I wrote this paper as an assignment in my Spirituality & Counselling course in the fall of 2020 as part of my Masters in Counselling & Spirituality at St. Paul University, Ottawa. This paper contains some minor mistakes but I have done my best to reference my ideas correctly using APA format. You will find references listed at the end of the piece.
Many have taken on the task of trying to identify, classify and illustrate the spiritual journey of humans in a way that is applicable and relevant to all of humanity. Thus far, these attempts have led mostly to linear approaches that have the individual moving from one stage to the next as they seek love, oneness, God or spirit. Although popular, these stage models face extensive critique as one recognizes the human experience is far from linear, nor is it so easily divided into a neatly staged procession (Jastrzębski, 2020; Ozorak 2003; Ray & McFadden 2001; Reich 2003). Feminist critique argues that the limitations in these models are due in large part to the lack of diversity among their architects. As they see it, the linear perspective is simply a symptom of the larger issue: that these spiritual development models have all been the work of men, and white, educated men at that (Ackermann, 1989; Ray & McFadden, 2001). Carol Gilligan (as cited in Ray & McFadden, 2001) critiqued Kohlberg’s Moral Stages directly as being a white, male, upper class perspective and all stage-based theorists as blind to this narrow viewpoint.
With such a singular cultural perspective, we are sure to lose vital aspects of the human spiritual experience and cannot assume these models fit everyone. Reich (2003) found that culture had a significant impact on the experience of religion, noting that the same religion can be practiced very differently from one community to the next. He concluded that the stage models “characterize the main shared features of the person-God relationship of a ‘similar’ group of people,” (p.232). Thus, knowing that stage models of spiritual development have been the work of such a limited demographic of humanity, one must recognize that these models are missing important and valuable perspectives of the spiritual experience, namely those of women. Furthermore, not only are women’s voices largely absent from the conversation on spiritual development, their experience of spirituality and religion are vastly different from the experience of the men who created these models. From her study looking at gender differences in spiritual development, Bryant (2007) observed the following:
As women have historically struggled with religious inequalities, it is logical to assume that their conceptualization of spirituality has been impacted by perceptions of, or direct encounters with, oppressive circumstances in a way that men’s conceptualization of spirituality has not. (p. 844)
If men and women experience such striking differences in religion, how can we assume that a model designed by men is representative of the spiritual experience of both (all) genders? Ochs (as cited in Bryant, 2007) observes “since traditional spirituality has been male-centered, it has been regarded as an extension of the male maturational process that emphasizes individuation – coming into selfhood. The new spirituality… is an extension of the female maturational process that emphasizes nurturing – coming into relationship” (p.836).
To expand this further, in an exploration of her personal spiritual experience as a white, Christian woman in South Africa, Ackermann (1989) emphasizes how her place in the world directs her spiritual path:
My doing of theology originated in my need to reflect systematically and in an informed manner on my experience of domination and oppression as a woman… I do not see liberation as some sort of personal soul massage but as multi-dimensional, embracing politics, society, culture and our religious life… Being freed is not merely an individual experience – it means, I believe, being freed into a community where love, solidarity and creativity can flourish. (p.76)
In search of a design that would be representative of the female spiritual experience, Ray and McFadden (2001) reviewed Jane Goodall’s spiritual autobiography, an anthology of African American women’s writings about spirituality and two qualitative research studies of older women’s spirituality. From their work, they conclude that the stage model is based on an individualistic, solo, usually male experience and not the relational spirituality more commonly experienced by women (Ray & McFadden). Across religions and cultures, it is common to find women at the heart of the religious community. Rosemary Radford Ruether described the role of Catholic women in North America during early settler times as “the mainstay of the faith, gathering the family for prayer, educating children, observing the rounds of feasts and fasts” (1995, p. 20). Women’s experience of spirituality is pointedly communal. Ozorak (1996) contends that women focus more on personal connection with God and their religious community, whereas men focus more on the power and judgement of God and spiritual discipline. In her later article, Ozorak (2003) suggests that the individualistic culture of the Western world limits our capacity to see ourselves as integral and inseparable from the community and that a more integrated perspective is required when designing spiritual development models.
