How Christians talk about sexual difference

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If you had to buy clothes for a little boy under the age of seven a century ago, a pretty pink dress would have been a socially acceptable option. According to an article in the June, 1918 issue of Earnshaw’s Infant’s Department, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” By the end of World War I, the trend of putting dresses on young children of both sexes had waned, but it was not until the 1940s that blue became associated with boys and pink with girls.

There is quite a lot about the way we understand what it means to be a man or a woman that is generated by cultural trends, even when it comes to things we feel very strongly. The result of this has been, at times, the unfair punishment of one sex or the other for non-conformity, experienced most strongly by women.

As our culture has awakened to this reality, it has in some ways over-corrected. Since the 1960s, some feminists have argued that there are no real and essential differences between men and women, other than a bit of plumbing. It is not hard to draw the line between that reasoning and today’s acceptance of the idea of gender as a social construct, the breakdown of the family, the absence of fathers, etc. But none of that eclipses the fact that there are aspects of our lived experience as men and women, some of which are very dear to us and feel completely inherent, that are nevertheless social constructs. Blue may feel more masculine to us and pink may feel more feminine, but a century ago we would have felt exactly the opposite was true.

This all ran through my head as I read Alastair J. Roberts’ recent piece for The Gospel Coalition, “How Should We Think About Watching Women Fight?” (originally titled “Why Christians Should Refuse to Celebrate Women Fighting”). Roberts argues strongly that Christians ought to be opposed to women fighting in mixed martial arts because it “cuts against the grain of the ends for which they were created.” Along the way, Roberts makes good points about the sexualization of women fighters and the way in which such sexualized violence feeds into the pornographic mindset of the mostly male viewership of the UFC. Yet his ultimate point seems to be that women should not fight because that just is not something that women do. He relies for this assessment on the generally greater upper body strength of men and a vaguely described notion of men having a “greater propensity toward, aptitude for, and interest in both violence and agonism [=struggle].”

In addition to women who fight in the UFC, Roberts is also critical of the trope of the “strong female character” – the waifish woman in television and films who kicks the butts of men twice her size (think River from Firefly or Black Widow in the recent Avengers films). “Such women exemplify the virtues of much contemporary feminism and gender theory,” he says, “which commonly seek to deny the reality of sexual difference, overturn all gender norms, and disproportionately celebrate women who achieve in traditionally male activities or contexts.”

Roberts is right that there is a problem in contemporary western culture that has emerged from the loss of an essentialist view of sexual difference. He is also right that women are largely on the losing end of that stick. For all of the claims that women fighting in the UFC or scantily clad women fighting in popular fiction empowers women, the sad truth is that such things give cover to the idea that the only way women can have value in our society is if they do what men do, or make themselves sexually available to men, or both. As Roberts puts it, this is an “idealization of women who most conform to male norms of behavior, interests, and aptitudes, an idealization that can make unlikely allies of contemporary feminists and male fantasists.”

Unfortunately, Roberts seems content to name “male behavior” and “female behavior” as the correctives for this problem, as if such things are easily and universally identifiable. It may be true that men tend to be more aggressive than women – I have no immediate data to back that up, but it sounds anecdotally true – but if it is true, what does that mean? Are men supposed to be aggressive? Are women not? Why? Who says? If we find a woman who is able to kick a man’s butt, does that disprove the theory?

These questions are compounded in Roberts’ article by his lack of reference to Christian sources of authority. Roberts only quotes Scripture once, making a passing allusion in his final paragraph to Genesis 2 which he does not flesh out. He quotes from no fathers, no theologians, and no councils. In short, he is attempting to make a Christian argument that does not actually have any Christianity in it.

Compare and contrast this approach with the document Inter Insignores, a 1976 declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which was endorsed by Pope Paul VI and heavily cited by Pope St. John Paul II in his 1994  apostolic letter, Ordinato Sacerdotalis. Inter Insignores deals with the question of whether or not women can be ordained priests, not whether or not they should be knocking each other’s brains out in the UFC, but the fundamental question behind the question is the same: What can the Church say definitively about the essential differences between men and women?

Both Inter Signores and Ordinato Sacerdotalis are careful to be economic in their pronouncements. They say that the primary reason why the Church cannot ordain women is because Christ simply did not leave His Church authority to do so. Nonetheless, Inter Signores expounds deeply upon the theology of the priest as someone who stands in the place of Christ. This is a sacramental reality that requires a physical sign in the priest’s own body:

The incarnation of the Word took place according to the male sex: this is indeed a question of fact, and this fact, while not implying any alleged natural superiority of man over woman, cannot be disassociated from the economy of salvation: it is indeed in harmony with the entirety of God’s plan as God himself has revealed it, and of which the mystery of the Covenant is the nucleus.

The CDF goes on to cite a vast array of Scripture passages—Galatians 4, Ephesians 5, Revelation 19, and especially Matthew 22:1-14, among others—to make the case that salvation is wrapped up in the “nuptial mystery” of the joining of Christ (male) with His Church (female). “It is through this Sciptural language, all interwoven with symbols, and which expresses and affects man and woman in their profound identity, that there is revealed to us the mystery of God and Christ, a mystery which of itself is unfathomable.” The document does not try to pull apart the mystery and examine each individual component, but instead accepts it as a whole, a tapestry of interconnected realities of maleness and femaleness, including essential differences that go beyond mere plumbing but that are nevertheless hard to pin down in a scientific way.

Whether one accepts the central argument of Inter Signores or not, it is clear that there are ways for traditional Christians to talk about gender essentialism that do not require us to hitch our wagons to unprovable, anecdotal evidence. When we start with Scripture and the historic teaching of the Church—instead of with novel American cultural norms and intuition—we come to a much clearer and less cluttered critique of our culture’s approach to sexual difference.

