January 26, 2005

"Feminism is Demeaning to Women:" Some Remarks on Christianity, Feminism, and Gender Roles

I recently asserted parenthetically, without any real explanation, that "I think feminism is demeaning to women." I also referred to "this 'Christian feminism' crap." Well, I finally succeeded in generating some contentious dialog, which has motivated me to offer some explanation, to make sure I'm not being misread here. So, in case you're wondering, this is what I really think:

Firstly, I do not, as one comment suggested, think that either gender can truly be said to be inferior to the other. This sounds obvious but, like I said, somebody thought that I believed this, so it needs to be cleared up. Neither, however, are men and women the same. In fact, they may be so different from one another that comparisons between them don't even make sense. If this is the case, then one couldn't say they were "equal" either. Is an apple better than an orange? The response would, of course, be better for what? Different people receive greater pleasure from one than the other (please don't construe that as a remark about "sexual preference!"), one is harder to smash than the other, one is more difficult to peel, etc. They are both fruits, they are both edible, they have many characteristics in common, but to say that one is better than the other, or even to say that they are equal, doesn't make sense without qualification.

What do I mean by qualification? One might say "an apple tastes better than an orange". This would at least be a sensible remark. One likewise might say "an orange is more nutritious than an apple." This makes sense as well. What if someone says "apples grow on apple trees better than oranges do"? We can graft an orange branch onto an apple tree (maybe - I've never seen this done, but I have seen a green apple branch grafted onto a red apple tree, so that the single tree produced both types of apples - remember, I'm from Washington. Where better to see strange sights related to apples?). The apples might grow better than the oranges. But would this be a deficiency in the orange that it doesn't grow as well on an apple tree as an apple? Certainly not. The apple probably won't grow too well on an orange tree either.

So what's the point? The point is that if you insist on comparing men to women (which I'd rather not do at all if I can avoid it) you must qualify your remarks, because the differences between men and women are undeniable and positively enormous. We're interested primarily in the implications for Christian theology and the tension between certain tenets of Christian theology and feminism (and also the reason why someone such as myself might assert that feminism was demeaning to women). Some remarks on this subject have already been made in "A Philosophical Discussion of the Fall of Man and the Regeneration of the Holy Spirit", p. 16, which asserts that what I call the "irrational impulse" is stronger in women than in men, and this is part of God's design and a good thing (this is not to insinuate either that men do not behave irrationally or that it is good for women to behave irrationally. Women have a stronger irrational impulse, but it is nevertheless the intention of God that it should be in subjection to the rational mind. See ibid. esp. sect. 3). More on this momentarily.

There are two texts that are used more than any others in Christian discussions of gender roles. They are usually used by opposing sides in a debate. I wish to use both of them and show that they fit together perfectly. The first is Galatians 3:28, which reads, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." This is a wonderful statement of spiritual truth. It is not meant to comment on our present position in the world, and it emphatically does not nullify said positions. This is clear from Ephesians 5:21-6:9 which begins by urging us to "submit to one another in the fear of God," that is, urging everyone in the church to submit to everyone else, and then goes on to discuss specific relationships and how that submission should play out in practical situations. Those relationships include husband and wife as well as master and slave, both of which are among the distinctions apparently abolished by Galatians. Romans 9-11 also discusses the benefits of belonging to "Israel according to the flesh," another group membership Galatians apparently nullifies. For these reason, this passage must be referring to spiritual truths about our position in Christ, rather than anything related to the organization of the present world.

The second passage is 1 Timothy 2:11-15:

Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not decieved, but Eve, being quite deceived, fell into transgression. Nevertheless, she will be saved in child-bearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.

This passage has been troubling for many people for a long time. Some parts of it are difficult, but I don't think it's as difficult as it's made out to be. Let's start at the beginning. "Let a woman learn in silence with all submission." I don't see any reason to dispute the translation. What I would say, however, is that v. 8, which uses the word "aner" meaning man as opp. woman, rather than "anthropos," man as opp. animals, is clearly applicable to women as well as men (they too should be "praying everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath or doubting"). This suggests that some of what is said here is simply dealing with the problems at hand. Apparently in Timothy's church the men didn't pray enough (or as much as the women) and had short tempers and little faith, so Paul directs this exhortation to them, rather than to the women, simply because they had a problem with it and the women didn't. Easy enough. On to verse 12.

Kenny's Excruciatingly Literal Amateur Translation Attempt (KELATA, from the Majority Text) is as follows: "But for a woman to teach I do not permit, neither to exercise authority over a man, but to be in stillness."

