As I’ve written about sexual identity and the natural differences between men and women, several questions have come up in different venues all asking the same thing: Where are you getting your concepts of gender roles? There are a lot of complicated ways to answer this question, and there are a lot of flat-out wrong ways to answer this question. I’ll try to keep it as simple (and right) as I can, but it will still take some ins and outs.
I believe that men and women have distinct roles and functions in life because I believe that sex matters. Men are men. They do not choose to be men. There is not some internal asexual self waiting to be freed. The same is true for women. This is both physical and psychological. It is a matter of body and soul.
Now all of this is derived from my own understanding of God and His design, but also from the nature of things. This can get us into the “complicated” very quickly, and so I’ll start by giving us some easy analogies. Imagine yourself in something of a desert island situation. You’ve got leaves, trees, sand, dirt, rocks, animals, etc. Then you stumble upon a fully-crafted ax. You can tell it is different from the other items because of its composition and the clear evidence of design. You run your thumb across the blade and cut yourself. This thing is meant for cutting. It might work for other jobs, but obviously cutting is the primary one.
Or to limit ourselves more, let’s think about teeth. Those canines sure look different from the others. Why are they sharp and pointy? It would seem that they are meant to cut or slice. Why would a tooth need to do that? Well, it’s reasonable to suppose that they are the way they are in order to eat certain kinds of food that need slicing. That gets us to the concept of eating meat pretty quickly. One can imagine a human with a set of teeth that lacked canines. In fact, I’m missing two of my top incisors. Still, it isn’t reasonable to assume that everyone else is unusual, and I’m the way “it’s supposed to be.” I’m not necessarily less than a human, but my teeth are definitely odd and even incomplete. To use technology to restore my teeth to a full set makes good sense and is consistent with reason and nature. But to use technology to make all of my teeth incisors or all of them canines is absurd and unnatural. What would one want with a set of teeth like that?
This also presupposes some sort of design and thus a designer or creator. Now before you go to laughing at my simple little Christian mind, I should remind you that this basic argument was employed by both Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. It’s certainly not a full-blown “scientific proof,” nor does it get you to the specifics of this designer, and whether it is any certain god/God in particular. And that’s ok, because it isn’t meant to do all that. It’s just establishing the basic concepts. Not all knowledge is of the same kind, and it’s a particular fallacy of our modern day to assume that everything is to be discovered by science and that all science is the same sort of science, with all non-science being obviously less certain.
So now let’s consider men and women. There are some obvious differences. Take a look at anatomy, skeletal structure, and muscular and hormonal distribution. It’s sure to be taken as offensive if one says, “Men are more aggressive than women.” But before we get our respective undergarments in a wad, let’s consider testosterone. It is uncontroversial (indeed it is obvious) to say that men have higher levels of testosterone than women. It is equally uncontroversial to say that testosterone elevates one’s energy and aggression, as well as their muscle mass and bone density. So, from a scientific point of view, it’s hard to see what the problem is with stating that men are more aggressive and even bigger and stronger than women. Can you find some women who are bigger and stronger than some men? Sure, but that’s because we all exist on various spectra. It doesn’t mean that the sexual difference is illusory or a social construct. And from a philosophical standpoint, as Harvey Mansfield (no pun intended) points out, Aristotle located the core of “manliness” in what he called “the spirited element” or “philosophical courage.” Mansfield expands this definition to say that manliness is “confidence in a situation of risk.” He comes to this from a combined study of philosophy, literature, and history. Still it’s close to what we were talking about earlier, a sort of aggression and assertiveness. So we’ve got both arts and sciences at our disposal, pointing to the obvious.
Now, somewhere along the way, modern man decided that it was wrong to be constrained by your nature. You should instead be “free” from your nature. This was actually a revolution in the definition of freedom, as the classical definition said that freedom was being free to act in accordance with your nature apart from outside constraint. But the shift happened, and a number of very bad things soon followed, seen most obviously in ecology and economics. Many people point to industrialized capitalism, along with Marx and Nietzsche as major causes of the shift. And yes, Nietzsche’s “will to power” is a great example of this principle of overcoming all restrictions. What’s funny, though, is that most people identify Nietzsche as a basically “bad guy,” whether it be outright evil or just potentially dangerous to the common good of society. What they less often see is that Nietzsche is just the tough-minded side of the same coin that most people consider virtuous, the old “You can be whatever you want to be with yourself” line that we were all taught growing up. Astronauts, the president, whatever. Except with Nietzsche, and with many people today, the key difference is in the absence of even moral and ontological constraints. Our moms used that line with the assumption that we should only do good things and to do them through good means. But they didn’t always say that enough, and as a culture, we’ve collectively lost faith in the concept of objective good. Plenty of people still have an arbitrary list, of course, but they can’t do a very good job at justifying what’s on there and why. It’s usually based on a certain selection of cultural heritage and a notion of efficiency. It’s good to be “nice,” and for everyone to be accepting. But why? That’s where they typically have to rehash old Christian concepts without much good reason for the modifications.
