No more boys and girls: they’re not good enough apparently.

symbol-male-and-female-mdOn the BBC recently there was a two-part programme entitled “No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?” (Still available on the iPlayer at the time of writing). I watched both parts, and the programme was both intriguing and annoying in about equal measure.

The basic premise of the programme is not a new one: we have long debated the most important factor in children’s development – nature or nurture. It’s not clear what is nature (i.e. inbuilt, genetic) and what is nurture (i.e. down to the way that you were brought up, environment etc.) Everyone agrees that both are factors, but there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on exactly how important they are.

This programme took a fairly strong line on ‘nurture’: basically it took the view that men and women were essentially the same, except for a few basic biological differences. In particular, it claimed that male and female brains were the same. The only difference which exists between boys and girls is because they are socialised that way – i.e. they are brought up in different ways. For example, boys don’t have superior spatial skills because of genetics (nature) – they are just given Lego to play with (nurture) and it develops those skills.

The programme tested the hypothesis by trying to make a ‘gender neutral’ classroom, where boys and girls were treated in exactly the same way.

I don’t know where to start with all of this, to be honest.

The biggest question to my mind was simply this: what rationale was given for the whole experiment?

The surface reason was, of course, equality: boys and girls, men and women, should have equality. But no justification of this was given, except for a brief discussion with neuroscientist Gina Rippon about the difference (or lack thereof) between male and female brains. It just seemed to be assumed that girls doing stereotypically ‘girly’ things and boys doing stereotypical ‘boyish’ things was not good enough. If you believed the programme, both boys and girls should be doing the same things – biological sex should simply not count for anything. There was no discussion about equality and how that might work out in this situation.

We are now living in an age where ‘equality’ is paramount. Everything has to be equal – so much so that when same-sex marriage was described as ‘equal marriage’ I suspect it won many supporters. Who wants to be anti-equality, after all? But when the drive for equality overrides even the ability to process fairly common sense observations, it’s all got a bit silly.

A few weeks ago, at the beginning of August, James Damore – senior software engineer at Google – was fired for writing an “anti-equality” memo (you can read it online here). James Damore is a smart guy – he has a PhD in biology – and although the memo was not perfect, the science was basically right (see the response of four scientists here, and a comprehensive review of the science here).

One of the best articles I read in response to the firing was by Ross Douthat. Douthat is a commentator who is often insightful and well worth reading, and this is no exception. He says this:

This growing difference seems to be a striking aspect of modern Western life. In societies where both sexes have greater freedom — and women have more educational and professional opportunities relative to men than in the past — the sexes’ academic interests tend to diverge relative to more traditional societies. And not only their interests but their personalities as well: The more officially egalitarian a society, a credible body of research suggests, the stronger the differences in stereotypically male and female personality traits.

Take a second to think about that: the more officially egalitarian a society, the stronger the differences between male and female interests and personality traits. The harder a society tries to be egalitarian, the less egalitarian it becomes. I find this fascinating, because it goes against pretty much everything that we instinctively believe about equality. I wonder if the problem is that the more ‘gender-neutral’ a society becomes, the more confused men and women are going to be and the more men and women are going to go to the extremes in order to feel secure (or, perhaps, the more people are going to identify as transgender. But that’s another story). When you eliminate traditional male and female roles, how are men and women going to express their identity as men and women?

Douthat goes on:

But since the usual way to reintegrate the sexes is to have them marry one another and raise kids, what Silicon Valley probably needs right now more than either workplace anti-microaggression training or an alt-right underground is a basic friendliness to family, pregnancy and child rearing.

I think he’s hit the nail on the head here. The elephant in the room when it comes to the difference between the sexes is reproduction – and it’s notable how often it is left out of these discussions. Many of those young boys and girls in the BBC show will go on to become fathers and mothers at some point in their lives. Is that of no significance? Is the traditional role of a mother – caring for and nurturing children – valueless now?

During one of our recent general elections (we’ve had so many…) my wife – currently a stay-at-home mum – said that she didn’t feel valued: there was so much  focus on everyone who is able going out to work, where was the commendation for mums (or dads, for that matter) who stay at home to look after the children? Where did any of the political parties come out and say “we value those who raise the next generation”?

One of the privileges of my job is being able to talk to a lot of different people about their lives. As it turns out I’ve spent quite a bit of time chatting to young mums – either through our toddler group or baptism preparation. What I find interesting is that there is a common theme: the mums, by and large, although they may have to work, generally do not want to – most of those I’ve spoken to say they would prefer to be with the children. I have yet to meet a dad who has told me that they would love to be with the kids all day except they have to be out at work.

Equality is a good thing, for sure. I think everyone should have the opportunity to do what they want to do. But, for that same reason, isn’t it wrong to basically be telling children that traditional male and female roles are not just unequal but wrong? Should we be telling them that the only value that society sets on them is as a worker, and the only achievements to be celebrated are academic ones?

I wonder whether creating a ‘gender-neutral’ classroom is actually going to hinder rather than help things. Personally I have found it very helpful in my own life to actually acknowledge differences between the sexes and to recognise the ways that men and women complement and relate to each other. It feels like I am now working with the grain of the universe, rather than against it.

