Stacey Van Dyk
Travis Black and Lydia Crutwell’s Et Cetera article on gender has sparked a passionate discussion on gender equality, as challenging and provocative articles often do. And yet, their initial query, ‘What does it mean to be male? And what does it mean to be female?’ has been left unanswered. These questions are significant and worthy of their own consideration. My hope is to send our conversation, about how we perceive, understand and live out our masculinity and femininity, down a different path.
Before jumping too deeply into troubled waters, I would like to suggest a frame for our discussion. There are two specific dangers which we need to avoid, if our conversation is to be fruitful. The first danger is dualism. While men, on average, tend to be taller, heavier and stronger than women, and women, on average, tend to be more emotional than men, when we consider particular individuals we quickly see that such characteristics are not absolutes but exist along a continuum. And this is rightfully so, since first and foremost, men and women are human, not gendered. When we say things like, ‘The world is divided into two sexes, male and female,’ we set men and women in opposition to one another. Such a move inevitably leads to comparative valuation, where one is considered – to varying degrees – ‘better than’ the other. (When I was seven, I had a t-shirt with the graphic, ‘Girls are super, girls are terrific, boys stink!’ As you can imagine, it was my favourite t-shirt.) However, as history has shown, such negative valuation is usually to the detriment of women, rather than men, ultimately leading to the dualistic notion that men are good and women are evil. And while it may be easy to denounce such thinking – at least in its most dichotomous variations – the belief that one is better than the other remains prevalent in our society. Instead, it bears remembering that God created us as human – specifically, in his image. Our sexual differentiation is our most significant attribute (c.f. Gen. 1:27), but it is secondary to our image-bearing nature, in which we are one humanity.
The second danger to avoid is atomization. In our attempts to understand our masculinity or femininity, we often focus our attention on those particulars where we do see differentiation: biology/sexuality, distinctive attributes and role differentiation, to name a few. However, as Travis has helpfully pointed out, such a consideration of isolated particulars inevitably fails us. It is worthwhile to remember that gender is, to a great extent, socially constructed; it develops through the interplay between our biology/sexuality and our cultural understanding of what it means to be male or female. When my 4 year old nephew, in learning to use the toilet standing up, asks, ‘This is how boys do it, right, Mommy?’ he is participating in his own gender construction. And when my 5 year old niece develops an all-consuming passion for the Disney princesses, she is doing the same. Gender is not a fixed attribute; it changes over time. Any faithful historian could map out interpretations of gender both across cultures, and throughout history. Our understanding of gender cannot be reduced to particulars, but necessarily includes the whole composite picture of our biology, sexuality, and culture, and the interaction which occurs between them over time and across various societies and populations.
How then are we to understand masculinity and femininity? In answering such a question, I would like to suggest two dead-ends: gender equality and human sexuality. These two issues are deeply significant to our self-understanding, and to our respective valuing of one another as gendered and sexual beings. However, if we, as the church, are to offer a unique prophetic voice, we must begin to speak from outside Western society’s cultural definitions. Within living memory, our most virulent public gender wars have centred on gender equality or sexual freedom. However, our masculinity or femininity is not grounded on who earns more/less money, or has more/less opportunities, or even who leads and who follows. Gender equality matters. It matters because it is an issue of justice. But our identity is not found in the achievement of justice; rather, the pursuit of justice rightfully flows out of an understanding of our true identity, as we engage with the world around us.
And neither is masculinity or femininity grounded in ‘who we have sex with’. Placing our sexuality at the heart of our identity turns every human relational interaction into a potential sexual encounter – if I say ‘hello’ to you in the library, I become either a potential spouse, a potential sexual temptation, or a potential stalker. Such a starting point denies us any healthy cross-gender relationships. Sexuality matters. It matters because it is an issue of healing and wholeness. But our identity is not found in our sexual relationships; rather, sexual wholeness flows out of an understanding of our true identity, and enables us to relate to one another in ways that are pleasing to God.
If we, as the church, are to find our prophetic voice, we need to stop participating in our culture’s gender wars on their own terms (this goes for sexual politics, as well), but rather, step aside in order to offer a critical analysis and bring fresh biblical and theological reflection on masculinity and femininity. We must reject gender as the basis for human equality, and we must reject sexuality as the basis for human relationships. We are so much more than this. And, thankfully, Lydia has already pointed out the place to start our journey: ‘there is something within gender, within who we are as women and men, that images God more truly than any man or any woman… ever could.’ How is the imago Dei reflected within our femininity and masculinity together? What is revealed by women and men in relationship with one another – in our families, our churches, the workplace, as fellow students and, yes, also in dating and marriage? This is the question Lydia posed to us, and which we still have the opportunity to answer.