Friday, February 05, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: He Made Them Male and Female

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Immanuel Can: Ordinarily I let you throw out the first pitch, Tom, but let me hurl the first fastball today. The wind-up’s a bit long, but I think it’s worth it for the amount of heat we stand to generate.

Tom: Deal.

IC: Psychologist Paul Vitz (a Catholic) has a book, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism (2013), and in it he says some very provocative things. In context, he’s been writing about how atheism and the experience of bad, abusive, weak and absentee male parenting (fatherhood) are psychologically correlated. He turns to considering the reasons why men and women tend to experience the effects of ill-fathering in a somewhat different way.

Tom: With you so far.

Logic and Relationships

IC: And he writes:
“For men, God seems to function primarily as a principle of justice and order in the world — and secondarily as a person with whom one has a relationship. Reason, logic, and God’s law and providential control seem to be the central aspects of belief for men. For women, by contrast, it is their relationships with persons and especially a positive emotional relationship with God that are primary, while God as a principle of reason and order, though important, is typically seen as secondary.”
Tom: That’s not entirely out of line with the way I think men and women process the world. Carry on.

Atheism and its New Gods

IC: He continues:
“We would expect, therefore, that men who become atheists would find a new absolute principle with which to order the world. Thus, we expect male atheists to be quite explicitly atheistic and to have a new ‘divinity’ that takes the intellectual place of God. As a consequence, atheistic men should be intense believers in such alternative principles as reason, science, progress, humanism, socialism, communism or existentialism. And this is what we see in the lives of the [great] atheists …”
He contrasts this with the experience of atheist women …

Tom: Wait, there ARE atheist women other than Ayn Rand and Margaret Atwood? Most of them are awfully quiet.

IC: Shh.
“In the case of women, the vacuum created by the loss of the divine relationship is often filled by other emotional relationships. The woman who rejects God will look for substitute relationships in some new enthusiasm. For example, many contemporary feminists adamantly reject God, interpreting the Jewish and Christian God as ‘patriarchal,’ by which they mean that a relationship with God is interpreted as oppressive to women, and therefore unacceptable. It is not the idea of a god per se that they reject, rather the god of a particular relationship. They want to redefine the relationship. As a result, their new enthusiasm — in this case, feminism — should offer important new relationships to take the place of God the Father.

Furthermore, we should expect women, in developing an ideological substitute for god as male, as Father, to emphasize female relationships in this world as well. Lesbianism, so common among feminists, and the feminist emphasis on ‘sisterhood,’ can be seen as flowing philosophically from the rejection of divine patriarchy.”
Tom: Ugh.

Scandals and Interpersonal Abuse

IC: He concludes:
“It is also likely that some kinds of religious ‘scandal’ are more likely to offend men and other kinds, women. We can predict that women will find interpersonal abuse, betrayal or abandonment by male religious figures … more disturbing on the average than would men. By contrast, men would be more disturbed at fathers who are weak or unprincipled, at religious or church hypocrisy — at the failure of principle. Thus, theological controversies should be, relatively speaking, more of a masculine preoccupation, while controversies over church policies as they affect lives directly should have a stronger impact on women …”
All this being said, Vitz admits that there are “exceptions” and a “great deal of overlap” in these broad characterizations, perhaps as much as 60%. But as broad strokes, he thinks these sorts of claims cover what psychological research shows about how men and women sort things out.

Okay, Tom; what do you think? Has he got anything there?

More or Less Noteworthy

Tom: Hmm. Well, I think this last point he makes is true generally, not just in the religious sphere. Women always find interpersonal abuse more noteworthy than men do — at least they’re more likely to talk about it. So I’m on the fence about that one. Do you want to go through his observations in order?

IC: We could. What was most interesting to me was his closing sentence … but I’m happy to start at any point that suits you. Pick it.

Theology and Policy

Tom: You mean this statement?
“Thus, theological controversies should be, relatively speaking, more of a masculine preoccupation, while controversies over church policies as they affect lives directly should have a stronger impact on women …”
Yes, that’s probably enough to chew on for a post. As he says, it’s a generalization, and some people don’t like those. But I think it’s a useful generalization.

IC: Honestly, I do too. I do know couples in which the preoccupations are reversed, but the majority of cases I have seen are of this type, and support his research. And I think that’s terribly interesting, don’t you?

The Creator’s Design

Tom: I don’t think it’s unreasonable to recognize these tendencies or concerns as part of the Creator’s design. After all, God created men and women to complement one another. Even the naming of the animals was part of the search for an appropriate complement to Adam’s God-given nature. So we read that God brought to Adam “all livestock” and “the birds of the heavens” and “every beast of the field” in the search for a fit helper for Adam.

