Wednesday, October 04, 2006

2. Changing Our View of God: God and Gender

Yesterday, I tried to explain how we had come to move from a view of God that I described using the term Authoritarian to one that I described as Benevolent. (Please see the ongoing series on God for more explanation of the use of these terms). I said that the change had been both a theological reaction to a wrong understanding of God and a pastoral desire to reach out to people. Sociologically, it had taken place against changes in society that made belief in a benevolent God both more desirable and more palatable. I expressed alarm and concern about where this belief was going. It is as if we took a road because we discovered we were in the wrong place, but the road we have taken has led us further away from where we should be.

In order to explain the reason for my alarm, and why I think we are lost, I think I need to try and explain, in greater detail, what belief in the Benevolent God normally entails and how we, myself included, moved, often for the best of motives, from one view of God to our present view. My argument is that it has involved a redefinition of God in certain key areas:

• God and Gender
• God and Creation
• God and Inclusion
• God and Atonement
• God and Judgement

These are not the only areas, but as I sit here in front of the screen and think about them, they do seem to be among the most important. I would argue, if I was being more analytic, that the change has affected every area, but I do believe these are the key ones.

Today, I would like to comment on the issue of God and Gender. I know I am in danger of letting the sub-series get out of hand. This is meant to be by way of a commentary on the previous two weeks’ posts on God! Never trust a preacher to be short! So without further ado:

God and Gender

On an authoritarian view of God, God was always male. Use of the male pronoun was not only convenient: it expressed something that was believed to be essentially true about God’s nature. It followed from this that ministry, too, was male. Christian leaders, priests, and teachers were male, and authority, naturally, should reside in men, both in the church and in the home. It was as obvious to accept that authority was male in the past as it is obvious to reject in the present.

Society, though, was moving to a more egalitarian view of the sexes. And it was with surprise and delight that we discovered that God had both a male and female side. After all, when he created humankind, he had made us in his own image: male and female. So that God should be understood as being both male and female in character while, of course, ultimately being above gender altogether.

What was more, new study of the Gospels revealed Jesus to be very positive in his attitude to women - and was not the first witness of the resurrection a woman? Paul, traditionally seen as anti-women, was rediscovered as a champion of women’s ministry. He was someone who included women amongst his co-workers. Indeed texts such as Galatians 3:28 (‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’) revealed that, in fact, Paul was a proto-feminist all along. We just hadn’t noticed it for 2,000 years.

This emphasis, I have to confess, I found both appealing and helpful as I tried to minister in places where women had been ignored and excluded. It was a useful corrective to the abusive attitudes of the past and a good foundation upon which to base outreach to women in the present who were both intelligent and successful in their own right.

Nevertheless, I have always found the fact that Jesus only chose men as apostles somewhat difficult. And passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, 1 Corinthians 14:33-36 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15 are a bit of a problem. This is not because I see them as necessarily binding on us today, but because they don’t seem to fit with the feminist revision of the New Testament, appealing though it may be. If Jesus and Paul really were proto-feminists, why no women apostles and why should women keep quiet?

In practice, this does not bother people from more liberal parts of the church as much as it does those from more orthodox circles. I think it should, because you can’t claim Jesus as your champion unless you can explain all the evidence. You may not feel Paul’s or even Jesus’ practice is authoritive, but you should be able to be make sense of the evidence. It is one thing to say Jesus did not believe in women having authority, and then to argue that, for whatever reason, you disagree with him, and another to ignore one strand of the evidence in favour of the one that suits your position.

This issue is obviously far more serious for those, like myself, who not only want to know what the Bible says, but see it as, in some way, normative for Christian belief and practice. Those of us who approach the Bible this way have tried various ways around the problem. First, there were those of us who went down the path of reinterpreting the evidence. They argued that the Bible does not say what we previously thought it said. This led to countless attempts to explain those parts of the Bible that do not immediately support a feminist line. Secondly, there were those who tried to explain the difficult passages by trying to contextualize them. They argued that this was what was only what was believed then, not necessarily what should be taught now. After all, Jesus and Paul had to work within the historical and cultural limitations of their time. Thirdly, there were those of us who simply admitted our embarrassment and left it like that.

What we have not wanted to do is to lose the positive emphasis we have discovered. For it is essential to believing in the Benevolent God that (he) is a God who loves all equally. And if we were also to present God to the society in which we lived, (he) had to be sympathetic to attempts to raise the status of women.

The change from an exclusively male God to the God who was both male and female, while being defined by neither, who was a God of men and women was, therefore, essential.

Some have stopped short of dropping the use of male language to describe God, but this seems to be based more on habit than logic.

Of course, this change appealed to us. The male authoritarian God often came across as repugnant. It was a welcome change to find a God who cared, who felt, who nurtured, who was Mother as well as Father. And, of course, we preached it. Were we right to do so? Yes and No.

Yes, because the Authoritarian God was often, and often still is, horrible. Personally, I was horrified when I discovered the way the church had treated women in the past. My own experience taught me that women were not only as clever as me, but often many times cleverer. Furthermore, in my own experience and need, I had found that it was women who more often than not had answers when men couldn’t care less.

No, because as I will attempt to explain in the future, I am not sure the genderless Benevolent God is much better and, more importantly, I am not sure he, she, or whatever isn’t any more than just pure wistful thinking. It may be the God we want to believe in. The question is whether this God actually exists. Increasingly, I don’t think so.

Tomorrow I will look at the next area of redefinition.

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