FeminismPhilosophyReligion and SpiritualitySkepticism

Breaking Down Gender

Like many of you out there in college, I've been spending a lot of my time writing papers, and every now and then I hit across a topic that I write on that I think would actually be perfect as a blogpost on Teen Skepchick. That happened recently when I finished up a distinction paper for my religion major that looked at the position on gender espoused by the Catholic church and then critiqued its philosophical basis in a nice skeptical way. The only problem here? This paper is 25 pages long, a bit much for a blog post. However I have faith in the teen skepchick readers, and trying to boil down the entire debate on gender complementarianism into 1-2 pages is not something I relish, so today I'm going to present you with the full version of this. Sometime in the next week I'll also try to create a condensed version for those with lighter attention spans, but until then…"It’s Only Natural: A Critique of Gender Complementarianism from Post-Structuralist, Feminist and Justice Perspectives" (Disclaimer: the ending of this paper was written to try and speak to a religious audience and does not fully explain my position, which is atheist in nature)


Catholic religious thought has long grappled with questions of gender, inspired by the earliest Genesis stories of Adam and Eve. Although there are many approaches to defining and understanding gender, one that has held sway in the Catholic Church across time has been gender complementarianism, an essentialist view of gender. Today, this viewpoint has come into dialogue with criticism from post-structuralism and feminism, which have challenged the philosophical viability of the position and posed the question whether complementarianism is just or not. This paper seeks to illustrate the main tenets of gender complementarianism as it is articulated in two papal letters.  Then I will turn to an explication of some criticisms that may undermine the position. These criticisms should lead a Christian community to rethink gender complementarianism as an acceptable option for their theology of gender.  I propose those communities should approach gender in a way that recognizes the dignity of all human beings by allowing them the freedom to construct gender on their own terms.


An Overview of Gender Complementarianism

Gender complementarianism is a broad and varied position, so in order to get a better handle on it, I will explicate one particular version of it. The general outlines of this position are exemplified in the papal letters, “Mulieres Dignitatem” and “On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church.” These examples are useful for a few reasons. First, their thought is modern and still relevant to both theologians and laypeople. Second, they exemplify many of the important aspects of gender complementarianism. Third, they have tried to respond to many of the previous criticisms against gender complementarianism, therefore making it one of the stronger versions of the position. The following explanation is by no means an exhaustive explanation of gender complementarianism, but rather an attempt to show an overview of how the position looks in the gender dialogue today.

Gender complementarianism as shown in these two apostolic letters has four main tenets.

1.Men and women have gendered natures that exist in and of themselves, separate from particular men and women—that is, gender is an ontological reality.

2.The ontological realities of male and female are complementary, and this complementarity is assymetrical.

3.This ontological reality is expressed in all men and women, and thus gives us a way to structure our relationships and societies.

4.This ontological reality is created and given by God; it is revealed in Scripture; and it provides an ethical norm for personal conduct and social relationships.

Each of these requires further explication through the words of the letters themselves.


The Ontological Nature of Gender

The first tenet listed above is espoused in both papal letters, particularly through their attention to creation theology. They assert that because God created humanity with genders, and created the first man and woman at separate times for particular purpose, these roles hold for all of humanity throughout time. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) points to Genesis 1:27 to show the sexual differentiation of humankind: "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them". We see here that the differentiation of male and female is basic. In Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John Paul II also points to Genesis 2 to illustrate that there are personal traits revealed by the creation, for example that woman “must ‘help’ the man” (Section 7), as she was created from him as his helper. Pope Benedict then concludes “Male and female are thus revealed as belonging ontologically to creation and destined therefore to outlast the present time, evidently in a transfigured form.” (Section 12). Gender complementarianism is thus an “essentialist” position, insofar as it asserts that essential features of men and women are rooted in the ontology of their creation.  



To illustrate the second tenet of gender complementarianism, Pope Benedict expands on his analysis of Genesis 2. He uses this to illustrate the complementary nature of gender and how that arises from creation, particularly pointing to the fact that men and women need each other and are in relationship with each other: “From the very beginning they appear as a ‘unity of the two', and this signifies that the original solitude is overcome, the solitude in which man does not find ‘a helper fit for him' (Gn 2:20)” (Section 6). Pope John Paul continues this thought when he states “Moreover, we read that man cannot exist ‘alone’ (cf. Gen 2:18); he can exist only as a "unity of the two", and therefore in relation to another human person” (Section 7). From Genesis 1 and 2, these two popes draw the ideas that men and women are inherently different, but complementary. Pope Benedict articulates that this complementarity “speaks instead of active collaboration between the sexes precisely in the recognition of the difference between man and woman” (Section 4). However they go one step further and tell us the kinds of natures that men and women have. They focus particularly on the nature of women, and as readers we must extrapolate that the male position is the complement or opposite of the female characteristics. 

