Abortion: Its Theological Problem (and Goddess solution)

Thank God for the recent SCOTUS decision to effectively repeal Roe.

I say that not because I think the decision was correct. It wasn’t. I say it because Dobbs vs. Jackson has pinpointed the fundamental source of national polarization not only on the issue of abortion, but on climate change and war as well.

And that source was not correctly identified by Bill Clinton’s phrase (borrowed from James Carville) “it’s the economy, stupid.” Rather, the source of national polarization is not economics, politics, or constitutional law. It’s theology. Yes, theology! And until what passes for the “left” in this country takes that bull by the horns, it is doomed to impotence in the face of the religiously driven right-wing juggernaut that triumphed with Dobbs.

What that decision made clear is that the victorious “pro-life” position is based fundamentally on theological grounds that can only be described as patriarchal. Its foundations are abstract, divorced from life, and ignorant of the experience of those centrally involved in the question, viz., women.

Meanwhile, left-wing “pro-choicers” seem too “sophisticated” to respond in kind within an American context where people are basically religious and have been tricked into accepting mansplained theological reasoning about abortion. I mean, the left has proven strangely reluctant to engage its opponents on that powerful contested spiritual terrain.

What I’m arguing here is that the means for doing so is readily available in a highly developed feminist theology that is much more persuasive, older, comprehensive, and venerable than its more recently developed patriarchal counterpart. It’s the theology of the earth consistently embraced by our ancient ancestors and by indigenous people across the planet. (The latter btw, are not reluctant to address issues in theological terms.)

The theology in question has perhaps been best described by Monica Sjöö’s and Barbara Mors splendid 500-page volume, The Great Cosmic Mother. It’s the religion of the earth explained there that can save the day for humanity and our planet.  

To show what I mean, let me begin by sharing The Great Cosmic Mother’s contrast between matricentric and patriarchal religions in general. Secondly, I’ll compare matricentric insights about abortion with their patriarchal counterparts. Thirdly, I’ll show how those insights are essentially theological. My conclusion will suggest profound changes in the ways we speak about or ignore the spiritual dimensions of our lives.    

The Religion of the Earth

By “The Religion of the Earth” Sjöö, Mor, and other feminist historians refer to the first religions of the human species which for 30,000 years centered on Goddess worship.

That’s right. Widespread archeological discoveries of detailed goddess statues indicate conclusively that the supreme gods who reigned for most of human history’s concern with religion have been female. Under such dispensation, wise women functioned as community leaders, priestesses, counsellors, midwives, and healers. For millennia, they were humankind’s principal decision-makers.

Accordingly, worship for those 30,000 years celebrated “Mother Earth” with her abundant life-giving powers, as well as natural processes influenced by the moon, ocean tides, and seasonal changes.

Such emphasis also centralized life mysteries unique to women and completely foreign to male experience – the menstrual cycle, conception, gestation, birthing, nursing, contraception, and abortion. Obviously, men have only second-hand knowledge of such processes that largely shape female experience so central to propagation of the species.

So, Goddess religions emphasized female autonomy, male discipleship, the unity of all creation and the knowledge and insight available through the uniquely feminine avenues just listed. Wisdom came to women as well through peer interaction, prayer, contemplation, meditation, ecstatic dance, music, chants, spells, rituals, and female intuition.

Patriarchal Religion

Then about 12,000 years ago (coincident with the development of agriculture) worship of the Great Cosmic Mother was gradually replaced by patriarchal religion. Particularly in the west, the reigning Father God came to replace Mother Earth and women’s “religion of the earth.” Patriarchal religion centered on law, animal and human sacrifice, logic, competition, war, and commercial exchange.

In its Judeo-Christian incarnation, the single Deity (Yahweh) was emphatically male. He replaced Mother Earth with her loving maternal instincts and mysterious natural cycles characterized by predictability, lavish abundance, prodigality, plenty, generosity, sharing, mercy, and forgiveness. Her place was taken by a patriarchal lawgiver and judge who condemned, punished, blamed, and tortured.  

Even beyond that, women and their cosmic faith came to be vilified by the new religion as irrational, and as superstitious. Women spiritual leaders — those wise community leaders, priestesses, counsellors, midwives, and healers – fell from grace and were viciously persecuted by vindictive priests as witches and agents of evil spirits.

