Sunday, April 6, 2014

Glenys Livingstone: Feminism and the Future of Religion

Feminism/the uprising of women continues to chip away at patriarchal religions worldwide. Though the inroads may be small in some places, they are significant. The stone face of the Father continues to be chiselled into. Though there is backlash and resistance to it, it does seem that once a woman has begun the journey Home there is no turning back. So the movement is unstoppable; and it spreads in ever widening circles. Only the naive think that feminism is a spent force; we are as yet only scratching the surface. 

In Australia in the Judeo-Christian tradition there has been tremendous movement in the last 15 years, mostly on a grassroots level. Individuals have been increasingly expressing dissatisfaction with, and awareness of, the old patriarchal order of things - right throughout the country, not just in the cities. The old structures at this point remain in tact, but they have become increasingly hollow as a growing number of hearts and minds have departed in the quest for new stories: new stories that leave behind images of domination, hierarchy and dualism.

Throughout the world, in fact, women of many different religious traditions - Buddhist, Shinto, Hindu, Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, American Indian - and in the context of many different cultures, have been profoundly moved by feminism to look again at the stories, dogma, and practices that they and their foremothers grew up with. For the past 20 years or so, they have been growing in collective and individual empowerment. As a result, the forums now in place for the continued in depth studies of feminism, spirituality and politics, are very strong, very organized and filled with women and some men, of all ages and races. The power in these forums arises from an "understanding of interconnectedness: with all people, all forms of life, the earth and the cycles and seasons of nature and our lives."(1) And there is a deep commitment to the transformations necessary for the renewal of life.

This is not to deny the very strong and often barbaric foothold that patriarchal religions still have in the lives of millions of women. Whereas in western christianity, misogynism reached its frenzied peak in the Burning Times of the Middle Ages; in other very powerful world religions today, misogynism is still peaking. That is, we must understand that in some religions the "Burning Times" are still in effect, and indeed it is carried out in this very country. Females today are being mutilated, incarcerated, and murdered as a matter of routine religious practice. And precious little is done to stop it, since it comes under the "sanctity" of religious "freedom". These religions will require much more disruption from within before anything will change; and it does have to come from believers, those who understand the particular inner workings of their tradition and who indeed are sincerely motivated to move their religious tradition out of what they believe to be, the corrupt interpretations of their founder's teachings and mystical insights. Whether in fact the original founding insight was "gender- wholistic", or if this is just the pie-eyed hope of the reforming believers does not really matter. What does really matter is that the foot is lifted off women's necks. The work and vision of the reforming believers is essential, if the religious consciousness of their group is to evolve, that is to broaden and deepen, to take into account the divinity of the female. Of course, feminism in religion does not mean merely reforming/changing rules and laws that will hold otherwise dominating forces and individuals in check. It is not merely concerned with changing outward practices, but in the cases of suttee, genital mutilation, the withholding of contraception, stoning, and the imprisonment of rape victims , such a change would go a long way.

 Riane Eisler, in her book The Chalice and the Blade identifies not only the dominator paradigm of patriarchy or "androcracy" as she names it, as a major force in the shaping of history, but also she identifies a partnership paradigm, which she names "gylany".(2) For Eisler, "gylany" denotes a linking of both halves of humanity rather than a ranking, and she identifies how the gylanic urge to cultural evolution has also always been a constant factor in the shaping of history, as it struggled to re-emerge.(3) She says that the acceptability of the androcratic solution is not in that it offers a viable answer to the problems of our world, but in the entrenched power of androcratic symbols and myths. "For these images and stories continue to inculcate in our unconscious minds the fear that even to contemplate any deviation from androcratic premises and solutions will be severely punished, not only in this life but also in the next." (4)

It is here then, in the realm of myth, image and symbol that feminists in religion find the bulk of their work - in the diluting and relativizing of patriarchal/dominator notions, stories and images; and then in the offering of alternatives. And people are reluctant to cash in their old stories, as witnessed in the world-wide rise of fundamentalism. There is a desperate clinging to officially sanctioned scriptures, a "One True Story", a monolith that will stand rigid and forever. Jean Houston describes this rise in fundamentalism as the "sunset effect" or "the often observed phenomenon that when old traditions, politics or institutions are about to fade out they generally cut loose with a blazing rush of activity that belies their coming mortality".(5) But the need to change is pressing; faith in androcratic dogma, the power of the Blade, to deliver us is diminishing across the world on a grassroots level. The despair and powerlessness experienced in our age is actually the beginnings of hope. Old stories, symbols, myths and images no longer have the same power, as it becomes obvious that they have failed to provide the vision needed to manifest a better world. People are hungering for new stories and visions. The hope, is that as we search within ourselves and in the background of recorded history, and in pre-history, and deep into the heart of existence, we may find or create new images and stories that serve us and our planet better.

Feminism is not the only force pushing this change, but it is a significant one. And it has yet enormous resources, a labrynth of archetypes and energy suppressed for thousands of years, gestating and complexifying, that have the power to scrape clear our eyes of the "learned cataracts".(6) Interest in the Goddess archetype/metaphor and in Her religious traditions have grown visibly and audibly in the last 15 years, here in Australia. For some She is merely a cliche at this point, but that is an inevitable part of the process, a hurdle that can eventually be broken through in the bigger picture. The vision of the Earth as Gaia, a living being, as Goddess, is one that is gaining in strength. It has at its core, an ancient and wholistic understanding of Being, that can call humanity into different relationship with itself and with the universe. But real change is not inevitable. Even people who think they have changed (because they changed a pronoun, or pasted in a goddess), have not necessarily. Ongoing feminist critique and reflection is necessary to ensure the healing of fragmented archetypes that have confined us all. We must continue to speak, to review, to suspect, to research. We cannot make assumptions, we are a long way from having arrived at some kind of real inclusiveness and partnership. The old well-worn pathways are not that easily given over.

