The Quest for the Sacred Feminine

In another article I have given three reasons for the general appeal of all Dan Brown's novels: he is good at telling exciting stories; the books are full of puzzles, codes and mysteries; and they are all about conspiracy theories, which, in our suspicious age, are immensely popular. But there is a far more significant reason for the popularity of The Da Vinci Code. It is fundamentally about spirituality, encouraging us to get in touch with the 'sacred feminine' while confirming our distrust of established religion.

The death of religion and rise of spirituality

It has been popular to denigrate religions - especially Christianity - for a long time. Starting in the nineteenth century, liberal theology undermined confidence in the truth of the Bible by trying to make it conform to entirely rationalist presuppositions. Religion was increasingly perceived as irrelevant. Freud suggested that it was a quirk resulting from some people's defective psychology, and Marx argued that it was merely something to help the masses cope with life. No surprise, then, that in this climate Nietzsche was able to announce that God was dead. Modernism became the dominant worldview, stressing the importance of human rationality and scientific evidence, and rejecting any spiritual or non-rational aspects of life.

This doesn't work very well, as we've discovered. The spiritual dimension can't be brushed aside quite so easily and, starting with the hippies in the late 60s, western society has gradually been recovering an awareness of it. But while postmodern people want to embrace spirituality, they do not want to be caught up in any 'old time religion' with its doctrines, creeds and apparent certainties. They point, as Dan Brown does, to some of the shameful incidents in Christianity's history, and to the rise of fundamentalism in various religions today, concluding that they want no part of it. And who can blame them? In a culture emphasising freedom, personal choice and individual self-fulfilment, it appears to be pushing the wrong buttons entirely. Brown seems to speak for many people when he says, 'I really wish I had the luxury of absolute unquestioning faith. I do not. And I am still searching. I wrote this novel as part of my own spiritual quest.'1 The individual quest seems to be the important thing, so that any and every form of spirituality is great - except for historically orthodox Christian faith, which is perceived to be intolerant, bigoted and exclusive.

Salvation from within

Dan Brown certainly does push all the right buttons with his ideas in The Da Vinci Code. As Bishop of Durham Tom Wright says, 'The Da Vinci Code is a symptom of something bigger, a lightning rod which has throbbed with the electricity of the postmodern world.'2 Wright identifies the central idea as neo-gnosticism: 'the philosophy that invites you to search deep inside yourself and discover some exciting things by which you must then live. It is the philosophy which declares that the only real moral imperative is that you should then be true to what you find when you engage in that deep inward search.'3 It is a revival of some of the ideas found in the gnostic texts from the second and third centuries. These documents teach a bewildering variety of ideas but they tend to stress the importance of secret knowledge (gnosis) as the means of salvation - it is something from within, rather than something external which demands a response.

Dan Brown wrongly refers to these documents as 'earlier gospels' (p. 317/2344). The spurious story Brown tells about them has no historical basis. These claims have been dealt with in detail elsewhere so I will not go through the arguments again here.5 Brown's revisionist account enables him to suggest that the Jesus we see in the gospels is not the Jesus of history, and therefore almost the whole of Christianity is wrong, based on a lie: 'almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false, 'as Leigh Teabing says (p. 318/235). Brown describes himself on his website as a Christian, but he distances himself from mainstream, historically orthodox Christianity:

Faith is a continuum, and we each fall on that line where we may. By attempting to rigidly classify ethereal concepts like faith, we end up debating semantics to the point where we entirely miss the obvious - that is, that we are all trying to decipher life's big mysteries, and we're each following our own paths of enlightenment. I consider myself a student of many religions. The more I learn, the more questions I have. For me, the spiritual quest will be a life-long work in progress.6

Recovering the sacred feminine

But Brown goes beyond arguing for the wrong-headedness of traditional Christianity and for a spirituality that looks inside for meaning and salvation. He argues that the spirituality we need is connected with the 'sacred feminine', the rediscovery of goddess worship. Here Brown is tapping into an increasingly popular idea. Its appeal is obvious. Feminism has radically altered women's expectations, empowering them and making clear that they can be self-fulfilled in their own right, not as adjuncts to men and male structures within society. It ties in with the critique of Christianity which has not had, on the face of it, a great track record in its attitudes towards women. Its history of male leadership and even suppression of women has become increasingly unpopular since the rise of feminism. As a result, women are turning their backs on the Judaeo-Christian tradition with its predominantly masculine imagery and often sexist language. A God described using male metaphors is not attractive to such people. Feminist theologian Mary Daly expresses it as, 'Since God is male, the male is God.'7 Margaret Starbird, two of whose books are specifically mentioned in The Da Vinci Code,8 says:

