Can Good Theology Change the World? Part 2 by Carol P. Christ

In the first blog in this seriescarol-p-christ-photo-michael-bakas, I argued that one of the hallmarks of a good theology is recognizing that the source of authority must be located in individuals and communities who interpret texts and traditions as they encounter divinity anew in the present. In our new book Goddess and God World, Judith Plaskow and I suggest that a second hallmark of good theology is the “turn to the world.” What we mean by this is not only that divinity is immanent in the world, but also that the purpose of human life is to be found in this world—not the next.

The God of traditional theologies is pictured as an old man with a long white beard who rules the world from heaven. It is commonly assumed by those familiar with this picture that the purpose and meaning of human life is not to be found in this world—but rather in heaven. This assumption is increasingly being challenged. Many people no longer believe in life after death. The purpose of morality is increasingly being understood as improving the conditions for the flourishing of human and other forms of life—not on gaining the approval of a God who has the power to assign individuals to heaven or hell in the next world.

In my earlier book She Who Changes, I argued that western philosophies and theologies took a massive “wrong turn” when they accepted the Platonic dualism of mind and body and argued that the rational soul or spirit can—and should–rise above the body in order to commune with eternal truths. I stated that this “wrong turn” away from the body and the world was rooted in “matricide.”

By this I did not mean the literal murder of the mother—though this too was justified in the plays of Plato’s contemporaries Aeschylus and Sophocles. What I meant when I called this wrong turn “matricide” was that the prior assertion that justifies Platonic dualism is that life in the body that begins with birth through the body of a mother and ends in death is not good enough. Man, and here the male generic is appropriate, must be destined for a higher purpose than a life in the body that ends in death. This new idea entailed a rejection of earlier earth-based spiritualities in which mothers were honored as the givers of life. Women, the body, and nature came to be vilified  as that which holds “man” back from his higher destiny.

Not only Christianity, but Hinduism, and Buddhism, as well as Judaism and Islam, have elements within them that reenact the matricidal decision to turn away from the world. Ascetic traditions aimed at denying the needs of the body in order to rise above it fit this pattern, as perhaps does Jesus’ call to his disciples to leave their families and Buddha’s decision to abandon his wife and newborn son.

My point is not to argue that any of these traditions are essentially defined by a turn from the world. It seems to me that relatively more life-affirming and relatively more life-denying strands exist within all of these religions. If the first principle of good theology—the principle of interpretation—is understood, then it follows that individuals and communities can choose to affirm either strand. Thus, for example, Matthew Fox elevates a life-affirming strand of Christianity he calls “creation theology,” while arguing that traditional theologies based on original sin and the desire for heavenly bliss should be de-emphasized. Similarly, the Jewish Renewal movement celebrates the presence of divinity in the world.

What would a theology that “turns to the world” look like? In our book, Judith and I argue that it would be a theology that promotes “the flourishing of the world.” We chose the term “flourishing of the world” because it encompasses the concerns of liberation, feminist, ecofeminist, and environmental theologies.

We understand “the world” to be an interdependent whole of which human life and the lives of individual humans are a part. Issues of justice for the poor, and for women, the poorest of the poor, come to fore in theologies that can no longer promise “pie in the sky when you die.” At the same time, we recognize that human beings do not exist in a world in which we are the only important actors. Human beings are part of an interdependent world characterized by ecofeminists and environmentalists as “the web of life.”

Within the web of life, human beings are not the only individuals with value. People are beginning to recognize that animals have feelings. Surely animals with feelings deserve “justice” too. Process philosophy takes this a step farther, arguing that forms of consciousness and choice exist throughout web of life, down to the smallest particles of atoms. This view, known as “panpsychism,”  promotes respect for the entire web of interdependent life—not only the so-called “higher” forms of life. It is increasingly being confirmed by science.

Theologians who affirm the turn to the world may not always agree on priorities. Some may focus on ending war, others on improving the lives of the poor, others on justice for women, others on racial justice, and still others on environmental issues. We live in a world filled with diversity and difference, and none of us can do everything. Different communities and different individuals will put one or other of these issues first at different times. This is to be expected. What is important is to recognize that the common goal underlying our work any or all of these issues is the flourishing of the world.

This issue is discussed in the newly published Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow–order now. Ask for a review copy (for blog or print) or exam or desk copy. Please post a review on Amazon.  Share with your friends on social media using the links below.

Listen to Judith and Carol’s first interview on the book on Northern Spirit Radio.

Carol P. Christ leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete. Space is available on the fall tour October 1-15. Join now and save $150. With Judith Plaskow, she is co-editor of Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. Carol wrote the first Goddess feminist theology, Rebirth of the Goddess and the process feminist theology, She Who Changes.