Another Theology of the Body, Part XVI--Moving Beyond Complementarity

Christians, and all Christian churches, going to need to have a serious conversation with themselves (and, I hope, with others outside the church as well) about gender.  Some folks don't think such a conversation is needed, and that the old formulas can be trotted out without much updating or analysis.  Some seem pretty desperate not to have the conversation, fearful of where such a conversation may go.  Nevertheless, the conversation is needed, otherwise the conversation is going to occur exclusively on the outside of Christianity, and Christianity is going to be left out in the cold.  The conversation will either occur with us, or it will occur about us--"be there or be a topic" as the Boyle family says.  We are not going back to "a moist south wind."

The problem, it seems to me, is that the conversation has gotten stuck.  On the one hand, we have people who are saying that the old, binary, rigid, prescriptive models of gender need to be overcome and broken.  Particularly in the area of gender roles, these models have traditionally been used as a tool to keep folks (primarily women, but also non-conforming people of both genders) down and "in their place."  Often, they have been deeply oppressive, or at least experienced as being deeply oppressive.  If you have been, or continue to be, on the receiving end of this oppression, it is not surprising that you want them to be overthrown--overthrowing these rigid models are a liberation.

On the flip side, you have people that are deeply afraid that the trend in thinking about gender is going to lead to the nullification of the entire notion of gender distinctiveness.  It is a mistake, I think, to see this impulse entirely as a product of dudes trying to protect their traditional privileges, though that is certainly a component in many cases.  It is also a mistake, I think, to assume that women who raise such objections are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome or some kind of false consciousness.  So, while I agree totally with Frank that Susan Hanssen's invocation of Laura Ingalls Wilder as a model of "complementarity" is problematic, I can see why the prospect of becoming "sexless as the bees" is an unpleasant one.  For one thing, it is seems to me that, whatever the complications and nuances we might find, gender is indeed a part of the human reality, one that cannot be attributed entirely to social conditioning.  For another, I can see how, if gender is truly entirely socially constructed, it might be "reconstructed" according to some totalitarian program.  Now, I see no evidence of this actually going on (and, no, letting transgendered people use the bathrooms of their choice is not the knife-edge of such a program), but I accept the possibility.

This "stuckness" can be seen clearly in Pope Francis.  On the one hand, he gives an interview in which he lumps "gender theory," which "does not recognize the order of creation," in with threats like nuclear weapons.  It is hard to see that as anything other than a full-throated defense of old-school, rigid gender ideas.  On the other hand, he says things like "[w]hen we speak of complementarity between man and woman in this context, let us not confuse that term with the simplistic idea that all the roles and relations of the two sexes are fixed in a single, static pattern."  That, it seems, is at least a retreat from a fixed notion of gender roles.  Moreover, he arranged a private meeting with a trans women who wrote to him, signaling at least an openness to a broader understanding of gender than the old-school categories.  He seems to be stuck between these two poles (if, admittedly, probably more on the traditional side).

When you reach an impasse like this, if you are going to find a solution, you need to look at the problem in a new way.  Such a new way, it seems to me, can be seen in the work of Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley, and in particular her book (that I just finished) entitled God, Sexuality, and the Self.
Perhaps surprisingly, Coakley locates the answer, in large part, in the doctrine of the Trinity.  So, a quick detour into her Trinitarian thinking.

For Coakley, there are essentially two dominant models of the Trinity seen in the New Testament and throughout Christian history.  The first model, seen clearly in John chapter 1, focuses on the relationship between Jesus--the divine, Platonic Logos--and the Father.  Coakley calls this model "hierarchical," since John makes clear that the Son, while truly God along with the Father ("the Word was God"--John 1:1), is subordinate to the will of the Father.  In turn, everything is subordinate to the unity of the Father and Son--hence, the "hierarchy."

Coakley does not say that this model is "wrong," in the sense that it somehow does not reflect the (ultimately incomprehensible for humans) Truth of the Trinity.  Still, Coakley points out that there are problems with this hierarchical model, or perhaps better inherent temptations toward certain misinterpretations.  First, there is no obvious place in this scheme for the Holy Spirit.  John's Gospel talks about the Holy Spirit that is to come after Jesus's return to the Father, but it is not obvious that the Holy Spirit should be seen as equal to the Father and the Son.  While the classic Trinitarian formulas are insistent that the Holy Spirit is equal to the other two persons, Coakley argues that there is a tendency in this model to de facto place the Holy Spirit on a lower level from the Father-Son axis (a thesis she supports with a look at trinitarian art throughout the centuries).