More and more, we are becoming aware that the Divine we call 'God' does not really look like the patriarch on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. For two millennia Christians have been attributing exclusively masculine images to God, using masculine pronouns when speaking of the Creator. . . . The entire trinity was characterized as masculine from the fifth century onward in Western Europe.

The sacred feminine is that other face of God that has not been honored over the two millennia of Christianity - at least, not as a fully equal partner. . . . in Christianity, the paradigm of partnership, the life-giving principle on planet earth, has not been celebrated or even acknowledged.

I believe we need to reclaim the lost feminine at all levels: physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual. . . . We have suffered the loss of Eros/relationship and deep connection with the feminine - the body, the emotions, the intuitive, the kinship of all the living, the blessings of the beautiful and bountiful planet.9

Because we have lost this 'deep connection with the feminine', ideas of recovering the sacred feminine have a deep resonance with women - and with some men who feel that life is out of balance. Brown refers to a wonderful Hopi Native American word koyanisquatsi which means which 'life out of balance'.As a result of this koyanisquatsi, there is enormous interest in connecting with the 'goddess'. Women are turning to a feminist spirituality that emphasises nurturing, growth, love, emotions, harmony and deep reverence for women and for 'Mother Earth'.

The Goddess

Goddess spirituality is most closely associated with Wicca and other nature-based spiritualities, but it is very diverse. What the various expressions tend to have in common is a pantheistic understanding of the goddess which is seen as 'the immanent life force, as Mother Nature, the Earth, the Cosmos, the interconnectedness of all life.'10 Wiccan and feminist writer Starhawk says, 'The symbolism of the Goddess is not a parallel structure to the symbolism of God the Father. The goddess does not rule the world; She is the world.'11 As is so often the case with western pantheism, there is commonly an emphasis on discovering one's own divinity. In the film of The Da Vinci Code, Robert Langdon asks, 'Why does it have to be human or divine? Maybe human is divine.' As one Australian Goddess website explains, 'By honouring the Feminine Divine, we reconnect with our inner goddess. We empower ourselves spiritually, psychologically, emotionally and physically so our true selves are set free.'12Suzanna Kennedy writes, 'The Goddess is quite simply the embodiment of the Divine in a female body. She is discerning and acts with integrity. She has a core of inner peace that is unshakable. The Goddess radiates an energy that is so powerfully beautiful, loving and soft, that others are drawn to her like a magnet.' What Kennedy means by the Goddess is a woman who has connected with her inner divinity. Later she writes, 'The Goddess has let go of all that is not Divine.'13

However, like Brown's misleading version of Christian history, goddess spirituality is justified by a revisionist view of pagan history. In the early 1970s, feminist writer Gloria Steinem popularised - or created - a story of a lost golden age in early Europe in which the earth and human society were in balance, women were valued and respected as producers of children, and the goddess was worshipped. Then, once it was realised that men played a crucial role in the production of babies, men started to dominate. Society shifted to being patriarchal and God came to be seen as male. From this point on, women were second class citizens, subjugated to their husbands, fathers and community leaders. Dan Brown follows this line and claims that reverence for the goddess continued into the Christian era with Mary Magdalene as the personification of the goddess - an idea that was suppressed by Constantine:

'The Grail,' Langdon said, 'is symbolic of the lost goddess. When Christianity came along, the old pagan religions did not die easily. Legends of chivalric quests for the lost Grail were in fact stories of forbidden quests to find the lost sacred feminine. Knights who claimed to be "searching for the chalice" were speaking in code as a way to protect themselves from a Church that had subjugated women, banished the Goddess, burned nonbelievers and forbidden the pagan reverence for the sacred feminine.' (p. 322/238)

