Reconnecting With Our Selves & Each Other Through Religious Ecology & Feminism
I was diagnosed with breast cancer and genetic mutation in December 2020. After a year fraught with anxiety, fear, and uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this was the final crushing blow to my spirit. I was already suffering from severe disconnection – my husband, daughter, and I had been under self-imposed lockdown, under quarantine in our apartment to keep ourselves and our community safe. Contact with others was limited to Zoom meetings as my job transitioned to work-from-home or waving thank you to our local librarian who loaded books into the trunk of our Jeep, always at a safe distance and masked.
I missed my siblings and family in New York and my friends here and abroad. I missed gathering together, and the warm energy that fills my heart when I am in the room with people I cherish. I express, give, and receive love through touch, and I ached for physical contact; the closeness of the familiar. Cancer would complicate this even further, as being severely immunocompromised would put me at high risk for infection and illness, which meant even more stringent distancing precautions.
By mid-2021, I had lost my breasts and my hair after a bilateral mastectomy and aggressive chemotherapy. I was sick from all the medication and weak from the trauma that my body and mind were enduring. Because of the double blow of pandemic and cancer, I was unable to take solace in two things that I love dearly – being in nature and the company of beloved women. This is a journal entry from that time:
I realized that throughout this experience, I haven’t felt anything spiritual. No epiphany. No connection. No enlightenment. Just ongoing frustration and stress from the pandemic then anxiety, pain, and grief from the cancer and what the treatments have done to my body and my life. I don’t feel anything deeper than a desire for this to be over. I feel no relief. Where is my higher power? What is my higher power? I just feel a void. Nothing beyond what my body and mind are going through. Feels empty. I thought there was more to me than this. Maybe the pandemic and quarantine put me in such an unhealthy place internally that even getting cancer didn’t spark a spiritual awakening or deepening. Don’t even know how to access that state – just trying to get through each day while I’m drained and hollow and numb,. Shouldn’t there be more than this? How can I find it and connect with it? Shouldn’t I be ecstatic and joyful that I’m alive?
I was not alone in feeling spiritually devoid and disconnected; a toxic combination that was brewing before COVID-19 was unleashed. Politics had polarized our country, and extremism was rampant around the world. Homophobia, racism, sexism, and xenophobia morphed into “freedom of speech.” Climate change was decried as a “hoax” as dogmatic propaganda sought to discredit science. Hate crimes and “fake news” abounded. Consumers worshiped at the altar of capitalism and commerce, while the poor and our planet suffered the consequences of greed. For a species that is neurobiologically hardwired for connection, how did we lose our way? How did we stray so far from our spiritual nature, our Selves*, and each other? How can we find our way back to belonging?
* “Self” as defined by C.G. Jung – the totality of one’s being.
I propose that a departure from reverence for ecology and feminism have frayed the ties that bind us, and that a return to these principles will renew our connection. Interpretation of religious texts perversely warped for personal gain and patriarchal power has been weaponized against our planet, and against women and other marginalized groups. As the late Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh reflected in Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, “When you wake up and you see that the Earth is not just the environment, the Earth is us, you touch the nature of interbeing.” Likewise, when we view women as reflections of ourselves, we can be humbled by our shared humanity – the fragility and impermanence that make us mortal. We humans are imperfect, and these flaws have permeated into our religions – but those very things that have dismantled us can also rebuild us.
In an academic journal for biblical scholarship, Ian Hart notes that “Exercising royal dominion over the earth as God’s representative is the basic purpose for which God created man.” This refers to the Book of Genesis in which God grants humankind sovereignty over all living things on the planet. Abrahamic religions are not the only ones who embrace this view. The Islamic Qur’an declares that God created man as a “vicegerent” to use all things on earth. Nature is seen as being subject to humanity. Hinduism also believes that God is “most manifest in man,” above all other forms of creation. These religious texts speak to the notion of anthropocentrism which, as the name implies, is a human-centered paradigm that places us right in the center as the most important form of life in all of existence.
This concept of human exceptionalism glorifies the idea that people dominate nature from a position of authority, above and beyond the natural world. These views account for the justification of thousands of years of ecological exploitation. Deforestation, factory farming, fossil fuels, intensive agriculture, pesticides, radiation, warfare, toxins, and pollution of the air, soil, and water – all of these are an assault on our planet.
