Monday, July 17, 2006

The Laughter of Aphrodite: Reflections on a Journey to the Goddess ~ Carol P. Christ

Mmmm, brain food! Yum. Warning: Long, nerdy post ahead.

Carol Christ is my ace in the hole. Her Ph.D. from Harvard Divinity is useful whenever I need some patriarchy-approved credentials to justify the spiritual path I've chosen. The Laughter of Aphrodite is the second book of hers I've read, after The Rebirth of the Goddess, and she never ceases to impress me with the quality and depth of her thinking. Theo/alogy (theo being the masculine and thea being the feminine forms of god) is not generally considered the lightest of reading, and perhaps I'm conditioned to it from my education in literary criticism, but I find her writing has such clarity and directness--unlike most academics, she knows how to write in plain English--she's very accessible to the lay reader. Part of this accessibility is due to her rejection of the myth of academic objectivity, and her inclusion of personal feelings and anecdotes to outline her arguments. The result is wonderfully passionate academic prose.
The Laughter of Aphrodite is a collection of essays, some written when Christ was a student of theology working within the Abrahamic paradigm, and the rest after her discovery of Goddess and feminist spirituality. The earlier essays reflect her conflict and struggle to resolve her identity as a woman and a feminist with her love for the Hebrew scriptures; the later ones show her attempts to "re-member" and create a spirituality that validates the authentic experiences of women. She talks about so much in this book: the influence of Platonism on Western thought and its consequences for women, women's sexuality as spirituality, nature and divinity, the anti-Semitic roots of Christianity. She criticises the so-called monotheism of the ancient Hebrews; the consequences of worshiping Yahweh as a self-proclaimed war god; the power of symbols and the need to create new ones, not merely abolish the old ones; ways to name divinity. I could go on forever about the ideas and arguments she makes, and I would too, if this wasn't a library book. Carol Christ has been hugely influential, possibly the most important influence, in shaping my spiritual beliefs; coming from a similar background, she articulates for me things I could never manage to define.
Feminist spirituality and Goddess religion sometimes gets accused of narcissism, escapism, women sitting around in circles cleaning their auras instead of working for change. How can I sit indulgently priviledged, reading thealogy while the Middle East immolates itself for the umpteenth time and the planet slowly dies?
How can I not?
How can I not look for the root of these problems, which are not as distinct as people think? How can I not search for new way of being in the world, since the old ways clearly don't work? Does anybody think Israel and Palestine and Lebanon and Afganistan are populated by strict atheists? I can go back to the state PIRG tomorrow and canvass a million doors, and maybe do some good, raise a lot of money, but it's only a band-aid solution. How can I not at least try to find an alternative to exploitive concepts of nature, to the not-so-peaceful Abrahamic religions?
The parts of this book I found the most compelling were her essays on women as "daughters of a Father god", and her thoughts on death and finitude. Her discussion of women's relationship with the god of Abraham was unexpectedly cathartic; reading "Women's Liberation and the Liberation of God" and "Expressing Anger at God" was one of those moments when someone expresses for you what you couldn't express for yourself, a "YES!! Thank you for saying that! Finally!!" moment. In "Women's Liberation" she states that not only are women justified in being angry with God--not just with male clergy, not just with "the institution" of religion, but with God himself--more importantly, it is necessary for women to express this anger in order to free themselves and to free spirituality from the grip of sexist ideology.
Instead of swallowing her anger, choking back the words forming in her throat, she rises and cries out, "What happened to the mothers, the daughters, and the sisters? How can we give allegiance to a tradition of fathers and sons? Where is the woman of God who could aid our quest? Where are the Goddesses?...By your very existence as male, you legitimatize the patriarchal order in which I cannot fully exist. How could you, God? You promise to abolish the bow, the sword and war from the land, but you yourself are called a man of war. How can you ever fulfill the promises you have made to us?"(24)
