Thealogy

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Thealogy is literally the study of the Goddess (Greek θεά, thea, "goddess" + λόγος, logos, "study"). In 1993, Charlotte Caron's definition of thealogy as "reflection on the divine in feminine and feminist terms" appeared, but the term actually originates in the writings of Isaac Bonewits in 1974.

Table of contents
1 First Uses
2 Definition by Charlotte Caron
3 Three interpretations of thealogy
4 Reciprocal paradigmatic dominance?
5 Linguistic twiddling
6 References

First Uses

First(?) usage

In "The Druid Chronicles (Evolved)," privately published in 1974 c.e., Isaac Bonewits used "thealogian" to refer to a Wiccan author (Aidan Kelly, aka "C. Taliesin Edwards," who may have given him the term or vice versa) and "theilogy" (defined as "the study of more than one God"). Bonewits also used "theilogy" (and possibly "thealogy," since he coined them at the same time) in the pages of the widely-distributed "Gnostica" magazine he edited in 1974 and 1975.

In 1976, Valerie Saiving, ending her "Androcentrism in Religious Studies" made a much quoted invocation that similarly yearns towards something as yet undefined "it is just possible that the unheard testimony of that half of the human species which has for so long been rendered inarticulate may have something to tell us about the holy which we have not known - something which can finally make us whole." (Saiving 1976:197)

Second(?) usage

In "The Changing of the Gods" 1979:96, Naomi Goldenberg selfconsciously introduces the term as a half whimsical possibility, an inspirational comment, not a prelude to exegesis. She does not go on to define what thealogy might be, other than the implicit femininity of the coinage. This lack was perhaps because at that time the very assertion of a serious feminist analysis of religion was virtually unheard of, and the introduction of the concept was an excitingly powerful, but vague, possibility.

This is not to say that both Goldenberg and Saiving do not both offer extremely solid chunks of thealogy, but they do not give an overview of something to which they were midwives.

Bonewits again

Also in 1979, in the first revised edition of "Real Magic," Bonewits defined "thealogy" in his Glossary thusly: "Intellectual speculations concerning the nature of the Goddess and Her relations to the world in general and humans in particular; rational explanations of religious doctrines, practices and beliefs, which may or may not bear any connection to any religion as actually conceived and practiced by the majority of its members." While the last clause was his editorializing, the majority of the definition was adapted by removing sexist assumptions from a dictionary then in his library. Also in the same glossary, he defined "theology" and "theoilogy" (spelled correctly this time) with nearly identical words, changing the pronouns appropriately. He has since dropped the use of "theoilogy" in favor of "polytheology," also first published by him in the 1974 "Druid Chronicles."

He now (2003 c.e.) points out that "thealogy" is an obvious coinage that may have been invented many times, and that feminist scholars are unlikely to have been familiar with his writings.

Growing usage by Carol Christ and Ursula King

Carol Christ used the term more substantially in "Laughter of Aphrodite" 1987.

In 1989 Ursula King notes its growing usage as a fundamental departure from traditional male-oriented theology, characterised by its privileging of symbols over rational explanation. She chronicles sympathetically that "most writing on the Goddess, when not historical, is either inspirational or devotional, and a systematically ordered body of thought, even with reference to symbols, is only slowly coming into existence." (1989:126-127)

Definition by Charlotte Caron

In 1993 Charlotte Caron's definition of thealogy as "reflection on the divine in feminine and feminist terms" appeared in "To Make and Make Again" (quoted from Russell & Clarkson 1996). By this time the concept had gained considerable (though conventionally marginal) status, broadly analogous to Ruether's view of radical feminist theology as opposed to reformist feminist theology.

Melissa Raphael's view

In 1997 Melissa Raphael gave us "Thealogy & Embodiment" which put the usage firmly on the map, and which she sustained in her subsequent "Thealogy: Discourse on the Goddess" (1999?). Together with Carol Christ's "Rebirth of the Goddess" 1997 Raphael's work provides a good start for the "systematically ordered body of thought" King found lacking in 1989.

Three interpretations of thealogy

There are perhaps three distinct interpretations of thealogy, and they are evident in the briefing above.

Theology as Goddess spirituality

Taking the Goddess variant first, and it seems the commonest to the point where thealogy is typically assumed to be purely Goddess based, a linguistic derivation from the Greek "thea" (goddess). Goddess systematics inevitably face the question of "god in a skirt" or not, a subtly sexist tag that nonetheless carries a genuine issue. This can be viewed as sexist because "in a skirt" defines a subject norm as altered, trivialised, and definitely derivative, much as the female has been historically so defined in relation to the male. Thealogy specifically aims to counter the massive dualistic sexism in the field of religion, by asserting a female worldview that is not merely reformist or derivative, so would see this quip as especially destructive.

Even so, as thealogians, we do need to check that we are not replicating theology's weaknesses, and then further adopt vigilance against new abuses a female perspective introduces. A good starting point for this medicinal reflexivity is Daphne Hampson "Theology and Feminism" 1990.

Broad interpretation of thealogy (Caron)

Caron's definition "Reflection on the divine in feminine and feminist terms" holds a much needed caution for feminist theologians and thealogians alike that the female sacred extends way beyond the feminist agenda. Far too often feminist theology/ thealogy writes as if the Goddess is a feminist discovery. The "womenspirit" Goddess is a highly selected deity who for thealogians such as Christ has nothing to do with goddess practices such as violent sacrifice, or validating a male conqueror. This is as inauthentic as the habit of some Christians of disowning the Inquisition as "not done by real Christians."

