Christ and the Possibility of Feminine Identity

OK, the subject of masculinity and femininity has been a subject of discussion following one of yesterday’s posts. I thought that I would post this as somewhat relevant to the questions at issue. It is certainly not the best thing that I have ever written and I decided not to post it when I first wrote it over a year ago. I would probably want to add a lot, lot more to it if I had written it today. However, I will post it now, more or less in its original form, as I do not have the time or energy to write anything much new on the subject. Someone like Dennis should post on this subject, as it would be far more insightful than the following thoughts.

In an increasingly egalitarian society, resistant to the oppressive assumptions of patriarchy, the masculinity of Jesus is problematic. How can we assert the universal relevance of Christ when His gender differentiates Him from half of our world’s population? Does not the Church’s claim that “women, by their very nature, cannot ‘image’ Christ” constitute a denial of women’s “full participation in the Christian church”? In asserting that Christ is male and that God is Father rather than Mother, is the Church complicit in patriarchalism?

A number of approaches to these issues have been presented from various quarters. In Rosemary Ruether’s work we find strong opposition to the suggestion that the “maleness of the historical Jesus was an ontological necessity, not a historical accident.” Ruether claims that, if this were indeed the case, the ‘Christ symbol’ would exclude women. Ruether argues that “in terms of gender stereotypes, God is androgynous.” Paul Fiddes has argued that we must oppose the notion of exclusively masculine names for God with recognition that both masculine (Father, Son, etc.) and feminine (mother) terms are ‘merely metaphors’ when used of God.

Ruether believes that we must stress the particularity of Christ in gender, culture and ethnicity and “the limitations of any single individual to be universally paradigmatic.” As we encounter Christ we must see Him as “paradigmatic of universal human redemption” in a manner that can apply to males and females and people from all cultures and ethnicities. Luce Irigaray maintains that the particularity of Christ must be stressed, so that we may appreciate that He (as a male) was only a partial incarnation and not unique in this respect.

The positions that one holds on such questions are reciprocally related to core convictions about God and revelation. I will argue that the positions sketched above are fundamentally deficient and outline an alternative approach to the problem.

In order to arrive at their positions both Ruether and Irigaray sacrifice the tight relationship between the particularity, universal significance and uniqueness of Christ. In Ruether’s proposal we see a depreciation of Christ’s particularity: whilst she maintains that we must encounter Jesus in all of His particularity, her argument seems to demand that this particularity be regarded as accidental. If Christ’s particularity as a first-century male Jew is historically accidental, are we not at risk of making the entirety of redemptive history equally accidental?

In order to become relevant to women the historical Jesus must be effaced, to take the form of a largely depersonalized ‘Christ symbol’, threatening Christ’s uniqueness in turn. Even the residual particularity of the ‘Christ symbol’ is cause enough to question its universal relevance.

Ruether’s approach also appears to entail a weakening of the symbolic value of human sexuality. The ‘Christ symbol’ that Ruether presents us with is an androgynous principle, rather than one that includes sexual difference within it. Whilst both men and women can reflect the character of God in slightly different ways, the symbolism of male and female is purely epiphenomenal. There is a consequent attenuation of the connection between symbolism and creative design. The imagery of the Bible comes to be regarded as arbitrary and ‘merely a reflection of cultural metaphors projected on to the deity’ (as Brevard Childs puts it).

As Peter Leithart recognizes, reducing Christ’s maleness to an irrelevancy is a sign of incipient docetism, serving to devalue the body and running contrary to the feminist focus upon the body. Irigaray’s stress on the particularity of Christ’s body, on the other hand, is bought at the high cost of Christ’s uniqueness.

The quest for a universal ‘Christ symbol’ makes space for difference only by reducing it to the level of indifference. This, I contend, is a neglect of the power of Trinitarian theology, which enables us to assert the equal ultimacy of unity and difference.

Ruether claims that the “maleness of the historical Jesus has nothing to do with manifesting a divine ‘Son’ of a divine ‘Father’.” The identity of the economic and immanent Trinity is considerably weakened, at precisely the point where it is an article of faith. In addition to this, the manner in which Ruether resists the idea that the Father is in any sense the origin or source of the other Persons of the Godhead is troubling.