Yeah, how dare you, you asshole? There's something so empowering about having your anger validated. In expressing my anger at God I run the risk of being seen as reactionary, turning to paganism to piss off my parents, if you will. Which isn't true, but that's a whole 'nother post. In expressing my rage and pain, I could also be accused of being "intolerant" towards Christianity, engaging in reverse prejudice or bigotry. Frankly, respect is a two-way street in my book, and I'll respect Christianity when it starts respecting me. But I won't hold my breath.
Living as a daughter of a father god, trying to exist in a discourse that expressly deifies the male and excludes women from participation in the sacred by virtue of their femaleness, is poisonous to women's psyches. "How much easier to swallow her anger," Christ says. "How much easier to choke to death on it." (30) A woman in this position can try to connect to the divine only by abstracting herself from her female body, modeling herself on male authority figures, alienating herself from other women; she can also learn to submit, to accept that she is less than, inherently flawed, deserving of mistreatment. The wife shall submit to her husband; women must cover their hair and keep silent.
When I loved the God of Hosea, whose love was defined against a backdrop of the slaughter of sons and the dashing of mothers with their children into pieces, was I not accepting brutal punishment as one of the faces of love? (100)
The reference is to Hosea chapters 9 and 10, where the people of Israel fuck up once again, as humans are wont to do, and God decides to dish out one of his cosmic spankings: "Ephraim must lead forth his sons to slaugter...I will slay their beloved children" (Hos 9:13-16) I became an agnostic long before I understood and accepted my sexuality; all the good, decent, loving Christians I know, the liberal nuns who educated me, none of it was enough, none of it could compensate for the fact that the God they followed was an asshole.
I was raised to worship Jesus as Prince of Peace, to worship Yahweh as a god of love and forgiveness, and I could never understand the disconnect between these ideals and the reality of Christianity's brutal, bloody history and intolerant present. But Carol Christ's essay "Finitude, Death and Reverence for Life" nails down, at least in part, why the supposedly peaceful "great" religions are so unceasingly violent. Liberals and progressives like to ridicule fundies with their apocalyptic vision and desire for Armaggedon. We view suicidal religious extremists as a bizarre aberration. The religious wackos running the government are a fringe group, right?
It is easy to dismiss these men as mad. Indeed, they seem to have lost touch with reality. But they are not aberrations within Western civilization. They are its products, and their visions of reality are considered sane within a culture founded on the denial of finitude and death, a culture that clings to ideas about life, to ideologies, rather than to life itself. I am not suggesting that Platonic dualism as represented in theology and philosophy is the sole cause of these views. But the cultural habit of denying finitude and death, which is deeply embedded in Western thought, makes it easier to deny that nuclear war could destroy almost all the life on this planet. (221)
Death and life, she argues, are inseperable. It's one of the few widely held tenets of modern paganism, in all its myriad forms, that death and life are connected in a cycle of birth, decay, and regeneration. To deny death is to deny life. To aim for transcendence of death, rather than acceptence and understanding of it, is to miss the point, and is ultimately futile anyway. No one gets out of here alive. It's a dangerous concept as well, because to "avoid" death you must destroy all evidence of your mortality, of your corporeal nature. I believe that Western society operates on a profound terror of embodiment. Throw in Platonic dualistic thinking and you've got a toxic mix: anything associated with embodiment, physicality, life--women, nature, sexuality, food, pregnancy, aging--is evil. It's all terribly juvenile and fucked up. Christ insists that for humanity to survive the destruction we wreak on ourselves and the planet, we must embrace death, our finite nature, the existence of change. "We must learn to love this life that ends in death...our task is here." (215) Paganism teaches me how to do that. Other people will probably find other ways of accomplishing it. But it's got to be done. Change or die is the rule of nature, and since we're already dying in droves, it's time to change.
For me Goddess has always been more than a symbol of female power. Goddess symbolizes my profound conviction that this earth, our source and ground, is holy. I have always known this. I will never know anything with stronger conviction. (209)


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