Tag Archives: goddess

Reading theology as a spiritual adventure

People sometimes talk about theological research as if it is, of necessity, dry, boring, narrowly intellectual, and completely devoid of feelings. In my experience, it isn’t like that at all – okay, it can be boring, like any other work, but actually that’s a feeling! – so in this blog post, written while I’m in the middle of a period of study leave and doing theological research very intensively, I thought I’d try and give some examples of the ways in which my whole self gets involved in the work. When I was a undergraduate studying philosophy, I used to say that it was a dull week if I hadn’t changed my mind about some core aspect of existence, and this process is a bit like that – a spiritual adventure.

Challenge to the imagination – reading about the dark night

One of the books I read recently was Sandra Cronk’s Dark Night Journey. This provided me with a challenge to my imagination, because the kind of experience she describes, the sense of the absence of God, isn’t really one I’ve had – certainly not to the extent that is being discussed here. I’ve had very difficult times but often had the opposite experience: when everything is against me and I’ve had a run of bad luck and my usual comforts don’t cheer up, a sense of the Presence (sometimes a very strong sense, sometimes so strong that the language of vision and visitation seems appropriate) can appear in Meeting for Worship, or silent prayer at home – or more likely, in a park or garden. (Here I feel like I might hear a voice, the cynic remarking that obviously my religion is just a crutch, a form of psychological illusion to deal with things I can’t cope with properly. Okay, cynic, so what? At least it seems to work.)

Reading about other people’s experiences of ‘dark nights’ challenges me to reflect on my own experience, identify the differences, be grateful for the ways in which my experience seems easier, and find things which do connect. It also feels like this might be a way to pick up tools for the journey – just because something hasn’t happened to me yet, doesn’t mean that it won’t, and the approaches she recommends might be applicable to other forms of spiritual dryness, too, like the drought of doubt and the boredom which comes from habit. Cronk talks about the apophatic tradition as one tool, a way of thinking not about the positive things we might think we know about God but the mystery and lack of knowledge we have, perhaps expressed in negatives. She says (p55), “The apophatic traditions does not try to rescue a person from the darkness, but rather looks for a way to live in the darkness with trust.”

If I were to try and summarise this part of the spiritual adventure in a verbal prayer, it might go something like this: “Goddess, I don’t always feel it or remember it but I’m grateful for your Presence, for your small still voice within me and in the world around me. In your connectedness, our interbeing, you help me to extend my empathy as far as it will go – and recognise it and not doubt people when they have experiences I can’t empathise with.”

a book cover - the top part has a picture of a stylised landscape in four colours, blue sky, white clouds, pink sun, and red and black mountains; underneath the title reads "Dark Night Journey: Inward Re-patterning Toward a Life Centered in God" and the author's name at the bottom is Sandra Cronk.

 

Challenge to the sense of connection – reading which makes me feel excluded

Another book I read was Becoming fully human: Writings on Quakers and Christian thought by Michael Langford. I knew this book would be challenging when I chose to read it, but it wasn’t difficult in the way I thought it would be. I have my own doubts about the Christian tradition (most of them are basically just a dislike of having a man tell me what to do), but I’m accustomed to reading Christian books and comfortable with that language. This book also includes pieces which are more universalist and more open to nontheist ideas than I might have guessed – Langford quotes Cupitt approving in several places alongside his deep engagement with Biblical and early Quaker material. What it did do was really annoy me, press a button, about something almost completely irrelevant to the book’s main themes.

Over educated. That’s the phrase. Langford’s hardly the only Quaker to use this term in describing British Quakers today. Perhaps it’s especially noticeable because he links it to what he calls a ‘literal-mindedness’ among Quakers as well as the rest of modern society which leads to a difficulty in understanding the rich layers of psychological and metaphorical meaning which can be present in religious language and especially Biblical texts. On the one hand, it’s probably ironic that this annoys me, because to be educated – even ‘over’ educated – in theology and related disciplines is more likely to cure than cause the problem he’s worried about. On the other hand, I spent almost all my time at school being bullied and socially excluded, probably for many reasons but often allegedly for being too clever and doing too well in class, so I have a major sore spot around claims that education or being intellectual is a bad thing and should be opposed – and a bit of a sore spot about anything which sounds like I might be excluded from a community which is important to me.

