‘Year of Biblical Womanhood’ Review – Part 3

Welcome to the third part of the review of Rachel Held Evans’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood, within which we engage with chapters 7-9 of the book, following on from part 1 and part 2.

Listen here!

Listen to the other parts of the review here: Part 1Part 2Part 4Part 5

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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33 Responses to ‘Year of Biblical Womanhood’ Review – Part 3

  1. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    Your guys’ language in the interview seems to implicitly reject hierarchy in relations between the sexes. I agree that “Are differentiated roles necessarily hierarchical?” is a good question. But I also think that “Would it be bad if differentiated roles _were_ hierarchical?” is another.

    As for complimentarian positions, it does seem on the face of it that the language of Ephesians, for example, places the man in relation to the woman as Christ to the church. Christ is definitely above the church, so it does seem to be a hierarchical relationship in some sense. Now this isn’t hierarchy like we tend to see in the world, but it does seem to be some sort of hierarchy nonetheless. I am willing to be corrected on this, but it does seem that there is more there than “equal but different.”

    • Thanks for the question: it is an important one. My time is brief, so this will have to be quick.

      The problem is that ‘hierarchy’ is an incredibly loaded term in the context of this debate and, in the sense that the term is typically used, we would both regard it as a distortion of biblical teaching. While there are other, more felicitous, senses of the term, I think that it is probably better to remove the term from circulation from a while and express our position in different terms. I believe that such an approach can help to yield greater clarity about where true issues and differences lie and have argued for a sort of approach of ‘theological taboo’ here.

      I believe that any biblical approach to marriage will involve both parties deferring to each other in different ways. There is no unilateral dominance or priority of one party over the other. However, there is asymmetry and this deferral will take forms that give one party or the other priority in certain areas of the family’s life. As the man particularly symbolizes divine authority in various ways, this sense of a hierarchy is more pronounced in relation to his role. However, this vocation does not give the man absolute priority or establish universal hierarchy, but is subjected to an asymmetric reversibility, as the woman is given priority as a servant of God in other areas and the man needs to defer to the vocation that God has given to her in various ways. Modelling things as a straightforward ‘chain of command’ is grossly simplistic. The man has no absolute prerogative over the woman.

      The word ‘hierarchy’ muddies this more complex picture, which is why I suggest that it is best rejected, or at least taken to the cleaners until it is fit to be used again.

      • Thursday says:

        I wonder if this rhetorical approach to using terms like hierarchy or patriarchy is the right one though. If there are things about complementarianism that really do fall under the under the terms hierarchy and/or patriarchy as ordinarily understood, then denying that you are in fact in favour of hierarchy and/or patriarchy just makes you look dishonest, which infuriates the other side, somewhat justly I have to say, and/or weak, which just inspires contempt, and sometimes renewed attack. In which case, it may actually contribute to a poisoning of the debate.

        Some specific implicit messages this sends out, whether intended or not:
        1. Complementarians lack the courage of their convictions, let’s keep doing what we are already doing and they will fall. It doesn’t really inspire reflection on the egalitarian side.
        2. Complementarians don’t really believe what they are saying, so there must be some sort of ulterior motive (gaining power over women etc.) that is behind their message.

        I am also not sure that using new terms really helps all that much. Typically the objection is to the actual things themselves, so you end up with what linguists call the euphemism treadmill. A good kind of hierarchical relationship, assuming for now that such exist, for example, does bear many actual points of resemblance to a bad kind of hierarchical relationship, such that it is justified in placing them under a single category, and there is no sense denying that this is so. The relationship is there, not in the words, but in reality, and the association between them will be made by the parties no matter what terms one chooses to use. It may be best to confront those associations head on rather than pretend they don’t exist, rather than provoke the thought in your opponents mind, “They’re really talking about hierarchy/patriarchy, aren’t they? Why won’t they just admit it?”

      • First of all, I am reluctant to describe my position as ‘complementarian’, as I have important areas of difference with the classic complementarian positions as they articulated. In my experience, describing myself in such a manner will frequently to lead to confusion, as people presume that I am aligning myself with people that I am not aligning myself with and defending positions that I am not defending. I would happily acknowledge that, technically speaking, my position is a complementarian one, though I do not align myself with classic complementarian groups such as CBMW.

        So many of the common terms in these debates are so muddied and vague that they really serve little purpose when it comes to communication and do little but trigger prejudices. Using them puts you at the mercy of the vague impressions of your interlocutors, rather than enabling you to articulate a position with any clarity. For instance, what exactly does a term such as ‘patriarchy’ mean? I have seen it used in many different and contrary senses. For this reason, if I am going to accept any such term in reference to my position, it won’t be until its meaning has been clearly stipulated. Ideally, I will communicate my position while resisting the application of these terms at all.

        This isn’t about euphemisms or about avoiding words that typically take a pejorative sense. The issue here is clarity in communication. If a term carries a pejorative sense, but its meaning is a clear one that applies to my position, I will readily acknowledge it. However, if acknowledging the term will make my position unclear, I will either ask for the meaning of the term to be clearly stipulated or, if the term insistently retains a meaning that I would deny, I will just have to deny it, even if, in the context of a more carefully stipulated meaning, I could guardedly accept it.

