In response to my previous post on the importance of a masculine priesthood, someone raised the question of whether, by seeming to ground male-only priesthood upon the association between masculinity and martial virtues, I was risking ‘essentialism’, neglecting to note that some men don’t have the martial virtues and a few women do. Should we just focus upon the virtues instead and, while recognizing the fact that they are more common among men, leave gender out of it? The post that follows is my answer.
The Principles of Liberal Anthropology
Much of this boils down to a question of ‘anthropology’. Anthropology in the liberal (philosophical) tradition—a tradition to which most people in the West subscribe, whether liberal or conservative, whether wittingly or not—has tended to focus upon the individual as the fundamental unit of anthropology and analysis. The liberal individual is conceived of an autonomous and androgynous (economic) agent, without natural relations, lineage, or offspring, who lives according to a clear public-private distinction, the bonds of love and family being treated as private sentimental bonds.
Taking this sort of anthropology as our implicit starting point, any significant qualitative difference between men and women is ruled out at the outset. Whatever differences may exist between men and women are more ‘accidental’ and secondary. The differences that exist register on a functional (or economic) level. Consequently, when we speak of the differences between men and women in our society, our focus is almost exclusively upon gendered tendencies in behaviour (‘men are more aggressive,’ ‘women are more nurturing,’ etc., etc.), which we typically attribute to hormonal or social factors. We recognize, however, that these are far from hard and fast rules, just being general trends, admitting many, many exceptions.
Sex is often conceived of as a sort of spectrum between two poles (which represent extreme ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ tendencies). The sexes themselves are significantly overlapping bell curves on this spectrum. For instance, although I am very comfortable in my masculinity, and fairly obviously so, I am also in touch with my ‘feminine side’—I prefer cooking and knitting over many more ‘masculine’ activities—so I wouldn’t be at the extreme masculine end of the spectrum.
The liberal individual has no sex. However, the liberal individual is not entirely ambivalent when it comes to sex. Liberal anthropology is much more able to deal with humans with male genitalia than it is with humans with wombs. The womb and its implications raise a host of conundrums for liberal anthropology. It presents us with a fundamental form of human encounter that is radically asymmetrical, while liberalism requires a general equivalence of agency between persons with which to sustain its more transactional model of human interactions. It involves a deep bodily connection between two persons, one that isn’t ultimately founded upon choice. It involves a sort of relation that is a possibility exclusive to half of the human race. It is also a relation from which every human being walking the planet has come into existence. This punctures the notion of human beings as merely beings who interact externally, presenting us with participation or coinherence as a primal human reality. It also brings the child into the frame, and the child has always presented liberal anthropology with problems, as it doesn’t display the required level of autonomy, being highly dependent and highly defined by unchosen bonds of relation. Liberal anthropology and the political and social systems formed out of it have thus always been biased towards adult males.
Assuming some sort of framework along these lines for our analysis, something such as the martial virtues would seem to be situated far to the masculine end of the spectrum. However, while the bell curve of male individuals will have many persons within the range of the prominent expression of these traits, clearly not all men possess these traits. Also, while the vast majority of women in the bell curve of female individuals will not be situated in the range of these traits, a not insignificant number will. To deny this clear empirical fact is to be guilty of ‘essentialism’, and arbitrarily to split what is actually a spectrum into two distinct and contrasted halves.
The Principles of Biblical Anthropology
Biblical anthropology works according to radically contrasting principles. While liberal anthropology starts with detached individuals and their tendencies as autonomous agents, biblical anthropology starts with persons in relation. While liberal anthropology starts with individuals as autonomous (economic) agents relating through external transactions and interactions, biblical anthropology’s account of humanity is one in which we are deeply connected by bonds that run deeper than choice. Liberal anthropology rests upon the fundamental equivalence of its agents (interactions and transactions become problematic when there are deep imbalances being the agents that are party to them), with gender and generational differences being rendered secondary, matters of relative in-difference. Within biblical anthropology these differences go all of the way down.
