Posted by: Dan | February 21, 2005

Ideologies of Gender

The Vatican recently released a statement penned by Cardinal J. Ratzinger on the role of men and women (thank you “Ms.” magazine for bringing this to my attention). Among other things it blames feminism for an “ideology of gender”. From there is degenerates into more traditional Catholic comments on the role of women. However, the accusation of an “ideology of gender” is rather thought-provoking and this is certainly not the first time I’ve encountered it.

David Ford expresses a very honest, empathetic, and sincere struggle with the issue of masculine and/or feminine pronouns being used in relation to God in an epilogue to his book The Shape of Living. Ultimately, he concludes, to refer to God as “she” or “her” is to ascribe gender to God when God is essentially genderless. In the end Ford decides it is best to continue to refer to God as “he” because that is the language used within scripture (and tradition) and people do not use it thinking that means God is male, as an elderly woman in his congregation says to him, “But I never thought of him [God] as male.”

I think Ford’s argument may be a little naive with the rise of feminism and the recognition of the many ways in which women have been oppressed. This has been an oppression that Christians have contributed to (I say “contributed” because Christianity should not be made the root cause or even the greatest evil in relation to this. Other socio-political and ideological forces must be recognised. After all at its very core Christianity is radically egalitarian). In a way feminism has revealed how an ideology of male gender has crept into Christianity. Something has changed and we cannot simply go back to the old way of doing things. Rather we must go forward and find a new way of doing things that does not contribute to oppression and is sensitive to those who have suffered.

Therefore, Ratzinger’s critique does hold some water in this regard. Instead of affirming the perverted forms of Christianity that have built an ideology of male gender around God, certain feminists seek to build an ideology of female gender around God.

I can see only two ways around this dilemma. The first is to move fluidly between calling God “he” and “she”, “him” and “her”. Recognising that God is neither we should be able to call God both as we look for a convenient personal pronoun (damn this English language that has no adequate neuter pronoun to express person-ality). Thus those who are steeped in tradition should be just as comfortable referring to God in female terms and those who have embraced feminism should be just as comfortable referring to God in male terms. As we move fluidly back and forth between these terms (not just referring to God as female when s/he exhibits stereotypical female attributes but also when s/he wields power and authority, and not just referring to God in male terms when s/he exhibits stereotypical male attributes but also when s/he demonstrates creativity and sensitivity) we should, over time, arrive at a conception of God that transcends all ideologies of gender.

The second solution is simply to drop all personal pronouns in relation to God. Therefore, although it may feel less poetic, and at times just plain awkward, God should just be referred to as God or in language that is neither male nor female (the pronoun “it” is not an adequate replacement because it lacks person-ality).

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Responses

  1. oh man, you keep me laughing. I’m just picturing myself at MYW…standing at the front, and saying “God loves you, she really does” whoooo boy. We’ll be out to visit you…for a loooong time.

    That said, I really value where you’re going with this. I find it odd that people are so slow to accept a movement towards equality with regards to women, yet so quick to accept the abolition of slavery. Though both could be argued for, with a little stretch, in the text.

    On a personal note, I think I’m pretty insensitive to the issue…and that I could certainly do well to remember the oppression that women have faced and still face.

  2. I’m with you. I think. I’ve taken to referring to God as Godself, instead of himself or herself. Gender specific pronouns are just metaphors for understanding God. And we’ve gone way off the deep-end with the male one. I really think that most Christians think that God is a man. Jesus being a man doesn’t help that one. So does the fact that the 12 disciples were men. Wonder where the calling God “he” came from? Oh right, a patriachal society and maybe the fact that Jesus called God Abba once. I tend to prefer the solution of dropping the gender specific pronoun…the metaphor of God as a human (by referring to God as he/she…I don’t mean Jesus) just don’t work for me too well right now…it’s broke. You think I’d have something better to read then your journal at 2am. Nothing like a little gender language God talk before bed.

  3. Oh boy, if you think the gospels support patriarchy you’re misreading the texts pretty badly. Sure Jesus was male and there were 12 male disciples but there were a hell of a lot of female disciples as well. There’s a rather radical egalitarian tone to the gospels that is more implicit at some points (like Luke’s geneology of Jesus) but rather explicit at others (like the fact that women, who could not be used as legal witnesses, are actually the first witnesses of the resurrected Jesus). Of course we tend to miss that since we’re reading the texts through the lenses of the 21st-century instead of the 1st-century. Read the text on their own terms and supports for oppression and patriarchy tend to vanish pretty quickly – and you don’t have to throw away any part of what is said.