        I have disagreements with standard complementarian ‘hierarchical’ formulations of gender relations and if I were to use the term of my position, it would tend to lead to confusion.for all parties. It isn’t that I dislike the pejorative sense, just that my position isn’t one of straightforward ‘hierarchy’ as most complementarians and egalitarians understand it.

      • Thursday says:

        Sometimes specific examples help with clarification.

        It is my experience that saying to an egalitarian that men have their sphere of authority and women have other spheres of authority, so that neither has any ultimate precedence over the other, does not actually further the conversation. That there are hierarchies, even in certain specific areas, where men have authority over women based on their sex is precisely what they find intolerable.

        Now, this is partly the fault of egalitarians who often seem incapable of seeing beyond formal and public forms of authority. But it is precisely these areas where they do place the most value, so telling them that women have authority in some other area that they don’t much care about comes across as condescending. The fundamental issue is whether one’s sex is ever, under any circumstance, sufficient to grant one authority over a member of another sex. Whether or not anyone has ultimate precedence or authority over another does not really seem to the point.

      • Thursday says:

        So, why not just acknowledge that a term like patriarchy fits in a broad sense, such as men having more formal and public authority simply by virtue of being men? Why not acknowledge that, at least in this specific area, there is a hierarchy of men over women?

      • Thursday says:

        I think it important to note that, as a general matter, there is never really any ultimate precedence, so to avoid the word hierarchy on the basis that it implies there is is to simply accept the definition of one’s opponents, a process which never ends.

        “Even the most prominent man must often submit to moral rules and the will of his fellows, and even the most subordinate is responsible for himself and must sometimes be responsible for others.” – James Kalb


      • I think that we have a duty to understand interlocutors’ positions on their terms, before we ever apply our own terms to them. One shouldn’t trust an interlocutor who habitually uses the expression ‘in other words, what you are saying is…’, or is always in a rush to translate you into their categories and terminology without listening closely first. People who approach debate this way almost invariably speak past their opponents and never really listen to them, nor are they interested in doing so. They are trying to fit you into their mental monologue, rather than trying to have a conversation with you.

        If ‘hierarchy’ was what I wanted to say, I would use that word: I didn’t use that word and didn’t use it for a reason. So, no, until it is clear that someone has understood my position on my terms, I have the prerogative to reject their alien terms, unless those terms have a very clearly stipulated meaning (in which case, I may still resist their use as unhelpful). People are free to ask me for what terms I would choose and to question me about the meaning of those terms and why I choose to use them.

        I don’t like to use the term ‘hierarchy’ because it is a very poor term for saying what I am trying to say. It frames matters in a very misleading manner. It is important to recognize that I don’t align myself with typical complementarian approaches to hierarchy. I don’t just dislike their bad image. I am not engaged in a mere exercise in rebranding: I think that most complementarian positions are wrong. I choose the words that I use carefully, in order to distinguish my position from that of the overwhelming majority of complementarians out there. I would be equally reluctant to accept the term ‘complementarian’ of my own position from a complementarian. Such a labelling is all too often a way to present you as being on their side, without paying any attention to your criticisms or disagreements.

        I don’t use the term ‘hierarchy’ because the sense in which I would use such a term would almost invariably be different from the sense in which my interlocutors (both complementarian and egalitarian) would hear it. For this reason, I have every right to resist the term or deny it in their sense until they understand the sense in which I would use it. This doesn’t mean that many of my interlocutors would like or agree with my position if they truly understood it on my own terms. I care little whether they like it or not: the important thing is that they understand it. Using the term ‘hierarchy’ will typically give them the illusion that they have understood it and the ability to close their minds, without actually having understood.

        Floppy and vague characterizations into which all positions are forced are all too often an excuse for lazy thinkers never having to expand their minds beyond their own tidy categorizations of the world and never having to engage attentively with the different positions that exist out there. Terms like ‘patriarchy’ are a pretext for never having to open your mind to receptive engagement with a different position. I think that both egalitarians and complementarians are incredibly lazy in such a manner and both could do with dropping the vague terms that mask their ignorance of the details of their own and interlocutors’ positions.

        These ‘in other words, what you are saying…’ terms are almost invariably power games, unless they are preceded and backed up by very close attentiveness. I have no problem being labelled in principle, even with negative labels. However, no one has the right to force a label on me without either my willing permission or first having understood my position clearly on its own terms. This actually gets back to our earlier discussion on ‘liberalism’. ‘Liberalism’ is all too often such a term, excusing a failure to listen closely and allowing the speaker to frame everything in a facile manner on their own terms. It enables our minds to remain closed to other positions, while making strong statements about them without bothering to give them a genuine hearing.

        I wouldn’t resist terms like ‘patriarchy’ or even ‘hierarchy’ absolutely, but wouldn’t accept them until my interlocutor has unpacked their meaning fairly exhaustively, while limiting and defining the precise sense in which they are being used. For instance, defining ‘patriarchy’ as ‘men having more formal and public authority simply by virtue of being men’ is still rather vague on many levels. I wouldn’t be prepared to accept or deny such a definition without a lot more clarity and a sense that all parties in the conversation were clear on the semantic range of such a term. Same with ‘hierarchy’. For instance, your Kalb quotation is only a very weak qualification of the meaning of hierarchy. I would want to go considerably further.

