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 1: what is gender?

I want to come back to Cherith Fee Nordling’s article on Gender in the Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology. I think it is one of the best short treatments of the issue of gender and women in ministry that I’ve read anywhere.

She asks what is gender?

And argues that it is “one’s bodily and cultural identity as male or female”. In other words, it is one’s sex (male or female) AND “assumed gender expectations regarding that person’s behaviours, personality, perceptions, motives, reactions, activities and attitudes.”

Here’s a key point: certain understandings of gender have dominated evangelical debates about men and women in ministry.

A ‘premodern’ view (which she locates as prior 1960) sees sex and gender as a natural given. There is a fixed natural order of things, a core way of being a man or a woman. There is a divinely ordered ‘essence’ of being male or female. (sounding familiar?) This is an essentialist approach that assumes a male and female nature that is universal and constant across all cultures and times.

A modern (post 1960) perspective rejects this. Gender is seen as more of a social construct, reflective of underlying cultural power structures. Gender and sexuality in this view are constructed according the values of those who have the power shape those structures. So those concerned with equality will work to change the structures to level the playing field between men and women.

Postmodern gender debates go further to stress the endless diversity and plurality of cultures, personalities, people, values and ideologies so as to show the impossibility of any universal values or meta-narrative – including the biblical narrative. Everything is local and contextual. Difference is stressed and any innate hierarchy is rejected.

So what to make of this?

Studies across cultures seem to affirm bits of all three views. People do learn very different ways of being feminine and masculine in different contexts globally. Yet these studies do show that there are at least three consistent things about gender:

The first two are rather obvious and universally agreed in all cultures : gender matters and there are two genders. The third is that there “are certain ways that males and females think, feel and act.” Yet this is this one that is hardest to pin down.

What are specifically male ways of thinking and feeling and acting? What are specifically female ways of doing the same? [sounds like an invite for some bad jokes]

The more you push this the more it becomes clear that there is no obvious or easy way to define what are ‘male’ ways of thinking, feeling and acting as opposed to ‘female’ ways of thinking feeling and acting.

Go on – have a go at trying! Are males uniquely ‘decisive’? Women uniquely compassionate? Males uniquely strategic thinkers? Woman uniquely networkers? This is where Piper’s ill defined supposed ‘masculine’ Christianity begins to fall apart. It is a subjective arbitrary set of assumptions and a model that is without biblical warrant. The Bible just does not set out to define ‘masculinity’ and then propose it as an essentialist model for the Christian faith.

Have you noticed that where Christians try to do this their version of ‘biblical masculinity’ or ‘biblical femininity’ ends up mirroring the assumptions of their own sub-cultures? So, for example, you get middle-class 1950s American assumptions about gender roles presented as the ‘biblical’ model of manhood and womanhood.

Instead the Bible celebrates that in Christ there is no male or female.  Men remain men. Women remain women. But in Christ deep religious, social, power, and cultural differences are overcome through common faith in Christ and the subsequent reception of the Spirit of God for all believers whatever their gender [Galatians 3-4].

Nordling puts it this way: men and women represent two hugely overlapping forms of humanity. It is impossible to draw clear lines between nature (sex) and nurture (experience). Such dualisms do not work. Being a man or a women is both having XY or XX chromosomes AND learning to be masculine or feminine [cultural constructs].

What God does call all his people to live in right relationships with each other and with Him, whatever their gender.

To be continued …

Comments, as ever, welcome