Pope Benedict begins by pointing to the essential nature of women: “the ancient Genesis narrative allows us to understand how woman, in her deepest and original being, exists ‘for the other’ (cf. 1 Cor 11:9)” (Section 6), continuing that “this intuition is linked to women's physical capacity to give life” (Section 13), and “it implies first of all that women be significantly and actively present in the family” (Section 13). So woman’s main function is for the other, as a life-bringer in a way that comes from her biological motherhood. In addition, woman’s place as second in the creation order is stressed: she is a “helper”. While Pope John Paul emphasizes that she is an equal, this kind of language and the secondary position of women in creation, as well as the expectation that they must give of themselves, combine to create a role for women that seems to ask women to give to men in a submissive way. 

Pope John Paul makes similar comments: “Th[e] unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude towards human beings – not only towards her own child, but every human being – which profoundly marks the woman's personality” (Section 18). However beyond explicating the types of humans found in a complementarist system, he adds an important idea when he writes “both man and woman are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God's image” (Section 6). Despite the equal dignity of all human beings and the fact that both genders are ordered towards each other, woman in particular is expected to live for the man, to give herself to others, and to live her life as a nurturer instead of as active in and of herself. This creates an asymmetry in the gender roles.


Universality of Gender Complementarianism

These comments about the dignity of all bring us to Pope John Paul’s assertion of the third tenet: “This applies to every human being, whether woman or man, who live it out in accordance with the special qualities proper to each” (Section 7). Because the first human beings were created in this way, so all of us are, and these natures are expressed in every one of us. Since every human being is endowed with these same types of characteristics, they are what allow us to understand each other and come to relationships and societies, because they provide order. As Pope Benedict the states: “Whenever these fundamental experiences [of both mother and father] are lacking, society as a whole suffers violence and becomes in turn the progenitor of more violence” (Section 13). 


God-Given and Scriptural

An important illustration of the fourth tenet is the focus on creation theology. The fourth tenet is the assertion that God has given these essences, and in Genesis God alone is the creator. Each of these letters relies implicitly on this premise when they look to Genesis as their starting point for understanding gender. Looking to Scripture is a way to understand God’s relationship with humanity, which relies on the understanding that God is the source of gender just as he is the source of humanity. Just as the letters point to this connection by using Genesis, so also Pope John Paul points to prominent women in Scripture such as Eve and Mary as exemplars of the feminine gender role, showing that Scripture is a resource for examples of gender complementarianism. Pope Benedict makes it clear that God and Scripture are an integral part of understanding gender when he introduces his letter by saying “To understand better the basis, meaning and consequences of this response[active collaboration of genders] it is helpful to turn briefly to the Sacred Scriptures, rich also in human wisdom, in which this response is progressively manifested thanks to God's intervention on behalf of humanity” (Section 4).

Through the focus of each of these documents on God’s creation and use of Scripture, we see the fourth tenet.


Criticism of Gender Complementarianism

These two documents give us an overview of a current gender complementarian position that has tried to incorporate gender equality into its tenets. However there have been many criticisms of its basic assertions. As a way to voice these criticisms, I turn to Judith Butler, one of the strongest critics of gender essentialist positions. I choose to present her here because she has been pointed to as a seminal voice in gender studies, as well as because of the positions from which she chooses to critique complementarianism (feminism and post-structuralism). In addition to Butler, I will also supplement this critical section with some feminist theologians to respond to the theological concerns presented in the above letters. 

In her book Gender Trouble, a seminal work questioning our assumptions about gender. Butler presents two styles of critique to the gender complementarian position: first, a critique of its philosophical feasibility, and second a critique of it from a justice perspective, which I will supplement with feminist theologians. In order for a justice critique to have any weight, it must be shown first that the philosophical roots of gender complementarianism may not be solid, thus I will begin with the philosophical critique.


Judith Butler on Gender

Judith Butler begins Gender Trouble by questioning many of our main assumptions surrounding gender and sex. I will begin with her criticisms of gender, as they are the less radical of the two claims, and show how her criticisms undermine the basis of the position laid out by the papal letters. One of the most basic claims from these letters is that we can look to the biological sex characteristics of a human being and draw conclusions about their social and mental characteristics as well. As he begins his letter, Pope Benedict addresses the fact that many modern scholars have separated gender and sex, and he suggests that this separation has led to ignorance of an important aspect of humanity: its dualism.