As alternatives, Ray and McFadden (2001) propose two metaphors to illustrate spiritual development: the web and the quilt. For the purposes of this essay, I will explore the quilt as a model for human spiritual development that honours the relational component of spiritual growth. This is not an uncommon metaphor. Again and again, quilting and weaving terms are used when discussing spirituality, by both women and men. Pargament describes spirituality as “interwoven into the fabric of everyday” (2007, p. 3). Whereas Plaskow & Christ (1989) use it in the name of their second anthology: Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, with a patchwork pattern as the background of the book cover. The quilt metaphor is strikingly used by Ackermann (1989) as she describes her not always positive experience with Christianity as “a rag bag, a red bag, full of remnants of cloth, of different shapes, designs and textures, some a bit tattered and faded but still precious, others quite pristine and others whose colours don’t appeal to me” (p. 74). It seems the careful craft work most often associated with women is a strong symbol for the complexity of the spiritual experience.
Proposing the quilt as a model for relational spiritual development, Ray and McFadden (2001) narrow in on the quilting process. They observe that a quilt is made up of many unique blocks of fabric and often put together by a group of women, sometimes for someone in their family and other times for someone in need. Ray and McFadden recognize these as key components of women’s spirituality: togetherness and care for others. As for the use of the quilt, it shifts and changes over the course of a lifetime, sometimes used daily and other times put away in the top of the closet for a while with only a few squares of fabric showing (Ray and McFadden). The stitches, done by the hands of many women, are considered by Ray and McFadden to be relational patterns that although they may not always be easy to see, are fundamental to the structure of the whole. For Ackermann and her tattered fabrics, the thread that holds her quilt together is her personal spirituality within the larger, patriarchal religion which does not always represent nor fulfill her spiritual needs. For its complexity, originality and community essence, the quilt can be used as an effective model to illustrate the relational and diverse experiences of women, as well as community-oriented spiritual seekers.
But do we simply face another limited perspective when we put on the gendered glasses? Can those who take the solo spiritual journey see their experience in the mix of colours and patterns of a quilt? Perhaps. Ray and McFadden (2001) described how some quilts would be well organized and symmetrical, others unorganized and seemingly chaotic. Maybe there are linear quilts with only a few colours and patterns that more accurately represent an individual, stage-based spiritual journey. Or perhaps that is itself a limited perspective of the complex inner workings of the solo journey. Ultimately, with such variety available in the crafting of a quilt, as a model it could serve to illustrate the spiritual journey of all, should we think to do so is even possible.
Although all models may ultimately be incomplete and limited in perspective, women deserve a model that reflects their own experience. The oppression so often faced by women in the church has not been a deterrent to their spiritual quest and their spiritual experience warrants representation in our understanding of spiritual development. Among college students, Bryant (2007) found women to be more committed to religious practices and spiritual growth than their male counterparts. Kanis (2002) takes that further, maintaining that “Our bodies have everything to do with our interpretations of religion and religious experience, not only because of what we experience in our differently gendered bodies but also because of how we have been taught to understand ourselves as gendered beings” (p.1867). Kanis and many others make the important connection between women’s bodies and spirituality, with their bodies creating and holding sacred space through birth and lactation – the most simple and vital relational aspects of the human spiritual experience.
So, can the quilt be used effectively as a model for spiritual development? Based on the ability to create quilts with different shapes, colours, designs, textures and sizes, it seems that we could assume the quilt model would be able to encompass all spiritual experiences. But those who walk a solo, spiritual path with defined steps may not see their journey within the colours, patterns and stitches of the quilt. Ultimately, our attempts at defining the spiritual experience are always limited by our personal perspective of spirituality and how it plays out in our life, be it functional or ontological, immanent or transcendent, individualistic or collective. Thus, we must conclude knowing “All models are false. Some of them are useful” (Jastrzębski, 2020). There can be no singular model that represents the entirety of the human spiritual journey. With the sacred in all of us and in everything, there are as many unique paths to connection and development as there are humans. However, when attempting to structure a model of spiritual development it is imperative that the voices of women and their relational experience of spirituality are included. The ways of women are deeply sacred, and they must be woven into the fabric of our spiritual understanding.
Whether you walk a straight path or sew a complicated quilt or even find yourself walking a forest path with a warm quilt around your shoulders, your spiritual experience is beautiful and unique.
