The following satire piece is further explained by Peter Berger in “A Satirist’s Lament.”
From a lecture given at the Harvard Divinity School by Aglaia Holt, Professor of Wymyns Studies, California State University at Poco.
There still are those who think that religion is on the decline in our time. It is becoming clearer every day how wrong they are. What is on the decline is the tattered residue of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the churches and synagogues, and the desiccated secularism which is the late offspring of that tradition. This particular god is dying if not yet quite dead. But other, more ancient, gods are alive and stirring.
Above all it is she that is on her way, the most ancient of all, the Great Goddess, long believed dead and now filling the sky with the portents of her advent. It is still new, this advent. She was reborn some thirty years ago, appropriately enough in California, where the earth trembles and the mighty fault lines threaten the flimsy cities of modernity. The Romans looked east for the coming of new divinities, to Asia Minor, the vagina deorum. We must look west, to the rim of the vast ocean from which the moon was once ripped, the gigantic wound on the surface of our planet that has become the womb from which its salvation is being born.
One discerns the inner meaning of an age by perceiving how originally disparate trends come together in a new, coherent whole. Looking back over the last few decades, one can see more and more clearly how one movement after another served to undermine the structures of alienation on which Western civilization was built. The California renaissance of the Sixties began as a rebellion against sexual repression, the alienation of humankind from the body and its sacred energies. This liberation from the malignant heritage of the Puritans was an inevitable and necessary first step. The sexual revolution was the starting point of all the other revolutions, each one an assault on the alienation, the separateness, which is the core of Western modernity.
Today this core is being attacked from all sides. The multicultural movement, rooted in the rediscovery of African and Asian experience, is in the process of dethroning the Eurocentrism of our culture. Scholarly feminists are deconstructing the phallocracy that is equally central in this culture. The environmentalist movement, in conjunction with New Age spirituality and the rediscovery of the Native American worldview, is assaulting the arrogant domination of nature that has brought the planet to the brink of ecocatastrophe. The egalitarian and anti-individualist impulses, most recently coming together in the communitarian movement, are putting in question the very notion of hierarchy on which all domination rests, including the domination over the earth by the human race.
Special credit in this new configuration must go to the animal rights movement, because it has had the courage to challenge the idea of human supremacy over all other forms of life. The struggle to protect even so frail a being as the spotted owl against the despoilers of the earth shows how far our consciousness has been raised in these matters. But it is not only animals who have rights. So do trees, and flowers, and the multitude of living organisms that inhabit the endangered wetlands. All life is sacred and must be protected from the ravages of the species ironically titled Homo sapiens. And so, more recently, there has been the revelation of Gaia, the entire earth as a living entity. The Great Goddess has had many names and this is but the latest.
There has also come about a sharper understanding of who is to blame for all this alienation and arrogance. The work of feminist and eco- sensitive thinkers, in theology and philosophy, has made a decisive contribution here. It is above all the Bible that must be blamed! It is no accident that this book begins with a creation story in which the first human (a male, needless to say) is given domination over the earth and all its nonhuman inhabitants. The aforementioned thinkers have demonstrated, in one case study after another, how the repressive, racist, phallocratic and hierarchical heritage of biblical religion has deformed Western culture. The Christian churches, of course, have been the chief vehicle of this monumental deformation. But one must go back much earlier to find the origins of the process.
One event discloses dramatically what is at issue here: the contest on Mount Carmel between the prophet Elijah and the royal chaplains of King Ahab (as reported in the eighteenth chapter of the First Book of Kings). Elijah, faithful to the First Commandment of the Sinaitic code, challenged the legitimacy of Ahab’s multicultural clergy, bested them in a competition of magical tricks, and ended up massacring them on the banks of the Kishon (in this finale duly foreshadowing centuries of Judeo-Christian intolerance down to the bonfires of the Inquisition).
