Joan Chittister: What is the Divine Feminine?

Where does this notion of the Divine Feminine come from? Is the question of the Divine Feminine simply a current fad? A silly notion of even sillier feminists? Or could it possibly have deep and ineradicable roots in the tradition itself?

However much we mock the idea, the truth is, ironically, that every major spiritual tradition on earth carries within it, at its very center, in its ancient core, an awareness of the Divine Feminine. In Hinduism, Shakti–the great mother, the feminine principle–is seen as the sum total of all the life-giving energy of the universe. She is the source of all. In Buddhism, Tara is seen as the perfection of wisdom, and, in Buddhism wisdom is life’s highest metaphysical principle! Tara is considered the light and the prime source of Buddhahood and so of all Buddhas to follow.

And in the Hebrew scriptures–the ground of the entire Abrahamic family, Jewish, Christian and Muslim–the spiritual foundation on which you and I stand–the God to whom Moses says, “Who shall I say sent me?” answers not, “I am he who am;” not “I am she who am;” but, “I am who am.” I am Being! I am the essence of all life, I am the spirit that breathes in everyone: the source that magnetizes every soul. I am the one in whose image all human beings, male and female, Genesis says clearly, are made. “I am” is, in other words, ungendered, unsexed, pure spirit, pure energy, pure life. And that assurance we have, note well, on God’s own word: “I am who am.”

Let there be no mistake about it: woman or man, man or woman–the full image of God is in you: masculine and feminine, feminine and masculine godness. Hebrew scripture is clear, and the Christian and Islamic scriptures, as well. God is neither male nor female–God is of the essence of both and both are of the essence of God.

Actually, lest we be fooled by our own patriarchal inclinations to make God in our own small, puny, partial male images, the Hebrew scriptures are full of the female attributes of God. In Isaiah (42:14) the Godhead, “cries out as a woman in labor.” To the psalmist (131:1-2) God is a nursing woman on whose breast the psalmist leans “content as a child that has been weaned.” In Hosea (11:3-4) God claims to be a cuddling mother who takes Israel in her arms. In Genesis (3:21) God is a seamstress who makes clothes out of skins for both Adam and Eve. And in Proverbs, God-she, wisdom, Sophia, “raises her voice in the streets,” “is there with God ‘in the beginning,'” (8:22-31) “is the homemaker who welcomes the world to her table” (9: 5) shouting as she does, “Enter here! Eat my food, drink my wine.” Clearly, after centuries of suppressing the female imagery and the feminine attributes given in scripture in order to establish the patriarchy of lords and kings and priests and popes and powerbrokers as the last word and only word of every failing institution in humankind–no wonder we are confused about who God is. But God is not! Scripture is clear: God does not have–and clearly never has had–an identity problem. Our images of God, then, must be inclusive because God is not mother, no, but God is not father either. God is neither male nor female. God is pure spirit, pure being, pure life–both of them. Male and female, in us all.–Joan Chittister, OSB

From Joan Chittister’s chapter “God our Father; God our Mother: In Search of the Divine Feminine” in the recently released, Women, Spirituality, and Transformative Leadership: Where Grace Meets Power (Sky Lights Paths Publishing)

Burnham: The Absence of a Gender Justice Framework in Social Justice Organizing

stargirlTwo things are happening with this post. First, I’m playing with a new program – Embedit – that lets me embed marked up files. (See below. It’s ugly but it works.)

Second, I’d really like to generate some interaction on this topic of Gender Justice in Social Justice Organizing.

With a few decades logged now in the faith-based social justice scene, I’ve noticed that gender justice has fallen by the wayside as a core component of faith-based social justice work. There’s been a resurgence of misogyny – especially in conservative Christian rhetoric (which has seeped into popular cutlure). There’s been a resurgence of the teaching  called “complementarianism” (as opposed to egalitarianism) among many mainstream evangelical churches. (As one blogger puts it: “Complementarianism is a complicated series of intellectual gymnastics justifying the assignment of authority to men on the grounds that authority is but one among many roles played by human beings.”) And my beloved Catholic church still can’t accept that Mary Magdelene was the first apostle and should be the model for women in the priesthood.

Many of the younger folks I meet really have little-to-no gender justice analysis – and find no need for any. But as the young women get a little older and begin to encounter patriarchal power resistance, then they are totally confused about what they are experiencing.

I found Linda Burnham’s paper – while inadequate on the faith perspective – to be insightful and challenging. What do you think? (See some of her key quotes at bottom.)


“I have observed, over many decades of activism, that it is possible today to consider oneself a committed social justice organizer or human rights advocate yet have no functional understanding of how sexism operates.”

“I have witnessed the frustrations of women who are working in the context of mixed-gender organizations, networks or coalitions. Too often their efforts to introduce gender issues are resisted or undermined, or, despite their interest in incorporating a gender lens, they can’t figure out where to begin.”

“Staff and leadership development are rarely conceptualized or implemented in gender sensitive ways.”