Spirituality through sex

The appeal of this anti-Church story that tells us we can discover divinity within ourselves, achieve balance with ourselves, our environment and even a 'sacred union partner' is obvious. But as with so many other aspects of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown's version of the story doesn't really match up to the historically attested facts. First, the 'matriarchal golden age' reading of European history is based on very little archaeological evidence and a significant amount of speculation.14 Second, from those societies for which we do have extensive archaeological evidence, a more complex picture appears. While ancient Egyptian and Greek societies, for example, worshipped goddesses as well as gods, the 'sacred feminine' was not the liberating, empowering perspective of contemporary goddess spirituality. The cultures were still male-dominated. The priestesses, for example, were very often hierodules,meaning 'sacred slaves'. These were ritual prostitutes who served in the temple to enable men to achieve spiritual fulfilment. Brown incredibly asserts that the same thing happened in ancient Israel:

Langdon's Jewish students always looked flabbergasted when he first told them that the early Jewish tradition involved ritualistic sex. In the Temple, no less. Early Jews believed that the Holy of Holies in Solomon's Temple housed not only God but also His powerful female equal, Shekinah. Men seeking spiritual wholeness came to the Temple to visit priestesses - or hierodules - with whom they made love and experienced the divine through physical union. (p. 303)

The word shekinah referred to God's presence in the Tabernacle and, later, the Temple. It is a feminine word, but is not speaking about another divinity - it is God's glory, not something distinct from him. If anything, it is a reflection of the fact that God in the Bible is beyond being either male or female.15 The priesthood was all male and the Old Testament specifically prohibited ritual prostitution. Although the prophets of the seventh century BC do suggest that there were cult prostitutes, it is a symptom of a wider problem of the people embracing the pagan religions of their neighbours - they had all but given up their allegiance to God, and were eagerly following Ashtoreth and other deities. The Greeks came to know Ashtoreth as Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and to the Romans she was Venus. In first century Corinth there were twelve temples dedicated to goddesses. In the temple of Aphrodite alone there were a thousand slaves as temple prostitutes, both male and female. It is hard to see how a cult involving men worshipping by having intercourse with a temple prostitute is an endorsement for embracing the sacred feminine. It sounds like hieros gamos (sacred union) is a convenient male invention. In fact, inThe Da Vinci Code, it is clear that heiros gamos is a means for the man to experience fulfilment. This view of the sacred feminine is not empowering, but continues to view women only in terms of sexual function and reproduction. Mary Magdalene is not considered significant because she was the first witness to the resurrection, but because she bore Jesus's child.1617

Christianity and the sacred feminine

Dan Brown claims that the church became a patriarchal institution and 'demonized' the sacred feminine because of the threat women posed to its power. But in fact, Jesus himself had an extremely positive attitude to women: they were among his followers, valued and respected by him, and were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Women continued to have an important role in the early church (including Junia who is listed in Romans 16:7 as 'outstanding among the apostles'18). Yes, it is true that the church became increasingly patriarchal. Yes, it is true that it has at times suppressed women, and often not treated them fairly. But at the same time, it is clear from the New Testament that this is a departure from biblical Christianity. In fact, the history of the church shows it very often leading the way in respecting women and giving them opportunities that they could not find elsewhere. And using the Gnostic gospels as evidence is not very helpful. Although there is some evidence that women did have a stronger role in Gnostic movements than in orthodox parts of the church, the documents themselves are far from positive about women or the sacred feminine. Take the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas for example:

Jesus said, 'Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.' (Gnostic Gospel of Thomas saying 114)

The great irony in all this is that historically orthodox Christian faith meets the deep longing expressed in the idea of the sacred feminine. Goddess spirituality wants women to be valued for who they are, it wants the earth to be treated with respect, it wants a society of peace and harmony and balance. All these are inherent in biblical Christianity. Goddess spirituality wants a divine presence which is immanent - close to us and involved with us - and which values the physical body. Christianity provides it through Immanuel which means God with us - Jesus Christ who was born of a woman, coming into our world having spent nine months in her womb, then fed and nurtured by her.

