This sermon is based on the book by the same name by religious feminist and process theologian Carol P. Christ.
God has been a part of theologian Carol Christ’s life since she can remember. But the God she learned about and knew as a child and the God/Goddess/Divine Presence she knows now are eons apart.
When she was young and in her parent’s church, God, as she remembers, was an old white man with a long white beard, dressed in blue, white, or lavender robes, sitting on a golden throne in heaven surrounded by clouds. He created the world out of nothing. He ruled with his Laws and could wipe it out in a moment’s notice if He chose.
At his feet was a heavenly host of angels in white robes with harps.
The young-girl Carol learned that when we die, we go to heaven — if we are good — to live for all eternity with God. God loved the world and its creatures but when he got angry, he would unleash his wrath on all sinners.
His punishment was always just. At the last judgment, he would separate the wheat from the chaff. If we do not follow his will, we will be punished by being sent to hell to be burned in eternal flames, along with Satan, who is also a man, naked because of his sins and with a forked tail.
We must be very careful, or we will end up down there with him.
For Carol, the young woman, at some point, this God no longer worked in a basic sense. The fact that this God, human in description, was exclusively male. This God known through the images of Lord, King, and Father. If that is so, young Carol reasoned, then she could not be truly what she also was taught, a Child of God. Made in the Image of God.
It does not matter, Carol, now one of the best known and read feminist theologians in the world, tells us, that our Sunday School teachers or our pastors or rabbis told us that “God is really not a man,” that God is really an It.
The medium is the message, she points out, and this picture, this male picture, has been so widely disseminated in both high art and pop culture, from paintings and literary texts to comic books, graffiti, and cartoons, that it crosses religious boundaries. Believers and non-Believers alike have seen and read them. Movie-goers, theists and atheists alike, have watched movies like Oh God, where the late George Burns was John Denver’s God, or Bruce Almighty, where Morgan Freeman is a black God, but still a male God.
If this picture of God is entertained, even fleetingly, Carol Christ writes, by as many believers and non-believers as I think it is, then it is also part of what Western spiritual feminists are up against when we begin to re-imagine divine power.
I invite you to do this with me this morning.
The problem with God. And how to re-imagine that something endless and ageless.
For Carol and many of our founding female religious thinkers, it was first the image of God that alienated them. But it quickly was and is more than that.
When she was an undergraduate studying religion, she discovered that most of the theologians — thinkers — about God seemed to assume, she tells us, that God was absolutely separate from the world, absolutely powerful, and absolutely untouched by relationships.
Her professors and most of the other students in her program also thought that mystical or spiritual experience could have nothing to do with the senses, the body, or nature. Not seeing a sunrise, or a moment by a lake, or a deep personal encounter. These were not, in their estimation, religious in nature.
In graduate school, to her great surprise and consternation, she discovered that most of the “great” theologians past and present, all of them male, assumed that women were inferior to men, with a lesser quotient of mind (which was in the image of God) and a higher quotient of body (which was not).
When she and a fellow student proposed to do a scholarly paper in historical theology on the history of ideas about women, their professor pounded his fist on the table, and in Carol’s words bellowed, “not for me, you’re not, women are not doctrine.”
For Carol P. Christ, the problem with the God she knew was not just that He was exclusively Male and that it then followed that women were either invisible or inferior to this image of God.
She found other, what were for her, major mistakes in this God. This all knowing, all controlling, invincible, and irrefutable God.
In this belief, Carol found agreement with other women she knew, but also, in a major way, in what she describes as “her spiritual love affair with a white male philosopher who died in the year 2000 at 103.”
In his collection of essays published when he was 99 years old, Charles Hartshorne, professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, wrote that he regretted for so long having followed the routine practice of using the male gender in referring to deity, also taking man as the name of the species. I become pro-feminist, he said, seven decades ago in the 1920s, I have tried to purify some of the offending passages.
Hartshorne’s heartfelt confession, Carol Christ admits, is what made her fall spiritually in love with this man, but it was more than that, much more. She astonished herself to find herself waxing so eloquent about this white philosopher, male and now dead, who was old enough to have been her grandfather, whose understanding of God was, as she describes, the most relational of all relational beings and the most sympathetic of all sympathetic powers in the universe. A God, a divine spirit or presence or energy, amazingly compatible with her own feminist longings.
This God of Hartshorne’s whose love for the world was a love divine, all love excelling.
A divinity most of all steeped in love. A divinity in deep relationship with the living world. Changed as much as changing.
But, Carol Christ reminds us, though Hartshorne considered himself a feminist, and she has found in his work a strong compatibility with her own religious affections, questions concerning women and gender were more important to her than they were for him, for obvious reasons.
