Spotting Unicorns at the Recent THINK Conference

It has been interesting to read the responses to THINK conference on The Future of Complementarity I recently spoke at in London, both before and after the event. Some, such as this article, have such extreme misrepresentations and misunderstandings that I was wary of dignifying them with any response. However, pieces like this are, despite several problems and inaccuracies (for instance, the response to the question of women who aren’t mothers was by Hannah, not me), a rather more serious attempt at engagement.

My intention here is not to engage with each of the criticisms raised, not least because so many of them are shadow-boxing with imagined positions and opponents. I would prefer to let people listen to the talks when they are released and judge for themselves.

However, one particular thing has struck me about the responses from various quarters—both positive and negative—which I believe is worthy of comment. That thing is the degree to which the discussion of this topic is driven by labels, in a way that undermines close attention to and engagement with substance.

Natalie Collins begins her article on the conference by describing her bemusement at the apparent belief of some of the conference-goers that, as a feminist, she must believe that men and women are ‘exactly the same’.[1] She suggests that maybe the people surprised by the fact that she didn’t hold such a position ‘haven’t really spent much time with feminists before.’

Actually, it is entirely possibly that they had, but hadn’t been paying close attention. When one thinks in terms of labels, one is primed to notice things that confirm those labels and to miss or discount things that disrupt them. It is easy to think in labels and to be frustrated or confused when people don’t fit tidily into them.

Once one looks behind the label, however, it soon becomes apparent that a term like ‘feminism’ names a large range of different positions, with huge and sometimes volatile differences among them. Merely speaking in terms of ‘feminism’ risks substituting partisan triggers for illuminating discussion. Such labels can often disguise far more than they reveal, even if they are effective at mobilizing people for and against things.

Reading Collins’ own article, it is striking how much of it is driven by labels. Andrew Wilson is introduced as ‘arguably evangelical Christianity’s most well-known complementarian’ (news to him, no doubt!). He supposedly organized the conference to make an ideological move away from US complementarianism. The field of discussion is neatly divided up into complementarians, egalitarians, and feminists, each group generally presented as if it were relatively uniform.

When everything is to be neatly sliced and diced into competing political and theological ideologies, the appearance of features that disrupt a tidy taxonomy is a real problem. For instance, in challenging the systemic devaluation and marginalization of women’s domestic work in current society, Wilson is supposedly ‘swapping out complementarianism for 1980s romantic feminism.’[2] The possibility that a more traditional theological understanding of the complementarity of the sexes might independently advance such critiques, drawing out its own core convictions to logical conclusions, doesn’t seem to be considered.

Umberto Eco, in his book Serendipities, highlights the way that many thinkers have mishandled evidence on the basis of their preconceptions, forcing the evidence into their familiar categories, rather than opening themselves up to discovery that might unsettle them. He writes of Marco Polo:

When Marco traveled to China, he was obviously looking for unicorns. Marco Polo was a merchant, not an intellectual, and moreover, when he started traveling, he was too young to have read many books. But he certainly knew all the legends current in his time about exotic countries, so he was prepared to encounter unicorns, and he looked for them. On his way home, in Java, he saw some animals that resembled unicorns, because they had a single horn on their muzzles, and because an entire tradition had prepared him to see unicorns, he identified these animals as unicorns. But because he was naïve and honest, he could not refrain from telling the truth. And the truth was that the unicorns he saw were very different from those represented by a millennial tradition. They were not white but black. They had pelts like buffalo, and their hooves were as big as elephants’. Their horns, too, were not white but black, their tongues were spiky, and their heads looked like wild boars’. In fact, what Marco Polo saw was the rhinoceros.

We cannot say Marco Polo lied. He told the simple truth, namely, that unicorns were not the gentle beasts people believed them to be. But he was unable to say he had found new and uncommon animals; instinctively, he tried to identify them with a well-known image. Cognitive science would say that he was determined by a cognitive model. He was unable to speak about the unknown but could only refer to what he already knew and expected to meet. He was a victim of his background books.[3]

We rush to categorize people and things in familiar boxes, rather than attending to the ways in which they might expose the limitations of those boxes and suggest ways of moving beyond them.[4] Rather than closely attending to what people are actually saying, we rush to an accusatory ‘so you’re saying that…’ Yet, they are seldom saying that. This is not the unicorn that you seek.

