TOJ: In the past several decades, many scholars and writers have begun to focus on how gender and sexuality are formed within the context of culture by the influences of culture. Could you explain what role you see culture playing in the formation of our conceptions of gender and sexuality? What might be beneficial in understanding this, and also what might be problematic about the way that our ideas of gender and sexuality are framed by culture?
MMF: Well, let me approach it in terms of how those issues have developed in feminist thinking and feminist theological thinking. I mean, there’s an obvious answer in that we get our sense of what it means to be a “real woman” or a “real man” primarily from culture, because if you pay attention to different cultures, you see that there are different ways of defining these in different cultures. However, what seems to have dominated, at least intellectual thinking (and here I’m generalizing), is that there’s something that we think of as biological sex, and that there are two kinds, and that defines and controls what it means to be a real man or a real woman.
While that’s certainly serious and significant—the way which anatomy contributes to definitions of identity—one of the freeing things that happened earlier in this century was the development of a social constructionist argument, and that entailed the recognition that simply having breasts and a vagina does not mandate a certain kind of personality or identity. In many respects, the certain biology-as-destiny notion functioned to really diminish the possibilities for women, but for men too, because there’s a great harm in not being considered a “real man.” I mean that is an insult if anything is. In fact, to be called effeminate is probably one of the biggest insults in our culture that you can give to a man.
But the discovery or the intellectual argument that came out of the social constructionist notion was that, in fact, notions of identity are created, that they’re not inevitable and they’re not simply tied to the kind of genitals that you have. It’s possible to be harmed and constrained with the notion that it’s clear what a real woman is and it’s clear what a real man is.
Implicit in what I’ve said are some of the negatives, but now I will turn to the other part of your question, focusing on what is positive about this move.
Well, how is it positive? It’s positive in the sense that accounts of who people are typically in some sense connect up to reality. I mean, women have breasts and vaginas so that children can be born. That doesn’t mean that all women should have children; it doesn’t mean all women will be nurturing. But in fact, historically, women have tended to be the primary child care givers, and historically they have developed personalities that require them to be caring. That’s very simplistic, but it’s clearly a positive, and can be a positive as well as a harmful way to sort of keep men from being required to be nurturing, etcetera, etcetera.
TOJ: In what way do you think the church has been complicit in many of the ways that culture has negatively framed sexuality and gender?
MMF: I don’t think there’d ever be a complete answer to that question, but I’ll start out by saying that sacred texts, scripture, the creedal and doctrinal tradition are products of human contexts. I’m an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I believe that God speaks through scripture, that scripture is a testimonial to God’s radical act in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the life of Israel. So for me, scripture is an authoritative text.
However, that does not mean that it isn’t also a human text, which means that it comes out of cultures (plural), and all those cultures had constructions of what it means to be male and female. And some of those cultures—and here since I’m not a biblical scholar I can’t get very nuanced on this—don’t have cultural conceptions like ours. I mean, they don’t think of something like gender as a construction. From what I read, they don’t have a construction of sexual identity, for instance, that the most important thing about me is that I am a heterosexual. That’s not a notion that comes out of a particular culture that we find testimony to in scripture.
So the first point is, if our sacred texts are the products of particular cultures, they will have perspectives which may have harmful consequences if they are made absolute, such as the notion that women are only supposed to do’ X’ and men can only do ‘Y.’ If those become absolute as, in fact, God’s direct message to us, I think that’s idolatrous. It’s a refusal to recognize the human, fallible character of those testimonies.
So we’ve got a whole history of various ways of arguing that only men can represent Jesus, that only men can be ordained, that women have to keep quiet. I mean, there are biblical texts in the Old Testament that are pretty frightening in terms of the ways in which they use imagery that authorizes violence against women, especially if these texts are not viewed as particular cultural ways to make a statement about calling Israel to task for its wantonness and its disobedience to God. There’s a lot of sexual imagery that’s really frightening in the Old Testament.
Now, I can continue to think of the bible as a holy text, but only if I’m allowed to recognize its humanity.