In Fiddes’ work we see the loss of the divine subject as divine personhood comes to be understood purely in terms of relational movements. Fiddes wishes to draw to draw a sharp distinction between the manner in which the concept of personhood functions in divine and human life. One is left wondering whether there remains a divine ‘I’ behind such acts as ‘fathering’, ‘mothering’ and ‘loving’. One also wonders whether feminist theologies must deconstruct the idea of ‘God’ as noun altogether if they are to be successful in escaping what they regard as the patriarchalism in traditional Trinitarian formulations. Weinandy gives a salutary reminder: “The Son, as a divine subject, may be more than we are as persons, but he is not less than we are as persons, and we know this because the divine and eternal Son, in the Incarnation, has now identified himself with a human ‘I’.” Weinandy’s entire discussion of divine personhood is germane here.

An Alternative Account
In presenting an alternative account of Christ’s relevance to women I believe that we must begin by demonstrating some of the ways in which sexual difference is bound into the ‘symbolic grammar’ of Scripture at every point. Much of what follows is deeply indebted to the thoughts of James Jordan here and here.

Sexual Differentiation and the ‘Symbolic Grammar’ of Scripture
Sexual differentiation and interaction of the sexes are central themes in the first few chapters of Genesis. The verse that speaks most clearly of the imago Dei also speaks of sexual differentiation (1:27). If we agree that the most basic definition of man is homo adorans (Alexander Schmemann) it is hard to resist the implication that sexual differentiation is one of the most liturgically significant facts of creation. The fact that woman was created as a helper for man implies that, in some sense, man was created as the leader. Gender roles as also very significant in relation to the Fall. The pattern of creation and Fall is appealed to in such places as 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Throughout the OT we see the liturgical significance of sexual differentiation continually reasserted. The rite of male circumcision, the role played by firstborn sons in the Exodus and in the selection of the priesthood (Numbers 3:40-51) and the significance given to the gender of sacrifices (e.g. Leviticus 4) all underline the importance of sexual differentiation.

My account of sexual difference purposefully founds itself primarily in the biblical narrative rather than in the ‘crudely biologistic’ terms that such as Gerard Loughlin criticize in von Balthasar. The fundamental difference between men and women is to be found in the differing dramatic roles — ways of imaging God — into which they are created and moulded in Scripture. All other differences (including biological) are derivative or secondary. I find Loughlin’s approach, with its claim that Trinitarian relations are determinative of human bodies, but not human sexes, unsatisfactory.

Sexual differentiation is seen to be significant on the level of the larger narrative of Scripture and its patterns. Male and female play differing roles. The man is the head, the first in creation and the one who initiates; the woman is created last as the completion and glorification of creation and mankind. The narrative movement starts with the man leaving his parents and is completed by the union formed with the wife (Genesis 2:24). We see this pattern on numerous forms in Scripture, most notably in the movement from the Father’s sending of the Son until the marriage feast that we see in the NT. The narrative pattern of the gospel is appealed to in Ephesians 5:22-33.

Throughout the OT narrative we also see the prominence given to male/female imagery in describing the relationship between God and His people. As the Creator, God is always seen to be symbolically the Husband rather than the Bride. Likewise God is always spoken of as Father, rather than mother. [Leon Podles’ understanding of God’s ‘masculinity’ in terms of separation (Podles, 61-64) is not altogether unhelpful (even if his arguments are backwards sometimes). It is worth noting the connection between panentheism and the use of feminine language of God drawn by some feminist writers (e.g. Fox, 218). It may not be accidental that feminine language of God often accompanies reconceptions of God’s relationship with the creation and relativizations of the Creator-creature distinction.] It is always He who initiates the relationship. The priests of Israel shared in God’s task of husbanding (guarding, teaching and glorifying) the Bride. This is one reason why there are no priestesses in Scripture, although there are prophetesses and queens. This continues into the NT, where we see the Church depicted as the Bride of Christ.

The pattern of relationships between the sexes must be regarded in some sense as revelatory of intratrinitarian relationships. The Spirit’s role relative to the Son is analogous to the role of the woman in relation to the man. The Father’s role as the ‘head’ of the Son is also analogous to the role of the man relative to the woman (1 Corinthians 11:3).

It is worth noting that none of the patterns for male-female relationships listed above — creational, evangelical and Trinitarian — are presented as being limited in scope, whether culturally or otherwise.

