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Book Review

When God Becomes Goddess: the transformation of American Religion.
Grigg, Richard. Continuum Publishing, New York 1995 155pp.

This book addresses two major themes of present day American theology: the death of God and the appearance of Goddess, and is able by marrying them to ensure the existence of a recognisable heir in the Western divine family line.

The author argues that the traditional God of the Jewish and Christian religions is "doomed" because He has become privatised; the problem of theodicy is massive and insoluble due to instant global communication of incessant continuous and unlimited evil and disaster throughout the world. The concept of a God of justice and mercy acting within history becomes irrelevant. Religion is isolated from the dynamics of modern capitalism, nationalism, even of new biological and human medical technologies. God, to the modern American believer, is solely of personal significance.

The transformation described in the title is that despite this situation, "the traditional Western notion of deity may not be destined for obliteration ... perhaps God will not simply disappear, but will in some fashion become Goddess...some of the trappings of our concept of God (will) change... so that the essential core can be preserved. This is a matter of continuity in change, of transformation rather than simple dissolution" (pp9/10). The author argues that "a feminist reconstruction of the divine is able to preserve the essence of the Western notion of God, while, paradoxically, more traditional ways of thinking about God no longer express that essence"(p. 11).

But what of Goddess or God/ess? She comes galloping on her white mare to the rescue. Feminist theologians - even thealogians - offer, it seems, a radical solution to the problem. The author understands from them that "God is a relation that human beings choose to enact...(while) essential constituent elements of the divine may genuinely transcend the human- both 'nature' and 'the power of being' are familiar candidates in feminist thought- one actualizes a relation to them consciously and in a way that is productive not of alienation but of metanoia, a positive transformation of self...Human beings do not simply enact a relation to the divine, they enact the divine itself, in so far as Goddess is a particular transformative relationship between the self and nature, the power of being and other selves" (pp51/52). Moreover, such relationship of human to divine is not limited to furthering women's feelings of personal self worth; rather it acts for justice for the community of women, thence for all the dispossessed and persecuted, and eventually for the despoiled and contaminated planet earth itself. Thus Goddess rescues the God of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible (some paradox!).

Grigg has read the feminist theological literature. His arguments must be taken seriously. But the book leaves one with an uneasy tension. On the one hand the concept of Goddess "enactment theology" can only be positive. Grigg refers to it as a feminist reformulation of the divine that can transform and reconstruct religion today as a personal but also as a moral, crusading, ethical and public force. But then to postulate it as the "true heir of the notion of God found in the Jewish and Christian religions"? (p. 101) It is as if Grigg has looked around for a grouping that will satisfy this goal and hit upon the spiritual feminist movement with no idea of its provenance and driving force. Most Goddess activists are where they are because of the activities of the heirs of those religions. There is no understanding of the groundedness and pain and struggle that is the inspiration and momentum both of feminist theology and of the Goddess movement.

It is interesting that the book, despite its title, is gender-blind. There is no discussion of the specifics of the women to men relationships in the Western hierarchies of religion and society. In the end this tunnel vision, in my opinion discredits the very real insights that the author has achieved. Are the girls to save the boys yet again, only yet again to be set aside as untermenschen? Is the Great Mother to return to "make it better" for the wounded God of the patriarchs who then can reinstate themselves at Her expense and put at clear risk the very enactment theology the author so approves?

Grigg has set out a devious and clever notion to keep a major share of the status quo intact, and yes, a lot of people will like his book, even if they disagree with much of its reasoning. Some of us, though, recognise his arguments, but may find the book totally saddening. As we go forward, we are subsumed; as we "struggle to fight further" we are undermined. Sisters, beware!

© Asphodel P. Long (Feminist Theology 13, September 1996)


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