Within contemporary gender debates, few things cause as many problems as the degree to which things are driven by labels and the politics and emotions that accompany them. These labels prime us to see certain things and to miss much else. They can also prime us to react rather than respond to people and positions, based simply on the labels they bear and the emotions and partisan impulses those excite. We treat certain people as friends and others as opponents based purely upon the label with which they are associated.

For instance, critics such as Natalie Collins and Robin Bunce have tended to engage with the THINK conference in terms of the label ‘complementarianism’. This label refers to a movement that arose in the US in the 1980s, associated with figures such as John Piper and Wayne Grudem. It also seems to refer to a sort of ‘ideal type’ of complementarian Christianity, as represented from a feminist or egalitarian viewpoint, that manifests various distinctive features that are grounded in this ideology.

One of the problems here is that this is a highly parochial framing of a broader set of Christian positions that are hardly exclusive or peculiar to modern independent evangelicals. The possibility that there might exist a wider world of Christian thought about complementarity beyond the intramural debates of a certain subset of American evangelicals isn’t sufficiently considered. One doesn’t have to go to American Baptists to learn about complementarity: much of the most perceptive work on the subject has been written by Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Orthodox, etc., and American Baptists have recognized this and frequently drawn upon them. A recognition of the biblical weight given to the twoness of humanity as male and female and of the differences that arise from this isn’t a sectarian stance, but is held across Christian traditions. For instance, the restriction of pastoral or priestly office to men is not a position of recent vintage or of sectarian origin, but the historic practice of the Church catholic.

It is often held differently now in certain evangelical circles—sometimes more as a sort of biblicist ideology refracted into accompanying rules and ‘roles’ than as a Christian apprehension of natural order and our fitting behaviour within it—which is why complementarianism has become such a movement in recent decades. However, this is a development that I have challenged in various places (see this piece, for instance). Anyone exploring my position in terms of their mental image of the unicorn of ‘complementarianism’ (as an American evangelical anti-feminist movement arising in the 1980s) will find me to be a very confusing and contradictory beast. They will be quite ill-equipped to understand what many of us are actually saying, much as those whose exposure to feminists is limited to the caricatures of them by their opponents or the sort of neoliberal feminism one most typically encounters in the media will struggle to grasp the actual character and variety of feminist movements.

I began my first talk at the THINK conference by requesting that people shelve their questions. This was a surprising request for many attendees, and a frustrating one for not a few. I made it because, when we approach an issue as politically and socially charged and emotionally freighted as that of the sexes, we are all in immense danger of having our familiar categories and associations blind us to anything beyond them. Rather, what we must begin with, I insisted, is attention—attention to Scripture and attention to reality.

While we all bring questions about the sexes to the text of Scripture, Scripture does not offer straightforward answers to those questions. If we fail to loosen our grip on our questions and consider a different way of approaching the scriptural witness, we will either do violence to the text or find ourselves frustrated by it.

For instance, many conservative evangelicals are approaching the Bible with the pressing questions of ‘what are the definitions?’ and ‘what are the rules?’ And Scripture does not do a very satisfying job of answering those questions. Instead of definitions it mostly presents us with a broader apprehension of reality in narrative, symbol, and description; instead of rules, it mostly gives us principles that are engaged with that reality, principles that allow for a variety of forms of expression. Living righteously is more of an art than a science. Egalitarians and feminists, for their part, often have a different set of questions, many of which focus upon the equality of women. However, such questions can be no less ill-suited to attuning us to the actual witness of Scripture, having more to do with the conditions of modern abstract and technological society.

I also requested that people put the arguments to one side as well. Like the questions with which they are generally closely connected, the arguments also prevent us from seeing a great deal. They place immense significance on certain oppositions, while ignoring so much of what surrounds them. Most of the biblical witness on the sexes simply doesn’t register for many people today, because it doesn’t seem to provide much serviceable ammunition for our partisan arguments. Complementarians, egalitarians, and feminists all miss so much of Scripture’s teaching, simply because, forearmed with their own pressing questions and concerns, they aren’t paying close attention to it. As they are too concerned to press it into the service of their cause, they cannot recognize those ways in which Scripture unsettles the lines that we have drawn. When we are so driven to use the biblical witness we are seldom well prepared actually to hear it.

