Following on from the discussion about the recent non-appointment of women bishops, I’d like to spend a couple more posts looking at gender-related issues such as Christianity and masculinity, and the Bible and sexism.
I want to get the ball rolling by saying something deeply shocking and controversial. Tighten your seatbelts and hold on to your hats.
I think that men and women are very similar, but also slightly different.
First let me explain what I don’t mean by this earth-shakingly radical statement. I don’t mean that men are superior to women in any way (or vice versa). I entirely believe that in pretty much all areas (intellectual, moral, spiritual, social and emotional), women are at least equal to men – if not more advanced in many cases. I also believe that women and men are of entirely equal value, worth, status and capability. We are equals before God.
Secondly, I’m not endorsing complementarian theology – the view that (while equal in worth), men and women have different God-ordained roles in the family, in society and in the church (with the man as the ‘head of the family’ and breadwinner, and the woman as his ‘helpmeet’, whatever that means). I don’t believe that there are jobs, careers or ministries that only men can (or should) do, and from which women should be excluded – or vice versa. Nor do I believe that there are positions of leadership or authority (ecclesiastical or secular) which should be exclusively or even primarily male. I don’t subscribe to so-called ‘biblical’ models of male headship or male-only leadership.
Thirdly, I’m not saying that men and women are completely and fundamentally different in their natures, interests, tastes, habits, or ways of thinking. I’m not saying that ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus’, as though we came from separate planets or inhabited mutually-irreconcilable spheres. On the contrary, it seems to me that men and women are generally pretty similar in most obvious respects. Both men and women are from earth – and also from heaven, made equally in God’s image.
Okay then, so what the flipping heck on earth do I mean?
At the risk of pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes, I’m tentatively suggesting that alongside the many similarities, there may also be one or two differences between men and women.
There are the obvious biological, anatomical, physiological and biochemical or hormonal differences for a start. Not to put too fine a point on it, men have man bits, women have girly bits. Men have higher testosterone levels; women higher oestrogen levels. Men never have to experience menstruation, the menopause or childbirth, and as a consequence have a lower pain threshold, though often (not always) greater physical strength.
And going along with all this, men and women inevitably play slightly different roles in relation to the reproduction and continuation of the species. Men haven’t yet been able to gestate and can only pretty rarely lactate. Women tend not to be able to inseminate.
To put it another way, at a stretch a man can carry out many maternal roles and functions but he can’t actually be a mother, at least not biologically. Similarly, a woman can carry out many paternal roles and functions but can’t actually be a father. Nature and evolution just haven’t designed things that way (or God hasn’t if you prefer; there’s no reason why it can’t be both).
In his 80s pop-psych classic Families and How to Survive Them, Robin Skinner suggests that during child-rearing, most men and women do apparently tend to revert for a season to more ‘traditional’ stereotyped masculine/feminine roles. He says this with obvious embarrassment and reticence, but it’s what he observed in his research and practice. He also stresses that this role-taking only applies for the duration of their offspring’s childhood, and that before and after this somewhat exceptional period couples may be entirely emancipated and non-gender-stereotyped in their roles, interests and activities.
Mutual fascination and suspicion
Boys and girls of course start to notice the differences between each other as they hit puberty, and start to develop their strange and exciting new physical attributes and attractions. Suddenly the other sex, who up till now have been either ignored or else just playmates, become bewilderingly different and other – seemingly almost a new and distinct species. Boys wonder why girls behave in such strange ways and have such strange interests and concerns, and girls probably wonder the same about boys.
And crucially it’s not just the physical differences that cause the puzzlement, but the differences in behaviour, in ways of relating and thinking and expressing emotion. (There’s a great quote from Harry Potter where Ron says to Hermione, “You should write a book translating mad things girls do so boys can understand them”.)
The mutual attraction, suspicion and bewilderment often continues to an extent into adulthood. However, at some point a truce is struck, and men and women can become friends again, working and playing and talking together without too much difficulty or mutual misunderstanding. Nonetheless, differences remain. Friendships between men and women aren’t usually quite the same as those between men and men, or between women and women, and I don’t believe that it’s just the sex that gets in the way (as When Harry Met Sally suggests).
It seems to me fairly self-evident that there are slight differences between the way women and men think, function and relate to one another – speaking in broad, general terms that almost definitely don’t apply to all men or all women. Again, these do not imply inequality, nor do they provide support for complementarian theology. For example, I would suggest that women are often more socially and emotionally literate than men – at least in western society.
And I would suggest that there may be just the tiniest smidgeon of truth in a few of the crass stereotypes about the kinds of things which women are more interested in than men or vice versa. Yes, there are plenty of women who are into football, fighting, fishing, mechanical engineering, DIY and James Bond films, and plenty of men who aren’t (me for one). And plenty of men (yes, even heterosexual men) secretly quite like rom coms, flowers, celeb gossip and clothes shopping, and plenty of women don’t. But there are still broad swathes of the population who do on the whole conform to a lot of the stereotypes, and not necessarily entirely as a result of retrogressive social conditioning.
Vive la difference!
So just why am I going to such lengths and tying myself up in such knots to state the bleeding obvious?
Simply because it seems to me that in our society we’ve gone so far out of our way to stress the many genuine and important similarities between men and women that we may be in danger of losing sight of the equally genuine and important (and good) differences. It seems to me that there are far more similarities between the sexes than there are differences; but the differences remain, and they’re not entirely unimportant or irrelevant.
Difference is not bad – on the contrary, it makes life interesting and exciting. Vive la difference! We don’t all have to be the same to be equally special and valuable and important. God forbid! I don’t want to be the same as anyone else. For a society that apparently sets such store by individuality, we do often seem strangely frightened of being different, of not conforming.
So I just want to challenge the idea that it’s sexist to imply any difference between the sexes; the belief that to be of equal worth and status we also have to be identical. We are different in some ways – that’s a good thing! But this really need not imply any inequality in human value or human rights. Nor need it imply some kind of stereotyped group uniformity, that all women are like this and all men like that, which is patently not the case.
What has all this to do with theology?
Haven’t I strayed rather off the beaten track in this post – interesting though it may be, what has any of it to do with God, Christianity and theology? Superficially, perhaps very little; but what it does have to do with is humanity, and human relationships – and Christianity is very much about both of those things.
And of course these questions do potentially have a profound bearing on the church, on our theology and our religious practice. They do potentially impact on debates like the one over female clergy and women bishops, and whether or not men and women can and should carry out exactly the same roles in the church. As I said last time, I do firmly believe that they can and should. But I still think it’s important to acknowledge our (small but real) differences rather than simply pretending they don’t exist.
Next time – is there any such thing as Christian masculinity?…