In 1967, UCLA professor and historian Lynn White, Jr proposed a theory in his paper “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” that would be both controversial and inspiring. White suggested that when farm technology was revolutionized, going as far back as the medieval times, farmers exploited the land beyond what they needed, thus breaking the harmony they once shared with nature. What was the ideological cause behind this shift, and its far-reaching impacts to the present-day ecological crises on our planet? White’s connection was bold yet grounded: he asserted that the Judeo-Christian concept of human exceptionalism is to blame. If God gave man sovereignty over the earth, then the only value in nature is what it can do for us, and we are free to exploit it at will.
White proposed that if religion is the problem, then it can also be the solution – using the Christian friar Saint Francis of Assisi as a prime example. Francis was a mystic and founder of the Franciscan brotherhood. In the 1200s, he was the embodiment of his message as he lived a humble and devoted life of poverty, preaching, and an extraordinary communion with nature. As White reflected, “Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures.” White even went so far as to suggest that Francis be the “patron saint for ecologists.”
Similar to Saint Francis, the indigenous peoples of America share the belief of communion with the earth, without human sovereignty. They view all forms of life as interconnected parts of a sacred whole. They reject the notion that humanity has dominion over the natural world and instead believe that we must live in accord and harmony with nature, since we are inextricably connected.
Since the late 1960s, an Islamic ecotheology movement has grown. This philosophy is driven by “the esteem in which they hold the environment and God’s creation, and an attempt to define a sustainable way of life as an inherent Muslim necessity.” (Zbidi) The concepts of oneness, mutual dependence, and stewardship are infused in this heartfelt belief and practice.
Buddhism also recognizes the relationship of interconnection with ecology and our Selves, urging people to cultivate reverence for all forms of life; to protect our precious planet. As a practitioner of mindfulness heavily influenced by Buddhist philosophy, these were the teachings that I turned to in my challenging time of illness and isolation. I found healing and recovery by reconnecting with the natural world. Here is another journal entry:
I feel so peaceful and connected in nature. My body aches for it and my spirit feels unsettled when I don’t spend enough time outdoors. When I’m in nature I feel calm, centered, complete. Today I felt strong enough to walk outside. I practiced moving meditation as I focused on my breathing, my steps, and the beauty of the world around me. When the wind blew and golden leaves rained down in dappled light, I stopped and sighed, my heart full. Such beauty, peace, and miraculous wonder in that simple, sacred moment. I was overwhelmed with gratitude, and felt deeply connected with nature and life.
Religious ecology offers a path back to our inherent essence as being a part of nature ourselves. We are the earth and the earth is in us; ashes to ashes and dust to dust. There is another inextricable bond that has been broken over time that we can rebuild to reconnect: the concept of feminism; specifically a feminist theology that upholds the humanity of all women. Just as we are made of earth, so are we made of women – the source of creation and sustenance. As the author Maria Dahvana Headley reflected, “Women are the memory of the world.” The abuse, degradation, and exploitation of women over thousands of years of patriarchal domination has caused pain and created rifts, but we can heal the wounds and reclaim our connection.
There are dozens of rapes in Greek and Roman mythology, stories of women being assaulted both by gods and mortals, and often incestuously. When most people think of Medusa, they imagine a monster who is so horrifying that just looking at her turns men to stone. What’s often left out of the narrative is that her terrifying form was a punishment… for being raped. The goddess Minerva took vengeance not on the rapist but on his victim, the innocent Medusa who was ravaged by Neptune in Minerva’s temple. This is how far back, and how insidious, the act of victim-shaming and the concept of a woman’s “uncleanliness” goes. Women-blaming can also be traced back to these ancient tales. Consider the myth of Pandora, who is held responsible for unleashing misery and sorrow onto humankind by opening a forbidden box.
We find this story echoed in Abrahamic religions, in the biblical Old Testament’s Book of Genesis. God created the first man, Adam, and from him spawned the first woman, Eve. He has appointed them in the paradise of the Garden of Eden where they are naked, innocent, and unspoiled. God gave them one command – not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The devil, in serpent form, convinced Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit and she in turn encouraged Adam to do the same. God punished them, banished them from the Garden, made them aware and ashamed of their nakedness, and cursed them with all of the pains of mortality.
