Carol P. Christ.  Photo: Carol P. Christ

Goddess and God in the World, a new book by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow will be published in summer 2016.

Womanspirit Rising included Rita Gross's article "Female God-Language in a Jewish Context."

Pitcher Goddess Mochlos. Photo: Carol P. Christ.

Prepalatial bird pitcher. Photo: Carol P. Christ.

Friendships That Nourish Lives:

In Memory of Rita M. Gross 1943-2015

by Carol P. Christ

 

When Rita Gross visited me in Lesbos two summers ago, we spent many long hours discussing our lives and work. Rita and I met at the Conference of Women Theologians at Alverno College in June, 1971 when we were young women. We did not know it then, but our lives would continue to be intertwined through our common interests, first in the Women and Religion section of the American Academy of Religion, and then through our work on Goddesses and feminist theology.

 

When we first met, Rita was a convert to Judaism working on her dissertation on Australian Aboriginal women’s religious lives, and I was a Christian about to begin a dissertation on Elie Wiesel’s stories that would lead me to express my own anger at God.

 

In the ensuing years, Rita would leave Judaism for Buddhism, and I would leave Christianity for Goddess feminism. These decisions helped to cement a bond between us, especially when we found ourselves increasingly isolated as Christian hegemony came to the fore in the field we had helped to create. Our shared belief that women need the Goddess in order to claim the full humanity of our minds and bodies was uppermost in our conversations in the days when to make such a claim was profoundly threatening, even to other feminists.

 

When we discussed our religious differences, I asked Rita why she felt the need to become part of a religious tradition that seemed to me to be patriarchal. Rita asked me why I wanted to set myself afloat with no anchor, if traditions such as Buddhism could provide important guidance in the feminist spiritual quest.

 

I can report that, despite the fact that our work is not always recognized as it should be in our field, Rita and I both felt very proud of what we had achieved. Rita was particularly pleased that she had been named a Lopon or Senior Teacher by a female Rinpoche. This honor went a long way towards making up for the fact that she had never been offered a prestigious position in the field of religion. We expressed the hope or perhaps conviction that one day the influence of our work would prove our academic colleagues wrong.

 

We probed the differences between Rita’s nondualism and my view that a compassionate and caring deity is in relation to all finite individuals in the world. Rita affirmed that human beings need symbols of deity or deities, while insisting that the notion that any separate individuals “really exist” is false. I replied that though I had become “a kind of a Buddhist” insofar as I had come a long way toward renouncing the false ego(tism) that Buddhism describes. I accept my finitude and do not fear death.  Rita responded that being “a kind of a Buddhist” is not the same thing as being a real Buddhist who practices meditation every day.

 

A central insight of Buddhism is the concept of “dependent origination.” This means that “no thing” exists in and of itself:  “all things” are related to and dependent upon “other things.” One of the key assumptions of western philosophy is that “things” exist in and of themselves: all things have a single, unchangeable “essence” or “nature.” Buddhism considers this assumption to be false: if all things are dependent on other things, then they cannot finally be separated from the web of dependence in which they exist. Buddhism insists, moreover, that the interdependent world is in flux. This means that what a thing-in-relationship is in one moment changes in the next.

 

Process philosophers, among whom I count myself, recognize that Buddhism affirms a central truth that western philosophy has denied: the truth that life is in flux and that no individual exists apart from or independent of others. While agreeing on this fundamental insight, Buddhism and process philosophy provide different explanations of the ultimate nature of reality.

 

Buddhist nondualism asserts that because there are no “separate” individuals, the notion that individuals exist at all is an illusion. Ultimately all is one, not two, not many. For process philosophy reality is always dual or multiple.  Agreeing that there are no “separate” individuals, it affirms the reality of “individuals in relationship.” Individuals in relationship have no permanent “essence” for they are always changing.

 

Process philosophy also affirms a divine individual who is always in relationship to the world or to a world. For process philosophy, the divine individual changes with the changing world, yet maintains an essential character that is good, loving, caring, and compassionate. While all other individuals are finite, the divine individual is eternal. This view coheres with my experience that a divine individual I experience as Goddess is always with me and with all others, as close to me as my own breath: loving and understanding me, inspiring me to love and understand the world more deeply.

 

Buddhism states that accepting dependence, finitude, and individual death is a struggle that can be aided and possibly achieved only through a lifelong (or many lives-long) practice of meditation. Buddhism suggests that it is very difficult for individuals to give up the desire to have and to hold onto people and things--most especially to the idea of an on-going self or ego. Buddhism teaches that this world is samsara, the cycle of birth and death, and equates samsara with suffering.