This is, as I said, a minor issue in the book. The comments could have been deleted without significantly affecting the author’s points. But because of my personal history and consequent emotional reactions – perhaps over-reactions, since they’re out of all proportion to the content – to them, there’s a spiritual challenge in both honouring my feelings and setting them aside. My prayer for this spiritual adventure is something like: “Dear God, I know this isn’t badly meant – I know this isn’t a personal attack – help me tend my own wounds, which are reopened but not really caused by this text – and take the author’s words as a whole and on their own merits.”

a book cover, with a picture of a field of ripe wheat and trees in the distance. At the top, on the blue sky, black text reads: "Becoming fully human Writings on Quakers and Christian thought Michael Langford Friends of the Light"

 

Tradition and memory – reading something almost-but-not-quite familiar

Both the books above brought out ways in which my personal experiences and memories were interconnected with the work I am doing now. My last example is a bit different in that it concerns not just my memories but the collective memory (I might say the tradition) of Quakers as a community. The book is The Book of Discipline of Ohio Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Conservative) from 1992. (This an old one, but you can find their 2018 edition on their website.) There’s something tactile about this particular printing and binding, with its soft plain grey cover. Inside, there are also lots of phrases and ideas which I recognise from my own book of discipline – not just a book I’ve studied, although I have, but a book which shapes my religious life, cites the sources for much of my spiritual language, is discussed and disagreed with and depended upon and departed from in the religious community where I both pray and work. A book we’ve agreed to revise, which probably means it’s even more on my mind.

Here’s a line from Ohio’s book which I read several times and had to write down.

“Use vigilant care, dear Friends, not to overlook those prompting of love and truth which you may feel in your hearts…”

This is striking because it’s so close, and the sense has hardly changed, but the words of ‘my’ version are so familiar:

“Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts…”

Later in my research, I might track down earlier versions of both and see if I can see how and where these traditions have differed and yet kept something which is clearly the same. Or I might not – my main project is theological and not historical. For now what matters is my reaction, which is a bit like revisiting a place I once knew well but haven’t been to for years. It’s recognisable but changed. I can see that it’s the same, perhaps there’s a sense of comfort, but also some dislocation because it’s not the place I really know. Sometimes other sections made me want to take them away because they might enrich my own tradition – improvements on the place I knew! I wrote down this one, for example: “The right conduct of our business meetings, even in matters of routine, is important to our spiritual life; for, in so far as Friends are concerned in promoting the Kingdom of God, we should rightly feel that its business is a service for Him.”

For this part of my spiritual adventure, I pray: “Inner Light, I can see you shining in lots of places, even where there are also things which challenge me or don’t reflect my experience of Light. Help us all to be as clear as we can be and let our measure of the Light come into the world unobstructed.”

a plain grey book cover with black text which reads "The book of discipline of Ohio Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Conservative), 1992 Barnesville Ohio".

These kinds of spiritual adventures are hardly restricted to theological research, of course. First-person videos games might lead to explorations of empathy like my first book prompted and passing remarks on Twitter often create reactions like the ones I had to the second book. Where do you take your spiritual adventures? Do you have a spiritual equivalent of a theme park?

With special thanks to the library at Woodbrooke for all these books and more!

Advertisements

Seven Gods Quakers Might Believe In

Having written some serious things recently, I thought I’d try my hand at some clickbait. Number six may surprise you!

1. a God within us

If you ask a Quaker what Quakers believe about God, this is the answer you’re most likely to get after the umming and ahhing. “There’s that of God within everyone.” Whatever else Quakers think about the Divine, they don’t think of a Divine who’s up there (and certainly not on a cloud), or even out there (although S/He might be active in the world in some way). They think of a God who is within us, with us in a deep way even when we don’t notice.

