Male and female

Male and female: balancing their roles in the church

Understanding the creative tension between the male and female ways of being and knowing may offer a balanced, holistic approach to the issue of gender in church life and liturgy.

Iris M.Yob, Ed.D., is the academic coordinator for Collins Learning Center, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

We create symbols. We use symbols. Verbal or nonverbal, denotative or expressive, literal or figurative, symbols represent, categorize, and generalize our experience. When organized into systems, they give us cognitive access to the universe in which we live.

Ancient people had a basically religiomythical understanding of the world. But in modern times "the movement is from unique truth and a world fixed and found to a diversity of right and even conflicting versions or worlds in the making." 1 First philosophy, and subsequently ethics, the arts, the humanities, the sciences, and the human sciences, emerged as separate ways of understanding.2 Each of these, along with religions, provides distinct perspectives on human experience and develops its own assumptions, myths, methods, truth tests, and categories for dividing up the world and naming its parts.

Against this background, I propose that within the various ways of worldmaking there is a constructive tension between the feminine and masculine ways of knowing. Since being is a way of knowing, this tension is understandable. Most likely, the different perspectives are in part biologically determined and in part the result of gender-role socialization. The latter expects women to exhibit the so-called feminine qualities of thinking and doing, and men the masculine. However, by nature and nurture, women have become the custodians of an alter native way of knowing.3

I also propose that a world-making that holds the two ways of being and knowing in creative tension is better balanced, more wholistic, truer, and richer than any other. It does not discourage expertise and excellence, but draws its experts from both the feminine and masculine positions. It pursues truth at its cutting edges, but discovers in its balance of feminine and masculine viewpoints broader understandings and sounder constructions of the true, the good, and the beautiful, while protecting itself against damaging excesses and lopsided conclusions about reality.

Modern world-making as we know it has not taken full advantage of the potential benefit of this creative tension. For one thing, women have not been part of the discourse in theology, politics, economics, philosophy, the arts, and so on— and that their exclusion has been systematic.4 And for another, the feminine way of knowing has been devalued for both women and men.5

A classic illustration of these propositions, one close to the interests of Seventh-day Adventists,6 is Kohlberg's study of moral development. Lawrence Kohlberg followed the moral reasoning skills of 84 boys for a period of more than 20 years. Kohlberg presented a hypothetical moral dilemma to each of his subjects. Heinz's wife was dying. She needed a drug that was rare and expensive. The druggist was charging 10 times the production cost, and Heinz could not raise the money to buy it. The subject was asked: "Should Heinz steal the drug to save his wife's life?" Kohlberg was not interested in what answers his subjects offered, but in how they arrived at their answers. From this data, he developed a set of six discernible, "invariant," "universal," sequential stages in reasoning about moral issues.7

When the same dilemma was presented to girls, however, they tended to raise questions about matters Kohlberg considered inconsequential. They wanted to know whether Heinz knew the druggist, whether Heinz and his wife were happily married, whether Heinz had talked things over with the druggist, whether the druggist knew the woman, and so on.

True to the tradition in which he works, Kohlberg concluded that not only do girls fail to come to grips with major issues to the same level of sophisticated thinking as boys, but that they also seemed to lack the ability to focus on the moral dimensions of the story as he perceived them. His judgment on their preoccupation with the relationships in the story was that in terms of helping, pleasing, and connection with others, women's perceptions of goodness was adequate for life at home. However, if they entered the larger world, they would have to reach higher levels of moral reasoning, where rules and universal principles of justice must take precedence.

Carol Gilligan, one of Kohlberg's colleagues, was disturbed by the negative implications of his findings regarding the moral development of women. She abandoned these neat hypothetical moral dilemmas with their tidy assumptions, and interviewed in-depth and over an extended period of time a number of women about their own real-life crises regarding marriage, abortion, career predicaments, and so on. She discovered that in place of the "morality of rights," women tend to take the perspective of the "morality of responsibility," which considers connection and relationship. In other words, women's way of knowing differs from men's way of knowing in recognizing the importance of attachment in the human life cycle.8 Neither perspective is intrinsically wrong, but taken together they give us a fuller understanding of what it means to be a moral person in community: morality is a matter both of justice and of responsibility.

Blending of insights If moral understanding depends on the blending of women's and men's in sights, religious understanding can scarcely be less. By way of illustration, let me tell you of my pilgrimage with the message of the Song of Songs. My college Bible classes and sermons, all presented by males, portrayed the man in the song as royal, chief, mighty, victorious, radiant, fair, and commanding—a figure of our loving God. The woman, on the other hand, was humble, defective, plain, lovesick, unfulfilled, immature, shy, yet cherished—symbolic of the faulty but hopeful church loved by God.9

Certainly we can appreciate and know God better as we see Him through the expressions of love of the man in the song and the presentations of the men who have interpreted it for us. That men would look to the male figure for insights into the nature of God is not only valuable but also not surprising. What is disturbing, of course, is that this single perspective contributes to a theology that perceives God as only male, only manhood as representative of God, and only womanhood as impaired and needy.

