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The Election, the Culture War and the Feminine, Divine and Otherwise

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

Women and the feminine were a major but not decisive thread in the presidential campaign that elected Donald Trump Nov 8. Not only was his behavior and words regarding women execrable, he was running against one. In terms of the popular vote, she won. In terms of the electoral vote, which gives the advantage to small rural states because they elect two Senators and so have two additional votes no matter how tiny their population, she lost. More specifically, Clinton won in the cities and lost in rural areas. She won the most votes but not in the countryside.

And the nature of this difference is a clue to one of the most important long term trends this election revealed.

In the 1960s feminism arose again as a search for equal rights between men and women. Put in a man's terms, feminists initially claimed a woman could be as good as a man. The movement soon expanded into what is called cultural feminism: a woman could be as good as a man, but why should she? Feminine values were already equal to masculine values. In the history of feminism this was new as a increasingly prominent theme.

Feminism's personal and cultural currents soon moved into religion, encouraging often successful efforts by women to become ministers, rabbis, and priests, while some women and men began asking whether the divine possessed feminine qualities not recognized in traditional Western conceptions of a masculine God. Starhawk's writings played a vital role here, far beyond the circle of American Pagans. By the late 1990s, theologian Marcus Borg could observe religious feminism was “the single most important development of theology in my lifetime.” (The God We Never Knew, p. 70)

These challenges to patriarchy and domination by masculine values provoked a backlash its advocates call a “culture war” and its opponents a “war against women.” While this 'war' has many dimensions, their common thread is a deep hostility to feminism and to Spirit's feminine dimension. Terrorists have attacked abortion clinics, doctors and, even family planning centers. These people increasingly described forcing raped women to full parenthood and even the occasional deaths of women in childbirth as preferable to abortion. Their God is not just masculine, He is brutally, pathologically so.

The culture war penetrates to the core of how we view our relationship to the Sacred: either as characterized by immanence and connection, or by transcendence and distance. The first emphasizes a widely distributed value and sacredness within the world, the second hierarchy and obedience.

Those advocating “traditional religion” and the values it praises continually claim moral superiority to more liberal and feminist religion and values. They claim these outlooks will ultimately degenerate into licentiousness and violence. And yet studies of divorce and murder rates, or the prevalence of poor child care, reveal these problems are most prominent in regions and nations most associated with masculine values and patriarchal religion! Secular nations and regions do better. The traditional religious claim it improves human behavior is demonstrably not true in this case.

In the election just passed, proponents of “traditional religion” again demonstrated their moral nihilism. If judged on traditional moral grounds, Donald Trump would be a failure. Lies, fraud, adultery, associations with organized crime, ripping off the smaller and weaker who were unwise enough to do business with him, have colored his life. There is not one deed I can remember reading about where Trump did something praiseworthy on his own initiative. A rat demonstrates greater ethical capacity.

And America's 'traditional religious leaders,' most of them, endorsed him. This is very strange because the hypocrisy and worse is not even white washed in many cases.

What is happening? We are in the midst of what may be one of the greatest cultural shifts in human history. It is related to the masculine and feminine particularly the role they play with respect to boundaries.

Masculine, Feminine and Boundaries

Along with their obvious connection to gender, the concepts “masculine” and “feminine” take different approaches to boundaries. Masculine images assert, affirm, strengthen, and protect boundaries. The feminine opens, weakens, questions, and blurs boundaries. Both are essential dimensions of embodied life and any society needs to express them both at least to some degree.

Western civilization has long emphasized the superiority of masculine values, including maintaining strong boundaries in everything. There are clear distinctions between the sexes, between one individual and another, between individuals and their environment, between communities, between what I own and what you own, between good and bad, and between the Sacred and secular. The West is not alone in this bias, but has emphasized it more than many.

Feminism challenged the adequacy of these values and perceptions. Consider the transformation of marriage within the lifetimes of some people still with us. It was not that long ago that interracial marriage was illegal in many states. Today a majority of Americans support gay marriage. The strongest arguments on its behalf emphasize love as a central reason for being married. Marriage for love rather than to serve political and familial roles was probably the first major penetration of feminine values into a core Western institution. To the extent love entered in, social boundaries weakened. What followed has been a gradual unfolding of this transformation's implications.

The increasing disconnect between the modern world and the primacy of masculine values has also been developing within other dimensions of modern life.

Sciences that blur or deny formerly obvious distinctions characterize the growth of modern knowledge. Galileo abolished the distinction between the earth and heavens. Darwin did the same for that between humanity and nature. Ecology, the science of intricately interdependent biological and environmental relationships also originated in the 19th century. It is no accident that evolution and ecology, two sciences emphasizing interconnectedness and porous boundaries, are particularly loathed by culture warriors and the right wing in general.

Biologists now know individuality emerges from a biological multiplicity that never disappears. What it means to be an organism has been transformed. Even individual people are increasingly described as “ecosystems” or “super-organisms.” A few decades ago the new science of epigenetics demonstrated the long debated question of nature vs. nurture was in error, for nature and nurture are bound together in an intimate two-way dance, making possible what neither could manifest in its own.