      • Thursday says:

        Terms have public meanings though, so it seems to me entirely fair and reasonable to apply them when they fit, even if there are other associations that come along with those words that may not fit. Others may be playing dirty rhetorical games with those associations, but the correct response is not then to deny that the terms apply, but to call them out for rhetorical game playing and make clear in what sense you are using the term. So, I do think that if someone labels one’s thought as patriarchal or hierarchical or whatever and the terms could reasonably apply, then it is actually disingenuous to deny that those terms do in fact fit.

        I’ll use a less freighted example. John Searle utterly denies that he is a property dualist, and would vehemently deny to anyone that he is one, probably (I am speculating here) because he doesn’t like the associations of the word dualist, which are incredibly loaded in philosophical discourse (I am not speculating there), but when you look at his actual position, it is in fact quite clear that his positions map onto the public meaning of the term property dualist. So, it is, I think, disingenuous of him to deny that that is what he is. He might well note how some of the the terms associations might mislead people into thinking he is some sort of supernaturalist, or might even more legitimately object if people try to score cheap rhetorical points against him by using the term, but to outright deny that it applies, even when used by enemies, seems to me utterly wrong.

      • Thursday says:

        I think it pretty important to be up front about things. If terms like “patriarchy” and “hierarchy” could reasonably apply, then it is important to state that clearly. Why not say straight up:

        “Words like ‘patriarchal’ and ‘hierarchical’ could accurately be used to describe my thought, but can also be misleading and need to be heavily qualified. I strongly disagree with much of what goes under those labels and for that reason try to avoid using those them as much as possible in favour of describing the details of my thought.”

        In contrast, something like this frankly comes off as offensive to the intelligence:

        “I wouldn’t resist terms like ‘patriarchy’ or even ‘hierarchy’ absolutely . . .”


        In other words, I want to strongly challenge the proposition that those who want to put labels on things are to be presumed to be acting in bad faith or trying to stake out us vs. them positions. An example would be liberalism. I happen to think that James Kalb has captured its essence pretty accurately. But I by no means think that what he has described is an entirely bad thing, even in theology. Simply describing something as liberal is by no means the simply same thing as “bad” or “something I don’t like.” There are a lot of excellent things about modern society, many of which owe their existence to liberalism.

      • Thursday says:

        I also have to wonder about this: the term hierarchy was used in your audio review. So, it can’t really be said that you’ve retired the term. You brought it up, only to imply that it was a bad thing! So, I think it perfectly acceptable for people to point out that your own position could reasonably be said to fall under one of the meanings of that term.

      • Thursday says:

        In the spirit of charity, I think I should acknowledge that your concerns about how terms can be misused are legitimate: people can use them to dismiss your position or stake out us vs. them dynamics. However, the rhetorical strategy you are advocating simply creates new problems which degrade discourse to an roughly equal extent. It isn’t any better than what it attempts to replace, so condemning people for not practising it is not helpful.

      • Yes, terms do have public meanings, but these are contextual and not absolute. One is well within one’s rights to reject the same term in one context, yet accept it in others. In terms of a conversation with an egalitarian such as Rachel Held Evans, who uses the term ‘hierarchy’ in a very specific way, I am quite justified in denying that I hold to it, because I don’t. Where the sense of a word as used within the conversation typically takes a pejorative sense, yet clearly still includes the qualified sense that I would give it, I could resist the term as an unhelpful framing, but I wouldn’t completely deny it.

        Is there a sense of the term ‘hierarchy’ that I would accept of my position? Absolutely. However, there are also senses of the word ‘egalitarian’ that I would no less readily accept of my position. I don’t call my position ‘egalitarian’ because that would almost inescapably lead to misunderstanding: I don’t call my position ‘hierarchical’ for much the same reason.

        I don’t like the term ‘hierarchy’ not merely because it has a pejorative sense, or even because it lumps me in with positions that I would largely and vehemently resist, but because, as the term is used in the debate, it presents a very misleading picture of what I actually hold. Complementarian and egalitarian views are all too often both framed by the concept of hierarchy – one generally advocating a form of hierarchy, the other firmly opposing it. My position is not framed by the concept, whether by the theme that it represents or by complete opposition to that theme. It is drawn around completely different concepts. To try to understand my position through the category of hierarchy is to look at it askew. As my aim is to communicate, rather than to enable lazy interlocutors to pigeonhole me without listening to me, I will resist the term and will generally use other terms to make my point.

        In the same way, if a group of Kalb fans asked a person whether they were a ‘liberal’, even if the person would identify as liberal in other contexts and senses, they would be well within their rights to deny that they were. In such contexts the meaning of the term is not necessarily its more general sense, but is one that is freighted in a particular way. If the freighted meaning of the term currently in play doesn’t apply to them – even if unfreighted it might – they are perfectly justified to reject it. In such contexts one should hear such terms in inverted commas: while one may identify as a liberal, one doesn’t identify as a ‘liberal’ in the Kalb sense of the word. If such distinctions between different senses of words in different contexts irritates people who wish to place people into unsuitable categories then so be it.