The religion of the earth with those wise priestesses was forced to go underground. But the patriarchal Inquisition and its Puritan counterparts hunted them down relentlessly – eventually killing as many as 9 million accused witches over a period of 300 years (1450-1750). Obviously, this “women’s holocaust” represented the most extreme attempts to control women and their bodies and to deny their traditional roles as expressions of the divine.

Under this new dispensation, celibate male priests within the Catholic Church (presumably without any experience of women’s sexuality) assumed the role of dictating a predominantly sex-based morality. In this context, the celibate clergy saw women as temptresses. Female bodies and wiles sinfully incited otherwise holy men reluctantly suppressing their own sexual urges and those of others both male and female.

In line with such blatant sexism, priests outlawed extra marital sexual pleasure. They declared that the only valid reason for sexual intercourse was the begetting of children. Consequently, women’s attempts to control their bodies, destinies, and family sizes through their traditional practices of contraception and abortion were classified as evil and warranting eternal punishment with everlasting torture. In particular, the traditional abortion practices of women’s earth religion came to be seen as criminal and even homicidal.

Goddess Religion & Abortion

And what were those practices? How were they justified? Though by no means the focus of their book, here is what Sjöö and Mor have to say about abortion:

  • Matricentric cultures considered life as a continuous divinely spiraled (vs. straight line) process with both repetitions and ascendent progress. It is a mystery from which human beings emerge.
  • For women-led societies, human life did not begin when sperm fertilized egg. In fact, in no way was life considered to emerge from humans. Instead, humans were thought to emerge from Life’s incredibly abundant, prodigal, and even wasteful profusion. [For instance, each month of their existence women who do not become pregnant send down the drain an egg with incredible life potential. Similarly, each male ejaculation “wastes” about 2 million sperm. Moreover, 10-20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage – not to mention unknown pregnancies. Put otherwise, prodigality, abundance, and spontaneous abortion somehow constitute nature’s way (387).]  
  • Amid such prodigality, the first law of matricentric cultures was that women must control their own bodies (200).
  • Consequently, questions of abortion were traditionally considered outside the realm of masculine competence. They were none of men’s business. This was because questions of pregnancy or nonpregnancy found no analogy within the experience of men who could never become pregnant, gestate fetuses, give birth, or have abortions (385).
  • Clearly, women in ancient times didn’t (as they still don’t) always want children.
  • So, under matricentric arrangements, female intuition decided the time to be pregnant or not as well as whether to bring pregnancies to term (385).
  • With women in charge of their bodies, they developed herbal contraceptives and abortifacients (200). [The earliest discovered recipes for abortion date from around 2700 BCE (203).]
  • During the time of Spanish colonization of the Americas, indigenous women even practiced abortion to rob the imperialists of “Indian” slave labor (206).
  • Tribes that practiced abortion and even infanticide (far from considering such practices homicidal) were instead convinced that the spirit of the dead child returned to the earth womb to await a new birth – when the time was right for its mother (201). As expressed by Sjöö and Mor, “What has come once – when the time is wrong – can come once again when the time is right” (388).

Patriarchy & Abortion

Now, contrast this matricentric approach to life and abortion with that of the rather newly arrived patriarchy. As described by the authors of The Great Cosmic Mother, celibate priests, and theologians, along with the male-dominated fields of philosophy and logic made the following highly theoretical and unproveable assumptions:

  • Morality is determined not by human experience or nature, but by sacred scripture, abstract logic, law and by mostly pre-scientific theology interpreted by those (often celibate and gynophobic) men particularly obsessed with questions related to sex (165).
  • Ultimately, decisions about pregnancy lie in the hands of an off-planet divine patriarch rather than in those of a female co-creator. A divine Chess Master above the earth decides when to “ensoul” or not a human zygote. (According to Thomas Aquinas, males received souls 40 days after conception; females, 40 days later than that.) The Great Patriarch’s decision is final in all cases.
  • On this understanding, women are seen as quasi machines or nests– receptive objects rather than actively contributing to the process as autonomous decision-making subjects (365).
  • History moves in a straight line. Far from being spiral in nature with repetitions along with ascendent progress, it has a beginning and an end.
  • Individual lives are similarly linear and unrepeatable.
  • Consequently, each fertilized egg represents from the moment of conception a unique individual, which if aborted is forever lost to the world, humanity, and history. Her or his God-determined destiny remains eternally frustrated.
  • Therefore, human interference in processes of pregnancy is immoral and (depending on the time of intervention) can even be considered murderous.