Well, now we’re getting into that “complicated” territory, and so I’ll have to be as concise as I can (which will still be long). This is, in some ways, a byproduct of the Christians. While pagans of all sorts were happy to allow for certain actions and even “lifestyles” that Christians would call vice, the pagans always knew what nature was, and they ordinarily enforced it rigorously and abusively. For example, people typically say that the Greeks were gay. This is false. The Greeks allowed for a certain sort of pederasty, but those same people were also married and had a strictly guarded “house.” In fact, the household was sacrosanct. Odysseus can sleep around all he wants, but Penelope must not. Plato even condemned sodomy as a crime against nature, worthy of capital punishment. You’ll seem much the same across Africa, Asia, and Europe. And there really wasn’t anything close to women’s equality or liberation. Any specific women who stood out in political or military roles were thought to be atypical, usually as demigods or mediums. The average woman was always dominated and exploited.
The Jews and then the Christians came onto this scene and made a number of rather strong claims. They said that just because you could do something didn’t mean that you should. Further, they appealed to charity as a reason not to dominate the weak. They said that all mankind was “equal” on the internal and spiritual level and that we then had certain duties and responsibilities to one another. Sure there were all kinds of bad Christians. They were always partly pagan, of course, on a path of de-paganizing (and sometimes re-paganizing). Still, the philosophy was there and basically uniform. Nature was not denied, but the concept of sin was added. This isn’t merely the idea that we need rules, but rather something deeper. The existence of sin means that our apprehension of certain things, particularly ethical things, will be distorted. We will never not have a sense of morality, but our desires will be twisted and turned towards self-gain. This meant that a person had to always be skeptical of his will, measuring it by an external standard. Yet at the same time, the Christians, especially the Protestants, also said that this external standard did not justify you in the sight of God, nor did it account for your worth and dignity as a person. You had that objectively, because of creation and redemption.
Now, throughout the course of history, certain violent shifts happened, and some of them seem to have even been partly inevitable. But still, they explain why we think the way we do today and how we come to our notion of “normal.” Through the rise of modernity, by which I mean modern philosophy, politics, and economics, a few shifts happened which got things out of whack. They didn’t all happen at once, and no one thinker is simply all good or all bad, but still, you can chart a certain trajectory. That notion of inviolable individual worth was actually turned against the notion of external norms correcting our will. Indeed, since our “inner man” was what truly counted, those outside judgments began to be seen as more and more hostile. The final step in this progression was to deny the concept of god/God entirely, along with the related notion of nature, or the way that things are designed to be. With these concepts all gone, and only the individual “self” concept remaining, you get to the triumph of the will pretty quickly. With that comes self-expression, the modern notion of freedom, and a certain sort of absolute equality. But at the same time you also get exploitative industrialism, the domination and exploitation of nature, and the horrifying militarism of total war. With one comes the other.
Now it feels like we’re a long way from where we started in this post. Was this all just a clever way to call feminists and pan-sexual egalitarians secret Nazis? Or perhaps worse (in their minds) venture capitalists? Not quite. The point is not to say that one came from the other. The point is to say that they all came from the same place.
So, if we want to avoid the evils of modernity, we’ll need to actually make a coherent case and one that doesn’t engage in petitio principii. Further, we’ll need to get at a notion of an external standard (call it nature for ease), and we’ll need to begin identifying what that standard has to say. Additionally, as a Christian, I believe that revelation, the Sciptures (as well as other forms of natural revelation and sacred tradition), works within and alongside nature to teach us the same truths, as well as additional but consistent ones regarding redemption. So, I’d say we need a prudential grasp of reason and revelation, of nature and grace.
This post is now too long to itself go on and lay out the specifics. I’ll save those for later. But we can bridge to the specifics in a basic way. Christians need to work with nature. For whatever strange reason, many Protestants have developed an allergy to talking about “nature” and “natural.” They think it’s wrong, and that we should instead only be “Biblical.” But this acts as if the men who wrote the Bible were from the dwarf planet Ceres. It’s ridiculous to assume that they had wholly different concepts of reality. As most scholars of religion will admit, the Biblical writers presuppose a great amount of common truth about reality, and when it comes to the basics of logic and grammar, the Bible doesn’t attempt to teach those in the least bit. It asks you to have those tools already in order to read and understand the Bible!