The obscuring of the difference or duality of the sexes has enormous consequences on a variety of levels. This theory of the human person, intended to promote prospects for equality of women through liberation from biological determinism, has in reality inspired ideologies which, for example, call into question the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and make homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent, in a new model of polymorphous sexuality. (Section 2)

Butler argues that in fact gender does not come from the differences between our bodies. There are differences to bodies, but these differences do not mean inherently: we cannot make sense of anything without a cultural discourse to help us create meaning. Butler’s argument stems from ideas of discourse drawn from Saussure which say that we only create meaning by defining objects against each other: we know what a man is because it is not a woman. We can only understand the world around us through these culturally constructed categories. Gender is like any other part of the world that requires interpretation, and it is impossible for us to be at a point when we have not been exposed to cultural ideas and ways of interpreting. For these reasons, when we see a body we are already looking at it through the lens of the discourse that we have grown up with, and we are interpreting that body with certain constructs and definitions that are not inherent in the body.

In addition to these ideas about discourse, Butler also asserts that gender is a product of the people who enact it. Gender is a verb, not a noun.

In this sense, gender is not a noun, but neither is it a set of free-floating attributes, for we have seen that the substantive effect of gender is performatively produced and compelled by the regulatory practices of gender coherence. Hence, within the inherited discourse of the metaphysics of substance, gender proves to be performative–that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. (Butler 34)


Gender as verb has many implications for Butler. First, gender is not ontological, but rather only exists as we enact it. Our identities as men and women do not come down to us from a creative act of God, we help to define what it means to be men and women when we act as men and women. A corollary of this is that the actions we see as available to us are constrained by our discourse. Butler asserts that the options presented to us affect how we act. If a girl has never seen a woman with short hair, it will simply not seem possible to her to cut her hair short. Second, when we act, we are creating gender. This means that we have responsibilities to create gender in such a way that it will be beneficial to ourselves and future generations. Third, this means that through our actions we either recreate the same genders that have already existed by performing them again, or we parody and question them through subversive action, but that in the end we cannot act fully outside the system of gender roles that we have learned. 

In addition to Butler’s philosophical assertions, there are also empirical sources of evidence that gender is performative. The largest source of evidence is that conceptions of gender change and are still changing, and differ based on time and place. If “female” meant something unchangeable, it would have held the same across all time periods. However even in the past 50 years we have seen huge adjustments to the definitions of feminine, such as the acceptance of pants as feminine. These changes came about because people consciously chose to act outside of the norm, and slowly the norm changed. This upholds the idea that gender is performative, because it shows that when people change their behaviors, definitions and beliefs about what gender is change.

Butler’s assertions can be difficult to understand.  In a famous critique, Martha Nussbaum faulted Butler for her opaque language.  Then Nussbaum provided a helpful, clear summary as part of her criticism: “Butler's point is presumably this: when we act and speak in a gendered way, we are not simply reporting on something that is already fixed in the world, we are actively constituting it, replicating it, and reinforcing it” (7). Based on modern understandings of how we are constantly limited by our cultural expectations, Butler makes it clear that it is possible to separate gender and sex without ignoring something that truly exists in the world and is necessary for human flourishing. With this assertion, she is directly challenging tenets 1 and 4 of gender complementarianism as espoused by the papal letters. Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict assert that all men and women have the same gender characteristics inherent in them and that these are given by God, but Butler deconstructs this idea by showing that it is impossible for “male” and “female” to mean anything without societal discourse, meaning those concepts are malleable and temporal. Without the basic first premise that gender is ontological, gender complementarianism has no legs to stand on. However Butler goes even further and attempts to knock down sex as well, so that the characteristics that gender complementarians point to as grounding gender are not a solid foundation either.


Judith Butler on Sex

Beyond her discussion of the constructed nature of gender, Butler goes one step further and asserts that sex is also constructed. In this way she does not want to draw the sharp line between them that many academics have been drawing in recent discussions, but she does want to unhinge both from the solid grounding of a biological, natural, uninterpreted body. She argues that “Gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which ‘sexed nature’ or ‘a natural sex’ is produced and established as ‘prediscursive,’ prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts” (Butler, 10). This means that by asserting the difference between sex and gender, and even by using sex to ground certain aspects of gender, culture pretends to have access to something that is natural and uninterpreted, when in reality it helps to create sex itself. This keeps people from questioning sex as a category, and can also lead to a strengthening of the idea that gender has inherent properties that are likened to the naturalness of sex. Butler points out that when someone suggests sex can be understood before discourse, they are obscuring how power, discourse and politics play into the construction of sex, and are in fact making it easier to reify the categories of male and female. She does not mean to equate sex and gender, but rather to show that both are not as well grounded as many have claimed.

