Seated in a circle around a table in a sunny room at a Catholic college in western Canada, thirteen women reflect upon ways we integrate the Female Divine into our Christian faith. Dr. Mary Ann Beavis facilitates the conversation as part of a research project for which she received a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The group includes ministers, theologians, a nun, a film-maker, environmental activists, and facilitators of women’s circles. We tell stories of empowerment through the Female Divine and share our passion for co-creating with Her a more just and peaceful world. We address questions about our relationship with the Female Divine and about what we think that Christianity and Goddess Spirituality have in common.
In her research Dr. Beavis uses the terms “Female Divine,” “Feminine Divine,” and “Goddess” interchangeably, commenting that “’Goddess’ is just the feminine form of the word ‘God.’” She also uses the word “Godde,” that combines “God” and “Goddess,” and the term “thealogy,” coined by Canadian scholar Naomi Goldenberg and defined by another Canadian scholar Charlotte Caron as “reflection on the divine in feminine and feminist terms.”
The thirteen women in the focus group meeting at St. Thomas More College are among 100 women Dr. Beavis has interviewed for her research on the integration of Christianity and Goddess Spirituality. She comments on the conception of this project: “The research project originated in my own experience and study. For decades, I have observed Christian women (and men) adopting Goddessian elements—e.g., croning rituals, Goddess jewelry, Mother Earth, artwork—as part of their personal spiritualities. At the same time, feminist theology and feminist biblical scholarship—which emerged at about the same time as Goddess feminism—have developed what I would call a distinctively Christian thealogy. I’m thinking of foundational works such as Virginia Ramey Mollenkott’s The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female and Elizabeth A. Johnson’s She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. However, to date, there have been no substantial academic studies of this phenomenon of what I call “Christian Goddess Spirituality”—although there are loads of people practicing it in their own ways. Something I’ve found in my research is that there is often a disconnect between the academic theology and practice. In particular, many women (and men) in Christian-Goddess/Goddess-Christian circles aren’t aware of the rich resources in the Christian tradition for the Divine Feminine, and feminist theologians aren’t necessarily in touch with ‘popular’ Christian thealogy.”
Mary Ann Beavis grew up in what she calls “an evangelical-bordering-on-fundamentalist context.” The churches she attended with her family when she was growing up were “literal” in biblical interpretation and “suspicious of theology, doctrine, other churches, other religions, and questioning.” When she was an adolescent, Mary Ann withdrew from church, but then began attending more liberal Christian groups when she was in graduate school. When she was in her early twenties, she became a Catholic. She describes this time as “pre-John Paul II, post-Vatican II,” when “there was a lot of hope and impetus for change among Catholics.”
After earning an M.A. in religion from the University of Manitoba, an M.A. in theology from the University of Notre Dame, and a Ph.D. in biblical studies from Cambridge University, Dr. Beavis taught at the University of Winnipeg and several other universities. In 1998, she began teaching religion at St. Thomas More, a Catholic college. She says that as a child she absorbed “that the Bible is powerful, and that it shapes the way Christians think about God, human beings, and the world,” especially in Western culture. She was “initially attracted to biblical studies because it was a way to begin to question and critique all those things” she was taught were “biblical,” and thus “sacred and unquestionable.” Some of these “unquestionable” things she began to question were that “God was an Almighty Father, Jesus was his Son; the world was sinful, as were human beings; religion was all about otherworldly salvation; women were subordinate to men, wives to husbands, and the earth to human beings; and that Christians of a certain kind were better than everybody else because only they were going to be saved.” She soon “discovered feminist theology, feminist biblical interpretation, and goddess spirituality, all of which question the ‘KINGAFAP’ (King-Almighty-God-Father-Protector) theology that has shaped doctrine, preaching, and worship in Christian circles.”
In 2004, Mary Ann left the Roman Catholic church. Although she has not experienced a call to ordination herself, one of reasons she left was the Catholic church’s opposition to women’s ordination. “Due to the increasing conservatism of the Catholic church under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, especially with reference to women’s ordination, I became an Anglican,” she recalls. “Another factor in my leaving the Roman Catholic church is that I have been deeply disturbed by the inadequate and hypocritical response of the official church to clerical child sexual abuse, and its discrimination against GLBT persons.”
