Faith & Feminism: Here I Stand, Without the Goddess

This powerful guest post from Caryn D. Riswold, who I met a few years ago while speaking at Illinois College, continues our Faith & Feminism series. See Caryn’s full bio after the jump, and be in touch with if you’d like to contribute a future column.

Reading Sue Monk Kidd’s spiritual memoir, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, I realized that I just didn’t get the deep need for the Goddess that she described.  I also felt in a new way how a second-wave feminist story was not my own.  Participating in worship and the Faith and Feminism Conference at Ebenezer/herchurch Lutheran in San Francisco, I witnessed the transformative difference that claiming the divine feminine made in the lives of so many.  I also realized that the healing balm of the Goddess wasn’t something I sought.

Rejection of patriarchal Christianity needs to happen.  For so many good reasons.  But for me, this rejection hasn’t taken the form of turning to the Goddess like it has for Kidd, or for many others like my friends doing amazing work at herchurch.  The most important work that I can do is to sit squarely inside the Christian tradition that formed me, the Lutheran one to be exact.  Partly because I can, and partly because someone has to do the work:  To hold it accountable.  To insist on a higher expression of its stated commitments to justice and compassion.  To collaborate and write transformative theology.  To call it out when it fails.

Women and men make different choices about their relationships to religion based in part on personal experiences, often painful ones.  I was in a small group conversation many years ago, and a young man introduced himself as having been raised Christian, then simply said, “And I am a gay man.”  He broke down sobbing right there, sitting with those two stated truths, painfully colliding in his life.  I have listened to young women tell the story of how their churches encourage them to keep silent about their rape.  For all of these people, rejecting the tradition that has brought little else than pain is essential.  It is a matter of survival.

For me, hearing their stories stokes a fire of resistance.

Alice Walker’s phrase describing part of what it means to be a womanist resonates on this point:  “Not a separatist, except periodically, for health.”  Rejecting religion is in fact sometimes a matter of health and safety.  For lesbians and gay men who experience spiritual violence.  For young women who have been told to forgive the pastor who raped them because he’s really a good man at heart.  No.

Martin Luther, the spiritual father of the Lutheran tradition, said “No” in response to those demanding that he recant his writings critical of the Christian tradition.  He is said to have concluded his speech at the 1521 Diet of Worms by saying, “Here I stand.  I can do no other.”  He didn’t allow them to push him and his words out.

Rejecting patriarchal Christianity is, for me, mostly about rejecting patriarchy.  Can Christianity, or any religious tradition for that matter, exist without patriarchy?  I don’t know.  But I intend to do everything I can to stand here, do my work here, and find out.

Caryn D. Riswold holds a Ph.D. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and her most recent book is Feminism and Christianity: Questions and Answers in the Third Wave.  At Illinois College in Jacksonville, she currently teaches religion and chairs the gender and women’s studies program.  You can follow her on Twitter @feminismxianity

Join the Conversation

  • Sue L

    This is an excellent piece. Thank you for sharing it. Working within our own religions we can make change. I to have continued to stay in the family religion . I do not feel that leaving one’s cultural practices and beliefs to force change will always fix the problem. the greatest thing about this is the knowledge about the practices that I have. This gives me a two-sided ability to make changes. First I understand the culture beliefs of my church of choice so I can work with them to change the inequilities, by utilzing my voice that they have come to trust because I am accepted into their lives. Second I do know where the inequilites in the church’s beliefs are, their historical significance to the church. It also gives me better access to those in control to bring the issues to the social conscieness of the church members.

  • Branwen-Iris

    Thanks so much for publishing this. As a feminist Lutheran with intense Goddess-leanings, I couldn’t have been more thrilled to read this piece. I immediately went to Amazon and swooned to see that in addition to the book promoted here, the author has penned a work comparing Martin Luther and Mary Daly. I’m buying both books asap! :)

  • Amber Johnson

    I have an inner Goddess. That doesn’t mean literal entity. It’s just the part of me that is empowered. I don’t think of this concept as a religion. I don’t have a religion at all, other then maybe Pagan. Maybe that’s why you don’t understand it.

    As for people looking to the Goddess instead of God… I’m not Christian, but if there is a god/dess, perhaps it isn’t either sex.

  • Margaret

    So glad to see you posting here, Caryn! I was at the Transformative Lutheran Theologies conference in January 2009, and your talk there was fantastic!

    Thanks for speaking up in support for those of us who try and hold the fort in the established church. If everyone who believes that God is not an angry old man in the sky ends up leaving the church– then the only God left in those churches will be that angry old man. And the media and wider culture will keep on thinking that that’s what ALL Christians believe.