TOJ: Well I am going to come back to the notion of reading scripture. It’s an important theme that you’ve written about and dealt with, and it’s important for a lot of people who are trying to think through these issues. I know that you’ve also written about gender and sexuality as a type of “performance” or a “subject position.” Could you explain those concepts a bit more, and talk about how they might be a healthier way of thinking about gender and sexuality as opposed to a kind of strict sexual identity that is established before we encounter the world in which we find ourselves?
MMF: You’re talking about my book Changing the Subject. Yeah, I was interested in getting feminist theology to just treat women more complexly, and “subject position” was an idea that was in some Marxist literary theory at the time. It was a way to see that there are complex cultural conventions that shape women in different kinds of communities. And so, while I really resonate with what Mary Daly and Rosemary Ruether have said, as well as Sallie McFague, when they talk about the way the dominance of male imagery for God functions, and when they identify that language as functioning to render women invisible—because when all the ways you image divine and human agency are male, then you’re virtually implying or connoting that there’s a preeminent “normal” form of being human, and it’s male. And it’s important to see and hear yourself in the liturgy, in faith language, in order to recognize that you—a woman—are imago Dei (made in God’s image) just as a man is. So I’m affirming that. I’m saying that it was very significant for me.
However, language functions more complexly than simply saying that “all male language functions to render women invisible,” because there are a variety of cultural conventions that converge for women in different social locations. So my argument was simply that there needs to be more complicated ways to recognize what women hear and what their primary forms of oppression are, and the ways in which they’re able to appropriate their denominational tradition along with the culture that they’re in, in order to really hear themselves into speech or to create a space for themselves.
So I studied three different groups of women. I primarily did this through literature as opposed to ethnographic kinds of work. The first group was mountain Pentecostal women—there was actually a group of interviews that had already been done with this host of women ministers. They were all white, but what they had in common was their Pentecostal traditions, they lived in Appalachia, and they were poor.
The second group was white Presbyterian women—there’s a group in the Presbyterian Church called “Presbyterian Women”—and this is a group characterized primarily by women who are unpaid workers or housewives.
And then I had a chapter on academic feminists. And what I was showing is that each of [the groups] operated uniquely so that you couldn’t say that the term “Father” functioned in the sort of unilateral way to render women invisible. I’m not arguing that it isn’t a problematic term, but you have to respect that these women are in different communities. They have different pressures on them, and they are going to be appropriating their traditions to enhance their imago Dei in different ways.
Now, what I did could be used by a conservative in a way that I wouldn’t be happy with. I’d like to think that I have ways of insisting that you have to take seriously [the idea of] power and the material and social location. You can’t simply act as if language is the only thing that shapes people. It isn’t. But I certainly can’t stop anyone from taking a piece of my argument and saying “So here, this male language doesn’t hurt me.” That’s not what I’m arguing. I’m arguing that from a feminist perspective, you have to simply take more elements into account.
Later on, Ellen Armour, a theologian at Vanderbilt Divinity School, goes back and looks at work like mine and some other white feminists, and shows the way that our feminist theologies are fairly blind to race—that we’re not recognizing the way that whiteness operates in these communities. And simply to treat these women as not having race is to not recognize some of the functions of privilege that we’re operating with.
One other thing that I want to add, is if you look at Presbyterian Women, for example—most protestant denominations have women’s organizations—and Presbyterian Women was sort of a paradigmatic organization. I mean, Methodists have one as well. One of the characteristic features of these organizations—at least, this has been true—is that many of them have tended to be populated by women who stay at home. Which is another way to say that they do unproductive labor. Part of this type of feminist analysis was not simply to get feminists to back off, because these women are happy, or because these women don’t mind the language of ‘Father’. Feminist theological analysis would have to ask why are these women in such a position where the work they do doesn’t count as work? And why does work that is actually vital to the well-being of the common good—the nurturing of children, why is it associated with something that people who don’t have to be paid do? And why would a man who took care of children probably be feminized and therefore devalued by the culture?
So my argument is not simply reduced to language, but an attempt to focus more on the location of these people, subjects, in society. As important as language is, we need to ask the questions about what is shaping this woman’s possibilities and limiting her possibilities as well?
