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What's Alice got that Bob hasn't? [1]

"Those who call themselves feminists – whether "biblical" ones or otherwise – seem to have one belief in common, and only one that I have been able to extract from their arguments: They agree that there is no difference between men and women, apart from the physiological one. It is on this level and this level alone that they recognize men and women as functionally noninterchangeable." (Elisabeth Eliot, The Mark of a Man, 1981, p25; emphasis my own).
As a "biblical" feminist myself, this (from a book that I read "for balance", but found too woefully unbalanced to recommend) is news to me.

Here is my best (deliberately brief and vague) stab at the "beliefs" that feminists mostly (perhaps, just about, on the whole) hold in common:
  • Women and men are of equal worth.
  • Our equality is not borne out in lived reality.
  • We shouldn't just accept this.
So, "there is no difference between men and women, apart from the physiological one"? No doubt there are some feminists who are straightforwardly in agreement with this claim, and are advocating for balanced, undifferentiated participation in all dimensions of life and sectors of society. And there are some who are straightforwardly convinced otherwise – who have a clear sense of some "deeper" difference between women and men and are advocating (say) for equal valorisation and recognition across those points of difference. To be honest, though, most of the feminists I've spoken to, myself included, straightforwardly admit that we don't really actually know quite what to think. Are sex-based variations (e.g. in interests, character traits, skills) predominantly the products of social conditioning, or are there real and meaningful innate differences (beyond body parts) – on average, that is (let me state right now that I have no interest in the imposition of strict binaries at the level of individual people, which seems to me irrational and dehumanising) – that are worthy to be acknowledged and celebrated? I apologise for the number of words and clauses and asides and caveats in that sentence but such is the complexity of the question and the concrete context in which it is asked. [2]

Many scientists and psychologists and sociologists have dedicated their careers to proving that there are "real differences", and to finding them out. Cordelia Fine, in her book Delusions of Gender, overviews and critiques the historic and current research into sex differences, with a particular focus on neuroscience. We have come a long way from arguments for female inferiority based on brain weight (which, it turns out, is not correlated with intelligence after all; and nor is brain weight relative to height, nor brain weight relative to body weight, nor to muscular mass, nor to the size of the heart, nor to the length of the femur; and yes, in their determination to prove women innately lesser, Victorian scientists did test all of these; p261). The types of claims made today include, for example, that men are drawn to STEM subjects (and the lucrative and respected employment opportunities associated with them) because of greater natural spatial awareness; women to arts and languages because of greater aptitude for verbal recall. Men are hard-wired for building systems and are therefore suited to leadership roles and public life; women are hard-wired for empathy and are therefore suited to (often poorly paid) care roles and home-making. There is greater natural variability among men than among women, meaning that men are unfortunately more prone to criminality and delinquency, but, on the upside (for them) are also more likely to attain great heights of achievement. Evidence has even been provided for why certain housework tasks come naturally to women but are overly taxing for men (p81), and how the "female brain" is simply more naturally attuned to register the details of the domestic environment that require attention.

In short, it is quite possible to compile, from published results, considerable support for the argument that perceived gender "inequalities" within the current status quo are merely the "natural" consequences of hard-wired sex differences, rather than the product of some form of social injustice. As a researcher myself, though, I know that there's all sorts of published results out there in the wild and, well, I'm not perhaps as intimidated by the claim "science says so" as I might have been otherwise. Especially when there are such obvious incentives and political agenda potentially in play. And, indeed, Fine uncovers some pretty shocking research practices, explores the power of suggestion in psychological experiments, highlights the implications of neuroplasticity (the discovery that our brains are malleable to our experiences and environment, so that observed differences need not be innate), traces the less-than-objective assumptions and motivations of past and continuing (and mostly eventually debunked) attempts to "explain" inequality, and presents evidence of aggressive – even when subconscious, unintentional and/or contrary to self-reported personal values – social conditioning that begins before birth, and that surely makes it pretty much impossible to establish the sort of "neutral" test environments essential for reaching unbiased conclusions.

It is an interesting and grim read, supporting many of my worst suspicions about the "science" of sex differences. Of course, though, she has her own political agenda – which, however much it might overlap with mine, makes me healthily skeptical of the findings she chooses to endorse. And her vibrant, sarcastic writing style, coupled with her obvious glee in presenting the most ludicrous examples she can find, might make for enjoyable prose, but doesn't exactly add to my trust in her argument. Still, the book was enough to convince me that the field as it stands is in no fit state to issue objective and definitive statements about whatever "natural" differences between men and women may or may not exist.