Biblical anthropology is framed by four integrated dimensions:
- Humanity is a kind. We are a species of creature created in the image of God—‘God created man in his image…’
- Humanity is unified as a corporate personality. Humanity is a unity in which the group can be summed up in a single representative person and the group and its members participate in that person’s identity and destiny. The unity of humanity isn’t merely in being of a single species. There is an interchange between the group as a whole and the representative person within whom they are summed up. The primary representative persons are Adam and Christ, although the general logic of corporate personality also extends to persons such as Abraham and David and even to more general familial relations. The human race is originally summed up in Adam—‘…in the image of God he created him…’
- Humanity is sexually dimorphic. There are two kinds of human beings—two halves of the human race—and the difference and relation between these two kinds of human beings is integral to the identity and telos of humanity. Neither sex is sufficient by itself, nor is the difference between them a matter of indifference to our being in the image of God. No other human difference is accorded this level of significance: this isn’t just a celebration of some generic ‘diversity’. The sexes aren’t interchangeable, nor is either dispensable. Persons are naturally born as one sex or the other. Only together will we fulfil the identity and destiny of humanity—‘…male and female he created them.’
- Humanity is a race. Humanity is a multitude, not just the corporate person Adam, or the sexual pair of Adam and Eve. This multitude is formed, not just as a host of individuals of the same kind, like widgets on an assembly line, but through natural generation, as a race. We are born with a particular lineage and as bearers of a legacy. We are a particular node on a family tree. We take up our position within the passage of the generations, within a particular matrix of relations, being conceived within and as a union between our parents, passing on a legacy to our own children in turn.
One of the things that understanding these four dimensions of biblical anthropology makes clear is that each of us occupies a particular relational position within the human race, a position that is ours alone. The human race is not an amorphous mass of individual persons with indifferent differences, but a unified race, with an established form to its relations. Each one of us—as either male or female—is one of a distinct kind of relational being, apt for forming relationships in a particular way.
As I have already argued, liberal anthropology treats us all as detached individuals, viewing sexual difference chiefly as a set of probabilistic differences between two classes of individuals, differences that are registered—when they exist—principally at the level of behaviour. There is nothing ‘essential’ about these differences and no way to draw a clear division between two kinds of human persons. In contrast to this, biblical anthropology presents sexual difference as a difference between two kinds of human persons, a difference made known through relation. It is a difference between the way that we fit into the fundamental relational matrix of the human race, a relational matrix that is focused, not upon external interactions, but upon the relations between the sexes and the relations between mothers and fathers and their offspring. This difference goes all of the way down and inflects and colours everything that we do.
This difference is an ‘essential’ one. Biblical anthropology has no need to deny significant overlaps in behaviour or other characteristics—we should expect such overlaps: we are ‘neighbouring’ sexes, not ‘opposite’ ones. It is founded upon something deeper than such features. The essential difference between male and female—a difference that applies to each and every male and female—is that males are the type of relational being that is potentially a husband and father and females are the type of relational being that is potentially a wife and mother.
The unmarried and childless are no exception to this. We are all potentially fathers or mothers, even if we never do marry and have children. And, as J. Budziszewski argues in his book, On the Meaning of Sex, we are still potentially fathers or mothers, even if it is physically impossible for us to bear children. It is not tragic that I will never be a mother, precisely because I am not a woman and, therefore, not a potential mother. The same is not true of the infertile woman: it is tragic that she is prevented from becoming a biological mother because, as a woman, she is a potential mother (as we shall see, this doesn’t prevent her from realizing her motherhood in other ways).
Moderns, inclined to view sexual relations as some sort of private activity that fundamentally androgynous individuals engage in on the side, may wish to restrict the idea of potential motherhood and fatherhood to the ‘private’ reality of procreation. By contrast, biblical anthropology appreciates that the most constitutive relations of human identity are not found in the transacting and interacting of autonomous individuals. Rather, in the natural union of husband and wife, in the conception and bearing of the child, and in the identities of mother and father, it recognizes a symbol and disclosure of what male and female are at root. The man’s identity is realized in being a husband and father; the woman’s identity is realized in being a wife and mother.
Being a husband and father needn’t entail marrying and having children, as one could be a spiritual father, for instance. Marriage and parenthood help to disclose what it means for us to be male and female, but should not be presumed to comprehend the full reality and purpose of sexual identity. What are disclosed are distinct and characteristic forms of relation and action.
A wife and mother bears her husband’s child in her body. Her body is a site of communion and a place where communion is formed. In contrast to a mother, a father’s body is separated from that of his child, and the bond that he has with his child is one that is formed through his wife. The Scripture teaches that, in marriage, a man is joined to his wife (Genesis 2:24). The directionality of this relation is significant. Both marital relations and procreation occur within the woman’s body and outside of the man’s. Men are detached beings in a way that women are not: women are beings created to establish the internal bonds of society. God answered the problem of Adam’s aloneness by creating a human being specifically formed for establishing communion. Had God created other man as company for Adam, Adam could have enjoyed pleasant external interactions, but would never have known the rich web of communion and relationship that is brought about through the woman.
