After Feminism

by Hal Miller

I guess I understand what women mean when they say they feel left out by all this talking Christians do about "brethren," "man's nature," and "God is in His heaven." When one of the hymns for the day is "Rise Up, O Men of God" are they supposed to stand and sing or just watch?

And I guess I understand that well-meaning men often treat women as less than fully human. We subconsciously ignore what they say and treat their ways of thinking as inferior to our own. I understand this because my wife nearly killed me in order to teach me.

So, I guess that, even though I'm male, I understand why feminism is an important issue for Christians to work through. But there have been plenty of articles written and sermons delivered on how thoroughly God is a feminist. My question is: what then? What happens after feminism?

FOR MANY WOMEN, the understanding that God doesn't discriminate against them because they're women has been an insight of the most important kind. It has been an insight from which they cannot go back, one that has irrevocably changed the way they look at all kinds of other things. Other experiences in life are that way as well.

Sometimes people are stumbling along, trying as best they can to walk as Christians, when they turn a corner and see something that stops them in their tracks. The only thing I can compare it to is the first time I saw the Grand Canyon. We were driving along a perfectly average tree-lined road, following a long, creeping line of other cars. I couldn't imagine that we were all in this snail trail to look at the trees; the Arizona desert was far more striking. Besides, you could drive faster.

Then we rounded a corner and the trees stopped. I saw one car after another blink its brake lights and jerk a little. I craned my neck to see where the accident was. And then I looked to my right. And hit my brakes. The vista was astonishing¾ the canyon was so vast that the pictures I had seen seemed like jokes. I quit watching the car in front of me and just gaped.

The same thing happens when you realize God is not an aged male and certainly doesn't think women inferior to men. Becoming a Christian feminist is a kind of Grand-Canyon experience. The insight alters your perspective irrevocably: the way you think about yourself changes, the way you read the Bible changes, the way you relate to others changes.

But then what next? What happens after you've seen the God-is-a-feminist Grand Canyon? I suppose you try to talk others into seeing it, at least for awhile. But¾ people being what they are¾ many are too lazy to make the trip. Some may even try to tell you that the Grand Canyon doesn't exist, that it's just a figment of some artist's imagination or trick photography. That's a little demoralizing. Some people, naturally, will be curious enough to go with you to see it, especially if they are inclined to believe in such things as Grand Canyons in the first place.

Is that it? Does becoming a Christian feminist really just result in becoming a tour guide for others to see the vista? Perhaps, at least in part. But people who have seen the Grand Canyon of Christian feminism usually aren't so one-sided. In fact, people go a lot of places after feminism, some good and some not so good.

THE NOT-SO-GOOD ONES are pretty easy to identify. For some women, after feminism is bitterness. Sexual bigotry is built into our world at so many different levels and in so many subtle ways that it seems impossible to eradicate it. What am I to do with a language that recalcitrantly uses the word "he" to stand in place of any human being, male or female? What am I to do with a country that won't even ratify an equal rights amendment or a church which won't move into its future out of misplaced faithfulness to its past? Bitterness is an easy destination to reach.

Men come to this bitter destination after feminism much less frequently than women. Men, after all, can opt for the status quo in little ways to try to keep their sanity. I have even known men, though, to become bitter at the unwillingness of those around them to even try to let go of male bias.

Then there's suppression. Suppression is where the "realists" among us go after feminism. Faced with the same immobility of sexual bigotry that drives others to bitterness, these worthy souls simply bracket the insight that changed their lives and try to live more or less happily in the terms dictated by our dominant culture. I suppose we all suppress our great insights to a greater or smaller degree in the interest of getting along with others, and there's really nothing wrong with that. But ultimately suppressing an insight as important as Christian feminism is a not-so-good destination, to be sure.

People end up both these places¾ bitterness and suppression¾ after feminism because they lack a social context in which they can allow their insight to grow and develop. The general culture is too immobile to change easily; if we don't have a smaller culture which supports our insights about the mutual relation of the sexes, bitterness or suppression seem to be the most easily available alternatives, because creating a new context takes a lot of thankless work. And we all have enough of that to do already.

But there is one more place people go after feminism: they don't. These are the dogged fighters for a principle who, for some reason, become so fixated on their feminist insight that it becomes the organizing point of their whole lives. Every conversation, no matter what the topic, becomes a conversation about feminism. Every social ill, from the nuclear balance of terror to the malaise of public schools, results from male dominance. Women would be better off just seceding from church or society and building their own, because it has become obvious that men are some kind of throwback, the missing link between apes and human beings.

Of course, a church or society composed entirely of women (or men, for that matter) would last exactly one generation; whatever else we do, we've got to learn to get on together or we won't get on at all. But that isn't the most serious problem with not going anywhere after feminism. Understanding that God does not discriminate based on gender is such an important insight that it needs to have its impact on every aspect of life, and to transform it. It even needs to transform itself. Feminism that gets stuck in feminism is really just reverse discrimination. Genuine feminism goes on after feminism to transform itself into a life that humanizes women and men together.