Who were these people with whom Elijah struggled? The biblical text describes them as “the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” That table in the palace of Ahab’s queen was evidently an early version of an interfaith convention. The Baalim, of course, were the agriculturally oriented divinities of Canaan, close to the earth, worshipped in sexually liberated fertility cults. And Asherah was just one of the many names given to the Great Goddess of the ancient Near East, identical with the Mesopotamian Ishtar, whom the Greeks called Astarte and identified with their own Aphrodite. Translated into modern terms, Elijah’s antagonists may be seen as an assembly of eco-theologians and committed feminists. In retrospect, we can only agree with him that the worldview represented by these people was incompatible with the rigid monotheistic faith of Israel.
We must return to Mount Carmel and reopen the contestation. We must take our stance with those early defenders of life against the death-dealing, anti-nature religion of Elijah. This time around, the Great Goddess will be victorious, for her time has come.
Knowing the climate of opinion here at Harvard Divinity School, I feel confident that most of you will have gone along with me up to this point, even though some of you still hope to modify the Judeo-Christian tradition so as to accommodate the new insights that have resulted from the great cultural upheaval through which we have been passing. I expect that many if not most of you will recoil from what I will have to say now. This is understandable. Nevertheless, I urge you to keep an open mind. If you do so, I think that you will eventually come to understand that the additional argument that I am about to make follows logically from the premises that most of us share.
The spirit of my argument finds its source in one of the great cultural revolutionaries of the modern age. The Marquis de Sade (whom Simone de Beavoir, the noted feminist philosopher, hailed as a kindred spirit) gave the following title to one of his last writings, composed in prison while the French Revolution was well underway: “One more effort, citizens, and you will be true republicans!” In this essay de Sade attacked the basic inequality between those who are sexually attractive and those who are not. To redress this wrong, de Sade urged the revolutionaries to promulgate a law that would make it a duty for every citizen to make himself or herself sexually available to every other citizen.
We too must make one more effort, take one more step, before we can truly overcome the deep illness of our Western culture. We must not only overcome what the animal rights activists have called speciesism. We must overcome human-ism. Above all, this means that we must give up the unnatural idea that the individual matters.
Western notions about the autonomy and the rights of the individual derive in a straight line from biblical religion. The very notion of the individual, as our culture has established it, presupposes the separation between humankind and nature, and (this came later in history) between the human person and the community, which the prophets of Israel initiated against their religious adversaries. American ideologues in particular have proclaimed the sovereignty of the individual and the sacred character of individual rights. The ludicrousness of these delusions becomes apparent when we begin to restore our unity with nature.
In our essence, we are not individuals. We are small, insignificant parts of the vast, pulsating whole of cosmic life. We become healed as we surrender our delusional individuality to this whole. It is not the individual who is sacred, but the life process as a whole-Gaia, the living earth, and perhaps the entire physical universe (since Gaia may have many sisters on other planets and it is even possible that all the galaxies explode in one infinite orgasm). There is a moral consequence to this insight: The individual matters only insofar as his or her existence furthers the sacred life process, and she or he has no rights other than the right and indeed the obligation to make this contribution.
In this way we must also overcome the quasi-Christian sentimentality that still clings to contemporary imaginings of Gaia. As soon as we look carefully, nature is neither nurturant nor benign. She is immensely indifferent to suffering and immensely profligate in the expenditure of individual existences. Vast numbers of sperms are wasted so that one ovum may be fertilized. Countless weaker animals are sacrificed to feed the few stronger ones. The evolutionary process as a whole wastes thousands of species as it selects the very few who will survive. It is this understanding of nature that we must appropriate. We will then also understand that, in the final analysis, life and death are one and the same, and nothing matters beyond the endless thrusting of the divine energy.
Gaia has another face. It has been revealed most fully in India. It is there given the name of Kali-Durga, consort of Shiva, the goddess who both gives and destroys life. She manifests herself naked, four-armed, her mouth gaping to show bloody fangs. In her four hands she holds a noose, a skull-topped staff, a sword, and a severed head. She is dancing on a mountain of corpses. Many people, perhaps even many of you, think they are not yet ready for this vision. But I assure you it is the future to which she calls us; it is the future that we have already embraced.
Peter L. Berger is Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University.