The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Canard of Complementarianism

The notion that women and men are inherently "complementary" and that this has significant theological and ecclesiological ramifications is getting quite a workout these days.

As evidenced by the General Synod speech of Church Society General Secretary, the view was one of the rationales upon which those opposing women bishops grounded their votes. Similarly, Pope Benedict grounded his opposition to equal access to civil marriage for same sex couples in complementarian terms
The Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, has shown in a very detailed and profoundly moving study that the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper. While up to now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question. He quotes the famous saying of Simone de Beauvoir: “one is not born a woman, one becomes so” (on ne naĆ®t pas femme, on le devient). These words lay the foundation for what is put forward today under the term “gender” as a new philosophy of sexuality. According to this philosophy, sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society. The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed. The words of the creation account: “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27) no longer apply. No, what applies now is this: it was not God who created them male and female – hitherto society did this, now we decide for ourselves. Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be. Man and woman in their created state as complementary versions of what it means to be human are disputed. But if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation.
Equal marriage, to Benedict, is an attack on the structure of the family, and those who do not conform to their "natural" roles are flouting their own nature.

There are several observations to be made about this viewpoint:

1. It assumes, absent any data, consideration, or analysis, that the cultural components of gender and gender roles are as predetermined as any physical or physiological aspects. (Oh, is there science suggesting the opposite? Why, oddly enough, there is!)

2. It also, of course, abjectly fails to address individual differentiation. I mean, at all. Men are men, women are women, and if you're a woman whose interests and abilities happen to fall on the "male" side of the biblical/traditional divide--or for that matter, a man whose sphere of interests and abilities happen to fall on the "female" side--well, tough. Now, complementarianism has been read to include male "headship" in the home, too, and so those roles are prescribed, as well, even if neither party has the slightest interest in playing as cast.

3. Complementarianism does not meet individuals where they are; it tells them where they are required to be, and actually tells them that, to the extent that they are not conforming, they are not living an authentic life. This is the worst kind of false consciousness--an authoritarian demand that the individual eschew her or his own experience and feelings as "intrinsically disordered" for failure to conform to a promulgated"true consciousness" that is axiomatically defined as self-realization. It's a psychic Bed of Procrustes. It's a sad reflection on the hidebound nature of complementarian thinking that it has failed to learn the lessons of Procrustes as well as has secular management:
It's important when faced with a problem to consider it carefully and find a solution that fits it, rather than forcing it into a premixed solution, a Procrustean bed. Templates and models are useful, but it is they that must fit the empirical circumstances, not the other way around.

A skillful manager makes the bed—the solution—fit the wayfarer's needs. That takes a lot of knowledge, but more. It also takes craft and art. Making the bed fit the sleeper means listening carefully to the dimensions of the wayfarers' problems. What are the real dimensions? Have we obtained enough measurements? Have we made the right measurements?
....Sometimes the bed fits. But be careful, because often it doesn't, and the results of trying to fit the facts into our preconceptions can be misleading and dangerous to our companies, our jobs, our co-workers, and ourselves.
Ultimately, complementarianism is a way of asserting dominance and compelling obedience by shaming others into not fitting in with the cultural presuppositions of the ancient world. It's cruel, in that it requires those who do not fit the presumed norm to maim themselves in the name of self-actualization. In short, another example of Christianity on the Cheap.


rick allen said...

"Ultimately, complementarianism is a way of asserting dominance and compelling obedience by shaming others into not fitting in with the cultural presuppositions of the ancient world."

This sentence struck me, if only because, from my modest acquaintaince with ancient literature, it has always seemed to me that the polymorphous sexuality of the world into which Christianity came was such as to make our own seem tame.

Into that world came a Christianity teaching a considerably restricted range for sexuality, set out in the New Testament, and extensively expounded in the works of the Fathers and the early saints. I know, of course, that Protestants don't accept the authority of Tradition, and Protestants and Catholics have long differed since our first great divergence on sexually, divorce and remarriage, emerged in the Reformation.

Still I admit some distress when I hear the old notions of chastity and marriage characterized as "cruel" (and I note, with appreciation, that your take on this is considerably more measured than that of others', who revel in the "Pope's Christmas Attack on Gays"-type headline). But if the exhortation to chastity is cruel today, surely it was crueler in the first centuries of the Christian era, when the mores of the Church were considerably different from those of the predominant culture.

When I write I rarely expect anyone to be persuaded of anything I say. At best I hope to show that there is another side whose adherents are not necessarily so crazy as they might appear. Therefore, I write here only to suggest that (1) there is not necessarily hatred or cruelty in the teaching that there are other ways of taming desire than trying to satisfy it, that (2) the ancient Christian teaching on chastity and marriage, however foreign to most modern sensibilities, was an integral part of the early Christian way of life, and that (3) there may be some value in at least one Christian communion continuing to assert that those values may be more condusive to human blessedness than our contemporary re-consideration of the sexual standards of Greco-Roman antiquity.

And I will finally apologize for being "controversial" on Christmas Eve. Hope you and yours have a blessed, happy and safe one.

Anglocat said...


No apology necessary; I'm always glad to hear from you. In reading your irenic comment, I realized that I failed to make one thing clear: I do not believe that complementarianism is generally *deliberately* cruel (it can lead to or provide a pretext for deliberate cruelty as some of the instances cited by Peter Ould and linked by me a few posts down demonstrate, but that's a different matter). Rather, I think that it has a cruel effect--it tells the person whose own life experience doesn't fit the norm, that their experience is a delusion, or an example of false consciousness. It might have better if I had described it as a rationale that supports pastoral failure--not meeting people where they are.

I agree, by the way with your point (1) above, but would note that taming desire is, in my opinion, best done for a larger purpose, and not deprivation for its own sake. So, for example, I admire greatly the monks and nuns who are called to celibacy and embrace that call, s part of a rule of life. (I was taught by Catholic brothers and priests, and my cousin is a Dominican nun, and I see the beauty in their lives, as well as in those of the Anglican monks and nuns I have come to know.)

I think I agree with about two-thirds of point (2) and about half of (3)--that is, I admire tradition, and agree about its validity, but would adapt its teaching to new facts, Charles Gore-style. Here, that would be expanding its range to include those whose very nature is drawn to partners of the same gender. Just as it Paul's rather grudging concession that "it is better to marry than to burn " recognizes that not all heterosexuals are called to, or cut out for, celibacy, I think the same fact must be recognized as applicable to our GLBT brothers and sisters. If not, then the Church has literally nothing on offer for them but a warping and a deprivation of their God-given desire for sacred love in order to fit a teaching that came to be in an era that did not understand homosexuality as an orientation, rather than as an indulgence or a ritual practice. I would prefer to see tradition expand to share its benefits with those who seek them.

A very merry and blessed Christmas, Rick, to you and yours, and thanks for your comments through this year--I appreciate our exchanges, and hope they'll go on into 2013.

Anglocat said...

One piece of your commentI didn't address was tradition. As an Anglo-Catholic, I am by and large one who believes in it, but with a caveat: tradition can become stifling and oppressive as the world changes around it. The best, least controversial example is the defense of Christian churches of slavery, but think also of the RC defense of monarchy as the reign of Pius IX demonstrates.

So tradition is a source of wisdom, but needs to be tempered by reason, just as Scripture is not an unfailing guide when read for specific solutions to modern problems (think of what I like to call "the West Wing Conundrum"--what to do about the harsher biblical pronouncements: see )

So reason comes into play, and mediates between these sources of wisdom and learning, in the Anglo-Catholic viewpoint, at least. (Can't answer for the Evangelical viewpoint, as it isn't mine).

All this is meant to add further light, not heat!