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March 8, 2009: “When God Was a Woman, International Women’s Day”

Opening Words “WHEN GOD WAS A WOMAN”

Religion is made up of myth and metaphor from ancient time until today and we are still uncovering meanings of the past that have been covered for millennia, some on purpose, some for reasons of power and patriarchy and others, well who knows? The ancient symbol of serpent, for instance, may be one of wisdom, as in the ancient goddess religion, but it is not the one most of us know and have lived all our lives. What does it mean that even that basic symbol of the snake has a different meaning, myth, and metaphor, especially if one is a woman, and it is her wisdom symbol? When God was a woman, things were different.

From Crossing to Avalon by Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D.

Bolen is a Jungian psychiatrist as well as a feminist and spiritual writer seeing symbolism and metaphor, especially in religion. We usually imagine the Grail as a chalice, most often as the chalice filled with wine that Jesus held aloft at the Last Supper, saying to his disciples as he did so, This is my blood . . . His words and motions became ritualized in the Christian communion.

When we consider that as a rounded container a chalice is a feminine symbol, the idea of a vessel filled with blood becomes an image-metaphor for a woman's womb, and the Grail then takes on the possibility of another meaning--that of a numinous or mysterious feminine symbol, something transformative and healing, with a sacred or divine dimension of the feminine. In the most famous of the Grail Legends, there is a wounded king whose kingdom is a wasteland. His wound can only be healed by the Grail, and until his wound is healed, his kingdom remains devastated. Substituting patriarchy for kingdom, this myth has considerable relevance today. Deforestation, famine, and armed hostilities, bad as they are, pale in comparison to the ultimate fate of an earth facing potential nuclear or ecological disasters that could turn the entire earth into a wasteland.

Mary was held in particular veneration at Chartres. In the very word venerate, the goddess Venus (Aphrodites Latin name) is hidden. Emile Male, an authority on Chartres, writes that it was the great centre of worship for the Virgin; the cathedral appeared to be her dwelling place on earth. At Chartres, where the hymn O Gloriosa was sung in her honor, all the verbs were given in the present tense, to demonstrate her presence.

Henry Adams, whose book Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres is a classic, concluded that Chartres represents not the Trinity, but the identity of the Mother and Son. Mary's cathedral was built where, long before Christianity and even before the Greeks and their deities, the Goddess was once worshipped. Typically, the Great Goddess had a myriad of names. Here at Chartres, she continues to be worshiped in her aspects of virgin and mother, only instead of being called Isis, Tara, Demeter, or Artemis, her name is Mary.

Just as places where the Goddess was worshipped became sites for Christian churches, so too were her symbols taken over. Before becoming Mary's symbol, for instance, the open red rose was associated with Aphrodite and represented mature sexuality. At Chartres, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, roses abound. Light streams through three enormous and beautiful stained glass rose windows, and a symbolic rose is at the center of the labyrinth. The path of the labyrinth is exactly 666 feet long. Six hundred sixty-six, according  to Barbara Walker, was Aphrodites sacred number. In Christian theology it became a demonic one.

What we do know is that the myth of Demeter and Persephone celebrates the reunion of the mother goddess with her daughter, who had been abducted into the underworld by Hades. We can surmise that, like Christianity, which is a father-son mystery religion, the mother-daughter Eleusinian Mysteries were concerned with death and return--as resurrection, rebirth, or reunion--and the initiate in some way now could share the fate of the deity who overcame the realm of death.


A revised A Wondering Aramean, by Mother Thunder Mission, in Gjerding and Kinnamon, Womens Prayers Series, 41 Mary of Magdala Re-membering the Past

Song of Praise

A wandering tribeswoman was my mother.
In Egypt she bore slaves.
Then she called to the G-d of our mothers
Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah.
Praise G-d Who Hears, Forever.

A warrior, judge, and harlot was my mother
G-d called her from time to time
to save and liberate her people
Miriam, Jael,Deborah, Judith, Tamar
Praise G-d Who Saves, Forever.

A Galilean Jew was my mother.
She bore a wonderful child
to be persecuted, hated, and executed.
Mary, mother of sorrows, mother of us all.
Praise G-d,Who Gives Strength,Forever.

A witness to Christs resurrection was my mother.
The apostle to the apostles
Rejected, forgotten, proclaimed a whore
Mary of Magdala, vanguard of women-church
Praise G-d Who Calls, Forever.

An apostle, prophet, founder, and teacher was my mother
called to the discipleship of equals
Empowered by the Sophia-G-d of Jesus
Martha, Phoep, Junia, Priscilla, Myrta, Nympha, Thecla
Praise G-d Who Calls, Forever.