In faith communities and academic institutions, Dr. Beavis has worked for justice and equality for all persons. For many years she participated in the advocacy work of the Catholic Network for Women’s Equality. In the 1990s when she lived in Winnipeg, she started a group of women at her Catholic church to discuss issues relevant to the status of Catholic women, such as the inclusion of the Divine Feminine in worship. In Saskatoon, Saskatchewan since 1998, she has belonged to the Friends of Sophia, an ecumenical Christian organization that promotes feminist theology and social justice issues. At St. Thomas More College she teaches courses on women in the Bible, including lectures on the Divine Feminine in the Bible, and a course on goddesses. She serves on the Feminist Biblical Hermeneutics Task Force of the Catholic Biblical Association. Her academic work includes numerous publications of books, articles, edited books, book chapters, and book reviews.
Among the books Dr. Beavis has edited is Feminist Theology with a Canadian Accent, a rich resource for academic and faith communities. (http://www.amazon.com/Feminist-Theology-Canadian-Accent-Perspectives/dp/2896460071/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1378914456&sr=1-1&keywords=Feminist+Theology+with+a+Canadian+Accent) In the introduction she writes that one of the repeated themes in this anthology is “the need for ways to express the divine as female—whether as Mother (Earth) Sophia, Prajna, or la Dieue.”
Among her published articles are three that examine the popular enthusiasm for Mary Magdalene as an embodiment of the Female Divine, sparked by Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code. While Dr. Beavis demonstrates that contemporary speculations about Mary Magdalene as bride of Christ or a goddess figure are mistaken, she welcomes emerging interpretations of the Female Divine, “especially within a tradition as resolutely patriarchal as Christianity,” and calls for feminist theologians to “consider what it is about Mary Magdalene as the sacred feminine/Bride of Christ/Sophia that captures the popular imagination.”
Churches are becoming more open to inclusion of female names and images of divinity, Dr. Beavis observes, although some “have become more conservative and resistant to anything that smacks of feminist theology.” The United Church of Canada, she says, is a good example of movement to “gender-inclusive language and hymns that include women and the Divine Feminine.” She thinks “that Christians who want more inclusive, social-justice oriented churches where the Divine Feminine is honored can find them if they look hard enough, at least if they live in urban areas,” but “that people are also leaving the church to chart their own spiritual paths, or finding community in small Christian or non-Christian groups that they find more congenial to these values.”
These progressive churches and small groups, Mary Ann finds, have also changed from hierarchical to egalitarian structures. “In my experience of progressive churches and small faith communities that integrate the Divine Feminine into their worship, the circle has replaced more hierarchical worship structures—the circle is more conducive to participation, equality, and relationship. God/dess isn’t just ‘out there’ or symbolized by the presider, but is there ‘where two or three are gathered’ (Matthew 18:20) in the participants.”
Mary Ann comments further on the connection between the Divine Feminine and equality, social justice, and peace. “Including the Divine Feminine in church—and outside the church—questions and corrects deeply held prejudices about God, humanity, and the world. If it’s okay to image God as Goddess, this has implications for Christian leadership (women really do image the divine) and Christian responsibility in church and society (contrary to the ‘in the world but not of the world’ theology). In my experience, churches that are involved in peace and social justice issues are also amenable to female leadership and the Divine Feminine.”
The Bible and Christian tradition provide solid support for the Divine Feminine, Dr. Beavis points out. “Western churches especially have fixated on the notion that it’s okay to portray God as an old white man on a heavenly throne—basically Zeus! However, if, as decades of feminist theology and biblical exegesis have abundantly demonstrated, the Divine Feminine is very much a part of the Bible and Christian tradition, why is it wrong or threatening to portray God/dess as Mother, Daughter, Sophia, Gaia, Great Spirit, or Sarasvati, verbally or in artistic form? I think that including multicultural images of God/dess is a recognition that all human beings are made in the divine image, and, as such, deserve respect.”