2. a God who leads

Quakers use lots of words to describe God. Nouns are handy for a list – God, the Spirit, the Light, the Whatever – but verbs are sometimes more revealing. God leads, guides, loves, prompts. This doesn’t mean that God is in front (a shephard often steers a flock from behind), but I think it does mean that God cares about where we are going, and is with us as we seek the right way forward.

3. a God who is all genders and none

Some Quakers use masculine language for God – He, Lord, Father. A few Quakers, myself included, also use feminine language for Goddess – She, Mother, Maiden. More will tell you that they avoid using gendered language – preferring Light, Love, or Goodness, for example. A few use explicitly nongendered terms, such as GODDE. None of us seem to think that God actually has gender as a human would: whatever God is, God is either beyond gender or encompasses all genders and none. Anthropomorphising, talking as if God is like a person, is just a handy way to get the ideas across.

4. a God who is natural

From time to time, people tell me that what they can’t accept about God is the ‘supernatural element’. It’s difficult to find evidence that any Quakers think there’s a supernatural element to the God we believe in, though: classic things which point in that direction, like miracles or going heaven after death, are either completely missing or very rarely discussed. Elements of the Meeting for Worship for Business sometimes sound supernatural when described quickly – e.g. “we listen for what God is telling us to do” – but when they are part of your ordinary experience, it’s hard to think of them as anything but natural.

5. a God of love

In exploring what Quakers are willing to say about God, I found that they draw the line at a God who asks for violence or hatred. This isn’t usually done explicitly – although I did find some writing by a Quaker who explained that they could include most religions as true ways to God, but not ones which asked for human sacrifice – but it’s clearly there, implicitly. Quakers usually assume, without often saying so, that someone who feels ‘led’ to do something which runs against the long-standing trend of Quaker discernment, such as something violent, isn’t really listening to God but perhaps to something selfish or a charismatic human leader.

6. a God which exists

You’ll note that I didn’t say “who exists” – existing in the way a person exists isn’t the point here. The point is that Quakers talk about a God which is part of their experience. This is a God which can lead, can love, can be within us, and which therefore is real because meaningful.

7. a God who lets us work it out for ourselves

A few years ago, Quakers ran a poster which said “THOU SHALT… decide for yourself.” Quakers don’t believe in a God who is cross with you for believing the wrong thing – but rather in a God who is happy that you’re thinking independently and trying to work out what’s going on based on your experience. That’s why you can still be a Quaker even if you disagreed with me about all the previous six points.

Reading Qf&p 26: God for me is…

This morning, our local Reading Quaker faith & practice group tried exercise 2B from this month’s Being Friends Together materials, which offers people the beginning of a sentence from chapter 26, Reflections and asks them to try and finish it in their own words. I chose ‘God for me is’, from the start of 26.38. As I was doing this, it occurred to me that I did something similar not long ago – in January last year, I expressed many of the same ideas in a poem I wrote to share with the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group. Rather than writing an analysis of this chapter (I have things to say about the structure created by the subheadings, but I’m not sure they’re all that interesting), it seems appropriate to share both of these pieces with you now.

God for me is… (July 2016)

Goddess for me is within us, alongside us, dancing in the depths of all things.

God for me is reaching out, helping hands, laughing, growing, sharing.

Goddess for me is positively feminine and masculine and nongendered.

God for me is found by imaginative contact with the inner world: lights, trees, seeds, ways.

Goddess for me is a nonexistent undeniable impossible reality.

How do I currently experience the Mystery? (January 2015)

Gone.

God got washed away by waves
of blistering Freudian fire
or crept out while I was reading
leaving me silence and this stone.

Hiding.

I turn the stone over.
Nothing there.
I turn the stone over.
Nothing there.
but something there
as my fingers glide like the sea
over and over the stone.

