The Making of Biblical Womanhood and the Missing Mother of God (Part 2)
This is Part 2 of the article: read Part 1 here.
Losing Our Virginity: From Celibate Monastics to Smokin’ Hawt Wives
In The Making of Biblical Womanhood, Beth Allison Barr notes, “Before the Reformation, women could gain spiritual authority by rejecting their sexuality. Virginity empowered them.” This puts a bit of a damper on the Protestant claim that we redeemed sex from the Platonic distaste of our forebears. What if what we assumed was prudery was actually empowering?
Not every nun at the time of the Reformation sought a clandestine escape into the arms of a former monk: many wept at the monasteries’ dissolution, at the loss of their freedom and sisterhood, at the forced breakage of their vows. If Protestantism provided a path for women to embrace the goodness of their sexual desires within marriage, that good sex came at a cost, as Barr writes: “women’s alternatives to marriage decreased, and their dependence on their husbands (economic, political, legal, etc.) increased” after the Reformation.
The evangelical stay-at-home-mom/“smokin’ hawt wife” has replaced the virgin as the church’s feminine ideal, but I’m unconvinced that such “sex positivity” counts as progress. It’s simply a trade-off with its own set of issues, not least among them the shaming, hand-wringing, and tone-deafness of the church toward her singles. Once we decided to elevate married sex to a higher status, we apparently had to make sure everybody was getting some (including Mary—a breach in the tradition of her perpetual virginity that would have shocked Luther himself).
To Luther, Mary was the only one who could possibly manage it: “That unhappy state of a single person, male or female, reveals to me each hour of the day so many horrors, that nothing sounds in my ear as bad as the name of monk or nun or priest.” When our modern ears (so-tuned) hear of the medieval ideal of virginity, it may strike us as sexual repression, a denial of our true nature, identity, and fulfillment. But what it meant for women at the time was a radical symmetry of the sexes, of a kind that would ultimately be eternal: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven” (Matt. 22:30 NKJV).
While the Reformers fled from the “horrors” of singleness to the joys of marriage for all, Catholics maintained that sex had a shadow side of its own. Aphrodite and Hades are one and the same, the ancient Greeks thought, and the early church agreed: sexual reproduction is intertwined with mortality. The church recognized celibacy as a symbol of everlasting life in Christ: by removing herself from the uroboric “circle of life,” which starts with sex and ends in death, the monastic proclaims her resurrection citizenship in heaven and pulls that eschatological hope into the here-and-now. Saying “no” to sex is saying “no” to death.
The Making of Biblical Womanhood describes how the Protestant rejection of monasticism led to a narrowing of the horizons for women, away from the possibility of a heavenly (albeit disembodied) equality with men to a very earthy sexual imperative that still shapes the evangelical male gaze today. Rachael Denhollander, an advocate for sex abuse survivors, views the sexual abuse scandals permeating the SBC as a theological problem rooted in a faulty view of manhood and womanhood common in conservative evangelical circles (remember Mark Driscoll’s sermons on womanhood and sex?). This perspective distills women down to their sexuality as experienced by men. Denhollander describes it this way:
[W]omen are sexual beings who are either a danger [to male purity] or a means to an end [male fulfillment]. … [W]hen your understanding of sexuality is male-oriented only … you’ve defined womanhood by their status as submissive and by their identity as a sexual being. You have adopted a pornographic view of womanhood, and it should be no surprise to us that women then become either treated as sexual objects, or it doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal to anybody when they are.
The celibate monastic life and Mary’s perpetual virginity bore witness that women are full and complete human beings who embody the image of God even when they aren’t having sex and never will. It’s not as though a woman is half human until sexually “completed” by a man, and vice versa. The complementarity of male and female isn’t that of two halves making a whole, but of two wholes making something entirely new (such as a family). Honoring virginity as a permanent state and not as a waiting room for “real life” reminds us of the integral wholeness of the individual and pushes back against a pornographic view of women.
The Asymmetry of Sex and the Symmetry of Siblings
When it comes to sex, only one partner is capable of the “temporary symbiosis”1 of pregnancy and breastfeeding. Males reproduce outside their bodies while females reproduce inside their bodies. This reproductive asymmetry2 attunes the female body and mind to the existence of a new kind of Whole (the mother-infant dyad), and it also increases female vulnerability and dependency. Hospitality to another human being within your womb and your arms is a form of care that necessarily (for a season) involves constraints on mothers, and therefore requires fatherly support and communal investment.
