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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  • No kidding. It’s a messed up world, and this whole ball of wax is NOT easy to unwind (or unmelt…) I’m wrestling. I suspect I’ll be wrestling for a long, long time.

  • I should have said, too, that I agree. They each had some interesting, and valid ideas. Some that require a table and some good wine and the ability to look others in the eye. I find that the internet can be a great power infuser, giving us far more courage to disparage or disagree behind a keyboard than we would face to face.

    I’m not suggesting anyone was hiding. I’m saying that sometimes the benefit of face to face is that it can allow for a more fluid discussion and a chance to say, “I hear you.” Which is missing from so much of our online dialogue. Thanks again.

    • It’s one of the things I love and hate about the internet– the really interesting discussions . . . and the really interesting discussions.

  • In our defense, it’s not that I don’t want to discuss esoteric theological concepts with women — it just seems that women never want to discuss esoteric theological concepts with me. Sure, there are some men out there who think women can’t handle it for some reason, but I think if you find a godly man and just ask to discuss those things, that he will oblige. We’re kind of under the assumption that most women don’t have an interest in such things because you never show an interest in such things when we’re around.

    • You’re my friend, and you know me in person, so hopefully you can read my tone here, since I’m going to be asking some questions that can get people’s backs up– but know that this is said in kindness and love.

      Your first point is that “women never want to discuss esoteric concepts with me,” and you come really close to making the connection I’m about to make in the next sentence. There are “lots of men” who think women “can’t handle it,” but you almost seem to dismiss this. The “lots of men” becomes problematic when sexism is institutionalized in Christianity, and you have people like John Piper telling men to stop reading theological books written by women if the man feels he’s respecting the woman too much.

      So, have you ever stopped to wonder why women never want to discuss it with you? Maybe it’s because they’ve faced a lifetime of oppression and marginalization in church, of constantly being told they are “the weaker vessel” and that asking theological questions is sin?

      You’re also say that you just assume that women don’t have an interest because you think we’ve never shown interest. Maybe we have shown interest, and been categorically dismissed? Maybe we have tried to participate, and been purposely excluded? Maybe we’ve been demeaned, belittled, shamed, and ignored by all these “lots of men” that we’ve just learned to keep silent so we don’t have to deal with it?

      My next question I hope you’ll take seriously– you’re a white male in somewhat conservative Christianity, which means you are privileged. The problem with privilege is that it’s like wearing blinders– nothing seems much the matter in your life, and it’s easy to assume that nothing is much the matter in a woman’s life, either. It’s incredibly easy to be blind to the moments when a woman has been silenced right in front of you, or for you to do some small, tiny, insignificant, barely-worth-noticing thing that silences her. This doesn’t make any privileged person a bad person, and maybe you’ve never actually seen or done anything like that, but, chances are, there’s been something that’s happened that was incredibly easy to ignore because you were in an environment that condoned it and made it seem that silencing her was the “right” or “biblical” thing.

      Take, for example, the time I wanted to conduct a Christmas oratorio at my church. The choir was capable of singing one, and I was more than capable of conducting one. But, when I asked my church’s song leader if I could direct one, he told me no. When I asked him why, his response was “because you’re a woman.” This wasn’t a particularly terrible church. It was a church I cared about, and I feel is still doing wonderful things. But this attitude, that women are treated as inferior, is rampant in Christianity. That song leader probably has no idea that what he did was incredibly sexist. Most men don’t.

      • Hey, you didn’t get mad when I accidentally tried to kill you, so I don’t see how I have the right to get mad at anything you say.

        I’m sorry if I seemed to be dismissing the fact that there are a lot of men who put women down in this area. I grew up in California, and among (almost all of) the churches here, this isn’t a problem. Or at least if it is, it’s rather small and the offenders are usually looked upon as weirdos.

        During school I *did* see it sometimes, and it urked me for a little bit, but you know how it was. Much easier to stick your head in the ground than to do anything about it. Though I’m convinced that’s where God wanted me, there were some things He had to work with me on after I graduated. Turning a blind eye to some things I knew were bad was one of them.

        Anyway, my point is that, though there *are* lots of men who get egos, or who have been misled for so long, and think women shouldn’t be privy to the debate between predestination and free-will, I think the vast majority of Christian men don’t think this way. There’s a lot of us who don’t mind discussing esoteric theology with women.

