INVOKING GODDESS FIRE, a sermon
by Nancy Vedder-Shults, Ph.D. (excerpt, Chapter 2, Embracing the Dragon,
forthcoming book by Nancy Vedder-Shults)
The erotic -- our society's understanding of our bodies, of sexuality and sensuality -- has been problematic since before Western culture was in the West. Adam's and Eve's troubles in the Garden bedeviled Judaism well before they caused problems for the Christians. Buttressing its customs with the story of Eden, Judaism instituted controls on reproduction and honored the spirit above the sensual, honored Yahweh by denying the prepatriarchal goddesses whose sexuality and birthgiving were the major metaphors for creativity. But as Nietzsche once observed, it was "Christianity [who] gave Eros poison to drink; he did not die of it, but degenerated into a vice." The early Christians declared lust and gluttony to be two of their seven cardinal sins, each of them sins of the flesh. When the Calvinists came along during the Protestant Reformation several centuries later, they went even further in their denial of the body. They enforced what St. Jerome had denounced in the early centuries of the church when he said, "Regard everything as poison which bears within it the seed of sensual pleasure."1
Although much of this extreme anti-body sentiment had died out by the
time I was born, while I was growing up in the Dutch Reformed Church,
a Calvinist church much like the Puritan churches in England or the Americas,
we weren't allowed to dance or play cards on Sunday. Today Christian megachurches
are displacing the split of body and mind implicit in the religion of
my childhood by presenting the "Word of God" through drama,
rock music, dance, lighting and spectacle, forms that speak to the senses
more than to the intellect.
But most Americans, I think, are still plagued with the fall-out from
the Garden of Eden, especially a denial of the senses and of the erotic,
although it is not as blatant as it was 50 years ago. If you doubt this,
just look at the kind of art exhibits or photo displays that are censored
in our communities. Just this past winter, the Concourse Hotel in Madison
pulled down a number of photographs in an exhibit there, because they
contained nudity. Their justification: that they are a family establishment.
It didn't matter to the management that these were art photos, just that
they contained naked figures.
So today we're going to explore the erotic in our lives, first by creating sacred space, an environment in which we can put aside our more mundane existence and see our bodies as the miracles they are. We began by calling the directions as represented by four deities who embody their own element (earth--the physical, air--the intellectual, water--the emotional) as potentiated by fire, the element of passion. Then we invoked Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to infuse us with her energy. Next I will offer some poetic readings about Inanna, the ancient Mesopotamian goddess who was the garden, the luscious fruit, Eve and the snake all rolled into one before the Hebrews rewrote the myth for their own purposes. Following this, I will continue my reflections on the erotic in our lives. And finally we will return to our more mundane reality by dismissing the directions and thanking Aphrodite for blessing our circle today.
THE EROTIC AS A SOURCE OF POWER
You might wonder how I could blithely assert, as I did a few minutes
ago, that eros remains poisoned 100 years after Nietzsche declared that
Christianity had transformed it into a vice. After all, you might assume
that by the 21st century the U.S. has become a secular society, little
affected by Christian mores. Following the Monica Lewinsky debacle, you
might even surmise that we're anything but Puritan in our sexual ethics,
that, in fact, we're a sex-obsessed culture. That is just what Frank Rich
implied at the height of Bill Clinton's impeachment hearings in an op-ed
piece for the New York Times. He said, "There remains one common
denominator that unites us all: sex. We have a sex-addicted president,
a sex-obsessed independent counsel, sex-crazed media and a public so entranced
by sex that not even McGwire or Sosa (remember them?) can entice us to
spend more dollars on Major League Baseball than we do on videos rated
XXX. To each American, apparently, his or her own home run."
Why then do we need to talk about overturning our cultural inhibitions about sex? Hasn't this scandal done that already? Isn't it time to talk of other things? I have to admit that the sensationalistic reporting of every salacious detail from this affair made me as sick as the next person. But I don't think public fixation on the presidential penis is a healthy development of the American libido. Rather it seems to represent one more step in the polarization of our society around sexual issues. On the one hand, we find the retrenchment of rightwing Christians, using Puritan values to oppose abortion, birth control and even sex education in the schools, because they believe sexuality is sinful outside the sanctions of the church. And on the other hand, we see the pornography business flourishing, making over $10 billion a year in profits; prime time serving up sexually-explicit shows for even our youngest kids to watch; and women's clothes becoming more revealing with every season, what with lingerie worn out-of-doors while bustiers and bras are worn as outer garments.
I think the erotic is very confusing for most people in this culture, because of our Puritan heritage. We immediately see eros as tied to genital sexuality, flattening out the possibilities that this term encompasses. Instead of shooting his arrows indiscriminately in our lives, Eros -- we assume -- only aims at our love life, and then only when we're ready to hop in the sack with the sex partner of our dreams.
In contrast, many New Age philosophers have begun to speak of eros as the glue that binds the universe together, the allurement of one body for another, whether those bodies are human or stellar. But broadening out eros to include gravity, the attraction of one physical object for another, seems somewhat absurd and also reductionistic to me. Intergalactic lust may sound appealing as a universal bonding agent, but in human terms it's pretty abstract. Eros seems more useful if we confine it to human interactions where it can take on many more connotations than pure physical attraction.