The Cailleach is the hills from Callanish.
You can’t find Her
by searching them.

Us.

The sweating crowds of us, settling
floating in a warm river
finding the mill-pond and the weir
and I am carried,
seeing here and there
a sweet wise hazel nut among us.

Flowing.

A moment of poetry or ministry
every cell shaking
with raw, electric leading
I call out “Goddess!” like a celandine
surprised by sunlight.

Here.

The soft-lipped pony, Epona, at my shoulder.
The dark-eyed Jesus who always sits
beside me, never opposite.
Hecate with Her three faces is here
on a railway bridge
when I am at a crossroads.

Not.

You turn because I’ve stopped walking
I now can’t see
the things I see
the story with truth
that’s not a true story.

I try to stand
still as a tree.

D is for Divine

I spent a while trying to work out which letter to put this under. G. S. D. L. W. In my recent academic work I’ve talked a lot about the ‘or whatever you call it’ style of talking about God (or the Light, or the Spirit, or… you get the idea). I’ve written about this both here and for other sites before; recently I used it as an example of disagreement success. I think it’s fair enough, though, to ask: what actually is this it which we might name in many ways?

Well, I’m not even sure that it is an it in the sense of being an object, for example. I sometimes get the feeling that we are lumping more than one thing together under the same label: Stasa wrote a post after one of my workshops in which she explored the possibility that this is the case. I also think it’s possible that the Divine is multiple at one level and single at another level, maybe even multiple in different ways at different levels or from different perspectives. I absolutely would not want to say that one of those levels was ‘better’ or ‘more enlightened’ than another – do you know Douglas Hoffstadter’s analogy about the ant hill? (It’s about minds, not God, but never mind that for now.) The levels from the single ant to the whole system are all real, and all worth studying, and none of them can be called ‘wrong’.

As a Quaker, I do have a personal position on what the Divine is like. Some of it is actually about what I know God isn’t like: along with Giles Fraser, I don’t believe in the God Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in. I don’t believe in the omni-this, omni-that Deity whom we might call the God of the philosophers. I find some religious stories helpful, and others not so much; my reasoning mind revolts at miracles and I have to work quite hard to see the narrative power of them. That said, some of the stories I do find helpful come either from the Pagan traditions or from the Bible. After many years of thinking about language in this context, I’m quite relaxed about it – it’s hard to shock me with a new word or bore me with an old word, partly because in both cases I’m less interested in the word itself than the ways in which it is used. I do believe – in fact I’d say that I know from experience – that there is some kind of Divine will with which a person or a group can be aligned (or not aligned). This is the ‘will of God’ which Quakers seek in Meeting for Worship for Business; it’s always a bit provisional, it’s ‘what we who are here should do now’, rather than a command to others or for all time. I believe, but I don’t know, that if we do faithfully what we are asked to do we will be taking tiny steps, one after another, towards the Kingdom of Heaven (or the Divine Commonwealth, or the realisation of our true natures, if you prefer).

I also think that our experiences of the Divine – whatever They might really be like – are heavily influenced by our imaginations, our bodies, our world, and our societies. I know that my experience of the Goddess Brigid is very shaped by the reading of Pagan books which I did as a teenager, that my experience of God’s will is very shaped by my participation in the Quaker community and Quaker practice, and that my choice to label some of my experience ‘religious’ (but not ‘Christian’) is very shaped by my encounters with those terms in all sorts of, sometimes irrelevant, contexts. I assume that, whether they like it or not, this is broadly true for other people and act accordingly, trying to understand what the influences are in a particular case before trying to tease out where our understandings might agree or disagree.

Book Review: Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World, Philip A. Shaw

Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons, Philip A. Shaw

Although obviously of interest to many modern Pagans, this book is basically an academic one, focussed on historical and linguistic evidence. For those of us who, aware of the scholarly community but not following every detail of every debate, have been cheerfully answering the claim that “Easter is named after the pagan goddess Eostre” with “but Bede probably invented her”, this book is something of a wake-up call. In particular, Shaw argues that Eostre was probably neither a “pan-Germanic goddess” nor an “etymological fancy”, but a local goddess with a name linked to the name of a social group. Her name was indeed, he suggests, taken up as the name of a month and then later transferred to the Christian festival.