Nor is it a matter only of past history: many members of a huge international organisation like the Fellowship of Isis would not identify as feminist, nor would a great many Pagans. Outside the goddessing of western NRMs thealogy can recognise and give due respect to the world millions in village and tribal religions who look to goddesses in ways that may or may not be feminist, and Caron's definition allows thealogy to be this widely inclusive. To be a modern priestess is to be part of a colossal multifaceted culture, not all of which is pretty but is still undeniably goddess culture.

"Reflection on the divine" leads off and opens up any field of philosophy desired. If thealogy must tether tightly to female deity/ies then great swathes of ethics, politics, ritualisation, ecology, anthropology, art, music, personal survival techniques and fun, are excluded from it. This is rather like saying that women's scholarly discourse has to stay around menstruation and female psycho-biology as a separate ghetto in human reflections. It unconsciously continues to use the male as template and the female as a person who adds on bits -or subtracts them away. But if thealogy asserts a female worldview, not just a female localview, then we are exploring whatever we damn well please around the divine, with female eyes, maps, torches and feet.

This broader view accords well with the kind of fluid systematics profiled by Cynthia Eller when she reports her respondent Margaret Keane as saying "'I don't make those kind of distinctions that you hear about, they don't make any sense to me. You can say it's the Great Goddess, and that's the one Goddess, but she's also all of the many goddesses, and that's true. And she's everywhere. She's immanent in everything, in the sparkle of the sun on the sea, and even in an animistic concept. I think certain objects can embody that force and power. So I worship the Great Goddess, and I'm polytheistic and pantheistic and monotheistic too. And I also have a feeling for nature spirits . . .'" (1993 :132-133)

This broader view has most recently been labelled by Michael York as "polymorphic thealogy." His contribution here is most welcome in trying to explain yet again that "Do you venerate one Goddess or many?" is a non-question to a thealogian since it arises from a monotheist worldview and outside that view it is irrelevant.

However Caron's definition falls short of explicitly allowing for male positions in thealogy.

A challenge to androcentrism

The third interpretation of thealogy as an assertion of female sacred worldviews is clearly political. The notes above touch on how this usage aims to counter the deeply established dualistic relegation of female as derivative, making the male the norm: as Daly put it "If God is male, then the male is God."

An illustration of this is the new culture of "women priests." A radical Anglican vicar remarked (personal exchange with writer) that if a woman priest menstruates as she conducts Communion, it's perfectly all right - it doesn't make any difference! He obviously thought this was wonderful; but Dale Spender might mention erasure here.

The issue of essentialism would make this article far too long if covered. It must suffice to say that obviously using a highly gendered term such as thealogy kicks up in all the vexed issues of essentialism. Thealogy talk will not appeal to queer theorists whose perception of gender is highly optionalised. Future trends may well make queer theory increasingly important because of technological adaptation, something most people would currently view with ambivalence.

To a thealogian it is important to explore the female worldview (not only but notably of the sacred) and not be compelled to take off female spectacles when looking at themes beyond female psychobiology. A speaker may choose to adopt a kind of gender neutral stance insofar as she can, or she may try to empathise with a male worldview, and a male speaker vice versa. We can insist on all these as options.

Nor need the dominant androcentrism be replaced with gynocentrism; if minority subcultures practice either they are unlikely to take over human history. It is only the dominance of either one that restricts human options. Thankfully many people vote with their feet (and other parts) stubbornly opting for heterosexuality, its attendant reproduction or just friendship across genders.

Reciprocal paradigmatic dominance?

A reciprocal paradigmatic dominance could provide peace. That is, to find it unsurprising and to a certain extent acceptable, if a male theologian is androcentric. Rather than the distinctly pejorative meaning androcentrism has acquired in feminist academia, it could just indicate looking (at the divine) with male eyes. In return though he would be expected to accept gynocentric habits by a female thealogian, or her supportive male colleague. The trouble is not androcentrism or gynocentrism, but hegemony (Gramsci), the unsaid, taken for granted that exerts overwhelming reality control. If we acknowledge our standpoint openly, then any hegemony's strongest anchor is uprooted.

In this reciprocal paradigmatic dominance, there needs to be room for when men operate within the female worldview, and vice versa. So for example, at the second UK Colloquium in Goddess Studies March 2000 it was delightful that three out of ten of the participating scholars wished to address men's position in thealogy (two men and one woman). The adoption of a subordinate, supportive/ critical position, necessarily examining their vulnerability and potential abuse of power within thealogy, by a member of the socially dominant gender, is clearly rich in potential. The complexity and creativity of many Pagan men deserves mention also; their ability to accept the authority of priestesses self selects them as significantly mature in the gender domain (where they **do** accept female authority in more than lip service!).

Linguistic twiddling

Many scholars find the term "thealogy" exasperating, a linguistic twiddling, including some feminist theologians. But the position of women operating within the male worldview of theology, as in most of Feminist theology, is far more marginal than in the general run of professional occupations these days. The rigidly entrenched sexism in the contemporary academy, recalls situations of general Women's Liberation in 1972, rather than society 30 years later (see recent research studies Ofsted UK). It is highly premature to speak of relinquishing any piece of turf to neutrality, whether physical or metaphorical, that women (and supportive men) have gained in the study of religions or indeed elsewhere.

Theology is still overwhelmingly structured by a limited form of masculinity, that does not do justice to men anyway, let alone women. Just as advertisers know that to give us the illusion of "equal presence" they must display 3 men to 2 women - if numbers are equal we perceive it as a female majority! we cannot act as equals where the odds are already stacked. To a thealogian, using the female pronoun, and not using the medieval scholars' incorrect Latin of (vir) man/men to mean (homo) humans, not only ensures female humans are visible and voiced, but invites male humans to recognise their own necessarily gendered worldview. So does "thealogy".

References


See also Goddess, Goddess Worship, Feminist theology



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