Second, but in some sense related to the first issue, there is no obvious place in this scheme for women or the female gender.  If the "real action," so to speak, is between Father and Son--"bros bro-ing out," if you will--then there is a gravitational pull toward identifying God as male, with a corresponding tendency to marginalize the feminine, and actual women.  Even if one were to attribute to the Holy Spirit a female gender (or, as Coakley shows, in Catholic art, tacitly replacing the Holy Spirit with the Virgin Mary), the feminine is still subordinate to the masculinity of the Father-Son axis, insofar as the Holy Spirit and/or Mary is clearly subordinate to the other two.  You haven't fixed the problem, and in a sense you have made it worse by "locking in" a masculine/feminine dichotomy, with the masculine on top.

The other model comes from chapter 8 of Paul's Letter to the Romans.  Here, Paul places the emphasis on the Holy Spirit, which dwells in the believer.  That Spirit makes us "children of God" (Romans 8:14), "and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ."  (Romans 8:17).  All of this culminates in verse 26, where Paul says "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words."

Coakley refers to this model as the "incorporative" model of the Trinity.  In it, the Holy Spirit is constantly returning to the Father in prayer, and we are caught up in that movement.  Christ represents the perfect model and ultimate fulfillment of this process--he is our "elder brother" who models all of this for the rest of us "younger children."  As Coakley puts it, "it is not I who autonomously prays, but God (the Holy Spirit) who prays in me, and so answers the eternal call of the ‘Father,’ drawing me by various painful degrees into the newly expanded life of ‘Sonship.’”

This incorporative model, Coakley argues, removes both of the potential problems with the hierarchical model.  Clearly, the role of the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential in this scheme, and is in fact the primary point of contact with God for a believer.  In addition, the "gendered" nature of God is deemphasized, and there is no obvious privileging of male or female believers in this scheme.

Fine, but what does this have to do with gender issues?  Coakley shows in her book that the writers who took seriously the incorporative model of Trinity in their life of prayer often find that this transformation has an erotic and gendered component.  Many of the patristic writers on prayer (especially, as Coakley focuses on, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Dionysus the Aeropagite) use feminine metaphors to express their experience of transformation in prayer.  Rigid, essentialist notions of "maleness" are being broken down, without dissolving gender altogether into an undifferentiated androgyny.  To put it bluntly, the encounter with God through prayer for a man involves, or potentially involves, the taking on of some stereotypically feminine characteristics, or, perhaps better, a redefinition of "maleness" to incorporate those characteristics--and visa versa for women.

As Coakley shows, many of these writers, no doubt because of misogynist attitudes, found this transformation deeply disorienting and problematic.  Coakley, however, would have us embrace this reality, and accept that the transformation of life in the Spirit includes a transformation of our understanding of gender.  That doesn't mean a move "beyond" gender into some sexless, disembodied state, nor does it mean that more stereotypical gender ideas will be instantly reversed, but instead an evolving, expanding understanding that breaks out of rigid binaries.

How does such a transformation happen?  Primarily, for Coakley, it is through contemplative prayer.  But I would suggest that it also happens in the context of relationships.  If human relationships are a reflection, however faint, of the relationship between us and God, it stands to reason that they would be a site of the same process.  The messy business of being together is a crucible for the Spirit to work its transforming power on the parties to the relationship, including (if Coakley is right) transforming their understanding of gender.  This is seems to be borne out in experience.  If you watch couples that have been together for a while and really are in tune with each other, they tend to interact in that easy, unaffected way that lays aside pre-conceived notions of roles, including gender roles.  This, in the Coakley model, would be a feature and not a bug--the Spirit is working on both parties toward an expanded and, indeed, "complementary" alignment and understanding of gender.

To me, the Coakley model is a way out of this deadlock on gender, because it both affirms the realness and given-ness of gender (and thus resists the "sexless as the bees" issue, as well as any potential Orwellian agendas) while seeing it as capable of transformation (and thus not reduceable to rigid, one-size-fits-all descriptions and formulas).  Men will be men and women will be women, but the precise meaning of those terms will be a moving target, and likely slightly different for each person or couple.

Most importantly, this difference and transformation, far from being something that is imposed on Christians from the evil outside culture, is actually a key component of the Christian life.  Rather than fight it, we can, and should, embrace it.  Not because we are "conforming to the World," but because we are "conforming to the Spirit," and getting swept up in the very life of God.  Different visions of male and female will have to be recognized, not as polar alternatives, but as different places along the same journey.

There is much more to be said on this topic--God, Sexuality, and the Self is a very rich book, and is only the first part of Coakley's planned four volume systematic theology.  In November, Coakley is coming out with a book that contains a series of essays applying some of these ideas to the vexing questions in Christian culture--homosexuality, women in leadership, celibacy, etc.  So, there is much more to be said.  Hopefully, though, this might get people talking.


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