Male and Female

Male and Female November 12, 2018

Barth is no feminist. In his discussion of man and woman (CD 3.4), he insists on the created differences between male and female. Men and women must resist the temptation “to exchange their special vocations, what is required of the one or the other as such” (154). Instead, “each man and woman owes it not only to himself but also to the other always to be faithful to his own sexual characteristics” (154).

He launches an attack on the explicit androgynous ideal of Nicholas Berdyaev, and the implicit androgyny of Schleiermacher. He recognizes in certain forms of feminism a desire to be liberated from created constraints, “the freeing of man in the form of his emancipation . . . from sex” (162).

Not only are men and women different, but there is a divine design in the order of their relation to one another, an order of “succession, and therefore precedence and following, super- and sub-ordination,” though he also rightly insists that this order doesn’t imply any “inner inequality between those who stand in this succession and are subject to this order” (170).

That a man is “A” and not “B” isn’t ground for privilege or advantage: “This order simply points him to the position which, if he is obedient, he can occupy only in humility, or materially only as he is ordered, related and directed to woman in preceding her, taking the lead as the inspirer, leader, and initiator in their common being and action” (170).

Men and women together submit to the order that God has established. Paul speaks of the woman’s subjection, but “in such a way that the emphasis is on mutual adaptation and co-ordination.” A woman doesn’t bow to the authority of the man but to the taxis to which both man and woman are subject (172). Both sides of the relationship manifest the reality of Christ, in whom “the superiority and also the subordination . . . first take place” (173).

So, Barth isn’t a feminist. But he doesn’t have any patience for those who, like Emil Brunner, who try to enumerate the social and psychological differences between men and women. Brunner writes, “The man must be objective and universalize, woman must be subjective and individualizel; the man must build, the woman adorns; the man must conquer, the woman must tend; the man must comprehend all with his mind, the woman must impregnate all with the life of her soul” (quoted 152).

Barth says this “cannot be said or heard in all seriousness,” since none of these generalizations can be stated with any “real security”: “They cannot be stated in such a way that probably every third man and certainly every second woman does not become agitated and protest sharply against the very idea of seeing themselves in these sketches” (153).

The problem is to transform “these rather contingent, schematic, conventional, literary and half-true indicatives” into imperatives: “Real man and real woman would then have to let themselves be told: Thou shalt be concerned with thins (preferably machines) and thou with persons! Thou shalt cherish the mind, thou the soul! Thou shalt follow thy reason and thou thy instinct! Thou shalt be objective, and thou subjective! Thou shalt build and thou merely adorn; thou shalt conquer and thou cherish etc. ! Thou shalt! This is commanded thee! This is thy task!” (153).

Barth is especially worried that these imperatives will be taken up into the battle of the sexes and become weapons in that battle: “Who can say whether the imperatives thus acquired, even if they command notice, will not be simply challenges in that conflict” (153).

He doesn’t deny that these typologies may have value and a certain kind of truth. But he denies that they can become “a valid law for male and female.” What is important for a theological ethics of male and female isn’t the psychological or physical tendencies of the two sexes. We may make accurate generalizations but cannot turn those into imperatives. The issue is the particular differentiation of male and female under the command of God.

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