        My experience is that those who insist upon pressing terms upon you typically are acting in bad faith. In contexts where a public and mutually recognized meaning of such a term applies I don’t deny it outright, although I will resist (but not deny) it where the term is an inherently unclear one, which will tend towards confusion or misrepresentation, and will express my point using clearer terms.

        People who are seeking to force their definitions of categories upon their interlocutors are the ones who most need to be resisted here. As I have already suggested, a context where ‘liberalism’ is understood in a Kalbian sense is a great example of a case where one should really think carefully before identifying oneself as a liberal. It doesn’t matter whether Kalb uses the term in a pejorative sense or not: the issue is that the term is heavily freighted one and that, the more that the particular terminology is insisted upon, the more likely it is that one party in the debate is trying to force the other into a rhetorical corner, rather than honestly seeking understanding.

        I wasn’t the one who used the term ‘hierarchy’ in the review. Rebecca chose to use it and, while I strongly defend her choice, I didn’t select the word myself. Rebecca was not the first person to use the term: rather, she was engaging with Rachel’s use of the term. I can’t speak for her, but just give my own thoughts here. The sense in which the term was used should be fairly obvious to any listener and even more so when taken within the larger framework of what was said. If you are saying that there are senses in which we must accept the term, surely you must also acknowledge that there are senses in which we are free to deny the term, or to distinguish our position from positions associated with it? The word wasn’t being used in some absolute sense in Rebecca’s statement, but in a contextual (but still public) sense, the sense in which Rachel uses it in her book. The idea that to deny a term in certain such senses (those senses currently at play in the conversation) must entail a denial of it in all senses that are ever used seems to me to involve a failure to appreciate the way that we generally use language.

        My concern here is in large part with a use of language that seems to be driven by the urge to categorize, rather than to communicate. The categorization that you seem to champion is a categorization that will typically shut down communication prematurely. You support the application of terms to positions before those positions have first been understood on their own terms. My very guarded use (with contextually determined denials or permissions) – and more typically avoidance – of such slippery terms as ‘hierarchy’ is driven by the need to communicate my position to people who will typically badly misunderstand my meaning if couched in such a term as ‘hierarchy’. I am not seeking to be disingenuous at all, but to make my meaning clear to my interlocutors, so that they may know exactly where I stand. This will be frustrating for people who firmly believe that their unchastened conceptual categories are sufficient for classifying all positions out there, but I think that it is all the more important for that very reason.

        My impression is that your goal is more one of absolute categorization than communication in particular contexts, where the meaning of key terms shift, with far less attention to the fact that, while appropriate in certain contexts, certain terms may not be appropriate in every context. Rebecca’s use of the term ‘hierarchy’ was driven by such a need to communicate a position, not to provide an absolute categorization of a position. If she or I were playing a categorization game rather than a communication game, we might word ourselves differently. However, we are not.

        One final and crucial point: questions, and not merely answers, can be wrong. Many of the questions surrounding the gender debates, on all sides, are the wrong ones, loaded questions with false assumptions, trivial questions that distract from the real issues, or questions that focus on secondary issues that are wrongly presumed to be the only means of securing primary concerns. Most of the right questions are not being asked.

        If you answer such a wrong question, it will almost invariably lead to confusion. Such questions are particular dangerous when they become the questions that frame the entire debate. In engaging with complementarian-egalitarian debates, one of my primary concerns is to reframe a debate that is being framed in a very poor manner. Rather than providing new answers to old questions, my concern is to get us to start asking a new set of questions, giving serious thought to which sorts of questions are the right ones, as I am persuaded that the most important and illuminating questions in these debates are not typically asked. It is for this reason that I am so resistant to the hierarchy question: not because I am disingenuously trying to squirm out of identifying myself as such, attempting cosmetic surgery on the complementarian position, or worried about being presented in a negative light but because the question is a bad one.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        I did not mean to imply, if I did, that you were intentionally being disingenuous.

        I guess the real issue is whether your preferred rhetorical strategy does actually communicate more effectively. I think it actually tends to muddy the waters.

        I would suggest that your (plural) use of the term hierarchy in the interview was sufficiently narrow and outside normal usage that you needed to explain what you were up to.

        Secondly, if your position (or, frankly, that of more mainstream complimentarians, many of whom also tend to avoid terms like patriarchal) does fall under one or more of the ordinary meanings of terms like patriarchal and hierarchical you do have an obligation to explain in what sense they do and do not apply. Placing your position in those categories is going to be a natural, and non-sinister, thing for people to do. So, if someone, say Rachel Held Evans or whoever, labels you with one of these terms you need to take the issue head on, not “resist” the label. You need to explain in what sense(s) your position does fall under the public meaning(s) of the term, and which it does not. “If by patriarchal, Ms. Evans means a, b and c, then no my position cannot be labelled as patriarchal. If by patriarchal, Ms. Evans means x, y, and z, then yes my position can be labelled as patriarchal.” To refuse to deal with these issues head on comes off as semantic games playing, whether you intend that or not. If you want these loaded terms not to be so loaded you need to make the issues these terms raise explicit, not attempt to avoid them.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        My concern here is in large part with a use of language that seems to be driven by the urge to categorize, rather than to communicate.

