Inspired by the Goddess

Carol P. Christ writes about the rebirth of the Goddess, feminism, ecofeminism, feminist theology, societies of peace, and the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete.

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“Immanent Inclusive Monotheism” with a Multiplicity of Symbols Affirming All the Diversity and Difference in the World

I wrote this blog as a contribution to recent discussions of polytheism vs. monotheism on PaganSquare when I noticed several people asserting that "most pagans" are "polytheists."  I do not call myself a polytheist because while I affirm a multiplicity of images, for me they all point to a single divine presence in the world.  I offer the below musings in a spirit of dialogue.  I am interested to hear from those who call themselves "polytheists" whether they are speaking of a plurality of images and stories pointing to a "unity of being" or whether they are also saying that there are a "plurality of (sometimes) conflicting forces" that they would call "divinities."

In Rebirth of the Goddess I noted that monotheists were the ones who defined the term polytheism and wondered if in fact there really were any polytheists in the history of the world. I posed this question because monotheists assert that polytheists not only worship or honor a "diversity of images," but also insist that polytheists believe that there are a "diversity of conflicting and competing powers" in the world.  Monotheists might even go so far as to say that polytheists deny that there is a "unity of being" underlying all of the diversity and difference in the world.

For me the notion that "the world is the body of Goddess" (or divinity) is more primary than multiply elaborated images, names, and stories about divine beings. I am less moved by myths of Goddesses and Gods than I am by images of the Goddess that incorporate plant and animal as well as human qualities. In one sense I am closer to animism than polytheism.  It is the beauty of the world that moves me to reverence.

In recent years monotheism has been attacked as a “totalizing discourse” that justifies the domination of others in the name of a universal truth. In addition, from the Bible to the present day some have used their own definitions of “exclusive monotheism” to disparage the religions of others. Moreover, feminists have come to recognize that monotheism as we know it has been a “male monotheism” that for the most part excludes female symbols and metaphors for God.  With all of this going against monotheism, who would want to affirm it?

In response to some or all of the above critiques, many modern pagans define themselves as polytheists, affirming at minimum, the Goddess and the God, and at maximum a vast pantheon of individual deities, both female and male, from a single culture or from many, including divinities with animal characteristics.  Other pagans define themselves as animists, affirming a plurality of spirits in the natural world.

While also rejecting exclusive monotheism and male monotheism, Jewish poet, ritualist, and theologian Marcia Falk provided a definition of inclusive monotheism that I find compelling.

Monotheism means that, with all our differences, I am more like you than unlike you. It means that we all share the same source, and that one principle of justice must govern us equally.  . . It would seem, then, that the authentic expression of an authentic monotheism is not a singularity of image, but an embracing unity of a multiplicity of images, as many as are needed to express the diversity of our individual lives.*

The notion that there is a unity underlying the multiplicity of life in the universe appeals to me.

tourgoddess redI experience “the Goddess” in multiple ways–as a voice that whispers in my ear, as arms that comfort me in my sleep, as a conscious presence that understands me, and in all the beauty of other human beings, animals, and the whole of the natural world.  I experience the Goddess through a plurality of stories and images—in the small figurines from the Paleolithic and the Neolithic such as the Venus of Willendorf or the ancient Cretan Neolithic Goddess with beaked face and snake-like body pictured here, and in contemporary paintings such as those of Jassy Watson.

I particularly resonate with images that are not exclusively human, but that have bird, snake, or other animal characteristics, because, while I do experience the Goddess as a personal presence, I also experience the world as the body of Goddess. I sometimes joke that I have never found an image of God as male that I like, but I recognize intellectually that the divine power can and must also be imaged as male. I am not interested in reviving any of the male Gods associated with conquest, war, or domination, but I am beginning to open my heart to the Green Man.

At the same time, my favorite prayer song (as I have discussed) is:

As we bless the Source of Life,

            So we are blessed.

While I invoke the Goddess through a multiplicity of images, I also experience all of them pointing to a single Source of Life.  Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas spoke of the powers of birth, death, and regeneration found in all life forms, while my friend Judith Plaskow speaks of a power of creativity that underlies and supports life.**  I experience the powers of birth, death, and regeneration which are found in all creative processes, physical and spiritual, to be grounded in a unity of being that underlies everything.

Jassy Watson, Gaia - Connected from the Cosmos to the Core

Jassy Watson, Gaia – Connected from the Cosmos to the Core

Marcia Falk’s re-creation of Jewish prayers is an expression of what Judith Plaskow and I have defined as the “immanental turn” in feminist theology.  For Falk, God is found “in” the world, not “outside” or “beyond it.”  While in her earlier prayers she invoked the Source of Life as an individual being, in her recent prayers “God” is more and more immanent in the world.

Though Falk does not add the word “immanent” to her term “inclusive monotheism,” I think the “immanental turn” is what can make monotheism inclusive.  If God is understood to be “outside” or “beyond” the world, then it is likely that God will be defined in ways that exclude aspects of the diversity and difference in the world. On the other hand, if Goddess is fully “in” the world, then her images must include all of the diversity and difference in the world.

I suggest that unlike transcendent exclusive monotheism, “immanent inclusive monotheism” is not likely to become the kind of “totalizing discourse” that justifies domination or disparagement of others.