Butler begins with a discussion of intersex individuals to illustrate that “sex” is a complex concept that is not encapsulated by all bodies. Traditional notions of sex and gender see a binary: male or female. Butler points to the case of Herculine Barbin, an individual with genitals that include both male and female elements. At least 1% of the population has genitals, sex characteristics or chromosomes that do not match with traditional sex categories. These facts lead Butler to question first the formation of sex as a binary, and second, what it means to be male or female. Because there are people who are neither male nor female, it seems that a binary system is flawed, and thus it doesn’t make sense to claim that it is natural. 

Additionally, “the linguistic conventions that produce intelligible gendered selves find their limit in Herculine precisely because she/he occasions a convergence and disorganization of the rules that govern sex/gender/desire” (Butler, 32). Intersex individuals break up the convergence of things that make up a sexed body and rearrange them in new ways: generally “male” entails a certain amalgamation of traits, e.g. a penis and testes, secondary sex characteristics like a deeper voice or body hair, and XY chromosomes, and intersex individuals take some of those traits and intersperse them with female characteristics. This makes it clear that sex is not a single thing, but rather a grouping of traits that society has constructed into a unified term. The bodies that we naturally have do not fall under these all-encompassing, culturally created categories of male and female. Society must be present to interpret our characteristics and decide which box we fall into.

Discourse is what defines the parts of the body that are important for deciding male or female. Sex may seem like the most obvious way for us to categorize each other, but bodies differ in hundreds of ways, and we could have chosen to define people at a basic level by their level of physical strength, their hair color, or their height. Butler spends a great deal of time on the fact that it is only through societally prescribed categories that we can understand each other. We can only define another person as human if we can understand them as a particular gender. Without a discourse to place someone within, they float without any definition. Butler explains:

In other words, the ‘coherence’ and ‘continuity’ of ‘the person’ are not logical or analytic features of personhood, but, rather, socially instituted and maintained norms of intelligibility. Inasmuch as ‘identity’ is assured through the stabilizing concepts of sex, gender, and sexuality, the very notion of ‘the person’ is called into question by the cultural emergence of those ‘incoherent’ or ‘discontinuous’ gendered beings who appear to be persons but who fail to conform to the gendered norms of cultural intelligibility by which persons are defined (Butler 23).


This means that even when we see an event that could be interpreted in a variety of ways, we cannot interpret it outside of our discourse, because without something to pit a definition against, it makes no sense (without the female, the male does not make sense). Things outside of our discourse create instability because they make it obvious that our terms are arbitrarily defined against each other, not hinged on things with inherent meaning in the world. Butler looks mainly to more metaphorical terms like identity and personhood, but we can see examples of the role of discourse in very concrete terms. One example has to do with science and how it constructs our conception of what is natural. For most of history, when studying the process of conception, scientists looked at the action of a sperm coming together with an egg and described it as a “sperm’s journey”, couched in terms of the enterprising sperm making its way on a long journey to the passive egg. This is because “male” only made sense in their discourse as active, with the female defined against it as passive. However more recent research within more open frameworks shows that the sperm are not as active as we thought. This illustrates clearly that something we think of as “natural” is actually something we are already interpreting because nothing we do or think is pre-discursive. 

These are radical claims, and we may not accept them whole heartedly, but even if we cannot accept sex as constructed, this evidence helps to support Butler’s comments on gender. While bodies themselves may have natural differences, Butler makes it clear that we interpret those differences through discourse. Either this leads us to constructing sex (in which case gender is not based in a natural idea), or it leads us to constructing gender. 


Judith Butler In Dialogue With Gender Complementarianism

Butler represents a powerful critique of gender complementarianism. If her concept of discourse is even partially right, the ontological nature of gender is compromised. The existence of intersex individuals vividly illustrates that nature itself does not seem to uphold the idea of two sexes. The papal letters above offer no response to the fact that many individuals today do not match on a biological level the creation theology drawn from the Bible. Moreover, the fact that sex is a blanket term for a variety of things that do not always go together adds another layer of difficult to the gender complementarian position. Both of the papal letters assume that all their readers know what sex means already and that the definition is certain, not malleable. This is the basis of their arguments: sex is a clear reality from which we can draw gender. The uncertainty that Butler brings to the table makes it difficult for complementarians to ground gender.

However there are certain places where Butler may go too far and the complementarian position might have something to offer. Butler does recognize that there are real differences between male and female bodies, however she seems to discount the meaning that fact might have. This may actually be harmful to equal treatment of the sexes in the long run. Ignoring biological differences would have meant we would never have developed birth control, and it could lead to men and women being given the same health care, despite their biological differences. Here the gender complementarian position is correct in saying that there are large consequences to ignoring biological differences.

