I would like to talk about men and women and the debate about whether we are genuinely different or whether this aspect of our bodies is just packaging that has no bearing on who we are. I would like to begin by talking about three things:
- “Egalitarianism,” which says not only that men and women are due equal respect but the differences are differences of body only and not differences of mind, heart, and spirit.
- “Complementarianism,” which says that there are real and personal differences, and men and women are meant to complement each other.
- Why the debate between egalitarianism and complementarianism is like a car crash.
Egalitarianism, Complementarianism, and Car Crashes
I was in a theology class when the professor argued emphatically that for two claims to contradict each other, one must be the exact opposite of the other. With the example he gave, it sounded fairly impressive, and it took me a while to be able to explain my disagreement.
Saying, for one claim to contradict another, that one must be the exact opposite of the other, its mirror image, is like saying that you can only have an auto collision if the two cars are the same kind of car, with the same shape, and they must be perfectly aligned when they hit each other—because if there’s part of one car that doesn’t touch the other car, then there hasn’t been a real collision.
That is simply wrong. In the world of cars, only the tiniest fraction of collisions are two identical cars, hitting each other dead center to dead center. When there’s a collision, it is usually two different things which hit off center. And the same is true of ideas. Most collisions in the realm of ideas are two very different things, not mirror images. What happens is that one piece of one of them, perhaps the leftmost edge of the bumper, hits one piece of the other, and in both that one piece is connected to the whole structure. There is much more involved in the collision, on both sides, than that one little bit.
A debate many Christians care about, the debate between the feminist-like egalitarians and the more traditional complementarians, is interesting. (I’ll say ‘complementarian’ for now, even though I don’t like the term.) It is interesting as an example of a debate where the collision is not between mirror images. Egalitarianism is not the mirror image of complementarianism, and complementarianism is not the mirror image of egalitarianism. They are very different beasts from each other.
Although this is only the outer shell, egalitarians are usually better communicators than complementarians. Most egalitarians make an explicit claim and communicate it very powerfully. Complementarians usually have trouble explaining their position, let alone presenting it as compellingly as egalitarians do. This has the effect that people on both sides have a much clearer picture of what egalitarian stands for than what complementarianism stands for. The egalitarian claim is often backed by a coherent argument, while the complementarian claim may have Biblical proof texts but often has little else.
I would like to try and suggest what complementarians have so much trouble explaining.
When I took a cognitive science class, the professor explained a problem for cognitive science: ‘qualia’. A computer can represent red and green as two different things. As far as theory problems go, that’s easy to take care of. The problem is that the computer knows red and green are different only as we can know that two numbers are different. It can’t deal with the redness of the red or the greenness of the green: in other words it lacks qualia. It can know things are different, but not experience them as really, qualitatively different.
Some people can only hear complementarianism as rationalising, “White is brighter than black.” Yet it is foundationally a claim of, “Red is red and green is green.”
I don’t like the term ‘complementarian.’ It tells part of the truth, but not enough—a property you can see, but not the essence. I would suggest the term ‘qualitarian,’ for a belief in qualia and qualitative differences. The term’s not perfect either, but it’s describing some of the substance rather than detail. From here on I’ll say ‘qualitarian’ rather than ‘complementarian’ to emphasise that there are qualia involved.
With that mentioned, I’d like to make the most unpalatable of my claims next, and hope that if the reader will be generous enough not to write me off yet, I may be able to make some coherent sense.
The Great Chain of Being
This is something that was important to many Christians and which encapsulates a way of looking on the world that can be understood, but takes effort.
The Great Chain of Being was believed for centuries. When the people who believed it were beginning to think like moderns, the Great Chain of Being began to look like the corporate ladder. If there were things above you, you wanted to climb higher because it’s not OK to be you if someone else is higher than you. If there were things above you, you wanted to look down and sneer because there was something wrong with anything below you. That’s how heirarchy looks if the only way you can understand it is as a copy of the corporate ladder.
Before then, people saw it differently. To be somewhere in the middle of the great order was neither a reason to scorn lower things nor covet higher places. Instead, there was a sense of connection. If we are the highest part of the physical creation, then we are to be its custodian and in a real sense its representative. If we are spirits as well, we are not squashed by the fact that God is above us; the one we should worship looks on us in love.
Unlike them, our culture has had centuries of democracy and waving the banner of equality so high we can forget there are other banners to wave. We strive for equality so hard that it’s easy to forget that there can be other kinds of good.
The Great Chain of Being is never explained in the Bible, but it comes out of a certain kind of mindset, a mindset better equipped to deal with certain things.