While science has been trying to find fixed gender identities encoded in our biology, religion has looked for them enshrined in holy scripture and the nature of the divine. Christian theologians (who, like scientists, have been almost exclusively, until fairly recently, male) have often cited Genesis 1:27 ("...male and female he created them") to stress the significance of the binary distinction between the sexes. Drawing support from the examples and the commands of scripture, and from certain understandings of the Trinity, they have sought to give content to that distinction. Traditionally: strong, protecting men are contrasted with weak, dependent women; romantically pursuing men with waiting-to-be-wooed women; male household heads with submissive female "help-meets"; male participation in public life with female restriction to domestic life.

Except, just as ("cold, hard") science has struggled to shake off received wisdom in its pursuit of truth about sex and gender, so too do some of those theological claims begin to look less persuasively objective on further investigation. Enough so, at least, to be worth further investigation.

Genesis 1, for a start, provides an interesting example of how prior assumptions can inform interpretation. If you read verse 27 expecting to find binarism, you will find binarism. But few of the other pairings in the chapter are strict either/ors: in addition to seas and land, there exist rivers, creeks, marshes. In addition to night and day, there exist dusk and dawn. Considered in its entirety, the emphasis of the account seems (to me) to be that God created all things – all things contrasting; both ends of all spectrums, implying everything in between, with no room for anything outside of God's sovereignty. And when it comes to humans: female no less than male, and no less a co-image bearer. None of which controverts a binary gender distinction, of course ... but it seems a stretch to make the verse about that. 

Incidentally, while we're on the subject of creation: when Adam first meets Eve, it is her similarity to him that he delightedly remarks on, not her difference. "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh..." (Gen 2:23). Almost all of what we "know" about the sharply contrasting male and female characteristics of the prelapsarian first human beings in their garden idyll we get from Milton, not from his supposed source texts, as I've vented previously.

Now, it does sometimes happen that the Bible is conspicuously misused or taken out of context. For example, asserting male headship on the basis of Genesis 3:16(b) – "Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you" – seems plainly dubious, as that prognosis was a result of sin entering the world, and hardly a condition to aspire to. Meanwhile, apparent attempts by highly influential conservative theologians to reshape Trinitarian doctrine in support of a particular ideology of gender have been met with growing concern and criticism even among Christians who share that ideology.

More often, though, agendas and prior assumptions influence our understanding of scripture in subtler ways – less easy to identify and therefore less easily resisted:

1. In what does and doesn't make the cut when we too-easily content ourselves with the "edited highlights". Abraham and Isaac, David and Goliath, Jonah and the Whale, Noah and the Ark, Daniel and the Lion's Den, Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. We're well-used to seeing men leading and driving the action while women take (often unnamed) supporting roles: wives, mothers, victims, avenged sisters, spoils of war. But there's plenty of non-"normativity" if you read all the bits in between: female prophets and theologians, a female judge, female fighters and "heroes", female builders and agriculturalists and business people, female disciples and early church ministers. [3] True, they get fewer column inches. Still, I wonder if our neglect of them isn't a little bit to do with the fact that men, who have traditionally set the agenda for Bible teaching, are naturally more drawn to male characters [4] (and perhaps away from stories that potentially disrupt the status quo...)

2. In the temptation to derive lessons that deflect from or diminish what is actually happening. For example, when we use the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) as a friendly reminder that we all need to make time to pray, we risk missing the radical challenge it poses to traditional gender roles, and the implied suggestion of women's equal calling to discipleship and to learning. (To sit at the feet of a rabbi was to assume the position of a student). Unless, as commentators in the past suggested, the "one thing needed" according to Jesus was actually a single dish of food, instead of many – because he couldn't possibly be disavowing the sisters' feminine domestic duties. Hmm. I'm reminded of those who manage to turn Mary Magdalene's choice of wording – "Rabboni!" – in the Garden of Gethsemene into a proof of her inferior understanding relative to the male disciples, side-stepping the wider ramifications of her discipleship relationship with Jesus. (See e.g. Pulpit Commentary on John 20).

3. In our designation of certain texts as "plain" and certain others as "in need of clarification".
For some Christians, Galatians 3:28 ("...nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus") basically "speaks for itself"; equality and mutuality are clear from 1 Corinthians 71 Corinthians 11:5 is proof at least that women ministered publicly in the early church. Meanwhile, statements like "wives submit to your husbands" (Eph 5:22) and "women should remain silent in the churches" (1 Cor 14:34) require unpacking and contextualising in the light of these other truths, while the head coverings bit of 1 Corinthians 11:5 is too culturally specific to be a concern today. For other Christians, the approach to each set of passages is more or less inverted! And, y'know what, quite frankly the "clarifications" on either "side" tend to sound like convenient rationalisations to their "opponents".

