(Re)gendering the Trinity

Thank you to all of the comments below – all very helpful, and I’m not sure I have a great deal to add directly!

However – reflecting on the recent discussion in the media over masculine and feminine terms for God, I have found it interesting to reflect on the fact that certain church traditions have, at various points, referred to the Holy Spirit in the feminine. At risk of entering into counter-factual theology, if such a tradition were a mainstream practice (and if indeed it becomes more mainstream in the future) does this impact one’s view of the relations of the Trinity? Is it then more instinctive to have a ‘subordinationist’ view of the Trinity – that, somehow, calling God the Holy Spirit ‘she’ is less controversial not only because the Holy Spirit doesn’t have another gendered name, but because this still appears to uphold a kind of hierarchy? And how much might it affect our view of intra-trinitarian relationships if they are not all addressed with male pronouns? Basically – and more broadly – how might regendering the Trinity impact Trinitarian theology, or our perceptions of Trinitarian relationships? Would it be damaging? Would it be helpful for some people? Obviously, this is a very broad question, and far more speculative than anything else. But I’m curious to hear reactions to it.

Disentangling conflations in popular conversation

Alastair’s response has raised precisely the concern that I think I was trying to get at, but didn’t perhaps make entirely clear – that words like ‘biology’, ‘nature’ and ‘creation’ get conflated in these conversations in an unhelpful way.

In a similar way, the line between ‘description’, ‘explanation’ and ‘prescription’ is very often blurred. Thank you Alastair for drawing out those distinctions – that is really helpful. (For a popular example in media currently, see this video on why Hilary Clinton shouldn’t be president because of female hormones and the Bible)

I am by no means saying that this kind of flawed reasoning is the norm on the conservative end of this conversation, and I’ve certainly also experienced some very awkward line blurring from liberals. I suppose my broader question is – if we can’t seem to clarify these differences in popular conversations, as Christians, should we be making use of them at all? And, if so, how? What are the limits we should impose on referencing any kind of ‘natural’ (here meaning not scriptural – e.g. the ‘two books’ or revelation, nature and scripture) argument when trying to dialogue? And how can we avoid getting into extended debates about defining terms, rather than making genuine headway in our understanding? We have to assume that most people who are taking up this conversation do not have degrees in biology, or theology, or human psychology – and yet will often encounter these very different disciplines mixed up in each other. How much disentangling do we need to do?

#AllTheFeels: What does gendered reason and emotion do to the Church?

After raising the question of men trusting women (and why a tendency towards mistrust might persist) I thought it would be pertinent to explore the topic of gendering reason and emotion, particularly in the Church. As has been proposed in several of the responses from our previous discussion, there does seem to be, at the very least, a stereotype towards women being viewed as untrustworthy on the basis of being more ‘emotional’ than men. We’ve talked a little about passages that reference women as the ‘weaker’ sex, and, while Kristen is probably right that most casual sexism towards women in secular 21st century society isn’t rooted in a particular interpretation of 1 Timothy, I think it is fair to say that post-enlightenment protestant Christianity has certainly encouraged a reason/emotion split, and, importantly, hierarchy in modern thought, and along gender lines. As we move the conversation from a broader look at society as a whole to gendered reason/emotion in the Church, there are a few areas I’d particularly like to explore.

  1. How much should we allow a kind of pseudo-biology to dictate the way we talk about the relationship between women and men and their emotional faculties? When it comes to Christians and the ‘natural order’, I notice a trend of inconsistency in which aspects of nature we denote as ‘God ordained’ and which are not. For example: the same people who tell me that in God’s order, women are the ‘weaker’ (read more emotional) sex and men are more aggressive (and reasonable!) leader figures, and that this is reflected in some loose definition of biology, might not be so willing to acknowledge the ‘biological’ basis for the ‘natural’ presence of homosexuality, or the ‘naturally’ occurring desire for men to have multiple partners for evolutionary reasons. On what basis can we use ‘nature’ or ‘biology’ to justify a particular interpretation of scripture, when we’re dealing with a fallen world? And if we are going to, how far can that take us in seeing women as the more ‘emotional’ sex, often to their detriment? (Jem Bloomfield has written a really excellent post on some of the ‘evo-psych’ involved in this conversation – do read it!)
  1. Is it fair to blame diminishing male percentages in the Church on ‘feminization’ (usually meant almost as a dirty word, with connotations like overly touchy-feely worship songs) even though the overwhelming majority of leaders are still male? Do groups like the ‘Christian Vision for Men’ help matters by trying to make church more ‘manly’, rather than addressing a deeper problem, which is that emotional engagement is seen as a primarily female space – and that this somehow makes it inferior? I’m not necessarily arguing that the ‘Man’s Group’ is a bad thing, but as someone who grew up in a form of intellectual evangelicalism, in which emotional engagement with one’s spirituality was viewed with suspicion, it seems that attempts to make the church seem more intellectually rigorous or tough lead to a short-circuiting of a truly valuable aspect of human experience. I’m curious whether there is any traction in the idea that rather than an overly emotional church, the reason for lack of male engagement is that traditionally it was women who were asked to serve in their church communities – and those are involved stay engaged. Rather than taking men out of the main body of the church to bond and do ‘manly’ activities, community is best built when people serve the body together. This is turning into a broader point than specifically about reason and emotion, but I suppose I want to ask whether it’s fair to, in some way, blame women for something that is actually nothing to do with a ‘female’ trait.
  1. How much is gendered reason and emotion impacting the field of theology? Anecdotal evidence shows a lack of women doing the ‘hard’ or more ‘academic’ areas of theological disciplines, like Philosophical Theology, Biblical Studies, and Systematic Theology, and while it is essentially impossible to justify a position which suggests that men are more academically capable of studying these areas, why is it that women are not drawn to them, or are less likely to go on to professorships in these areas?