However, Butler’s critique makes it clear that using the differences between bodies to assert anything about the meaning of those bodies is unhelpful and relies on a concept of sex that equates it with a body. Sex is more than simply a body uninterpreted. This leaves the status of “sex” somewhat ambiguous: it may be an amalgamation of constructed and created. However without the solid grounding of sex, gender is left untethered. The creation of male and female bodies does not imply anything about our current roles in society, because those bodies are always being interpreted through discourse. Simply because bodies are complementary does not mean minds are, and just as bodies differ, so do personalities and gender traits.


Justice Critiques: Butler

Butler’s critiques cast doubt on the philosophical viability of gender complementarianism. This opens the door for a new kind of critique based in justice concerns. If it were the case that the philosophical roots of gender complementarianism were untouchable, justice critiques would not matter because they would simply be complaints about the nature of the world. However when we recognize gender as a human construction, it becomes reasonable to make critiques that hold human societies to higher standards of equality and justice in their construction of gender. To that end, I will begin with Butler’s critiques of gender essentialist systems, and then move to Rosemary Radford Reuther and Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza for more particular critiques of religious iterations of gender essentialism.

Butler begins by looking to the idea of “mystification,” which is the way asserting something as natural obscures its real origins in discourses of power and oppression. She believes that this mystification creates serious “gender trouble” for any who fall outside of the gender binary as it is created in their society. When discourse tells individuals that something is natural when it is not, it says that anything outside of the accepted categories is unnatural, when in reality it may simply be a different variety. For gender, this means that those who fall outside the gender binary are told that they are not fully human because they are denying a basic part of themselves. This creates anxiety for those who do not conform and blocks their full participation in the goods of their community. Additionally, because terms in discourse are defined against an “other,” those within the discourse work to strengthen the boundaries of gender by pushing nonconformers even further from personhood. Butler explains: “The ‘abject’ designates that which has been expelled from the body, discharged as excrement, literally rendered ‘Other’…The construction of the ‘not-me’ as the abject establishes the boundaries of the body which are also the first contours of the subject” (Butler 181). All of these things dehumanize any who do not conform to the gender they were assigned, and the dehumanization of anyone is good reason to abandon a system.

However even more pressing to Butler is the fact that the ontological constructions of sex and gender hurt women. Because of the nature of discourse and the way it creates by defining things against their opposites, man is defined against woman. Within these paired definitions, there is inevitably one which is defined as the negative, passive, and submissive. In gender, this is woman. This may not be a necessary result of the philosophical basis of gender essentialism, but in every construction of sex and gender that we have seen through history, it has been true. In gender complementarianism in particular, the fact that woman is second in the creation order will always ground her as the secondary of the two designations. Woman is derivative, and thus not as fully human as man. While Pope John Paul asserts “Man is a person, man and woman equally so, since both were created in the image and likeness of the personal God,” the philosophical roots of the position associate man more fully with rationality, with humanity, and with thought because he was created first. Rationality, culture, activity and masculinity are all seen as one half of a binary that is completed by emotion, nature, passivity and femininity. Woman is placed with nature because her role as a mother is seen as connecting her more strongly with biology and thus nature. Because of the construction of woman as less human, she loses autonomy, respect and dignity as a human being.

In the context of discursive constructions of gender that do not recognize their own constructedness, woman will always be the secondary and man will always be the basic, because men are the ones carrying on the dialogue. When individuals are led to believe that the societal constructions which oppress women are natural, they will not work for change and equality. However the harm that gender complementarianism has done goes beyond dehumanizing women and those outside the gender binary, and I now turn to two feminist theologians to look to the theological and historical problems with gender complementarianism.


Justice Critiques: Fiorenza 

Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza writes in Discipleship of Equals about the difficulties women face within their churches. She continues from Butler’s philosophical critique and considers how these philosophical ideas lead to physical and historical oppression. She sees women’s oppression in the fact that God is constructed as a male (which can lead to a construction of men as God), the dominance of men’s experience in theology, and to the fact that even those philosophies like gender complementarianism, which attempt to posit men and women as equally human, still choose to focus exclusively on men’s voices and concerns. All of these problems derive from the fact that churches posit male as the universal human, ignoring the variety of experiences and problems that surface from those outside of that norm and thus devaluing those who seek recognition of other experience. “Our societal and scientific structures define women as derivative from and secondary to men. This andocentric definition of being human not only has determined the scholarly perception of men, but also that of women. In such an andocentric worldview woman must remain a historically marginal being” (Fiorenza 156). Because women are seen as less than human, they are then put into a secondary position, erased from history, and silenced.