        I very much disagree with the dichotomy presented here. There is no understanding without categories and without understanding there is nothing to communicate. The way forward is to clarify rather than attempt to debunk, or just ignore, essenses.

        Many of the questions surrounding the gender debates, on all sides, are the wrong ones

        This is true, but you have to take a step back and ask why these wrong questions were asked in the first place. Typically this is because there is some real issue that they raise, so simply ignoring, or “resisting,” them tends not to work.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        In short, the reason someone like Rachel Held Evans would label your position patriarchal or hierarchical is because she knows she can make it stick. And the reason it sticks isn’t because she has some special word magic or has been repeating it 10 000 times, but because it represents a substantial amount of reality. So, failing to acknowledge that the label has in fact stuck, just makes you look like a fool or a jerk. That’s just how it is, and anyone who wants to enter the discussion needs to deal with it.

        Frankly, what we badly need is a discussion about what hierarchy and patriarchy mean and when and in what senses they are good or bad. These really are the basic issues that need to be discussed and until we discuss them, describing our own positions, in whatever detail, is mostly pointless.

      • I stand by my distinction between categorizing and communicating. Frankly, I have found the approach that I am taking – resisting bad categories and categories altogether, where appropriate categories don’t yet exist – to be far more effective at the task of communicating. Most complex ideological movements don’t have ‘essences’ at all (particularly movements as widespread and multifaceted as liberalism, but that’s a discussion for another day): at most they have family resemblances.

        I have no problem discussing the apparent ‘family resemblances’ of my position with all sorts of other positions. Categorizing views according to certain phenotypical features occasionally has its place. However, claiming thereby to have disclosed a common ‘essence’ or genotype of those various positions is where the problem arises.

        Your insistence upon categorizing seems to function in such a way. It presumes to have discovered the inner character of positions based upon a small selection of phenotypical features. It encourages the judging of positions based upon their surface appearance, rather than on the basis of genuine understanding of their actual workings.

        Within such contexts, a word such as ‘hierarchy’ is a loaded term about ‘essences’, rather than about mere surface appearances. That is why the term must be resisted and why such attempts at premature categorization tend to yield little or no insight whatsoever, breaking down communication and leading to deep misunderstanding.

        I really don’t see why I need to define myself in terms of wrong questions and deeply faulty categories. So, I stand by my original position. For those who insist on judging by selective surface appearances, I am sure that this will make no difference (I have little interest in persuading such people: they tend to be liabilities for whatever side they support), but for many others it makes a very big difference and makes communication far more possible.

        Part of the light that can be brought to the conversation in such contexts is resistance to the sway that such terms have. Such terms can also force us to defend the indefensible. Many of the people who would most like me to define myself as holding a ‘hierarchical’ position are those who would like to claim me as a defender of their position, a position that I can oppose even more strongly than the supposed alternative.

      • Thursday says:

        I won’t go into whether your position and, say, patriarchy are only linked by family resemblance for now, but I did want to address the content of family resemblance.

        I don’t think you (or for that matter Wittgenstein) have thought through what family resemblances are. The sine qua non of family resemblances is . . . family. Most family resemblances are not random phenomena that happen to share overlapping characteristics. With family resemblances in an actual family the phenotypical resemblances which are there but which not shared among all members reflect their origin in a common gene pool, and that does have an essence.

        (It is important to note that not only will the particular combination of genes in each individual affect phenotype, but that the genes in that gene pool will express themselves somewhat differently in different environments. An example would be religious devotion, which appears to have a substantial genetic component. However, even two identical twins who get adopted out to two separate families, one Jewish and one Catholic, are obviously not going to manifest their religiosity in identical way however similar their level of devotion. There is definitely room for discussion of historical contingency here. So, it is possible to talk of different historically contingent liberalisms, just as it is possible to talk about different religions. But it shouldn’t obscure the main point that they arise out of non-contingent factors.)

        A lot of work on the species problem is applicable here. You cannot define a species according to some Platonic definition, but the concept nonetheless reflects certain essential realities, like ancestry.

        (A separate, but somewhat related phenomenon, is convergent evolution, where a particular environmental niche will tend to produce similar traits in the organisms that inhabit it, and this is not due to genes. The classic example is the wing, which has evolved separately in many different instances, simply because there is a common environment, air, everywhere. Another example is the Panda’s thumb, which evolved from a different bone than that of the opposing digits of other species. It is reasonable to talk of both as “thumbs,” though for certain technical purposes biologists may want to differentiate them. The essences reflected there will be in the environment rather than in the ancestry of the organisms.)

        All of this is why it is coherent to talk about things like liberalism or feudalism* or human nature even if they elude exact definition. They reflect how certain tendencies in people tend to show up over and over again, particularly under certain types of conditions. One can easily apply essences to these things in an overly simplistic manner: all women are nurturing and if you’re not nurturing then you’re at the very least a bad example of a woman, or maybe not even a real woman at all. But not to notice the tendency and or to reduce it to mostly contingent factors is just as bad.