While the womb is erased within liberal anthropology, the womb plays a constitutive role within the framework of biblical anthropology. Indeed, one could refer to women as ‘womb-men’: women are that mode of humanity whose relational orientation is revealed through the possession of a womb.
Every woman is associated with this mode of personhood. This is because every woman is a potential mother. The vast majority of women will also become actual mothers at some point in their lives, which strengthens the connection. Furthermore, whether or not a woman will become a mother in her lifetime, the pattern of maternal identity is already expressed in the very form of her body. While male bodies are externally directed, towards the performance of a particular sexual act that is of relatively brief duration, the form of female bodies markedly differs. A woman’s body is internally directed, ordered towards the bearing and nursing of the children of her union with her husband. Her body bears the form and reminders of this orientation, in its menstrual cycle, breasts, and even in the internal character of its reproductive organs. As a result of this, the body—its appearance, its cycles, whether or not it has known sexual relations, its bearing of children, etc.—will always tend to play a particularly prominent role in the grammar of female identity. Along with an orientation to a particular mode of relating to other persons, each sex possesses a distinct mode of self-relation.
These orientations are not just orientations towards acts of little consequence, but are orientations that establish the form of our most basic and intimate personal relations. They determine the way that we participate in the most constitutive of human relations, relations within which we realize the purpose of our sex and enter into new bonds with other bodies. They also frame our relationship with our own identity. Every woman is constituted by and symbolizes this mode of relation. She relates to others and others relate to her as the sort of person—not just body—who symbolizes and forms the bonds of internal communion.
A man’s most fundamental orientation is to relate to other persons externally. A man will never directly experience the unique mode of human encounter involved in knowing in his own body the growing presence of something that is physically and personally other from himself, for instance. A man’s telos is not realized in himself, but involves movement beyond himself to relate to the woman, in whom the bonds of marriage and parenthood are formed. Where the grammar of female identity will involve a particular focus upon the body, the grammar of male identity will often tend to place its accent upon the man’s agency and the indicators of his aptness for it—physical strength, social status, wealth, intelligence, virility, etc.
The woman’s bond to her child is first forged in the profound mode of encounter that is pregnancy and later strengthened through nursing. The personal connection between the mother and her biological child is rooted and forged in a deeply physical one, a connection that is given by nature, in which the child directly participates in the life of its mother. By contrast, by biology, men are no more than inseminators. While the child bears its father’s genes, the man’s personal bond to his child is either fulfilled or abdicated by his active commitment and presence to it and its mother.
Women symbolize the internal orientation involved in motherhood, establishing and representing communion. While liberal anthropology presents us all as detached and autonomous individuals, every woman is the sort of being that was created to be intimately and internally bonded to others. When relating to women, we are relating to those who represent and symbolize the deep and intimate bonds that lie at the root of every human society and existence, including our own. On account of this, we generally relate to women in a gentler manner than we do to men.
Men, in contrast, do not symbolize such intimate human relations and the grammar of their identity places an accent upon demonstration of agency. Becoming and being a man depends less upon our bodies than upon our actions (this definitely doesn’t mean that the body plays no role: just as agency will play an important part in women’s identities, so the body will play a role in men’s). Men have to prove themselves to a degree that women don’t (this, incidentally, is one reason why male identity is much more fragile than female identity). The external and agentic emphasis of male identity encourages our interactions to be rougher and more agonistic in character. We also stand over against other persons in a way that women can’t. No union is formed or represented in us. In relating to men, we relate to persons in a more detached form. As men stand primarily for themselves as individuals, not symbolizing more intimate connections between persons, we place more of an expectation upon them to stand up for themselves, and don’t feel the same strength of an urge to protect them.
Secondary Sexual Characteristics, Tendencies, and the Virtues
It is upon the foundation of essential sexual difference that secondary sexual characteristics, different behavioural tendencies of the sexes, and gendered virtues arise.