 

The reason I am only a “kind of a Buddhist” is that, insofar as I understand Buddhism, I find its view of samsara, the world in which birth and death occur, to be overly negative or pessimistic. I agree that suffering occurs in the world of birth and death. I agree that much of the suffering that human beings experience stems from our desires to hold onto things or states of reality that are always changing. I agree that one way to suffer less is to recognize that we cannot ever hold onto things or states of reality that are always in flux. I also agree that it is important to give up the self-centered ego that imagines that the world was created to satisfy “my” desires.

 

While I do not believe that suffering can ever be “overcome” in a finite and ever-changing world, I continue to find a great deal of joy in finite, ever-changing life. While impermanent, this joy is nonetheless real. My version of Goddess spirituality, which I understand to be based in the worldview of Old Europe that was expressed in ancient Crete, celebrates “the joy of life” that is shared throughout the web of life. This worldview recognizes and accepts birth, death, and regeneration as fundamental principles that underlie life in an interdependent world.

 

For me, the notion of samsara, as birth and death, is incomplete. Death is not the end, for there is always regeneration. I do not expect my individual life to continue after my death, but I find great meaning and joy in the recognition that life will continue after me. I do not find the thought of my own inevitable death frightening or terrifying. Understanding that my life is finite, I am prepared for the moment when “my time is up,” and I feel quite prepared willing to step aside “when that time comes,” so that others may take my place in the cycle of life. I do not believe that accepting the moment of my own inevitable death will be a great struggle. I have already accepted it.

 

As I stated in She Who Changes, I view all religions of renunciation as being based in matricide. Religions of renunciation claim that birth through the body of a mother into a finite and changing world “just isn’t good enough.” They offer a second spiritual birth or rebirth, usually based on following the life or teachings a wise man.

 

When I stated these views, Rita responded that I didn’t fully understand Buddhism, and that unless I meditated, I probably never would. On these matters, we agreed to disagree.

 

Rita and I also discussed our disappointment that, like many other strong, intelligent, and successful women in our time, neither of us had found a life partner. We remarked that we had both created beautiful homes and gardens that nurtured us and would not want to live without animal companionship. We concluded, laughing and clicking wine glasses, that “you can’t have everything,” adding that on balance we were both quite happy with our lives.

 

I had not been in contact with Rita over the summer and fall of 2015. Thus I was shocked when I learned that she had a massive stroke at the end of October that left her paralyzed and unable to communicate. I was relieved to be told that she had left clear instructions that she did not want to be kept alive in such a state and thus had been returned to her home with hospice care to die in familiar surroundings and in the company of her beloved cats. This is exactly what I would want for myself.

 

As Rita was dying, I was informed that she had entered into an advanced meditative state that would help her to accept the impermanence of life. I said half-jokingly to a mutual friend that I must be a Buddhist after all, because I accept the impermanence of life and do not fear death.

 

As I was preparing Rita’s essay “Buddhism and Feminism: Is Female Rebirth an Obstacle?” for republication on Feminism and Religion, these words leapt off the page:

 

What I am describing is the process of dealing with kleshas (mental states that cloud the mind) as discussed in Mahamudra teachings. One is instructed to focus on troubling emotions, such as grasping or aggression, and to look directly into them without either accepting or rejecting them, thereby liberating their enlightened clarity and energy.

 

Rita insists that anger is a troubling emotion that should not be repressed or expressed, but rather transformed. This insight was helpful to me when I was thinking about the angry Goddesses while writing She Who Changes. I agree with Rita that anger can and should be transformed into enlightened clarity. Like Rita, I have for the most part transformed my anger at the injustices in the world.

 

Yet I am still sometimes unexpectedly hooked by another troubling emotion—my disappointment that I did not find a life partner. I can be caught off-guard by casual, insensitive comments of others. One of my friends likes to tell the story of how she met her husband which concludes, “When you are ready, you find the right person.” “So does that mean I wasn’t ready, or didn’t try hard enough?” I am likely to respond, angrily or with tears welling up in my eyes.

 

The fact that I speak in anger or tears in response to someone else’s story suggests that I need to do some work on a mental state that is clouding my mind. What would happen if I could look into the well of my own pain (most or all of it in the past) without either accepting or rejecting it? What enlightened clarity might come from this? Could I listen to my friend’s story without letting her words trigger my own troubling emotions? This does not mean agreeing with her. I know that my life is not as simple as her story suggests. When the time is right, I can tell my own story. I wish I could email Rita now to share this insight with her. I am sure she would have understood.

 

I conclude with a final memory of our time together in Lesbos. Rita is sitting in the sand as the waves wash over her legs. She is afraid to go any farther. Midwestern girl that she is, this may be her first and only time in the sea. She is smiling like a small child.

 

Carol P. Christ leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Judith Plaskow will be released in August 2016 by Fortress Press, while A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess will be published in the spring of 2016 by FAR Press. This essay is based on two blogs that originally appeared on Feminism and Religion on November 16 and 30, 2016.