Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Reader Writes: In Gender Roles, We Conform Ourselves to Nature in Wonder and Humility

A reader, Bill Donaghy, writes:

I'm a seeker who has been captivated by the ways the Divine permeates creation and speaks through physical signs and symbols. So regarding your pejorative thought here [i.e., in my "pejorative" (!) posting yesterday about the theology of Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza], as I read it, that the Church insists "... that men be men and women be women..." I can't find an alternative that doesn't somehow speak a lie with the body, do violence to creation, or else divorce the harmony of our bodies and spirits? I feel this is somehow wrong, like us reconfiguring reality to ourselves rather than receiving reality as a gift, and in wonder and humility, conforming ourselves to it. 

And here's my reply:  I'd like to make three points:

1. The argument that nature is a "reality" to which we must conform in order to be holy is an argument that has been made repeatedly throughout history to defuse legitimate calls for necessary social change and to defend the status quo.  And churches relying on that argument have inevitably had to grant that the biological dictates of nature they were defending in maintaining the status quo do not, in fact, provide ironclad moral norms that prohibit social change in the area in question.

2. The argument that gender constitutes a sacred preserve somehow impervious to question or change, because this is the biological reality that Christians are called most stringently to observe in their lives of discipleship, gives gender and gender roles a central, dominating place in our reading of scripture and tradition that they have not had until now.  The burden of proof is on those wanting to give unchanging gender roles such a central place in the Christian life.  Thus far, the most substantial proof offered by those who claim that the chief moral obligation of Christians is to adhere to biological demands of gender is the suggestion that departing from this biological imperative will undermine procreation.  That argument is proving empirically groundless.

3.  The argument that biology dictates morality in the area of gender confuses biological reality and social reality.  It seeks illicitly to move from what it perceives as a biological imperative rooted in gender to social prescriptions about gender--it moves from a purported value-free reading of nature to dictating gender roles based on supposed biological imperatives.

Re: #1: throughout the course of Christian history, predictably, whenever social developments have called into question traditional social arrangements or practices thought to have a moral foundation, the Christian churches have tended to argue that nature dictates the social arrangements and practices called into question.  Nature dictates morality . . . . The churches defended slavery on both biblical grounds and on the ground that God had arranged things in nature such that light-skinned people were ordained to dominate darker-skinned people.

The churches--specifically, the Catholic church in a papal decision--resisted inoculation vs. infectious diseases when that technology became available.  The papacy initially resisted inoculation on the ground that it interfered with nature, which was interfering with God's will for human beings as dictated through the "reality" of nature.  When women began to demand the right to vote or to work outside the home, the churches were quick to inform women that it was "unnatural" for them to "revolt" against the place that God had made for women in the world through natural design.

When the "lower orders" began to question traditional social arrangements which viewed their status at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid as natural, the churches initially defended as natural the traditional hierarchical arrangement of society in which the rich dominate the poor.  The churches defended the status quo as a divinely ordained arrangement built into the natural ordering of the world.  The churches initially resisted any attempt to tamper with this supposedly divinely ordained "natural" arrangement on the ground that doing so would upset nature and cause social chaos.

Re: #2: the burden of proof is on those who today wish to make the biological imperative of gender (keep men men and women women) central to the Christian tradition on natural-law grounds.  The gender-complementarity thesis of John Paul II's natural law theology is radically innovative.  It gives primacy of place to biological imperatives of gender in an unprecedented way that is not deeply grounded in the Christian tradition or in its reading of scripture throughout the centuries.  And so it demands proof from the standpoint of the very tradition to which it claims to appeal.

Both the prophetic tradition of Judaism and the Christian scriptures move against the notion that gender dictates, through biological imperatives, established social roles for men and women that exclude those who muddle the boundary between the genders.  Isaiah challenges the longstanding Jewish notion that eunuchs are ritually impure, and notes that eunuchs have a place among the people of God and in the temple.  Paul notes that in baptism, Christians are made new creations in which the biological imperatives of gender no longer define one's identity or standing before God.

Those promoting the thesis that maintaining biologically determined gender roles is central to what it means to be a follower of Christ characteristically back this argument with the claim that questioning biologically determined gender roles will cause procreation to cease.  Since more and more societies permit same-sex marriage, and since procreation has not stopped in those societies, we now have empirical evidence to demonstrate that the primary argument vs. same-sex marriage of those promoting gender complementarity is empirically incorrect.

And if it is, indeed, all about procreation, then why do those promoting the notion that the biology of gender dictates what we can or cannot do in marital relationships not seek to outlaw the marriage of heterosexual couples incapable of procreation?

Re: #3: there is a (perhaps deliberate) confusion in the arguments of those advocating for the biological "reality" of gender as a basis for opposing same-sex marriage (and women's liberation).  This confusion centers on a confusion of the biological and the social.  The gender-complementarity argument illicitly moves from what it claims to observe in biology about men and women, to social (and moral) prescriptions about how men and women should behave.

But gender roles have necessarily been fluid throughout history, as we attain new insight into both nature and social practices.  It has long been taught that women are "naturally" weaker and less rational than men.  But as women have gained increasing control over their own lives and destinies, they have repeatedly proven this argument from nature to be direly wrong.

We also recognize increasingly that the so-called "weakness" of women is also legally enacted and upheld by social prescriptions and taboos that are questionable and changeable.  Given the opportunity to move beyond the confining place that many societies and faith communities have created for them, women demonstrate that the social prescriptions and taboos that keep them in their place are open to question and may well need to be revised--particularly by people of faith who claim to make mercy, justice, and compassion central to their lives.

I am sorry if you regard such ideas as "pejorative," Mr. Donaghy.  In discussions like this, much depends on where the person making the judgment about what is pejorative stands.  Those who experience the argument that biology is destiny as a prison may well regard what I am saying here as liberating.  Those who stand to benefit from keeping the prison walls in place for others may well see my thought about these matters as pejorative.  

I hope I have succeeded in answering your questions to your satisfaction.