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The Science of Sexists: where its heart isn’t

December 8, 2011

Suzanne’s post has me asking, Why is Denny Burk a Complementarian? I ask it again reading Burk’s blogpost where he says how he reads (and shows how he fails to read) Scot McKnight’s very brief ebook,

I do know why. Here is Burk’s hang up that prevents him from seeing his wife and women in his congregation as equal with himself. He says:

“At the heart of McKnight’s argument … is a critical weakness….

The bottom line issue [that McKnight ostensibly has not refuted well] is Junia’s relationship to the apostles [Junia, who was not a man and her non-inclusive relationship with the apostles, who were men and were inherently not women].”

In another post, I could go on showing all the particular blindspots of Burk with respect to McKnight’s newest publication. However, in this post, I want to try to offer my answer to that question, Why?  There is no relationship of Junia, a woman, among the apostles, men, according to Burk. Rather, there is God-ordained separation. I understand this line of thinking well.

I was startled today to see it beyond my own religious upbringing and still in very objective science. Let me mention that at the end of this post. Let me first suggest why so profoundly I understand Burk’s position.

My own father was a Complementarian. It was a position he believed the Scriptures taught. It was a position he practiced. It was a position he argued for in his evangelical Christian missionary work. (Like Burk, my father was an ordained and practicing pastor; they belong to the same denomination.)  Complementarianism was a position that my father exercised in our family. My mother was his help-meet. In the early 1960s, another woman, an African American woman, was The Help in our household.

My father would have agreed with Denny Burk’s statement: “There’s no Complementarian cover-up—just a difference over interpretation, a difference with profound implications for the life of the church.” My father, who knows logic and used it well, was on guard for the profound implications.

The last time I remember being in the same room with him as he publicly presented his Complementarian case was at my dissertation defense. My mother, my wife, and one of our daughters was also there, in the audience. But, after the faculty members on my committee had asked all of their questions, and after I had answered them, my father was the one who, from the audience, questioned the findings of my research and challenged the implications. In my dissertation, and for its defense, I had been examining the sexist principles of Aristotle, the science that seemed to lead him to his view that females are faulty and abnormal and unnatural beings in any species.

Quite predictably, the science of sexists relies on this simple (if complex and not at all simplistic) principle:

Objectively observable difference in nature is hierarchically ordered.

(Yes, I know. The logical fallacy of “begging the question” abounds here. But there is a definite and precise logic here anyway. If you observe the “other” as different from you in terms of sex – which could mean biology difference, or psychology difference, or sociology difference, and maybe compounded by race difference and by class difference and by nationality difference and by education difference and by language difference and by gender difference and so forth – if you are born male, then you are normal and superior. Power and position depends on these innate and/or God-given differences.) We struggle with precision, and this was exactly the point of issue for my father at my dissertation defense. He needed “difference,” real and precise difference, the sort that so much of Aristotle’s science depended on. I don’t know if I can paraphrase this any better than in the language of Nancy Mairs who says, “The fundamental act of sexists is to bifurcate with precision.” Well, to be precise, Mairs actually wrote that this way:

In order to get what he wants, then, the father must have power to coerce those around him to meet his demands. To have power is to alienate oneself, however, because power is always power over and the preposition demands an object. The fundamental structure of patriarchy is thus binary: me/not me, active/passive, culture/nature, normal/deviant, good/bad, masculine/feminine, public/private, political/personal, form/content, subjective/objective, friend/enemy, true/false. . . . It is a structure, both spatial and temporal, predicated upon separation, not relation. It demands rupture, the split into halves engendered by the abrupt erection of the phallus: those who have and those who have not. It speaks the language of opposites. . . [in] a dimorphic world.

To be fair, Complementarians — who say that God assigns higher roles to husbands than to wives, and higher positions to men generally in his organization of his people than to women, and positions of ownership of other humans to masters of slaves – can be kind people.  Abuse is not advocated, if the slave obeys and if the master is loving.  Hence, there’s co-operation and complement.  Difference can be kind, and yet the “others,” the ones who are under in the hierarchy, must be silent or must be silenced.  Pockets of silence have existed, as Cheryl Glenn rather precisely puts it, for “the past twenty-five hundred years in Western culture.”  This morning, I was quite shocked to learn of yet another pocket of silence, in science.  One more little note before I get to that, because there is, I think, hope for change, if there’s work to do.

