Gender Essentialism ramblings

Right now there is a lot of talk in some evangelical circles about whether or not patriarchy is harmful as a model for Christians.* I am mostly seeing this peripherally because I am not in such circles. I follow exactly one blog that speaks to this issue, so I can’t claim to know all the specifics of what’s being said. Patriarchy among Christians refers to separate roles for men and women in families and in society, with the expectation that women are subordinate to men. In its very mildest form this is sometimes referred to as complementarianism. Both terms could be classified as gender essentialism. Those who subscribe to gender essentialism believe that gender is so important that it can and should dictate the proper role for you in some, if not all, aspects of your life. Common roles assigned to women are those involving childcare and housework, with the expectation that men are better suited to working outside the home. There are Christians who believe that women should never attend college, instead staying home until their father finds a worthy husband for them. On the other end of the gender essentialism spectrum, there are Christians who believe women can get a higher education, work outside the home, or pretty much anything men do, but a wife should defer to her husband for final decisions of import to the family. All along this spectrum wives are expected to subordinate to husbands in some way. Sometimes this extends to fathers directing and controlling their daughters. Often this also means females are seen as unfit for Christian leadership positions. My travels have shown me many churches in which there is a clear prohibition of women to pastorship.

I think it’s time Christians ditched gender essentialism. Some already seen to have done this. I strongly suspect UCC has no specific instructions anywhere for how females should act differently than males. In fact, in 2011 they made a resolution regarding sexual orientation and gender identity that suggests churches should do more to fight discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. I think Christians still debating approval of same-sex relationships will find themselves on shaky ground if they try to toss out one-man-one-woman, but keep gender roles intact. And vice versa. Once you decide same-sex relationships are ok, it seems to me gender roles automatically have to go out the door as well. If you base your marriage ideal on different roles for the man and the woman, what will you do when there is no man? Or no woman? Some might see this as an argument to keep both gendered roles and ‘traditional’ marriage. I see it as exactly the opposite. I resist the idea that as a female I need to like pink, or enjoy shopping, or cook, or care for babies, or any of a hundred different things society sees as my place. By the same token, I resist the idea that I must submit to my husband as a matter of course, or be barred from pastorship if I felt called to it. And if I’m deciding gender should not define what I do in my life or my marriage, I can’t very well tell others that it should make a difference in their marriage. It all goes together; gender essentialism and woman/man marriage are a package deal. Keep it all or lose it all. I favor losing it all.

I see much of the gender essential viewpoint as stemming from the teachings of Paul in the letters of the New Testament. In recent years I have started to recognize the heavy emphasis on Paul over Jesus indicated in certain Christian teachings. I think this is a mistake. There is a reason we call ourselves Christians and not Paulians. In many cases Paul taught things Jesus did not. I think it’s possible Paul sometimes overstepped his bounds in what he taught the new Christian communities. I also think it’s possible we overstep in how we view these letters, which are just that- letters. As I recently pointed out to a friend, I would never pick up a love letter someone wrote to his wife and decide it could tell me how I was to live my life.

There are some real problems with gender essentialism I think don’t fit with the good Christianity purports to do in the world. Putting people into different boxes makes it hard on them in case they need to get out of those boxes. Husband ruling over wife might work just fine in some cases. What if the husband is abusive? What if the husband makes bad financial decisions? What if the wife wants to make even one decision on her own? How many exceptions to the rule are needed before we can get past the rule and throw the boxes out altogether?

*The primary story involves Doug Phillips of Vision Forum. This itself is a lengthy story, but to be as brief as possible, it’s a sex/sexual scandal. Phillips claims he fell into an “inappropriate relationship” outside his marriage. The woman in question claims she was “methodically groomed” for abuse and manipulation by Phillips because he was set up as a figure in highest authority over her from age 15. This directly speaks to patriarchy because of its implications that women are to answer unquestioningly to men.

Easter, JC Superstar Again

The other day I was singing through the album Jesus Christ Superstar with my atheist housemate. It’s something I like to do around Easter. The musical speaks to me strongly and forces me to really think about the Easter story and my own beliefs. This year the thought occurred to me: I think we do ourselves a disservice by not imagining Jesus as a human. Jesus Christ Superstar very much paints Jesus as someone who is fully human, who doesn’t clearly understand God’s purpose for him, who hopes he’s getting it right and, ultimately, someone who fears death. The pain Ian Gillan expresses as Jesus is clear, and horrible. To see Jesus as God who knew what was coming and could expect to wind up in heaven as basically a prince at the end, misses a huge part of the story. Seeing Jesus as human allows us to imagine that it could be us there on that cross, in pain and dying, wondering what it all was for. Seeing Jesus as human lets us feel his death in a more real way.