“The presence of women in leadership is no guarantee that a gender justice framework will be in play.”

“For the purpose of this project, my working definition of a social justice organization is one whose social change work is based on the presumptions that:
(1) Problems of inequality, injustice and discrimination are not primarily individual and attitudinal but are based, more fundamentally, on structural, systemic and institutional inequities.
(2) Visions and strategies for change have to target the structures, systems and institutions that sustain and reproduce these inequities.
(3) This means directly challenging the power(s) that is vested in the status quo.
(4) A core strategy for doing so is to empower, mobilize and organize grassroots constituencies, implementing a bottom-up theory of change.”

“Several of those interviewed felt either that gender was rarely, if ever, incorporated in their organization’s work; or that it was incorporated in unsophisticated, unskillful ways; or that it was only brought up for consideration in relation to potential sources of funding.”

Interviewee: Gender is generally not incorporated. We have a highly developed race analysis and training for members and staff in race analysis. It’s constantly integrated into our framework and analysis of issues, not just a matter of strategy and tactics. But this level of analysis doesn’t exist in terms of gender.

“Two respondents mentioned that gender had come up in terms of funding strategy. When organizations approached women’s foundation they would emphasize the inclusion of women in a particular programmatic initiative, while having no functional analysis of gender, no gender-specific programming, and no gender-specific measures of evaluation. In other words, gender was used as a “funding hook” without any organizational commitment to developing consistent gender politics.

Interviewee: When women operate in an arena where there are women and men, women don’t control the discourse; we’re the add-on. At the same time, women-only spaces are marginalized. Gender is still regarded as a special interest; it’s dismissed into the gender ghetto.

Interviewee: We’ve made it to the first stage: There’s more women’s leadership and a rhetorical commitment to gender equality and against patriarchy. But, we haven’t figured out how to navigate the second stage. How do we lead on gender issues in multi-gender, multi-racial formations?

Interviewee: In the older generation, there was a lot more identification with feminism, along with a critique of mainstream feminism. No one really identifies as a feminist anymore. Some people think there’s already a level of equity and there’s no need to struggle over it anymore.

Interviewee: My generation has a set of cultural politics with no structural analysis, either on race or gender.There’s nowhere for folks 20-35ish to get that. It’s all about culture and identity and the oppression Olympics. Cultural and representational issues become a stand-in for structural analysis. We have to identify interventions that match the scale and nature of the problems.

“Male dominance was expressed by men calling the shots,bypassing the process and speaking on behalf of everybody. When women raised objections to this behavior they were in turn criticized for being out of touch with their own ethnic culture.”

Interviewee: When people don’t handle it [bad gender dynamics and practices], it backfires into the organization and we have no analytical handle or tools to figure out how to deal with it. As with race, if you don’t handle it, it will handle you.

“The absence of a gender justice lens means that the leadership of women and women of color is not identified as an explicit goal; those organizations that are using a gender lens are marginalized; and the case for gender sensitive organizing has to be made over and over again, with little momentum gained.”

“Two of those interviewed spoke to age as a complicating factor in addressing gender dynamics. Specifically, as young women they had encountered situations in which older men used their extended experience and status as quasi elders as a cover for undermining the work of younger women or shielding themselves from criticisms of sexism. One activist tagged this as “patriarchy 2.0,” i.e., not a blatant violation of gender practice, but a way to maintain their status and take up space while undermining the women who were doing the work. In this dynamic, younger men were paralyzed. They saw it, raised it to the women, but said nothing to the group or to the older men. They were complicit in sexism because they valued their strategic relationships with the older men and didn’t want to be on their shit list. It was confusing and silencing.”

Wow! Let me know what you think by sending me your comments.

The Mosque in Morgantown: Finding Our Religion within American Pluralism

Asra Nomani (center) and family
Asra Nomani (center) and family

In March, I had lunch with Asra Nomani at Sticky Fingers, the vegan bakery across from the Sojourners office. Nomani, former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam, mentioned the culmination of a two-year film project she’d been working on that PBS would be airing as part of the “America at a Crossroads” series. The Mosque in Morgantown premiers Monday, June 15, 2009, at 10 p.m. EST. (Check your local listings.)

I first came across Asra Nomani in 2003. There was a small article in The Washington Post about a woman who was fighting for women’s rights in her mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia. I was intrigued by a Muslim woman — born into an Indian Muslim family and raised in the United States — not only returning to the heart of her religion but doing it in a way that produced the kind of radical call to freedom true faith engenders. I was intrigued that she claimed Sojourner Truth, the ex-slave who adamantly defended the rights of women in the church and in society, as one of her inspirations.

The Mosque in Morgantown is the story of Asra and her mother, Sajida, who in 2003 entered their mosque in Morgantown by the front door and prayed in the same room with men. This was counter to the rising practice in many mosques, in which women are forced to pray behind partitions. In June 2004, five women from around the country joined the Nomanis to pray in Morgantown’s mosque.

