Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Review: Womanspirit Rising

[Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow, editors. Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1979.]

For the next installment in my random jaunt into feminist theology -- which I am doing in the service of my social movement history project and not because I identify as Christian -- I went back to what seems to be something of a classic early survey of the field. It is a high energy mixture of reprinted material from names that even I have heard, like Mary Daly and Starhawk, and original material from young activist-scholars struggling to synthesize their faith and their politics. With sections on the feminist critique of existing theology, examination of relevant history/herstory, efforts to reform existing religious traditions in feminist ways, and exploration of creating radically new traditions, it feels like an attempt to put together a reasonably complete crash course for feminists newly searching for answers.

Many of the things that stood out the most for me in reading this book are, I think, features of the era in which it was produced. They were particularly visible in direct comparison to the somewhat more recent volume I just reviewed. Both volumes, for instance, acknowledge kinship between Christian feminist theology and post-Christian (often Goddess-oriented) feminist theology as well as real differences, but this volume includes much more of the latter and seems more interested in treating them as different answers arrived at by different women who started from much the same place and are on similar journeys. I would imagine this reflects a gradual erosion of the sense of common purpose among feminists who made different choices about how to deal with experiences of disjuncture between their faith and their feminism. As well, though both volumes are political by any meaningful standard and both contain scholarly material, this one has a much more boisterous, activist tone to it, while the later one is definitely more academic. It is not uniform across all of the essays, but in this one there is more of a sense of feminism-as-movement, while you can see a significant shift towards feminism-as-shared-discourse but less centrally as movement (at least for the authors) in the other.

A number of political problems with this book also take the visible forms that they do in part because of the era in which it was written. A key example is the subtitle: A Feminist Reader in Religion. If taken literally, this phrase might create expectations of a much broader project than the volume actually realizes. Though it claims the general category "religion," it is specifically a book about Christianity, Judaism, and Goddess-oriented spiritualities that some women from both of those traditions have adopted. And though this is always a risky area for speculation when noone self-identifies, it seems pretty clear that all of the voices that it publishes from within those traditions are the voices of white women. As well, and not surprisingly, it deploys some key feminist concepts from that era -- things like "sisterhood" and "consciousness raising" -- in ways that do not account for subsequent challenges to how they do or do not deal with diffference among women.

That said, there was something about the energy of the book that I found quite engaging, even though it was kind of disorienting for me. It was disorienting, I think, because of the passion many of the contributors felt for answering questions that I feel no particular impulse to ask. The book, while recognizing that this is an oversimplification, roughly divided feminist efforts to transform religion between those which aim to reform existing traditions and those which it describes as "revolutionary," which seek to found new traditions. On the level of relating to imagery, text, and doctrine, I find the "revolutionary" approach much easier to understand as a strategic choice. But I really do not understand the need which drives it. At the level of experienced need, I have a much easier time understanding the need that the "reformist" contributors exhibit to remain a part of the traditions in which they were raised. At least in part, that need is a social need, a need to belong, a need to remain meaningfully connected to loved ones and to a larger social community. I get that. Of course, the "revolutionary" contributors experience that social need as well, and find it met in the new communities which they form. But they also make more visible that all of these contributors experience not just social need but also a need that is filled by ritual, myth, imagery, and collective stories. That is what I find harder to understand. And I'm not sure why. I mean, on an intellectual level I certainly get how important all of those things can be. And I can even see how I meet those needs in myself by looking to spaces and practices that are not religious, so perhaps it is just that the places that they look feel unfamiliar to me. But I think it is not just lack of familiarity -- they seem to feel a need for a coherence in ritual, myth, imagery, and collective stories that I don't experience, and a need for some sort of metaphysical content that I not only do not feel like I need but that I would find actively off-putting.

All of that takes on a more collective, political dimension when I connect it back to reflections about the era in which the book was written versus the present day. It is quite clear from the ways in which these women write about their spiritualities that they see themselves as doing that work in the context of a broader movement, and creating resources that will provide spiritual sustenance for individual women in that movement as well as creating opportunities for greater cohesion and therefore greater political accomplishment for the movement as a whole. But I'm not sure it has really worked out that way. I know they made important inroads in certain aspects of mainstream Protestant Christianity in Canada at an institutional level, and have created resources that Christian feminists in various denominations have found useful. I also have known women with a committed, Goddess-centric religious practice of one sort or another. So the work done by these pioneers persists. But given the ways in which feminist movements have changed in the intervening years in terms of how they are socially organized and what they do, I think these resources are currently used only by isolated pockets and not in the generalized way that I think their creators hoped. Why is that? Perhaps just a shift in the times. Perhaps the creators just dreamed too big, as I think all creators should do. But it may have to do with what it means to do work at the level of myths and symbols in the service of social change...and I'm not quite sure what I mean by that, but I think it means both accepting that such work is an important part of social change but also recognizing that shared myths and symbols can really only emerge organically through shared struggle, and even then it will happen in unpredictable ways. As well, we need to recognize that political collaboration in the absence of that kind of sharing is going to be fundamental to any project of social transformation -- there is no way that everyone we will need to work with is going to think like us at that level. So investing too much hope in cohesion through shared myth and symbol is also a political risk.

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