ramblings on esoteric and practical questions about gender


I try to have well-thought out blog posts. I tend not to write about things I’m not really familiar with, and I tend not to write about nebulous, unformed ideas (and hopefully you, readers, agree with me), but I’m doing that today, mostly because of a conversation I read last week.

It’s long, and convoluted, and esoteric in the extreme, so I’ll give a summary. It all started with Jennifer Luitwieler’s post on how men tend to avoid reading things written by women (for example, Joanne Rowling had to go by J.K. in order for boys to buy her books), and a commenter, Alastair, responded by saying that he’s just not that much interested in the kinds of conversations women have about theology (which was a little bit beside the point, but ok). He argued that women deal more with practical, real-life aspects of theology, and men tend to deal more with esoteric, abstract questions. Dianna Anderson, a writer I very much respect and someone I’ve learned much from, even though we don’t agree about everything, replied to his argument by pointing out the inherent bias in his claim, and tried to show the elitist, sexist undercurrent in his argument– an undercurrent he explicitly denied having.

So here’s where I get muddled. There’s got to be a middle ground in all of this, and as I followed their conversation (both on Jennifer’s blog and Dianna’s) I couldn’t help but feel that they were sort of talking past each other. Both seemed blind to what each felt was their central argument, on both sides of the road.

Alastair couldn’t see the sexism in what he’d written (which is in the subtext, and implied), and Dianna couldn’t see anything else (at least, for the purposes of the dialog). All Alastair could see was Dianna reacting to something he didn’t believe existed, and he also completely missed Dianna’s point that women are excluded from the kinds of conversations he wants to have (the esoteric, scholarly, abstract ones, which he very subtly implied were superior theological realms).

The problem is that Alastair has a point: the famous women theological bloggers like Elizabeth Esther and Rachel Held Evans don’t talk about the esoteric questions. I have to admit, Alastair is right: I really like theology. Like, a lot. But I’m not all that fascinated by the super esoteric questions Alastair is. And, from what I’ve gathered, there aren’t too many women blogging about super esoteric things. I certainly don’t.

However, Dianna is also completely right. Women are excluded from the esoteric, scholarly conversations by an entire system dedicated to keeping women “in silence with all subjection.” A woman who enrolls in seminary has a huge, mountainous uphill battle to fight. And a lot of us just don’t have the kind of passion to overcome the innate sexism in the seminaries. Fighting sexism in our every day lives is enough of a struggle for most of us.

There seems to be a problem here, and I’m having a really hard time figuring out what it is. There’s an awful lot of gendered assumptions spinning around on both sides, and one of them is Alastair’s: that “men” are interested in esoteric questions, because they are men. That’s not the case. There’s way more men who are way more interested in “practical theology” then there are men who like the esoteric questions. There’s probably just as many women who are theological scholars (a close friend of mine, Mary*, comes to mind), but we don’t see or hear from them because of the stacked deck. Which was Dianna’s point. But, Dianna seemed to be doing the same exact thing Alastair was doing: devaluing the “practical theology” viewpoint. They both fell into the “super-intellectual-esoteric-stuff-is-better-than-practical-stuff” trap.

So, something that I’m mulling over is the “practical theology” approach. The work-a-day theology, the theology that lives and breathes in our life. I think women tend to excel at this, especially since it’s been the only area of theology we’ve been permitted access to, but also because of how our culture emphasizes relational aspects of gender as innately feminine. We’re allowed to be more relational; men are nearly forced to be non-relational. But, then I think about bloggers like Micah Murray or Preston Yancey, and they turn that all on its head.

This is, I think, one of the many ways that sexism and patriarchy have left deep, deep scars on Christianity. By setting up these gendered dichotomies, we’ve been forced into sex-based boxes, where men are logical and rational and women are emotional– and women are weak, therefore emotions are weak, so we’re not going to permit emotion into our theology. We’re going to restrict theological pursuits to esoteric, scholarly, abstract questions, and leave the mundane, unimportant stuff to the women.

That approach has robbed us, and I think in many ways left our theology bankrupt of humanity and compassion.

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