But wait, I can hear you saying. Most Christians make a point of saying that Jesus was both God and man! True. But conceptually this is not an easy thing to understand. The early church worked itself into hysterics trying not to swing too far in either direction. Since then the terminology has always been along the lines of “fully God and fully human”. But in taking this superposition-like stance I think we lose something. When we try to see Jesus as both God and man, we wind up seeing him as neither. Jesus death as death is almost a revelation to us. I think we need to try to see Jesus as merely human at least once in the course of our faith journey, if for no other reason than to remind us how barbaric the human race can be. Once upon a time we considered questioning the established rules as so dangerous, that we tortured and killed a man over it. Have we come far enough since then? Putting aside the foreordinance of Jesus’ death, it becomes a great tragedy, one we must avoid repeating. Putting aside the idea that Jesus was God, the story is still terrible; the story of a human who died, in great pain, believing himself almost completely friendless. Putting aside even the emotional agony, Jesus’ death is still a death, and one that was orchestrated and carried out by humans on purpose to another human. We need to be more shocked by this, and by the knowledge that even two thousand years later we haven’t completely figured out how to stop killing each other.

Church #54, Terra Nova Church

Date: 4/13/14

Church name/type: Terra Nova Church in Troy, seems to be a nondenominational variety of Evangelical

Pastor: Ed Marcelle

Style of worship: not overlong, sermon bookended by praise, communion is possibly every week

Useful takeaways:
I liked the way we were given the option to choose either juice or wine as the sacrament. The individual holding the cup actually held two cups. They were clearly labeled ‘juice’ and ‘wine’. No big deal, no explanation needed, take the one you prefer. Perfect!

Crowd- This church has a mostly young demographic. This is important because it helps the probability that the church will stay vital and alive. I’ve seen churches struggle with aging membership. To not have to worry about it on an immediate ongoing basis is nice.

Problems/Improvements:
I had some real issues with several of the things said in the sermon. I tried to write the pastor’s words down as faithfully as possible, but in many cases I’ll have to paraphrase. The sermon was in regards to verses from Luke 13: 18-21 and 22-30. The first bit is a couple of metaphors about the Kingdom of God. First it’s compared to a mustard seed which grows to an enormous tree that birds may roost in. Next it’s compared to a small bit of yeast which makes a ball of dough rise. Neither metaphor for growth is really a problem as such, but it becomes important to know just what the Kingdom of God means. I always took it to mean heaven. In my interpretation, heaven is given an expansive quality. Maybe it keeps growing as more people enter? Heaven will never be full!

The pastor seemed to go in a different direction. Eventually it was clear he saw the Kingdom of God in terms of people on earth who are getting it right- the correct type of Christians bound for heaven. He went on what felt like a tangent about how important it is to get the Christian message out. Conversion. He seemed adamant that we basically become obsessed with our Christianity, that we need to never lose sight of it and always seek to spread the word to others. He even used the metaphor of a virus spreading from person to person, which, is a little weird, right? Should we really think of Christianity as something that invades us without our permission and makes us ill? But it sounds like what we actually want isn’t important. The pastor made a point of saying we need to stop shying away from the word submission. He then immediately followed up by reminding us that “Men are called to be the head of their household.” These two things are both issues that deserve their own posts, but I’ll try to be brief. The idea of submission is tricky. Who or what are we submitting to? Anyone can claim we ought to submit to them. Anyone can claim it’s because God says so. But submission is another way of saying, stop questioning. That’s just not something I’m in favor of. Maybe as a theme there’s a good way to use submission…but I haven’t found it yet. This coupled with the immediate reminder that wives submit to husbands suggests a hierarchy common to Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches. Namely that women answer to men, who answer to the male pastor, who answers to God. It is foolish to suggest that all men will know better about spiritual things than all women. At least with a pastor there is some training that had to happen first.