I’m aware that each of these questions could be a whole topic on its own, so if one is particularly picked up on and someone wants to write a full post exploring another area, I would welcome your thoughts!

“Really? Are you sure he meant it that way?”

Alastair’s response to this article was particularly helpful in teasing out the reasons behind a lack of trust being formed – especially with an article that relies heavily on generalizations as to male and female behaviour. One thing I’d like to draw out further is the concept of different ‘realms of experience’ for men and women.

Can we gender space and perception in this way, and does it explain a male lack of trust? Clearly, there are ‘gendered’ experiences – otherwise large parts of this conversation would not be necessary. But is it right to say that it is partly a lack of shared experience which leads to male disbelief, or does that simply cover up a deeper problem?

As subjective beings, all of us perceive life differently, and will be confronted with different experiences which other people will not be able to relate to, regardless of their gender. For instance, I don’t know what it’s like to be married, be physically disabled, have a parent die, be bilingual, be African-American, etc etc. And yet if someone tells me what that is like, or what his or her personal experience has been, my inclination has to be to trust it, because I don’t have any personal knowledge that could counteract what he or she says. And I imagine that goes for men hearing from men, too –if it is a man who shares a different experience, particularly one of being poorly treated, he might be taken more seriously.

In all this there are of course other factors which touch on much broader issues of social privilege and trust – the lower down any kind of social ladder you are, the less likely your complaints are to be taken seriously (see this article for an interesting perspective on whether our desire to view the world as ‘fair’ has anything to do with this) but I suppose I’d like to ask whether we can really put male disbelief of female experiences down to a lack of knowledge, or whether it is a case of finding it easier to believe that such problems don’t exist – particularly if you are of the ‘not all men’/’I would never do that’ camp. Or, worse, a much more deep-rooted/historical lack of trust in female witness, which is much more difficult to break – thanks to Bronwyn for drawing attention to that in reference to Easter Sunday!

If, however, it is the case that a lack of shared experience leads to a lack of trust, then surely we need to seriously challenge our own empathetic abilities. We should not have to rely on trying to draw male experience into female oppression in order to provoke sympathy (e.g. that is someone’s daughter/wife/sister) but learn to have true compassion, sorrowing in another human’s experience without needing to reference our own.

The Shifting Ground of ‘Church Values’

In response to Graham’s post, I think there’s a lot to be gained from remembering that the Church has never had a perfect/functional view of marriage/singleness/sex, but that we go through phases of different types of dysfunction. A quick read of the Church fathers and you find yourself embroiled in debates as to whether men and women should be able to leave their marriages in order to join monastic orders; singleness (or, more specifically, virginity) being considered a ‘higher’ calling than married life. Or, to look at the tradition of Roman Catholic priests, as a minister, your call is marriage to the Church, which is a sacrament in itself – the direct opposite of the ‘favour’ shown to married ministers in protestant churches.

As to representing the ‘single’ view, as a very young single woman (though currently in a relationship) my early twenties have been plagued by the ‘dating pool’ view of church, and a constant anxiety about whether my attempts at friendship are being read as having ulterior motives. More generally, I do get the feeling that single people are relegated to a kind of ‘second class citizen’ status, once they are over ‘marriageable’ age – an age which is much harsher for women than men.

Introduction: Hannah Malcolm

Photo on 23-09-2014 at 14.12 #2

I have a B.A. in Theology from the University of Cambridge and am currently studying towards an M.A.R. in ‘World Christianities’ at Yale Divinity School. Follow me on twitter at @hannahmmalcolm, and read my other musings at youhaveanaccent.wordpress.com. I talk too much.