TOJ: That’s very helpful and it also leads to another question. Using the analogy that the idea of imago Dei doesn’t receive its value from an economic principle…
MMF: …You’re saying that Christians want to say that they value people whether they’re getting paid or not. But Christians also want to say…I mean this is like telling slaves that they can be happy because they’re going to go to heaven, and that they don’t need to worry about being valued economically. You’re not wanting to say that Christians value people whether they get paid or not and that should make them happy.
TOJ: No. What I’m trying to say is that we’re not going to allow the economy to tell us who has value and who doesn’t have value, which often seems to be an organizing principle in our society.
This leads me to another question. In regards to the discussion of homosexuality, from your perspective of theological feminism, does a thinking of sexuality and gender that’s theological lead you on a path that is different than a lot of the typical arguments we tend to hear?
MMF: Well, depending on the conversation and the context that I’m in, my answer will vary. But I have been critical of liberal positions insofar as they imply that we can get the bible to include gay people. My response to that would be “we can’t get the bible to include and deal with everything that we’ve come to know in later centuries.” I find it problematic to send the message that scripture has to name every so-called ethical dilemma that we’re ever going to encounter in order for us to discern God’s redemptive living presence in every new situation. But there may be contexts where I will, given the choices, find the liberal use of scripture to be more appropriate to a situation than a conservative use. Now, the other side of that is, I absolutely disagree with, theologically, conservative uses of scripture on the topic of homosexuality. Of course, that’s a huge category—“conservative.” It’s hard for me to even know where to start in answering that question.
TOJ: Well, I was thinking maybe at least, it seems to me in part of some of the work you’ve done in identity and sexuality, that if we don’t begin with a sort of subject prior to the world—if we see that that can’t be a starting place—then how might the recognition that sexuality and gender are not primordial factors of identity, that is, an identity we bring to the world, be helpful to avoid both liberal and conservative conceptions of sexuality and gender?
MMF: Well, I’m not sure where to even start on this question, other than that I’m shaped by liberationist notions that theology is always contextual, and that communities always bring presuppositions to the biblical texts, which are themselves contextual and human literature. And so is the community that reads scriptures. So any interpretation is going to be partial and subject to ideology critique just as scripture is.
So, when it comes to the judgment that being gay—that something called homosexuality—somehow bars you from full inclusion in the church options for leadership, to me, that’s based on a modern notion of identity. That doesn’t make it wrong, but that simply means it’s a set of assumptions that haven’t been interrogated critically. You know, this is a new idea. The idea that the very essence of my identity is that I desire someone of the same “sex.” Insofar as I understand what historically was understood in the centuries and centuries represented by biblical texts, there wasn’t a notion like that.
I mean, there was a book by Thomas Laqueur that charts the history of sex, and yes, there is a history of sex. The understanding of what sex is changed over the thousands of years. So we can’t assume that we’re saying the same thing when we say “homosexual.”
So I begin by interrogating those notions that are being brought to the texts. Heterosexual notions are being brought to the texts when, for example, one reads the Genesis story and uses it to authorize the claim that God intends us to be heterosexual and anything else is sinful, etc. etc. I mean, there isn’t a clergy person in the story of Adam and Eve. Why don’t we use that story as the authorization for unmarried cohabitation for heaven’s sake? How come? That’s a very selective choice of what we can bring to the text and not acknowledge that we bring to the text.
Let me give an example of another set of assumptions that are invisible yet are being brought to the text. As far as I can tell, there is only one example where women are even invoked, however vaguely, in the biblical text, and in the use of biblical texts by anti-gay Christians to make their case. There’s no use of the word lesbian. In the whole bible, there’s only one possible reference in Romans 1:26 to lesbianism. And even then there’s no definition of what it is! I mean, what can I do to another woman? What is disallowed? I mean, it’s really hard for me to accept the notion that something is so sinful and horrific and wrong and that God is so clearly against it that God wouldn’t have told us what it looked like and what counted and what didn’t, that one verse somehow authorizes the exclusion and defamation of a whole population. That’s bizarre. That’s so bizarre!
