Tradition help or hindrance

For an incarnational religion, Christianity has had remarkable difficulty in coming to terms with embodiment. Christian theologians have found it harder than the children of Israel to comprehend how physical and spiritual are united in one creature. Angels or animals have seemed more comprehensible than people.

Human sexuality has been approved, sometimes grudgingly, as a divine arrangement for populating the world. The union of a man and a woman has seemed a matter of duty and obedience; and delight, devotion and even companionship have looked like optional and unofficial extras. Meanwhile, realists have understood that men want pleasure as well as parenthood: so marriage has been conceded the secondary role of providing harmlessly for male waywardness. When women claim the same rights to pleasure as men, longer-term human happiness still goes by default. The reduction of sexual relationship to pleasure constrained by duty is hard enough on men: it is even harder on women.

Christian men and woman may now wish to repudiate these attitudes; but for Christians to abandon tradition is to cut off the branch on which they need to sit. Theology which claims to be Christian can move forward only in some kind of continuity with the past. Something must be done with the world-denying, rigorist and patriarchal tendencies in the Bible and in Christian history.

There is no need to be mesmerized by the choice 'accept asceticism, rigorism, and patriarchy or reject Christianity itself. These ways of thinking, now so unfashionable, are not the whole story of Christian ethics. In this incarnational religion, asceticism has never had its head. Mercy has tempered and even overcome rigorism. Against patriarchy, there has always been some notion that women and men alike are beloved children of God. The story is too complex to be monochrome. From the days of the earliest Churches there have been successes and failures. Christians have been partly responsive, partly deaf to divine inspiration. There is scope for different versions of the complex story. It is not always apparent what counts as success or failure; as obedience, sin or muddle; as insight or prejudice; nor whether new ideas are rooted in faith or rebellion.

People who are confident that twentieth-century knowledge makes nonsense of older beliefs should try to inform themselves more thoroughly what it was like to be alive in earlier times, what seemed obvious, what hopes and fears explain brutality or timidity. In a world without reliable contraception, is it surprising that sexual pleasure was feared, and that women's vulnerability seemed all-important? (Oppenheimer 1990:31; 1991a: 370.) Maybe celibacy is comprehensible if not congenial (Brown 1989). Maybe patriarchy is excusable though not justifiable. Unless Christians can achieve some appreciation of older attitudes, how can they accept the testimony of earlier Christians about the Gospel itself?

On the other hand, people who are confident about the whole tradition might remember that a tree is known by its fruits. Does the history of the actual sufferings of women indicate that God's will has been rightly understood? If we no longer think it part of the natural order for husbands to be entrusted with total control over their wives and families, and if we believe this control has often been abused, is it so evident that Christian faith requires men to be entrusted with total control over Christian ministry?

The conviction is growing today that women are oppressed. The straightforward charge of ubiquitous cruelty is too simple to stick. Millions of women down the centuries have been happy, fulfilled and indeed appreciated. What has been systematically wrong has not been plain unkindness so much as compulsory specialization. Men know that there is more to life than sexuality: for men. They have many possibilities of achieving goodness, success, happiness, fulfilment and of finding satisfying compensation for their failures. They are people first and lovers, husbands, fathers as part of their larger life stories.

Women find it harder to estimate themselves simply as people, assorted human beings: neither denying nor emphasizing their gender. However much loved and respected, they have had to be women first, married or single, attractive or unattractive. Most of their roles have been gender roles. They are faithful wives, comfortable mothers, pretty girls, fair ladies, virtuous matrons or pure virgins. When the gender roles fail, for whatever reason, there are fewer promising alternatives. Among the voices urging women quietly to accept their allotted place, the voices of Christian theologians have not been silent.

In entering into or coming to terms with their tradition, Christians must now let that tradition be confronted with the challenge of feminism. If that challenge is given priority it limits the terms of reference and confines the argument in an adversarial straitjacket. Discussion is reduced to consideration of what gender means, as if gender were all. Feminists and anti-feminists meet in unconstructive attack and defensive replies, while the not-quite-feminists can hardly gain a hearing. But to ignore the challenge is no longer a live option.

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