Neither men nor women ‘have it all’

June 29, 2012


[Episcopal News Service] A 22-year old artist recently shared with me her views on making the world a better place. “Men can’t get pregnant, and that’s just not fair,” she mused. “Maybe there’s an alien race carrying a more highly evolved Z chromosome, and members of this race could get a man or woman pregnant. If they came to the earth and got men pregnant, men would know what it is like to tend the seed planted by another, and birth new life from it. Then men would be more nurturing, and everything would change. Wouldn’t that be great.” As she hurried off to draw a picture of what the alien race would look like, I admired her Generation Y enthusiasm for envisioning a positive future.

She’s not the only one with big ideas on how to forge a new and improved version of American society. In July/August issue of the Atlantic in an article titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton University professor, former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, and a mother of two teenage sons, calls for a social paradigm shift with regard to the arc of a successful career, family values, and the pursuit of happiness. The cornerstone of this new society would be allowing both men and women greater flexibility in when and where work gets done to enable a healthier work-life balance.

One of the major benefits of this shift would be America’s renaissance as an “Innovation Nation,” citing evidence that the lack of innovation in corporate America is linked to a dearth of women and flexibility in the workplace. The momentum for this change is growing in part because of Generation Y males, who are interested in integrating active parenthood with their professional lives. As Ms. Slaughter puts it, “We have a new generation of young men who have been raised by full-time working mothers. Let us presume, as I do with my sons, that they will understand ‘supporting their families’ to mean more than earning money.”

Generation Y, aka the Millennials, born mainly in the 1980s and early 1990s, are largely missing from the Episcopal Church. As a group, these young people tend to be spiritual and not religious, supportive of gay marriage, comfortable with diversity and optimistic about America’s future. If the Millennials were coming to church in greater numbers, some golden calves of Episcopalian liturgical customs would be challenged, such as referring to God as a “He.” In the past 20 years, when the habitual use of male language for all three members of the Trinity has come up in conversation, the lack of formation on the issue was evident. For instance, years ago one white woman priest showed me a book called “She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse” which suggested that the use of male-only language for God is a form of idolatry. We should call God “She” to prove we are not enthralled to idolatrous language for God. Our talk ended when I asked if the author advocated referring to the devil as “she” also.

Another time, a white man priest complained that the language of church had become too feminized, and it was a real turnoff to him and most men. I asked him for an example, and he cited the common use of words like “relationship” and “love.” When I suggested that the language was more masculine than feminine, such as referring to all members of the Trinity with the words “he,” his,” and “him,” he said, “Oh those are just pronouns.”

More recently, there was a conversation on this subject among Episcopalians organized on LinkedIn. In responding to a challenge on this issue by a young white female priest, an older white male priest defended the use of male language for God, saying that traditionally wisdom and the Holy Spirit were understood to be the feminine divine. But when’s the last time you heard “She” used for the Holy Spirit in church?

The “God is male” belief that underlies the official liturgies of the Episcopal Church is at odds with the realities of living in America today. Ms. Slaughter had nothing to say about the role of religious institutions in perpetrating the status quo, but maybe that’s where the sexism problem really originates. Maybe underneath the “He-God” language is this unconscious belief: God has it all, God is male, ergo men can have it all. Because God is not female, women cannot have it all.

As one priest said, “If it’s not in our liturgy, it means that we don’t get it.” So, apparently we don’t get that God is not a male.

The Bible and the church’s other liturgical tools have a wealth of hope and wisdom to bring to today’s concerns, but these old treasures need to be combined with some new ones to be relevant in this time and place. As Jesus put it in Matthew 13:52: “Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

Here’s an old treasure from the storeroom: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28

And here’s a new, modern treasure: God has it all, but God is not a male. Ditto for Christ and the Holy Spirit. Men and women cannot have it all, but the Trinity can.

It’s time we reconsider our language for God, and be open to fresh new ways to describe the indescribable to provide meaningful worship for all generations — and survive as an institution.

Then one day, a visionary article like Ms. Slaughter’s might mention the Episcopal Church as a model for integrating family values and the pursuit of happiness into institutional policies and culture. And one day, we just might be ready to discuss the Z chromosome (and other evolutionary tricks that God might have up Her/His/Its sleeve) at coffee hour with the next generation. And God willing, God will finally say, “These people honor me with their lips and their hearts are very near to me.”

– Phyllis Strupp is the author of Church Publishing’s Faith and Nature curriculum and the author of The Richest of Fare: Seeking Spiritual Security in the Sonoran Desert.

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