Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Is God Masculine? Part Three: What do we mean by "masculine"?

I continue my blab on "Is God Masculine" by focusing on the terms "masculine" and "feminine" themselves. In fact, as a guy, I'm going to focus on the word "masculine" in particular in order to try and illustrate why the post-structuralist (post-modern) discussion affects this whole thing so much.

What do we mean when we use "masculine"?

Here's the most pertinent Webster's definition:

masculine n 1: a male person 2: a noun, pronoun, adjective, or inflectional form or class of the masculine gender 3: the masculine gender

All but useless. If masculine is only another word for "male," we don't really get far. And when applying the word to God, things get downright baffling, since God has no genitals nor any body to identify himself (yes, we'll stick with male pronouns for now) as male. I loved the last definition "the masculine gender" which is circular in the extreme. What is the masculine gender? Males. Are we done yet?

Nope. Let's try another couple definitions of "masculine" (I grabbed these following more or less at random from the web):

"[T]he dominant character type; biological masculinity refers to the male gender; psychological masculinity refers to the dominant character type; also used as a noun to refer to a masculine individual. synonyms: extroverted, dominant, assertive. analogs: feminine, introverted, submissive, yielding." [from Ninth Street]

So "masculine" equals "dominant." Hm. Andrea Dworkin, Oprah, Dorothy Day... masculine? I don't think any of them would especially want to be called "masculine," though all of them were / are dominating personalities. Extroverted... does that mean Soren Kierkegaard was feminine? Assertive. I picture in my head the old sky gods and earth goddesses, the former in all their phallic active glory and the latter in their supine and submissive compliance. No, I'm not a believer in these definitions. For one thing, they suggest imagery rather than actually defining much in the way of specifics.

It could be argued (and in fact seems sensible on some levels) to suggest that all males have some feminine in them and all females have some masculine in them. I often talk semi-seriously about my "feminine side." But is that formulation really helpful? We're still talking about something terribly difficult to define.

One more try at a definition:

"Having the qualities of a man; suitable to, or characteristic of, a man; virile; not feminine or effeminate; strong; robust. That lady, after her husbands death, held the reins with a masculine energy. (Hallam) "

Not much new here. Assumptions abound. "Having the qualities of a man" assumes there are qualities which only men have. Is that true? Virile. What a can of ugly that word opens. "Not feminine or effeminate" is unhelpful in that it attempts to define masculine by what it allegedly is not (without telling us what it, or its alleged opposite, is).

Here's where the post-structuralist stuff comes in. These folks suggest that language is often a mask for power, and whomever controls the definitions of language often ends up controlling said society / organization / family. So, if we can get people to believe that God is Masculine, and further can cause them to however subtly understand the feminine as something in opposition to (or at least a lack of) the masculine, we can create a society and/or Church where the "feminine" (women) are marginalized from leadership and even within themselves to view womankind as an inferior sex.

Right about now, someone is wondering if I'm suggesting some sort of androgyny here. Some of the post-structuralists do indeed deconstruct gender itself, ending up with either as many genders as their are human beings ("gender" being as individualized as a "roll your own" cigarette) or no genders at all -- androgyny. Neither I, nor any other Christians who find post-structural arguments compelling, would agree with that radical idea. As a Christian, I believe the Word when it says God made humankind "male and female." That's two genders by my count.

But -- at least in my present understanding -- what I am suggesting is that while "male" and "female" are useful terms, "masculine" and "feminine" are far more ambiguous terms. We often if not usually do not really know what we're talking about when we plug one of these terms into our reasoning processes, our theological constructions, or our personal and public relational worlds.

Just one for-instance, which actually is touched on by a few of the definitions above. Have you ever heard (or even yourself applied) the word "feminine" to a guy who was perhaps high-voiced, small, shy, "geeky"? How about a male who seems overtly immature (though if he is sufficiently good-looking, low-voiced, and famous, he might be still called "masculine")?

Conversely, a woman who has a low voice, is muscular or stocky, has a short haircut and doesn't wear make-up, may be pejoratively called "masculine." Yet in all of that, the term fails to clearly explain anything, other than the feelings of unease around and even rejection of the individual being so labeled.

