. Feminist theologians therefore, seek to address the injustices whichthey perceive in patriarchal religious traditions, and to offset theirandrocentric bias by making a specific feminist contribution to the study ofreligious traditions.
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It is this critique of patriarchy and patriarchal religious traditions that has opened the way for the alternative spirituality movements and alternative religions that for some women, provides new and radically different ways for women to express their spirituality. These take vary forms and include the Wiccan movement, the most extreme element of which rejects any forms of patriarchal discourse and any involvement of women in religious practices that involve male participation, the Goddess movement and Eco-spirituality.
Thispaper will investigate the view that the development of what has been called’new age’ religion and alternative spirituality movements offer contemporarywomen greater participation in religion and in expressing their religiositywith examples from the Goddess movement and from the Eco-feminist movement.
Feminism’s influence on the Emergence of Different Spiritualities
Fromthe late 1960s onwards what became known as feminist theology emerged. Womencriticised what they saw as the male-centred theology of patriarchal religionand this led feminist theologian Rosemary Radford-Ruether to write:
The uniqueness of feminist theology lies not inits use of the criteria of experience but rather in its use of women’sexperience, which has been almost entirely shut out of theological reflectionin the past. The use of women’s experience in feminist theology, therefore,explodes as a critical force, exposing classical theology, including itscodified traditions, as based on male experience rather than on universal humanexperience (Ruether, 1992:13).
Thiswas an expression of what these feminists had been saying for years, that womenneeded to find ways in which they could speak of their own religiousexperiences and as women express their spirituality in terms that feltcomfortable for them. For many women this meant a complete rejection oftraditional religion and a move towards specifically women-centredspiritualities eg Carol Christ’s 1986 Womenspirit Rising.
Hanegraff(1996) contends that new spiritualities such as the Goddess Movement are rootedin the ancient pagan traditions of occultism and witchcraft. He contends thatthis has influenced the development of New Age women’s spiritualities ingeneral, although he regards the term spiritualities as diffuse. He claims thatwomen’s spirituality, Goddess movements and Wicca tend to blend in together,although it could be argued that there may be some women who own a goddessspirituality who may not subscribe to Wiccan views. This is particularly thecase with the women’s spirituality movement that lies within theJudaeo-Christian tradition (see for example Plaskow, 1989). This movement isalso evident in other traditions such as Islam and Hinduism and the idea is todiscover neglected elements within the tradition that express women’s religiousexperience. Some women say that these elements have been deliberately neglectedor covered up by the male interpreters of patriarchal religions (see SchusslerFiorenza 1984, Mernissi, 1991 and Gupta 1991). While they emphasise thattranscendence can be seen as goddess rather than a god and worshipped as suchthey do not equate this with pagan Goddess worship (Hanegraff, 1996). However,Hanegraff contends that the boundaries between these things are extremelyblurred and that in some cases in the historical traditions there is so muchemphasis on the primacy of experience that the result is no concrete idea ofwho or what the goddess that is being worshipped and in some areas the experientialnature can take extreme forms. Thus he argues:
spiritual growth leads to connection with ‘a Higher Power’-theGod/Goddess within and without, Christ, Allah, Buddah and All-That-is. Thistheology easily assimilates all personal perspectives on God as equallyvalid.prominence over others is rejected as reflecting a limitedconsiousness..and is lacking in authentic religious experience (Hanegraff, 1996:185).
Hanegraff contends that this reflects a view thatsays that those who hold it are not sure who or what God is. However, this maybe a reaction to the reification of God concepts that takes place inpatriarchal thinking, most particularly within the Judaeo-Christian tradition(Daly, 1982). Yet Goddess worshippers within the traditions are conscious ofthe importance of symbolism. Feminists say that it needs to berecognised that symbolism is important to women because they themselves havebeen symbolised. As Daly argues women have been presented with masculineconcepts of themselves which are symbolic of men’s fear of the feminine. Thisis evident in maternal and virginal representations in Christianity, and in thedistorted images of Kali in Hinduism (Gupta, 1991). Women do need to find theirown way of relating to the religious symbolic and perhaps this means that theyare nervous of committing the same mistakes as patriarchal tradition andreducing transcendence to an object. King (1995 contends that although symbolscan be male, female, or androgynous, most of the world’s religious traditionshave taken the male as normative and used the symbolism to uphold maledominance in the religious and social structure. In the same way Carol Christ(1980) has argued that masculine symbolism has been so damaging for women thatthe only response women can make is to adopt purely feminine symbols and toworship the Goddess. It is her view that this is the only way that women canassert their own gendered identity in a patriarchal society. Thus she writes,
Religioncentered on the worship of a male God creates ‘moods’ and ‘motivations’ thatkeep women in a state of psychological dependence on men and male authority,while at the same time legitimating the political and social authority offathers and sons in the institute of society (1980:275).