And so the Bible goes with nature. It might correct certain understandings and assumptions, but it actually does teach the notion of universal shared humanity, along with important shared traditions. And it even gives an ideal picture of man and woman, as Adam and Eve existed prior to sin. The New Testament confirms this methodology, as the Apostle Paul routinely appeals to the creation order, as well as the means and effect of the Fall, in order to teach gender identity and duty. He even goes so far as to invoke nature itself (1 Cor. 11:14). All in all, the Apostle Paul does not believe that Christianity should overturn the normal civil order, and he instructs his congregations not to even give off the appearance of doing so (more on this in later posts).
The other major image and ideal that the Bible gives is the relationship of Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:22-33). And it’s important to note that Paul assigns the symbolic “Christ” position to the man and husband, and he assigns the symbolic “Church” position to the woman and wife. The specifics matter, and the Apostle Paul does not believe that they are simply interchangeable.
And so having laid out the very basic groundwork here, I’ll leave you with some questions. How do you determine appropriate gender roles? Or do you even do so? If not, how do you come to believe that it is proper and right to have no gender roles, and how do you see this as consistent with reality? And finally, if the answer to that last question could also be used to equally justify violence and evil, would you have a problem with that?
A couple of thoughts.
First, when thinking about the difference between men and women, it seems to me that we would do well to frame the discussion in terms of the primary blessing/calling given to mankind, in which procreation is front and centre. Your treatment above doesn’t seem to me to emphasize the importance of this sufficiently: connecting your point here with some of your earlier posts on procreation would strengthen your case.
Second, the difference form and telos of male and female bodies is significant in this context, it seems to me, even before testosterone and the like comes into the picture. Also, these differences are pretty much universal. The telos of the male body is realized in outward interaction, most particularly in coitus. The telos of the female body is realized not merely in coitus, but also in conception, gestation, childbirth, and nursing. Unlike the male body, which has a single sexual organ with only one task of brief duration, the female body has many reminders of its sex and long processes and a continuing cycle associated with it. Its telos is one realized within the body and in direct relationship to the body itself. The female body is a site and source of communion, with a meaning that the male body cannot have.
Male identity is shaped by a body that is primarily functional and outward-oriented: masculinity is realized in agency and mastery, as the man becomes an independent actor in the world. Masculinity must be ‘proved’. Female identity is shaped by a body that is ‘pregnant’ with meaning, the source of communion. Female identity is far more contingent upon the relationship with the body. Women don’t have to ‘prove’ their femininity in the way that men do. Culturally, a female typically ‘becomes a woman’ through things that happen to her body, whether puberty, penetration, pregnancy, or childbirth. Women are thus considerably more vulnerable to sexual objectification. Feminine identity is very much about a women’s identity with her body, over her relationship with her agency.
Women’s sexual identity is thus much more integral to their physical being than men’s identity, which must be established in action. Women’s identity also doesn’t have the discreteness that men’s identity has. The woman’s identity is one associated with the communion bound up in the female body and thus implicates relationships to a degree that male identity does not. These differences explain a lot, I think.
Thanks for the thoughts. I actually plan to continue with more installments on men, women, and function. This one was an introduction to the framework and methodology. I’ll be happy to incorporate your suggestions as well.
You should probably do some reading re: gender vs. sexuality.
Second, I fully believe that we were made to be men and women, however, in the same way that we were created to be healthy (God didn’t make diseases) and have been broken by this fallen world, there are some people who through no fault or sin of their own, are born with broken minds and one of the results of this is gender mis-identity. As a church we need to study this, realize this, and figure out what on earth we will do if a person broken in this manner comes through our doors (or into our lives) seeking help. Are we prepared for the long-term commitment of walking beside a convert who will face the same temptations for the rest of their life (if God chooses not to supernaturally heal them)?
I appreciate this, Steven. It seems to me, when it comes down to it, that your view on men and women looks a lot like a conservative American Evangelical viewpoint. I’m sure you have different nuances, but the overlap seems tremendous and probably generally plays out along the lines of man working outside the home and woman being homemakers. I like this vision, to be honest.
I didn’t mean my comment as a dig. I just mean that, for the nuances you provide, your take seems extremely mainstream – I could roll this out in my local Southern Baptist church without much pushback. Which seems fine with me.
Yes, a big part of my approach is to show a sort of ‘natural,’ vision, one which most traditionally-minded folks of all stripes intuit. One difference, however, is that I am willing to critique the suburban vision of the nuclear family with lonesome mom and empty house. We have to challenge the American economy a good bit, and this will take some creative thinking.
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