I'm not saying some of us may truly be right about a person's immaturity, or at times (though less often than one might think) about their sexual orientation. But is describing either maturity or sexual orientation with terms less about facts than value judgements really helpful, much less the biblically loving way to interact with them? Even if a person (as I do) believes that homosexuality is not God's plan for us, what purpose is there in basically guessing if another guy is homosexual or not based on "unmasculine" manners or tone of voice? I, who have sinned this way myself, do not think it is right or loving.

But, to get back to the God-thing... what do we then mean by "masculine" or "feminine"?

Honestly, I do not know. And, as I noted in my previous installments, I do want to believe that God is both masculine and feminine, yet am slowly moving toward the idea that He is neither. Not convinced yet, but finding the terms themselves so problematic that I'm not sure they're worth anything.

One of my very best friends of thirty years -- a woman, mind you -- disagrees with me on this issue. Yet I think her problem with me is that I am as of yet unfocused on the difference between male/female and masculine/feminine. Her fear is that I think there are no intrinisic differences between men and women at all, other than the obvious physical ones. And my trust in her discernment about both the Word and me over the years causes me to pause and take stock of her unease.

Have I gone too far here? Is an egalitarian-based corrective needed for Jonny? Gee, I'd love to be set back on the straight and narrow if in fact someone else has sorted more of this out than my feeble bulb has been able to do so far.

A personal note... (as in my "feminine side" kicks in with a vengeance?)

Here's my biggest fear of, and beef with, the masculine/feminine nexus reflected in the world and Church. See how much you resonate with the following statements, which (I suggest) are all rooted in the idea of "God is masculine."

* God is a Conquerer God, coming against sinners and an unrighteous world much as an invading male's body comes against his unwilling victim's body. Get it? Divine Rape does not turn me on.
* God is fascinated by order, "roles," pyramiding submission schemes. (The God of Love seems radically missing from such configurations, which at time take on a downright fascist fascination in absolute lines, divisions, symmetrical numbers and grids, and the extensive use of black and white.)
* God as condescending male father figure. Oh, he is my Father. I know this perhaps more than many reading this, at least if they've not experienced the agony of abandonment and divorce and familial break-up. He is certainly my Father, and I his child, but this parental role needs no condescention and frankly needs no maleness/masculinity. If there is any place where masculine and feminine (providing they exist) converge, it is in the roles of Father/Mother. A good father nurtures; a good mother protects. Parental love is fierce and gentle, selfless and (to the child) sometimes unyielding. But the condescending white male figure we often find superimposed upon the Blessed Divine Parent is unworthy of us.
* Christian Men are to lead, Christian women are to follow. (Some days, that makes me want to cry; other days it makes me burst into uncontrollable laughter.)
* Wives submit to husbands, and husbands "lovingly lead." (Uh, yeah. Nice abuse of Ephesians 5. Didja forget verse 21? And if only wives are to submit, are only husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church?)
* A strong [as in "masculine"?!] military is vitally important to a Christian America. (Think I made that up? It -- minus my bracketed bit -- was part of the Moral Majority's original blueprint for America. It's worked out so well, hasn't it?)
* A female is even physically created to recieve and submit, and a man is created to penetrate and dominate (lovingly, the Christians would add).
* Gender "roles" are biblical. (One of these days, I'm gonna go off on "roles" and why I think they're downright satanic... )
* Women missionaries should not preach or teach (Southern Baptists' current stance)
* Women's domain is properly the home and child-rearing (What amount to Home Economics degrees for women only are as of this year offered at the Southern Baptists' foremost Seminary.)

If we look at one another as male and female, called together in God (whether he be both "masculine and feminine" in his being or neither masculine nor feminine, being rather Infinitely Mystery in that regard) we perhaps can live truly under Scripture and truly in an intersubmitted, interrelated, trusting and transparently egalitarian community. I live in an inner-city Chicago community (Jesus People USA) struggling to be egalitarian and also to be true to our common calling in Jesus Christ. We fail often in both categories. But even the failures are, in many ways, often blessings drawing us closer to Him and also closer to the truth about our absolute need of Him -- and of one another.

If you've gotten nothing else from my bumbling, I hope you get that. And I apologize for some ranting here -- I do gets mesef woiked up.

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d said...

