The(X)logy?

A brief note on theology, thealogy, and beyond.

Why "X"?

"Yes, the personal is political and that means the religious is political. Indeed, religion is politics mystified." -- Naomi Goldenberg (2007).

As you may have noticed already, this web site is branded Willow Loves Thexlogy! (though, the domain name and social media handles are spelled traditionally, for the sake of memorability).

I thought this will be a great starting point to kick off this ministry and set the tone for what WLT will be about.

The word "theology" in English comes from two Greek words, theos (God) and logos (word). In other words, theology was "words about God," or discussing and reasoning about the nature of God and God's relations to the universe and humankind. Like its closely-related sibling philosophy (in fact, the line between theology and philosophy is pretty blurry and arbitrary; in some sense, theology could better be called "religious philosophy," just like political theories such as Marxism are sometimes called "political philosophy"), theology attempts to construct a frame of reference through which we make sense of human events, human nature, nature of universe, death, life, and eternity. Some theology, like systematic theology, seems very abstract and detached from worldly concerns. Other kinds of theology, such as practical theology and public theology, actively explore the nexus of faith, praxis, and social issues.

Theology tries to articulate who or what God is, and in turn, who we are.

"Then God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.'" -- Genesis 1:26, New Revised Standard Version.

The Abrahamic religions believe that we are made in God's image and likeness. In practice, our understanding of who or what God is defines our worldview, and subsequently, our actions. For example, if you believe that God is a vengeful, sadistic disciplinarian in the distant sky, you might treat your own children in a vengeful, sadistic, and detached manner as well. American Evangelicals' idea of God as an ever-victorious warrior king in a grand cosmic war between good and evil has also shaped the U.S. foreign and military policies, as well as in domestic concerns such as welfare reform and even the government's treatment of irregular immigrants.

As it is also said, "Show me your God and I'll show you what kind of person you are." (I have heard it being attributed to the late Dr. Marcus Borg, but I cannot find the source.)

Who is God? That's one of the millennia-long (and a billion-dollar) theological questions. Indeed, many church schisms occurred and bloody wars were fought over the question of who God is. Theologians have used many metaphors and similes, but no words can ever perfectly capture the mystery of God. Other theologians have taken an opposite approach, "apophatic theology," which defines God by what God is not. This approach, also called via negativa, has a long history that goes back to the fourth century C.E., when Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and Gregory of Nyssa described God as saying, "I believe in God, but I don't believe that God exists in the same way that humans exist" (Orthodox Wiki 2014).

While theology (or "God-talk") may seem like an empty intellectual exercise behind the monastery walls and seminary lecture halls, it has a real impact on our culture, the way we live, how laws are made, and how the economy operates. Feminist theologian Mary Daly (b. 1928-d. 2010) famously wrote, "If God is male, then male is God. The divine patriarch castrates women as long as he is allowed to live on in the human imagination." Her lesser-known quote, however, goes to the other side of this equation: "'God's plan' is often a front for men's plans and a cover for inadequacy, ignorance, and evil" (Daly 1974). Daly notes that Dietrich Bonhoeffer critiqued Christian theology as a way to explain away and legitimize "anomic occurrences" (i.e., bad things that happen), or "God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge," such as why human sufferings happen and why oppressions and inequality are part of our lives (Daly 1974). Our "God-talk" can, therefore, whitewash oppressions and violence as though they are part of "God's plan," effectively gaslighting the oppressed, or worse, encouraging the oppressed to not question their oppressors or the unjust social system by giving it a veneer of divinity.

In the realm of women's liberation -- and ultimately, the deconstruction of gender itself -- feminist theologians have seen that "politics and religion closely intertwined provided the ideological justification for sexism. Ideas about the divine granted ultimate vindication for any politic and the aims of sex equality demanded a reworking of long-held theological categories" (Berger 2017). Likewise, socio-religious movements often use the language of theology to assert their positions and to affect change (Steenhuisen 2008).

Historical development of feminist theology often involved an exercise in reimagining God as "a woman." Merlin Stone's (b. 1931-d. 2011) book When God was a woman (1976) popularized this idea and she was often seen as one of the founding figures of feminist theology, among several others. Once relegated to obscure women's groups in liberal-leaning churches and in academia, this "reimagining" made a foray into the Mainline Protestantism in 1993 with the United Methodist- and Presbyterian Church USA-sponsored "Re-imagining" conference, in which a group of female members of clergy and women theologians reportedly prayed to "Sophia" (a personification of wisdom, in reference to Proverbs 8) and re-created the liturgy of holy communion using milk and honey, instead of wine and bread. This spectacle caused outrage and accusations of "heresy" and "paganism" among the Evangelicals and traditionally-minded Mainline Protestants alike.