Now, there’s something else functioning there besides these sort of heterosexist assumptions that are being brought to the texts, and that’s the assumption that “maleness” is the universal. Anything that refers to males refers to everybody. That’s sort of a fundamental category mistake that feminist theory has long identified (and feminist theology as well). It’s called the “unmarked” and the “marked.” Linguists use this notion to say that if you take seriously the distribution of power in a society, you recognize that the unmarked population is the normative or the ideal. It identifies who really is considered the ideal human. That’s the population that can stand for everybody or be the universal. The idea of Mankind, as in “Rise up, O Man of God” (and we all stand up, ostensibly).
And then, in contrast to the unmarked, you have the marked. This is the population which has a negative valuation associated with the markedness. These people have “race” or have “gender”. They can never stand for everybody else. Who would stand up if you sang that hymn, “Rise up, O Woman of God”? Women might stand up. So that’s a marked population, and that’s a denigration.
My point is that the predominate—with this one small exception—references to homosexuality in scripture are references to male activity. Why should that include women? So oddly enough, it’s a sort of “marked” negative, but it’s another case where being male stands for everybody.
I think there is a lot of evidence that, as I’ve already said, sexual identity is a modern notion. But just to say that it’s a construction—that it isn’t always the way that human beings have thought about themselves—doesn’t mean that it’s easily dispensed with. I mean, I walk around and think of myself as a woman, of having an identity as a heterosexual. But that’s not permission for me to absolute-ize that as a prerequisite to being imago Dei. To me, that violates the whole notion of God’s grace as being what forms the community.
As you were saying, it’s not that we want to argue against the fact that people think of themselves as having these two sex identities. But it’s when we make, out of those identities, out of those conventions, an absolute requirement for being accepted by God, I think that’s blasphemous. It would be like making having a certain type of physical ability into a requirement for membership in the ecclesial community. I mean, that would be a sin!
As I remember, one of the primary narratives for the early Christian community in defining who they were was deciding that circumcision wasn’t a requirement for membership, that you didn’t have to be Jewish, that we had this radical inclusion of the Gentiles. I mean, there’s a trajectory there where we continue to ask ourselves: “as a community, what new prerequisite have we put on membership in a community that is rather to be defined by God’s radical grace?”
Now, that’s not an argument that being a part of God’s grace community does not [also] involve transformation. But it’s a refusal to say that your sexual identity is itself an ethical component of your identity.
TOJ: And an exclusionary marker.
MMF: Yes, that’s right.
TOJ: I’d like to come back to the question about reading scripture which we broached earlier. How would you see us as moving past the kind of “either/or” judgment of saying that the text is sexist or the text isn’t sexist and moving into a discussion of how to read scripture, including the way we do so as a community, that moves in a liberative trajectory?
MMF: Well, I actually teach a class on this. But I can’t just say that people should take my class (that ain’t going to work). But it has to do with recognizing the interpretive traditions and conventions of our leading communities, and becoming more aware and self-conscious of what’s outside of the texts in terms of our theological convictions and our notion of redemption, and how those convictions and commitments create conventions of reading: construing the texts, deciding what orders the texts, what is the unity of the texts, what effects the texts are to have, and how to prioritize the text because the text is quite heterogeneous.
Every community has ways of deciding—you know, what do you do with a pro-slavery text? Every community of reading has conventions, whether they acknowledge them or not, that enable them to deal with the texts that are most explicitly problematic. The God-bashing-babies-against-rocks text, or the horrendous pro-slavery texts, or those that allow a woman to be chopped up into twelve pieces. So, getting more clarity about the theological commitments and the experience of grace that shapes the way the text is ordered and how the text is allowed to be used is absolutely primary.
TOJ: Within Christian theology, what resources have you found to be valuable in your thinking on sexuality and gender?
MMF: Hmmm. There are a lot of answers to that, obviously. And they would be contextual as to which I would use. I mean, there are contexts where biblical stories of welcoming the outsider would be relevant—you know, Jesus’ posture toward the outcast—those are themes that are immediate ways to image what it means to be a faithful believer.
But then there are the more complicated theological resources, and no one of them ever could operate by itself. But one of them would be the recognition that sin, as a theological category, is about idolatry. It isn’t about moralism—not doing X and not doing Y. I mean, we develop morals to help order Christian community. But that’s not what a theocentric understanding of sin is. A theocentric—or God-centered—understanding of sin is that sin is being dependent upon and absolutizing something that is not God. Human beings are incredibly subtle, so we can take anything finite and substitute it for a radical dependence upon God. I mean, we can take Christianity as a religion and we can make it a substitute. There are biblical stories about this—Paul talks about it—how religion itself can substitute for this radical dependence upon God’s grace.