Hi Jon - Just wanted to let you know that I used to read Cornerstone magazine years ago in the early-mid 80's, which I really enjoyed. I got it from my best friend after I became a Christian in '81, and then subscribed to it myself for years. I am writing to give my opinions of what I believe Scripture teaches on biblical equality, whether God is masculine and/or feminine, and some comments about the Enroth controversy brought up in Wikipedia.

Scripture IMO teaches that women & men are equal, AS LONG AS the woman is not married to the man, working for him, or represented in government by him (or likewise, he‘s not working for her or represented by her). If married to him, she has to subordinate (hupotasso) herself to her husband. (The Greek 5293 is literally/etymologically “subordinate,” not "submit," though submitting is often required of subordinates. Since word meanings don‘t always go back to their literal etymologies, it’s fair to translate this as “submit,” but I personally prefer “subordinate.”) This verse does not call for him to take it upon himself to force or beat her into submission, as some seem to be fond of misinterpreting it. It's addressed to us ladies. That is, in "Wives, subordinate yourselves to your own husbands," "wives" is vocative, and is addressed to "wives," not “husbands,” just like "Kathy, open the door," is addressed to Kathy, not Steve.

Essentially, marriage is like any other contractual arrangement, such as where one hires oneself out as an employee (subordinate, "servant") to an employer (superior, "master"). (That said, hopefully the marriage is made in the Lord and based on love and sexual attraction for one‘s mate.) If a woman owned her own company, and a man worked for her, he would submit to her as employee, like Abigail's menservants submitted to her in 1 Sam 25. If the two were later to marry, she would then submit to him as wife. From that example, IMO, one can see, that the Bible teaches that all men & women are equal until they enter into certain relationships. These relationships are either contractual relationships, like marriage and employment, such as in Eph 5:22-33, 6:5-8. Or they are political/governmental, such as being a representative over others (presidents, senators, kings, queens, etc), such as in Romans 13. (Submission is also required under slavery - God forbid someone is in that situation - 1 Cor 7:21 is bottom line on that.) If not in contractual or governing relationship, men and women are equal and practice mutual submission as in Eph 5:21, just as a woman might submit to another woman, or a man to another man, as the situation requires, or when considering others better than oneself - Php 2:3.

Women were created as the "ezer neged" in Gen 2:18 - Hebrew for "helper counterpart" - Strong's 05828 & 05048. This "help" is NOT "2nd class citizen, hired help," the "can't get good help anymore" kind, but "save your desperate hide, deliverer" help, a term used to refer to God in Psa 70:5, and other verses (see§ion=1&version=str&language=en). I learned this from my female buddies at Jews for Jesus when witnessing for them for 11 days back in 2004. Unlike so many Gentile women believers, these Jewish women believers knew this off the top of their heads - maybe because they were the more serious Biblical scholars anyway, since they were involved in J4J.

IMO the Bible teaches that women are the weaker vessel (or more delicate vessel) - 1 Pet 3:7. That is, weaker physically only - but not weaker emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually, as one can see from Biblical examples. These include Deborah (brave, wise judge), Jael (brave, shrewd housewife-assassin), Proverbs 31 woman (generous, capable businesswoman & mother), Jezebel (ok, notoriously evil - therefore spiritually weak - but not weak emotionally or intellectually) Mary Magdalene (devoted to Lord - 1st to see resurrected Christ, willing to prepare a dead body), Lydia (business woman), Priscilla (intellectual, working woman), etc. To sum it up, weaker vessel, same contents. Like a china teacup compared to a mug. And, weaker doesn’t mean weak - the way the guy who comes in 2nd place in weightlifting compared to Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t weak, but just weaker in comparison. Of course, a very large, tall woman might be stronger than a man who is a midget, but taking each gender as a whole, and/or in one’s own family, comparing the women to the men with equal health & physical fitness, the men are stronger physically.

Interestingly, some people seem to forget that while women must give their husbands respect Eph 5:33, our husbands must give us honor 1 Pet 3:7. “Honor” and “respect” may not be identical twins, but they are siblings, so to speak. I say this because of the cultural nonsense I continually hear, including teachings like the “Love and Respect” series which claims that all women want is love and that all men want is respect. NO. We women want love AND honor (AND respect, if we’re a ruler), and from what I can see of men (specifically from things my husband has said), men want love and respect (AND honor, if they‘re a parent or prophet), exactly what God asks us to give each other - who‘d‘ve thunk? (See BTW, of course, husbands have to lay down their lives for their wives - Eph 5:25 “just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” - that’s a huge responsibility on the man’s part.