Today, many liberal-inclined Protestant denominations (as well as Reform Judaism and Unitarian Universalist Association) have largely adopted a less-sexist language in their worship, including "gender-neutral" hymnals and liturgical texts, though very few Christians go as far as "re-imagining" Jesus Christ as female, at least openly.

Development of "thealogy" and my critique of it

While many Christian feminist theologians stayed within their traditional denominations, others believed that patriarchal religions were beyond redemption and reform. As early as 1979, Naomi Goldenberg was already proposing a formation of a Goddess religion in her book, Changing of the Gods. Z. Budapest, the founder of Dianic Wicca, formed her Susan B. Anthony Coven #1 in 1975. (Damian 2009.) Neo-Druid Isaac Bonewits is thought to be the one who first coined the word "thealogians," while Naomi Goldenberg used the word "thealogy" in her 1979 book ('Iolana 2011).

Luce Irigaray, a French feminist philosopher, further argued that in patriarchy, women must cast off all vestiges of masculine God and instead embrace a female deity. To Irigaray, the lack of a female deity is the cause of female inferiority in society, and a merely gender-neutral God is insufficient, as society's bias inevitably casts "the genderless, rational, empirical subject as exclusively masculine." (Hekman, 2019).

Thus thealogy actively constructs a women-centric religious system in which not only "the Goddess" is being embraced and worshipped, but the female bodies, women's lived experiences, and a vague notion of "sisterhood" are also venerated.

Irigaray's and many others' view of "Divine Feminine," however resembles cultural feminism, which is a stream of feminism that believes in superiority and distinctiveness of females and femininity over others. In a drastic departure from earlier manifestations of feminism, cultural feminists are attached to "traditional stereotypes of masculinity and femininity" and "invoke biological explanations of gender differences" (Echols 1983). Often, cultural feminists posit that traditional "female virtues" such as caring qualities and non-aggressiveness, as well as one's reliance on emotions and intuition, are necessary to counter the supposed effects of patriarchy, such as violence. Alice Echols also notes that cultural feminists whitewashed capitalism while also working toward repression of sexuality (Echols 1983), again, a departure from the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s to the Reagan-era revival of conservative, capitalist "family values" in the United States.

For many years, indeed, over a decade, I considered myself a cultural feminist and a thealogian. I was deeply invested in a version of Goddess religion that I had hastily reconstructed out of materials I found on the Internet. As someone who was burned out by dysfunctional Christian church politics and with negative experiences from an Evangelical Christian college I once attended, I felt that Goddess worship was a perfect path not just for my own development but also for the betterment of society.

However, in the past year, I found myself steadily evolving away from Goddess worship and thealogy. In fact, increasingly I have come to view myself now as post-feminist.

In recent years, a new strain of feminism appears to be in ascendancy: often characterized by their virulent opposition to the recent gains in transgender rights and the emergence of non-binary identities, this faction of feminism is known to actively collaborate with the far-right political and religious forces and spread extremely dehumanizing propaganda (Peltz 2019). Extremist conservative organizations, who are hellbent on undermining decades of advance in women's rights and gay liberation, are now giving these "feminists" free platform and media exposure (Sullivan 2019), as well as political backing (Tucker Carlson Tonight, 2017) to achieve their common legislative and judicial agenda to eradicate non-binary and trans people from the public arena. This united front between these self-identified feminists and the Christian right-wingers seems to be thriving in the Tory-ruled, Brexit-era United Kingdom and Donald Trump's America alike.

When I found this out, I thought of it as rather bizarre. Feminists, or a small yet vocal group of purported feminists, are now calling for an enforcement of male-female differences. Historically, feminists were rightly criticized by the conservatives as blurring the distinctions between male and female and destroying the traditional social and moral order (see footnote 1); now it's the opposite. These feminists decry that "postmodernism" and "identity politics" are "erasing women" and making meaningless the entire idea of womanhood itself. But wasn't this the original vision of feminism? These reactionary elements do not represent the old-fashioned radical feminism of the 1970s and 1980s, whose premise was built around the goal of gender abolition (Echols 1983) culminating in a vision of humanity as androgynous (and thus "fully human.").