Original sin and suffering are blamed on Eve. Much like Pandora, this is the origin story of patriarchal systems casting women as the temptress, the wrongdoer, the villain. Another trope that was perpetuated was the concept of uncleanliness, as women were not permitted to worship with the men inside the Jewish temple and during their menstrual cycle had to physically remove themselves from their family’s encampment and stay in a “red tent.” Akin to the Greek and Roman myths are countless stories in the Old Testament of incest and rape, and numerous references to women being harlots and whores throughout the Bible. Perhaps the most famous of all was Mary Magdalene – though never specified as such in the New Testament, the patriarchal Catholic Church presented her as a prostitute whom Jesus took pity on… while suppressing and denying the validity of her Gnostic Gospel discovered in Egypt in the late 19th century.
One of the few women in the Bible who was not portrayed as either a villain or a victim was Mary, the mother of Jesus. The New Testament writings assert that the Holy Spirit “immaculately conceived” Jesus in Mary’s womb while preserving her virginity. It is also suggested that she remained a virgin throughout her life until, like Jesus, she ascended body and soul into Heaven. Mary is revered and worshiped for her purity – the patriarchal Church created this archetypal image of the divine feminine, chaste and obedient.
This type of feminine ideal would be perpetuated through Church history. Consider the saints and martyrs, young women who were glorified for being raped, tortured, and murdered for God. The Church doled out sainthoods as rewards for those victimized by the brutality of men, and it would later sanction witch hunts in the 16th and 17th centuries, torturing and murdering tens of thousands of women who were suspected of consorting with the devil. History is dark with the stain of patriarchal abuse and bloodshed.
Fast-forward to present-day and consider the current climate, from the killing of women in Iran to the fight for bodily autonomy in the United States. Women are still excluded from positions of power in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious hierarchies. The patriarchy still attempts, with wide success, to control not only the body of a woman but also the narrative around women. In 2016 the United States elected a President who said in a recorded interview that when he wants a woman, he can “do anything” including grabbing them “by the p***y.”
The patriarchy views women as a commodity, a threat, and the source of blame. We see this played out all through history and in religious texts and traditions. With an origin story that places fault on the first woman for humanity’s sins and downfall, the stage is set for the degradation and diminishment of women – justified through religious source material, as is the concept of human exceptionalism and sovereignty over the earth.
Like the scholar Rosemary Ruether, I reject the long-running notion that women are inferior and the source of sin and suffering. I believe that through the feminist approach to theology, which recognizes and upholds the humanity of women, that we can shift consciousness and establish equality. In a recent memoir, the author Isabel Allende reflected “This is what women want: to be safe, to be valued, to live in peace, to have their own resources, to be connected, to have control over their bodies and lives, and above all, to be loved.”
I would venture to say that this is what men want too, and it’s through that shared humanity that we can bridge the divide between gender and connect as people. We can also turn toward religion and spirituality for inspiration and guiding principles. Tara is a Buddhist deity who is the personification of compassion, empathy, and deliverance from suffering. Religions and myths the world over revere goddesses who are connected with nature and our planet. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim feminists have been actively working for decades to bring about equality and feminist theologies in their faiths; Sikhism already considers women as equal to men and celebrates the singularity between genders.
In my darkest moments of disconnection through the tribulations of the pandemic and cancer, I found a renewed sense of spirituality by reconnecting with nature and with cherished females. By returning to the world around me and to the loving, supportive people in it, I returned to my Self, to others, to the planet, and to the divine. While my experience is a microcosm, I believe a similar approach can be applied broadly. Are religious ecology and feminist theology the catch-all solution to all the sins and strife in our world? I believe they are the start. Just as a turn towards ecological reverence will heal the disconnect caused by anthropocentrism, so will an embracing of the idea that we are all one, and that females are just as fully embodied and human as their male counterparts. Although nothing is perfect and cannot be fully guaranteed (there will always be detractors and abusers of power and privilege), when we acknowledge our inherent connection, we strengthen our inextricable bond of belonging. As the Zen Buddhist teacher Joan Halifax reflected, “Wounds and harms… can be the means for the ‘golden repair,’ for developing a greater capacity to stand firm in our integrity.”
Hart, Ian. “Genesis 1:1-2:3 as a Prologue to the Books of Genesis,” TynBul 46, no. 2 (1995).
Qur’an 2.30. Accessed: https://www.unification.net/ws/theme036.htm
Srimad Bhagavatam 11.2. Accessed: https://www.unification.net/ws/theme036.htm
White, Lynn. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” 1967. Science 155.
Zbidi, Monika. “The Call to Eco-Jihad.”