If polytheism and animism also affirm the unity of being behind the diversity and difference of the world, then their difference from immanental inclusive monotheism as I define it here may be matter of semantics*** or of emphasis or degree. What do you think?

*See my Rebirth of the Goddess, 111.

**In our forthcoming book Goddess and God in Light of Feminism.

***In Rebirth of the Goddess I argued that insofar as polytheism was defined by monotheists as a false belief in contrast to their true one, the meanings of both terms need to be rethought.

Published in different form on Feminism and Religion.

Carol P. Christ is author of She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and leads Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete in spring and fall. Space still available on spring 2014 Goddess tour.

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Carol P. Christ is a author of the much-loved books Rebirth of the Goddess, She Who Changes, Weaving the Visions, and Womanspirit Rising, and forthcoming in 2016. Goddess and God in the World and A Serpentine Path. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in spring and fall.


  • Terence P Ward
    Terence P Ward Tuesday, 11 March 2014

    This is a very interesting perspective, and really helps me understand monotheism better. I consider myself a polytheist, because being connected does not equal being the same. You and I come from the same genetic source, and we are incontrovertibly connected, but I do not equate that with you and I being aspects of the same being. Likewise, if it is also true that the gods share a point of origin (and that's an age-old philosophical debate because it's impossible to prove, one way or another), I still do not believe that is the same thing as the gods being aspects of a single being.

    I'm actually perfectly content with paradox here. They may well be discrete entities, and a single One at the same time. They may be neither of those things, but these are the only explanations our meaty brains can imagine. It's not our conception of monotheism or polytheism that has ever caused problems, after all; it's what we've done to force those ideas upon others that is frequently destructive.

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Tuesday, 11 March 2014

    Couldn't agree with you more about the "forcing on others" part. Thanks for sharing your perspective, Terence.

  • Sam Webster
    Sam Webster Tuesday, 11 March 2014

    Generally I concur with your results, but I can't call that monotheism. It's exclusivist history both makes it abhorrent, but also gives it is specificity. It seems as though you are trying to deploy 'monotheism' where 'monism' will do. Monism is the general human intuition of the unity of experience/the world. It is well attested in cultures like the Egyptian and Hindu which have a multitudes of Deities and cults. (and perhaps we can talk about immanence v immediacy another time.)
    Thank you for your work.
    Blessings )O+

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Wednesday, 12 March 2014

    I am a panentheist rather than a monist as I also experience the Goddess as a personal (omni) presence. I am mulling over whether or not to use panentheism rather than inclusive monotheism to denote my view, as I too am very very critical of exclusive monotheism. Thanks for your comment Sam.

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Wednesday, 12 March 2014

    Oh yes, I am also not a monist because I believe that individuals are real and not an illusion as some forms of Hinduism and other monisms imply or state.

  • Sam Webster
    Sam Webster Wednesday, 12 March 2014

    An understandable critique. Can you name other monisms besides the Hindu (re maya) that consider the individual an illusion? Certainly not the Egyptian, or ancient Mesopotamian, or Taoist for instance. Nor even the Buddhist, with their notion of anatman. The 'individual' is not permanent, self existent, nor uncompounded, but has karma producing agency. (I am happy to take this off list if you prefer.) )O+

  • Natalie Reed
    Natalie Reed Wednesday, 12 March 2014

    I must admit that I am a bit on the fence over the whole definition of Polytheist issue. I don't purport to know the answer as to whether all the Gods are One God or truly many seperate entities. And I am not sure it really matters as long as we don't hold our beliefs against each other. As a Druid I tend to turn towards Nature for answers, and I do know this - I am many beings in one. To my children I am Mother, to my husband I am Honey, to my boss I am Natalie, to my friends I am Nat, etc. And if I am able to be so many entities all in one package, I don't see how the Divine cannot be so much more.

  • Francesca De Grandis
    Francesca De Grandis Wednesday, 12 March 2014

    Thanks for the essay and the dialog it engendered.

    Forgive me if my experiences and thoughts are tangential to the discourse here, but for what it is worth:

    I experience Goddess as a distinct being unto Herself, as well as imminent in all things,including myself. Yet, I find myself talking to different gods.

    I have no idea what is real. I only know my various experiences with Divinity go to my bones and, after years of trying to know the facts, I no longer care. All that seems to matters is what I do in the name of the Divine: Am I acting lovingly to Her children?

    In that spirit, one reason I think this discourse a good one is that it might validate someone's path.

    I do not think the concept of one god underling all gods is innately oppressive. Most beliefs—and here I refer to spiritual beliefs in general, not beliefs about the nature of Divinity—can contradict without being invalidating to each other. Not all beliefs can. But many can.

    in those cases, seems to me, mutual support is less a matter of intellectual congruence between the beliefs, and more a matter of listening with one's heart to the essence of someone's belief. When we support the heart, we hear each other and can walk together for the greater good of all.

    I hope I have added one more tiny facet to this many faceted discourse.

    BTW, Daniel Cohen is a long time good friend of mine, and always speaks so highly of you. So it is nice to connect. Blessings on your day.

  • Katy Bailey
    Katy Bailey Wednesday, 12 March 2014

    I believe every religion is right in some way, as people tend to get "results" from each one, if that makes any sense. So it's like no matter how or what we worship, we're essentially all worshiping the "same thing".

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