        Again, the main point is that these things are not random groupings, nor are they mostly reducible to historically contingency. An example would be how a lot of people see the rise of political correctness as a kind of contingent reaction to Hitler. That may have some truth to it, but it is remarkable how no similar urgency has been attached to learning anything from the crimes of, say, Stalin. I highly doubt it’s a random thing.

        So, even if the similarities between your position and patriarchy are those of family resemblance, that still doesn’t get you off the hook.

        *I would have no problem for example saying that both Medieval Europe and Tokugawa Japan were examples of feudalism, though obviously there were significant differences, conditioned by the particular environment and history of each people. Similarly, I have no problem saying that both contemporary liberals and ancient Chinese Mohists are liberals, even if they manifest themselves in different ways in different circumstances.

        Good people to start with in thinking about essentialism and nominalism are the RC Thomist philosophers Edward Feser and David Oderberg. (Feser has a lively blog, which I highly recommend.) I definitely do _not_ agree with them on everything, but they make one think about these issues. As alluded to before, when thinking about taxonomy you’ll also gain by thinking about most exemplary problem: taxonomy, in the biological sense. Ring species, subspecies, interbreeding, transitional forms, the relation of a species to its quite different ancestors, all provide a lot of food for thought here.

      • The expression ‘family resemblance’ is being used as an analogy, not as a category that must function in exactly the same way in the realm of ideology as it does in the realm of biology (and, yes, I have read on the subject of biological taxonomy before). Like any analogy, it is possible to take it too far, which I would argue that you are doing here.

        You seem to be rather wedded to the concept of ‘essences’. As a heuristic way of thinking about things, perhaps it has some merit, but the sort of weight that you place upon it is very unhelpful, particularly as you seem to try to force reality into its moulds, without actually sufficiently allowing reality to call those supposed essences into question. This is where my main issue with your approach is: not that you are using categories (or even a concept of ‘essences’ per se), but the fact that you use them so prematurely, in a manner that is fairly unresponsive to challenging reality, and in a manner that is far too prepared to procrusteanize the reality, rather than question the category or ‘essence’.

        Used sensitively, responsibly, responsively, and with careful judgment, categories can be very helpful. However, when our categories start to run our arguments independently under their own steam, rather than existing in constant and receptive dialogue with reality, then we have problems. The way that you appear to be using categories such as ‘hierarchy’ and ‘liberalism’ strikes me as a good example of this danger. The category does not truly arise out of the reality, but is increasingly imposed upon it, without careful assessment of its aptitude.

        I am quite happy to use categories in my thinking and writing, as any reader of this blog will know. I often talk about things such as ‘evangelicalism’, ‘feminism’, ‘individualism’, ‘modernism’, even ‘liberalism’. It isn’t the categories that are the issue, but the way that they are used, how tightly they are held, how strongly we will force them upon the objects of our analysis, how easily they can be chastened by a reality that doesn’t quite fit them, how prepared we are to put them to one side for more suitable categories.

        The issue is that ‘essences’ as you and Kalb seem to use them can blind you to important realities and distinctions, which render the big picture that you want to paint far less clear-cut and positively misleading in certain contexts, despite its usefulness in others. However, a fundamentalist commitment to a particular set of categories can lead to a stubborn refusal to engage with the questions raised by the reality. You both overstress the unity of ideological movements. Kalb’s categories would be a lot more helpful if he held them a lot more loosely, didn’t so readily put them in the driving seat, and allowed them to get a little frayed and tattered through frequent contact with the complex unevenness of the world that we actually live in.

        Yes, we shouldn’t miss the forest for the trees, but forests do have trees.

        Incidentally, even in the realm of biology, the concept of ‘essence’ doesn’t seem to work in quite the way that you use it: no one single person participates in the entirety of the family gene pool, some have nothing in common, and one could draw the edges of the pool in very different places. There is, for instance, no biological ‘essence’ that my parents share in common, although there are resemblances between them on other non-biological levels. As Wittgenstein used it, the concept of family resemblance was about overlapping similarities, without there being a single set of features common to all parties (and also the possibility that two family members share no appearances in common). This holds in the biology of a family too. Of course, this point is not particularly important, because Wittgenstein isn’t talking about biology, but about concepts and ideas, which tend to form rather different sorts of ‘families’. We really shouldn’t expect everything that we know about biological taxonomy to apply in the realm of concepts: ‘family resemblance’ does not apply in an univocal sense across the two realms of study.

        Also, you seem to be forgetting that genetics are not the only level that family resemblance operates at: when you have been around each other for long enough, you can pick up mannerisms, ways of speaking, thinking, dressing, moving, and acting. These are family resemblances no less than those resemblances grounded in our biology.