Thealogical methods are often meant to be a "counterweight" to everything "male" theology is (Damian 2009), and therefore, often thealogians resort to an extreme polemic by rejecting the entire characteristics of traditional theology, such as transcendence and reason. This often results in thealogy being centered entirely on a nebulous notion of "women's lived experiences" and "female energy." In its most extreme expression, thealogy can lead to a vulva-admiration session, such as a "yoni puja" ritual created by a white European sex teacher (Sundari 2016). If being a "counterweight" is the be-all, end-all of thealogy, perhaps it may be justified as an act of protest against phallocentrism of patriarchal religions, but neither normative Christianity nor normative Judaism engages in phallic veneration.

The problem I have come to identify with the modern-day "Divine Feminine" subculture is that it makes the same errors that these so-called feminists do. The inherent problem in attributing certain qualities as "feminine" (such as compassion, vulnerability, and nurturing) and others "masculine" (such as reason, aggression, and intelligence) is that it reifies existing sexism, reinforces sexist stereotypes, and subtly enforces heteronormative binary gender norms. This erases and marginalizes non-heterosexuals and those who do not conform to mainstream idealized norms of "womanhood" and "womanliness." The point of departure for thealogy as a move away from transcendence to personal experiences can be problematic; humans, as Daly pointed out, contrive God after their own images (Damian 2009), and those who have privilege tend to define the predominant idea of God in society. In today's "Divine Feminine" cultural context, this seems to have become an extension of what feminist writer Kelly Diels calls "Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand" (Diels 2016), in which white, heterosexual, affluent women are defining Goddess in their own image, leaving out women and femmes of color, queer experiences, and anyone who are not (ironically) menstruators and baby-makers. The feminist thealogical reconstruction of God as a birthing cosmic mother exposes the inherent ableism in Western-liberal feminist discourse, and so does its focus on women's autonomy over the female bodies (Powell 2015).

[email protected] or thexlogy?

In creating Willow Loves Thexlogy!, I have deliberately placed the letter "x" in place of either "o" or "a." I did not, as others may do, use the arrobe symbol ("@") as a wildcard to mean both "a" and "o."

My reasoning is this: If "@" is a stand-in for both theology and thealogy, it would only account for theos and thea, still reinforcing a rigidly binary view of gender. It also erroneously polarizes God into two, binary, and complementary attributes, like the Christian Science appellation of God as "Mother-Father."

Instead, the letter "x" implies unknown, hidden, yet-to-be-discovered, and maybe even unknowable (as in the variable in algebra). It can be something that is entirely outside the human construct of male and female, or masculine and feminine. It implies complete freedom and opt-out from the binary.

It is worth noting also that in recent years, many U.S. states began issuing drivers' licenses and identification cards with non-binary gender designations (Reuters 2019). These cards bear the letter X (which was originally defined by the International Civil Aviation Organization for passports as "other" or "unknown" genders).

This also represents my recent evolution in my thinking. I've come to think of "God" as a cosmic principle and divine intelligence (which is infinite, illimitable, and indescribable), of whom each and every person is God's unique and necessary expression. I did not walk away from feminism (or feminist theology), but I find that what passes today for feminism have grotesquely deviated from its original premise and become reactionary in this perilous time of the resurgent right-wing in the United States and abroad. At the same time, the recent emergence of non-binary identities among the younger population may point to a future that is truly liberated from the patriarchal construct of gender itself, fully embracing the manifold expressions of God in all diversity. The future may indeed be non-binary, and the young generations are leading the way (Hammack 2019).

Does this mean Goddess worship is useless? Definitely not. But we must always keep in mind that thexlogy is full of metaphors and can never reach the point of perfection. Defining and imagining the infinite using our finite worldview and limited language will leave us far short of even remotely able to "accurately" depict God. To their credit, feminist [email protected] have presented possibilities outside of the traditional imagery of God as a stern father and mighty warrior-king. But we are not done yet.


Notes

  1. Conservative assertions that feminists undermine the sex differences may be without merit. In a 2018 study in Sweden, researchers find that "sex differences in personality" are actually greater in countries where they rank higher in Gender Equality Index. In other words, feminist-leaning societies support a wider variations in personalities than in rigidly antifeminist ones. The researchers of this study speculate that, paradoxically, "as gender equality increases both men and women gravitate towards their traditional gender roles." (MacGiolla 2018.)

Works cited

willow's weekly love letter!