There’s an old joke about two people running from a bear. One stops to put on shoes. The other says, “What are you doing?” The first says, “I’m stopping to put on tennis shoes.” The second says, “You can’t outrun the bear!” “I don’t need to outrun the bear. I only need to outrun you.”
One might imagine a medieval speaking with a postmodern. The medieval stands in his niche in the Great Chain of Being and stops. The postmodern says, “Why are you stopping?” The medieval says, “I want to enjoy the glorious place God has granted me in the Great Chain of Being.” The postmodern says, “How can you be happy with that? There are others above you.” The medieval says, “Not all of life is running from a bear.”
What am I trying to say? Am I saying, for instance, that a man is as high above a woman as God is above an angel? No. All people—men, women, young, old, infant, red, yellow, black, white—are placed at the same spot on the Great Chain of Being.
The Bible deals with a paradox that may be called “equality with distinction”. Paul writes that “In Christ there is no Jew nor Greek”, yet claims that the advantage of the Jew is “much in every way.” Biblical thinking has room to declare both an equality at deepest level—such as exists between men and women—and recognize a distinction. There is no need to culturally argue one away to defend the other. Both are part of the truth. It is good to be part of a Creation that is multilayered, with inequality and not equality between the layers. If this is so, how much more should we be able to consider distinction with fundamental equality without reading the distinction as the corporate ladder’s abrasive inequality?
One writer talked about equality in relation to containers being full. To modify her image, Christianity wants all of us to be as full as possible. However, it does not want a red paint can to be filled with green paint, nor a green paint can to be filled with red paint. It wants the red and green paint cans to be equally full, but does not conclude that the green can is only full if it has the same volume of red paint as the red paint can. It desires equality in the sense of everyone being full, but does not desire e-qual-ity (being without a qual-itative difference), in the sense of qualia being violated.
Zen and the Art of Un-Framing Questions
May we legitimately project man-like attributes up on to God?
Before answering that question, I’d like to suggest that there are assumptions made by the time that question is asked. The biggest one is that God is gender-neutral, and so any talking about God as masculine is projecting something foreign up on to him.
The qualitarian claim is not that we may legitimately project man-like attributes up on to God. It is that God has projected God-like attributes down on to men. Those are different claims.
A feminist theologian said to a master, “I think it is important that we keep an open mind and avoid confining God to traditional categories of gender.”
The master said, “Of course. Why let God reveal himself as masculine when you can confine him to your canons of political correctness?”
I can’t shake a vision of an articulate qualitarian giving disturbing answers to someone’s questions and sounding like an annoying imitation of a Zen master:
What would you say to, “A woman’s place is in the House—and in the Senate!”?
Well, if we’re talking about disrespectful, misogysnistic… Wait a minute… Let me respond to the intention behind your question.
Do you know the Bible story about the Woman at the Well?
Yes! It’s one of my favorite stories.
Do you know its cultural context?
Most Bible stories—including this one—speak for themselves. A few of them are much richer if you know cultural details that make certain things significant.
Every recorded interaction between Jesus and women, Jesus broke rules. To start off, a rabbi wasn’t supposed to talk with women. But Jesus really broke the rules here.
When a lone woman came out and he asked for water, she was shocked enough to ask why he did so. And there’s something to her being alone.
Drawing water was a communal women’s task. The women of the village would come and draw water together; there was a reason why this woman was alone: no one would be caught dead with her. Everyone knew that she was the village slut.
Her life was dominated by shame. When Jesus said, “…never thirst again,” she heard an escape from shamefully drawing water alone, and she asked Jesus to help her hide from it. When he said to call her husband, she gave an evasive and ambiguous reply. He gave a very blunt response: “You are right in saying you have no husband, for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”
Instead of helping her run from her shame, Jesus pulled her through it, and she came out the other side, running without any shame, calling, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did!”
There’s much more, but I want to delve into one specific detail: there was something abnormal about her drawing water alone. Drawing water was women’s work. Women’s work was backbreaking toil—as was men’s work—but it was not done in isolation. It was something done in the company of other people.
It’s not just that one culture. There are old European paintings that show a group of women, bent over their washboards, talking and talking. Maybe I’m just romanticizing because I haven’t felt how rough washboards are to fingers. But I have a growing doubt that labor-saving devices are all they’re cracked up to be. Vacuum cleaners were introduced as a way to lessen the work in the twice-annual task of beating rugs. Somehow each phenomenal new labor-saving technology seems to leave housewives with even more drudgery.
