by Elizabeth Chloe Erdmann
My passion is nomadic theology which I define as a theological position that is always on the move, transgressing traditional religious boundaries with a feminist lens. According to my age I am a third wave feminist, though I don’t always find this distinction useful. Hovering over the gap between second and third wave feminism is a question for all feminists: what can keep the liberation coming? What methods and tools need to be passed on so feminism as a movement does not lose steam or become silenced after gaining ground?
I argue many answers to this question can be found within the second wave itself. The Women’s Liberation of the 1960s and 1970s brought to the foreground many insights about the value of voice, experience, and representation that are still rippling. One of the methods frequently employed was consciousness raising groups where women united through, as feminist theologian Judith Plaskow words it: the “yeah, yeah experience”. Sparks of inner knowing were set off in these sharing, non-judgmental groups that many times led to and sustained activism, political movements, and new ways of understanding. One method of keeping the tool of valuing one’s experience and voice as women, while still living in a patriarchal system, is through embedding feminist critiques, values, and ideas with a view to the long haul. In other words seeking to pass on a torch that is a living flame.
Using these ideas as background I suggest that pilgrimage is one way to keep the flame burning in the mind and body in the face of constant criticism and self-criticism that comes to us through patriarchy. Feminist thealogian Carol P. Christ leads a bi-annual tour focusing on the ancient Cretan civilization where women today can experience a pilgrimage ranging across many boundaries—part consciousness raising, part academic exploration, part spiritual quest--in search of Goddess embodied in ancient stones and artifacts and in the local nature and culture. When I first went on the tour I considered myself a fully informed feminist scholar and activist. I didn’t expect to be as profoundly affected by the tour as I was.
In Diving Deep and Surfacing (1980) Carol wrote that Martha Quest, a character of Doris Lessing, was uniquely aware that she needed to be ready for the long haul of transforming society as it would not happen overnight. This was a caution that perhaps was not understood completely by first wave feminists after they won the vote. It is a lesson that all of us feminists, no matter how divergent our thinking, should keep in our minds. Each feminist needs a waking up period—sometimes a very long one—to get to the point of understanding or at least articulating a systemic critique of patriarchy. It is critical that we pass these ideas onto the next generation who also may take time to wake up. So we must look for ways to embed the progress of these movements in a society that still does not value women.
As someone who studies religion and theology I agree that ideas matter; symbols matter because they give rise to ideas. Symbols represent reality and provide models of what is achievable. We turn to symbols to express what we feel at our lightest and darkest moments. Symbols are focal points—whether in an overtly religious or seemingly secular locations; they become embedded in consciousness and frame an outlook and behaviors. This understanding brings me back to the never out of style, classic feminist idea: ‘add women and stir.” We need women in the symbolic mix.
Spiritual journeys taken in small groups such as Carol’s pilgrimage are many faceted—just as patriarchy is many faceted. Male dominated rituals and symbols, whether deemed as religious or not, help to create perceived “realities.” Society is challenged by women actively experiencing ritual agency—especially when they consciously recognize their own relationship to symbols. The importance of trusting inner authority is validated. The first time I participated in the Goddess pilgrimage, something internal shifted in me.
The most obvious one difference was how abnormal sexism felt upon returning to the ‘real world’. As a feminist I did not need convincing about injustices that are damaging to women and minorities, but I was used to them—used to them being normalized and explained away theoretically. After the pilgrimage my entire body felt the injustice again as if for the first time, and yet I was also strengthened by knowing I was not alone in my feelings. Re-awakening our sense of the injustice of patriarchy is needed again and again. On a pilgrimage, the embodied knowing roots a ‘raising of consciousness’ in rituals that can be repeated on the return home over seasons and years—perpetually spreading seeds out into the world.
This 'additional element' or 'dimension' of embodiment and empowerment works as a sort of 'ultimate ritual' for exorcizing the patriarchal demons Mary Daly warns of. Offering ‘women’s spaces’ that point out the possibility for change—again and again—are effective and necessary for the progress of women’s liberation. So the role of consciousness raising groups is as vital as ever. It could even be argued that major elements from each feminist wave are embodied in pilgrimage—even the third wave’s emphasis on the performativity of gender that Judith Butler points out is included in the process of enacting an imagined civilization where feminist ideals of equality are present.