A faithful Christian woman was my mother.
A mystic, witch, heretic, saint, uppity woman
A native American, a black slave, a poor immigrant, an old
hag, a wise-woman
May we, with her, in every generation
Praise G-d Who Images Us All.

MARCH 8, 2009

A very spiritual, devout and holy priest dies and is immediately swept up to heaven. St. Peter greets him at the Pearly Gates, and says, “Hello, Father, we’ve been waiting for you for a long time. Welcome to Heaven!”

 "You are very well known here, and as a special reward, because you are such a spiritual and holy man, we're going to grant you anything you wish even before we enter Heaven. What can I grant you?"

"Well," the priest says, "I've always been a great admirer of the Virgin Mother. I've always wanted to talk to her."

St. Peter nods his head to one side, and lo and behold who should approach the priest but the Virgin Mary!

 The priest is beside is himself, and he manages to say, "Mother, I have always been a great admirer of yours, and have studied everything I could about you and followed your life as best I could. I have studied every painting and portrait ever made of you, and I've noticed that you are always portrayed with a slightly sad look on your face. I have always, always wondered what it was that made you sad. Would you please tell me?"

  "Honestly?" with a little pained grimace on her face. "Well, I was really hoping for a girl."

 Today is International Woman's Day, commemorating a women's demonstration in New York City back in the mid 19th century protesting unfair labor laws which exploited women and children in hellish factories.  March is Women's History Month. February was Black History Month. Why do women and African Americans need a special history month? Could it be that as minorities they have been ignored by history books? "Women," wrote Simone de Beauvoir way back in 1949, "have no past, no history, and no religion."

I have admitted before that I like controversial titles to post out on the road and then wonder how many people wonder what we do or what we believe in here. I had one of our members tell me that she already believed God was a woman, and. of course, I try to make sure I say at least once a sermon that disclaimer that we can interpret the word, God, the way we see fit, that religious language is really all interpretation and that it's important that we are all on the same page, so to speak. We, as a denomination are committed to using inclusive language, which means that pronouns are not automatically male, though we still struggle with that, and it takes some getting used to.

Feminist theologian and Harvard Divinity school professor, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza is well known in UU circles and has written a number of books, including Bread Not Stone; The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation, where the forward reads, For Feminist Poets, Ministers, Theologians, Sisters in the Struggles, Inspiring Friends- You have set sail on another ocean/ without star or compass/ going where the /argument leads/shattering the certainties/of centuries-Janet Kalvenpoe, and But SHE Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation In the latter, she delves more into linguistics as well as biblical interpretation. Empirical studies, she writes, have documented that men and women read so-called generic masculine language (man, he) differently. Whereas men associate male associate male images with such language, women do not associate any images at all with the androcentric text, but read it in a generic, abstract, sense. In each instance women have to decide whether or not they are address by a statement. When she asks her students to list at least a dozen biblical women only a few can do so, yet scholar Miriam Theresa Winter discovered 64 women in just the New Testament! Some scholars think that women writers wrote parts of the Gospels, some even believe that might have included the gospel of Mark, John, parts of the Luccan, works and the Epistle to the Hebrews. Indeed, the best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code probably did more for feminist Bible scholarship than many Ph.D. papers especially the idea of Mary Magdelene and Jesus being married, and the Holy Grail being not a chalice at all, but the seed of Mary! And I’ll talk more about that later, but since language is so symbolic and English uses nouns that are gender neutral, unlike most other languages, when one translates we have the problem of what I’ll call double interpretation. The word, wisdom, in Greek is Sophia, which is not only an obvious feminine name, but a feminine noun as well. When it is used as a synonym for God, for instance, as often seems to be in the Jewish Bible it is as if God is a woman!

 In the past 50 years, really scholars have rediscovered much of women's past, especially the history of the Great Goddess. Indeed, my sermon title is from the book, When God was A Woman, by Merlin Stone, a book among many now that have become part of feminist religion, called "Thealogy", coined by Naomi Goldenberg, in her book called The Changing of the Gods. Thea is the feminine of Theos, or Goddess.  Thealogy, then, is studying about the feminine divine-the Goddess. Some of Thealogy is based on ancient history and mythology, and some on creating a new mythology, a new religious image of the divine. Sometimes is is also called Earth-centered and even paganism or Wiccan, witches! Wiccan being from the root word for Wisdom, for the witches were the old wise women, feared, not because they were evil, but often for the opposite reason, because they were wise and good and powerful and therefore a threat to the male patriarchy and priesthood.