Goddess spirituality has no way of dealing with the sense of guilt we feel because of wrong things we have done; it has no real answer to the problem of evil since, 'Evil is a construct Pagans try to avoid. Our theology, or rather, thealogy, (Goddess-knowing) teaches us that dark and light, life and death, creation and destruction exist in balance.'19 This provides no basis for the justice that women want and deserve. But the Christian faith claims there is an answer to these fundamental problems. The real historical Jesus really was divine as well as human (attested to in some of the earliest Christian documents, contrary to Brown's claims) and after being crucified he rose to life again. By doing so, he demonstrates that he was the Son of God. It demonstrates that, for those who are prepared to trust him, his death in their place really does achieve their redemption for them, reconciling them with God. It demonstrates that these people will also be raised to new and eternal life when Jesus returns as king, finally establishing the true justice which is beyond the goddess's ability. The 'lost bride' of Christianity is not Mary Magdalene; in the Bible the bride of Jesus the Lamb of God is clearly understood to be his people - those who have put their faith in him. There is a sense, then, in which the true church is not the enemy of sacred feminine but its true embodiment.

  1.  Dan Brown, New Hampshire Writers Project speech, 2004.
  2. N.T. Wright, Decoding Da Vinci, Grove Books, 2006, p. 23.
  3.  Wright, Decoding Da Vinci, p. 23.
  4. Page references are given first for the Corgi UK paperback edition and then for the Doubleday American hardback edition.
  5. See, for example: Darrell L. Bock, Breaking the Da Vinci Code (Nashville: Nelson, 2006); N.T Wright, 'Decoding The Da Vinci Code', Seattle Pacific University Response Summer 2005, Volume 28, Number 2; Michael Scott-Joynt, 'Four Gospels: Inspiration or Conspiracy?'.
  6. Dan Brown, 'The Da Vinci Code FAQ'.
  7.  Mary Daly, 'The Qualitative Leap Beyond Patriarchal Religion,' Quest (Women and Spirituality) 1 (1974): 21.
  8.  The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail and the Goddess in the Gospels: Reclaiming the Sacred Feminine
  9. Margaret Starbird, quoted in Dan Burstein, Secrets of the Code: The Unauthorised Guide to the Mysteries behind The Da Vinci Code (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004) p. 62–63.
  10.  Covenant of the Goddess.
  11. Starhawk, The Spiral Dance (Harper & Row, 1989) p. 23.
  12.  Reconnecting With Your Inner Goddess.
  13. Suzanna Kennedy, 'Women's Spirituality: Warrior to Goddess - How to Transform the Feminine', The Global Oneness Commitment.
  14. See for a pro-goddess account which recognises the disputed nature of the claims.
  15. Within the Bible it is clear that God is beyond gender categories and is neither male nor female, without sexual characteristics. God's self-revelation uses masculine pronouns and metaphors not to make us think of God as male, but to help us understand that God is personal - a concept which would be very difficult if God was referred to as 'it'. For a discussion of this issue, see Elizabeth Achtemeier,'Exchanging God for "No Gods": A Discussion of Female Language for God', Theology Matters, Jan/Feb, 1995.
  16. For a discussion of Mary Magdalene's portrayal in history, see Susan Haskins, 'Mary Magdalene: Myth and Metaphor'.
  17. Incidentally, it's worth contemplating whether Brown's portrayal of Sophie Neveu is one that would please any feminist. She may be a highly intelligent cryptographer, but it is Langdon who solves almost every puzzle and who is clearly the hero from beginning to end. While Langdon and Teabing explain Leonardo's paintings and the importance of the Gnostic gospels, Sophie simply takes it all on board without showing any critical thinking skills whatsoever. At the end of the story, the focus quickly shifts from Sophie being the living incarnation of the Holy Grail to Langdon back in Paris, solving one last riddle and having his (rather anticlimactic) religious experience. Sophie's role as a supporting player to Langdon as the protagonist is even more obvious in the film.
  18. Though some translations render this as Junias – a male ending – which avoids the difficulty for some today of the idea of having female apostles.
  19. Starhawk, 'Pagans Reject the Idea of Evil - How Do We Respond to Terrorism?', July 2005.
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© Tony Watkins, 2020
The Tony and Jane Watkins Trust oversees and supports the ministries of Tony and Jane Watkins in Christian training, education, and communication. It is a charity registered in England and Wales, no. 1062254.
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