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Gender and Christian Ethics builds on three convictions. First, that the problem of gender, in the world and in the world’s religions, ranks equal to the problems of climate change, the failure to eliminate poverty, to secure world peace, and to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. Indeed all these problems intersect and are ‘gendered’. Any reader detecting a whiff of exaggeration here is asked to suspend judgment at least until the end of Chapter 2. Unfortunately the conduct of relations between the sexes at all levels – personal, social, national, international, and global – is too often affected by the presumption of male power and privilege, to the detriment of women. Throughout the world shocking violence against women is increasing, and the complicity of the world’s religions in endorsing and legitimising it is becoming better known. The book is a contribution to more peaceable, more equal relations between women and men, especially in countries and places where Christian faith is practiced.
This chapter addresses the third binary of our inquiry, that between masculine and feminine. Remaining with the third aim of the book, ‘to demonstrate how the human continuum enables a more inclusive theological understanding … of relations between women and men’, our probe of masculinity begins with two attempts to outline a practical spirituality based on male gendered characteristics. The first of these is Matthew Fox’s The Hidden Spirituality of Men. The work opens with a comprehensive list of ills afflicting men in the ‘dualistic patriarchy’ of ‘Western culture’ (Fox 2008: xii). They are not in tune with their feelings; they work too hard; are often homophobic; and often believe in a male God who behaves in toxic – that is, in masculine – ways. The ‘spiritual life’ of men is ‘in trouble’ (2008: xiii) and their spirituality has become hidden (if not extinguished altogether). But Fox knows the cure. There is a ‘Divine Feminine’ and a ‘Sacred Masculine’. Note the nominal form of the adjectives ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’, reifying them. At times, the terms convey little more than one of the themes of this book, that God transcends all gendered characteristics. If we ‘cannot receive a balanced sense of the gender of God (any statement on God is always a metaphor), then it follows that we are not living with a balanced gender sense of ourselves’ (Fox 2008: xix, author’s emphasis). But at other times, the divine Feminine is variously identified; with the rise of feminism, or the appearance of the Goddess Gaia, and so on. She has made ‘a grand comeback’ (Fox 2008: xviii), whereas the ‘Sacred Masculine’ is much less evident and can only be evinced by looking within.
There are some potentially troublesome conceptual problems with the very idea of a continuum that I need to address. It has been pointed out to me that a gender continuum with male and female as opposite poles may not, after all, avoid the problems associated with binary assumptions about gender. First, the idea of a continuum might not be sufficient to undo the asymmetrical valuing of one of the poles over the other. Men and women might be related in a continuum instead of a binary, this objection runs, yet the continuum would provide no insurance against the downwards slide into inequality. For the continuum idea to work, each point along the continuum would have to be equally valuable in the first place. The gender hierarchy may remain, then, even within the continuum. Second, the idea of a human continuum still retains the binary terms, but as poles, if not polar opposites. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ then, are still retained as ‘contrastive sites’, far apart. Third, since the gender binary functions as a social-symbolic system below the level of consciousness, the idea of a continuum is unlikely to affect it. In other words, tinkering around with concepts doesn’t touch the alienating power of a skewed symbolic system. Finally, the continuum might be found incompatible with gender realism, or with the experience of the majority of human beings who identify themselves within a binary system almost without thought that it could be otherwise.
This chapter begins the third aim of the book, to demonstrate how the human continuum enables a more inclusive theological understanding not only of relations between women and men, but also among LGBTIQ people. It begins with intersex. Intersex is an umbrella term that covers a range of human bodies deemed unusual.
Rape Culture, Gender Violence, and Religion is a powerful collection of essays (Blyth, Colgan and Edwards 2018) adopting the term ‘rape culture’ to describe the gender violence that ‘has reached endemic levels in numerous countries and communities around the world, where sexual violence, family violence, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia have become a lived reality for many people’ (Blyth et al. 2018: 1).
In 2014 the social media platform Facebook introduced a growing list of gender categories, up to 71 at one point, which users could select and make public, including ‘asexual’, ‘polygender’, and ‘two-spirit person’. As I write (October 2017), the choice in the gender box is ‘male’, ‘female’, or ‘custom’. Selecting ‘custom’ enables any Facebook user to apply to themselves their preferred gender adjective, together with their preferred pronoun for use by other people when referring to them (he/his, she/her, or they/their).