A variety of cultural assumptions and practices have developed out of the ongoing struggle between men and women to negotiate this sexual asymmetry—from morally neutral divisions of labor and gender roles, to misogynistic attitudes and patriarchal hierarchies.3 Many common and common-sense gendered divisions of labor were carved into stone by traditional societies as top-down “divine design,” thus mistaking practical logistics and preferences for moral mandates. Aristotelian assumptions about the sexes—that the male is active and the female passive, that the male sphere is public and the female private, that the male is the initiating “seal” pressing his will into the receptive female “wax”—were unfortunately taken up by the church,4 and required centuries to be redeemed into a synergistic relationship of mutual respect rather than a one-way biological hierarchy.
When the medieval church carved out and hallowed a sex-free space (the monasteries), it legitimized and honored the exception to the rule (singleness) without undermining the rule (marriage). Holy celibacy gave men and women some elbow room to be themselves in dedication to God, and to be looked up to by the surrounding culture, without having to inhabit the gender roles and divisions of labor that sexual asymmetry naturally settles folks into.
Male and female monastic virgins would not relate to each other on the basis of reproductive asymmetry but would instead be like “angels of God in Heaven.” Particularly when all-male monasteries and all-female monasteries existed side by side, men and women had the chance to experience gendered but nonsexual friendship (look up Hildegard and Volmar, or St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross). By dismantling celibate monasticism as a legitimate path for the minority who were called to it, the Reformers erased a vital symbol of the radical resurrection equality of men and women—of their symmetrical status as eternal brothers and sisters.
From the fourth century up until the Reformation, this symbol of celibacy coexisted alongside the matrimonial symbol of Christ the Bridegroom wedded to the church his Bride (Eph. 5). Both the resurrection symmetry of virginity and the fruitful asymmetry of married sexuality shine with heavenly light. When we look back to the beginning in Eden, Male and Female are spouses. When we look forward to the consummation, Male and Female are like siblings. The joint symbolism of marriage and monasticism gives us a picture of the sexes that is spacious and flexible enough to encompass both the biological facts and our eternal trajectory. Marital vows and monastic vows were both honored sacraments until the Protestant “focus on the family” upset the balance.
And to bring things back to the missing Mother of God, notice how Mary combines these opposites of marriage and celibacy into one person: the “Virgin Mother,” the “Unwedded Bride,” Edenic and eschatological, both fruitful and untouched by man. Mary merges the three archetypal phases of female life—maiden, mother, and matriarch5—into one saturated image. She became an icon for a reason, and good luck finding a better one.
Playing the Part or Making a Play for the Pulpit?
Barr made a strong case in her book for the freedom of women to teach, preach, and lead according to their gifts (which thoroughly convinced me), but I would have liked to have heard more from her on women’s ordination. I consider preaching (a prophetic role), teaching and leading (wisdom roles), and priestly/pastoral ordination (a sacramental role) to be different things. Barr seemed to use all four callings almost interchangeably in her book without delineating them. And I think it’s because of this looseness with terms (and likely a lack of space) that she didn’t address head-on the one reason I still find compelling for restricting ordination to men: the symbolism.
The liturgy of a worship service is an enacted allegory in which the symbols are dramatized. The pastor/priest represents Christ the Bridegroom to the church his Bride. It’s fitting, then, that Christ be “played” by a man—and all of us in the pews are collectively feminine. We’re playing Mary: we consent to God’s saving plans, are overshadowed and filled with the Holy Spirit, and bear Christ’s presence into the world. But if ordination is not viewed sacramentally/dramatically as a representation of Christ, then it becomes functional, instrumental—a job—and we’ve traded the realm of allegory for that of hiring committees and glass ceilings. When pastoral ministry is professionalized, the hiring metric is individual competence, not symbolism.
Denominations that have moved away from the embodied drama of worship are prone to overemphasize “pulpit time” and may equate the full inclusion of women with the license to preach weekly. But winning a fight for the mic is not an adequate renewal of the Feminine. Access to a coveted role is not the same as the restoration of an insight-generating symbol that would heal our half-blindness, or the loosening of those knots that keep us from plunging into the wonderful depths of the Scriptures. Ordaining women could even be counterproductive if it enables us to check the box labeled “women’s inclusion” and feel like we’re on the right side of history. Hiring women for a particular job isn’t the same thing as spiritual sensitivity to the Feminine: our lack of insight can’t be fixed with a market-based solution, and the fact that Protestantism’s many denominations function like competing franchises in a spiritual marketplace won’t help us pull away from this strange amalgam of church and business.
