This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on New Year’s Day, 2012. It looks at Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Theodore Parker and the Feminine Divine.
Happy New Year everyone! My partner Brian and I rung in the new year watching fireworks inCentral Park. This a new tradition for us, our second year spending New Year’s Eve this way. I’ve lived within short distance of NYC my whole life, and the Times Square Ball has so overshadowed the night’s events that I only learned of the fireworks last New Year’s Eve. Check it out next year. It’s a wonderful way to ring in the New Year. With sound, light and cheer.
For the last couple of years, a group of congregants, all women, have put on a piece of sacred theater called “Mother Wove the Morning.” Originally a one woman show, Dawn Brekke and her cast adapted it to be an ensemble piece. It essentially explored the absence of a sense of womanhood, femininity or motherhood in the Western world’s experience of the divine. We often hear of the great Father in the Sky, but what of the Mother of All? The multicultural stories span the history of the world from the perspective of straight women seeking to wrestle with where their heavenly role model went and the effects that has had on the experience of women in their daily lives. They’ve even performed at another UU congregation, Shelter Rock. I do hope that the tradition continues, maybe even with new plays.
We heard two excerpts from the play this morning. The period piece on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the semi-comedic piece by Carol Lynn on the difficulties women face. Although this latter piece began with humor, it culminated with a mixture of the serious and the theological. She said, “And what I really believe about God is this: In the beginning, at the dawning of the first day, the Eternal One appeared as Two. Mother wove the morning, and Father made the evening–joyfully, together. Lovers, friends, partners, parents. Through them all things were born.” (end quote.) I personally see God as singular, although I do believe that God appears in myriad forms, hence the wide range of Revelations in this world. But I do agree that to succumb to the belief that God is gendered according to the sex historically with the most power, is a telling sign that something’s amiss. Even traditionalists get a bit queasy when you start pressing them on the genitalia of God as is male. Of course you don’t really mean that! But what do we mean?
I believe that historically, humanity meant exactly what the play surmised. To requote the Catholic Theologian, Mary Daly, “If God is male, then the male is God.” When theology codifies divinity within the gender binary, then power expands and contracts for the genders. In my opinion, that’s not the point of religion. Religion is here to expand our sense of awe in the universe. It’s here to deepen our commitment to compassion to those we share this world with. Religion is here to remind us that there is a depth to life that is worth divining.
The Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, of whom Elizabeth Cady Stanton both lifts up and chides in the play, speaks to this notion. “The only creed that true religion lays down, he claimed, ‘is the great truth which springs up spontaneously in the holy heart – there is a God.’ Parker admitted that true religion requires a form and carries a sanction, but only as attributes of Spirit-filled living. The only outward form that religion requires is divine living; true religion consists of ‘doing the best thing, in the best way, from the highest motives.’”
Getting to “Spirit-filled living” can be a tricky thing if we don’t know what it would mean; if we don’t have a Spirit-model in our lives; if we’re used to thinking in terms of creeds rather than intuitions. If we don’t believe in God, and think Spirit can only mean those things that refer to God. I think that’s the practical necessity behind gendering God in the first place. I remember as a Catholic child never quite understanding what the “Holy Spirit” was. Now as an adult I get that the Trinity can also help us to see the relationality of life – that the Holy is found in our midst, in our relationships.
Although I don’t see God as male and female as the play suggests, I do appreciate that the Mother/Father image in the play helps to show us that creation and inspiration comes from joint efforts; that life and Truth is a series of dualities; that love directs us outward; and that the Holy is not limited to one gendered expression.
Take this in consideration with another piece of Theodore Parker’s writing, and we come to a similar conclusion that was made in the play. “For Parker, (these) three innate primal truths were crucial to the possibility and phenomenon of religion: (1) the instinctive intuition of the divine creates consciousness of divine reality; (2) the instinctive intuition of moral right creates consciousness of the existence of a moral law that transcends human will; and (3) the intuition of the immortal ensures, ‘that the essential element of man, the principle of individuality, never dies.’” The first – intuition of the divine creates consciousness of the divine – directly speaks to Mary Daly’s quote. “If God is male, then the male is God.” If we intuit the Holy as male then our consciousness is changed. Expanding that intuition, expands our consciousness. It also leads into a healthier understanding of Parker’s second point around moral right that transcends human will. A morality that is informed, by a consciousness that perceives the holy value in more than one gender, is a safer morality for this world.
