I genuinely hope this doesn’t come across as sacrilegious, but if women naturally possess Christlike attributes–if, in fact, as Michael Otterson argues, “Stereotypical ‘Female’ Qualities Are Core of What Jesus Taught,”–why was Jesus a man? In a Church that seems to embrace some sort of gender essentialism, what does it mean to that concept of gender that a male Jesus exemplified core female behaviors?
The answer, obviously, lies in the term “stereotypical” and the quotation marks with which Otterson wisely highlights the term “female,” meant, I assume, to call into question the very appropriateness of coding as feminine values which it is incumbent on everyone to cultivate, and whose paragon exemplar is, after all, male. Otterson sensibly concludes by suggesting that these are not exclusively female values at all, but are, in fact, human values.
But Otterson takes his argument no further, although his remarks seem to suggest that our understanding of both femininity and masculinity require some renovation. On the one hand, his brief article is clearly intended to celebrate the status of women within Christianity. Yet on the other, he calls into question the truly “femaleness” of these very qualities. The Gospel of Thomas famously states that “every woman who makes herself male shall enter the kingdom of heaven.” If we trust statements such as Otterson’s, it seems in fact that quite the opposite is true: every man who makes himself female shall enter the kingdom of heaven.
It’s no secret that women have traditionally occupied a lower social status than men; as a result, behaviors and attitudes associated with feminininity are likely to be scrupuously avoided by men, since they have the effect of calling into question their masculinity. (Observe that, for example, although our culture codes blue as male and pink as female, it’s much more culturally acceptable for a woman to paint her room blue or wear predominantly blue clothing than for man to embrace the color pink. We’re much less suspicious of the tomboy than the “girly” boy. And heaven help the boy who shows interest in dolls or dresses as a mermaid for Halloween.) Reinforcing the stereotype that Christian values are feminine values, among the many problems it presents, leaves men in the unenviable position of choosing, to put it crudely, between their Christianity and their masculinity.
Many astute observers have pointed out the ways in which the Church is desperately lacking in female role models (an entirely male Godhead, exclusively male leadership in the highest echelons, and manuals completely lacking women’s voices). But in other ways, it seems to me, what the Church stands in sore need of is actually a model of Christian masculinity, in which masculinity (and thus femininity) has been reoriented. Such efforts are only hindered by the continued emphasis on the alleged near-perfect alignment between feminine attributes and Christian virtues, thereby implicitly setting Christianity at odds with masculinity.
To some degree, institutional authority likely fills this void, offering a sphere of activity that is exclusively male and yet requires Christian behavior and entails genuine service to God. (The natural result is that women who question the policy limiting the priesthood to men are not infrequently said to “want to be like men” by those who believe this linkage between masculinity and power to be non-manipulable.)
The priesthood, it is often claimed, serves as an essential factor in men’s socialization. It is astonishing to observe that, on the face of it, this assertion itself presents no argument against women’s ordination. One is led to ask: if it is the priesthood itself that appropriately socializes men, then how would these desirable effects be neutralized if women also held it? Could not the priesthood continue to socialize men if every worthy member were ordained? Implicit in such arguments is the claim that what is favorably socializing men is not the priesthood specifically, but men’s exclusive access to it. The priesthood is that exclusively male preserve from which men can serve God without compromising their masculinity.
Taking another tack, my New Testament seminary teacher liked to reiterate to us that Jesus was a “manly man,” with enormous muscles developed through his work in the carpenter’s shop. It’s difficult to understand how this speculative data point has any relevance unless we assume that the traditional attributes one associates with Jesus are experienced as “feminizing.”
But neither assigning our culture’s traditionally masculine attributes to Jesus nor coding power in the community as exclusively male strikes me as the optimal solution to the problem of what it means to be both male and Christian. The solution is obvious: Jesus’ very maleness should turn our notions of masculinity on their head. Why continue to refer to these virtues, for which a man serves as our most perfect example, as “feminine”?
Both men and women are needlessly restricted when authority is identified as male where Christian virtues are allocated to the female. It’s obvious that women can never become like Christ to the degree priesthood power is essential to his identity and is restricted to men. What’s less obvious is that men are not entirely free to become like Christ either, as long as Christ is our model of femininity and men suffer enormous cultural pressure to construct their identities around avoidance of the feminine.
Some of you may protest that men and women genuinely possess spiritual gifts in different proportions, and the system should reflect this. I maintain that such observations belong to the descriptive, and not the prescriptive realm. I honestly don’t know whether, on average, women or men behave more charitably, for example. But that question belongs to the primatologist observing various communities of hominoids, not the prophet advocating a community of Christians building Zion. For the latter, it is enough to recognize that both genders are capable of behaving charitably, and to believe that both are equally required to. After all, our Lord is a hard Master, reaping where he has not sown.
- 9 February 2007