(Book Review) Christ & Plaskow’s Goddess and God in the World by Mary Ann Beavis

9781506401188Review of Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016. Pp. 330, $29 U.S., ISBN: 9781506401188.

The remarkable book is a collaboration between two distinguished feminist theologians (and in the case of Christ, thealogian), who are long-time friends, and who both earned their doctorates in theology at Yale University in the days when women theologians, let alone feminist theologians, were rare in the academy, and not particularly welcome. Despite their similarities in age, theological vocation and education, and their shared feminism, these two founding mothers disagree significantly in their theologies, most notably in their understandings of the divine, Goddess and God, although there are also many overlaps. For both women, theology is understood as embodied in their backgrounds, autobiographies and experiences, as well as in academic reflection and analysis. Their theological collaboration is presented as a dialogue between two friends and colleagues who are not afraid respectfully and vigorously to disagree on significant issues.

The fundamental difference between these two scholars is in their understanding of the divine. For Christ, the divine is Goddess, understood as a loving, intelligent, personal presence embodied in all being, and although not omnipotent, an impetus or influence to goodness. Plaskow, in contrast, views God as the impersonal ground of all being, encompassing both good and evil, and favouring neither.

The extent to which these radically different understandings of God/dess originate in the different religious backgrounds and life experiences of the two women is explored throughout the book—a feature of this conversation that is uncharacteristic of malestream theological discourse. While both were interested in religious and spiritual questions from an early age, Plaskow has remained within her Jewish tradition, which she continues to find both nurturing and challenging, although, as a feminist, she is highly critical of many aspects of traditional Judaism. Christ, whose family members belonged to various Christian denominations, began her career as a Christian theologian, although with a great affinity for Judaism, and for Jewish theology. Unlike Plaskow, however, early in her career Christ pressed beyond these established religious traditions to become one of the founding figures of what she calls Goddess Feminism (Goddess Spirituality, Feminist Spirituality), using her redoubtable theological skills in the service of thealogy, theology of the Goddess. Plaskow pursued a university-based academic career, unlike Christ, who after teaching at Columbia and San Jose State universities, left the academic track to found the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual in Greece, where she became a Greek citizen and environmental activist, and where she leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete twice a year.

The extent to which the different life experiences of the two women account for their distinctive theological perspectives is perceptively discussed in the book. As a New York Jew coming of age in the wake of the Holocaust, it is understandable that Plaskow sees God as an impersonal force beyond good and evil, and that she remains grounded in her inherited, minority tradition. Christ, raised in California, with looser ties to Christianity, and to whom central Christian doctrines like the Trinity, the centrality of Jesus Christ, and Original Sin never had much appeal, ultimately rejected the biblical religions. This does not mean that her Christian background may not have influenced her concept of the divine; Plaskow questions whether Christ’s emphasis on a loving, personal Goddess has affinities with the Christian affirmation that God is love, and Christ admits the possibility. Notably, the autobiographical sections reveal that the two theologians had very different relationships with their mothers. Christ experienced her mother and grandmother as consistently loving, much as she understands the Goddess. Plaskow’s relationship with her mother was relatively strained and distant, perhaps influencing her impersonal and morally ambiguous concept of God.

Although they fundamentally differ in their understandings of the divine, and of the relation of the divine to good and evil, Plaskow and Christ share much in common. As they observe in their jointly written final chapter, both are monotheists, and both “have found the concepts of panentheism and immanent inclusive monotheism helpful as we articulated alternatives to traditional theism and exclusive male monotheism” (p. 295), although they interpret these notions differently. Both agree that “the diversity of the world must be expressed through a wide range of anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, geomorphic, and other images for divinity” (p. 296), including both female and male images, Goddess and God. Christ entertains John Cobb’s concept of “two ultimates”, one personal, and one impersonal (“Goddess and the creative process underlying the web of life”, p. 261), as a way of bridging the divide between the two concepts of the divine.

In my experience, many practitioners of Goddess spirituality—like many other religious people—are not academically trained in religious studies and theology, much less academic theologians. Nor should they necessarily be. However, Goddess spirituality and its sister, feminist theology, have a history, and feminist scholars like Plaskow and Christ have had an important and continuing role in that history. While some readers may find this academic book heavy going, it is written in an accessible style, and the authors are careful to explain difficult concepts (like “immanent inclusive monotheism”) in understandable ways. Among other things, this book amounts to a concise introduction to the history of theology, feminist theology, process philosophy, thealogy, and the emergence of Goddess feminism. As a scholar interested in the relationship between Christian feminist theology and Goddess spirituality, I will conclude with the surprising observation that the publisher of the book, Fortress Press, is the official publishing house of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and Canada, perhaps demonstrating the inroads that Goddess spirituality has made even within the supposedly impervious edifice of Christianity.
See (Meet Mago Contributor) Mary Ann Beavis.

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