        Of course, those who truly have ‘family resemblances’ do have ‘family’ in common, as you rightly point out. However, if you read my comment again you will see that my point was that phenotypical resemblances are no guarantee of genotypical relationships: “I have no problem discussing the apparent ‘family resemblances’ of my position with all sorts of other positions” [emphasis added]. My point is that, just because I look like the Smiths in some respects isn’t proof that I am a Smith: truly to establish that I am a Smith, you need to understand the inner workings of my position relative to theirs and not approach things superficially, acting as if ‘essences’ could be read off of the surface of things. Also, certain overlapping similarities form no meaningful single family whatsoever: many forms of categorization are completely obfuscating and shouldn’t be allowed to control debates.

        We have both described our positions fairly thoroughly here. You really haven’t convinced me, although perhaps you have persuaded some other readers. I have appreciated the conversation and the time that you have given to it. At this stage, however, I believe that we have reached a point of such diminishing returns in the progression of our arguments for every successive comment that it might worth calling it a day. This will be my last comment: I will leave you to have the final word. Thanks for the interaction!

  2. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    BTW, your comments here are too good to languish in a combox. You should consider reposting them on your blog.

    • Perhaps I will do something with them at some point. A number of the points there will probably surface in our next and final review in some form or other. Besides, I have quite literally hundreds of lengthy comments from various forums, discussion lists, and blog posts, along with dozens of extremely lengthy pieces that are languishing in various places. Most of them will never get a wider airing, but this doesn’t bother me too much. I see most of my writing as occasional and would prefer to write something new at a fitting moment, perhaps cannibalizing certain old material, rather than reposting.

    • Incidentally, regarding those comments, perhaps it should be noted they were edited without requesting my permission and a paragraph within them was removed along with the portion of the original post to which they made reference. Here is the omitted passage, which quotes the (rather telling, I feel) statement that was removed from the post:

      I would also suggest that statements like ‘Need I point out that because Rachel is not only evangelical, but also an outspoken woman with a substantial following, she is automatically a person that Evangelical Complementarian Men in Power fear?’ is a hermeneutic of suspicion writ large. I suspect that a hermeneutic of love would be more likely to think that such critics merely had profound and honest differences with Rachel, rather than insinuating misogyny and presenting a sort of conspiracy theory.

  3. “(Q)uestions, and not merely answers, can be wrong. Many of the questions surrounding the gender debates, on all sides, are the wrong ones, loaded questions with false assumptions, trivial questions that distract from the real issues, or questions that focus on secondary issues that are wrongly presumed to be the only means of securing primary concerns. Most of the right questions are not being asked.”

    I realise, Alastair that you are quite busy these days. But perhaps you could expand on this notion of wrong questions and right questions in a future post?


    • It will be touched upon in the final post.

      An example of a ‘wrong’ framing question that one hears in another theological context: ‘Is the Eucharist a symbol or reality?’ Practically any way that one could answer such a question as framed would be misleading. Even when the question isn’t asked in such a stark form, it is the implicit question that underlies a lot of other questions.

  4. Thursday says:

    Kalb incidently addresses some of these issues. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says (he doesn’t completely understand the species problem in biology, for example), but he makes some good points.


    “One can always complain that a conception like “Islam” or “the black race” is being applied in too simpleminded a way. One should give the particulars, though. If the conceptions have been used for a long time by a wide variety of people on both sides of the lines they draw, there must be something in them that reflects important realities.”

    Let me emphasize, one should give the particulars.

  5. Thursday says:

    Reviewing some of your work on sex roles I had these comments.

    I’d also encourage you to take a look at this article from a fellow who embraces the term patriarchy.
    Aside, from Bonald’s characteristic RC emphasis on the evils of divorce and birth control I see nothing in his description of the roles of women in the church and home that is any different from what you have said here:
    I’d particularly note his emphasis that the male role is there to serve the female role of nurturance.

    Now if someone like Bonald can legitimately assume the mantle of patriarchy, and I think he can, and his position is undistinguishable from yours, as it is, then I find it baffling that if a reader of both articles were to characterize both your positions as patriarchy, say when discussing both your work in those two articles together, I don’t know how you could possibly object with a straight face. You can use any terms you want, but you shouldn’t object when others use them.


    “The man may have the authority and direct power”

    I don’t see how this is any more vague than this:

    “men having more formal and public authority simply by virtue of being men”

    What do you mean by authority? What do you mean by power? What do you mean by direct?


    I don’t see how terms like “helper” are any less likely to cause confusion or to provoke an emotional reaction.


    Frankly, I think you have read me most, most uncharitably, sir, and held me and others to standard you yourself most certainly do not keep. For shame.

    • I have read the article that you link. I have a number of disagreements with it, but those aren’t the real issue here, besides the fact that my position is definitely not ‘indistinguishable’ from his (and I suspect that I am in a rather better position to judge on this matter than you are).

      Whether or not he ‘assumes the mantle of patriarchy’ is also besides the point: I don’t define my position in terms of such a category, so you should provide pretty compelling reasons to engage with my position in terms of that category, rather than in terms of the categories that I offer. I speak for myself and perhaps, rather than insisting on lumping me in with others, you might do me the courtesy of engaging with my position by itself.

