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Abstract:
Ancient goddess religions and the role of the feminine in theology.

Goddess Religion, Ancient

by / on behalf of Universal House of Justice

1992-02-23
Contents
    1. Ancient Goddess Religion

    2. Responding to Questions about Goddess Worship
    2.1 The Nature of God
    2.2 The Gender of Spirit
    2.3 The Nature and Function of the Manifestation
    2.4 The Role of the Feminine in Religion and Society
    2.5 The Equality of Men and Women
    3. Concluding Statement
M E M O R A N D U M
To: The Universal House of Justice  
From: The Research Department

The Research Department has studied the questions concerning the possible existence of an ancient goddess religion and goddess worship contained in the letter dated 26 November l991 from ... ... explains that there is renewed interest in goddess worship in the United States and that neo-pagan groups are encouraging an elevated status of women and white witchcraft, which they regard as healing techniques. She seeks assistance in knowing how to respond to questions that are based on what she describes as "supposed new archaeological findings". We provide the following response.

1. Ancient Goddess Religion

The Research Department has not, to date, been able to locate any statements in the Bahá'í Writings concerning either the existence of an ancient goddess religion or the subject of goddess worship.

2. Responding to Questions about Goddess Worship

While the Research Department cannot provide detailed comment on the archaeological findings that are being presented as evidence of the existence of an ancient goddess religion and goddess worship, we would like to suggest a strategy that might assist ... in formulating her response to such questions. It is our view that by considering the reported research evidence and the underlying issues raised by such evidence within the overall framework of the Bahá'í teachings, it is possible to begin to generate responsive answers. We provide the following example as a stimulus to ...'s thinking.

Some archaeological records have been interpreted to suggest that, in certain neolithic civilizations, the Godhead was female and that goddesses were the principal religious figures. Female deities have been variously linked to the fertility of crops, the sovereignty of kingship, the protection of ceremonial centres, and the waging of warfare against enemies. These records raise such issues as the nature of God, the gender of the spirit, the nature and function of the Manifestation of God, the relationship between women and men, and the role of the feminine in religion and society. And these are issues on which the teachings of the Faith have a great deal to say.

2.1 The Nature of God

A number of authors express the view that religions which stress the maleness of the Supreme Being tend to deify the masculine principle and see it as the only source of legitimate authority. It is important, therefore, to appreciate the Bahá'í perspective on the nature of God. To assist ... in her study of this subject, we attach a brief compilation on this subject, from which a number of points can be drawn: [Note: compilation was not included. -J.W.]

- From the Bahá'í perspective, the "Essence" of God is "unknowable".

- The "Reality of Divinity ... is invisible, incomprehensible, inaccessible, a pure essence which cannot be described ..."

- God is "exalted beyond every human attribute, such as corporeal existence..."

- "God is never flesh". The Godhead has no physical form and does not in any way resemble a human being, male or female.

- The "attributes" of the Manifestations of God are the means by which the "Divine characteristics and perfections" of God are made known to humanity.

For additional information about the nature of God, ... is referred to the book by Amatu'l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum, The Desire of the World (Oxford: George Ronald, 1982). Of particular interest is the listing of the names and titles of God found on pp. 167-186. It will be seen that many of these titles encompass such feminine qualities and attributes as have been associated with the so-called "Great Goddess".

2.2 The Gender of Spirit

In Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1982), pp. 79-80, the Master affirms that both women and men are created in the image of God. He states:

...in the sight of Baha, women are accounted the same as men, and God hath created all humankind in His own image, and after His own likeness. That is, men and women alike are the revealers of His names and attributes, and from the spiritual viewpoint there is no difference between them. Whosoever draweth nearer to God, that one is the most favoured, whether man or woman....
Further, in one of His Tablets, 'Abdu'l-Bahá indicates that "the spirit and the world of the spirit" are neither male nor female:
Know thou that the distinction between male and female is an exigency of the physical world and hath no connection with the spirit; for the spirit and the world of the spirit are sanctified above such exigencies, and wholly beyond the reach of such changes as befall the physical body in the contingent world. (From a Tablet, recently translated from the Arabic)
2.3 The Nature and Function of the Manifestation

The Manifestations of God embody the names, the attributes and the perfections of God. While 'Abdu'l-Bahá has clearly affirmed that women and men both reveal the attributes of God and that "from the spiritual viewpoint there is no difference between them", the Manifestations have the particular function of revealing the Will of God to humanity. Bahá'u'lláh explains in the Gleanings that the Manifestation of God "representeth the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His Cause and the world of creation".