Ackermann, D. (1989). An unfinished quilt: a woman’s credo. Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, 66, 74–78. Retrieved October 6, 2020 from https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000820071&site=ehost-live
Bryant, A. N. (2007). Gender Differences in Spiritual Development During the College Years. Sex Roles, 56(11-12), 835-846. doi:10.1007/s11199-007-9240-2
Jastrzębski, A. (2020, October 6). Development: Spirituality and Psychology [Lecture notes and PowerPoint slides]. Brightspace. http://uottawa.brightspace.com/d2l/home
Kanis, (2002). Theobiology and Gendered Spirituality. American Behavioural Scientist. 45(12), 1866-1874. doi: 10.1177/000276402128753887
Ozorak, E. W. (1996). The Power, but Not the Glory: How Women Empower Themselves Through Religion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 35(1), 17-29. doi:10.2307/1386392
Ozorak, E. W. (2003). COMMENTARY: Culture, Gender, Faith: The Social Construction of the Person-God Relationship. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 13(4), 249-257. doi:10.1207/s15327582ijpr1304_2
Pargament, K. I. (2011). Spiritually integrated psychotherapy: Understanding and addressing the sacred. Guilford.
Plaskow, J., & Christ, C. P. (1995). Weaving the visions: New patterns in feminist spirituality. Harper.
Ray, R. E. & McFadden, S. H. (2001). The Web and the Quilt: Alternatives to the Heroic Journey Toward Spiritual Development. Journal of Adult Development, 8(4), 201-211. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1011334411081
Reich, K. H. (2003). INVITED ESSAY: The Person-God Relationship: A Dynamic Model. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 13(4), 229-247. doi:10.1207/s15327582ijpr1304_1
Ruether, R. R. (1995). Catholic women in North America. In R. R. Reuther & R. S. Keller (Eds.), In our own voices: Four centuries of American women’s religious writing (pp. 17-60). Harper.
Let’s start here: I am not an expert in the field of thealogy, theology, religion or any such thing. However, spirit has always been a truth I’ve felt in my bones and I have chosen to embark on graduate studies in the field of counseling and spirituality, with a feminist and gender studies focus. Classes start September 2020 and I know I will have many interesting things to share with you as I progress through my program. For now, to get us started, I’m sharing some of the ideas, thoughts and critiques I explored in the past year through some prerequisite religious studies on the topic of women and religion as well as indigenous spirituality.
We’ll see where belief, mythology and love take us…
I was raised an atheist, my only experiences in Church those of random moments – a rare holiday spent with the aunt and uncle who live far away, a few times with the step-grandparents who were part of my life for only a few years, one strange day when my father took me to a beautiful church in the countryside where we sang, feasted and I could truly feel the love so many call God.
Then when I was a bit older and free to explore spirit on my own, the beautiful Catholic Churches of Central America, standing tall at their honoured place in each town square, always called me in. But I felt out of place. I felt inappropriate, to be honest. I knew almost nothing of this God and feared it was sacrilegious to sit there if I didn’t really believe, or unkind to sit there in bewilderment maybe. I didn’t get it, didn’t know the stories everybody knew. I didn’t know this God or what he stood for.
My experience with spirit didn’t live within walls. I felt connected in the woods, at a little stream near my home. I felt it on the beaches, not far from those Catholic churches, with the steady beat of waves leading my heart. I saw the magic in the sunsets, the grace in the winds, the truth in the body.
I felt spirit inside me. I felt spirit around me.
I felt it.
I knew it.
In my heart. In my gut. In my soul.
So I dabbled…. I sat in those Catholic pews, the sweat of the tropical heat sticking my bare legs to the wood. I took an Eastern Religion course during my undergrad, hoping Buddhism would call to me. I prayed, but only sometimes. I did yoga. I tried to meditate.
And then there’s the time Jesus saved me… I was surfing on a point break in El Salvador, unfamiliar to me, and got caught in a current. I swear I would have drowned there if another surfer hadn’t paddled in, gave me his leash to hold onto and towed me back out to safety. With deep gratitude, I asked him his name. “Jesus,” he said.
Not really what people mean when they say they were saved by Jesus but I’m alive so I’ll take it.
But unless I’m in just such a drowning situation, I don’t believe Jesus is coming to save me, or anyone else for that matter. I believe Jesus was a real man, a prophet. I believe he saw truths the people of his time were unable to see. I believe most of us are still unwilling to see those truths, still unwilling to value the lives of the less fortunate, to extend love to everyone, regardless of race, gender, culture or beliefs. I believe in THAT Jesus, and the woman who walked alongside him, Mary Magdalene. I believe they both found the truth of love in their hearts, that they both knew the answers were only to be found inside of us, not within church walls or bestowed upon us by a higher power.