The shadow of these deep orientations is seen in the vast array of probabilistic differences in behaviour and characteristics that constitute the set of family resemblances of each sex. As male identity is outward oriented and more rooted in agency, it should not surprise us, for instance, to see that men are physically stronger and their behaviours and values typically far more apt for the creation of power relations. Conversely, the deeper structure of female identity can be reflected in those characteristics and values that generally make women more motivated towards and gifted in the formation of intimate relations. These sorts of differences—the only differences that liberal anthropology would register (and typically with some reluctance)—should all be related to the more fundamental and essential differences between men and women, the differences that render them two distinct kinds of human relational beings.
Gendered virtues are also best understood in such a framework. Many are inclined to think of gendered virtues in an oppositional manner, as if speaking of a ‘masculine virtue’ implicitly meant that it were not a ‘feminine’ virtue. This is unhelpful. Gendered virtues should rather be understood as those virtues that enable us to live as the sort of distinct symbolic and relational beings that we are.
Any particular virtue will typically be a virtue for both sexes. However, each sex will inflect the virtues in its own particular way. Also, certain virtues are especially associated with one sex or the other, being more integral to the outworking of one particular form of symbolic and relational identity. The martial virtues, for example, are particularly male in character. As virtues associated with aptitude for engagement in external conflict, they clearly relate primarily to male identity. They are not without any place or analogue in the constellation of feminine virtues, but they are much dimmer by comparison with others. The masculine form of the martial virtues, which may dignify a man’s nature, may not confer the same honour upon a woman’s. Were a woman to seek to develop martial virtues in the same way as a man, she would diminish the glory of her femininity.
There is not only one form that the virtuous living out of a gendered identity can take. There are many different forms of masculinity that can provide praiseworthy and beautiful expressions of the male mode of relational personhood. The association of masculinity with machismo in certain Christian quarters is deeply regrettable, not least on account of machismo’s characteristic adolescent quality. One doesn’t need to be a pugilist to be a man, nor need one be quiet and reserved to be a woman. Biblical masculinity and femininity afford us a broad palette from which each of us can develop a rich and virtuous expression of masculinity or femininity that is also distinctively our own.
Just as such a ‘masculinization’ of women is no cause for praise, so the ‘feminization’ of men is rightly considered a matter of shame. This isn’t because women are less than men, but rather because those traits and behaviours in which a woman’s symbolic and relational identity is most gloriously and fully expressed can be traits and behaviours that stifle or distort that of a man.
Those adhering to liberal anthropology can be resistant to the idea of gendered virtues. The idea of gendered virtues seems to suggest an arbitrary division being drawn in the spectrum of human behaviours. Different behaviours are apportioned to one side or other of the gender divide, based merely on a probabilistic account of their association with each sex. A loosely descriptive account of tendencies in gendered behaviours is then reinvented and imposed as prescriptive ‘gender norms’.
Of course, the difference between our account and that of liberal anthropology is that we have grounded our gender identities in the essential difference between two modes of symbolic and relational being. Liberal anthropology is also inclined to do what it can to minimize sexual difference, practically seeking to reduce it to the theoretical indifference that it accords to it. As I have already noted, though, liberal anthropology is weighted in the favour of masculine identity. As a result, a liberal social programme will tend to push much harder against women’s identities, seeking to suppress their bodily cycles, to prevent conception, killing their unborn children, and driving them into more external and agonistic modes of relation. By contrast, biblical anthropology celebrates and accentuates sexual difference. Our identities as male and female—as contrasting modes of relational beings in committed union and mutual service—are to be explored, enjoyed, elaborated, and extensively expressed.
Male and Female Identities and Priesthood
Finally, to return to the subject of priesthood, the matter with which my previous post was occupied.
My previous post could have left some readers with the mistaken impression that male-only priesthood rests upon the probabilistic association of the martial virtues with males, as these virtues are more likely to be found in men. In this post, I hope that I have provided the foundation for a clearer account. The connection of the priesthood with men arises primarily from the connection of priesthood with the male form of relational personhood. It is also associated with expressions of that form of relational personhood within which the martial virtues are particularly pronounced. Many men, among whom I include myself, have not developed the martial virtues to any great extent (this is one of the main reasons why I have not sought to go into pastoral ministry). As noted above, there is plenty of room for variation in forms of virtuous masculinity. Few of us are equipped to be priests of churches, but we can exercise priestly style virtues in different sorts of settings.
The connection of priesthood with masculinity can be seen in the very creation of men and women. The man is created first and given the task of serving and guarding the garden sanctuary (Genesis 2:15). As many have recognized, the Garden of Eden is depicted in terms relating it to the tabernacle and temple. Adam’s role is also described using the same terminology used to refer to the role of the Levites in relation to the sanctuary. As priest, Adam is established as God’s household servant. Adam represents his Lord’s authority to the world in which he is placed. He manages and guards his Lord’s household.