I was born in London to evangelical Christian parents, who met at medical school and both came from Christian families. They were both ‘working’ parents, though their decision to have five children meant that my mother stopped working for a few years/went part-time. Both parents ‘led’ at home, and I never had the impression that either was making ‘final’ decisions (and if someone was, most days it was my mother, who is terrifyingly organized and efficient).

I promise this won’t be my entire life story. We’ll skip some bits.

In my teens, as a reaction against a secular school environment and a desire to explore what it would mean to fully express my faith, I began writing and blogging about being a Christian woman. At the time I called myself ‘complementarian’, believing that ‘equal but different’ meant what it sounded like – that men and women were actually equal, but that they were ‘different’ – and, from my teen perspective, I could see they were different. They looked different, they smelled different, and they thought differently about things. I never thought that women shouldn’t preach, but I did think there were bigger concerns. I did, however, react violently against the dating books, the language of ‘warrior princes’ and ‘pure princesses’ and the flowery skirts brigade that still infects many evangelical churches today. I would sit there in my trackies and jumper (and sometimes jeans if I were feeling really gracious toward my parents) and feel disgust at the guilt piled onto girls about their sexuality in particular. I understood wanting to dress modestly, but my frame of reference was the fact that, to me, most immodest or revealing clothing was just another patriarchal imposition – high heels, after all, are shoes designed to make it harder for women to run away. In church, teenage boys talked about their struggle with porn, teenage girls talked about their low self-esteem. I felt fine about the way I looked, and had definitely watched porn. Where was that conversation? Once, at university, I tried to bring that up in a flowery-skirted bible study, and was greeted with relieved I’m-not-the-only-one faces, but also silence.

At university I also discovered that many of my evangelical male friends were pleased that I described myself as ‘complementarian’, and I began to understand what that word really meant –men had the final say, women were ‘naturally’ submissive, and working mothers were, at best, a no-other-option choice – not a good model for raising a family. I had seen none of that in my parents’ own marriage, and began to think that maybe I didn’t belong in this camp. I was too brash, too outspoken, wanted to argue theology when that was a ‘male’ domain, and I began to resent my ‘female’-ness.

And so the word ‘complementarian’ slowly dropped out of my vocabulary, and I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the insidious male/female gender divides I saw in my (in other ways absolutely wonderful) evangelical church. Men went out for curry, beer, and theology, women had afternoon tea and craft days. Male students had male mentors in positions of church leadership, and there were no such leaders/elders amongst the female mentors. I had switched to the theology faculty for my final two years of study, and had several concerned conservative male friends suggest that it wasn’t a great idea. No women suggested that to me. In fact, I rarely heard evangelical female friends make theological assertions or discuss theological ideas at all, outside of the need for evangelism and personal Bible study. Like all of academia, Theology conferences were predominantly white and male, in both speakers and attendees.

I began reading more anthropology, and found that, as I did so, it was becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between the sexes beyond the fact that women could birth and feed children and men had greater physical strength. There were no universal norms as to ability to lead, intelligence or subtlety of thought, fierceness of spirit, or preference for quiet, sitting down activities. In fact, the only true universal was that male physical strength led to male dominance, and that meant that male names were far more prevalent for both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ activities (e.g. the most famous sports people, warriors, chefs, artists, craftspeople, writers, politicians, teachers, doctors, etc. are, for most of history, male, even though assumptions still prevail that little boys will want to run around outside and poke insects and little girls will want to bake and paint and play teacher). The most genuine ‘difference’ seemed to be one of opportunity, not natural tendency. (No one calls Van Gogh ‘girly’, but Cleopatra led ‘like a man’, because it was the men who led.)

If nature doesn’t really support gendered norms, should the Church? Of course, the Church is not bound by society, or even by what humans find ‘natural’ – even if it were ‘natural’ for humans to want to seek out multiple sexual partners (and some scientists argue that this is the case) I would still support marriage and one person commitment as the model God wants. And so, the questions became –

1) How much Spirit, and how much culture, do I read into any given Bible passage?

2) How much do I take seriously the feeling of call to leadership that many women in the Church claim to experience?

And 3) Why is the Church so slow to cry out against the oppression of women in all walks of life?

So, this is where I begin – a gender structuralist, who wants to take scripture seriously. A proponent for women in leadership, but who also understands the perspective of those who do not want it. Someone who wants to increase space for women in theological conversations, not by reducing male voices, but by making the space even bigger – I know that there are many white male theologians who have taught me a great deal, and I would not want to lose that, but I also don’t want to be limited to that. It’s exciting to me that all of us are going find our theological limits challenged in the next generation. The Church no longer looks white, male and western. It’s time for all of us to catch up.