Taking things back to the Kingdom and it’s growth, pastor said this is hard for us to see because the Kingdom in Anerica is not that big. He said- there’s maybe 1%-3% Evagelicals here? So right away that excludes me, as I don’t self identify as Evangelical. Thanks for leaving me out of the kingdom, dude! The pastor went on to describe incorrect ways of looking at the Kingdom, including pluralism and universalism. I found his descriptions of pluralism and universalism to be rather shallow. He described people who say all religions are right and that there’s no difference between a Christian and a Muslim or a Buddhist and a Christian. Then he challenged us to put these pairs of people together and tell them they are exactly the same, to see how well it goes over. That strikes me as a very flawed understanding of what is meant by universalism and pluralism. I don’t place myself in either category, so maybe I can’t speak to this fully, but as I understand it, neither of those schools of thought claim that everyone is identical. It’s about where the focus lies. Is the focus on our differences or our similarities? Pluralists and universalists seem more about seeing similarities and understanding that decent people can come from any religion, not just one special brand of Christianity.

And finally there’s the assertion the pastor made about an inclusive heaven. He said that there are people out there who think everyone gets to go to heaven. Ok, that’s true. But he followed by saying, “if all go to heaven, there is no good and evil, no consequences.” This is blatantly false. Does this pastor actually think that God is the only thing stopping humans from killing and stealing from one another? Does he see all atheists of incapable of self-restraint? Of course there are consequences for evil here on earth. If I punch someone in the face, I can’t just tell people, “I recently became an atheist so it’s fine!” I’m going to need to face an angry bruised person and probably the police. There are actual secular reasons for the things we do on earth, and I’m surprised the pastor can ignore this so nonchalantly.

The entire sermon was one I had very little use for. It seems like the pastor hasn’t actually met any of the groups he criticized. If he has then he clearly hasn’t gotten a true understanding of where they are coming from. That strikes me as an important piece of knowledge for one who wishes to convince others.

Overall: Actually this was one of my favorite weeks. I met someone through the blog who invited me to this very thought provoking church and then stayed around to talk with me afterwards. It’s clear we don’t agree about some stuff, but the talk was good. I like meeting people invested in their faith, and hearing what they have to say.

Project Adjustments

So, you might have noticed I slimmed down the format for posts about churches. I’m shortening the amount I write in the hopes this will save me a little time. I’ve split the section usually called ‘thoughts’ into two categories: 1) useful takeaways 2) problems/improvements. I really want to drive myself to find useful stuff in attending these churches. Sometimes there is a lot of great stuff in the direct message. Other times I find myself branching off from the actual message and discovering something useful in what was unspoken. Then there’s the occasional unintended positive message a church is broadcasting without really being aware of it. On the flip side, churches also give direct and indirect messages I may find unhelpful. When this is the case I say so and explain why I’m thinking improvement is needed.

Another thing I’ve been changing recently has been church visit order. I had planned to keep a strict itinerary in terms of which church I’m visiting next, but a number of circumstances are making that less feasible. The biggest one being, working Sunday afternoons interferes with late running services. In some cases I have to pick a church I know will have a shorter service or mass. In other cases it’s related to start time of the church. Since I’ve started making this adjustment, the order I had carefully figured out is getting a bit mixed up. So I’m deciding to roll with it. With the relaxation of (but not total loss of) my church pattern, I am more free to bump a church to the beginning if I so choose. The next few churches I visit will be those I’ve been recommended and those I’ve been intensely curious about. It should be interesting.

The importance of doctrine and church governance

One of the topics that came up over lunch a couple weeks ago was the importance or unimportance of doctrine. I’ve been thinking about it ever since and attempting to pull my ideas together on this.

Doctrine describes what a church group believes. Of course there’s no written agreement church members must sign that states they also believe what church leadership sets forth. This creates a dichotomy I call doctrine vs practice. Case in point: the Roman Catholic Church considers it wrong to take communion unconfessed of certain sins, however, membership is rarely (in my experience never) expected to answer for their status prior to taking the eucharist. If no one is really checking you believe what church says you must, is doctrine really that important? This is a hard one for me. If I checked every church’s doctrine to see if I believed all parts of it, I’d never go to a church. (I do question the very existence of God at times, which is kind of a keystone for Christian churches.) And if I rejected churches on that basis, I’d miss those with other qualities I seek. There have been several churches whose focus onĀ saying you surrender your life to Jesus* has been overwhelming. But at the same time, these churches showed me a new quality of worship, or a willingness to accept those with differences. If I’d narrowed my requirements I never would have seen immersive, shouting, falling-down worship. I never would’ve felt connected and alive and elevated by such worship. I would have missed out.

