Gender, culture, and different cultures
Andrew Errington has kindly reproduced the entirety of his talk on gender at Sydney Uni EU. It’s a great example of how to talk about this issue for a few reasons:
- He recognises his own privilege and doesn’t dismiss it. Instead, he redirects the conversation towards how Scripture has affected and shaped him, however biased his reading may be.
- He interacts generously with feminism. He highlights its achievements, its evolution and the fact that it’s an ongoing discussion. Feminism is diverse, subtle and thoughtful.
- He carefully exegetes culture before he gets to the Bible stuff. It can be easy to jump to the Bible’s answers without first understanding our culture’s questions but you end up just attacking straw (wo)men. It takes patience, love and humility not to. And is much more productive in the long run!
- His Bible stuff is is multi-dimensional. Creation, corruption and redemption are all on view and taken seriously.
The basis for Andrew’s argument is that our culture’s discussion of gender has been in relation to what is cultural and what is natural. The underlying assumption is that ‘what is natural is worthy of respect in some way, but what is just socially-constructed can be ignored.’ However, Andrew’s reading of the creation accounts suggest that it’s difficult to separate the two: ‘It is part of the way the world was made to be for human beings to develop cultural ways of living and relating.’ Do you notice the affirmation of culture here? In God’s good creation, social constructions are not necessarily bad.
While this combats our own culture’s dismissal of socially constructed roles, Andrew’s next argument is that the Bible doesn’t simply affirm socialised gender roles either. Because of sin, our world and our perceptions of it are distorted, so we ought to ‘hesitate before being too confident about what is a helpful expression of the significance of male-female difference’.
Yet, there’s more to the picture of gender than just creation and corruption: there is also redemption. So ’1 Peter  is a call to a practice that actually dismantles distorted cultural ideas of gender from within, that slowly and subtly undermines male sexism…. He establishes patterns of relating based on mutual respect and the recognition of an ultimate horizon of equality in the kingdom of God.’
I think Andrew has captured the Bible’s story arc well here, an admirable feat on such a controversial topic. And he lets his theology inform his tone; there’s no sense of condescension. It’s the mutuality of men and women that is on view and he brings out principles rather than particular practice. It’s very stimulating food for thought.
Taking this cross-cultural
So here’s my question: do these principles apply differently in different cultures? Or are all cultures on the path to converging into some sort of super-culture in heaven?
I think that, in considering the depiction of many nations, tribes, peoples and languages (e.g. Rev 7), we ought not to expect just one culture in the new creation. To me, the natural implication of Andrew’s argument about cultural development seems to be that different cultural conceptions of gender have the potential to be redeemed in their cultural particularity.
If that’s the case, we ought to be able to affirm not just the development of cultural ways of living and relating, but also the different cultural ways of living and relating. The diversity of cultures ought also to be affirmed, including on the issue of gender.
We can expect the roles men and women play in one society to look different from the roles men and women play in another society. I’m not trying to argue there’s nothing ‘natural’ or gender roles are entirely socially-constructed but rather that we can leave room for the application of the ‘natural’ to look different in different cultures.
It would be a distortion if that application left no room for male-female difference. But while being a woman in, say, Tanzanian culture might look different from being a man in Tanzanian culture, it might also look different from being a woman in Australian culture. While both cultures need redemption, they might still look different at the end of that redemption, which allows us room to allow each other differences now as well.