I have sympathy for feminists who say that women are better off doing professional work in community than doing housework in solitary confinement. I think feminists are probably right that the Leave It to Beaver arrangement causes women to be lonely and depressed. (I’m not sure that “Turn the clock back, all the way back, to 1954!” represents the best achievement conservatives can claim.)
The traditional arrangement is not Mom, Dad, two kids, and nothing more. Across quite a lot of cultures and quite a lot of history, the usual pattern has kept extended families together (seeing Grandma didn’t involve interstate travel), and made those extended families part of an integrated community. From what I’ve read, women are happier in intentional communities like Reba Place.
Do you support the enfranchisement of women?
Let me visit the dict.org website. Webster’s 1913 says:Enfranchisement \En*fran"chise*ment\, n. 1. Releasing from slavery or custody. —Shak. 2. Admission to the freedom of a corporation or body politic; investiture with the privileges of free citizens. Enfranchisement of copyhold (Eng. Law), the conversion of a copyhold estate into a freehold. —Mozley & W.
WordNet seems less helpful; it doesn’t really mention the sense you want.enfranchisement 1: freedom from political subjugation or servitude 2: the act of certifying [syn: certification] [ant: disenfranchisement]
If I were preaching on your question, I might do a Greek-style exegesis and say that your choice of languages fuses the egalitarian request to grant XYZ with the insinuation that their opponents’ practice is equivalent to slavery. Wow.
I think you’re using loaded language. Would you be willing to restate your question in less loaded terms?
Ok, I’ll ask a different way, but will you promise not to answer with a word-study?
Ok, I won’t answer with a word-study unless you ask.
Do you believe that women have the same long list of rights as men?
Hmm… I’m trying to think about how to answer this without being misleading…
Please answer me literally.
I’m afraid I’m going to have to say, “No.”
But you at least believe that women have some rights, correct?
I said I wouldn’t give a word-study…
Is it OK if I give a comparable study of a concept?
[Quietly counts to ten and takes a deep breath:] Ok.
I don’t believe that women have any rights. I don’t believe that men have any rights, either. The Bible doesn’t use rights like we do. It answers plenty of questions we try to solve with rights: it says we shouldn’t murder, steal, and so on. But the older Biblical way of doing this said, “Don’t do this,” or “Be like Christ,” or something like that.
Then this really odd moral framework based on rights came along, and all of a sudden there wasn’t a universal law against unjustified killing, but an entitlement not to be killed. At first it seemed not to make much difference. But now more and more of our moral reasoning is in terms of ‘rights’, which increasingly say, not “Don’t do this,” or “You must do that,” but “Here’s the long list of entitlements that the universe owes me.” And that has meant some truly strange things.
In the context of the concrete issues that qualitarians discuss with egalitarians, the Biblical concept of seeking the good of all is quietly remade into seeking the enfranchisement of all, and so it seems that the big question is whether women get the same rights as men—quite apart from the kind of situation where language comparing your opponents’ behavior to slavery is considered polite.
Couldn’t we listen to, say, Eastern Philosophy?
There’s a lot of interesting stuff in Eastern philosophy. The contrast between Confucian and Taoist concepts of virtue, for instance, is interesting and worth exploring, especially in this nexus. I’m really drawing a blank as to how one could get a rights-based framework from Asian philosophy. And I’m not sure African mindsets would be much more of a help, for instance. Even if you read one Kwaanza pamphlet, it’s hard to see how individual rights could come from the seven African values. The value of Ujima, or collective work and responsibility, speaks even less of individual rights than, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Ok, let me change the subject slightly. Would you acknowledge that Paul was a progressive?
Hmm… reminds me of a C.S. Lewis book in which Lewis quotes a medieval author. The author is talking about some important Greek philosopher and says, “Now when we come to a difficulty or ambiguity, we should always ascribe the views most worthy of a man of his stature.”
Lewis’s big complaint was that this kind of respect always reads into an author the biases and assumptions of the reader’s age. It honors the author enough to think he believed what we call important, but not enough that the author can disagree with our assumptions and be able to correct us.
When we ask if Paul is a progressive, there are two basic options. Either we say that Paul was not a progressive, and relegate him to our understanding of a misogynist, or we generously overlook a passage here and there and generously include him as one of our progressives.
It seems that neither response allows Paul to be an authority who knows something we don’t.
On second thought, maybe it’s a good thing there aren’t too many articulate qualitarians.
Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus… and Gender Psychologists are from the Moon
When pop psychology talks about gender, it is trying to make academic knowledge available to the rest of us. An academic textbook by Em Griffin illustrates Deborah Tannen’s theories, saying, “Jan hopes she’s marrying a ‘big ear’.” This thread is picked up very well in popular works.
William Harley’s His Needs, Her Needs is a sort of Christianized Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Harley devotes a full chapter to explaining that one of the most foundational needs for a husband to understand is a woman’s need for listening. He devotes a full chapter to convincing husbands that it is essential that they listen to everything their wives want to say. It was perhaps because reading this work (and Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, part of You Just Don’t Understand, etc.) that I was shocked when I reread C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. It was much more than Mother Dimble’s words, “Husbands were made to be talked to. It helps them concentrate their minds on what they’re reading…”
The shock was deep. It wasn’t like having a rug pulled out from under your feet. It was more like standing with your feet on bare floor and having the floor pulled out from under your feet.
The gender books I’d read, both Christian and non-Christian, made a seamless fusion of the basic raw material, and one particular interpretation. The interpretation was as hard to doubt as the raw material itself—and one couldn’t really see the fusion as something thatcan be questioned. It was like looking at a number of startlingly accurate pictures of scenes on earth—and then realising that all the pictures were taken from the moon.
That Hideous Strength suggests an answer to the question, “How else could it be?” I’m hesitant to suggest everyone else will have the same experience, but…
If we look at a Hollywood movie targeting young men, there will be violent action, a fast pace, and a sense of adventure. A movie made for young women will have people talking and delving into emotions as they grow closer, as they grow into more mature relationships. If we sum these up in a single word, the men’s movie is full of action, and the women’s movie is filled with relationship.
Aristotle characterized masculinity as active and femininity as passive. It seems clear to me that he was grappling with a real thing, the same thing that shapes our movie offerings. It also seems clear that he didn’t quite get it right. Masculinity is active. That much is correct. But femininity is not described by the absence of such action. It’s described by the presence of relationship. It seems that the following can be said:
- Aristotle was grappling with, and trying to understand, something real.
- Even though he’s observing something real, his interpretation was skewed.
These two things didn’t stop with Aristotle. If a thinker as brilliant as Aristotle fell into this trap, maybe gender psychology is also liable to stumble this way, too. (Or at least today’s gender psychology stumbles this way. If you’re willing to listen to people who look and talk a bit different and are a bit older than us, Charles Shedd’s Letters to Karen and Letters to Philip are examples of slightly older books worth the time to look at.)
About this point, I expect a question like, “Ok, men reflect the masculine side of God. But don’t you have a place for femininity, and can’t women reflect the feminine side of God?”
This is a serious question, and it reflects a serious concern. Many Hindus believe that everything is either part of God or evil: your inmost spirit is a real part of God, and your body is intrinsically evil and illusory like everything else physical. I’m told that Genesis 1 was quite a shocker when it appeared—not, so much, because it says we’re made in the image of God, but because after the stars, rocks, plants, and animals were created, the text keeps on saying, “And God saw that it was good.” That’s really a staggering suggestion, if you knew the other nations’ creation stories. The Babylonians believed that the god Marduk killed the demoness Tiamat, tore her dragon carcass apart, and made half of it the land and half of it the sky. So your body and mine, every forest, every star, is part of a demon’s carcass that happens to be left over after a battle.
Please think about this claim for a minute, and then look at part of Genesis 1:
- Creation didn’t happen as a secondary result of divine combat. God created the world because he specifically wanted to do so.
- Physical matter, and life, and everything else, is good.
- God made us in his image. Only then was his creation very good, and complete.
One thing that comes out of these things is that God can create good. God created the physical world without being physical. Our bodies, indeed the whole natural world, are good, because God created something outside of himself. Femininity is like this, only much more so. Femininity is a created good, and it is much more beautiful, more mysterious, more wondrous, more powerful thing than physical matter. People are the unique creation where matter meets spirit—no other creation can claim that. Women are the unique point where spirit meets the very apex of femininity.
Every woman is a mystery, and every man is a king. To be a Christian man is to be made like the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. There is something kingly and lordly about manhood. Part of this is understood when you realize that this does not mean domineering other people and standing above them, but standing under them, like the servant king who washed feet. The sign and sigil of male authority is not a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns.
But all this is a hint. I give sketch here and there, and I hope less to provide an inescapable logical framework than suggest entry points that can look into the Bible and see these things.
I’d like to give a glimpse of the qualities:
C.J.S. Hayward, with thanks to Martin, Phil, Mary, Xenia, Patrick, Yoby, Mom, and Kathryn.