Nor is biology alone. Newtonian physics assumed a world of mechanically connected and clearly bounded phenomena, a picture perfectly fitting the image of a deity transcendent to the world. Einstein discovered energy and matter are ultimately the same. Boundaries became contextual and mechanism abandoned as a description of reality. Quantum physics undermined traditional views even more. For example, scientists discovered the existence of instantaneous influences, something impossible if the speed of light defines the ultimate limits on connection.

The “Gaia Hypothesis” that the earth itself, or at least its biosphere, can be understood as a living entity, caught the public's imagination. It spoke to a deeply felt need for connection with where we call home. Spiritual interpretations of its insights led to rethinking “Mother Earth” as being more than a metaphor. Our growing awareness of our interconnectedness legitimated spiritual insights emphasizing immanence within the world over transcendence to it.

A profound disjunction is dividing the heart of American culture. Trump's campaign, much of it, emphasized this from the standpoint of the old. The intense distrust of different cultures and religions reflects his obsession with strengthening boundaries, as does his nonsense about a wall between us and Mexico. Significantly there is nothing very constructive about this obsession with strengthening boundaries. That is because the trdition he represents no longer is compatible with science, moraliyy, or human well-being.

A new Axial age

I believe we are in the first centuries of a transformation of humanity's cultural and religious sensibilities to address the rise of a third great way of life, one rooted in cities, technology, and science. The core problems facing us are increasingly ones of connection and coping with permeable boundaries, from global warming to the rise of a world-wide increasingly integrated culture were differences must be harmonized rather than ignored or placed in hierarchical relations to one another. These changes are as deep as when agriculture replaced hunting and gathering cultures.

Many scholars and theologians describe the period from the 8th to 3rd century BCE, the foundations of today's dominant religions were established as the “Axial Age.” It was then that these religious traditions arose within or on the edges of agricultural empires characterized by extremes of hierarchy, rigidity of roles, and viewing nature as unreliable and needing control. Most people were miserable, and the most spiritually sensitive among them recognized something was deeply wrong. The new religious teachings focused on addressing people's suffering in societies rooted in the domination of some by others. They taught ways for transcending life's misery and tragedy through salvation, enlightenment, or other kinds of usually personal liberation. As these religions became institutionalized they took on rigidly patriarchal values their founders had sometimes questioned, but their focus on personal liberation or salvation remained. Religion made its peace with the dominant culture even as it sought to address the spiritual and moral problems within it.

The 19th and 20th centuries brought about the defeat of this kind of civilization by one rooted in technology, cities, and a degree of equality inconceivable in societies based on slavery and serfdom. Where these new cultures established themselves circumstances for most people were transformed. The poor became a minority group who could look forward to continued future improvement. Plenty of suffering remained, but was buffered by hope in the future. With this change came a progressive disconnection between inherited religions and the new conditions rising around them.

New values and the conditions generating them conflicted with a one sidedly masculine culture and were more in keeping with feminine perspectives, not just in terms of gender equality, but universally. Looking back over 250 years or more, we can see this pattern clearly.

It is no accident the values growing within this transformation are feminine ones. It is also no accident that feminism, religions open to the sacred feminine, and concern with the environment as a good in itself and not just a resource for human exploitation are strongest in cities and the regions most influenced by them culturally. Here the role of women is being continually enhanced and the sacred feminine has become a common element within many mainstream religions. In those parts of the country least transformed by these changes the old order seeks to survive and destroy the new.

The election

The Republicans represent this old order. They have been obsessively dismissive of treating women with respect. Trump's two most public figures for a new administration are Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani, not just adulterers, but unusually cruel and uncaring ones. Trump himself is almost certainly a habitual sexual predator. And these men did not lack of rank and file supporters, men and women alike, who shared their biases.

By contrast, among the Democrats who won are three new Senators who are women, and even women 'of color' (more blurred boundaries) . New CA Senator Kamala Harris is part East Indian and Black. Catherine Cortez-Masto is the first Latina Senator, and is from Nevada. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois is the first Thai-American Senator. Kate Brown is now the elected Governor of Oregon and is openly bisexual. All have their political roots in cities. The outlines of this new more feminine and woman respecting culture are far more humane than those of the old it is seeking to replace, which can no longer offer a positive vision for most people.

At this time when the worst of our society is in power we need to remember their opponents receives a significant majority of the votes, Democrats running for Senate received more votes than their right wing opponents. Very likely the same is true for the House as it was two years ago. The center of gravity has left the old order and cheating, voter suppression, and the dis-proportionate power of small rural states are all that perpetuate it now.

Any new birth is painful. One bringing forth a new society will certainly have its very rough times. But we Pagans can take great satisfaction, most of us, in playing a constructive part well out of proportion to our numbers in it's coming to be. Hopefully it will not be aborted, but if it is, the old order is incapable of putting anything of value in its place, as is demonstrated by the moral nihilism of its leaders. They have nothing constructive to offer the future, which is why they primarily engage in character assassination. It will be a rough four years, but not hopeless ones.

(I urge anyone interested in probing more deeply into this issue to read my Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine.)

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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Wednesday, 23 November 2016

    I'm slowly making my way through "The Coming of the Cosmic Christ" by Matthew Fox. He writes a lot about mysticism and the divine feminine.

  • J'Karrah
    J'Karrah Thursday, 24 November 2016

    Fascinating article. Thank you :)

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