Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Starhawk and the Remaking of the American Spiritual Landscape

When the history of religion and spirituality in the late 20th Century America is written it is possible that the most influential person might not be some mega-church pastor with a perfect pompadour and dazzling white smile, a learned theologian with a break-out idea, a Prelate or President of some denomination, or the guru of some eastern mysticism, but a nice Jewish girl from St. Paul, Minnesota with wild hair and a penchant for colorful flowing robes.
Miriam Simos was born on June 17, 1951.  Both of her parents were the children of Jewish emigrants from Russia.  Her father died when she was only 5 and she was brought up by her mother, Bertha Claire Goldfarb Simos a professor of social work at the University of California at Berkley.  They lived in Venice, a beach town that was a center of surfing and alternative lifestyles.
Miriam’s mother was a feminist and she was an activist herself by the time she attended high school where she was close to fellow student Christina Hoff Sommers, who would go on in later years to fame as a leading conservative critic of modern feminism.
Miriam was a bright student and a sponge for the social changes swirling around her.  Enrolling at UCLA she aspired to be a writer, graduating in 1973.  While going on to pursue a graduate degree in film there she wrote A Weight of Gold an autobiographical novel and screen play about growing up in Venice, which won the prestigious Samuel Goldwyn Writing Award. 
Although the novel was not published, the recognition and encouragement led her to try to make a literary career in New York.  She then returned to California.  Basing herself in the Bay Area she was active in feminist, peace, anti-nuclear, ecological, and anarchist circles.
She was drawn to the burgeoning neo-pagan movement, especially Wicca and took the craft name Starhawk, under which she would climb to fame and influence within the movement.  She studied under Victor Anderson, who synthesized various world shamanistic traditions and founded the Feri Tradition to make those beliefs accessible to Americans.  She also studied with Zsuzsanna Budapest, founder of Dianic Wicca, a monotheistic goddess worshiping group who meet in women only covens.  Budapest’s Susan B. Anthony Coven was both feminist/separatist and engaged in the politics of the world.
Starhawk herself was also drawn deeply to a mystic connection to the earth.   She was alienated by the refusal of many of her neo-pagan contemporaries, particularly in main stream Wicca to engage in the world.  She synthesized her experienced into a manifesto of sorts on a muscular Goddess worship, The Spiral Dance which she completed in 1977.  Frustratingly, she was unable to find a publisher. 
Feminist religious scholar Carol P. Christ included an article by Starhawk on witchcraft and the Goddess movement in her influential anthology, Womanspirit Rising in 1979.  In that book Starhawk explained herself:
I am a witch, by which I mean that I am somebody who believes that the earth is sacred, and that women and women’s bodies are one expression of that sacred being. My spirituality has always been linked to my feminism.  Feminism is about challenging unequal power structures. So, it also means challenging inequalities in race, class, sexual preference. What we need to be doing is not just changing who holds power, but changing the way we conceive of power. There is the power we’re all familiar with—power over. But there is another kind of power—power from within. For a woman, it is the power to be fertile either in terms of having babies or writing books or dancing or baking bread or being a great organizer. It is the kind of power that doesn’t depend on depriving someone else.
Inclusion in that book led to the publication of The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess by Harper and Row later the same year.  It became one of the best selling and most influential neo-pagan books ever published.  It was a compendium of theological thought, history, and ritual practices.  New editions published on the 10th and 20th anniversaries of the first edition expanded on the original with additional reflection on the growth and evolutions of Starhawks’s thought.
The book was widely influential well beyond the still small and idiosyncratic world of neo-paganism.  It was avidly read by feminists, those interested in deep ecology, and women in small towns and cities who had felt isolated and alone.
Meanwhile Starhawk was also pursuing a Masters Degree in Psychology from the University of Antioch West in San Francisco, from which she graduated in 1982 leading to an academic career at institutions that include John F. Kennedy University, Antioch West, the Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality at Holy Names College, and Wisdom University. She is currently adjunct faculty at the California Institute of Integral Studies.
Starhawk's deep critique of the common rhetoric of patriarchy and her concern that connection to the Earth and nature calls for a kind of activism in the world that was new to neo-paganism.  She pointedly asked,  “What do we do...those of us who do believe the earth is sacred, who do believe that we have a responsibility to care for the living systems that sustain us, and who do believe that we have a responsibility to take care of each other?”
Brining that activism to the public has been key.  In 1979 to celebrate the publication of her book Starhawk and friends organized a Bay Area Samhain (Halloween) celebration including a mass Spiral Dance.  Out of that loose association grew the Reclaiming Community, now an international movement that fuses neo-paganism with activism and offers classes in non-violence, civil disobedience, organizing and the like.  It is particularly active in overcoming the sense of white privilege which Starhawk believes has infested much of the neo-pagan community. 
Starhawk was an early and influentially active member of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS).  Her combinations contributed heavily to the adoption of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Seventh Principle, “Respect for the Interdependent Web of All Existence of Which We Are a Part” in 1983, a move led by the faith’s growing eco-feminist movement.  That inclusion has in many ways profoundly changed traditional Unitarian Universalism broadening its roots form radical Christianity and modern Humanism, influencing the way the faith act in the world, and being a major catalyst for a revival of spirituality in the liberal faith.  She has continued to lead CUUPS workshops and retreats.
Although she helped found and continues to be active in the Covenant of the Goddess, legally recognized as a church since 1977. Starhawk’s interest transcends institutionalism in organized religion.  Through various activities, agencies, and groups she seeks to share a broad vision that transcends any single cult or practice.  To this end she has published widely.  In addition for the editions of the Spiral Dance her many books include Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics in 1982, where she elaborated on the role of ritual as an agent of societal change; Truth Or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority and Mystery in 1987, a synthesization her views on personal development, political action and witchcraft into a psychology of liberation; and the ecotopian novel The Fifth Sacred Thing in 1993.  In addition her articles and essays have been widely published and translated around the world.
In the late ‘80’s Starhawk revisited her old interest in films, writing and staring in three films known collectively as the Women and Spirituality Trilogy for the National Film Board of Canada.  The widely hailed poetic documentaries include Goddess Remembered in 1989, The Burning Times in 1990, and Full Circle in 1993.  In addition she has released numerous spoken word CDs.
Activism as continued to be important to Starhawk.  She leads training sessions in mindful activism and civil disobedience for many groups.  She contributes to a YouTube video series aimed at Unitarian Universalist activists and she wrote the call-to-action for the women’s peace organization Code Pink which engaged in numerous high profile civil disobedience actions in protest to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today her earth-based, feminist spirituality is widely influential beyond the growing neo-pagan community.  She is taught in theological schools and seminaries and theologians seek to reconcile the Divine Feminine and active, muscular reverence for the Earth with traditional Christianity.  Starhawk address this wider world as a major contributor to Belief Net and as a columnist for On Faith, the Newsweek/Washington Post online forum on religion. 
At 63 Starhawk lives communally with her second husband David Miller in San Francisco and also spends time at a simple hut in the woods western Sonoma County, California, where she practices permaculture in her extensive gardens, meditates, and writes.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this history--as both a lover of Starhawk from my early feminist spirituality days, and a UU minister who came into the faith after the seventh principle had already been adopted--I was not so aware of those connections between Starhawk and UUism. More recently, Starhawk published the Earth Path, and is teaching Earth Activist Trainings, which combine a permaculture design course, with earth spirituality, and activist skills.