2016-06-30
Jane FondaFrom her longtime political activism to her Oscar-winning acting, Jane Fonda has never done anything halfheartedly, and she brings this characteristic intensity to her faith. When she talks about "feeling the presence of the Almighty," her view of Jesus, and the way she prays, her voice wells from deep within her chest. You may know this voice from her films (among dozens of others: "Barbarella," "Klute," "On Golden Pond," and currently in theaters, "Monster-in-Law"), or from her aerobics videos ("feel the burn!"), or from film reels from the sixties, when she spoke out against the Vietnam War. Fonda, now 67, spoke with us recently about her spirituality.

Read Beliefnet's complete interview and listen the audio excerpts below.

Listen Jane Fonda talks about:
  • God's coincidences
  • Spiritual emptiness
  • Being Saved
  • Having doubts
  • The Gnostic Gospels
  • Her prayers
  • Feminism and Jesus


  • Beliefnet: Although you didn't identify with a particular religious path until recently, your book seems to tell the story of someone whose spiritual consciousness has been developing her whole life. You were raised as an agnostic, or an atheist?

    Fonda: I always assumed it was as an atheist. Looking back now, I guess it was more an agnostic upbringing. My father's parents were Christian Science practitioners.

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    Things began to change for me-as I think they do for many people-when I was in crisis. I think that the reason that that happens is because pain can break you open. And you can go several ways with it. You can pretend that it's not happening and you can cover the broken places with busyness or alcohol or whatever-you can numb it.

    What happened to me was, and I remember exactly where I was on the day: I mean, I was really in pain, and I said out loud-I was by myself-"If God wants me to suffer like this, there must be a reason." And it took me by surprise; I did a double take. I thought, "Where is that coming from?" And from that time forward, I became aware of, I call them coincidences. I just became very aware that the absolute right person would come into my life at the moment that I needed to know something. The exact right book would come into my hands. Oftentimes by people I didn't know. They were like sign posts! And I thought, "Has this been going on all along and I just didn't notice?"

    And along about that time, I heard Bill Moyers say, "Coincidences are God's way of manifesting," and that lodged in me. That just really struck me and about that same time, I met Ted Turner and moved to Georgia-[laughs] Atlanta, Georgia!

    When I need an answer, or I need someone to be helped, it's always the same: my hands in prayer position and my thumbs pressed against my third eye, my forehead...

    Now, I had never lived in an environment where people went to church regularly and had a living faith. And I was, utterly fascinated because they were smart people, President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn and Ambassador Andrew Young and many others who were friends with Ted and people of deep faith. And I was married to Ted, a professed atheist, for ten years and for eight of those years, I spent a lot of time listening and talking and asking questions of these people.

    By that time, it had come to feel like I was being led. It was a somatic feeling that I was being beckoned, and I often felt that there was a light drawing me. And I'm not a woo-woo kind of person! I'm not a New Age person. I grew up in the fifties. But it was a very powerful feeling.

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    What I realized writing my book was that I had been empty since adolescence. Whenever I try to figure out how to describe it, it always manifests for me in terms of emptiness. I feel like when I was an adolescent, and felt so unworthy of love and so empty, I moved outside of myself. Myself emptied out of myself. And what was left was a more perfect me that maybe people could love, and I wasn't going to show them the other part. And when you do that, you fill in the emptiness-well, it fills up with anxiety real fast, and to numb the anxiety you do many things. I suffered from eating disorders, and drinking, and you know, there are many ways of numbing it.

    So if you leap almost 50 years later and I'm living in Georgia and I'm having this feeling of being led and I find myself so curious about this faith that these people all around me are practicing. I felt my emptiness being filled up with reverence.

    This is the hunger that you talk about in the book-

    Yes, yes.

    --and finally that hunger is being satisfied.

    With what I was really searching for all along. It was spiritual hunger. I was learning to be satisfied by spirit, [whereas before] I had been trying to satisfy the hunger with other things. And so, you know, like many people, I could have sort of settled with being spiritual.

    You mean, settled with being spiritual, as opposed to becoming religious?

    Correct. It would have just been meditation, but it became prayer.

    I think it's partly that I live in Georgia; it's partly that it's my culture. You know, I wasn't attracted to Buddhism although I really respect it. I wasn't attracted to Islam although I really respect it. Or Judaism. I'm attracted to Jesus.

    And so for a number of years, I thought, what am I going to do with this? I'm living with a man who I very much love and who is an atheist and who has called Christianity "a religion for losers" and yet, I'm feeling drawn.

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    Somebody in south Georgia, a very hostile person who doesn't like me at all, said, 'Have you been saved?' And I wasn't even sure what it meant, and I kind of tap danced around it 'cause he was hostile, and I didn't want to engage. But I then came back and I asked a friend of mine what did it mean, to her? And she said, "Well, to me, it meant going the next step." Well, boy, I mean, I'm a going-the-next-stepper! If there's a next step that can be taken, I'll take it. And so she had me read the Book of John and I was-I was experiencing grace at that time.

    Did you feel a divine presence?

    Yes, yes. I was feeling. I was humming with reverence. I felt the presence of the Almighty very much in my body-and I wasn't having a nervous breakdown [laughs] and I wasn't spacing out, or anything like that. It was very heavy and-you know, it's hard to get the words out these days because it's so loaded politically, and it scares me to say it-but I was saved.

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    And then I began to go to Bible study class, and it didn't take long for me to think, "Uh oh, I've made a terrible mistake, this is not for me." I started going to churches and I fled. I just fled.

    Because the teachings led you to believe it was a patriarchal system?