He never read what Carol and other women had to read, that members of his sex were incapable of rational thinking. His student years were during World War I, the Great War, the justification for which was rarely questioned. Carol and her feminist peers came of age during the Vietnam War and its time of tumult and questioning of everything.
For Hartshorne, as Christ points out, there was less need to question the Great Thinkers throughout history or to come up with different names and symbols of the divine. At least not with as much urgency.
Carol Christ began her graduate work in religious studies at a time when there were few women accepted into that field. She was, as she says, younger, blonder, and taller than almost all of the men with whom she studied and learned. She was more often perceived more in terms of her body than her mind, she remembers. She confesses that this alienation, this disrespect, this isolation, led at times to thoughts of suicide. She did not want to separate her body from her mind, or be known strictly through her body: its size and shape.
What saved Carol Christ — literally — was the re-visioning processes that began to grow up around her. The feminist movement and in it, as she writes, the sense that she was being heard for the first time in years. And also in her doctoral thesis, which was not on religious or spiritual feminism as such, but on the work of Eli Wiesel and his fellow post-Holocaust Jewish theologians, who so deeply and persuasively questioned the historic belief in this all powerful and Good God. How could this God have allowed Jews and so many others to suffer and die in concentration camps? As she began to experience Christianity’s relationship to anti-Judaism and became increasingly aware of the sexism of religious language, she writes that she found herself less and less willing to participate in traditional Christian worship.
While working on her doctoral thesis, Carol was invited to join the first conference of women theologians in 1971. There, she says, is where she gained the courage to found the Women’s Caucus of the American Academy of Religion. An organization, as a female spiritual leader and contextual theologian, I belong to today.
During this formative time, as a young feminist theologian, she found the most grace and understanding and solace, was most nourished in her spiritual awakening, by women writers. She read and discussed the works of Doris Lessing, Ntozake Shange, Adriene Rich, Kate Chopin, and Margaret Atwood with fellow students and friends.
She chanced on meeting another young woman named Starhawk who introduced her to Goddess, and whose words resonated with Carol’s longing for a more feminine God, a sense of spiritual connection to nature, and a desire for rituals that reflected her understanding of divine in the world.
She resigned a full professorship in Women’s Studies, moved to Greece, and became enchanted with Goddess and a more embodied way of relating to divinity. She returned to begin work on her fourth book, Rebirth of the Goddess, and when doing so, was told how parallel her work was to the work of those we identify as process theologians — largely male — past and present.
She changes everything She touches and everything She touches, changes. This is a line from a familiar chant from the Goddess movement, and also as good a description as any of this notion of life and divinity in process with each other. Change and touch, as Carol Christ points out, process, embodiment, and relationship are the heart of many feminist re-imaginings of God and the world.
Carol Christ proposes that the common theme and underpinnings of most, if not all, religious feminists is that all life is in process, changing and developing, growing and dying, and that even the divine power participates in changing life.
Humans and other beings are not things (essences or substances) situated in empty space, as so many traditional philosophers and scientists have pronounced, but in active processes ever in relation and transition.
What is formally called process theology. A theology named by men like Hartshorne, and which helped her redefine and find commonalities in the emerging religious feminisms she had encountered.
In process theology, Carol Christ tells us, the self and the divine are relational, social, embodied and embedded in the world. That trusts the body, and views mind and body as one. That is open to learning from other individuals, the natural world, from our bodies, and from Goddess/God. That understands that our body and the world’s body are changing from moment to moment, and that our knowing will always be in many ways limited and fragmentary.
For process theology, Christ has written, feeling, sympathy, relationship, creativity, freedom, and enjoyment are the fundamental threads that unite all beings in the universe.
The divine in process theology has a body, and that is the whole world. In process philosophy and theology, all beings are connected in the web of life. In process philosophy, there is absolutely no distinction between humans and other forms of life.
In process theology, evolution — changes in the world and nature throughout time — is not at odds with religious belief. In process philosophy and theology, Carol Christ has found what, for her, is the only satisfying answer to the problem of evil, arguing that divine power is good and ever present, but not all-knowing in the traditional sense, because all creation is co-creation. Because, as feminist theologian Carol Christ reminds us, human beings have a huge role, a huge stake, a huge responsibility, in what happens to its people, creatures, and future.
We are changed and we change, and the divine, the all, the eternal, is changed by the lives we lead as well.
For the fine, whole text by Carol P. Christ: She Who Changes: Re-Imagining the Divine in the World (Palgrave/Macmillian, 1993)