More recently I have been reading the Song of Songs from a woman's perspective and have discovered a whole new set of insights. I notice that the woman is the dominant figure: she opens and closes the song and is the more involved partner throughout. She is identified as "a rose of Sharon" and "a lily of the valleys" (S. of Sol. 2:1, NIV); her lover describes her as "perfect and unique"; his friends declare her "fair as the moon, bright as the sun, majestic as the stars in procession" (S. of Sol. 6:4-10)—descriptors poets have applied to divinity. More than that, in the most powerful and poignant moment in the song, the woman tells this story:

"I opened for my lover,

but my lover had left;

he was gone. . . .

I looked for him

but did not find him.

I called him

but he did not answer.

The watchmen found me

as they made their rounds in the city.

They beat me, they bruised me;

they took away my cloak,

those watchmen of the walls!

O daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you—

if you find my lover, what will you tell him?

Tell him I am faint with love" (S. of Sol. 5:6-8).

In this little tale of the man's unfaithfulness and abandonment, is it possible to discern the wayward church? In the woman's loss and suffering, is it possible to perceive the activity of a saving God? As a man's love in its passion, possessiveness, and power is a figure of some aspects of God's love, so is a woman's love in its winsomeness, searching, patience, and self-sacrifice a figure of other facets of God's love. By allowing the experience of both to speak to us, we afford ourselves a more abundant under standing of God's loving relationship to us.

Tension in perspectives

Lacking access to public discourse and deliberation, 10 women have operated within their own frame of reference largely intuitively and prereflectively. However, a current trend in the women's movement is to bring women's intuitions to articulation. The result is an infant but growing literature on feminine worldmaking, 11 such as Gilligan's work on women's moral perceptions and alternative research methods.

Research has identified other fundamental constructs that reveal the tensions between women's and men's accounts of the worlds they experience. Develop mental psychologist Erik Erikson, for instance, coined the expression "inner and outer space." 12 When children assembled scenes out of blocks and figures, Erikson noticed that girls and boys tended to use space differently. Typically, the girls' scenes were interior; that is, within an enclosure with elaborate doorways, reflecting an atmosphere of peace. The boys' scenes were exterior, with protrusions such as towers bristling with guns, intimating danger, accidents, and destruction. Erikson observes that the gender differences in the organization of play space seem to parallel the morphology of genital differentiation itself, suggesting that some root symbols in women's and men's understanding of the world are derived from anatomical differences; 13 This suggestion has brought mixed re views, as we shall see.

Psychotherapist Anne Wilson Schaef reports on the tension she has identified between product and process. What generally counts for men, she observes, are goals and outcomes; for women it is more likely the means and manner of getting there. She illustrates this difference in the ways women and men relate to time. In their preoccupation with work and achievement, men function best with "clocktime." But for many situations women find themselves in, such as child rearing and relationship building, process time is a better measure than clocktime. 14 Process time is the unpredictable, uncontrollable time taken up in growth and development. Women often consider that time for getting to know one another, telling their stories, sharing their feelings, and generally establishing bonds among themselves is a productive use of time.

Another tension is between sight and sound. 15 For men, to know is to be enlightened. Men tend to talk in terms of "gaining an insight," "taking a perspective," and "having a viewpoint." In their explanations they would ask, "Do you see that?" This language represents a model of knowing that establishes truth through objective, dispassionate, detached methods. For women, on the other hand, to know is a process of "listening for a message." Women complain of not "having a voice," of "being silenced," and they will ask, "Do you hear what I am saying?" Their language represents an engaged, dialogic, involved partnership in the learning process. Women tend to find truth in conversation, narrative, journaling, and personal stories; men in propositions, facts, and doctrines.

Variations in being and knowing

Each of these tensions is a variation of a single major theme of being and knowing. Feminine ways of being and knowing are bound up with human relation ships. They emphasize nurture and caring. In contrast, masculine ways of being and knowing emphasize aggressiveness, forcefulness, powerfulness, and combativeness.

Erikson's suggestion that the different feminine and masculine emphases are derived from biological differences between the genders carries the implication that anatomy determines destiny. Unfortunately, this is the very line that leads to the old oppressive judgment: women's place is in the home to ensure nurture and care, and men's place is in the world of work, government, and decision-making.

Erikson's reply to this argument, how ever, is that women's view of reality is needed as a complement to men's not only in the home but in every sphere of human activity. Equal opportunity for women, he argues, "can only mean the right and the chance to give new meaning and a new kind of competence to [so far] 'male' occupations." 16 And we might add, that just as "women's vision," as he calls it, is needed in a world made dangerous to human survival by policies of aggression, so men's vision is needed in defense of the young and needy.

Women and the Adventist Church

Despite the distinguished role of women in its founding and early growth years, the Seventh-day Adventist Church today, like many other churches, is largely a patriarchal institution, built according to male models and dominated by masculine thinking. By and large, "the brethren" make its administrative decisions. Male seminarians direct its theological development. Its ordained ministry is a male prerogative.