Something similar is true when it comes to broader reality. The clamouring demands of our ideologies and debates make it difficult for people truly to attend to the world in which we live. When exposed to supposed unwelcome evidence we can leap to dismiss it on the basis of our preconceptions or party loyalties, rather than calmly paying closer attention. Indeed, so much of our current cultural debates around gender are characterized by intense efforts not to notice reality. Reproduction is the elephant in the room of contemporary gender theory. For instance, the topic of motherhood ‘comes up in fewer than 3% of papers, journal articles, or textbooks on modern gender theory.’ And such failure to pay close attention to reality is hardly exclusive to the looking glass world of gender theory.

The insistent return to labels and charged terms in ways that forestall understanding and engagement is a problem that dogs discussions of men and women in the Church and beyond. One of my intentions in my talks at the conference was to draw us away from the gravitational pull of our labels[5] and to get us all to reflect more on substance instead.

In the past, I have compared this to unpacking suitcases. Our labels are akin to suitcases that enable us to carry clusters of ideas around from place to place. However, if we never unpack our suitcases, we will judge people purely based upon the appearance of the suitcase they are carrying. When those suitcases are unpacked we are often surprised and shocked to find, for instance, that many people with the same suitcases as us have smuggled contraband in with their luggage, while some people with very different suitcases, people we may have judged purely on that basis, have remarkably similar contents to ours inside them.

When Natalie Collins claims that there was nothing new presented at the conference that she hadn’t heard in more egalitarian circles, part of me wonders how closely she was listening and would like to see her substantiate that claim, as I suspect she is only referring to a very selective set of points. However, there is another part of me that wants to point out that this really is often what happens when put ideological labels to one side and unpack our ‘suitcases’.

In thinking about complementarity, we are doing so within a natural and social reality and in engagement with a biblical witness that we share with others, egalitarians and feminists among them. If one sees complementarian thought principally as a reaction to feminism and egalitarianism, its identity framed by ideological antagonisms, you will be primed to regard it as antithetically related to those movements. Any apparent commonalities will supposedly involve inconsistency, the surreptitious alloying of it with opposing ideologies, or a betrayal or subversion of the movement’s true self. This way of thinking can be characteristic of abstract ideologies. It is also one of the reasons why ideologies can become so divorced from actual reality.

However, if we are thinking about complementarity as a matter of wise and faithful engagement with concrete reality, abstract ideological oppositions no longer frame our discussion in the same manner. We should not be surprised to discover significant common ground and concerns amidst our differences.

This is not to say that the theological differences don’t matter or that they don’t have important practical consequences. They do. However, it really does help to knock those differences down to size. Holding our labels much more lightly, paying much closer attention, and unpacking some of our ‘suitcases’ isn’t a bad place to start.


[1] Admittedly, that would be a remarkably strange position for anyone to hold. It seems much more likely to me that they were claiming that ‘feminism’ holds that men and women are interchangeable for most intents and purposes and that the differences between the sexes are not such that they should make a difference in individuals’ social outcomes. It is also important to recognize that, at a number of points in the article, only one side of a particular conversation is being given.

[2] Collins here refers to Rosemary Radford Ruether’s description of Conservative and Reformist Romanticism as instances of ‘egalitarian anthropologies’ in her book Sexism and God Talk.

[3] Umberto Eco, Serendipities: Language and Lunacy. Translated by William Weaver (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1998) 70-71.

[4] Interacting with Natalie Collins at the conference itself, I found her to be a very pleasant person (we’ve interacted a lot online in the past, but this was our first time meeting in person). However, I was frustrated by her apparent concern to fit my points into her preconceived framework and the way that prevented her from hearing the ways I rejected that framework. Her article strengthens this impression.

[5] I think it would be fair to say that both Hannah Anderson and Andrew Wilson share this concern.

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.
This entry was posted in Controversies, Ethics, Hermeneutics, Sex and Sexuality, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Spotting Unicorns at the Recent THINK Conference

  1. rcgeorge says:

    Unsubscribe

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  2. Aaron Siver says:

    Okay, I’ll got there: How much so is this same phenomenon at play in the past few months of public clashes and debate in Reformed circles over the upcoming Revoice conference and the subject matter at large?

    • Ha! I don’t want to steal my own thunder, as I have been writing a piece on this. However, one can certainly see similar dynamics at play at various points, not least in the way that ‘LGBT’ is functioning differently for the different sides of the debate, in ways that make it difficult to deal with more substantial issues.