Dr. Beavis also encourages including biblical images of divinity that support the sacredness of non-human beings. In an article entitled “’I like the bird’: Luke 13:34, Avian Metaphors and Feminist Theology,” she explores biblical images, like the mother eagle and the mother hen, as vital resources for feminist and ecofeminist thealogy/theology. These are “fresh and powerful” metaphors of the Divine as female and as non-human, she writes. “Like the image of the Holy Spirit as a dove (in Greek, peristera, a feminine noun), the metaphor of Godde as a mother bird not only avoids androcentrism, but it is non-anthropocentric. As a supplement and corrective to ecotheologies, particularly ‘stewardship theologies,’ which merely see the life-world as Godde’s ‘handiwork’ and humans as the ‘stewards’ of creation, the ancient Christian, Jewish and ‘pagan’ tradition of using birds and animals to symbolize the divine affirms that non-human as well as human beings reflect the ‘image and likeness’ of the Holy One. Avian images of Godde belong to an ancient, cross-cultural tradition that sees the divine reflected in the animal world.”
Writing and teaching expansive theology have come with some risks, Dr. Beavis acknowledges. “I work for a Catholic college, so supporting women’s ordination, teaching feminist theology and biblical studies, and being involved in goddess studies, have no doubt raised eyebrows, although I must say generally I’ve found my college to be a supportive academic environment for me personally.” She adds that “it doesn’t hurt to be a tenured Full Professor.”
Working to change the church through progressive theology, Dr. Beavis has met resistance and ignorance. “I have had a few students who just didn’t like feminist theology or feminist anything, or anything promoting progressiveness or reform in the church,” she says. “And several years ago, I was almost ‘uninvited’ from writing a commentary when the editors realized that I was a feminist biblical scholar who had used the spelling ‘Godde’ in one of my books. More often, I find that many Christians—including ‘Goddess-Christians’—simply don’t know much about the accomplishments of feminist theology, which is discouraging.”
Although Mary Ann does not regularly attend a specific congregation at the present time, she says that she probably will in the future. Currently, her faith community is the ecumenical Christian group called Friends of Sophia. She considers herself to be both a Christian and a spiritual feminist. “Although I call myself a ‘spiritual feminist,’ the designation ‘Christian’ is still important to me,” she says. “I’ve recently been troubled by a cultural hatred of Christianity, which is mostly fuelled by stereotyping all Christians in terms dictated by radical right wing churches in the United States. I’ve also found that the women I’ve interviewed who combine Goddess Spirituality and Christianity are criticized and discriminated against not only by so-called mainstream Christians, but also by Pagans and Goddessians, who tend to interpret Christianity as the opposite of their spiritual paths. In my research and experience, I’ve found that the lines between Christianity, Paganism, and Goddess Spirituality can be quite fluid and porous, and, personally, I find it offensive and simply wrong to be told that these spiritual paths can’t be blended, or practiced together. They can be, and they are.”
Dr. Beavis has, however, also experienced receptivity to her expansive spirituality and theology, she says. “Last summer I made a presentation based on my Christian-Goddess research to the Canadian Theological Society, and got a very good response, including a Catholic sister who offered to be interviewed for the project.” Also rewarding to her are comments from colleagues and students about the positive impact of her published writing on their work and the positive feedback she gets from students on her teaching. She is especially excited about her recent completion, with co-author HyeRan Kim-Cragg and five other contributing authors, of the first full-length feminist commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, where they maintain “that Hebrews is a submerged discourse of Sophia.” This commentary is scheduled for publication in 2014 by the Liturgical Press, and has already received positive responses from the Feminist Biblical Hermeneutics Task Force.
“The Divine Feminine is very much part of the Christian tradition,” Dr. Beavis states. “I would like to see more churches explicitly claim this aspect of Christianity, and become more welcoming places for women and men who relate to the Divine as female and in other ‘non-traditional’ ways.”
Through her prophetic writing and teaching, Dr. Mary Ann Beavis is changing the church so that this hopeful vision becomes reality.
If you would like to volunteer to be interviewed by Dr. Beavis for her research study on Christianity and Divine Feminine/Goddess Spirituality, please contact her: email@example.com.