Beyond simply creating a place of marginalization for women, gender complementarianism may go so far as to create non-persons of women, just as Butler suggested. Women are not accorded the full measure of rationality or ethical ability that is necessary to be considered human because they are simply a derivative of men, not whole in and of themselves. Women are associated with all of the things that should be dominated, things that are irrational or emotion, and thus they themselves are created as having an ontologically necessary connection to irrationality (this is seen in the papal documents when women is said to be more emotional or “for the other”). When woman is created as irrational, she is dehumanized, as rationality is often how we define “human”. This allows for abuse and oppression of women. The papal letters assert that the emotional qualities of women are necessary and good, just as those of men are, however in practice a woman’s characteristics are usually seen as something to be dominated. Because women are viewed as passive or subordinate, they are not as easily found in positions of power, they get little or no say in how to run their lives, they are kept out of leadership positions in the church, and often they are spoken for by men who have co-opted their voices.


Justice Critiques: Reuther

Another thinker who has launched justice based criticisms against gender complementarianism is Rosemary Radford Reuther. Reuther comes at the problem from a theological perspective, asserting that traditional gender roles can make it difficult for women to recognize themselves in God or feel as if they have a role in the church or in salvation because their experiences of God have been systematically excluded. This means that all the images, stories and models in the tradition are drawn from male experience, and often draw heavily from patriarchal and sexist ideas. This comes from the idea discussed above that male is presented as the norm or universal human, and thus women’s experiences are not seen as valid. Reuther argues that “The use of women’s experience in feminist theology, therefore, explodes as a critical force, exposing classical theology, including its codified traditions, as based on male experience rather than on universal human experience” (13). Reuther shows that gender complementarianism mystifies this inequality by positing male as the universal human. Whenever religion tries to assert that it has the universal human experience, it excludes some groups and alienates them as an other, someone who cannot have the same access to God as those of the dominant group. Reuther’s criticism shows that gender complementarianism, while purporting to build a relationship between God and human beings, actually constructs images of God in such a way that non-males cannot come to a relationship with God through the images and metaphors presented. If a construction of God only allows half (or less) of the population to see themselves in God, then it is telling all of the others that they may not participate in the basic human dignity that should be afforded to all human beings. It creates male-dominated spaces and ideas that leave women and other outsiders feeling dehumanized and unable to attain salvation as a full human being. Taken together, Butler, Fiorenza and Reuther show that gender complementarianism has a history and may be inherently linked with inequality on philosophical, historical and theological grounds. This is good reason to reconsider it as a position for the Catholic church and other Christians.


A New Proposal

Without gender complementarianism to fall back on, Christian churches must do the hard work of reconstructing their conception of gender in a way that promotes equality and respect. In the following section, I will propose some of the important things that a Christian theory of gender needs to address and some of the ways it can begin to do so. I hope to outline a theory of gender that addresses how Christian congregations should approach gender and gender relations without making the same mistakes that gender complementarianism has, in order to show that these criticisms do not leave us without anywhere to go.


Aims for a New Proposal

To begin this project, we must identify the ideas a Christian conception of gender must incorporate, and the pitfalls it should avoid. It must be recognizably Christian, something I will define in the following section. To this end, it can look to Scripture and tradition to create an overarching picture of the important characteristics of God that will define what it means to be human. Next, a feminist theology must be able to create a conception of gender that addresses the justice concerns presented above; it cannot be a theology of gender that systematically places one group over another, or that continues oppression. Additionally, it must come to grips with the critiques of post-structuralism, either by taking them into account and following their lead, or by responding critically to them and incorporating only those pieces that seem plausible. In order to incorporate these elements, it appears that a theory of gender has three main tasks: first, it should reinterpret Scripture and tradition through a new lens, informed by current gender discourses.  It should retain important premises such as “God created out of love and goodness,” and “we should align ourselves with God,” but understand them through what we understand today as responsible ways of viewing gender. Second, it should provide new images, metaphors and models for thinking about and understanding God. This will help with the first task, and additionally will allow believers to use tradition but reinterpret it in a way that uses their own experiences and can be integrated into their lives. These metaphors may be things like “the earth is the body of God,” and can allow us to explore and understand different aspects of God that may have been shortchanged by a male-dominated tradition. Third, it should look to figures and stories within the tradition for models of how to incorporate experiences and personal stories into theology in a gender inclusive way.