    That’s why I object to your throw-away comment about Jesus calling God Abba once… well, that just doesn’t do justice to the texts. Jesus consistently referred to God with intimate Father/Son language. You’ve got to deal with that in a way that takes it seriously, you can’t just discard it. After all Jesus’ most famous Abba reference – the Lord’s prayer – is used when he is teaching the disciples how to pray. Not only does he call God father, he teaches the disciples to call God this as well. Sorry, you can’t just throw that out with carefully exploring it first. You risk losing a lot of what’s going on if you simply discard it because you object to the term that is used.

    Throw-away approaches risk creating a god in your own image and such gods are idols, not the God revealed in scripture. Idols, by nature, are deaf and dumb, and the more we worship them the more deaf and dumb we become.

    (I think you see the harm of that to a certain extent in the writings of E. Schussler-Fiorenza. I really like what she tries to do and I agree with her feminist conclusions (and a lot of her critique) but I think she does some pretty grave disservices to Paul and other passages to get to where she wants to go. I don’t think you have to cut out parts of the NT (or simply fabricate other parts… although, to be fair, exegesis and any historical study is often the work of informed fabrication) in order to arrive at egalitarianism. Of course I haven’t read her extensively so I may be misreading her.)
    (Reply to this) (Parent)(Thread)

  4. Good. I’m glad you object to these throw away comments. I do too.

    I’m sort of stereotyping some Christians here…I’m saying that many Christians “do not do justice to the texts” – they see Jesus as a man, 12 men disciples, Jesus calling God “daddy”, and they think God is a man. Think about it though. If you have never picked up a Bible before and have no lens for which to read it by and you scan through it, what would your conclusion(s) be? Hell, many people have been reading it for years and end up with the same conclusions as those who scan it for the first time!

    What is more, I am not suggesting the gospels are patriarchal…I’m saying the culture of the Old Testament was, and this is the culture the NT rose out of. Will this have an influence on the NT and the NT writers? Likely. And Jesus and the gospels do seem to do away with sexism in some ways, but the society/culture of the NT times surely does not.

    Hmmm, I still like using throw away comments – I find them to be excellent launching points for discussion.

    Jude

  5. You wrote:
    Think about it though. If you have never picked up a Bible before and have no lens for which to read it by and you scan through it, what would your conclusion(s) be? Hell, many people have been reading it for years and end up with the same conclusions as those who scan it for the first time!

    When I scan the bible without the appropriate lenses my conclusion is that I generally don’t have a clue about what’s going on and I should be cautious about making any other conclusions until I get the right lenses in place. It demonstrates our ignorance that we think we can just flip the bible open and understand what’s going on in any given passage. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it (quoting Gordon Fee), what we need to understand the bible is context, context, and more context.

    And it makes sense that there are those who have been reading the bible for years and end up with the same conclusions as those who scan it for the first time. Cursory readings, a chapter a day without reflection, pulling verses and chapters out of their individual books (let alone out of the corpus of that author, and out of that testament, and out of the biblical narrative as a whole, and out of what can can know more broadly about the historical and literary contexts) tends not to lead to understanding. I mean I could spend my whole life taking random passages from Kant, or even reading him through from start to finish (say a chapter a day) and still completely misunderstand him. I’d need to really critically engage with what he writes to get what’s going on otherwise it’ll almost entirely pass me by. The same goes for the bible, maybe even more so. Generally Christians in North America seem to have forgotten how to read the bible and so it doesn’t matter how much you read it if you’re reading it the wrong way. A good book in this regard is “How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth” by Gordon Fee (it’s actually co-authored but I only remember Fee’s name).

    Just as importantly right understanding is intimately linked to right living. The more one indwells the biblical narrative, the more one follows and embodies Jesus, the more one will be able to understand the bible. It’s a somewhat symbiotic relationship. That means that not all those who sit down and study the bible academically will form right conclusions, study must also be accompanied by practice. That’s why Moltmann says orthodoxy is orthopraxis.