 I sometimes feel uncomfortable with Goddess worship, however, perhaps just as women have said they are uncomfortable with the patriarchy of traditional religion. I am fascinated by it, and feel that it offers another vision, another representation of the divine mystery, yet it is also often difficult to find the concrete history. Sometimes, of course, I feel defensive, and yes, a little guilty, being a man, especially having fathered three daughters who, as I have sometimes said, mad me a feminist by default, especially around the kitchen table! Having daughters, DID make me want to make sure that my daughters had all the rights and opportunities of any male and helped me to be more empathetic, I think, but you'll have to ask them!

"To exist humanly is to name the self, the world, and God," writes Mary Daly in her breakthrough book, Beyond God the Father.  "The 'method' of the evolving spiritual consciousness of women is nothing less than this beginning to speak humanly- a reclaiming of the right to name. The liberation of language is rooted in the liberation of ourselves."

 It is not just the feminists, or just women, who are rediscovering the Goddess; both male and female scholars, philosophers, scientists, archeologists, historians, clergy, and others, are involved. Just think logically, of course, woman gives birth to life and nurtures, gives suckles,; oh yes, man does his part, but think of who we tend to think of as our first God-image if it isn't usually our mother!

  British Scientist James Lovelock has proposed the Gaia theory. Gaia being the ancient Greek  Goddess of the earth, or Mother Earth, and Lovelock's theory, embraced by many, is that the earth is an interdependent living organism and that we are all a part of that; and wouldn't it sound strange to call it Father earth? Why do you think we have always seemed to have called it Mother Earth or Mother Nature? Perhaps because it is hardwired into our memory.

In the resurgence of the popularity of mythology, Joseph Campbell's name comes to the forefront. In Transformations of Myth Through Time, he says right at the start: "The woman with her baby is the basic image of mythology. The first experience of anybody is the mother's body. The earth and the whole universe, as our mother, carries this experience into the larger sphere of adult experience. When one can feel oneself in relation to the universe in the same complete and natural way as that of the child with the mother, one is in complete harmony with the universe. Getting into harmony and tune with the universe and staying there is the principal function of mythology." And of religion, I would add.

 Shirley Ann Ranck wrote an Adult Ed curriculum some years ago called "Cakes for the Queen of Heaven", a feminist Thealogy course, which  made a profound difference in the lives of many Unitarian Universalist women who have taken it. Ranck says (and I agree) that she views Unitarian Universalism as mystic religion, where there is no religious authority but our own experiences and beliefs. She uses the words of Naomi Goldenberg: "...what is happening for many of us is the internalization of religion, the awareness of an imminent god or goddess within each of us, and an inner spiritual journey toward meaning as adults. Such a transformation of religion from outer to inner makes each of us responsible for our values; it is mystic religion."

The title, “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven” comes from the Hebrew Bible in the book of the prophet Jeremiah, where God is warning him in chapter 7, verses 17,18: “Do you not see what they do in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead the dough to make cakes for the Queen of Heaven, and to pour out libations to other gods, in order to anger me!”

This is, of course, long before Mary the mother of Jesus will become known as the Queen of Heaven as well as the mother of God, but we'll go into that part later. If indeed, our image, or a particular religions' image of God or the divine reflects our culture, then the culture reflected in early Hebrew is a patriarchal society in competition with other religions and/or deities. There is a "God competition" going on here, as the cultures of the Middle East are changing. For about the last 4 - 5000 years we have been predominantly a patriarchal society; Western religion is a patriarchal reflection, and so is history; but it has not always been that way as we are just very recently discovering.

Indeed, there are, as Charlene Spretnak describes, in her book, The Lost Goddesses of Greece, a pre-mythology which the commonly studied "Greek Mythology" evolved out of.  Interestingly enough even in Greek mythology - and remember mythology is what we call other peoples religion!- mythology is what was  what western civilization's religion for centuries, and some may argue still is, interwoven within the Catholic church in the saints system!  But there was even a prehistory to mythology, I just find that incredible! Once there was Gaia, Mother Earth, the head of the pantheon, before Zeus was even thought of.

There is much other prehistory which is being discovered. The so-called "Venus figurines", named after the Roman Goddess of love, Venus, are female statues with Goddess-like implications and worship have been found in almost all ancient cultures. Some like the Venus Wallenderf, found in Austrian caves have been dated as far back as 35,000 BCE (Before Common Era).  And the Venus Laussel in France, thought to be 30,000 BCE. Though these are still the time of primitive culture, before what is called "high civilization", the Goddess remains a crucial figure.