He is also called to protect the moral integrity of the realm and persons committed to his charged. God gives the command concerning the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to Adam before Eve was created (2:16-17). It is important to notice that, when the command concerning the Tree is referred to by God in the following chapter, the command is spoken of as something given to and addressing Adam alone (cf. 3:11, 17). Eve rightly believed that the command was also given to her too. As the helper and companion of the appointed priest, she came under the same restriction as he did. However, she only received it second hand through Adam, which is why she could be deceived (notice that the serpent played the information given to her in 1:29, which she had received directly from God, against the information that she had received second hand from Adam). If she had received the command directly, she would have sinned with a high hand. In giving the command to Adam alone, God was underlining his role as the priestly guardian, the one charged with establishing and guarding his moral boundaries, through teaching and upholding his authority. In all of this, we can say that the priestly task is related to the male form of identity, rather than the female form of identity, from the outset.
Why might the male form of identity be connected with priesthood in such a manner? The answer, I believe, lies in the way that God created male identity as an identity that stands over against others. The female form of identity symbolizes and is expressed in the intimate physical bonds that we all arise from. It symbolizes the inner relations and communion of a family or society. Male identity is particularly apt for symbolizing God’s authority, because it is able to symbolize the gap that exists between God and his creation. God is not our mother, nor are we brought forth from God’s womb. Rather, God stands over against us, creating us through ‘external’ action and relating to us through law and covenant. When women symbolize God’s authority in the Church, this paternal symbolism is displaced by a maternal symbolism within which God no longer stands over against his creation. Much distortion arises as a result of this. It should not surprise us that people’s willingness to appoint women to the priesthood or pastorate often relates to troubling shifts in their understanding of God and the character of his relationship to us.
Does this mean that women reflect God’s identity and action in the world in a lesser way than men? Certainly not. For instance, in Genesis 1 and throughout the Scripture, we can see the inseparable association of forming and filling. The first three days of creation are days of forming, naming (no naming occurs after the first three days), and taming. The second three days of creation are days of filling, generation, growth, and establishment of communion and the future. The two sets of days belong together. We see the same sort of relation between the work of Christ and the Spirit. Christ’s work is one of forming, establishing the foundation, fighting, securing power and authority, etc. The Spirit gives life, generating and regenerating, forms communion, brings God’s future, establishes loving bonds, etc. It is impossible to separate Christ and the Spirit. Christ’s very title refers to the fact that he is the Anointed One—anointed by the Spirit. The Spirit is also the Spirit of Christ. You can’t have one without the other.
When God created humanity he gave us a calling that corresponds to his own work. We are to exercise dominion, to tame, to name, to multiply, to fill the world with life, love, and communion, to move forward into the future. This is how we symbolize God’s rule on earth. However, from the very outset, we see that this vocation is ‘membered’. While the vocation is always a shared vocation, within which we must act together, sometimes the man is to the foreground and the woman is supporting him; sometimes the woman is to the foreground and the man is supporting her. At all points we depend upon each other and act on each other’s behalf. All of this applies when we think of the Church’s identity and calling.
The forming, taming, and naming task—the task associated with the first three days, the task associated with the work of Christ—is particularly given to the man. The man is the one especially given the task of naming, of establishing and guarding the boundaries, and serving and taming the ground. The woman, while she assists the man in his calling, finds her chief calling in being the one who addresses Adam’s aloneness, forming communion, establishing the promise of a future, glorifying what Adam starts, and filling what he has formed with life and love. While she cannot represent God’s authoritative relationship to his creation in the manner that Adam can, her calling in relation to the man bears many marked similarities to the work of the Spirit relative to that of Christ. In her unique mode of personhood, the woman is able to symbolize a dimension of God’s creative rule in his world in a way that no man ever could.
As in the case of the forming and filling of the days of creation or the work of Christ and the Spirit, man and woman are inseparable. It is only together that they can truly symbolize and practice God’s creative rule in the world. Neither men nor women can replace each other: their glory is found in the fact that their differences go all of the way down, inflecting and colouring all that they do. In rich and variegated expressions of masculinity and femininity in relation and interaction in our world we see the pattern of God’s own first creation and new creation being extended by the people that he formed in his image.