Now, the rest of the story for my father is that he got a death sentence. Literally. He has a disease that his physicians have called terminal. It is just amazing to watch him change. He is calling his Complementarianism unfounded; he is apologizing for all of his many abuses; he preaches to his family now only “unconditional, unselective love”; he practices that too; he refers to his spouse now as his equal, as created in God’s image, as his best friend and his soul mate. Because of his health, he is much dependent on her leadership, on her help; but he does not think of or treat my mother as his helpmeet. He encourages his daughters in law as much as his sons; he champions his granddaughters as strongly as he does his grandsons.  I can only imagine what you might be thinking as you read this. “Well, isnt’ that nice?” Or “So what? What’s that got to do with me?” Or, “I wonder if the sexism in science that this blogger was referring to really is real?”

If so, then let me try to startle you the way Barbra Streisand startled me this morning. I was reading her Huffington Post essay on medicine and science, but how still sexist it is, this late in human history. You might really value science and medicine, as I do. What if at the heart of it, figuratively and literally, there is sexism there? Streisand says, “a boys club still exists in the medical sciences.” Why? It’s a good question. Now ask it as you read or listen to what she tells us. What are the “profound implications for the life” of any of us when our healthcare for females is lesser than it is for males?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 8, 2011 10:48 pm

    Interesting. A woman’s average age for being diagnosed with breast cancer is about 60, and average age of dying of breast cancer is 68. But the average age of a woman dying of heart attack is 70. However, many more women die of heart attack than breast cancer. But think of all the women in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s living with breast cancer who have raised awareness for their disease. Clearly it points to a need for visibility and speaking out. Women can’t ever give up on speaking out in areas of need.

  2. December 9, 2011 8:41 am

    Great post.

    When you ask why a person is a Complementarian (by which you seem to mean primarily the stricter end of that spectrum – I know a few self-described complementarians who seem to mean mostly “there’s a male headship clause that could be invoked but in 25 years of marriage it never has”) there are, obviously, multiple factors involved.

    At one point I thought a lot of the less-awful motives were related to simple conservatism – if we couldn’t read the Bible “plain” how would we read it? How many would fall away in the unmaking of the old ways before the new ways were set up? I’ve run into a few characters like this who seem to be apologetic about their attitude towards women but feel that a greater principle is at stake. (And, of course, someone like John Piper or Wayne Grudem is dreadfully predictable across the board, engaged in defending a long line of Protestant Tradition [I entirely mean that as a parallel to Catholic Tradition] against new readings.)

    More recently I’ve run across a new motive. I meet a lot of younger men who seem to be unclear how one would be a man. Male culture always seems to have some connections to an honor system where one starts at zero and builds up to honor, manhood, or whatever. So there’s a sense that they need to prove themselves somehow to be a man. (This also has the awful effect that losing status makes one a not-man, a woman. If you’ve ever heard a complementarian preacher struggle to find something to say for the second part of a paired sermon about men and women you’ve seen this in action. Within this view women are inherently boring because being a man is being a woman plus awesome.) Our culture no longer provides any clear rites of manhood (our latest surviving one was probably marriage, but nowadays people are often out of their parents’ houses for years before they marry). This leaves some young men feeling lost. Complementarianism provides an easy answer: men have roles x, y, and z. They also happen to be cool roles that feed into basic human drives. There’s a natural audience for this these days, the unfortunate by-product of progress.

    Obviously, there are also people who are just mean. However, I think that the middle category of people will be where a lot of growth (or, hopefully, just less decline) in the complementarian population occurs.

  3. December 9, 2011 7:42 pm

    Women can’t ever give up on speaking out in areas of need.

    Amen, Suzanne!

    This leaves some young men feeling lost. Complementarianism provides an easy answer: men have roles x, y, and z. They also happen to be cool roles that feed into basic human drives.

    Great point. Is there really anything new under the sun? Did John Eldredge really invent “wild at heart”? And isn’t there still bait but also the old switch? Is Paige Patterson actually the first man to warn other men about women? In his letter to his seminarians (men), he writes:

    “Unfortunately, the feminization not only of the social order in general but also of the local church in particular has pushed men increasingly away from the center. Without a doubt women have played a strategic role in the church for 2,000 years, operating often quietly behind the scenes but with a stupendous faith. Perhaps women have always been in the majority within the constituency of the churches, but a fair assessment would also have to conclude that present trends in the social order and in the church are not hopeful.”

    So it’s not only “Man’s liberation” but it’s also “Danny get your gun,” all over again. Come on, boys just want to have fun. And watch out for the girls.


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