Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Is God beyond gender?

Michael Rea, who's a philosophy prof. at Notre Dame, as well as President of the the Society of Christian Philosophers, recently and infamously issued an apologetic disclaimer on behalf of the SCP for a keynote address by Richard Swinburne in which Swinburne took a politically incorrect position. I plan to do a separate post on that controversy, but for now I'd like to note that there's a subtext to Rea's reaction. He has a position on gendered theological usage that's likely related to his position on LGBT issues:

1. There's duplicity and incoherence of Rea's position. He tries to play both sides of the fence. On the one hand he says God is beyond gender. On the other hand he says God is equally masculine and feminine. But if God is beyond gender, then he isn't both masculine and feminine, but neither. In that event we need to abstract away from our idea of God everything we associate with masculinity or femininity. The result is to depersonalize God. God becomes more like a principle. 

2. Among other things, his analysis suffers from a basic equivocation. Gender terms exist in ascending orders of abstraction:


Every man is male, but every male isn't a man. A man and a bull are both male, but a bull isn't a man.

Masculinity is an abstract property that can be variously exemplified. Although men and males are concrete, physical instances of masculinity, masculinity is immaterial. 

We can also associate gender with inanimate objects. It's natural to think of a Ferrari as masculine. Perhaps feminists would say that's sexist. So much the worse for feminism. 

Masculinity is more fundamental than men or males. In principle, God could have masculine properties. And God's masculine properties would be exemplary for their instantiation in men or male animals. So the masculine representation of God in Scripture is not metaphysically misleading. That's a coherent concept. 

3. We can also view the issue along the lines of a novelist. A novelist will create male and female characters. Obviously, there has to be something in the novelist that he puts into the characters. That comes from his imagination.

In the case of a male novelist, his female characters reflect his experience of women. And he describes them from a masculine standpoint. 

Of course, divine creativity isn't based on God experiencing the world. So there's a difference. The feminine paradigm originates in God in the sense that God has an idea of femininity. And God makes counterparts that mirror that concept. 

4. Scripture uses many metaphors for God. A few of these might be gender neutral (e.g. light, fire, potter). In theory, a farmer might be female. However, farming in the ancient world sometimes required physical strength.

In Scripture, God is a king. That might seem gender neutral inasmuch as you can have queens. However, in the ancient world, kings often had to be warriors. So it has a stereotypically masculine connotation. Indeed, Scripture frequently depicts God as a warrior. 

Same thing with shepherds. A shepherd had to be able to protect the flock from major wild predators (e.g. bears, lions, wolves). So that has stereotypically masculine connotations. 

Scripture sometimes uses animal metaphors for God (e.g. lion, leopard, eagle, bear). That might seem to be gender neutral inasmuch as each species has male and female.

However, human mothers don't have the defensive or offensive equipment of a lioness or she-bear. So the comparison breaks down at that point. 

It's not incidental that a number of these metaphors have protective connotations. Of course, mothers can be protective. Again, though, the focus is not on a protective instinct, but protective ability. As a rule, men have greater protective capabilities than women, and theological metaphors for God play on that natural association. 

Historically, a masculine duty was to protect women. Except for women who carry guns, women still depend on masculine protection–as do children. It's not incidental that Scripture uses the husband as a theological metaphor for God/Christ.

5. Then you have the complex father/son metaphor. That has many dimensions. With respect to the issue at hand:

i) In Scripture, that's not primarily Incarnational. Rather, that's prior to the Incarnation. The Father, in his capacity as Father, sends the Son, in his capacity as Son, into the world. 

ii) In Bible times, a reason a father would task his son rather than his daughter to go in a mission is because it was a dangerous world. A son would be in a better position to defend himself. You had to be able to handle yourself in rough-and-tumble of the ancient world. 

iii) In addition, the father/son metaphor is related to the king/prince metaphor. A royal son as the father's heir. And that, once again, plays on the connotations of warrior kings. Indeed, messianic prophecy as well as NT depictions often represent the Son as a military conqueror. 

6. In Scripture, both men and women are in submission to God. That's stereotypically feminine. 

7. Finally, Rea harps on the alleged harm and oppressiveness of masculine characterizations of God. 

i) Let's assume for the sake of argument that's true. That means Rea wants a different religion. He's hostile to the Biblical concept of God. He rejects Judeo-Christian theism. He wants to invent a new religion. It's a classic heresy that has some roots in the religion it deforms.  

He should be honest about his repudiation of biblical theism and make a clean break. He doesn't think the Bible is an accurate self-revelation of God. Indeed, he thinks the Bible seriously misrepresents God. So he rejects Christianity as a revealed religion. 

ii) In a fallen world, whenever one person has power over another, there's the potential for abuse of power. That's true when men have power over women; that's equally true when women have power over men. It's trivially easy to give examples of both. 

iii) Feminism is harmful. Feminism is harmful to the judicial system. It's soft on crime. Feminism is harmful to the education system. It discriminates against boys. Feminism is harmful in the military: harmful to men and women alike. It's trivially easy to multiple examples. 

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