The discovery of the agricultural-based village of Catal Huyak in southern Turkey caused historians to rethink and re-date some of their estimates. Catal Huyak has been dated to 5700-5000 BCE, and at the center of pueblo-like buildings is a “Mother Goddess” building, the first evidence of the importance of Goddess worship and symbolism. Joseph Campbell describes it as “One of the oldest and most important finds… the key to the main mythology-Where you have agriculture as the base, the goddess is going to be the primary mythological figure, personifying the energies of nature which transform past into future, transforming semen into child, seed into produce.”

Riane Eisler, in her book, The Chalice and the Blade, describes the civilization on the Minoan island of Crete, which may have been the prototype for the mythical Atlantis. Minoan Crete experienced a golden age under the Goddess and matriarchy that lasted for thousands of years until earthquakes and barbarians changed it forever.

The many mythological symbols of the Goddess remain and evolve and appear in other religions. Perhaps the most important is the serpent. "No one," says Campbell, "familiar with the mythologies of the goddess of the primitive, ancient, and Oriental worlds can turn to the Bible without recognizing counterparts on every page, transformed, however, to render an argument contrary to the older faiths." Other goddess symbols are the moon, the cow, the bull, the Cornucopia, blood, dragons, caves, and so on. Earliest burial practices are associated with the great earth goddess into whose womb the dead are placed for rebirth. Indeed divine sons who are resurrected are common goddess themes.

In Hebrew the word for Wisdom  is Hokmah, in Greek, Sophia-both feminine. In mystical Judaism they even speak of the "shekinah" the presence of God as feminine, or sometimes as the consort of God. In Christianity, the cult of Mary developed, and became very much like a goddess, even being called mother of God and queen of heaven. The Madonna and child image is a universal one. At the time of Jesus, the Mediterranean world had many mystery religions, some based on the feminine others on the masculine, but many with universal motifs, because of course, all religious systems have to deal with the greatest mystery of all which has to be birth!  Men knew they were somehow connected, if you'll pardon the pun, but compared to what the woman went through, we men certainly didn't seem to have much mystery surrounding our part! More like animal magnetism!

Like other minorities women's history has been necessary to rediscover identity and power. Women scholars doing the interpreting and translating of language can have a transformational impact on biblical studies, of course, and suddenly as Firoenza points out, there are all these female characters in the New Testament people had overlooked. Mary Magdalene , we now know, for instance, was never a prostitute in scripture, it was a rumor, it seems, started by patriarchal writers jealous of her apparent power and influence on the early movement and of course, her close relationship with Jesus, which very well might have included marriage, but at the very least, an intimate relationship. We do know there was a Gospel of Mary that was not included in the final cut, and scholars are still finding out more!

Elizabeth Firorenza writes: What Adrienne Rich has said about the research of Marie Curie, her wounds came from her  the same source as her power, can be equally said of women's biblical heritage as and the same source for womens religious power and suffering.

When God was a woman the world was different; would it be different today if the predominant religion in the world were feminine based, for instance? Now I dont mean to oversimplify and say female god- good, male god - bad. I hope it is obvious that it is not that simple, and my hope is that perhaps we could restore a balance. But I know for most of us, if we had to choose between mother god and a father god, it would make for an interesting theological discussion, wouldn't it?

In many of the mainline Protestant denominations there are more and more women ministers. In our own, there are now more women than men ministers, and in most discussions we have talked about how that has changed our ministry for the better. I wonder how it would change Catholicism?

  So I offer up the Goddess as another representation of the divine image, another light, perhaps, on our religious journey towards meaning and truth. I urge us to read the feminist biblical interpretations. History and religion are rarely if ever objective; they are written by the winners and until very recently by men-usually white Northern European men of upper class. That has made a difference to anyone who does not fit that pattern! Even we rational Unitarian Universalists create our own mythologies, always profoundly influenced by our past traditions, families, indeed, even by our problems and hang-ups. What mythologies are we living by?

My idea of religion is that it should give us hope and strength, that it should engender love and positive relationships, that it should challenge us to help one another, that it should encourage us to live ethically in our interdependent web, that it should make us want to worship and celebrate life, and that there always remain more searching, more mystery, more growth. Religion should foster relationship that goes beyond gender, but respects gender and attempts to understand each other’s differences. May the Spirit of life, love, and longing, be with us now and forever.

Amen, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. Vaya con Dios is SPanish for Good-bye, but literally is Go with God, SO I adapted it to say Vaya Con Su Dios, Go with your idea or interpretation of God.