      • Aaron Siver says:

        Yeah, don’t steal your own thunder. I’ll wait patiently for your upcoming piece. 🙂

      • Patrick M says:

        Can’t wait for your tome, I mean blog post, on concupiscence! It has been enlightening to read Doug Wilson, Matt Anderson, Ron Belgau and Steve Wedgeworth on this topic and I’ve learned a lot. I look forward to reading you as well.

        I’ve found it much easier to unpack the suitcases when I’ve little emotion invested in said topic. For example, I can read all four of the aforementioned blog posts prayerfully and with an open mind. In areas where I lean more ideological- my task is mostly one of emotional self-control as I read and write. This is an incredibly difficult task and I wonder if unpacking suitcases is a proxy case study for self discipline. Incidentally, this is also why I appreciate your being slow to speak on topics- (eternal subordination, Revoice, etc.).

  3. Angus J says:

    I read the article by Natalie Collins in Christian Today before I read your blog post. She wasn’t very impressed by you, was she? I wonder if it is all down to a communication problem, with three possible causes.

    Firstly, you say that you were “…frustrated by her apparent concern to fit my points into her preconceived framework and the way that prevented her from hearing the ways I rejected that framework. Her article strengthens this impression.” This is a very common characteristic. If someone hears something that doesn’t match their mental framework, all that happens is that the ‘does not compute’ light flashes on, and incomprehension results. I suspect that this is because some people cannot comprehend the possibility of there ever being more than one framework, namely the one they adopt. It could well be a particularly feminine trait, as it could most definitely be seen par excellence in Margaret Thatcher.

    Other people, in contrast, can comprehend more than one mental framework at a time, and can see how something they are being told can fit into one particular framework, even though they might not adopt that framework as the one they find most credible. I can do that, and if my suspicions are correct, I guess you can too.

    Secondly, there is the possibility of different ways of using language. For example. in Collins’ article she quotes the last person to speak at the conference, who was a woman. I won’t quote the paragraph in full, but it starts: “What do I think …”. Collins’ next sentence is: “Yet, even after she spoke with such clarity, nobody got on their knees.” Well, quite frankly, I’m not surprised. This speech is, to me, totally incomprehensible. Yet Collins says it had ‘such clarity’. What on earth is going on? I suspect that there may be two modes of expression – manspeak and womanspeak. This is not my idea, it can be found explained in the excellent book by Deborah Tannen: You just don’t understand : Women and men in conversation. (Virago, 1991). I can’t go into any detail here, but I think that one of the points she makes is that women can sometimes express themselves very indirectly, with hints and nuances, which requires the listener to ‘read between the lines’ and pick up the unspoken undercurrents of emotional connotation. This is a feminine skill, probably beyond the capabilities of men. (It sees its most valuable use in interpreting the inchoate expressions of young children.)

    Lastly, it could just be spiritual blindness, as described in 2 Cor 4:4 “…the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light…” (see also Jn 12:40), in which case, only supernatural intervention can help.

    • She wasn’t very impressed. However, ‘impressed’ really is the key term here, as her argument is built around the assertion of shallow impressions, rather than around anything resembling careful representation and reasoned engagement. Rather than accurately reporting my positions and engaging with my arguments, she shares her impressions and expects people to accept their accuracy. Her article overwhelmingly focuses on conveying how she felt about me and my arguments, rather than the arguments themselves. Doubtless this will give her and others of her tribe catharsis, but it should not be confused for actual reasonable interaction.

      When she does represent my positions, she does so exceedingly poorly. She attributes one of Hannah Anderson’s responses to me. She claims, for instance, that I argued for the eradication of capitalism. No, I didn’t. To the extent that my positions are reported, they tend to be reported for the purpose of her dismissal of them as nonsense and the expression of her annoyance at the fact that other people thought them insightful.

      The article is really about her subjective impressions, not an attempt at anything resembling objective reporting. To which I just shrug my shoulders. Hers, as she well knows, is very much a minority opinion among attendees, many of whom are much more educated, learned, and experienced than she is. She is entirely welcome to her subjective impressions, and the rest of us are entirely welcome to take no notice of them. If she has some reasoned arguments to make, then we may pay attention.