        However, reading over your reply made me think. I *am* privileged, but not because I’m a male in conservative Christianity. In fact I know a lot of people who might not call my views on certain subjects “conservative.” I like rock music (sometimes), I think it is not a sin to drink alcohol, I like the NKJV better but don’t have any problem with someone using the NIV, women make great song leaders, and I am shocked when I meet a girl who never wants to wear jeans. Of course if by conservative you mean I’m not Charismatic, then maybe. Anyway, the reason I think I’m privileged is because I haven’t gone through what you have. I went to an IFCA church, but it was years ago, I remember little of it, and I had parents who didn’t buy into the absurdities that sometimes popped up (but again, this is California, and we probably have the more liberal spectrum of Fundamentalism). The best look I got of it was college, and I know that was tame compared to some churches. So, while I still think the vast majority of men don’t mind, maybe in the dark side of Christianity that I haven’t been so privy to, it’s much worse than I thought it was.

        You know now that I think of it, I think most of the women I’ve known who actually could carry on such a conversation (I don’t say this to be sexist — there are a lot of men I know who couldn’t do it) and just don’t show interest have come from some sort of Fundamental background. Maybe that’s why it never happened.

        However in light of all these things I will say this: Ladies, if any of us guys on the outside don’t seem to be paying attention to this or any other things you’ve had to go thought, it’s not because we agree with it. It’s because it’s just not an issue with us and we don’t think about it. We *should* be more sensitive to what’s going on, but often it doesn’t effect our world so we’re not. It may not be the best thing if we don’t care, but remember: we don’t care! So if you’re brave and try to talk about far-out theological matters with us, we will listen. Obviously I can’t speak for every Christian man, but we are out there, and I believe we far outnumber the weirdos who think otherwise. Or at the least if I’m very much wrong about this, I *know* it’s true on the West Coast. So if you find a guy from California and try to talk with him about the finer biblical teachings of Pneumatology, not only will he listen, he might get intimidated by you because he doesn’t know what that is.

  • Forgedimagination,

    Very well said. I must admit that I don’t know much about the gender issues regarding esoteric vs. practical theological discussion, but my Father-in-Law told me (he is a Baptist minister and a wonderful man) that women are too emotional to be pastors. Well, there you have it, then. Women shouldn’t be pastors. Emotions in the church are bad.

    So, while I know nothing of the esoteric gender wars, I believe they probably exists.

    I think your opening statements lays out the problem rather well: “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.”

    If you are a boy and you like books about boy wizards flying around on brooms and you reject giving it a shot because it was written by a woman, then that means there is something insidious going on in our society. A young boy has not had enough of his own experiences to have read enough books by both men and women to decide that women just can’t write things boys would be interested in. That is a learned behavior.

    As a woman, who was once a girl, when I am book shopping I look at the title, the jacket cover and then I read the description. I might register the author as an afterthought (unless I’ve gone looking for books on a specific author) but I’ve never once put back a book that otherwise sounded interesting because it was written by a man nor am I attracted to books because they are written by women.

    The fact that my Father-in-Law sweetly tells me that I, and my whole gender, are too emotional to be priests and the author’s friend openly dismisses any theological study written by women explains why this gender discrimination still exists. The men who are most looked up to, even in many areas of secular society, to be the barometer of what is acceptable behavior, openly show disdain for women.

  • Carly

    A lot of this comes down to cognitive dissonance, which is a natural reaction for all of us. Once we’ve chosen a belief, a theology, a stance on a political issue, etc. we keep justifying that decision until, in many cases, we’re no longer able to see the opposing viewpoint with any kind of objectivity. It’s usually easy for us to see when others do it, like we can with Diana and Alistair, but it’s much harder to see it in ourselves, which is why they probably don’t. We also tend to make the mistake of making universal claims from our own limited experiences. Alistair has not read any “esoteric” writings by women, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist or that women are not interested in esoteric things. But I’m sure, from his point of view, that he did not intend to be sexist or even realize that it could be taken as a sexist statement. He has not had the kind of subtly (or not so subtly) silencing experiences that many women have. Cognitive dissonance also causes us to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt whenever we make a mistake, but we often don’t show that same level of grace to others (especially people we disagree with). Which, again, leads to more divisiveness in discussions. It also makes it very, very hard for us to admit that we are wrong. If it happens, it’s usually something like, “I’m sorry that you were offended by my remark,” or, “I’m sorry, but I had the best of intentions,” or, “I’m sorry, I was just having a really bad day.” It’s one of the hardest things in the world to just say, “I’m sorry, I was wrong,” without any added self-justification. I know that I personally have a really hard time with that one.