4. In the way that texts are translated and prepared for publication. Did God prognose that a woman's desire would be "for" her husband, or "contrary" to him? Should the name Junia have had a masculinising "s" on the end all along, or did Paul really acknowledge a female apostle? How did a Hebrew word ("ezer") that elsewhere in the Bible is used in reference to God's helper-rescuer interventions come to acquire connotations of female subservience? Is it more "faithful" to preserve the masculine generic conventions of the ancient languages ("brothers" for "brothers and sisters"; "mankind" for "humankind", etc) or to make the intended inclusivity explicit in keeping with the conventions of modern languages? Not to mention that, punctuation and layout being as it was (or wasn't) in ancient Hebrew and Greek, there is a lot of leeway/terrifiying responsibility when it comes to choosing where to put that full stop, that chapter break, that section heading...

Many's the time I've sat glumly in front of split-screen translations and thought, well, I've got a pretty good idea what the editorial teams believe, but what are You trying to say, God? [5] 

In summary, Christian teaching, just like scientific research, is not (I suggest) always 100% surrendered to the evidence in its search for truth about men and women. The answers I grew up taking for granted are too conspicuously suited to the interests of the status quo to be beyond scrutiny – and I haven't found them to hold up unfalteringly under that scrutiny. Not that I can claim to have better answers.

But I might be on the way towards a better question. Many of our ideas about manhood and womanhood, particularly those we derive from the Bible, seem to be relational in nature – characteristics of the interaction between men and women, rather than characteristics of men and women directly. With this in mind, I find Miroslav Volf's analysis in Exclusion and Embrace (1996) very compelling. He posits that "the content of gender identity is rooted in the sexed body and negotiated in the social exchange between men and women within a given social context". And he is opposed to all attempts, whether biological or biblical, to pin down that content: "A more stable definition [...] would not only be unnecessary but harmful; it would inadmissably freeze a particular cultural understanding of gender identity and seek to impose it inappropriately in changing situations" (p182). There's something constructively redemptive about acknowledging gender as the product of cultural and social conditioning without moving to reject it outright on those grounds.

The question for Christians then becomes, not how to live up to some fixed and divinely ordained norm, but how to relationally negotiate gender in a godly way that tends towards our common wholeness. The clues for Volf lie in the relational dynamism of the Trinity, which is characterised by self-giving love (the book unpacks this far more fully than I can do justice to here).

What does common wholeness look like? Not the same for each, according to Volf (p184): "Though both can become whole only together, the wholeness is specific to each" – his reasoning being that there is an "irreducible duality". Well, I'm not wholly persuaded. I struggle to think of any quality genuinely admirable in a man that would not be similarly admirable in anyone, nor any "feminine" virtue not worthy of universal aspiration. If valour (e.g.) is good at all, surely it is good for all; if gentleness is good at all, surely it is good for all. Nor do I believe that any good quality is inaccessible to anyone on the basis of gender, though it may often be the case that there is a division in what comes most easily under a given set of social conditions. So I'd want to suggest that the journey into wholeness involves learning from the other's strengths where one is weak, and making space for the other's growth where one is strong. In our current social arrangement, for example, self-giving negotiation of gender might include providing women with opportunities to lead, and/or encouraging men to participate more equally in caring roles. And if "dividing labour" based on relative (perceived or actual) lack rather than advantage doesn't sound very "optimal" [6] ... well, as I've questioned before, does God really call us to be optimal, or might that be the market economy talking?

[1] Alice and Bob are popular characters in explanations of cryptographic protocols, in which settings the answer is usually something like "the secret key" or "a zero-knowledge proof of knowledge".

[2] I have tried to use language that recognises and respects the complex interrelation and non-correspondence between (biological) sex and gender. However, since the main question at stake is precisely "(how) does sex inform or determine gender?", and since the array of claimed answers to that question between them imply competing terminological frameworks, it gets a bit messy. So please bear with me if in places I have used words such as male/female (ideally reserved for sex categories) and man/woman (ideally reserved for gender roles) inconsistently or in ways that seem to exclude. And please trust that, while exclusion (and binarism, for that matter) might be implicit in some of the views represented here, I have no such agenda myself. And please tell me if you can see ways I could have worded things better!

[3] See Background stories and A Council of Biblical Women for more on some of the diverse and often surprising women described in the Bible.

[4] There is certainly a feeling that men on average are unhealthily averse to reading books by women, and evidence that men and women prefer books by writers of the same gender.

[5] My growing awareness of translator-as-middle-man (less often -woman) has robbed me of some of my joy and receptiveness in reading the Bible – and has become a bit of a recurring theme on here (Version ControlVersion UpdateVersion Export).

[6] I'm not necessarily talking about individual families and households, where the opportunity to make conscious decisions about roles is often a luxury denied by hardship and the pressures of life. Ideally, we need the type of wider collective rethink that makes such choices viable and affordable to begin with.

[Thumbnail image is in the public domain, via the Tango! Project on Wikimedia Commons.]