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Is It Essentialist to Speak of Earth as Our Mother?

By Carol P. Christ

The charge of “essentialism” has become equivalent to the “kiss of death” in recent feminist discussions. In this context it is taboo to speak of Mother Earth. Yet, I would argue there are good reasons for speaking of Mother Earth that do not add up to essentialism. What if the values associated with motherhood are viewed as the highest values? What if the image of Mother Earth encourages all of us to recognize the gift of life and to share the gifts we have been given with others?

For those not familiar with the “essentialism” debate in feminist theory, it might be useful to define “essentialism.” In philosophy, essentialism is the idea that every “thing” has an “essence” which defines it. In its pure form, essentialism is a by-product of Platonic “idealism” which states, for example, that the “idea” of table is prior to every actual table and that every actual table is an embodiment of the idea of table.

Aristotle disagreed with the Platonic view “way back then,” arguing that the idea of what a table is can be inferred from actual tables, and so on for every “thing.” There is no need for an idea to exist prior to the existence of anything. Rather ideas help us to name and categorize existing things. In the 20th century “existentialism” again challenged “essentialism,” asserting that “existence precedes essence.” Existentialism argued that free individuals are defined by what they do, not by what they “are” prior to or apart from their actions.

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