Politics and disputes about gender are about power, writes Gavin Ashenden
I was on a train to Crewe, when the BBC phoned.
I can’t go near Crewe without the delight of the memory of GK Chesterton telegraphing his wife on one if his lecture trips around the country by train, bleating: “Am at Crewe. Where should I be?”
I was being invited to be a guest interviewee on BBC 2’s Newsnight later that evening to todiscuss the fall–out from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s latest foray into gender politics. For me, Newsnight is steeped in the memory of Paxman asking Michael Howard the same question relentlessly, seventeen times. Being invited to talk on the programme was very appealing.
The Most Rev’d Justin Welby had been trying to explain the complexity of God’s gender in a question and answer session in London. It was made more complicated by the foreword he had written in a book on the virtues of transgendering. God of course is beyond gender.Gender is something that describes our biology. It doesn’t describe God. But sometimes truth comes in paradox, and the Bible is forensically clear that God is not made in our image, we are made in His, and He invites us to experience him as our Father.
But we live in a culture where we are consumed by a power struggle between the genders. So this has become a political question as well as a theological one. Like all questions the way you ask it can determine the kind of answer you get.
The theology explores the consequences of using one form of language rather than another. So if you call God ‘She’ you end up with something that resembles a fertility religion or an ecological movement, a sort of ‘Gaia’, instead of Father. If you call God ‘it’, you end somewhere close to Buddhism, with an impersonal energysuffusing the universe, instead of a Being who validates our being.
But Newsnight wasn’t really worried about Gaia or Buddha, it was fussed about patriarchy; and patriarchy means power.
What was at stake was whether or not Christianity was part of an oppressive male–gendered, male–dominating abusive experience.
I tried explaining that the experience of Christmas rooted the Jesus-thing in a mother-centred, woman-willed context, but that cut no ice with my powerful woman interviewer.
I suggested that what we were looking at was an experience of paternal intimacy rather than an abusive power structure, but that didn’t really strike home either.
The BBC, like so much of the media are becoming preoccupied with what they are beginning to call toxic masculinity. No one actually seems to knows what is meant by toxic here, and why or how it is different from toxic femininity. People can be toxic however; maybe that’s as far as it goes.
What is just as damaging as the abuse of masculinity is the abusive attack on masculinity. It’s as if feminism (in its three waves and increasing complexity), didn’t know where to find the brakes and got personal. Maybe that’s toxic femininity?
The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson has being trying to explain how there are consequences to the assault on masculinity going too far. In answer to the constantly asked question “why aren’t there more women directors of FTSE 100 companies?” he suggests that most women are too sensible to sacrifice the whole of their lives to an impersonal company just for prestige, money or power. It’s mainly men who can live with putting things before people and impersonal goals before relationships. So the fact there are so few is not essentially injustice or inequality, but sensible choice.
Asked what the consequences of having so many children grow up without fathers at home, he points immediately to the fact that young un-fathered men seek for a substitute experience of masculinity in gangs.
The tragedy is that the figures show that the vast majority of boys involved in knife crime come from homes with no fathers. Dr Tony Sewell, who himself is black and a member of the Youth Justice Board, observed
“Every boy said that their problems started when their fathers left the home, while others were haunted by the father they never knew….A culture of black masculinity has taken hold …where black men produce children without feeling the need to take responsibility for them…Partly as a consequence of absent fathers, a black feminism has emerged… that sees women as superheroes, capable of bringing up their children just as well without men. The black boys in the youth offending unit would say the opposite.”
It may be that those who suggest abandoningGod’s own preferred personal pronoun, just at the point where masculinity is buckling under a widespread cultural assault, where men have to apologise for being male, is making matters worse not better.
Christmas offers us a narrative where in order for God to break into the human experience, he uses both a woman and a man; a mother and son.
The pattern that sets before us is not equality,but balance and mutual dependency. Everything comes back to the kind of question you ask? Politics and disputes about gender are about power. But being human is about much more than exercising power, it’s also about love.
If religious experience has something to teach politics, it may be about broadening its horizons about what it is to be fully human and paying as much attention to love as to power.