While accomplishing these tasks, a new gender theology needs to take into account the fact that it is Christian, and thus must hold to certain doctrines and beliefs that define what it is to be Christian. Which beliefs are integral to Christianity could be debated for volumes, but I propose some basic tenets that this gender theology should incorporate. This list can be adjusted based upon which conception of Christianity we look to, but any version of Christianity will likely include the majority of these ideas. The tenets include: there is a personal, loving, omniscient and omnipotent God who created our world in a purposive manner; human beings, despite being made in the image of God, sin, but there is a possibility for salvation; and Jesus Christ is part of God, and is integrally linked to humanity’s salvation. God can be conceived of in a huge variety of ways in the Christian tradition, however in the model of many modern interpreters, I point towards love as the most important quality of God. He desire the flourishing of human beings. To this end, any conception of gender and any actions that churches take in regards to gender should move towards human flourishing. 



Within these constraints, there have been many attempts to come to grips with gender and to ground a theory of equality. I now turn to Mary McClintock-Fulkerson as a guide for ways that churches and their congregants can relate to each other and seek understanding that do not revolve around gender. McClintock-Fulkerson comes to the table with many of the same post-structuralist understandings as Butler, and because of this she is hesitant of the traditional feminist impulse to simply aim for inclusivity and incorporate a variety of experiences. She sees that this often leads to creating new “others,” or ignoring the realities of those people who are different from ourselves. This harms rather than helps, and thus should be rejected. McClintock-Fulkerson suggests affinity as a replacement. Affinity as she understands it means recognition of shared interests or qualities without the reification of those things into an “identity” or “category”. “Affinity acknowledges love’s inability to know the other, to resist domination of the other. Affinities rather than shared identities are the best we can hope for in developing feminist theology towards the respect for all subjects now defined as women and support for the end of dominations that textures their lives” (384). Instead of simply using gendered categories to understand what our place and the place of others should be in society, we can turn to affinity to recognize the similarities in others, and to create orders and relationships. The benefits of viewing gender through a complementarian lens are that it gives us ways to relate to each other, it helps us to understand our own place, and it structures and orders societies. While breaking down these strict barriers can lead to some uncertainty and perhaps unhappiness for a few, in the long run (with hard work and open minds) it is possible to create structures, organization and relationships that are based upon individuals traits and characteristics, fluid enough to adapt to a variety of kinds of people, without breaking down into chaos. 

Affinity also acknowledges that we must work from within our discourse, because we will never find objective space outside of it. From this, McClintock-Fulkerson sees that we can never know any kind of universal, which is why working from “woman’s experience” (a traditional method) is a problematic tactic. McClintock-Fulkerson explains:

The appeal to experience can be a colonializing incorporation of the other in its experiential expressive form, even though it seems to work in feminist theology to deny the ahistorical character of revelation. While the authority of experience did have liberating effects in an Enlightenment setting, and it does suggest the historical and located character of religious traditions, it does so in a clumsy way that courts falsely universalizing claims. (56) 


Again, we need to be cautious of positing any universals, since all of our experience is mediated through discourse. There may be universals, but they are always interpreted in the particular. Affinity tries to walk a middle path between the universal and the particular, something that feminist theology needs to grapple with because it seeks acceptance of the particular situations of women within the realm of theology, which looks to understand universals. It would give those in positions of power a way to come to some understanding with the oppressed.


Benefits and Pitfalls of Affinity

Affinity is a useful concept because it takes into account Butler’s critiques about the construction of personhood and the power-laden nature of discourse that suggests those who are talking have the power and the ability to define or silence the “other.” However it also gives us a tool to move past some of the nihilistic feel of Butler, giving us a way to expand who can speak, how we can find solidarity with other people who are struggling, how we can appeal to shared experiences, and how we can build a society that allows both masculine and feminine traits to thrive without trying to deny any group of people power. It suggests that churches should strive to create order based upon people’s talents and experiences, and take all of those things into account when defining what it means to be human. It would allow us to hear other people’s stories and try our best not to co-opt their stories, but rather to incorporate them on their own terms through those aspects that we have solidarity in. Instead of trying to think in a strictly gendered sense of people in a Christian context, perhaps we should look to what kinds of affinities we have with them in order to understand how we can relate to them and how to be in relationship with someone who is different. This will allow for strong social relationships and order, without creating very rigid boxes that people must conform to. With a shift to a different way of defining people, the construction of women as secondary and derivative may begin to diminish. When our first conception of a person is not based upon male or female, the associations that come with those terms lose some of their strength, and this would give women more power and voice to redefine gender in such a way that they are not dehumanized.

Affinity may look like the answer to all our problems, but it is not without difficulties of its own. First, it requires hard work on the part of all individuals who are working to create a better system. We all must be constantly aware of how we are distancing others and work to recognize our affinities with them without co-opting their stories. Second, affinity, like many post-structuralist impulses, does not give us concrete steps to take in the world to improve the situation of women and those outside of the gender binary. It is an overarching concept, not a roadmap for improvement and thus requires churches and individuals to flesh out the details of how they should adjust their teachings and attitudes towards individuals. It may begin to help us view gender as less important, but it does not solve the problem that women are still the subordinate half of the pairing. To this end, churches must go further and redefine gender.