Concerning the sex of the Manifestations of God and the implications for the equality of women and men, the Universal House of Justice, in a letter dated 27 October 1986 written on its behalf to an individual believer, provides the following elucidation:

Even though there have been outstanding women such as Sarah, Asiyih, the Virgin Mary, Fatimih, Tahirih and the Greatest Holy Leaf in every Dispensation, it is an incontrovertible fact that all Manifestations of God known to us have been men. Moreover, it is a clear provision in Bahá'í administration that the Guardians were to be men and that membership on the Universal House of Justice is confined to men. Whether these facts point to a differentiation in function that is unalterable, or whether it was merely a characteristic of a period which will change when mankind attains its maturity is a matter that will, no doubt, become clear in the future. The important point for Bahá'ís to remember is that, in face of the categorical pronouncements in Bahá'í Scripture establishing the equality of men and women, even these facts are no evidence at all of the superiority of the male over the female sex. 'Abdu'l-Bahá has explained that equality does not mean identity of function. He has also stated that the few areas in which men and women are not equal are "negligible".
We must also remember that sex is a characteristic of this world, not of the spiritual world.

Hence, while no known Manifestations of God have, to date, been female, it is also true that throughout religious history outstanding women, who do not have the station of Manifestation or goddess, have performed many of the creative, nurturant and protective functions that have been ascribed to female deities and goddesses in ancient times. In other words, religious history provides examples of female role models who can inspire, motivate and empower the (women) believers. Further, it is interesting to observe that Bahá'u'lláh refers to His Revelation as the "Mother Book", which symbolizes, among other things, the creative and regenerative influence of His teachings, and in Some Answered Questions (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1984), 'Abdu'l-Bahá likens the Law of God to a woman. See Chapter 13.

2.4 The Role of the Feminine in Religion and Society

A number of recent archaeological records have suggested that there was a time when women had the preeminent role in religion and society and that later this role was taken over by men. They contrast this period with the present day and attribute contemporary social and ecological problems to the relative absence of the feminine element in society. While there are no specific references in the Writings to the early period, it is interesting to note that the Master indicates that "From the beginning of existence until the Promised Day men retained superiority over women in every respect". And, in one of His talks, 'Abdu'l-Bahá emphasises the uniqueness of the Bahá'í position on the equality of women and men. He states that Bahá'u'lláh establishes the equality of man and woman. This is peculiar to the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh, for all other religions have placed man above woman. (The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by 'Abdu'l-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912 (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1982), p. 455)

Clearly, the Bahá'í Faith sees a role for the feminine in religion and society as 'Abdu'l-Bahá explains in the following extract:

The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the balance is already shifting; force is losing its dominance, and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendency. Hence the new age will be an age less masculine and more permeated with the feminine ideals, or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more evenly balanced.
(From a talk, cited in Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era, 5th rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1987), p. 149)
For additional references to the importance of the contribution of women to religion and society, ... is referred to the compilation on Women (Thornhill, Ontario: Bahá'í Canada Publications, 1985).

2.5 The Equality of Men and Women

As ... indicates, some of the interpretations of the new archaeological findings and the activities of the neo-pagan groups directed toward raising the status of women underline a concern about the lack of recognition of the equality of women and men and the need to identify means by which the current imbalance can be redressed. The compilation on Women contains many extracts from the Bahá'í Writings and the letters of Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice which indicate the Bahá'í commitment to the principle of equality and its achievement, set out the steps that must be taken to raise the status of women and stress the importance of the participation of women in all walks of life to the attainment of peace. Further, reports of educational and deepening programmes and of social and economic development activities undertaken in the worldwide Bahá'í community, which are contained in such publications as "The American Bahá'í", serve to demonstrate the seriousness of the Bahá'í commitment to attempt to put this important spiritual principle into practice.

3. Concluding Statement

The comments contained in the above paragraphs are by no means exhaustive. They are intended to serve as a stimulus to assist ... in her thinking about the issues she raised, and to illustrate possible ways in which areas of common concern might be identified and bridges of communication built between the Bahá'í teachings and persons involved in goddess worship.

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