Towards an Answer
There appear to be a few key things that most feminist theologians are looking for. (a) They wish to establish a ‘horizon’ for feminine subjectivity, which gives ultimate value to feminine identity. (b) Related to the previous concern, they wish to argue for a unique, or ‘equal’, way in which women image God and the need to use feminine language of God. (c) They wish to argue for an ‘equal’ role for women to play in the Church. The perceived irrelevancy of Christ is in large part a result of the fact that the maleness of Christ seems to deny them all of these things. I will address each of these concerns in turn.

Within the symbolic grammar sketched out above we can begin to recognize that there are certain roles that can only be performed by a person of a particular sex. The relevance of Christ to women is to be found through an understanding of His role in ‘leaving’ His Father to give Himself for His Bride (Ephesians 5:22-32).

Male and female are bound together in an asymmetric mutuality. In restoring human relationality in its entirety, Christ must begin by restoring the masculine pole. Christ then gives the Spirit, who restores and perfects the feminine pole. Christ does not give value to the feminine by coming as a woman, but by dying for the Bride. The work of the Spirit (the sponsor of the feminine) is that which completes the work of Christ in the formation of the Bride.

We do not need to adopt the ‘partial incarnation’ approach of Luce Irigaray, with its attack upon the uniqueness of Christ’s incarnation, in order to recognize that God forms a complete new humanity through Jesus Christ. The man is the source, origin and head (1 Corinthians 11:2, 7-9). This is why Christ’s maleness is necessary, not because men are inherently superior, but because of the particular way in which they image God.

We must reject the individualistic ontology that many approaches seem to be premised upon. Christ is a corporate Person (the totus Christus, a one flesh union, head and body, Bride and Bridegroom, a new humanity). Christ does not constitute the Church as One standing outside of the Church, but Christ (the One) and the Church (the Many) are mutually constitutive as Christ stands within the Church. We need to recognize that the new humanity that God has established is not one that, through Jesus Christ, imposes a masculine norm upon all. The unity of the Church is one of ‘utter complementarity’ (like that of the Trinity), rather than one of mere ‘coincidence’ within the ‘Christ symbol’. In Christ, humanity is restored in its male and femaleness. The ‘horizon’ for women is that of the Church as Bride and Mother.

Writers like Ruether seem to be attempting to find value for the feminine in isolation from the masculine. If true personhood is found in communion then the quest to find identity in autonomy, apart from relationship, is a vain one. The Son and the Father are only what they are in mutual relationship. Likewise, the value of men and women is not autonomous, but relational in character.

How do we address the concern of those who believe that the woman is devalued if we cannot use feminine language of God? I believe that the concern is in a large measure a valid one. If there is no sense in which God is the archetype of the ‘feminine’ [we must of course recognize the infinite distance between our gendered language and God’s own being, without denying the presence of an analogy, as we are His image-bearers] how is it appropriate to see women as imaging God in a unique manner? I believe that it is important that we situate this problem within the framework of a biblical ‘symbolic grammar’. In His relationship to the creation God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — is always masculine. However, within the immanent Trinity we can see archetypes of the feminine — the Holy Spirit in particular. Thomas Weinandy’s claim that the Father eternally begets the Son in the Spirit lends strong support to such a position.

Can women play an ‘equal’ role to men in the Church? Liturgical roles are not more fundamental than sexual differentiation. Consequently, there are certain roles that they cannot play. Whatever roles men and women share in common are always qualified by their masculinity and femininity respectively. However, I do think that there is a good argument for certain important roles in the Church that are exclusively feminine. Jordan’s argument for the role of the elder woman is important in this respect.

In conclusion we can see that the relevance of a male Christ to women is to be found in the manner in which male and female are mutually constitutive and complementary as part of the one imago Dei. Christ’s relevance to women ought not to be detached from the work of the Spirit in forming the Bride. He performs the work of the true Husband and gives the Spirit, who enables the people of God to act as the true Bride and Mother. The work of Christ makes it possible for women to be restored and perfected, not merely in their generic humanity, but in their femininity.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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2 Responses to Christ and the Possibility of Feminine Identity

  1. Pingback: Two Tack’s Thoughts » Blog Archive » Alpha Male, Omega Female

  2. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2006-2007 | Alastair's Adversaria

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