    Secondly, when patriarchy appears in the Old Testament (and is spoken of in a positive way) the critical reader should examine if and how Jewish patriarchy differs from the patriarchy of the broader pagan society. It’s like reading the creation narrative. On the surface it may seem pretty similar to other ancient near eastern creation stories but it makes some rather radical (although sometimes subtle) changes and consequently presents a rather radically different view of God and humanity than the other stories. Similarly one may discover that when patriarchy is affirmed in the OT it is generally affirmed for the sake of women. Given the state of ancient near eastern society women were much more vulnerable than they are today and so instead of exploiting and abusing women the OT attempts to set up structures that protect women. J. Ellul has a great chapter on this (and on reading a feminist theology out of the OT) in his book “The Subversion of Christianity”. Sure, this will be something the NT writers encounter but, like Jesus I think they engage such things prophetically, and critically, they don’t blindly embrace the influences around them.

    That said, you say that Jesus and the gospels do seem to do away with sexism in some ways but the society/culture of the NT times surely does not. By that do you mean other NT authors (say Paul) continue to embrace patriarchy even though Jesus does not? Certainly the church from the 2nd to 4th centuries seems to move back to a much more patriarchal (and hierarchical) system but I think you’d have trouble finding that in the NT or in the very early churches, particularly the Pauline house churches. Such a movement must be seen as a movement away from the teachings of Christianity and the example of the very early Christians.

  6. Ahh the question of gender I love it…Dan you would have loved to see my head get bitten off this week(thurs) at my liberal arts university when the prof said most non-government organizations are ran by women and i raised my hand and asked “is it safe to say because they are more nurturing” and then a girl was like no that is wrong that is a feminine quality not a female quality (what a bitch!(Yes I understand how bad this term looks for any feminists on the site as it is a term mainly used for women and male nurses! My feminine side should kick her ass…hahaha) maybe we need a website to see what counts as female male masculine and feminine (maybe you can put a blog up with that instead of the lists of the books you read to help clarify! Sorry threw a shot at Abe and he will cry so I had to say something) because apparently it is no longer safe to assume women are nurturing. I find even the people(profs) (note term “people”) who have majored in women studies can not even define the term effectively or efficiently. I think what I am trying to get at is it is hard to define gender as it is almost like trying to figure out what number is infinite. I personally like things the way they are but am willing to adapt but no one can verify what is masculine or feminine and those qualities too will change in time. We should just change the masculine feminine thing to what it is to be Human. What it is to be a man or woman today will not be the same in a thousand years. I guess to argue abit because i haven’t had an opportunity yet with my prof and that girl but for the people refering to him as she why can he not be a he but with feminine qualities? I understand the whole feminist argument but to be the devil’s advocate why can they (feminists who want to change the bible not women don’t get your undergarments in a knot) not except a “male” figure with feminine gender qualities. Furthermore, feminine and masculine qualities are only human so should we degrate God to one of us, human. I guess anyway we put it we are kind of bashing God because we are made in his image not vice versa so to tag him with male, female, feminine, masculine…”God is only human??” is kind of a kick in the crotch(Use term as I cannot say Nuts) and no one has ever thought of “him” in that context so why start now. Did you hear of that [Hu)(Wo)]man God?

    Best Regards,

    The man with masculine feminine and hell maybe homosexual tendencies
    Egg

  7. There is a reason that there are “stereotypical female attributes” and “stereotypical male attributes”, that being the fact that men and women are very different in a lot of ways. A lot of work has gone into trying to figure out how two such different beings can relate to each other (such as the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” series), and to try to claim equality in all areas I think is unhealthy (although not being the same should not equate to one gender being superior to another). Of course, within individuals there are men who exhibit more womanly characteristics (ie. Dan) and men who are more manly men (ie. Me). (Oh wait, by joking like this I am implying that male attributes are superior. Dang.) But thank God we are different. As I know through my relationship with my fiance, we can complement each other with our differences, and we can help each other learn and grow through them.

    With regards to God, of course it is absurd to think that God is a man, or that only man was created in His image. Genesis 1:27 says, “And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” From this it is clear to me that God’s image is most clearly expressed in the union of male and female.

    Only a faggoty-assed retard would think that God is a man. Kiss my politically-incorrect ass.

    Josh.


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