In effect, the Adventist Church wears a male face. After Ellen White's inestimable contribution, the church's history is perceived to have been wrought by the deeds and decisions of men. Church members are best acquainted with its male heroes and role models because its women of faith and action are invisible. Adventist women are losing their past.

Women are losing out in the life and liturgy of the church as well. God is conceived in terms of male images— father, judge, and coming king—which make the divine-human relationship comprehensible to and affirming of men. But in view of the connection and empowering that female images of God could bring to women—mother, nurse, homemaker, and housekeeper—should not church liturgy reflect this? The congregation sings hymns, listens to sermons, and reads materials in language that refers to its members as men and its experiences as masculine, while women and their experiences are not sung, spoken, or written about. The church's hierarchical structure brokers power among men, stifling consensual and inclusive decision-making. The calling, contribution, and very personhood of Adventist women today seems in jeopardy.

Because masculine perspectives have dominated the church's version of truth and reality, women are alienated even within their own worshiping community. The root symbols, the methods, and the resulting judgments of our collective meanings, while not totally inaccessible to them, are nevertheless not drawn from their own distinctive experience of the world. Biblical scholarship and church organization are in danger of being foreign—or worse, hostile—to the women of the church, as many women are coming to realize.

However, as Adventist women dis cover their "own voice," they also dis cover empowerment. With the past largely lost to them and their present at risk, these women evaluate their future with the church for the sake of their own spiritual integrity. Some choose to stay with their church community, with its Adventist distinctiveness, despite the pain and frustration, working for the day it may open its structures to them. Some find in the movement popularly known as "woman-church" a space for exploring and articulating women's spirituality separated from male domination and patriarchal control. Others simply walk out of the relationship with the church altogether, like a battered wife from an abusive marriage, to discover a new life free from the constant denial of their own being and knowing. What is clear is that thinking women will not be satisfied with the present situation.

Religious world-making is characterized by metaphor and paradox—the simultaneous expression of is and is not. As Adventist Christians we know the challenge of holding in tension the implications of the Lion and the Lamb; Creator and Destroyer; the Three and the One; mercy and justice; grace and law; the present age and the age to come. We value the insights into sacred realities afforded by the essential complementarity and fundamental unity of each matching component. So too, in the meeting of what seems to be the disparateness of feminine and masculine, we may better reflect on—and indeed, reflect—ultimate reality.

*Bible texts in this article are taken from the New International Version.

1. Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking (Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Pub. Co., 1978), p. x.

2. Ermst Cassirer, Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1962).

3. Elizabeth Janeway, Man's World, Woman's Place: A Study in Social Mythology (New York: Dell Pub. Co., 1972).

4. For instance, Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. ParsMey (New York: Random House, 1974); Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex (New York: Harper and Row, 1968); Virgil Elizondo and Norbert Greinacher, eds., Women in a Man's Church (New York: Seabury Press, 1980); Dale Spender, Women of Ideas: And What Men Have Done to Them (London: Pandora Press, 1982).

5. A number of theories have been proposed to explain why masculine identity depends on a dissociation from and devaluation of women and everything female; for instance, Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1978); Mary O'Brien, The Politics of Reproduction (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981); Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Gender, Sex, and Christian Freedom (Downers Grove, 111.: InterVarsity Press, 1990).

6. For instance, Irene Coon, "On God and Moral Reasoning," Adventist Review, Dec. 11, 1986, pp. 8-11.

7. Lawrence Kohlberg, "Stage and Sequence: The Cognitive-Developmental Approach to Socialization," in D. A. Goslin, ed., Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research (Chicago: RandMcNally, 1969), pp. 347-480; "Stages of Moral Development as a Basis for Moral Education," in Brenda Munsey, ed., Moral Development, Moral Education and Kohlberg (Birmingham, Ala.: Religious Education Press, 1980), pp. 15-98.

8. Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982).

9. These typical characterizations are taken from an account of the message of the Song of Songs by Gordon Christo, "Here Comes the Bridegroom," Adventist Review, July 28, 1988, pp. 8-10.

10. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957), asks: "Why is it that men have always had power and influence and wealth and fame—while women have had nothing but children?"

11. Within a religious perspective, see Sheila D. Collins, A Different Heaven and Earth (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1974); Anne Fremantle, Woman's Way to God (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1977); Judith Ochshorn, The Female Experience and the Nature of the Divine (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1981); Carol Ochs, Women and Spirituality (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Allanheld, 1983); Christin Lore Weber, Woman Christ: A New Vision of Feminist Spirituality (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987).

12. Erik Erikson, "Womanhood and the Inner Space," (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968).

13. Cf. Genia Pauli Haddon, Body Metaphors: Releasing God-Feminine in Us All (New York: Cross road Pub. Co., 1988).

14. Anne Wilson Schaef, Women's Reality: An Emerging Female System in the White Male Society (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1981).

15. E.g., Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger and Jill Mattuck Tarule, Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1986).

16. See Erik Erikson, "Once More the Inner Space," Life History and the Historical Moment (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975), pp. 225-247.


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Iris M.Yob, Ed.D., is the academic coordinator for Collins Learning Center, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

March 1992

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