Complementarianism and Darwinism

Complementarianism and Darwinism November 14, 2012

The facts are clear: Charles Darwin sketched animal behavior, and one good example is that of how male and female pheasants interacted, in the mode of Victorian theories of the relation of the sexes. Stephen C. Barton, in his excellent essays on “Interpreting Gender After Darwin” (in Reading Genesis After Darwin), quotes Cynthia Russett’s well-known study of the Victorian construction of womanhood, with these words: “men produced, women reproduced…. This was called complementarity” (182).

One should not finally blame the theory of complementarianism on Darwin, nor even perhaps on the Victorians, for it was surely at work in human history before them. What we might need to ponder is if the modern theories of complementarianism owe more to a Victorian construct or a Victorian ideal than to the Bible.

How has a knowledge of history, church history, theological history, ecclesial history shaped your thinking about males and females? Re-shaped? 

So Barton sketches a history worth our pondering. An issue here is reductionism — females reduced to reproduction — and determinism — this is what they are here for. Gender cannot be reduced or become deterministic. Gender has a history, and he explores it.

Classical tradition, biblical tradition, Hellenistic Judaism, earliest Christianity … and draws a few ideas together: the self was gendered in antiquity; the male was valorized positively and the female negatively, leading to destructiveness and impoverishment of women; the female body is marked “as the primary locus of the human quest for identity, meaning, and transcendence” (189); myths of origins were powerfully influential for social patterns of behavior, including what it means to be male or female; in Jesus and the early church possibilities of transformation were opened up — the Body of Christ and male/female.

Late modernity and postmodernity has seen a colossal shift on body and male/female relations. [Here’s the irony for so much of conservative Christianity: individualism breeds equality and rights; individualism is the heart and soul of American, Western, evangelical forms of Christianity; therefore, that commitment makes ironic its desire, at times, to establish a less individualistic, complementation form of relations.] The older sex in nature is mirrored in gender in culture has been challenged in postmodernity. Gender is now seen as socially constructed, breaking the connection that was assumed between culture and nature. In fact, nature itself is now seen more and more as a social construct. Put differently, gender and sex are influenced enough by social constructs that we need to do more serious thinking of the relation of our complementarianism and egalitarian postures to social structures and locations.

Now to Genesis 1:26-27: we now know that male-female relations mirror social power structures and we can expect the same of the Bible.  Barton contends we need to read the Bible with Augustine and Barth, that is, both christologically and eschatologically. Here he mentions John 1:13 (“not of the will of the male  but of God”) and Paul’s “one in Christ” theme. There is, then, a new eschatological identity at work in the New Testament. This also means we need to learn to read the Bible together — males and females — to discern what male and female mean.

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