Goddessworshippers Hanegraff (1996) argues are concerned to express the fact that thewhole of reality is permeated by the Goddess while at the same timeinvestigating the historical roots of Goddess worship both with and without thetraditions. King (1995) maintains that along with the Goddess movement there isalso a lot of work in the area of ecology, or eco-feminism, particularlyRuether’s 1992 work, Gaia and God.
The work ofeco-feminists such as (Mcfague, 1987, Ruether, 1992 et al) stems from a newconcern for global issues and the way in which human beings have treated theearth. Ruether uses the Gaia principle taken from science, and takes theposition that the earth is our sacred mother we come from it and return to ityet throughout history humankind have damaged the earth and other forms of lifethat exist here. Sallie McFague 1987 has argued that patriarchal the religionsthat have oppressed women have also dominated the earth. They have taken thebiblical saying that man should have dominion over the earth and all that is init so literally that they have come close to destroying God’s gifts. McFaguerefers in her work to the earth as God’s body, the earth, she maintains is ametaphor for the body of God. In “Models of God” (1987)McFague argues that the metaphor of the world as God’s body would not just helpto repair the relationship that human beings have with the earth, but wouldalso help to dispel some of the hierarchical images of God that exist withinthe Christian tradition. Thus she writes, “The metaphor of the world asGod’s body puts God at risk” (McFague, 1987:73). God is seen asvulnerable when God is such an intimate part of creation. The earth, therefore,is among the oppressed. It suffers with us and if the world is seen as the bodyof God, then God may be seen as suffering with God’s people. McFague’s “Modelsof God” are metaphors that allow both the transcendental as well asthe ethical nature of God to emerge. Hanegraff (1996) maintains that:
The ecological crisis has beencreated by a society based on fundamentally flawed presuppositions. Humanityhas to change its way of thinking perceiving and acting, and then it willhopefully still be possible to heal the world (Hanegraaf, 1996:118).
Clearlyalternative spiritualities seem to be the way forward for many women to expresstheir religiosity, nevertheless, there are still women who, despite patriarchaloppression, remain with their inherited faith traditions and struggle to freeit from patriarchal restraint. It would seem to me that there has always beensome concern for the female in religious imagery e.g. the person of Mary inCatholicism and the many Goddesses of Hinduism. In a sense there have alwaysbeen these alternatives and I would say that the emergence of second wavefeminism in the late 1960s and their critique of all things patriarchal is whathas brought these alternatives to the fore. The higher profile of thesespiritualities is necessary so that all women feel able to choose how theyexpress their spiritual experiences.
Christ,C (1980) DivingDeep and Surfacing, Women Writers on a Spiritual Crest, Beacon Press,Boston
Daly, M (1982) BeyondGod The Father, 2nd EditionThe Women’s Press, London
Fiorenza, E(1984) In Memory of Her, SPCK, London
Gupta, L (1991)Kali the Saviour, in Cooey, P, Eakin, W, McDaniel, J (eds.) (1991) AfterPatriarchy: Feminist Transformationsof World Religions,Orbis, New York
Hanegraaff (1996) New AgeReligion and Western Culture New York, Brill.
King, U (ed.)(1994) Feminist Theology From the Third World, SPCK, London
McFague, S(1987) Models of God, SPCK, London
Plaskow, J(1993) We are also your sisters: The development of women’s studies inreligion, Women’s Studies Quarterly, XXI, 1&2 p. 9-21
Ruether, R(1992} Gaia and God, SCM, London
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