And as long as our language remains that of championing “progress” or fearing a “slippery slope to liberalism,” we’re stuck in the wrong frame. This is about recovery—the attempt to recover what the Reformers failed to conserve.
Barr’s book makes it clear that the Reformation wasn’t a once-and-for-all solution to Catholicism’s problems: it was a trade-off, especially for women. Evangelicals’ decision about women’s ordination will be a trade-off too—it will be “what we can make of the mess we have made of things.”6 I can see how Catholic and Orthodox Christians have a case for a male-only priesthood: they’re awash in allegory, liturgy, and Marian devotion—they never lost the drama and Mary’s part in it, they never lost her as an organ of perception. But evangelicals? We’ve lived with a self-inflicted symbolic vacuum for centuries, and vacuums beg to be filled.
And while at present evangelicals have no liturgical or doctrinal connection to Mary, I see many courageous women embodying the spirit of that medieval Mary who (as the holy inversion of Eve) fights the devil rather than acquiesces. They are women like Rachael Denhollander, exposing the evil of sexual abuse and seeking to protect the innocent—just as the medievals pictured Mary tackling the devil or punching him in the face, and spreading her protecting veil over the church. Women will continue to embody this spirit of bold compassion whether or not it’s attributed to Mary, and whether or not they utilize a pulpit for the purpose.
Sex Symbolizes the Hidden Things of God
C.S. Lewis wrote in his essay “Priestesses in the Church?” that we cannot treat our gender as irrelevant, as if we were not male and female but “neuter,” as if our equality obliterated our difference and implied that we were interchangeable parts of a machine. Lewis thought that while the state may treat us neutrally as generic humans for any and every job, the life of the church is different: we are not “homogenous units, but different and complementary organs of a mystical body.” He goes on:
One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church. We have no authority to take the living and semitive figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about as if they were mere geometrical figures. … With the Church … we are dealing with male and female not merely as facts of nature but as the live and awful shadows of realities utterly beyond our control and largely beyond our direct knowledge. Or rather, we are not dealing with them but (as we shall soon learn if we meddle) they are dealing with us.
The Masculine and the Feminine are indeed “dealing with us.” Those desiring women’s ordination—while it may be “meddling” with tradition and shifting about gender roles as if they were mere geometric figures—are only doing so because they noticed that someone had already meddled with things and scraped the sacred Feminine clear off the canvas. Now they are doing their best to put things back, to address that dangling and unfinished typology. How much hand-waving freak-outery is justified if the Feminine isn’t placed in exactly the right spot? At least they notice what’s missing and are doing something about it. If it’s a mistake, then it’s a fruitful one worthy of a much more creative, soul-searching response than exegetical fisticuffs.
Christians differ regarding the best way to incorporate women (as individuals) and woman (as a way of being and perceiving) in the church, but we all agree that “it is not good that man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18). Humanity needs to use both of its organs of perception (maleness and femaleness) to be able to see reality properly, to grow in virtue, and to worship God. Depth perception requires two eyes, after all—eyes that see things from different angles.
This Protestant one-sidedness is necessarily temporary: reality always comes flooding back in on us, and the Feminine can be kept at arm’s length for only so long. Male and female together bear the image of God, and if there is no holy feminine icon visible to all in the church, is it really that surprising that Barr, and others like her, would try to furnish one? It looks to me like this is the trade-off Protestants made: we removed Mary from our Old Testament exegesis, from our walls, hearts, hymns, and prayers, and now (as symbolically confusing as it may be) she’s slipping into the pulpit.
1. The idea of pregnancy as temporary symbiosis is borrowed from reactionary feminist Mary Harrington.
2. The language of “sexual asymmetry” or “reproductive asymmetry” is borrowed from Erika Bachiochi in her brilliant book The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision.
3. Evolutionary psychologist David Buss discusses the age-old recursive, dynamic system of sexual conflict in Evolution, Sex, and Desire, and how it affects men and women today.
4. See The Concept of Woman, Volume 1: The Aristotelian Revolution, 750 B.C. – A.D. 1250 by Sister Prudence Allen.
5. “Maiden, mother, and matriarch” is borrowed from Mary Harrington.
6. T. S. Eliot: “Success is relative: It is what we can make of the mess we have made of things.” The Family Reunion, 1939.