It seems that there are a couple of clear directions pulling at the future of religion, as the feminist momentum continues to impact on it. And indeed it must be a worry for the religious powers that be. Those directions I describe as shamanic and pagan, which I will define in my own particular way, as follows.

By shamanic, I mean that individuals are "storying" themselves, knowing themselves and thinking from within their own skin. Shamanism relies on direct lived experience for an understanding of the sacred, as opposed to relying on an external authority, external imposed symbol, story or image. Each person must claim their own inner power, imagine or visualize themselves and use this in the service of life. Myth/story which arises from within draws its power from a realm of pattern "which is common to people of all cultures and all times".(7) The archetypes that arise, have done so since ancient times and have recurred across many cultures, in a diversity of form. This shamanic direction tends to come out of a feminist spirituality because here, women have learned to no longer take things on faith or presciption. It is a tendency of feminism to cure one from swallowing pre-scribed religion - all holy texts and myths must be reflected on suspiciously given their millenia of androcratic bias - and one is entered into the process of self-scription, of authoring, scribing oneself. Religion then becomes based on what we can feel, what we can know. We each then find "for ourselves our individual role in the matrix"(8), a way in which each being is part of the texture of the universal fabric. We are linked by a recognition in each other of a power that arises from within, not by some external word.

When we realise that we all contain within us that which we seek - a basic premise of the old Goddess religion, and mystical and shamanic traditions - there is no power base for religious leaders or gurus who claim an inside track or rights to knowledge of the sacred. What we have then as a basic resource is each other, each other's stories - the Divine immanent in human community. The structural model is one of small networked groups, a model that has always been part of feminist praxis.

By a "pagan" direction that tugs at the future of all religions, I mean one that is connected to the Earth and its cycles, material reality, physical existence, body cycles. As women take seriously their lived experience, a notion of deity separate from the cycles and rhythms of physical being recedes, and the necessity of knowing and celebrating the Larger Rhythms of which one is a part arises. By paganism, I do not mean some kind of regression that would leave behind our hard won scientific knowledge. On the contrary, since in paganism the Divine is manifest in the physical world, and since science strives to deepen our knowledge of the physical world, these two share a future (as they perhaps did share a past). Science has already deeply affected pagan mysticism and will yet more in the future, for example: the spiral, ancient symbol of death and rebirth takes on a new level of meaning when we recognise it as the shape of DNA. (9) Another example: the ancient notion of the Mother Goddess always spinning and weaving the threads of life is revitalised with the recent "superstring" theory of physics, wherein the smallest building materials are understood as waves or strings, and the universe is understood to be pervaded with billions of unseen strings whose different frequencies give rise to all of matter and energy in creation.

Re-linking with the "natural" world, our material reality, does at the same time mean the remembering of a primal harmony (which some peoples of the Earth have not yet ever forgotten). It means opening ourselves to a memory our bodies retain, of the primal elements of which we are formed. There is the hope that this kind of spirituality will unite us in our diversity, because all humans share this memory. There are no chosen people, all are children of Gaia, the living Earth.

An issue that I have not addressed which is commonly thought of, in the West, as the ultimate feminist future of religion is women's ordination. While it is necessary to be supportive of this cause, it is also necessary to be aware of how this debate short circuits the deeper questions - delays the next steps. As long as feminist women and men can be kept bound up at the gates, assenting to entertaining the rules, the game can remain the same. Ultimately the change we seek is much broader and deeper - and we must get on, the hour is late, the need for real change is here. The urgent and sacred yearnings of the Earth and its people cannot be satisfied with mere cosmetic changes. What is required and what we are on the brink of, is a whole-system transition; not just the re-shuffling of already present pieces, but "the addition of entirely new pieces, into the whole".(10)

The future will be shaped by the vision we humans have of its possibilities and potential. We need to enrich those visions with "the breadth of many cultures and the depth of many histories"(11). We need "to take into account the whole of human history (including our pre-history) and the whole of humanity (both its female and male halves)".(12) The future needs the contribution of much more of our capacities, from all areas of human endeavour. Feminist insight, scholarship and quest has been and will continue to be, an integral part of provoking necessary changes.

By Glenys Livingstone
Presented as a paper for the National Socialist Conference Sydney, 1990.                 
Shared with the permission of the author. 

1. Woman of Power magazine. Statement of Philosophy.
2. Eisler, Riane. The Chalice and the Blade. Harper and Rowe: San Fransisco 1987. p.105
3. Ibid. p. 134
4. Ibid. p. 183
5. Houston, Jean. The Search for the Beloved. Jeremy P. Tarcher: Los Angeles 1987. p.33
6. Cook, Cynthia. Refractions. Poem published in Womanspirit 23, Spring. p. 59.
7. Houston. p.100
8. Drury, Neville. The Elements of Shamanism. Element Books: Dorset, 1989.
p. 101.
9. Starhawk The Spiral Dance. Harper and Rowe: San Fransisco, 1979. p. 191.
10. Houston. p. 12
11. Ibid.
12. Eisler. p. xiv-xv.

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