Gender & Religion

By Woodward, Kenneth L. | Commonweal, November 22, 1996 | Go to article overview

Gender & Religion


Woodward, Kenneth L., Commonweal


Who's really running the show?

Annul me in my manhood, Lord, and Make me woman-sexed and weak, If by that total transformation I might know Thee more.

The poet William Everson died in 1994 at the age of eighty-one, a wispy, Whitmanesque figure from the Beat Generation. Known as Brother Antoninus, Everson spent thirteen years as a member of the Dominican order where he published the poem whose opening lines I quote above. The poem was inspired by a passage from Teresa of Avila, in which the redoubtable doctor of the church reports that, in her judgment and that of a holy priest of her acquaintance, women are more receptive than men to divine initiative. Can this be right? Is male sexuality a barrier to whole-hearted surrender to God?

One finds in this poem, as in the entire body of Everson's work, echoes of the psalms, the Song of Songs, of Augustine's Confessions, among other cornerstone texts of the Christian tradition that yoke the erotic with the mystical. And in much of that tradition, it is male - not female - sexuality which is problematic for those who would open themselves to the divine embrace.

The issues surrounding the relationships between gender - both genders - and religion are complex, deep, and of long standing. These concerns were salient long before the advent of gender studies. One has only to consult such fine works of historical retrieval as Caroline Walker Bynum's Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (University of California, 1982) to see that the relationship of the masculine and the feminine in religion is such that stark polarities do not do justice to the facts. Isn't it possible, for instance, that in the realm of religious experience maleness is at least as problematic as femaleness? Moreover, I would argue that in the everyday life of most Americans today it is the female, not the male, presence that is most noticeable - and, in ways that feminist scholars choose not to notice - also the most powerful.

Nearly 90 percent of Americans claim at least nominal allegiance to Christianity. Most American Christians, of course, are Protestants. Too often, when Roman Catholics - including bishops - discuss issues like the ordination of women, they fail to look at the Protestant experience. I will focus mostly on that experience. Catholics, I think, can gain some perspective on their own experience by looking at Protestantism, and especially at what I call the feminization of American Christianity.

What I mean by "feminization" is not simple. Essentially, I want to call attention to those aspects of American religious life that privilege the feminine rather than the masculine. Most of these observations are sociological. But sociological change has deep psychological impact.

What I mean by the terms "masculine" and "feminine" will, I hope, become apparent as I go along. But to be clear I want to state at the outset that I do assume that there are differences between men and women, rooted in biology, and that, as a consequence of these differences, every culture makes distinctions between what is masculine and what is feminine, including the cultures of churches. The distinctions may be more or less arbitrary, but they are no less significant for being so. It is hard to imagine a culture that is not gender inflected. When Saint Paul wrote that "in Christ there is neither male nor female," he was not suggesting thereby that gender differences do not exist. Indeed, much of Christian tradition can be read as a continuing conversation about the meaning of male and female as it relates to God, who is beyond gender.

Today, much of that conversation is confined to women and to "women's studies." Like its counterparts in other disciplines, feminist theology places gender at the center of inquiry, employing a hermeneutics of suspicion toward religious texts, and a strategy of retrieval to uncover the experiences and roles women really played in, say, the early Jesus movement.

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