    Yeah, yeah. What I was feeling on my own was not a "Lord above." It was not-well, it certainly had nothing to do with woman being the downfall of man. You know-

    You couldn't relate to the "old man in the sky" idea-

    It wasn't a man in the sky! It was, it was: Come on! When we talk about-depending on how you talk about it-God, the Almighty, Sophia, a greater power, whatever-can't you understand that this is beyond gender? This is beyond anything that we can imagine. I mean, we can't even describe it. I understand why people latch onto gender things, but this is not a man. But because people have taken it so literally, it becomes gender and hence, hierarchal. And it just made my teeth grate. The more I studied, in the very kind of linear, fundamentalist way, the more I felt reverence leaking away from me.

    I never ever would have gone public with this, ever. A person who had been driving me at that time (because Ted and I shared a car) went on a website and said he had brought me to Christ. And it just spread like wildfire and became front page news. I was outed, and it was just a tremendous betrayal. I never would have [gone public with this] because it was too new. And then I discovered that it wasn't what I was-I thought, this is wrong for me.

    Did you stop going to Bible study?

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    Yes. Yes, I did. And I went for a couple of years feeing bereft. And I was really very sad. So now I'm on my own [in 2000 and 2001, after separating from Ted Turner] and for about a year, I'm confused. I think I've made a mistake.

    And I read Elaine Pagels. I had read "The Gnostic Gospels" years before and it had really impressed me. In fact, I read it when I was first feeling God. And then I read "Beyond Belief," which is a book she came out with recently, and it had a lot of references to early Christians and Gnostic Gospels, and so I read the originals. In fact, I got the whole Nag Hammadi library and through that reading, I began to realize that I am on the right path. That Christianity is my spiritual home. This is where I'm meant to be. And that I have to discover for myself what that means.

    I think feminism is another way of teaching what Jesus taught, that we are all full human beings with the right to have our humanity seen and respected.

    And this is very new and so you know, it's hard for me to go into it in great detail because I'm only a few years into this journey. But I am riveted, I am fascinated with religious history, with Biblical history, with the early Gospels, with Robert Graves, King Jesus, I'm just, I can't get enough. This is a very real journey for me.

    Have you been able to find a spiritual community in Atlanta that you can identify with?

    I want very much to do that. I would have to say that I have been for the last five years, writing my book which means that I don't leave home very much.

    I started venturing out when I finished the book last fall and discovered that there's a whole community nationwide of feminist Christians. I finished the book and then I heard about this book "Faith and Feminism" by Helen LaKelly Hunt, and now I've gotten to know her and through her, discovered that there's a lot of us out there. And it's like, "O.K., this was waiting. I needed to finish [the book] and this was waiting for me." And it's very exciting.

    And of course there was Anne Lamott. When I first became a Christian, I read "Traveling Mercies" and I realized, "Oh, I'm not alone, thank you." It was this book that literally came to me by accident that was my view of what it means to be a Christian. And I gave it to my children because I said, "This is what I'm talking about" because they're just sort of horrified [laughs] with my whole process.

    Did that help them understand you? Did they read it?

    I don't know. I think my daughter read it because she loves Anne Lamott-so I think she did-but they just, they just don't want to deal with this trip that I'm on.

    Was there one "Ah ha" moment for you?

    No. It's been a journey; little baby steps. And then long about 1998, it became very vibrant and vivid for me and that's when I began to pray-and prayer, it was very powerful for me.

    And you hadn't ever prayed before then?

    No. I had meditated and still do. And it's different.

    What kinds of things do you pray about?

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    Well, a lot of times it's thanks. You know, I feel uncomfortable always asking for something [laughs]. So there's a lot of things. And I have a lot to give thanks for. But when I need an answer, or I need someone to be helped, it's always the same: my hands in prayer position and my thumbs pressed against my third eye, my forehead. I find that I need to do that. And I need to be sitting or kneeling. It's like sending up. It's like my prayer and my thoughts go from my head through my fingers upward. And I'm sending this upward and as I describe within the book, I feel "hooked up."

    And then when you have questions and you're going through a difficult time, are your answers revealed to you through coincidences, or how things happen in your life?

    Yes, yes.

    What role did religion play in your break-up with Ted Turner? Is this why you split up?

    Oh, it was one among other reasons.

    When did he say that Christianity was a "religion for losers" (for which he later apologized)?

    Before I met him. And you know it's funny because he ends all his speeches with "God Bless". He studied; you know, he was an altar boy. He was considering becoming a missionary. He's read the Bible cover-to-cover twice. He's been saved seven times, including twice by Billy Graham.

    How does he feel now? Do you ever talk about your spirituality with him? Do you think he might change his views?

    I pray for that sometimes, but I don't know what will happen. We don't talk about it much.

    You seem to consider him a soul mate, and yet you don't have a spiritual connection-unless it's something that's there but he doesn't recognize as such.

    I feel it in him, and I feel it blocked, and it makes me sad.

    "Monster-in-Law" is your first movie in 15 years, so this is the first time you're going back to Hollywood as a Christian. Do you think it's hard to be a spiritually grounded person in that business?

    I sure think it helps. I'm not sure that I would have become a Christian if I had continued to live in Hollywood because the notion wouldn't have occurred to me. I think I would have continued to identify the coincidences and the sense of being led, but in a secular way.

    You mentioned that you read Helen LaKelly Hunt's book, "Faith and Feminism." Do you agree with her argument that the feminist movement needs to incorporate a spiritual element?

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    I think it has a spiritual element. I think feminism is about the spirit. I think feminism is another way of teaching what Jesus taught, that we are all full human beings with the right to have our humanity seen and respected. That is what feminism is, and that's what Jesus taught. I just think that for too long-not in the beginning, not at all in the beginning; it was very faith-based in the beginning, the women's movement. It's become secular and I think that that's beginning to shift and I think it needs to shift.