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Women – the Heart of Interfaith Culture

By Paul Chaffee


“Oh please, focus on ‘the divine feminine embodied’ in the March TIO, not April,” a woman asked. “March 8 has always been Women’s Day around the world. That’s when it would be best!” Which sealed the deal and initiated TIO’s survey of women in an interfaith culture, their heritage and contributions, their new perspectives on leadership and organization, and their deep spiritual commitment, employing many names, all pointing to the Divine Feminine.

A little digging uncovered a hive of activity. A Force Such as the World Has Never Known: Women Creating Change (review), written by 28 women from around the world, clearly establishes the global scope of transnational feminism. Coming with every sort of religious or indigenous background, these women leaders draw on the wisdom and power of the Divine Feminine, and their achievements are incredible.

Sita, heroine of the Ramayana, whose name means furrow of the Earth (17th century, Mongolia) – Photograph: Wikipedia

Sita, heroine of the Ramayana, whose name means furrow of the Earth (17th century, Mongolia) – Photograph: Wikipedia

One big surprise, a 120-year-old story, puts a new slant on interfaith history. Four months prior to the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, an iconic event in interfaith history marked as the ‘start’ of the global interfaith movement, an international Women’s Congress was held in the same building. Allison Stokes’ story of Rev. Anna Howard Shaw’s unprecedented sermon on inclusivity to 3,000 women in May 1893 adds a new and important wrinkle in interfaith history. Following Stokes, Kathe Schaaf and Kay Lindahl’s powerful essay on the divine feminine embodied today, and how women are learning new ways of being together, walks straight into our lives.

At the core of this whole issue is an assumption that a perverse, warped ‘divine masculine’ has been led humanity astray with an unending destructive addiction to being bigger and best. From Anna Shaw to women leading the way today, we encounter a different approach to leadership and community, one which takes human beings much more seriously than the dominant culture in most countries today.

The same spirit is found in this month’s contributions from Mary Ann and Frederic Brussat, Matthew Fox, Catherine Ghosh, Ruth Broyde Sharone, ALisa Starkweather, Mirabai Starr, and Diane Winston.

Matthew Fox, by the way, reminds us that embracing a healthy sense of the ‘divine masculine’ is critical as we affirm and promote the ‘divine feminine,’ since finally it is a dance between the two within each of us that is at issue. This month’s writers would agree – none of their articles are man-hating or sardonic, and they offer high praise to men who treasure and nurture their own feminine side. At the same time, they come with a laser beam intention to tell the truth, to liberate the oppressed, and to keep the planet habitable and healthy. And none too soon.

Writing a week ago about the surprising growth of Catholicism in the Middle East, John Allen Jr. of The Boston Globe had this to say about Christianity in the 21st century:

The typical Christian in the world today isn’t a middle-class white male in Dubuque pulling up to church in his Lincoln Continental. She is an impoverished black mother of four in Nigeria, or a Dalit grandmother in India, or an exploited Filipina maid in Saudi Arabia. They often face hardships that are hard for most American Christians, accustomed to material comfort and lacking any real experience of religious persecution, to fathom.

Until you get that, you won’t see the full story of Christianity in this era.

What Allen reveals about Christian women applies equally to oppressed and poverty ridden women and children everywhere, in all traditions. The good news is that a growing cadre of women leaders – again, in all traditions – are working to turn the tide.