‘If God is male…’

Posted on February 5, 2012

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‘… then the male is God.’ So wrote Mary Daly in a – perhaps the – classic text of early feminist theology, Beyond God the Father (Beacon, 1973). Daly’s argument in the book was that the predominantly masculine imagery deployed for God in Judaeo-Christian traditions inevitably led to a patriarchal society in which women were multiply disadvantaged; the proper ethical response, in her view, was to reject all Judaeo-Christian religious traditions as demonstrably immoral and so unworthy of belief.

(This is a too-brief summary of a brilliant book; I actually had the pleasure of discussing it briefly with Daly a few years before she died when she rang me up out of the blue – a long story. As an evangelical minister, I unsurprisingly tend to disagree with most of her conclusions, but the book is strikingly powerful in argument and expression. It takes thought and precision to find ways to disagree with many of the arguments she advances.)

The conservative response back in the 1970s was largely to deny the premise: Christianity does, it is true, privilege masculine imagery for God, and perhaps that cannot be substituted or avoided, but that does not mean that Christians believe in a male God; the united, and somewhat strident, witness of the tradition is the gender-categories cannot be applied to God. God is perhaps most often described in masculine imagery, but God is not male, and so there can be no argument that the male is God.

In the last few years – no more history, I think, than that – it seems that an alternative argument has been offered – most recently, and already rather famously, in some brief comments by John Piper that prefaced a discussion of the legacy of the great J.C. Ryle (full text here – with thanks to Danny Webster for the link). I hesitate to criticise John Piper – I have been greatly helped by his writing in the past; almost everything I know of him as a man and a pastor, I respect; and it happens that one of my daughters and one of his granddaughters were best friends when both were three (another long story). His argument here has been endlessly reproduced around the web, however, and summarises a position that others have been advancing; it therefore deserves some reflection. (And Rachel Held Evans specifically invited male Christian bloggers to respond, for some sound pastoral reasons, which she explains.)

The predominantly masculine imagery for God, Piper suggested, leads us to believe that authority, leadership, &c., are essentially masculine traits, just as Daly had proposed. However (I’m filling in some logical gaps here, but this is my best reconstruction of the argument) the true God uses His authority to promote the best interests of His creatures, and so masculine authority – male headship – properly exercised will lead to the flourishing of women as well as men. To recast – perhaps unfairly – Piper’s argument in Daly’s terms, God is male, and so the male is – head, if not God – but the God who is male is caring, self-giving, and nurturing, and so the patriarchal society established by Biblical male headship is the best possible social context for women as well as men to grow to their full humanity. Although this has become popular just now because of Piper’s brief summary, it goes behind and beyond him, so in the remainder of this post I will refer to it as the ‘God-as-masculine’ thesis.

What are we to make of these differing responses? Firstly, we should note that the 1970s responses were generally – there were exceptions – rather simplistic in their analysis of gender. Assuming a straight equation between biological sex and gender, the argument tended to go ‘God is spirit, and therefore has no bodily parts; therefore God cannot be either male or female; God is beyond gender.’ As I’ve noted before on this blog, contemporary analyses of gender suggest that the relationship between biology and gender identity is rather more complex than this, and I’ve discussed one or two examples from the history of the church that in different ways support such analysis.

The ‘God-as-masculine’ argument also relies on an assumption of gender essentialism, of course, even if on this view it is divinely mandated rather than biologically determined. A view of gender which sees the stable essences of masculinity and femininity as attitudinal, rather than physical, does seem to allow for a – guarded, admittedly – ascription of gender to God.

The united witness of the church through the ages is unquestionably that God is beyond gender, and that speaking of God as male, or even as promoting a masculine account of Himself, is a grave error. (Krish Kandiah asked me in an email if the doctrine that ‘God is male’ had ever been pronounced a heresy; I’ve not checked every source, but I don’t think it has; I suppose, however, this is largely on the grounds that no-one was ever stupid enough to propound such an obviously ridiculous idea…) The construction of gender in history is a rather complex – and of course somewhat disputed – study, but two aspects that I think are fairly generally accepted seem relevant to the point here.

First, historically, gender is often constructed by relational position. My earlier post on polymorphic gender construction in Puritan spirituality suggests this: the Puritan husband is feminine in relation to God because wooed, commanded, and taught, but masculine in relation to his spouse because there he leads and teaches. This tradition of constructing gender could be read as offering some support to (a chastened version of) the ‘God-as-masculine’ thesis, although we might also notice that John Cotton’s language of the minister as ‘the breasts of Christ,’ the organ by which the pure milk of the Word is offered to God’s children, both complicates this argument, and suggests that the negotiation of gender imagery by the Puritans was more nuanced than we might suppose. (This ‘preacher as breasts of Christ’ image is not unique to Cotton, and has some purchase in the tradition – Bl. Humbert of Romans, fifth Master General of the Order of Preachers, offered the same analogy in his classic text On Preaching, for example).