Further Steps

As a way to flesh out the concept of affinity, there are some additional steps that Christian churches may take. The largest and most important is to recognize that gender and sex are not limited to a binary, and that they are constructed. Genitals, sex chromosomes, character traits, secondary sex characteristics, and personal identifications don’t fall neatly into two boxes, and there is fluidity between a “masculine” side of the spectrum and a “feminine” side of the spectrum. People must be allowed to express all aspects of themselves without feeling as if they need to tailor themselves to a preconceived notion of gender that is never even directly stated in Scripture. Some say that only within our gendered selves can we truly express our humanity. However there does seem to be another place we can look to ground our dignity.

In tradition, a simple way to assert human dignity is through the imago dei, or the doctrine that all human beings are made in the image of God. If we recognize this, we can see that no matter what someone’s gender presentation is, they are still in the image of God. This is another point where we can agree with the gender complementarian position, as John Paul asserts that the image of God grounds the dignity of all people and that “‘God is spirit’ (Jn 4:24) and possesses no property typical of the body, neither "feminine" nor "masculine" (Section 8). On a spiritual level, all human beings have equal dignity because they are created in the image of God, despite having variations and individual personalities. In the same way, we can recognize that our bodies, minds, and characters are all created in the image of God. Because we all have this similarity to God, we deserve respect and dignity, and keeping this concept in mind can give us a concrete way to apply affinity, to theologically ground a gender spectrum, and to find ways to approach all human beings without the easy categories of gender.

Another useful conception we can add to affinity is the designation of humanity as both creator and created. This doctrine is usually used to point to the fact that human beings help to biologically create each other, but again this is a place where the church can cross-apply some of its teachings to different areas and see that it may be possible for human beings to construct their social and psychological gender. Traditionally, it has been difficult for churches to accept that gender may be constructed because God created us. However as human beings we participate in God’s creation through our reproductive and imaginative actions, and as such we help to construct societies, languages, cultures, and arts. In the same way, in concert with God, we have created gender. This concept can help us see how gender is not completely untethered now and it still must be held responsible to the standards of any other activity we undertake in conjunction with God, but that we do have power in how gender is created. 

One final way that a Christian church can expand gender roles and conceptions is to look to the tradition to see different kinds of masculinity and femininity. Potential candidates for this might include Mary Magdalene, St Francis of Assissi, Joan of Arc, or even Jesus himself. There are individuals throughout history who have created their own gender roles in order to act in the service of God and for the benefit of the earth and humanity. By following their example, we can see how we might act outside of a strict gender binary while still following God’s call.

In conjunction with all of the above suggestions, we should recognize that whatever we create, it should follow the love ethic and preferential option for the poor/oppressed that Jesus expresses in the Gospels. This means that we do not simply have an “anything goes” attitude, but that we accept what is best for an individual in their own life and mind, be that a masculine or feminine mode of thinking and acting, or a mixture of the two. In particular, we should follow Jesus’ example of working for those who are oppressed or who have been taken advantage of in the past. This means we should focus on helping women and those outside of the gender binary. For this reason we should focus on steps to recognize the dignity of these people by opening up our conception of gender. In no circumstances should we undertake action that harms others or diminishes our ability to love. 

Gender complementarianism is a position that holds initial appeal because of its structure and certainty, however its philosophical basis is unsound and its creation of women as derivative is unjust and harmful. Instead of accepting the gender complementarian position, churches looking to help their congregants become happy and whole individuals capable of reaching a deep understanding of their relationship with God should encourage individuals to understand their individual gender identification. This will allow individuals to accept themselves and see the imago dei within themselves. It is a more egalitarian and just approach, and it also creates an image of God that is accessible and understandable to all people, not just those who have created the image traditionally. For these reasons, Christian churches should abandon the gender complementarian position.










Works Cited


Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.


McFague, Sallie. Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987.


Fulkerson, Mary McClintock. Changing the Subject: Women's Discourses and Feminist Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994.


John, Paul. On the Dignity and Vocation of Women: Apostolic Letter = Mulieris Dignitatem. Washington, D.C.: Office of Pub. and Promotion Services, U.S. Catholic Conference, 1988. Print.


Nussbaum, Martha. "The Professor of Parody." The New Republic Online (1999).


Ratzinger, Joseph. Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World. London: Catholic Truth Society, 2004.


Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon, 1983.


Schussler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. Discipleship of Equals: A Critical Feminist Ekklēsia-logy of Liberation. New York: Crossroad, 1993.


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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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