Not only did Nomani forcibly integrate the mosque, she “nailed” (taped, actually) her “99 Precepts for Opening Hearts, Minds, and Doors in the Muslim World” and an Islamic Bill of Rights for Women on the mosque door. She stood firmly in the tradition of Martin Luther, who pounded his 95 Theses into the church door in Wittenberg, and Martin Luther King Jr., who posted the demands of the open-housing campaign on then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s office door in 1966.

The Mosque in Morgantown takes the viewer inside a religious community that’s in the midst of a simmering battle between progressives and traditionalists. We see how Nomani’s prophetic tactics of direct action alienate the moderates and horrify the traditionalists. We see the struggle for power that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever served on a parish council or vestry. We see the creative responses that emerge from the community as it is forced to deal with change.

Nomani is driven to fight the “slippery slope” of extremism that she perceives to be taking over the leadership of the mosque her father founded. It’s clear to the viewer that Nomani, who was a close friend of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, must take clear and decisive action against religious extremism in her home community because she’s seen where such extremism can lead.

At the same time, members of her community take great offense at being lumped in with violent extremists just because they take a traditionalist view of their faith. Other community members don’t like her tactics. They prefer a moderate, more measured, course. “The American experience,” says moderate mosque member Ihtishaam Quazi, “works against the idea of a slippery slope that Asra is so afraid of.”

Unfortunately, as we’ve learned from the murder of Dr. George Tiller by religious militant extremist Scott Roeder and the murder at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum by militant religious extremist James W. von Brunn — both of whom claim to be Christians — the “American experience” and the vibrant flame of a pluralistic democracy must be guarded with eternal vigilance.

Watch The Mosque in Morgantown on PBS and find out more here.

This post first appeared on For more about Asra Nomani, see “Men Only?” by Rose Marie Berger and “Living Out Loud,” by Laurna Strickwerda. To read Nomani’s articles in Sojourners, see “A Faith of Their Own,” “The Islamic Reformation Has Begun,” and “The Struggle for the Soul of Islam.”

The Sin of the Male CEO

tina-beatieThe March 7 issue of the British Catholic newspaper The Tablet has an intriguing article by Tina Beatie, Deadlier Sin of the Male, that I recommend reading. Beatie is a professor in Catholic studies at Roehampton University in Bristol.

Apparently the “Pope’s personal theologian” recently endorsed a theory that “men and women sin differently.”

“When you look at vices from the point of view of the difficulties they create,”  Msgr Wojciech Giertych, theologian to the papal household, wrote in L’Osservatore Romano, “you find that men experiment in a different way from women.”

Beatie reminds us that this approach has been explored by feminist theologians for at least 50 years since Valerie Saiving published her groundbreaking essay titled The Human Situation: A Feminine View.

Beatie does an excellent job of separating the reality of “gendered sin” from the hierarchy of sin. As you might imagine, the Pope’s theologian not only thinks men and women have different temptations but also that women’s are more dangerous than men’s. (The gall of that guy!)

And as an added twist, Beatie examines the male sin of greed in light of the economic collapse and the fact that “among the leading bankers that have brought the British economy to its knees there are no women.” This is mirrored in the U.S. situation.

Check out Tina Beatie’s article below:

In a recent article in L’Osservatore Romano, the Pope’s personal theologian, Mgr Wojciech Giertych, endorsed a theory by a 95-year-old Jesuit, Fr Roberto Busa, that men and women sin differently. Based on the Seven Deadly Sins, the list of men’s sins includes lust at the top and greed at the bottom, while women’s sins have pride at the top and sloth at the bottom. As usual when the Vatican says anything mildly controversial about sex, the news was greeted with a flurry of media interest. But in fact, it’s not news at all, since feminist theologians have been writing about the gendering of sin for nearly 50 years.

In 1961, Valerie Saiving published an essay in which she appeals for greater awareness of the ways in which concepts of masculinity and femininity shape the ways in which we experience sin. Her article has had a formative influence on much feminist theology, and her theories have been developed and refined by two generations of female scholars. At first glance, Saiving’s theory appears to contradict that of the Vatican. She writes that sins associated with femininity “have a quality which can never be encompassed by such terms as ‘pride’ and ‘will-to-power’.” Rather, women are likely to be guilty of “triviality, distractibility, and diffuseness”; of “inability to respect the boundaries of privacy; sentimentality, gossipy sociability, and mistrust of reason – in short, underdevelopment or negation of the self”. Yet perhaps this is what Mgr Giertych means when he refers to “pride”, since he cites as evidence the example of women Religious in convents, who “are often envious of each other over little things, but when the church bell rings, everyone goes to the chapel to sing vespers.” Monks, on the other hand “aren’t often interested in each other and, therefore, aren’t jealous, but when the church bell rings, few take part in common prayer.” Whatever else these anecdotes reveal, the behaviour of those nuns might suggest envy (which is second on the list of women’s sins), but they seem far more to do with triviality and “gossipy sociability” than with pride.

Continue reading “The Sin of the Male CEO”