As a Christian, I don’t think this is surprising: being created male and female is there at the beginning, it’s one of the most fundamental things you can say about us as embodied creatures. If you make a classroom ‘gender neutral’, you will not eliminate gender; and, in fact, I believe it will create far more problems as children struggle to work out their identity. This doesn’t mean that equality is not a laudable goal to have, rather that equality of opportunity needs to recognise that boys and girls, men and women might want slightly different things and that is OK. It’s not just OK, it’s good.

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On God “Herself”

Gender“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:18)

On Twitter today, something of a kerfuffle has broken out about whether it’s right to call God using feminine pronouns – ‘her’, ‘herself’, etc. John Bingham wrote about it in the Telegraph yesterday; today Rev Kate Bottley (the Gogglebox vicar) has written about it today in the Guardian. The debate itself has been going for some time now, for example there’s an article in the Christian Today magazine from last year: “Is it wrong to refer to God in the female?”

As I understand it, the arguments for referring to God as female boil down to these:

  • Referring to God exclusively using masculine pronouns devalues women. According to the Telegraph piece above, a spokesperson from WATCH (“Women at the Church”, who campaigned for Women Bishops) said: “to continue to refer to God purely as male is just unhelpful to many people now”. Using exclusively masculine language for God reflects a patriarchal time and there is no reason for it any more.
  • Biblically, male and female are made in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” In other words, because men and women are both created in the image of God, God therefore embodies both male and female characteristics. God transcends our language of gender.
  • Following on from the point above, God is described at various points in the Bible as having feminine characteristics. For example, in Matthew 23:37 Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem … how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” So Jesus uses a femine metaphor to describe himself.

I hope I haven’t misrepresented these arguments or left anything major out – the articles I linked to above have some fuller discussion. However, I remain strongly convinced that the church should not change its liturgy on this matter, and continue to refer to God using masculine pronouns. Once again (like the question of sexuality), I think this issue really boils down to a question of the Bible, its authority and its interpretation.

The most important question for me is the one introduced by the quote I started out with from John’s Gospel. How do any of us know God? John answers that question, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” In other words, Jesus, the Son of God, has made God – the Father – known to us. And, as such, if we are Christian we have to say that the revelation that Jesus gave us of God was a true revelation.

This was significant in the church’s debates around Arianism (around 3rd-5th centuries): for example, when Jesus instructed his disciples to baptise people “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), were those names simply terms of convenience or did they actually represent something important about God? The Arians wanted to make Jesus a created being, and in a sense actually deny that Jesus was a true Son. However, the early church ecumenical councils decided that those names did actually mean something beyond labels of convenience: the Father is a real Father; the Son is a real Son – not in the human sense, but in an eternal sense. Although it is of course true that human language lacks the capacity to describe the infinite, we are nonetheless able to apprehend something of the truth by the terms “Father” and “Son”. So Jesus’ revelation of God is a true revelation, and it reveals that God is eternally Father, Son and Spirit.

I think you can see something of the difference in approaches here by looking at Rachel Held Evans’ blog post about this issue last year (she was accused of heresy for describing God as ‘she’). Rachel says, “while God is often referred to as Father [my emphasis]”. ‘Referred to’? I think rather the traditional orthodox position would be revealed as. If you think that Jesus simply referred to God as ‘Father’ out of convenience rather than out of meaning something significant, that is moving away from a traditional understanding of the Trinity.

Following on from that, was Jesus simply using the words “Father” and “Son” due to the society being patriarchal? Could he, in another society, been born as a woman and called God “mother”? In a nutshell, would it ever be right to call God “Mother, Daughter and Holy Spirit”? I’m always a little suspicious of the patriarchy argument: it seems to be a lazy way of glossing over what the Biblical text actually says, reading back into the text modern notions of patriarchy and assuming that if the Biblical authors had been as enlightened as we are they would have written something different. Whatever you think of these texts, you have to wrestle with Genesis 2:18, 22; 1 Cor 11:3; 1 Tim 2:11-15 and so on. What Kate Bottley does in her article is emphasise the human aspect of the BIble in saying that it was written into a patriarchal context, while seemingly downplaying the divine aspect of the Bible. I believe that the Bible is ‘God-breathed’, although it was written by men it is nonetheless the Word of God. So I think to talk about ‘patriarchy’ is to downplay the fact that God might actually have something to say to us on gender in our society: it overrides anything the Bible might say with our own society’s conceptions of gender (which are not based on the Bible).

It is of course true that there are times when the Bible uses feminine metaphors to talk about God. However, a feminine metaphor is not defining. For example, I know men who have some stereotypically feminine characteristics – does that make them female? No! I simply can’t get past the fact that Scripture always calls God by masculine pronouns – even by Jesus who, as we have already seen, is the only one who ever walked this earth to be in a position to really know!

Incidentally, I do find it interesting that those who advocate for calling God by feminine names (e.g. WATCH, who campaigned vigorously for women bishops) do so on the basis of the differences between men and women. It seems like much of the campaign for women bishops rested on minimising if not erasing differences between men and women (such as the constant misuse of Galatians 3:28). Although I am aware that many did not campaign in this way, the idea that there could be any actual God-ordained differences between men and women was often downplayed. So I think there is a tension there, although I won’t go into that now.

Anyway, in summary, I don’t think changing our liturgy to include God ‘herself’ would be a good thing!