Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (8) on Gender

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This is a second excerpt from Chapter Six, JUST WAR, PACIFISM, AND GENDER.

This is a longish post – but worth bearing with I suggest. These are important and relevant themes for Christians trying to negotiate the modern minefield of gender and sex.

In this excerpt Brock and Hauerwas discuss the contemporary fragmentation of previously accepted ideas about gender. Below, we break into a discussion about how we understand masculinity and femininity. Hauerwas treads a wise path here – he wants to resist elevation of relative cultural forms of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ identity and roles (the popular equating of ‘biblical’ gender roles with mid-20th century American family values among some strands of evangelicalism for example), But he also wants to acknowledge the sheer variety of what it means to be ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ and the difficulty in defining what each means.

Brock links this to contemporary battles over gender and the current rejection of gender distinction in favour of a swirling kaleidoscope of gender identities where nothing is fixed. Both men agree that dismissing the essential differences between male and female (the rejection of heteronormativity) is a false step.

SH: Well I’ve always distrusted those kinds of descriptions [defined ideas of masculinity and femininity] because they so invite either biological determinism or social constructivism of one kind or the other. Men and women have bodies that are specific and also different. What forms that difference takes, I think, is open to unbelievable variation. I don’t know that there’s any one Christian way of displaying what that difference should look like. I would hope that Christians wouldn’t necessarily underwrite the modes of what counts for feminine and masculine in the various societies that they find themselves.

BB: If I am hearing you rightly, it sounds like you think that not only do they never end, but these negotiations about the force of gender should never end. But also, conceptually speaking, one way to end the discussion is to deny that there is a distinction at all.

SH: Right! There is a distinction.

BB: We just don’t know how appropriately to acknowledge and respect it. What we do know is that it is patriarchal and imperialistic to have a claim about distinction at all in the new ideology. Such claims ought to be resisted. The so called rejection of heteronormativity, in other words, you think is a misguided solution?

SH: Absolutely. (186)

Brock then develops the conversation, astutely describing the current status quo in the West – how Christians after long being cultural ‘insiders’ are finding themselves as cultural ‘outsiders’. The new sexual morality can, I think, be seen as a particularly strong form of liberation ideology – throwing off the shackles of oppressive patriarchy and its restrictive and judgemental power structures in favour of freedom of the individual to express their identity in whatever way is true to their inner self – whether male, female, transgender, queer or whatever. Such is the momentum of the new morality that Brock is surely right to observe that there will be less and less legal space for dissent from the new consensus.

In other words, a question facing the Church in a post-Christendom West is what will it mean to be faithful disciples of Jesus in a culture that increasingly sees Christian beliefs about sex and gender as morally and legally objectionable?

BB: … But Christians now are having to learn what it means to be on the wrong side of a rapidly changing moral convention. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the realm of sexuality, which encompasses the problems related to gender violence as well as a long history of violent suppression of same-sex relationships and other formerly marginalized expressions of human sexuality. We are rapidly reaching the conclusion of the first phase of the transition that started in the 1960s with the coming out of marginal lifestyles that had been vigorously excluded for centuries and is concluding with their being near the center of the cultural mainstream. It’s a transition from one moral regime to another. It will probably for a little while longer be possible to get away with saying, “It’s not clear to me if gay relationships can be called marriage,” for instance. But pretty soon this will be seen as by definition a bigoted or an unjust belief and if Christian theologians want to explore such positions they are going to have to do so on the wrong side of the moral, legal and cultural law. (187)

In this new landscape, Brock asks Hauerwas what advice he has for Christians living in unmapped territory. Hauerwas’ response implies a willingness to speak and take the consequences – allied to his oft articulated criticism of the failure of Christian marital practices and their destructive conformity to Western culture.

SH: … My basic advice is to say what you think you can say honestly and clearly. I think also the word “courage” is probably going to be necessary, because the demand given the Supreme Court decision for recognition of gay marriage is just going to be a presumption that you just have to accept.  I can’t accept it, as much as I would like to. If you think that marriage is an institution in Christianity that has a unitary and sacramental end, I cannot also see how it doesn’t have the procreative end. It doesn’t mean that every marriage has to be procreative. But marriage as an institution does. I am more than ready to acknowledge that gay people can be as good as parents— if not better— than nongay people. The question is, finally, where do you get children from? For me, it’s not going to turn on any one biblical text. It’s really an ontological question that involves the navel. I just wish that Christian marital practices were sufficient to sustain the acknowledgment of significant gay committed relationships, but our practices are awful, because romantic conceptions of marriage have just destroyed us.  (188-9)

What Hauerwas is talking about in the that last sentence, is how, once Christians have often joined the world in how they have viewed and practiced marriage. Namely, in idolising the idea of the family of 2.2 children as the ideal Christian vocation, we have made almost incomprehensible that marriage and sex are not essential to live a completely fulfilled life. In treating marriage as a private relationship of mutual happiness, we have bought in to modern ideas of romance and individualism. I have written elsewhere that “If marriage is nothing more than a union of two people ‘in love’ with each other, then the church’s reluctance to grant this status to homosexual couples seems arbitrary, hypocritical and prejudiced. It also makes a breakup more likely when this mutually enhancing relationship goes wrong.”