  4. Geoff says:

    Having just read the article in CT, to me it exposes, yet again, the journalistic ethic, or lack of it, espoused by CT, which frequently puts forward as fact what is merely comment. It does not even at the lowest level attempt to set out in note form (that anyone serious about reporting would do as would any student attending a lecture) what was said. From her report, I have very little idea about what any othe the speakers actually said. She advocates for a position,( which she does n’t set out, and from her piece, as a stand alone piece, I have very little idea about) from a position, which again is not set out, other than a reference to her credentials. I have no doubt that she is a feminist, of whatever stripe, but while she attacks the conference, she doesn’t address at any point other opposition to feminism that may be thrown up by Queer Theory. While the Conference theme, of itself, would seem, to negate Queer Theory, was it, at any point specifically addressed?
    There seems to be some ad hom against you and Andrew Wilson.
    While we may be “welcome to take no notice”, the fact that she has been given an easy platform by CT will result in some taking notice, through fuelling the embers of a priori assumptions and beliefs. And an attack on her learning and experience, could I suggest, is likely to foster the empathy of hurt feelings with those who follow her, such is the febrile atmosphere within and without the church.
    A question to perhaps ponder, but not answer: is there anything you can learn from this, Alastair.?

    • My remarks weren’t intended as an attack upon her learning and experience, but merely stating a fact about them. While she clearly has a measure of learning and experience, she was in a room with many people older than her, with experienced church leaders with decades of pastoral practice among them, with several people with terminal degrees, etc. If she is going to advance subjective impressions rather than developed arguments, we need very good reasons to trust her subjective impressions over the conflicting impressions of others. I wasn’t saying that she was uneducated, unlearned, and unexperienced, but that there were no shortage of people there with very different assessments, whose subjective impressions would seem to be far worthier of note than hers.

      Like much other Christian media, Christian Today publishes a lot of stuff that is of negligible value, unfortunately. No doubt there will be many who will empathize or resonate with what she is saying. And such people are the sort of people who will readily mishear and misrepresent anything I say in response.

      But I have no intention of responding to her (the post above isn’t written in response to her, but is a reflection upon discourse occasioned by her article). One of the lessons that I think we all need to learn is the importance of not responding to people who are: a) unable truly to hear opposing positions; b) without carefully reasoned arguments; c) so personally entangled with the issues that they can’t establish emotional distance; d) seeking catharsis rather than understanding and truth; e) inclined to make every discussion personal or tribal; f) accustomed to use appeals to identity to gain an advantage over opponents; g) trying to get other people emotionally whipped up; h) primed to take offence; etc. Engage with such people and you will often be made to look bad, through no fault of your own besides your foolishness.

      Furthermore, and this is an important thing to remember in a highly democratic age of social media, people are not entitled to have their viewpoints and arguments taken seriously. Not everyone has the right to an opinion, or an opinion that is worthy of hearing. To have such an opinion, you must be informed on the issues, alert to your interlocutors and the state of the argument, and have sufficient intellectual aptitude, skill, and virtue to engage with them ably. My opinions can be justifiably completely ignored on a lot of different issues, even on some issues that I know something about, when I’m not qualified enough to judge and don’t yet have a mind worth making up.

      We should show respect to people (and this involves engaging with them when they are really listening), but when someone writes something poor against us, we don’t have to respect that or take it seriously. We are best off just ignoring it. We shouldn’t attack the person and go out of our way to humiliate them, but, while showing respect to the person, we shouldn’t act as if their opinion carries weight in the public conversation.

      If we want our words to have weight, we shouldn’t use them where they would just go to waste or deploy them to counterbalance the opinions of the uninformed. Besides, people who can’t just shrug uninformed criticisms off are too often insecure in their positions.

  5. Angus J says:

    Have you read the other report of the conference by Natalie Collins published on Premier Christianity? I’ll try linking to it, though I’ve not posted a link in a comment before (it’s the third of the three reports in the article): https://www.premierchristianity.com/Blog/This-conference-asked-big-questions-on-gender-roles-in-church.-Here-are-3-views-on-what-happened
    (Ah, I see I’ve got the text of the link, but it hasn’t hyperlinked.)
    It’s seems to me as though a different person went to the conference, who just happened to have the same name. This difference is very strange…. or very troubling …. or very suspicious. I just don’t know which. What do you make of it? I’ll say more, but by other means.

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