Yet doctrine is important. It sets the tone for how we live our life in the faith that is ours. It is a written copy of something outsiders can look at and say, “This is what they believe.” If there are gaping problems in that doctrine, it becomes harder to reconcile oneself to identifying with the organization. It is easier for me to handle this because so far I still callĀ myself my spiritual home. If I were to join a church as a permanent, frequently attending member, things would get more difficult. I suppose at that point the question changes. I would need to ask how doctrine is set and maintained. Churches like the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches have more rigid heirarchy with doctrine and rules being set by the top levels with little to zero input from the membership. In such a structure, changes happen less frequently. Some Protestant churches (Episcopal comes to mind) have mechanisms in place for doctrine and rules to be determined by leadership at a mid-level, with leaders coming together from around the country to meet and discuss proposed changes. This means changes can actually happen from time to time, after discussion and agreement. Some churches have an even higher level of participation. Congregationalist churches are designed to be run by the membership of the individual congregation. In theory at least, this means numerous changes could happen quickly, should the congregation all agree.

Each of these models of church government comes with good and bad. I’d argue that if a good idea was part of the doctrine of a heirarchy-heavy church, it would stick for a long time. But, problematic ideas would stick around too. Alternately a church that allows for doctrinal change very quickly could be changed for good or worse. It would be easy to weed out bad ideas, but just as easy for the church to be hijacked by negativity. I guess I’m glad I don’t feel the need to join a specific church because it means I don’t yet have to navigate this type of complexity. I may have to revisit the topic though if I get to a place of wanting a permanent church home in the future.

*I have some issues with the idea that just saying some words will change our lives now as well as our afterlife destination, not to mention the heavy salesman-like pressure this is most often accompanied by.

Church # 53, First Presbyterian Church of Greenbush

Date: 3/30/14

Church name/type: First Presbyterian Church of Greenbush (in Rensselaer) recently merged with West End Presbyterian Church/ PCUSA

Pastor: David Moore

Style of worship: A more compact format than I’ve been to in ages, closer to an hour in length, all the parts were written out in the bulletin/program so anyone can follow along. The peace and announcements were done very casual and open.

Useful takeaways:
Church appearance-
A lot of older churches struggle with the falling-apart look, but I was impressed by this church’s clean and fresh interior. I gather they’ve painted recently, and it definitely makes the place look current.

Sermon-
The sermon was about the story in John chapter 9 of the man blind from birth. There were two big takeaways for me. First the question put by the disciples to Jesus was, “Who sinned? Was it this man or his parents?” Jesus tells them it is neither. Then he gives a strange answer. He says the blindness is an opportunity to show God’s works. I like this first because it works against the old-school (but not dead) notion that problems in life directly correlate to how good or bad we have been. I’m not talking about things with an obvious direct correlation (drive drunk-> lose license, for example). I’m talking about the idea that God punishes transgressions by harming people. There are various forms this notion can take, ranging from blaming poverty on immorality, to believing mental illness is caused by demons who got into a person compromised by sin. The idea of consistent direct correlation of sin and earthly punishment leads us to ask wrong questions like the disciples did. What was the sin? How did this person deserve their problem? Jesus tries to give the disciples a new way to look at this. He tells them (and us) to treat it as an opportunity instead of playing the blame game. And this was my second big takeaway: we are called to help if we can. Jesus doesn’t show us a light show, or a musical number, or a dance routine. He does something actually useful for the blind man. I think it’s an important point highlighting outreach. And in this case Jesus reached out to someone who everyone expected deserved the problems in his life. We need to be reaching out to people. We especially should not hold back our efforts based on who we think deserves our help. We can be wrong about things, just like the disciples were wrong to think sin caused a man’s blindness.

At the end of the sermon we were encouraged to look at things with new eyes the way Jesus tried to get the disciples to do. Pastor talked about a person from an older generation who was a closeted gay man with no hope of being able to come out. The state of the church at the time would never have been ok with it. Now we are starting to look at things differently. We are seeing with new eyes. Acknowledging different sexualities as ok is a big deal. Some churches and denominations are turning themselves inside out over this issue. It’s nice to see PCUSA taking a reasonable stance on same sex relationships.

Problems/Improvements: This place needs a website. I mentioned it to them as well. It’s just so important today because that’s how the younger generation gets information. For all the internet can tell me, this church doesn’t exist.

Ask and you shall receive

About two weeks ago I was wondering if this project would allow me to make connections with people that felt actually meaningful. Today I was invited to lunch by a delightful couple I met at this week’s church and had some engaging, thought provoking conversation with them. I’m psyched that this happened. Turning over thoughts in my own head can only get me so far. It’s nice to have some other minds to interact with over religious topics. I think I’ll have plenty to think and write about during my upcoming travel weeks.