      Also, if you really must insist on engaging with the fixed essences of various positions, you are in the wrong place to do so – the conversations that we are trying to have here are deeply situated and contextualized ones and uses words and concepts in terms of particular conversations, not in terms of vague overarching discourses about essences. Your obstinate and blinkered insistence on this point, quibbling over one single word abstracted from its larger context in an hour long talk and an ongoing conversation really doesn’t do any favours for any claims that you might make that you are attempting genuine engagement here. Anyone who was focused on genuine understanding and dialogue over mere categorization would register disagreement, but choose to die on other hills.

      Since you have made little to no effort to engage with my position in terms of my preferred categories, the categories that I believe best communicate my position, and rather insist upon your own – and can we at least agree on this: the careful use of categories matter? – you really haven’t shown yourself very qualified to engage with my position in terms of different categories. Can I also gently point out that your accusation that I am reading you uncharitably is a little rich, given this context?

      The issue here is not whether or not I am prepared to accept such terms as ‘patriarchy’ in any context: if you have listened to what I have said so far, you would see that, if certain conditions were met, I would be prepared to do so (and have been prepared to do so in the past). There is a huge difference between defining your own position in terms of a particular category and having a category foisted upon you by someone who wants to pigeonhole you, but isn’t really going to much effort to listen to and understand you first.

      Words change according to context: just because I accept a particular identifier in one context does not mean that I will accept that identifier in every context. Given the context of the conversation with Rachel Held Evans, and the ways that words such as ‘hierarchy’ and ‘patriarchy’ function within it, I am not prepared to identify my position with them and would strongly reject them. In other contexts, I might allow the use of such terms of my position with reluctance: they are clumsy and unhelpful categories and I worry about the ideological commitments of any that are overly wedded to their use.

      I also think that in all of this you are missing a fairly important distinction. It is one thing for me to define my own position, it is quite another for me simply to submit to someone else’s definition of it. I know how I am using the key words in question, no matter how vague they may seem to you: I don’t know how you are using your words. Also, importantly, I didn’t categorize my position, even though I sought to explain it. I didn’t categorize it, because I didn’t think that there were any fitting categories to hand. If I am not prepared to accept any of the categories that I suggested to myself for my own position, why should you be surprised that I am even more reluctant to accept yours?

      A further problem here is that, given your general approach to categorization and ‘essences’, any category that you use will tend to come with strings attached. For instance, the very fact that you so insist on the term ‘patriarchy’ suggests to me that it doesn’t just function as a loosely descriptive term for you, a shorthand way of referring to social systems where men hold more formal public authority (in which sense, although the term remains unhelpful in various respects, I would not deny it). Rather, the term would quite likely denote some common core driving principle with positions that I strongly reject, a principle that marks an ‘essence’ and implies various other ideological commitments that I don’t in fact hold.

      It is one thing to explain a single dimension of your position in terms of certain words. It is quite another to allow yourself to be categorized and defined in terms of that single dimension.

      For instance, just because I may sound as though I have a lot in common with some patriarchal positions when I am arguing against, let’s say, women bishops, doesn’t mean that I hold with them on other issues that are presumed to be part of the ‘patriarchal package’. A crucially important issue here is that, unlike typical patriarchal positions, any ‘patriarchal’ element in my thinking is held away from and relativized by more central principles in my understanding of society. The core of my position lies elsewhere and until someone understands how any patriarchal principles are relativized and counterbalanced, I am not going to be very happy with them defining my position as patriarchy. Platypuses might hold one of the defining features of a duck in common with them, but that is not sufficient basis on which to identify the two, although some might once have thought that one feature was sufficient for categorization in such cases (‘let’s call a “duck” anything that has this type of bill…’).

      ‘Helper’ is the key biblical term used to describe the vocation of the woman and thus belongs at the heart of any conversation on the subject. Emotional reactions aren’t the main issue here – communication within a particular conversation is. Since understanding and engaging with the term ‘helper’ is part of our task of allowing the Bible to communicate to us and for us to communicate the Bible, I think that it is important to use it.

      I am truly sorry if I have read you uncharitably. However, I see absolutely no reason for shame on my part in any of the accusations that you have brought forward, as I believe them to be unfounded. I strongly dispute your claim of hypocrisy on my part: the fact that I choose to explain my position in certain words does not mean that I ought to accept to be categorized by you without much more qualification, merely because your chosen categorization is ostensibly built around a definition in which you use similar words (‘but you say that it has this sort of bill: how then is it reasonable for you to deny that it is to be called a “duck”, given the definition of “duck” that I have provided?’). In seeking to categorize you are not merely doing the same thing that I was, so it is entirely reasonable for me to hold you to a different standard.

      Once again, I would suggest that many of our problems here boil down to the fact that you give categories and essences entirely too much weight, that you far too readily and too forcefully impose them upon reality and your interlocutors, without adequately undertaking the task of careful and receptive listening first. Your categories do not seem to arise from genuine understanding of my position, but from your own preconceptions.

      With your concluding accusation and invoking of shame, I would suggest that it might be best if the conversation was ended, as it is unlikely to go anywhere productive. I bear you no ill-will and haven’t done at any point in this conversation, even though I disagree with you very sharply. For this reason, I am saddened that you seem to feel that I have wronged you. I thought that we were just having a vigorous disagreement. However, if I did unintentionally mistreat you within it, I ask your forgiveness.

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