Be on your guard so that no one deceives you by saying “Look over here!” or “Look over there!” For the child of true Humanity exists within you. Follow it! Those who search for it will find it. – Mary 4 : 3-7
And so whether you are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Pagan, Anishinaabe, Buddhist or anything else, I believe we are all looking for the same thing. We are looking for the humanity that lives within us. May we call it spirit, love, truth, faith, it doesn’t matter. We are all searching for connection. The connection that lives within us all.
I believe in the goddesses, the witches, the Marys. I believe in the divine feminine and the divine masculine. I believe in love and spirit. I believe in the power of faith.
I’m going to use this space to share with you some of the things I learn about women and their experiences with religion. There will be criticism. There will be ideas you’ve never thought before. If you were raised religious, you might not like everything I have to say. That’s ok. We all need to stretch sometimes. I am just learning. I look forward to your comments and additional resources you might have to share. I will trust that we’re in this together, that we are all here for the same reason.
We all want to feel connected to spirit. We all want to have faith.
Next week I’ll be looking at the Eve & Adam story from the Old Testament (isn’t it hard to read it when Eve is written first???). With a critical, feminist perspective I’ll bring this old story into an interesting “new” light and gain a greater understanding of the motivation and impact of this pivotal piece of scripture.
As a child I felt a strong pull to spirituality but was raised atheist and therefore thought these longings to be silly, potentially even simple-minded. But now, as an adult woman and mother navigating the turbulence of life, I see the immeasurable value of these explorations. Over the past year I have immersed myself in learning more about the monotheistic religions that rule our world today, the goddess and earth centered religions that have been in existence far longer (and continue to be practiced by many) and the impacts of these belief systems on our culture. With a feminist lens I am learning to see value in every religion and in the teachings of each prophet, and that’s what I hope to share with you here. I believe ultimately we are all seeking the same thing: an experience of the divine and the love it offers humanity. Here is one of the essays I wrote for a recent course on Love as explored through the texts of Plato, Sophocles, St. Augustine, and the Hebrew and Christian testament.
Note: I use the word “God” in this piece because it is the term used for the deity related to the scripture I’ve shared. But it need not be thought of as male. In fact, the “God” of Judaism, Christianity and Muslim was originally ungendered. It is only patriarchy and the limitations of language that turned this God into the male figure common in our culture today.
The teachings of Jesus appear to be clear and one may even say, simple. But easy to uphold, they are not. Jesus tells us that both loving God and loving thy neighbour are the most important of the Commandments. This is not easy love to give. This is not the eros of the Symposium, powered by lust and passion, (and which continues to dominate so much of our culture). Nor is it the familiar love philia of Antigone, which we can understand in our own natural love for those closest to us. This love of which Jesus speaks, agape, is the love that requires us to be more than our individual selves. It is the love that requires us to put our own needs aside for another’s, to see their struggle as worthy of our attention. It is love of humanity in its wholeness, the movement from me to we, which yes, ultimately includes our enemies too. It is a love for all, for God and all of her creatures as a whole.
We see the Love Commandment repeatedly in the Bible, from the Hebrew Scripture (Leviticus 19:18) to the Christian Testament (Matthew 22:39, Luke 10:27). For the purposes of this essay, we will look specifically at Mark 12:28-12:31:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
There are a number of important teachings in this piece of scripture. Jesus is impressing upon us that the most important thing we can do in our life is to love God, with all our heart, strength and mind. He is also here telling us that we must love our neighbour as we do ourselves, that this is integral to the experience of love. But more importantly, Jesus is linking these two Commandments, presenting the idea that it is through loving all that we may find ourselves able to truly love God so deeply, and perhaps for those who struggle to love all, it is through loving God that they are able to do so. This is repeated in The First Letter of John when John says, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (John 4:12). This agape love is the love of humanity, the love of all of us and through that, we find God. This is reminiscent of the Ladder of Love proposed in the Symposium by Plato, and one may argue that to love all others is a descension on that ladder, but the steps, as we take them, still culminate in God/Good/Beauty.