  • “you have people like John Piper telling men to stop reading theological books written by women if the man feels he’s respecting the woman too much”

    That is precisely why I left the Southern Baptists and wound up as a Love is the Whole of the Law Christian (which to most people does not even count.)

    It was the constant, relentless, incredible, dismissal of me as a person. I was a cooker, a cleaner, an incubator. I was expected to dress nicely and smile — I owed it to the males around me. As a geek before geeks were cool, I was expected to never, ever display my intellectual interests. It wasn’t “womanly.”

    I decided that since God had made me this way, She couldn’t have too much of a problem with it 🙂

  • When I read this, I instantly thought of the Eastern Orthodox blogs I read, where this is not an issue. Women participate in the discussions there, which are often of an esoteric spirituality, and are in no way marginalized or denigrated on account of being women. Of course, Eastern Orthodoxy does not suffer the kind of absurd Patriarchalism that this blog addresses. It may also help that Orthodox discourse tends to be “relational,” a thought that occurred to me when I saw that word in the post above. Mind you, Orthodox Christianity is no feminist’s dream come true, but we are not of the view that women are incapable of engaging in esoteric or “elevated” discourse.

    I’m also reminded of something a Deacon in a certain church told me in trying to explain something to me about his daughter, something he said that coincides with the concluding lament of this post: women are emotional, and men are logical. I found the assertion ridiculous, and, as it happens, this particular fellow was anything but logical. That he restrained his emotions in certain ways did not mean that he governed his life by some sort of cool rationalism. Indeed his life, which is to say the life of his would-be patriarchal household, was governed largely by fear, which, i think, qualifies as an emotion (and he acted out of his own abject fear just as much as he sought to instill it in his underlings). His daughter–his adult daughter, I should add–was terrified of him, kept silent most of the time in his presence, and was visibly shaken when she did speak. I had the chance to speak with her about a good many subjects outside the presence of her parents, and she was not lacking in logic or intelligence. Quite the contrary, she was very intelligent and thoughtful. She was merely presumed to be emotional and illogical as a matter of principle, a matter of a certain kind of apostate religious anthropology. She probably even thought it of herself on account of having been trained to think it.

  • UncharterdFollower, I really enjoyed your comments. I agree that California culture is unique and more accepting, but as a female pastor and theologically inclined person, I find large circles of acceptance and many, many of rejection (and I’m born and raised in the L.A. area). But, I am also not from a fundamentalist background at all; those are foreign circles to me.

    And I only point that out here (first time commenting) because that is part of privilege, to not have to live in a world where someone goes out of their way to deny you a place at the table because of your gender. That is not your fault, but it is your reality, and it’s different than mine, even though we share a West Coast home.

    I hope that came out how I mean it–just more of an observation and personal experience. Thanks!

  • I guess I’m fortunate in that, even though my perceptions on this have clearly been influenced by this culture, I actually do really enjoy reading theology from women. Granted, there are some women out there that I just find unreadable because of their writing style and approach (Ann Voskamp’s writing drives me up the wall). But there are men I find unreadable as well. I love this blog though, partly because it’s a great mix of the two approaches to theology, and because it’s exellently written.
    Honestly, I do find myself gravitating toward more esoteric topics, but I’ve also seen a great number of women theologians over the years handle these very well, while at the same time wishing that I could personally be more practical in my theology (my wife is way better at this than I am). Also, for the past 10+ years, my wife and I have been in a Sunday morning class in which the primary teacher/ facilitator is a woman, and she does a really good job with all aspects. (This, in spite of the fact that I attend a conservative Baptist church that is still very traditional in many ways, yet is really trying to break out of that mold.) So I guess I’m a bit spoiled that way.
    Anyway, this is a great blog, and I intend to keep following it.