In order to support this argument, he makes two main moves: the first is to look at the names of matrons, where we know them from inscriptions. It transpires that several groups of matrons, such as the Austriahenae, had names linked to people (individuals or groups) or geographical locations. The second is to undermine the pervasive idea that pagan deities all have some function or area of expertise, such as ‘dawn’ or ‘spring’. Not only can these functions not be deduced from names, even in every cases where they may have existed, but many deities of social groups may not even have had such ‘functions’ in the first place.

The first argument, and the linguistic evidence which goes along with it, will be of interest to Pagans interested in worshipping Eostre (his conclusions about Hreda, because of the nature of the evidence, are so relatively thin that I struggle to see how they will be thealogically interesting to anyone – but I would welcome being corrected on this point!). For example, if he is right to conjecture that Eostre was originally a Kentish deity, this might have implications for her worship today.

I think that the second argument, though, has a much wider applicability – a lot of Pagans today work with the ‘function’ model of polytheistic deities. Sometimes this is justified by original sources which discuss deities in this way; obviously there are, for example, Roman deities who have always been conceptualised as ‘God/dess of x’ (e.g.: the dawn, apple trees, war, knowledge). At other times it sort of works but becomes extremely confused or limiting, especially when a single deity collects hundreds of functions. Philip Shaw’s book makes it clear, though, that there are also times when it doesn’t work at all. To make sense of Eostre in light of the linguistic evidence, it is necessary to let go of claims about her functions (even if they can’t be removed from the modern reconstructions), and focus on her relationships to places and people.

G is for… Goddesses and Gods

Sometimes I don’t believe in any.

Sometimes I believe that all names are aspects of one. Or two.

In everyday life, though, I find myself using and enjoying a wide range of names for Goddesses and Gods, and treating them as individuals. I like to read about them, collect images of them, and write prayers, poems, and song words for them. I take a pretty broad definition. I try to be respectful to their places and cultures of origin, but I am aware that I might fail. If you think I’ve done so, please let me know. This post is a public sharing of a small portion of my private practice, and does not constitute a recommendation for anyone else’s public or private practice.

Some Altar Prayers

a green cross, woven out of straws, on a white background

Brigid

Hail, hail, and well met,
Brigid, Lady of the Flame:
forge your words with healer’s hands.

a rough and old carving shows a man's face with horns, each of which carries a large hoop or ring

Cernunnos

Hail, hail and well met,
Cernunnos, Lord of all that lives:
tame the year with healer’s hands.

a dark and strange painting, showing a woman hunched down on the right - she holds a book and is flanked by two other women. a face flies in the sky above, while on the left is a bush in which an owl perches and snake hides. a donkey grazes nearby.

Hecate

Hail, hail and well met,
Hecate of the many ways:
guide me as I walk your paths.

a white marble statue of a man with one hand lifted

Hermes

Hail, hail and well met,
Hermes-Thoth the thrice-great god:
Guide me through my transformation.

Venus

Hail, hail and well met,
Laughter-loving Aphrodite:
Hear Sappho’s prayer and mine as well.

Hermaphroditus

Hail, hail and well met,
Beautiful Hermaphroditus:
May acceptance enter all our lives.

Sekhmet

Hail, hail and well met,
Bast-Sekhmet who purrs and roars:
Lend your strength to all your cubs.

Athena

Hail, hail and well met,
Athena weaving words and thoughts:
Lend your strength to my debates.

Epona

Hail, hail and well met,
Epona on the great white mare:
May your bring my prayers to fruit.

Matres

Hail, hail and well met,
Triple Goddess, Triple God:
Bless your daughters three times three.

So mote it be.