Perhaps if we thought in terms of passion, the erotic would come into focus for us. We can feel passion for a person, for an endeavor, for an object, for a pastime; for work or play. Anything or anyone that lights up our lives can engender passion, not just someone who attracts us sexually. Some people are known as passionate, because they feel strongly about almost everything in their lives. They have a joie de vivre and an élan vitale, concepts we feel more comfortable expressing in French, keeping them linguistically at an arm's length. These charismatic people are glad to be alive, self-confident in their purposes and emotionally expressive, the antithesis of the Puritan demeanor that still haunts our culture.
We don't have to look far to find the reason for this contrast. Puritanism was a religion of control and repression, clamping down the lid on the energy of the life force, not just sexually, but also in the arenas of everyday demeanor, clothing and even play. A modern-day equivalent would be the Amish, who, although they are descended from a different branch of the Protestant Reformation, also control the lives of their members with strict prohibitions on clothes other than those with the prescribed style and color, prohibitions on adorning their houses with any paintings or photographs (a prohibition most Amish households circumvent by buying picture calendars for many of their living areas), while likewise forbidding modern vehicles and machinery. Puritanism tried -- as the Amish still attempt -- to channel the eros of its followers into acceptable arenas, into work and church, shutting down the vitality of other endeavors.
In reacting against our Puritan legacy in the (so-callled) sexual revolution,
Americans have only begun to scratch the surface to discover our own authentic
eros. I think this is generally true with rebellions against former restrictions.
Rebels tend to accept the definitions of the former culture and act out,
as a result, in more limited ways. What surfaces are the compulsions generated
by oppression and by restrictions, giving way to what the Germans call
Narrenfreiheit (a fool's freedom), not true freedom.
What we need instead is a positive movement towards what truly motivates us in all areas of our lives. What is it that makes us feel expansive? makes us feel alive? warm? self-confident? and eager? What stimulates us? What makes us catch fire with excitement, enthusiasm and exuberance? What brings joy into our lives with a spark of creative power? What is it that says "Yes!" to all of this?
If we were living in India our answer might be Shakti, the goddess whose Kundalini energy moves from the base of the spine upwards in a fiery radiance. Here in the West we might say it's Aphrodite. Whether east or west, it is our energy in response to life. This energy is related to libido, but in a much less genitally understood way. Of course, we can be passionately in love or in lust, and that will pull us towards our beloved in sexual attraction. But we can be passionately attracted to many other things as well. Libido, as Freud understood it, was energy, most often sexual energy, but nonetheless, it was the primordial fount of instincts, passions and desires that propels human beings outward towards other objects and other individuals. Essentially this energy is desire striving towards union, towards connection.
The person who writes most eloquently about all of this is Audre Lorde. In her article "The Erotic as Power," she evokes the erotic as only a great poet can. For Lorde, the erotic is not a minor power, but the basis for living fully. Just as the Greeks shunted Eros off as a subsidiary son of Aphrodite, so we tend to see eros in restricted, sexually explicit ways. Not so Audre Lorde. For her, the erotic is the life-affirming power that arises from our deepest knowing and our deepest longing. It is the creative energy that nurtures our connection to the allness of life, to the interdependent web of all existence, the power that fosters our fearless capacity for joy. In the presence of the erotic, we say "yes" to our deepest cravings.
In using the term "craving," Lorde not only affirms our desires, but underscores the physicality of those wishes, for cravings are physical needs that urgently want to be quenched, appetites that call out to be gratified. Early in the 21st century, we talk about cravings almost exclusively in negative terms. We are supposed to blunt our cravings, certainly not give in to them, perhaps even repress them altogether. In fact, the arena that uses this word the most is the dieting industry. When I looked at the history of the word craving, I was shocked to discover that it comes from the same root as the German word "Kraft," meaning power, strength or might. In fact, in the Old English, it meant "to demand as a right." In modern English this same root gave rise to the word "to craft," meaning to make with skill, artistry and precision. So if we take this etymology seriously, we can see that to deny our deepest cravings is to deny ourselves our strength, our power and our creativity.
And that is exactly what Audre Lorde says, that self-abnegation, denying ourselves, leads to suffering and a numbness that we all too often accept as our lot. That instead we need to sharpen our senses with the electrical charge that eros, that Aphrodite, or even more all-inclusively that Inanna has to offer us and to delve into our deepest cravings, our deepest longings, our most profound desires. If we do this, we will heighten and sensitize and strengthen our experience, because we will have discovered our most profoundly creative source.
I agree with Audre Lorde. Instead of the kind of adolescent wallowing that comes with rebellion against our former strictures, what we saw during the "sexual revolution," what we need is to delve into our deepest longings, taking the risks that come along with them and letting our passions fly. Then we can ask with Susan Griffin (another of my favorite poets), "Do you know how...wanting lets your eyes pierce space? How a resolve to act can traverse this atmosphere as quick as light?....Despite the threat of fire and our fear of the flames, we burst out through the roofs of our houses. Desire is a force inside us. Our mouths drop open in the rushing air. Our bodies float among stars. And we laugh in ecstasy to know the air has wishes....."Yes," we call, full of ourselves and delight, "Yes," we sing, "We fly through the night."