LIFE AFTER FEMINISM, a life in which the insights of feminism have transformed feminism itself, is only possible under certain conditions. It needs at least a partial incarnation of a new society in which, as Paul said, "there is neither male nor female." In such a context, the insights of feminism can flower and propagate other new growths as well.

For instance?

One of the first items that went on the agenda of Christians who had seen the importance of feminism was "the ordination of women." It became a litmus test for determining who among the saints had really seen that women and men, in the church at least, need to live in a mutual relation. Some denominations even went so far as to establish quotas: if you didn’t have the right number of women among your elders or pastors, the hierarchy would come and correct you.

Unfortunately, as important as the ordination of women seemed at the time, it did not see deeply enough into the problem. Our understanding of ordination usually works out to mean that some people¾ now women as well as men¾ are placed over others (the "laity"). But this is at odds with the root of the feminist insight that "over" and "under" are passé concepts in God's new society. Maybe what is necessary is not ordaining women per se but rethinking what we mean by ordination in the first place.

For instance?

Once you turn the corner and see the Grand Canyon, you start to read the Bible with renewed eyes. It becomes obvious that what the New Testament says about the relation of women and men is different from what we have always been told it says. But this isn't just true about men and women; in many ways the Bible speaks a different word than we were told. When you start to pay attention to what it actually says, it doesn't give much support to many of our existing church structures. It doesn't treat war as a necessary evil. And it doesn't put its seal of approval on an economic system that rewards greed and luxury while penalizing compassion and beneficence.

Feminism can shock you into reading the Bible without the spectacles of what you've always been told. After feminism, we need to continue that reading, seeing not just the texts that affirm the mutuality of the sexes but also the Christian "bias" toward the poor (they're the ones the gospel is for) and the insidious danger of luxury.

For instance?

Feminism makes you a little more discerning about the songs you sing. I don't mean songs that call God "he" and "father"¾ these are innocuous if they are not overdone. I've never been particularly keen on the idea of purging the English language for ideological reasons. I know (now) that God isn't a male, but occasionally referring to the One I worship as "he" or even "king" doesn't offend me when the other choices are either butchering the language or restricting the range of metaphors we allow ourselves. It's possible to overdo it, of course, and if you always call God "father" or "he" maybe it does say something about how male you think God is. But as long as you can call God "father" and still say in your mind "no she's not" there's probably nothing much to fear from words.

This is even more the case with songs written in past ages. Some revision of language is possible, but some is not without making the song a different song. What we should do is simply write some new ones rather than worry about "correcting" the old ones.

Yet going on after feminism should make you unable to sing some songs. I can't sing "Onward, Christian Soldiers" anymore. Even though it never refers to God as "he," it's too bellicose and masculinized to fit with a renewed vision of God. I certainly can't sing "Rise Up O Men of God," not just because it leaves more than half the church unable to rise up, but because its theology is a disaster area. "The church for you doth wait" is simply a lie. If the church waited for "men" to get on with bringing new life, the Christian movement would still have only eleven members. What the church really doth wait for is for men to lighten up and begin to function with women as the family of God rather than as a doctrinaire Rotary Club.

For instance?

The list could go almost indefinitely, but one more will do. Going on after feminism should transform our understanding of politics. Men tend to attack political problems in terms of a balance of power and justice. Our political theories focus on how to distribute (or consolidate) power in ways that foster just relations among people. After feminism, it becomes plain that¾ for Christians anyway¾ another issue is of decisive importance: transforming both power and justice with love.

Feminism has a quest for justice: equal pay for equal work, equality under the law, equal standing in the church. But now¾ after feminism¾ this doesn't see deeply enough. The quest for equality unfortunately required that women transform themselves into surrogate men, while the men continued to set the rules of the game by which both sexes had to play. All we need are more "men" on this planet, playing acquisitive power-games with each other.

After feminism we can see that the whole way of stating the problem was self-defeating. We don't need a new way of balancing power and justice but a new society in which love transforms justice and channels power. Not that justice is unimportant; but the measure of a truly just society is its willingness to dispense with abstract justice for the sake of loving the marginalized and voiceless among us. And that's why Christians after feminism have questions about abortion on demand, even though it might be a woman's right.

AFTER FEMINISM? We've got to go somewhere, for human history is in constant motion, and if we don't move on with the truth we have glimpsed we will move on without it. God has chosen to move with that history by the Spirit rather than sitting placidly above it in divine splendor. After feminism we face the task of allowing God to humanize us and our institutions more thoroughly than would be possible if we simply stayed with the insight that God is a feminist. For God is more than a feminist, too.