Karl Barth is perhaps the most justly famous and celebrated Reformed theologian of the twentieth century. He and Balthasar were lifelong friends, and he undoubtedly influenced Balthasar’s own work (Wigley 2007). Yet his treatment of gender, and the characterisation of homosexuality that follows from it, is deeply unsatisfactory. Written over half a century ago, why bother with it at all? My answer is that there is much in contemporary worldwide Christian thought that replicates it, especially among conservative and more fundamentalist people who are inclined to take the ipsissima verba of Scripture as ‘God’s Word’. That is not to claim that millions of people have read Barth or even been directly influenced by him. But I do claim his views on gender are harmful to women, harmful to men who dominate women, and very harmful to gay people should they internalise his a priori understanding of them as perverse. I claim the male–female binary in Barth must be replaced with a better doctrine of human being which does not regard women as secondary to men or heterosexuality to be compulsory. That said, his writings belong to a different time, and his achievements in many other areas – theological, political, ecclesial – deserve enormous respect.
One might reasonably expect that the Roman Catholic Church, which insists on the recognition of the inherent, inalienable dignity of women, the importance of women’s presence, and participation in all aspects of social life, and which admires ‘the genius of women’ (Pope John Paul II 1995: paras 9, 10; Pope Francis 2015) everywhere, to generate a theology from which their full dignity and equal rights follows, and to seek common cause with secular organisations and academic disciplines to the extent that they too are pursuing similar ends. Instead, however, we will find in the present chapter that ‘gender’, a term that in secular thought picks out the arena where the struggle for dignity and equality between women and men happens, has become a multifaceted enemy the church is determined to oppose, whatever the moral and theological cost both to its own integrity and to those millions of people who are adversely affected by the firming up of its gendered teachings.
The links between beliefs and violence at the conceptual and structural levels of religious systems became clearer to me during the writing of this book. They so disturbed me that I introduced an additional aim, ‘to contribute to a hermeneutic – an elementary method of interpretation of the Bible and tradition – that can never condone discrimination or oppression’. This chapter is my attempt to address this last aim. When I wrote my book, The Savage Text, about the misuse of the Bible and the responsibility of its readers for untold religiously inspired violence against all kinds of ‘others’, I had not fully appreciated the depths of the roots of violence located deep in religious systems of thought. In the last few years I also began to read some of the remarkable work of Muslim women scholars, and their battles with harsh, standard, androcentric interpretations of the Qur’an, with inevitable negative consequences for women. As we shall see, they too battle with the male–female binary in original ways. Their work confirms much of what I want to say about the peaceful reading of sacred texts.
The last two chapters have identified severe problems with the emerging doctrine of complementarity. There are others, discussed later in this chapter. But its relative stability in contemporary theological thinking suggests there may be reasons for its popularity. These are not difficult to find. Primarily it confirms the experience of the great majority of people, who are, in varying degrees, straightforwardly heterosexual. In the USA 78 per cent of people say that they are completely heterosexual, against 4 per cent who say that they are completely homosexual. Of US adults, 16 per cent say that they fall somewhere in between. Of these 10 per cent say that they are more heterosexual than homosexual while 3 per cent put themselves in the middle and another 3 per cent say that they are predominantly homosexual (YouGov 2015). Among adults under 30, 31 per cent of people surveyed said they were neither completely heterosexual nor completely homosexual. A similar poll in the UK revealed a similar result. Of the British public, 72 per cent said they were completely at the heterosexual end of the scale, 4 per cent said they were completely homosexual, and 19 per cent said they were somewhere in between. YouGov noted and commented that ‘With each generation, people see their sexuality as less fixed in stone’ (YouGov 2015). Of adults between the ages of 18 and 24, 43 per cent place themselves in the middle of the area between 1 and 5 on the Kinsey scale and 52 per cent place themselves at one end or the other.
In this book, Adrian Thatcher offers fresh theological arguments for expanding our understanding of gender. He begins by describing the various meanings of gender and depicts the relations between women and men as a pervasive human and global problem. Thatcher then critiques naive and harmful theological accounts of sexuality and gender as binary opposites or mistaken identities. Demonstrating that the gendered theologies of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Barth, as well as the Vatican's “war on gender” rest on questionable binary models, he replaces these models with a human continuum that allows for sexual difference without assuming “opposite sexes” and normative sexualities. Grounded in core Christian doctrines, this continuum enables a full theological affirmation of LGBTIQ people. Thatcher also addresses the excesses of the male/female binary in secular culture and outlines a hermeneutic that delivers justice and acceptance instead of sexism and discrimination.