After many years of advocating for a greater role for women in interfaith work, we began to realize that the gender issue was deeply embedded in our theologies, and without addressing theology, it would be hard to achieve true gender balance. So we organized a larger conference in India in 2008 on the theme of the Divine Feminine – the female aspect of Divinity. Most people would acknowledge that the Divine has no gender, and yet in institutional religious life the Divine is always referred to as male – the Father – at least among the Abrahamic faiths. Hinduism is an exception. In India, it is far more common to refer to the Divine as the Mother, rather than the Father, and in fact this is what drew me to India when I was young. The Mother relationship seems far more intimate and loving.
The conference that we organized on the Divine Feminine was revolutionary in many ways. One of our Co-chairs is a prominent and courageous Catholic nun from the US, who is very committed to women’s issues. She was speaking at our conference in India and even for her, it was a stretch to talk about the Divine as Mother. She approached me and said, “Dena, I don’t know if I can do this. I have a theological problem with it.”She was clearly anxious. I replied, “address the theme as you see fit.”Well, it forced her to do some deep reflection and she spoke beautifully on the Mother aspect of the Divine. Since that conference, for years after, she spoke on the theme of the Divine Feminine – the Mother qualities of the Ultimate Reality. Now, of course, there are many books and talks on this subject.
People would ask me why it was important to tackle the gender issue theologically. It has to do with deep subconscious feelings about oneself, feelings of which we may not even be aware. I remember seeing a study some years ago that determined the one feeling most common among women across the world, regardless of income, education, status in society, etc. is that they don’t feel their voices are heard. Women don’t feel that they have a voice. If our concept of the All Knowing, the All Powerful, the All Beneficent Divine is male, than the female is subordinate, of lesser value. But if this Divine power has both female and male aspects– there is gender balance, and this can serve as an inspiration and model for the rest of us.
Our inability to see the feminine aspects of the Divine has led to great gender imbalance, which affects so much about our world – from our economy to our social, political and religious structures.
What would the world look like if we could truly awaken the feminine wisdom and restore Her to Her rightful place?
For my generation, the challenge for women was to be able to rise to the top of their professions – to be heads of businesses, governments, etc., to break the glass ceiling. There was no talk at that time of what type of leadership would be natural for women. There was no talk of the need for a transformation in our institutions. Women were meant to just fit in and follow the mold.
I was born into a secular business family. I have two sisters, one older and one younger, and both became successful business women. I was less interested in business and more interested in literature and religion. But after my divorce I had to go into the family business to support my sons. I was told, and have been repeatedly told over the years, to cut my hair so I would look more businesslike. I was told to stop wearing flowing skirts and to take up suits. In other words to succeed in business, I had to fit into the male mold. Many women of my generation have had this experience. If you wanted to succeed in business, politics and even religion, you had to downplay your female attributes. This was very unfortunate because the very attributes that can bring about creative change were being dismissed and seen as a disadvantage.
So what are the qualities of the feminine? What is feminine wisdom and how can it help us address the challenges we face?
A few months ago we invited a delegation of spiritual teachers, men and women, to the UN Climate Summit in Paris to speak about the spiritual dimensions of the climate crisis. The formal negotiations were on ways to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. We were astounded that there was little mention of the spiritual perspective of climate crisis. We are causing an untold number of species to go extinct, killing how many millions of trees, destroying our soil through chemical inputs, and the list goes on – and we take no responsibility for this destruction? We have brought spiritual teachers to most of the UN climate summits to speak about the moral dimensions of the issue, and increasingly the women in our gatherings are sharing dreams where the Earth, in a much weakened state, addresses them. According to them, the soul of the Earth is crying out. I have also heard this cry. It is interesting to me that it is mostly the women who are hearing this. Why is that?
Women are deeply connected to life. We have an intuitive knowing of that which gives and supports life. Since the beginning of time our bodies and minds have been programmed for this. We function from a space where we know the interconnections of life, this vast web, one part supporting every other. That is, if we are tuned in to our feminine wisdom, if we have not repressed that aspect of our being in order to fit in to the prevailing mold.
And if we are more connected to life, we are more connected to Earth and the natural forces, because they are the systems that support life. So, more of us can hear the cry of the Earth now, the cry of the rivers and forests – all of which have been so degraded due to a domination mentality. Rather that respecting and caring for these living forces of nature, we have abused them to the point that many of our ecosystems are dying.
The violence against the Earth and the suppression of women come from the same source – from a mindset that rationalizes the right to domination. To restore the Earth, we must restore women. To restore women to our rightful place, we must restore nature to its rightful place. We must honor the natural world for its own intrinsic value rather than its monetary benefit.
In the Eastern or Dharma religious traditions, the feminine energy is considered to be the transformative power, the energy that brings change. There is the understanding in the East that the Ultimate Reality, the Divine, has both a masculine and feminine aspect. One might say that the masculine maintains the universe, keeps everything functioning, but the feminine force drives it forward, providing the transformations that bring about new life. This would apply both at the macrocosmic as well as the micro level, in the greater scheme of things and also in the movements of everyday life.
It is this evolutionary force, this driving forward that we very much need now to move us into a new global consciousness – which is intuitive, inclusive, non-hierarchical, more compassionate and balanced.
It is not only women who have access to this feminine force. We have found in our work that many men resonate with this energy, more than some women. Ultimately, just as the Divine can be considered to have both a male and female aspect, so do we all. What is desperately needed now to move the world out of its conflict, tension, and destructive tendencies, is to allow for the feminine wisdom to come forward.
Gathering of the Women’s Partnership for Peace in the Middle East, Oslo, 2003 – Photo by Nancy Bundt
As long as the female is repressed, the world will be greatly out of balance, and imbalance creates tension and destruction. As long as the Earth is abused, the same will be true. A similar imbalance would occur if the feminine forces were to overpower the male. It is balance that is so essential, and this balance will help us move beyond the paradigm of fear, domination and division to one of greater collaboration, trust and unity. Some of the themes that I have discussed may be obvious, and some are quite subtle. This is because the issues that we face in our societies and globally reflect deeper shifts that have to do with larger movements of time. The changes we seek may not manifest for centuries, but the only thing we can be sure of is that change will come. Yet we must stay focused on the specifics of what we can do now. What can we do as women in our everyday lives to help foster change?
I think the most important task for us now is to connect to our intuitive nature, and to begin to question what are the life-supporting actions and positions that we can take that will bring balance to our societies – not further polarization, not anger and distrust, but greater unity. Ultimately the greatest change will come about not through any action but through our changed consciousness. That is where true transformation begins.
Can we ourselves outgrow the fear and domination mentality and not see the “other” — be it the religious, ethnic or racial other – as in any way inferior? Can we know ourselves to be an intrinsic part of the interconnected whole, not apart from it, but one with it? Can we evoke the feeling of love for the Earth and truly see Her as a Mother? Can we speak to Her and hear Her response? Can we feel our connection to the plant and animal worlds and know that they have as much right to life as we do? Can we look beyond our limited time frame and know that we are providing the foundation for changes that may be decades, even centuries ahead, changes that we may never see but that will benefit our grandchildren? Can we believe that if we ourselves overcome the consciousness of division, separation and domination that perhaps our grandchildren will know a more peaceful, balanced, inclusive and compassionate world? This belief is what inspires my work.