I think that a feminist spiritual journey can work as a retreat, getaway, or group therapy for women who are stuck in relationships to patriarchy (which we all are). First a woman needs to know she is safe and that there are others who understand and listen. Then in order to change, or get out of patriarchal definitions of herself and her powers, she needs to know bodily—in her bones—that things can be different. If she is surrounded by great theories yet looks around and sees that on a very overt level, say in academia or in popular culture, all images and theories are still framed within male dominated discourses, there is a benefit to standing outside such an environment. Get out, assess, raise consciousness and spirits and then go back in again and change it.
Sister radical feminist Mary Daly writes that in 1964 “something powerful” pulled her to visit Crete with her mother (Outercourse, 1992 p. 72). And yet the first time even Daly “did not consciously understand its prepatriarchal significance” until on a return visit in 1976 where she finally understood “the Archaic significance of Crete, and that the trip greatly influenced the writing of “Gyn/Ecology ” (Outercourse, p.72) which she invokes the symbol of the labrys which some call the double axe, and the powers of the Snake Goddess (Gyn/Ecology 1978, p.388). Daly also writes in Gyn/Ecology that the “true gateway to our depths” is “the Gates of the Goddess” (p.4) You can draw a straight-line from Daly’s experiences in Crete to the type of group feminist spirituality I’m discussing. One of the differences between a pilgrimage to Crete and pilgrimages to Goddess sites in other parts of Greece (as well as to many other parts of the world) is that ancient Crete was a pre-patriarchal or matriarchal culture. In Crete it is not necessary to “read between the lines” to imagine a different world.
In Pure Lust, Daly writes about women breaking “the barriers between our Selves and the natural world” and being “reconnected with the forces of nature.” When we connect to our own elemental natures which are connected to nature, we can reread, reconfigure and boldly go headlong into male-authored texts yet read them as secondary sources to our own heritage. Daly writes “the process of reversing the reversals of male-authored pronouncements and theories is an important work of parthenogenetic creativity… It releases the elements of our dismembered past, so that these again become tangible, audible, visible, ready to be rewoven in tapestries of images, sounds that are alive and rhythmic with the pulsing of Passionate Searching. Pure Lust, p.116.
In the spirit of honoring not just the idea but the experience of consciousness raising that can occur on a pilgrimage I invite you to imagine yourself on a Goddess pilgrimage in Crete.
Close your eyes, breathe deeply and call upon the muse of imagination. You are in Crete, on a Greek island perched on the top of a mountain meditating or praying, It’s twilight and you see the stars, smell the sea, and feel the warm breeze move across your skin. You feel you are outside of time, the barriers between your skin and the salt kissed air melt away and you are one with the forces of nature.
Go back to a place inside yourself in time that existed where women, men, and all of nature live in harmony and no one valorized war and domination. Imagine being surrounded by affirmations of female imagery of the divine--temples are etched into the very landscape with frescoes depicting women as priestesses. Imagine never walking into church or synagogue, or an academic or political building and being flabbergasted by the march of male names and dates. Instead you see mirrors of you—images of women pouring libations, men bringing home the harvest, girls and boys practicing sports together, as well as images from nature, ducks drinking the rain, turtles raising their heads to see who has come to their pool, all delighting in embodiment. Imagine not having to fight to be seen or heard, to have heroines, historical figures to weave your personal story with always there!
Imagine it is so. Think with your body that yes, this is possible.
This is what I found on my first Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete. What a revelation it was to me who thought I already knew everything I needed to know about feminism and patriarchy. Goddess pilgrims journeying together, keeping sparks burning maintaining a connection not only to the foremothers of the women’s liberation movement who developed consciousness raising but also to ancient women who created societies of peace.
This article came out of the author's talk: "Goddess Pilgrimage: A Way to Keep Feminist Sparks Flying without Burning Out", at Boston University's "A Revolutionary Movement: Women's Liberation of the 1960s and early 1970s" Conference, 27-29 March 2014, Boston MA.
Recent publications include:
"From Scotland to the Aegean Sea: Diving Deep in Conversation with Carol P. Christ”, Goddess Thealogy, An International Journal for the Study of the Divine Feminine.
"Nomadic Theology: Crossing the Lines of Traditions in Theology", published in Testing the Boundaries: Self, Faith, Interpretation and Changing Trends in Religious Studies. Cambridge Scholars Press.