To continue this first theme, Joel Willets and Mike Bird have suggested over at Euangelion that it was very common Roman practice to construct the conquerer as male and the conquered as female (Joel), and that this is intensified by the (obvious) imagery of piercing (Mike). Christ crucified and pierced is thus being constructed culturally in feminine ways, a point that would have been understood by any early reader of the gospels and of Paul’s letters. This both points out the variation of cultural constructions of gender (and so the sheer unlikeliness of an essentialist account being convincing), and the fact that such constructions are already present in the gospel narrative, in ways that are not necessarily helpful to the ‘God-as-masculine’ thesis.

Second, as my earlier comments on the reconstructions of gender identity that were promoted (consciously, I am sure) by nineteenth-century evangelicalism indicate, it has generally been true in history that an extensive Christian influence on a society has led to reconfigured visions of masculinity that de-emphasise violence, power, and self-assertion, and promote gentleness, forgiveness, and humility; by contrast, an extensive Christian influence on a society in history has generally led to reconfigured visions of femininity that decry passivity, domesticity, and obedience, and promote activity, public engagement, and self-possession. This seems to me a difficult set of data for the ‘God-as-masculine’ thesis to cope with.

It is worth noting, finally, the novelty of the argument that the use of (predominantly) male imagery for God justifies a differentiation in gender roles: I am fairly sure that no-one attempted to respond to Daly in these terms back in the 1970s, the standard response rather being an insistence on God’s lack of gender; I am almost certain that it has no significant purchase in previous centuries. Of course, mere novelty is not an argument that a position is wrong; but the rhetoric of standing in the great stream of historical Christianity can be very powerful, and should always be tested.

Finding strikingly novel arguments for apparently-traditional positions is not ‘standing in the great stream of historical Christianity’. Schleiermacher invented liberal theology with precisely such an argument: he claims in The Christian Faith that ‘there is nothing new in this book except the arrangement'; he even heads each section with a citation from one or several of the old Reformed confessions to make that point repeatedly and strongly. For Schleiermacher, however, the arrangement is everything: theological claims no longer rest on an appeal to Scripture, but on an account of the nature of human religious experience. Even if the conclusions were all just old orthodox positions, the theology was new and radical.

Similarly, the ‘God-as-masculine’ thesis I am discussing here is strikingly revisionist and radical on the central topic of Christian theology, the doctrine of God. The fact that it seeks to claim that it tends to some ethical positions which might be regarded as in line with the tradition is not the point: the doctrine of God is central; gender questions are very second order by comparison. Changing the former whilst claiming continuity on the latter is necessarily a thorough departure from the tradition.

The same might be said of another strange growth in recent evangelicalism, the argument that defined gender roles are appropriate because there is ‘eternal functional subordination’ in the Trinity. Now, even a passing acquaintance with the primary texts of the fourth century will confirm that ‘eternal functional subordination’ is necessarily meaningless for an orthodox Trinitarian (for a very simple demonstration – one of many I could pick – consider Gregory of Nyssa’s endlessly-anthologised treatise ‘That there are not three Gods': the argument for divine unity turns essentially (there is a second argument, but – in common with all, I think, modern commentators, I take this one to be central) on the claim that there is one single divine activity, in which the three divine Persons are inseparably united – if you can make sense of ‘functional subordination’ under the rubric of ‘one inseparable activity,’ you’re either a far better, or a far worse, logician than I am…).

J.C. Ryle wrote several times on the question of dealing with disputed matters; his advice was always to know what is central to the gospel, to hold to that uncompromisingly, and then to exercise endless charity in secondary matters. Bishop Ryle had fixed views on many matters he considered secondary – episcopacy, for one – but he knew how to distinguish between strong convictions which, although he passionately believed them right, were not essential to the gospel, and those truths that are genuinely non-negotiable.

Readers of this blog may have spotted that I have some strong views on certain debates around sexuality and gender; these, however, are secondary matters, and, with others, I have worked when given the chance to promote unity amongst those who, agreeing on the central topics of the gospel, disagree on the roles of women and men in the church. The doctrine of God, however, is non-negotiable, and it worries me to see – apparently – novel doctrines of God proposed to support preferences in gender debates; theological arguments that way up can never work.

I am sure that no-one, least of all John Piper, has set out to change theology proper in order to promote a particular view of gender roles. No evangelical pastor or theologian could begin to countenance such a move. The problem must be that, as is well known, we evangelicals are not always very good at understanding the tradition we have inherited, and so don’t always notice when we are doing some violence to it. Nonetheless, an unsympathetic observer of the evangelical scene at present might suggest that we seem ready to invent a new deity, or at least to revise the old deity, in order to preserve our cherished views on the place of women; we should be much more careful never to allow that suggestion to be made.

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