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Ask Dr. Cobb

August 2005 Question

Is there a convergence between process theology and Goddess theology? What common ground do they share?

Dr. Cobb's Response

Goddess theology, as I have experienced it, is an eco-feminist theology. Process theology shares more common ground with eco-feminist theology than with any other major movement of which I am aware. Indeed, I have difficulty finding any points of conflict.

Of course, there is a difference between most eco-feminist writings and most process writings. The former are almost all written by women, the latter, by men. Most male process theologians are sympathetic with eco-feminists and supportive of their work, but much of their writing is tangential to eco-feminist concerns. The style of most men is different from the style of feminist women. The interest of most male process theologians is on getting the conceptuality right. For most feminists, imagery is more important.

I do not minimize any of these differences. They create problems. Male process theologians and philosophers of religion have contributed extensively to the journal, Process Studies. Few women have done so. The articles are primarily philosophical, including by that, philosophical theology. To break this exclusion of feminist interests, a special issue was published many years ago. It has been the most widely read issue of the journal. On the other hand, it generated strong objection from a number of the males involved with it. It embarrassed them in relation to their academic colleagues.

Nevertheless, differences of this kind can lead to growth in both communities. Male process theologians, more than process philosophers, have been influenced by feminists. A few have learned to write in ways that feminists can genuinely appreciate. And from the beginning of the current wave of feminism, some feminists have made explicit use of process thought. Even Mary Daly spoke somewhat favorably of Whitehead.  Some women writers have been more or less equally eco-feminist and process theologians. Examples are Donna Bowman, Anna Case-Williams, Susan Dunfee, Nancy Howell , Carol Johnston, Catherine Keller, Mary Elizabeth Mullino Moore, Barbara Muraca, Martha Rowlett, Valerie Saiving, Carolyn Stahl, and Marjorie Suchocki. We can add Karen Baker-Fletcher as a womanist process theologian. Sandra Lubarsky is a Jewish eco-feminist process theologian. Other feminist theologians, such as Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, acknowledge the continuing influence of process thought.

One of the points of overlap between eco-feminist theology and process theology has been with respect to the doctrine of God. Both have been critical of traditional formulations of this doctrine, and for the most part the criticisms have been remarkably similar. Both insist that the stereotypically male attributes of God are not appropriate In terms of stereotypical attributes, God is more feminine that masculine. But most prefer to emphasize that gender simply does not apply to God.

The question deals with Goddess theologians, and I have answered in terms of eco-feminism. I have done so because as I understand Goddess theology, it is a form of eco-feminist theology. As such it shares the deep congeniality of thought as well as the differences I have identified. But the use of the name, “Goddess theology” clearly indicates a different judgment. Even if Goddess worshippers may agree that strictly speaking God is neither male nor female, they affirm that the appropriate imagery and language for deity is feminine.

The most important additional difference is that process theology, including its eco-feminist wing, has been overwhelmingly Christian. The Goddess tradition developed in reaction to the patriarchy of the Abrahamic traditions and especially Christianity. Hence process theology is undertaking to revise a tradition within which it stands. Goddess theology is undertaking to create a new tradition or renew one that Christianity long ago virtually wiped out. Clearly these are very different enterprises. They include different topics for discussion.

For example, for any Christian theology, the understanding of Jesus is crucial. There have been many process Christologies. The Goddess tradition is interested in Jesus only as it is interested in the broader stream of patriarchal religion and, perhaps, in those of its participants who were more sensitive than others to the needs and rights of women.

Process theology encourages and takes part in Christian metanoia or repentance. Process theologians try to guide the church away from past practices and teachings and propose new and better paths. The theologians of the Goddess tradition have no such need. They are creating a tradition that is very much aware of Christian crimes but has no responsibility for them or for changing them.

That, despite these differences, Goddess theologians find value in process thought is indeed reassuring. They look not so much to process theology as to the philosophers on whom process theologians draw. The clearest and most important instance is Carol Christ.

In books written over the past decade she developed ideas very congenial to process thinkers. There were signs that she recognized these points of contact and overlap. Finally, she engaged in systematic study of the writings of Charles Hartshorne and came to the conclusion that the reality Hartshorne called God was what she understood as the Goddess. Recently she published her conclusions in She Who Changes.

Obviously, no one person can speak for the whole Goddess movement. Nevertheless, Christ is its most prolific writer and most visible intellectual. Hence her explicit adoption of Hartshorne’s doctrine of God indicates that the convergence is not just something that process thinkers hope for. It is already explicitly and avowedly realized in one who is an important leader of the movement.

Hartshorne himself would have been delighted. He identified himself as a feminist even before the 1960s. Although he did little with gender issues in his publications, he celebrated the values of compassion and relatedness that he knew were more frequently associated with women than with the stereotypical, autonomous male.

He did not disassociate himself from the Christian tradition, but he did not focus his attention on the person of Jesus or his death and resurrection. He judged traditions by their understanding of the divine and the relationship of the divine to creatures and of creatures to one another. He certainly would not have objected to a new community that applied the sort of ideas he advocated directly to religious practice

Christ is not alone among Goddess worshippers in recognizing the value for that tradition of process philosophy. Constance Wise wrote a dissertation at the University of Denver under the supervision of William Dean appropriating aspects of Whitehead for use in developing the thought of the Goddess movement. Her dissertation is also on its way to publication.

This pair of convergences show that there is diversity within the Goddess movement as well as among process theologians. Carol Christ has a strong sense of the ontological reality of the Goddess. Wise is closer to Dean, who understands language about God more in symbolic than in conceptual terms. No doubt both represent segments of the Goddess movement, just as Hartshorne and Dean represent segments of the process theology movement.

Obviously there will be no merging of Christian process theology and Goddess theology. They have different roles to play. But both may recognize that both roles are needed. Process theologians are calling the Christian movement to redirect itself in light of its finest resources in past and present, turning away from its deep seated androcentrism and anthropocentrism. I think many Goddess worshippers may wish us well in this endeavor.

Meanwhile many women have been far too wounded and alienated by Christianity to identify with it and work within it in hopes that eventually it might provide them a spiritual home. They build new communities with new rituals and new theology that give them the relief and release that now meet their spiritual needs. Process theologians can surely appreciate this work as well.

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