Theological Differences

As evident from the above side-by-side comparisons of matricentric and patriarchal approaches to abortion, resolution of the question at hand comes down to theologies describing the nature of God, the direction of history, and autonomous human individuality. None of these considerations is subject to definitive demonstration or proof. They are matters of faith.

Or as Sjöö and Mor put it: “The fundamentalist Protestant and Catholic anti-abortionists are following the ways and dictates of their God. The rudimentary question remains: Is their God the God?”

And where in a pluralistic society do atheists fit in – or citizens whose religious faith locates the beginning of personal life at the stage of viability outside the life support system provided by its mother’s body, or at a baby’s exit from the womb, or (as in some tribal cultures) after the child is painted to distinguish it from the animals?

Again, in a pluralistic culture, why privilege one unproveable faith- based interpretation over all those other ways of understanding the beginnings of personal life?

Sjöö and Mor argue that such questions of faith disappear if matters of pregnancy and abortion are understood within the context of the Great Cosmic Mother’s “religion of the earth.”

There, women whose very monthly processes mirror those of the seasons, moon phases, and tides, are granted overriding insights, intuitions, and understandings about their unique processes inaccessible to the men whose patriarchal pronouncements would explain, invalidate and govern them.     

In specifically theological perspective, proponents of the reemergent goddess religion add: “If God is seen as female, the problem of abortion does not exist. The entire question of sex, pregnancy, birth control – and even abortion – undergoes an ontological somersault, a revolution of basic terms”

Conclusion

This article has been about abortion. It has argued that solving its dilemmas begins with recognizing their roots in patriarchy and patriarchy’s God.

The same argument could be made about climate change and the threat of nuclear war. In all three cases, the problem is the relatively recent arrival of a world governed by men (patriarchy).

Theologically speaking, man’s world has been grounded in the worship of a God divorced from life’s most basic processes. Fundamentally, patriarchy’s God is a war deity. He legislates, judges, condemns, and punishes. He is a God of fear. He has been used as a tool to persuade the politically, economically, and historically illiterate to endorse patriarchy’s omnicidal agenda.

[Think about it. It is men who run a world economy that is irreversibly destroying the planet. It is male politicians, generals, and CEOs (aided by the relatively few women admitted to their clubs) who have developed and currently threaten the world with nuclear destruction. It is men, not women who are the planet’s principal rapists, child abusers, mass shooters – and clergy. And the latter’s misogynist theology is unconsciously rooted in a 12,000-year-long battle against The Great Cosmic Mother.]

By contrast The Great Cosmic Mother herself embodies life’s rich abundance, generosity, extravagance, and prodigality. She welcomes humans as co-creators with Life’s Source. She is the Ground of life’s cycles and rhythms. Those rhythms assure that what has come once – when the time is wrong – can come once again when the time is right. The Great Cosmic Mother could never endorse her own matricide whether by climate change or war of any kind, nuclear or not.

And it is women spiritual leaders who are most in touch with her. These are the guides who must replace the male priests, pastors, imams, rabbis – and presidents. And (in American culture) they have names such as Louise Hay, Liz Theoharis, Caroline Myss, Monica Sjöö, Barbara Mor – and Marianne Williamson. Their theology is earthy, experiential, eminently practical, and expresses the insights of those whose lives are deeply connected with earth’s rhythms in ways the patriarchal order has proven incapable of understanding.

What I’m suggesting is that it is high time to overcome “sophisticated” reluctance to recognize such truths and leaders. It is far past time for churches to debunk the modern patriarchal God in favor of the ancient Great Cosmic Mother who frees from patriarchal laws, empowers humans as co-creators, forgives, appreciates, and rewards.

Fundamentally, our problems are not economic, political, or ideological. The left needs the courage to recognize and profess that faith. Only The Great Cosmic Mother can save us now.

Sorry, Mr. Clinton, it’s not the economy. It’s the theology.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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