Is God male &/or female, many have asked? Since the Bible teaches us to refer to all 3 Persons of God as “He,” and the church is referred to as the bride of Christ, I presume He’s got male attributes of some sort. But since male & female are both in His image Gen 1:27, I presume He encompasses female qualities as well, without being “androgynous” or an “it.” Maybe similar to the way the material for Eve’s body was present in Adam before she was formed by God from his rib. The 2 were originally 1 flesh, and then became 1 flesh again in another sense after marriage/intercourse.

Or maybe the “in the image of God” language just refers to the moral component of our makeup. (Who knows - maybe it refers to all the non-physical components of our makeup - emotional, intellectual, spiritual). In that case, physical gender differences therefore would not necessarily imply that God had male and/or female qualities from that verse. And, the reasoning in the preceding paragraph might be like presuming that since Adam came from the ground (soil, dirt), that dirt is masculine, or even presuming that dirt is both masculine & feminine since God could still derive Eve ultimately.

I’m beginning to think that gender applies primarily to the “vessel“ or physical aspect of humans, including hormones. Hormones, IMO don’t cause different emotions, ie, “female emotions” or “male emotions,” as the case may be. Instead, hormones are different chemical compounds, like drugs, that act differently on the same emotions that all humans have. Estrogen acts one way on the emotions while testosterone another way, but both hormones are physical, not emotional in themselves.

That being said, I do see differences in what I’ll call point of view or preference of topics between men & women (vs. level of intellect, types or emotions, degree of faith - in those areas, I don’t see much difference between men and women.) Men seem more left-brained and interested in public/political affairs. Women seem more right-brained and interested in private/household affairs. It seems that if a woman does something political, it’s often because something affects her or her family personally. Similarly, if a man does something for the household, like go shopping, it’s with war-game level strategy. We can do the same things or have interests in the same topics, but from different points of view. I could be wrong, though - this is still very beta for me. At any rate, the differences people usually cite between men & women, I disagree with, as you’ll see in the next 2 paragraphs.

I’ve listed a number of traits that many consider “masculine,” but I personally don’t consider them to be only in the male purview since women have them, too. To support that assertion, I’ve included the women’s names in parens afterward, of those who exemplify those traits (lists not exhaustive): intellectualism (Priscilla, Mary - try quoting the OT parts of the Magnificat off the top of your head), executive leadership/rulership/domination (Deborah, Lydia, Bathsheba, Jezebel), business smarts (Lydia, Prov 31 woman), street/psychological smarts (Tamar, Rahab, Delilah), bravery (Jael, Esther, Mary - Jesus’ mother - was the bravest person in the Bible vis a vis reacting to the appearance of an angel - compare her to the manly Roman soldiers), physical hardiness (Rebecca - try watering 10 camels from a well - drawing about 300 gallons at 8 lbs/gal; Rachel, a shepherdess - needed to be able to defend against predators, rustlers), prophecy (Miriam, Huldah, Anna, Philip’s daughters, etc), Scripture “writing” (not whole books, but portions, like Deborah, Hannah, Bathsheba - Prov 31, Mary - Magnificat, possibly the writer of Hebrews, since that‘s the only author we don‘t know in the NT - I personally conjecture it was Priscilla), etc.

Conversely, men of the Bible have so-called female traits: desire for/love of children (Abraham, Jacob, David, Zacharias, prodigal son‘s dad), cooking ability (Jacob), musical (David, Jubal), poetic/verbal (David, Aaron), physical beauty & good hair (Joseph, Samson, Saul, Absalom, Solomon), artistry (Jacob Gen 37:3, Aaron, Hiram, all the craftsmen of the OT), gardening ability (Adam, Nebuchadnezzar). We’re all fearfully & wonderfully made in His image, with one or more gifts, so again, I don’t see much difference but physical. I think women often get highly involved with raising their children, and so often don’t get as much chance to pursue their interests to the same degree as a man, especially with our shorter lifespans (ie, 100 yrs vs. 1000 yrs). I really can’t tell from Scripture if God is masculine and/or feminine. I just know the Bible uses “He” to refer to God, so I presume at least masculine (ie, not an “it“). I figure we’ll understand fully in heaven in the next life 1 Cor 13:12.