Note a few things: Some translations say "over her husband." This is wrong. There is no possessive pronoun or definite article before "andros," hence it just says "a man." Now, it could be translated "a wife ... a husband," but this is unnatural because the lack of pronouns or articles would make it refer to ANY wife and ANY husband, rather than specifically couples married to each other. "To teach" and "to exercise authority" are both present infinitives. The normal infinitive in Greek is not the present, but the aorist. The use of the present tense is to give the action progressive/repeated aspect. To overtranslated this one might say "I do not permit a woman to be in the habit or position of teaching or exercising authority over a man." As has been indicated above, and as is suggested by the Ephesians passage, I do believe that men and women have been given different positons in this present world, and that part of this includes that it is not right for a woman to be in the habit or position of teaching or being in authority over adult men within the Church. Furthermore, the Ephesians passage says that husbands and wives both ought to submit to each other, but in different ways: The wife submits by, after giving her input in the decision-making process, allowing her husband to make the final decision. The husband submits by considering his wife's wants and needs before his own in making these decisions.

The next section begins with the word "gar", which implies that it is explanatory (this is a very common word in Greek and is usually rendered "for" in English, which is why the explanatory usage of "for" is far more common in Bible translation than in mainstream English). Paul is claiming that the distinction made above is due to tendencies toward different types of sin in men and women. On this, see the previously cited portion of my essay.

The last verse is perhaps the most confusing and abused portion of this passage. KELATA: "But they will be saved (or preserved) during child-bearing, if they continue in faith and love and sanctification with temperance (or chastity, soundness of mind, self-control, etc.)."

MOST IMPORTANT NOTE: I have translated "dia tes teknogonias" as "during child-bearing" to avoid confusion. This phrase CANNOT MEAN "by means of child-bearing." The NASB and other translations have given this as "through child-bearing," which is correct, but only if through is interpretted in the sense of travelling through. That is, this is a promise that God will keep them safe during child-birth, a very real worry of women at this time. "Saved" is probably not meant in the spiritual sense, but in a purely physical sense. Beyond that clarification there's not much to say about this verse, as there's not much other room for misinterpretation.

So that's pretty much my position. Why, then, do I think feminism is demeaning to women? The following line of thought has a long history in the Judeo-Christian (with emphasis on the "Judeo" part) tradition:

In the creation story, each thing God creates is a higher expression of his wisdom, power, and artistic talent than the last. Plants and animals, for instance, are far more complicated and amazing than the sun and the moon (although all are beautiful). Man (the species) is the culmination of the creation week, God's highest expression. He then rests on the seventh day. But the creation of man (the species) is not complete. Adam is alone, and "it is not good that man should be alone" (Genesis 1:18). He is by nature social and, in particular, meant to be in society with woman. So God creates Eve, his companion. After every day of creation, God said "it is good," but one thing was left undone, one thing was not good: Man (the gender) was alone. Eve, then, is the "crown of creation." She completes this divine Utopia. Furthermore, she, as the very last thing created, is the highest possible expression of God's artistic ability, the most beautiful and complex creature in all the world. The greatest gift given to man-as-species is to be in relationship with God. The greatest gift given to man-as-gender is that God says to him "here is the greatest of all my creations. Take care of her." Any ideology that denies this is demeaning to women.

Now, as Anastasia pointed out in a comment to the previous post, not all forms of feminism are necessarily demeaning in the way that I mean. Many merely want to secure for women the treatment they deserve. But most contemporary feminism is concerned with downplaying the differences between men and women. Both men and women are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), with emphasis on different positive characteristics. Any ideology that downplays the differences between men and women not only demeans both, but also hinders our understanding of the nature of God. One illustration of how the most obvious unique virtue of women - mothering - has become underappreciated as a result of feminism is how one term after another, housewife, homemaker, etc. fell out of "politically correct" usage, because these were considered to be demeaning to women, as though the duties of mothering children and managing a household were not fit for a human being worthy of our respect. I don't mean to imply that women can't do other things well, they certainly can, but for millenia women have performed these tasks with great success, and modern feminists have tried to say that in so doing they have not benefitted the human race so much as the men working outside the home. I strenuously object to this idea. Fortunately, in recent years the pendulum has begun to swing back and the term "stay-at-home mom' has, in a new sort of feminism of which I can whole-heartedly approve, become once again a PC term, and full-time mothering is once again considered to be an occupation worthy of our respect.

Posted by Kenny at January 26, 2005 6:50 PM
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