However we may interpret “fit helper”, it cries out to be understood as something more than “just one more of the same kind, but with longer hair and a womb”. That wouldn’t seem to be what God was looking for in the animal kingdom. Until the woman was on the scene, something was missing. If that something turns out to be the willingness to deal with human situations in a very granular, personal way, rather than in abstractions, that should not come as a surprise, should it?

IC: Not really. Second-wave feminism may not like the idea, but I think it holds true. And it’s not any kind of insult. Differences are not inferiorities.

Complementary Differences

Tom: Right. And that theme of differences complementing one another carries on in the new creation where we read “in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman, for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.” Now, we know what Paul is NOT saying there is not that every man needs a woman to “complete” him personally or vice versa (and in certain times and places it may be even better not to marry), but that in God’s new economy, as in the old, both the masculine and feminine elements are vital to God’s purposes.

So psychology is now saying it, and scripture has always said it. What advantage is there to being aware of the natural differences in preoccupation between the sexes in our homes and churches?

Differently Preoccupied

IC: Well, first, if Vitz is right then the role of a father is very influential in shaping a person’s ability to respond to God. That’s primary. Secondly, to reach men who are drawn away from God, we are more often likely to have to address philosophical and ideological kinds of concerns, and for women, to discover how to communicate the right sort of picture of relationship. Thirdly, persistent difficulties are likely to arise from both kinds of concerns, but failures of one kind are more likely to alienate men, and of the other kind, women: the demographics of unrest will depend on which sort of problem a church is having.

Tom: Fourthly, in order for a man to live understandingly or knowledgeably with his wife as scripture instructs us, he needs to be conscious that talking in generalities and abstractions, however useful and comforting it may be to him, doesn’t help her much. Likewise, a wife needs to understand that when her husband struggles with having major doctrinal differences with the church they are attending, they are a huge deal to him; and they are not significantly ameliorated by pointing out that the kids are really enjoying the weekly youth outings.

What Goes On On the Ground

IC: Yes, that’s good. Equally, if a man of the Vitz type is dealing with a woman of the Vitz type, she is likely to be more disturbed by what “goes on on the ground” in a congregation than about the doctrine; and he is likely to be less attuned to what’s going on socially than she is. And though we might think that doctrine is the only thing that matters, failure to live out its implications is what’s known as hypocrisy. A hypocritical congregation is a pretty serious matter, whether one considers it from the doctrinal or social side.

Tom: As you say, differences are not inferiorities. A women’s empathy can be a strength or a weakness, depending on whether she allows herself to be overwhelmed by it or uses it to direct her service to Christ in the most effective ways. Equally, a man’s emotional distance can be a negative if it means he is incapable of acting compassionately, but a huge plus if it means the ability to keep the potential long-term consequences of an accumulation of short-term, emotion-based “fixes” in mind and plan accordingly. “Woman is not independent of man nor man of woman.” We need each other’s perspectives on the issues of the day.

Feminized and Masculinized Churches

IC: Yes, fair enough. I thought Vitz’s comments about lesbianism and “sisterhood”, as he puts it, were also interesting. He seems to suggest that such things are attempts to create relationships on a more feminine pattern in the wake of failed bonding with the Father. And we do hear a fair bit today about churches becoming feminized. Vitz even says elsewhere that he thinks the feminization of the church is greater proportionally as the church in question emphasizes spiritual relationship above doctrine. If that’s right, you’d expect it to tend to be lower among conservative evangelicals, and higher among the charismatics and Pentecostals.

Tom: Um … yeah. I can’t argue with that observation from my experience. But I think if the creation passages teach us anything, it’s that both the masculine and the feminine — the doctrinal and the practical or experiential — are necessary components in church that is functioning as God intended it to.

The danger is when we have an imbalance to one side or the other. And when we do have an overly-masculinized or overly-feminized church, what we might expect to find is that more women feel disconnected from and unfulfilled by heavily doctrinal churches, and that more men would tend to find experience-oriented churches light on theology, insubstantial and less profitable.

IC: Yes, that’s fair. So what’s our takeaway, Tom?

Tom: Vive la différence?

Relationships and Truth

IC: Okay, fine. I didn’t say this earlier, but Vitz’s more recent work shows a high correlation between autism-spectrum disorders (which men have four times more often than women do) and various forms of atheism. Autism disorders are marked by inability to intuit social cues and a high preference for tidy, unambiguous arrangements of information. That means that far more men than women have difficulty processing relational problems. And the inability to form and sustain relationships in general could be a real impediment to forming a concept of relationship with God. So that’s an interesting add-on.

Tom: Well, that goes back to my earlier crack about the small number of female atheists. Sure, they exist, but in nowhere near the numbers and prominence of the men. Women are more indefinite about their relationships with God. They don’t tend to draw lines in the sand like some men do.

IC: 1 John 4:7 tells us we can know we love God because we love his people (relationships). But 1 John 5:2 tells us that we know we love his people because we love his commandments (truth). Get either wrong, and the fact is that you’re likely to end up wrong about both.

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