Let us dissect this a bit further… what is meant by “neighbour”? Neighbour is the English translation of the Saxon word neaghebur, which literally means “near dweller” (Ward & Srigley, 2008). It may be easy for us modern folk to find this term limiting as our lives and human interactions reach much further than those who dwell near us but, to understand the meaning, one must take the perspective of the day. During the years of Jesus (and for most all of human existence for that matter), those who lived near were the entirety of one’s world. Few people traveled beyond their communities and even when they did, it was not that far that they were able to go. Thus, the term neighbour encompassed most, if not all, of the people with whom one would interact over a lifetime.
With that understanding, we can see how the meaning of Jesus’ words was to extend love to all humans, whether we like them or not. We are being called to love not just our friendly next door family but also the homeless person who sits on the street downtown, the person with whom you quarreled once upon a time who lives on the other side of town and the person whose political views are contrary to your own who keeps a tight hold on your local riding. In the First Corinthians, Paul furthers this idea of love, describing it as divine action and ultimately giving it greater value than hope or faith. Agape love, as described by Paul IS faith, as we act with love toward all in our community, the true essence of the Church and the community created among its members. In agape love, God is present and active.
Paul also speaks of the change that is possible through this form of love, that we may evolve from divided to whole. We saw this idea of love presented in the Symposium when Aristophanes shared the myth of a rounded whole being divided into two, and the pursuit of love was the pursuit of renewed wholeness. This idea permeates our culture today and modern thoughts on love. It is common to think of one’s partner as one’s better half, and of course, no one can forget the iconic Jerry Maguire quote: “You complete me”. But this simplistic completion of the whole is not what Paul, nor Jesus, is arguing for. Aristophanes’ concept of two halves meeting and becoming one is not agape, it is eros. Agape is a broader love and thus the wholeness that it brings is greater also.
In fact, the wholeness that Paul tells us is possible, is a divine wholeness of humanity. It is the love for community, and for humanity in its entirety. The scripture of Mary Magdalene tells us “Every nature, every modeled form, every creature, exists in and with each other” (2:2). She is telling us that we are not separate from each other. The world, humans and all other species are God’s creation, we are one, not many. When we find this love, agape, we can then understand what it means to know God. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says “I am the one who comes from what is undivided.” Jesus understands this unity and takes deliberate and consistent action to offer compassion to those in need as he tends to the sick, gives to the poor and acts with disregard for the societal divisions based on power and oppression.
Although the Christian church is known for agape love, it doesn’t seem to have followed the teachings of Jesus very well. With the genocide of Indigenous people around the world and the erasure of the pagan culture, the Church sought power rather than love. It most definitely did not practice the commandment to love thy neighbour. Today, in a society deeply influenced by Christianity, we have great oppression and social division, with the “me-first” perspective being the attitude of most. Leaders who claim to be Christian argue for less social support and care within our countries, criticizing, belittling and demonizing those who fight for social equity.
Will we ever learn to love our neighbour as Jesus intended?
It is the spring of 2020, two thousand years since Jesus spoke of agape love and the importance of showing compassionate action toward all humans, and Covid-19 is rapidly spreading around the world. Today, and for the weeks and months to come, we are being asked to base our actions on the risk to the most vulnerable. To both those we do and do not know. As well as those we like and do not like. As a global community, we are being forced to take collective action or face devastating human loss. We are in a crash course on agape love. We must move beyond our “me first” attitude and put aside our own needs. We must deny ourselves both eros and philia love, the loves that are easy for humans, instinctual even, and instead practice agape, taking deliberate action to care for God’s creation in its entirety. Only if we place value on all lives, regardless of their supposed societal worth or our own personal preference, do we have the mindset needed to overcome this challenge faced by humanity. Perhaps God is giving us another chance to learn the most important love of all, to appreciate its complexity and have reverence for its beauty. Maybe through the global experience of Covid-19 we will learn to love our neighbour, friend or foe.
Plato. (1986). Symposium. In Dialogues of Plato (pp.257-320). New York: Bantam Dell.
Sophocles. (1982). Antigone. In The Three Theban Plays (pp.58-128). New York: Penguin.
Srigley, R. (2020). Course Pack: RLST 1116 EL 12: Ideas of Love 1. XanEdu Publishing.
Ward, B. & Srigley, S. (2008). Course Manual – RLST 1116 EL 12 – Ideas of Love I. [PDF document]. Thorneloe University
Watterson, M. (2019). Mary Magdalene Revealed: The First Apostle, Her Feminist Gospel & the Christianity We Haven’t Tried Yet. United States: Hay House.