Women and men are different on many different levels, none of which invalidates our equal dignity before God. Given how our culture has historically curtailed the freedoms and diminished the contributions of women, we do well as Christians to examine carefully our basic understandings of gender and to distinguish as best as possible between that which is truly inherent and that which is merely culturally received. Yet even as we do so, we must remember the finely woven tapestry. It is not easy to pull one thread out without seeing the others fly loose. That is the tragedy we now live in, wherein a real and true and good critique of sexism has resulted in a total breakdown in our society’s ability to value the objective differences between women and men.

Terrorism and the fear of God

FDC-embMy country continues to mourn after the horrible act of murder committed in Orlando this past weekend. Fifty people dead, many more wounded, and all because a man with a gun wanted us to be afraid. All the details have yet to come out, but the authorities were quick to label this atrocity an “act of terrorism.” By definition, terrorism is an act of forcing people to live in fear.

At times like this, many Christians wrestle with questions of God’s mercy and goodness, but what has struck me almost immediately is the contrast between the fear of God and the fear induced by terrorism. It has become something of an atheist trope in modern times to equate the God of the Bible with terrorist acts. Back in January, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo–having been the victim of terrorism itself just a year earlier–released a cover in which God is depicted as the true assassin who causes all the world’s violence and who yet still runs free. Others have pointed to the texts of Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament, to justify the charge that the God Christians and Jews worship is nothing more than a brutal thug whose worshippers only follow Him out of fear of what He will do to them if they do not.

The Bible seems to speak two ways about fear. On the one hand, fear is something harmful. “There is no fear in love,” says John, “For perfect love casts out fear, for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:18). On the other hand, the fear of God is held up as admirable, even virtuous. The psalmist says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 110:10). Jesus combines these two ideas when He tells us, “Fear not those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

If God is not a terrorist, than why would He want us to fear Him? Saint Thomas Aquinas addresses this at some length in his Summa Theologica. Reaching back to Saint Augustine, Thomas says that fear always begins with love because we only fear losing that which we love. If our lives meant nothing to us, we would have no fear of losing them. So the goodness or evilness of our fear is relative to the love which generates it.

What are we so afraid of? What is it that we do not want to lose?

When it comes to fearing God, Thomas identifies two different kinds of fear that we might have towards Him. The first is “servile fear.” This is our fear of punishment. It is the fear that a servant has for displeasing his master, lest he be struck. It is the fear that keeps us from mouthing off to our bosses, lest we be fired. This is often the first kind of fear that we have towards God. We worry that if we do the wrong thing, God will mess up our lives, perhaps even condemn us for eternity. This is the kind of fear that so many modern atheists decry as being equivalent to terrorism. We are good not for goodness sake but because we fear what God will do to us if we are bad.

Believe it or not, Thomas does not think that servile fear is all negative. In fact, servile fear can be a very good thing, at least in the beginning, if it motivates us to want to keep God’s commandments, which are ultimately for our own good. A child who touches a hot stove learns to fear it, which then keeps the child from burning himself a second time. If the servile fear of God keeps us from doing those things that are harmful to us and to others, than it has a worthwhile purpose.

But the servile fear of God can become distorted and even deadly if it is left alone. Thomas says that the second type of fear of God, “filial fear,” is the more excellent of the two. It is a fear that is based in love. When we care deeply about somebody, we fear that we will hurt them or let them down. We fear that our weaknesses will create anguish or displeasure for them. This is the filial fear of God, that we who are weak and easily corruptible may displease the God we love. This kind of fear is not centered on ourselves, on what we have to do to keep from being punished, but it is centered on God and on how perfectly good and perfectly loving He is. It is the fear that comes when we see God as He really is and we see ourselves as we really are, when the mask falls off of our eyes and we realize that God’s goodness and holiness so dramatically surpasses our own. We see how beautiful and wonderful God is and we long to please Him and be like Him, but we fear that we never will be able to do so. Ultimately, this fear is answered by God Himself who perfects us through grace, assuring us not only of the pardon of our sins but that we will be made like Him, infused with His love and His light. “The fear of God is the beginning of love: and the beginning of faith is to be fast joined to it” (Sirach 25:16).

Terrorism breeds a kind of fear that is useless. The motivations of terrorists vary dramatically. Some are simply mentally disturbed and wish to invoke fear for its own sake. Some have some greater purpose in mind, however warped that purpose may be, and they see the fear they engender as the first step along the path to convincing the rest of us to fall in line. But either way, the fear that comes from acts of terror is incapable of making anything better because it is incapable of producing love. It is a fear that can only work on that first level in which we worry about losing the things of this world: our wealth, our security, even our very lives. That may drive us into a state of panic, but it cannot do anything else. Terrorism is ultimately self defeating. It is an admission of failure.

So what should our response to terrorism be? I want to suggest, along with Saint Thomas, that it ought to be fear, but of a different sort than the kind that terrorists want us to have. At times like these, we absolutely need the fear of God to make us whole. Rather than giving in to a state of panic over what we have lost and what we might yet lose, we can look into the very heart of God and see a perfect love there that will shatter us with its beauty. We can look at the cross and see the immeasurable love of God that is poured out there, a love that is bottomless, a love that is so powerful that it can redeem every suffering, wipe away every tear, and forgive every wrong. That kind of love is so big that it ought to scare us, because we are fooling ourselves if we do not realize that even the very best of us do not love so perfectly. Yet it is that same love, of which none of us are worthy, that will ultimately perfect even weak and fearful people like you and me, making us into something far more glorious than we could possibly imagine. The terrorist can do a lot of damage. He can take many things from us. But he cannot take God’s love from us. Even when all the world is in flames and everything we have is loss, that is a love that cannot be taken away from us.