The exchange on gender closes with these interesting observations by Brock about Christian defence of marriage.

BB: Christianly speaking it [marriage] has to be a gift that the church, both men and women in it, are so vulnerable here. But I think that vulnerability produces an anxiety that is easily displaced into the debates in which we are so angrily embroiled, about protecting the traditional family from interlopers, namely from people with sexualities that are different. As if the disarray of the old patriarchal ordering. of domestic relations was the gays fault! I think the great demonic twist of this historical moment is the lack of exemplars that I was talking about earlier. There seems to be a kind of white- knuckle approach to marriage that came to be the norm over the last thirty or forty years. We’re going to hang on to something that doesn’t seem to be working with the collapse of that old patriarchal model. The new twist is that the white- knucklers now are being called violently bigoted, and it’s just leading to chaos. (191-2)

The conversation closes with Brock asking SH his response to the question of how Christians can live up to the strong moral claims of their faith that ‘that produce, or should produce, countercultural living.’

Hauerwas admits he does not know the answers – but he knows where to look: – in the Great Tradition of the Church and in prayer to God.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Gender and ministry 4: seeing through eschatological glasses

Let me ask a question:  Do you see hierarchy / subordination between men and women continuing eternally into the new creation? Or do you see it as something imperfect, a result of the Fall, and something that will transcended and redeemed within a renewed creation?

The more you read the NT the more you will likely notice its thoroughly future orientated (or eschatological) nature. Pretty well everything in the present is seen through the lens of the ‘not yet’.  Christians live in the ‘in-between times’, the overlap of the ages between the kingdom come and the kingdom fully realised.

The future has burst into the present in the empowering presence of the Spirit of God. Christians are ‘new creations’ now (2 Cor 5:17). The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost marks the beginning of the end. Until then we live in the overlap of the ages (Gal 1:4; 1 Cor 10:11; 2 Cor 5:17; 1 Cor 7:31).

So certain is this future, that NT language frequently speaks of future events as having present consequences. Future judgement is already passed for those in Christ (Rom 8:1-3).  Believers are being saved, will be saved and have been saved (Eph 2:8). They have even already been glorified (Rom 8:30).

The church is an eschatological community whose citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20).

The Christian life is not a bunch of rules to be followed, but a call to live ‘a life worthy of the future’ in the present.

Think of 1 Cor 7, the great chapter on marriage in that letter. Paul’s consistent approach to different categories of people, whether married or single, male or female, is to set priorities in light of the future.

Or suffering – Christians are encouraged to think of even the hardest times as ‘light and momentary troubles’ when set against a glorious future hope (2 Cor 4:17 ;Rom 8:18)

The examples are everywhere, but you get the drift. Doing NT theology is to do eschatology. The future interprets the present.

So when it comes to gender and ministry, a consistently biblical move is to look at it through the lens of eschatology. And this is what Cherith Fee Nordling does as she finishes her excellent article on gender in The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology.

To boil down her argument: if the final ‘end game’ of God’s redemption is a new community of equals marked by mutual love and service, without hierarchy over one another, then this is the sort of community life we should be living NOW in the Spirit.

Equality is simply equal participation in the gospel and all that entails as a call to self-giving love and service …. Our human dignity, value, and status are no longer based on these distinctions and their privileged status in the old order … because in Christ these distinctions do not define human personhood or position. Privilege is given and exercised for the building up of the whole community, whether by men or by women. This does not entitle women to roles any more than it takes them away from men. All service is cruciform, all service is a gift to be given.

… We become who we are as we live, and die, for others, in service to and celebration of the sexual, gender, racial, ethnic, cultural, and historical distinctions that make us unique in the Kingdom of God without prizing any one of them over the other.

Comments, as ever, welcome

A really good post on biblical manhood and womanhood

Quick note to point out a provocative post by Steve Holmes on ‘biblical family life’ – and one that I agree with.

What he says needs said and brings much clarity.

There are many assumptions, Christian sub-cultural expectations and just plain confusion about supposedly ‘biblically defined’ gender roles of men and women in a Christian marriage. Holmes has a pretty devastating critique of one of the most influential books in evangelical circles that argues for those defined roles – Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

Such defined roles he suggests are nothing more than an

idealised picture of mid-twentieth-century, mid-Western American, nuclear family life is in fact what is driving everything; the book is a celebration of a passing tradition of American family life, with a fairly feeble attempt to claim that this tradition had some interesting connection to the Bible.

No point repeating it all here – have a read here.

One quote I loved:

But defined gender roles? I think of an old friend of mine … When asked what roles he thought should belong to his future wife in their marriage, he responded ‘pre-natal childcare. And breastfeeding.’ The rest was up for creative re-interpretation in the light of the gospel and the circumstances in which they were called to live.That’s Biblical. Far more so than the strident attempts to impose cultural idolatries with which I began.

Can’t say he doesn’t have a point of view.