When studying for my MA in Philosophy, I began to develop a fascination for the human body, or specifically its contribution to our sense of who we are.
I wrote my dissertation on the theme of how we treat dead bodies, because it struck me that every culture has some kind of ritual or meaningful practice surrounding human death. Many of these cultures seem to feel the need to treat the corpse with respect, even when they believe the ‘real person’ is no longer present in it but has gone on to ‘a better place’ (or has simply vanished, if they don’t believe in an afterlife).
I never did manage to get my head around what that tells us, how we should interpret this almost universal instinct, but I do think it’s important.
At the recent THINK conference (run by Andrew Wilson, with whom I (sporadically) blog on the website ThinkTheology) I was given cause to think about the topic from a different angle. The conference was about the theology of complementarity – the idea that men and women are created equal in value, but complementary in form and function. That may seem obvious to most of us, but there are certain strains of thought that either reject any suggestion of difference between the sexes, or hold that the differences are so vast as to inevitably lead to conflict.
During the Q&A at the end of the conference, someone asked whether there were any inherently male or female traits/characteristics other than bodily ones. In a way, the foundations of the answer to this had been laid at the very beginning of the conference, in this talk by Jen Wilkin, which we watched on video.
One of Jen’s illustrations, which I’ve also heard elsewhere, concerns what men and women think about when walking down a dark alley alone. Basically, men aren’t thinking much at all, whereas women are thinking, ‘Was that a noise? What’s down there? I’d better put my keys between my fingers so I can use them as a weapon if I’m attacked. There was a shop open on the corner that I can run back to if I need to…’ In other words, “Men outgrow vulnerability; women don’t.” This awareness of their own vulnerability is what predisposes (most) women to be compassionate to others, to be aware of their vulnerabilities and to look out for each other.
So when it came to the question about traits of men and women other than bodily ones, we had already seen that things like compassion may seem to be purely emotional/relational traits, but are actually formed by the reality that we are embodied beings.
The body you have grown up in, that you walk around in every day, that appears to you in the mirror and that requires you to shave bits of it (or not), comb bits of it (or not), and cover bits of it (or not) – this body has a significant impact on how you view the world.
I think Jen was being perhaps a little generous when she said that women understand our monthly cycle as being a parable about the shedding of blood being necessary to bring about new life (I mean, it makes sense, and I can see her point, but I’ve certainly never thought of it in that way before!). Yet her observation that men, in contrast, only bleed when something is wrong, seemed to me a significant one.
Hannah Anderson, speaking later in the conference, also drew attention to the fact that women’s monthly cycles tells us something about who we are: they tell us we are designed for motherhood. Men’s sex drive tells them they are designed to go forth and multiply. The two are required to come together in union in order to fulfill the purpose they are designed for, but it would not be surprising to find that men’s tendency to operate in life through a framework of agency and drive, and women’s tendency to take a more nurturing approach are shaped by their physicality and what their bodies tell them about who they are. (I’m speaking in massive, sweeping generalities here, of course, and employing very broad stereotypes, but one reason stereotypes become stereotypes is because they are recogniseable to most people.)
What I’m not saying, and what the conference wasn’t saying, is that if you’re female you must have children otherwise you’re in some way invalidating yourself, not living the way you should, or failing.
One of the attendees seems to have heard it this way – that women’s only role is to be biological mothers. She commented in articles afterwards that she didn’t know how the teaching would relate to adoptive mothers or childless women, but I felt that the speakers were very clearly saying that our biology informs our interaction with the world at every level, and in particular ought to help us as we navigate the questions about how men and women should relate to each other in a church setting.
As a childless woman myself, I certainly didn’t feel as though I was being in any way excluded from their vision of flourishing womanhood. In fact, I felt a huge amount of affirmation throughout the conference for the vital role women have, in and through their femininity, in creating a rounded church body that fully reflects God’s design – male and female, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. I wrote more about what I think ‘Spiritual Motherhood’ might look like on the Think Theology blog, and the videos of the sessions are now being released (the first was out on Friday, and the rest will presumably be shared gradually, but they seem to be being uploaded on the King’s Church London vimeo page and, at the time of writing, there were four more there, if you just can’t wait to start watching!)