To ponder divine motherhood is not as natural and comfortable a task for an ecofeminist scholar as one might imagine. For me, it is actually quite a difficult task that requires addressing different layers of my own sociocultural fabric. I agree with Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow when they argue that the main challenge for feminist theological discourse is not the ways our different experiences have led to the construction of different imaginings of the divine, but in developing shared theological criteria. Christ (who wrote the first Goddess feminist theology) and Plaskow (who was the first to write on Jewish feminist theology) argue that we need theological criteria that are in the broadest sense rational and moral, and that judge our theological views by asking the questions: Does this theological construction make sense of the world we share? Does this view of divinity promote the flourishing of the world? I would add two more questions of equal importance in today’s world: Do our theologies disrupt imperialistic models of human relations? Do they teach us to survive not at the expense of somebody else’s survival, as Nami Kim has put it?
I grew up in the interior of Brazil and moved to South Africa when I was twenty years old. I lived in Cape Town for nineteen years. There, I became a mother and a wife, and I also began my academic career in religious studies. Therefore, my ecofeminist scholarship and desire for shared theological criteria are influenced by my own experiences in rapidly changing postcolonial (Brazil) and post-apartheid/colonial (South Africa) contexts. To grow up in such contexts meant to experience on a daily basis overlapping gendered oppression, racial discrimination, and ecological rapacity in contexts of economic disparity that have been shaped by colonialism and neoliberal capitalist policies.
In South Africa, I realized that independent of our different and personal historical backgrounds—male or female, colonizer or colonized, North or South, poor or rich, black or white, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, or heterosexual—we all have (consciously or unconsciously) shared in or benefited from the sources and practices of colonial modes of relationships. I am calling colonial modes of relationships the “dominator-subordinator dynamic,” which has existed in the Western socio-organizational structures. Such a mode has made it possible for societies to learn and to maintain survival at the expense of the survival of others, including humans and nonhuman nature.
Across the globe people have relied on the exploitation of others to survive in order for some to eat well. Westerners are largely unaware of how today’s low food prices continue to rely heavily on industrial and agricultural practices that not only deplete the soil of nutrients, but also employ workers at starvation wages and in dangerous conditions. Often, workers are forced to rely on their exploiters and tolerate abuses, or face unemployment. Our modern modes of survival and practices are not very different from the ways in which European colonizers survived on the land and knowledge of indigenous people while systematically displacing them and destroying their ecosystems and cultures.
I learned from growing up in those contexts how dualistic theologies, which have separated earth from heavens, humans from nature, male from female, and god from earth, have also enabled Western societies to advance such modes of survival with a lack of awareness of the moral ripples of our choices. This is most visible in how our lifestyle is automatically part of an economic system that only values the earth and its people with respect to what can be used or consumed. Does capitalism consider breastfeeding and childrearing a human labor to be valued and evaluated? Have Western religious traditions placed hard ethical restraints on the capitalist and neocolonialist ventures? What about humanity’s response, or failure to respond, to the threats posed by a changing climate? Frankly, it is an embarrassment to our species that our dependence on exploited labor and our disregard of the earth’s wellbeing are still issues for today’s world.
Today’s context of anthropogenic climate change calls us to make again the personal political and the political personal. Although anthropogenic climate change has been couched as a political issue, it is undeniably personal according to research data and personal narratives; it leaves individuals, families, and communities devastated or demolished in its wake. Ecofeminists in the social sciences and humanities have produced important and timely work demonstrating that, globally, children and poor women—and this is true to a greater degree for poor women of color—are the most vulnerable to climate change’s negative effects, such as food shortages, drought, flooding, illness, and natural disasters.
But what is the connection between the topic on divine motherhood and climate change issues? Radical feminist Mary Daly’s work in Beyond God the Father is perhaps some of the most influential work of the early years of the feminist theological development to intersect these topics. Daly proposed to reverse the truth of patriarchal theology, or “God the Father,” by asserting the truths of feminist theology, or divine motherhood. In Gyn/ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, her feminist theology argued for correlating motherhood characteristics, such as caring, nurturing, selflessness, and tenderness with caring for the earth, female empowerment, and the liberation of both.
Like Daly, most relevant for me and my work on religion and ecology is to cultivate in my students life-giving qualities, nurturing dispositions, and selfless responses to anthropogenic climate change. However, differently from Daly, I do not think that projecting attributes to the divine that are valued and experienced within motherhood will facilitate women’s empowerment and the earth’s liberation. If we do not strive to dismantle dualistic constructions altogether, we tend to fall into the trap of debating which imaginings of the divine—“Mother Goddess or God the Father”—is more equipped to get rid of gender oppression while the earth and its living beings continue to be treated as objects of consumption and exploitation.
Feminist scholarship has importantly presented sufficient evidence to support the connection of God the Father with the domination of women and the earth, and it is tempting to conclude that if the former is true, then projecting maternal attributes of caring and nurturing to the divine could foster a less unequal, and a more life-giving, world. Yet, as Val Plumwood has argued, the dominator identity of the master rather than a masculine identity pure and simple is the overlooked motif that has formed “the ideals of Western culture and humanity as oppositional to nature.” Women have paid a terrible price by seeking to contest the patriarchal devaluing of women’s roles and earth’s liberation by affirming virtues such as unselfishness and tenderness as essentially found within motherhood. As such, we have fallen prey to the neoliberal trap that expects mothers and the earth to continue giving without ceasing, as well as others to continue taking without any moral affliction.
The irony rests on the fact that the characteristics used by patriarchal cultures to describe and maintain women in positions of submission are the ones that most environmental ethicists deem necessary today to combat climate change. Climate change was born in a crucible of inequality, blind desire for economic growth, and greed. Thus, as a scholar working in theological education, I motivate my students to reorient themselves in their relation to the natural world and to others by considering how their own theological ethics and actions influence local realities and global concerns. This is to consider not only the impact of any action on oneself, but also to take seriously the effect that action may have on other social groups and communities. This has a more realistic potential to generate religious and spiritual practices for positive social change and justice.
I agree with Willis Jenkins that the world does not need a shared understanding of the divine in order to conform to climate change, nor to cooperate in confronting shared problems. Rather, “it needs practical capacities of responsibility and cooperation.” We need a commitment to explore pedagogical methodologies that encourage our students or children to challenge patriarchy by asking about their own roles in perpetuating ideological formations of colonial thinking and of how their own lifestyles enable people to survive at the expense of others’ survival.
If the requirements to be an ecofeminist were restricted to projects that apply attributes to the divine that are valued within women’s experiences of motherhood, then as a mother of two, I can definitely say that the most undervalued role within motherhood, as well as the most urgent characteristic for today’s reality, is to teach one to take responsibility for their actions, clean up after themselves, and show respect toward others. In addition to fostering life-giving values and an ethics of care, the possibility to break free from exploitative modes of relationships comes from our dedicated efforts to develop self and collective responsibility and accountability for our histories. This is how I propose to reverse the truth of patriarchal theology—by asserting the truth of ecofeminist theology.