Now the latter two points -intuitions of moral right and the intuition of the immortal would greatly influence Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and help her to heal wounds inflicted by the fire and brimstone preaching of Charles Finney. (Incidentally, this is the primary reason for an extended look at a male Unitarian preacher on a Sunday devoted to the feminine divine.) Cady Stantongrew up in a conservative, upper class, Calvinist-Presbyterian household. Academic, Gary Dorrien writes that, (She) “was plagued by a morbid introspection that the family religion aggravated. The Cadys were serious Calvinists, God-fearing and morally upright, and she absorbed the element of fear in her youth.” In her home region of Troyin the 1830’s, “Charles Finney preached(ed) what came to be called the Great Troy Revival… Every day for six weeks young Elizabeth Cady listened to Finney with a mixture of half-believing fascination, moral compulsion, and dread…. His preaching seized Cady Stanton’s soul with fear of judgment, driving her to a nervous breakdown.” The migration of her spirituality from Calvinist to Unitarian Christian, via Parker, would lead her one day to say, “The memory of my own suffering has prevented me from ever shadowing one young soul with any of the superstitions of the Christian religion.”
Out of context, her comment about Christian superstitions would sound incredibly derogatory. But the word “superstitions” was code at the time for what Parker referred to as the “transient.” Those beliefs and practices that were not centrally intuitions of the spirit; that were not central teachings of Christian compassion; that were not reflective of character over fear. Eternal damnation would be one such superstition. By her mid-thirties she would vocalize publicly that the inferiority of women was another such superstition.
Cady Stanton spent her first thirty years being heavily influenced by prominent figures, she would spent the rest of her life setting the stage for influencing the world on her own – and with the help of a small cadre of fellow leading women – at first Lucretia Mott who helped Cady Stanton come to prominence and later Susan B. Anthony who Cady Stanton passed forward the favor by helping to send to prominence. In our play we heard that “Mother Wove the Morning” – and in history we hear that Elizabeth Cady Stanton helped to weave a deeper sense of humanity.
With her famous “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions,” that were modeled after the Declaration of Independence, she began the Women’s Suffrage movement and lit a firestorm that only the media could fan to a roaring flame. She would notably write, “I say require of the state that we be given full citizenship and that it happen now. And I say require of the church the same thing, to acknowledge that man and woman were created in the image of God and given dominion over this earth, but none over each other. None over each other!”
In rapid response, “the Philadelphia Public Ledger and Daily Transcript declared: ‘A woman is nobody. A wife is everything. A pretty girl is equal to ten thousand men, and a mother is, next to God, all powerful.’ The ‘ladies of Philadelphia’ therefore resolved, ‘to maintain their rights as Wives, Belles, Virgins, and Mothers, and not as Women.’” It’s the kind of linguistic response we still hear today in the entertainment media. Opponents of Pro-Choice might say – “I retain the right to have my child” or opponents of Marriage Equality might say – “Everyone has the right to marry someone of the opposite sex” even in Healthcare Reform – “Everyone has access to healthcare, they just need to get a job.” They’re all language games that denude the meaning of the word “rights.” CadyStanton wrote with reason and a fair sense of indignation, and was responded to with a barrage of trite witticisms and societal fever. But sense, and instinctive intuitions of moral right would ultimately prevail – albeit not for a time.
The Public Ledger would bring us back full circle when they wrote, “and a mother is, next to God, all powerful.” A mother, next to God. We’re not likely say a father, next to God, is all powerful – because it would be a rare situation where we’d need to clarify the power of fathers. I think needing to say how powerful mothers of the time were, speaks more directly to how disempowered they actually were. Fathers were in, of and leading the world. Mothers were subject to their husbands at home. All notions of equality would have trouble being born, if we couldn’t even find equality over our breakfast tables.
If you’d like to go into closer historical detail of the time, I recommend a book by Gary Dorrien entitled, “The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion 1805-1900.” It’s a staple these days for UU seminarians. It paints a vivid picture of how Calvinist, Unitarian, and Transcendentalist thinking fostered an intellectual and emotional setting for Elizabeth Cady Stanton to help transform our culture. “… to acknowledge that man and woman were created in the image of God and given dominion over this earth, but none over each other.”
What I find most impressive about Cady Stanton is that she helped us to revision what motherhood could mean while she herself was a mother of seven children. She wasn’t a fringe radical, breaking from tradition. She was navigating all the difficult politics of marriage to a husband who himself was involved in the political sphere. She helped to argue for divorce for women, while remaining devoted to her vows. She struggled with the abolitionist movement, without herself having an equal say. Not to say that her path was superior to Susan B. Anthony’s path of the unmarried activist; but rather that she always remained firmly within the conventional system and sought to configure a new way. In essence, she became a role model for women much in the same way our play, Mother Wove the Morning, seeks to find the feminine divine so that all people have another image to live by.
As we begin this new year, I’ll ask you to reflect on a few questions. What images of the feminine divine do you find in your own life? Which are absent? What can you do, yourself, to reclaim them?
 “The Making of American Liberal Theology: 1805-1900” by Gary Dorrien. p.86
 Ibid. p. 94
 Ibid. p. 215-216.
 Ibid. p. 217
 Ibid. p. 222.