If we seek some larger truth, we need to be open to our human experience. This approach sets me apart from people of some faiths, who have an idea of God that is mediated through external religious authority. Some religions believe that certain leaders or scriptures have the truth about God and reality, and the role of other persons is to follow and obey their authority. In these religions, a person may be instructed to discount their own experience as faulty or sinful, in favor of the wisdom of the leader. But that is not what I believe.
Perhaps I have been hurt too deeply by the misused authority of religious leaders. The very idea of God has felt corrupted by the betrayals of religious institutions. Alice Walker explores this question in her novel, The Color Purple. Two black women, Celie and Shug, talk about the God that they find in the white man’s Bible. Shug says, “Ain’t no way to read the bible and not think God white… When I found out I thought God was white, and a man, I lost interest.”
There was a time in my life, too, when the God of the churches didn’t work for me. At first, when I was a child, God was like a perfect father. I learned about this God from my Catholic family. My idea of God helped me as a child: I felt held in the care of a strong and loving presence. Later, when my family and I became a part of a Pentecostal movement among Catholics, this community also believed that God was a loving father. They emphasized that the Spirit would communicate with us directly and would guide us on our path. It opened a beautiful door to a spirituality of direct experience.
But by and by, a problem occurred for me. This Spirit seemed to be guiding people in really different directions. One man heard the Spirit say that men should be stronger leaders, and women should be only in supportive roles. But the Spirit in my heart was saying that men and women were equal. So why were my gifts and energy not valued? I didn’t feel equal enough in that group to express my truth, so I left instead. I felt like my heart was broken.
Later, the work of feminist philosopher Mary Daly helped me better understand how culture influences our most personal images and experiences. A white male-dominated culture will create white male-dominant images of God. We draw a picture of God shaped by our cultural expectations. And those images in turn reinforce the cultural values by which we live. The father God was white and male and reinforced a system of domination by white men. So where did that leave me and other women and those who were oppressed by racism?
For many years I didn’t know what to do about God. The word had become almost noxious to me, and connected to oppressive forces in my life. Yet I still felt a relationship to some sort of spiritual experience. For a while I didn’t know how to imagine or think about it. But I was part of a group of women who were wrestling with all of this together. We began to counter the oppressive forces of religion by creating new images of the divine in a conscious way. We re-imagined God as female, by calling her Goddess. We realized that many cultures have worshipped the divine in female form.
But is it possible to imagine a Goddess and experience her as real? What is real and what is imaginary? Here’s the thing I discovered. The Goddess began to feel real to me when my life started to change. Something is real when it makes a difference to us, when it causes transformation in our lives. Images become real when they open a door. The Goddess became real when the power of women became real—when we were able to embrace our own sacredness, affirm our own intrinsic value and dignity, and live out our own gifts and talents and leadership.
In The Color Purple, Shug also found new ways to imagine God. She said,
My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day, when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house. I knew just what it was.
Quotes from Alice Walker, The Color Purple, p. 166.
Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father, (Beacon Press, 1973)