A writer, activist, and lay theologian, Lana Dalberg is the author of Birthing God: Women’s Experiences of the Divine. She spoke with Rabbi Rami Shapiro about how the language of a male God shapes society; the insight women can bring to the spiritual experience; and the importance of emptying ourselves.
In your most recent book, Birthing God, you say humanity desperately needs to hear women’s spiritual experiences. How does the spiritual experience of women differ from that of men?
The experience of Spirit in a body that gestates and nurtures life, or has the capacity to do so, merits exploration. Women, in addition to birthing, seek to meet their infants’ needs long before the infants can verbalize them. Women have honed this ability and are adept at connection. Their perspective is helpful in understanding the Divine Spirit who births and sustains all of life.
What was your own experience in this regard?
Even though I was raised with male images of God, my meditation experiences led me to the Divine Mother.
This was not an intellectual connection but an awakening through heart and Spirit in which I saw a tall African woman and knew immediately that she was the Divine Mother. This made me curious about other women’s experiences of Spirit.
Do you believe God is a tall African woman, or is this a symbol or metaphor of some sort?
The Dark Mother is an expression of divinity buried deep in our collective unconsciousness. Once dominant religions asserted the metaphor of God as Father, they recast other expressions of the Divine as inferior and set in motion a hierarchy in which males justified their exploitation of all other species. Restoring other ways to image the Divine is important not just for humanity but also for our coexistence with all the other species on this planet.
Give us some idea of how women experience the Divine in ways men don’t or maybe can’t?
The women in Birthing God relate a palpable sense of the Divine. They celebrate the Divine in the midst of dancing, singing, walking, wailing, menstruating, or meditating. They see the Divine in the birthing of children and in the dying of their loved ones. Theirs is an embodied experience of Spirit.
The implication here is that men’s experiences of the Divine are less embodied: more abstract, intellectual, and transcendent. Are you worried that you’re perpetuating a stereotype of women as mother, body, nature, and men as father, mind, and spirit? Is there a way for the Divine to be seen as whole and nondual?
Yes, I am concerned about perpetuating that split, but when we embrace our bodies and enter into that space where Spirit speaks—whether that be in dance or meditation, gardening or birthing—we open ourselves to the sense of the Divine as one: matter and Spirit together.
In my book, I talk about “emptying” ourselves out so that we are able to receive, just as women make room for the child growing in their womb or comply with social expectations and set aside their own needs in order to be open to others’ needs. But men also “empty” themselves. All of us can open ourselves to the Divine through the cultivation of spiritual practices like meditation. Saint Romuald, founder of the New Camaldoli Monastery, taught: “Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing but what his mother brings him.”
Why do you think women’s experiences of the Divine matters and should matter to people?
When the Divine is expressed only in male terms and images, it severely limits our collective and individual understanding. The splitting off of the feminine from the Sacred has a profound impact on our spiritual, mental, and physical health. Naming the Divine as male or cloaking the Divine in male-only images is one of the principal roots of women’s victimization. We have only to look at the world to see women’s disproportionate burden of poverty, malnutrition, and violence. Many of the women I interviewed felt themselves to be inadequate at their core, which correlates with the lack of representation or the outright denigration of feminine attributes in our symbols and language for the Divine.
And you equate this to the lack of recognition of, and respect for, women’s spiritual language.
I do. God language and its accompanying imagery is so deeply embedded in our consciousness that we may not even realize that it’s a lens through which we see and judge everything else. A female perspective from a body that co-creates with the Divine is needed to round out the wholeness of our human experience of the Divine. We need women’s images and stories of the Divine to restore balance and enhance the physical and spiritual well-being of our families and communities.
How might our relationships and our world change if the Divine were more broadly seen and experienced as mother, midwife, and sister?
It would lead to greater compassion and assiduous efforts at making room for others’ experiences and viewpoints, and perhaps even the ability to trust in the surprises that can emerge from the darkness of the womb.
How can readers explore this message more deeply?
At the risk of sounding a bit self-serving, I suggest people read Birthing God. The book includes guided visualization exercises and meditations, and discussion questions to encourage conversation. Beyond this, I would suggest establishing a daily practice of “emptying” and participating in women’s or men’s spirituality groups.