JSYK, I was a little alarmed and disappointed to see the Enroth issue on Wikipedia & the Chicago Tribune article, which I perused quickly on the web. I know it’s old history (2001), but it was new to me as I don’t believe I had heard the specifics about it, if I’d heard about it at all (probably due to issues in my own life that were taking up a lot of my emotional bandwidth at the time). However, it seemed like JPUSA leadership was forthcoming about some of their mistakes in the Tribune article, which I respected and thought was a good sign the group hadn't gone too far off the deep end. I had really thought JPUSA was solidly Biblically-based from reading Cornerstone, and it still appears to be mostly so, so was shocked to see the adult corporal discipline issue that was written about. Glad you all gave that up as far as adults go. (However, because of Scripture, I’m still in favor of parents spanking their kids, though not for every little thing - ie, over-correcting, harsh discipline. IMO, that was one of the probable reasons Eph 6:4 was written, though I don’t think that principle just applies only to men, as I know some women can be overly harsh, as well).

I was also concerned about JPUSA asking people to give up power of attorney and not fully explaining early enough what the financial ramifications of living there would be (no social security, etc). I’m also not in favor of putting people on WIC and “free” medical care (ie, at Cook County hospital), when JPUSA was making a profit of $2M, if that was indeed the case - not fair to us taxpayers. I’m also glad to see that JPUSA gave up the "adoption" of others' children, though I understand that your org was dealing with people coming out of highly dysfunctional lifestyles, like alcohol, drugs, and anarchical lifestyles.

I, too, have someone living with me the past few months coming out of that very lifestyle, in addition to their overcoming schizophrenia. However, I try to be vigilant as opposed to rigid with this individual since I was raised with a lot of freedom. I was expected to be independent and think for myself, vs. being raised with a strict, authoritarian hand. I am grateful to God for non-legalistic Christianity coming down through the family lines through good parents. I have seen that the way I was raised works well for most humans, IMO. Reasonable freedom and expectation of ability causes the person to take responsibility for themselves and come up to standard (ie, of integrity, self-discipline, competence, etc). However, using this style of leadership does not mean I am na├»ve and overly permissive. Instead, I continue to be watchful for where this person might be unable to do something or ignorant of something, and then I try to step in only as necessary, helping without “breathing down their neck“ or micromanaging. It‘s an art and a science - more by the Spirit than by the letter - 2 Cor 3:6. Anyway, I'll keep praying for you all. God bless, d

Jon Trott said...


thanks for your post.

I understand most of your argument re women and men. I don't think I could do all the points you listed justice here, esp. as I'm under deadline on more than one project right now.

I suggest you peruse Christians for Biblical Equality's bookstore online, and hunt for a title that deals with some of the issues you've raised. Any attempt by me to rewrite what they have there here would be silliness, and silliness of an overly time-consuming nature.

I will say that your interpretation falls into -- in my understanding, of course -- a hermeneutical problem rooted in the standard interpretations offered by hierarchalist theologians and lay persons. That's why I suggest you read some egalitarian theologians, compare and contrast what you understand the Word to say, and make up your own mind.

Re JPUSA and the Tribune articles, we back at that time posted a number of responses on line, which you can find on the JPUSA documents pages. Christianity Today wasn't impressed with the Tribune's treatment of us, nor were a number of sociologists of religion, who also posted letters in support of our community. The Evangelical Covenant Church, our parent denomination, also came to our defense. Beyond that, I hate even to revisit the whole mess.

bluechristian (jon)

dsrtrosy said...

Agreed Jon. The Bible doesn't teach us to engender God in one way over the other--our poor English translations combined with a multi-century hermeneutic have allowed men to continually "teach" women to read the Bible in that way.

I'm excited to have found your site. As a post-evangelical feminist Jesus follower, I think this will be a great resource. Much appreciation to your grappling with this issue (and others!).