So the prohibition of idolatry is a really fundamental biblical resource, but that doesn’t mean that all you ever do is refuse to honor or take seriously any particular tradition simply because it’s finite and human. But there is a clue as to when idolatry is operative, and that is injustice, and broken relation to the neighbor, which you know, has to be unpacked subtlety. The broken relationship to God is not separate from the broken relationship to the neighbor. There are complicated ways of identifying what idolatry looks like, what forms it takes, and why it would lead to a denigration of the other. I mean, the other who threatens our idol will have to be made into an enemy. And then there’s the justifications for why in fact it’s okay to marginalize that population, so there are lots of subtleties connected to the social character or outcome of sin against God.
So, what does that have to do with gender issues and sexuality issues?
Well, I’d ask the question: Is there some form of absolutizing here that’s operative in, say patriarchal arrangements, where this is not simply sheer malice toward a group like women, or a function of ignorance, but rather, it’s a form of vilification and denigration of an other that comes out of a need for security that isn’t a radical dependence on God? A sign of God’s grace is the diminishment of creating self-security, and an enhancement of love and respect for the finite goodness of the created world. I’m making all sorts of complicated claims here that need a lot more unpacking, but an enhanced capacity to honor the finite goodness of the other is a sign of God’s presence. Because only by a radical dependence on that which is truly God, do I have the freedom to not need to protect myself from the other.
So, when heterosexuality becomes the prerequisite to being fully considered imago Dei, my theological sense makes me ask: Is something being absolutized here that in fact involves a sort of securing that does not recognize the finite, created goodness of the other? I’m not saying that a gay person can do any damn thing that they want, and that I have to let them do it. The critical question is whether the definition of a gay person as “other” is in fact a denial of their finite goodness as a child of God.
TOJ: And his or her humanity.
MMF: Oh, exactly. What I’ve just said is underdeveloped. But I’m not talking about theological resources that simply depend on “including everybody.” I’m not saying that inclusion isn’t good either, but to get at some of the radical potential of Christian faith, to me, is in some sense, condensed in this notion that a sign of God’s presence is the diminishing of idolatry and its cost toward the other.
I had a professor whose theological anthropology I still find particularly helpful. He talked about a sign of God’s grace as “an enhanced courage for the world.” That’s very condensed. He doesn’t mean it simplistically. When he talked about this enhanced courage for the world to me that added some resonance that I found really compelling. The more sustained I am by God, the more courageous I can be to take risks! To think of the other central images to Christian faith—the cross, self-sacrifice—that is a courage that’s sustained by radical dependence on God. It means, ideally, that one is able to continually ask the critical question: Are there new forms of self-securing operative in this community? New enemies we’ve created? New boundaries we’ve created? You know, we look back now and we say, “What’s wrong with 19th century Christians that argued that God ordained slavery?” I mean, we think they were crazy. They didn’t feel crazy. They thought they were being faithful. But one of the profound theological resources in Christian faith is the impulse to always ask the question. What form of blindness shapes our community? Christian faith—and it’s not the only tradition that does this—has something that’s incredibly profound, this iconoclasm that’s connected to forgiveness, agape, reconciliation. That’s an incredible combination of resources.
TOJ: That’s very helpful. My last question for you is a question of naming, in a positive sense, or of giving if you can an example of communities where there is a performance of a healthy understanding of gender and sexuality. Is there a community that you would put your finger on and say that they seem to be doing a good job of thinking through the idea of sexuality in a healthy way, and putting these ideas into practice? We’d like to get some tangible sense where this is actually happening.
MMF: Wow, that’s so hard. It’s always relative to something. Can you think of one?
Well, you know, one church could focus on dealing with gender-inclusive language yet continue to be racially homogeneous and just one economic class. I mean, I currently go to Asbury Temple Methodist, which is primarily black. And they use male language for God. I have to confess it drives me crazy, because I’m at the place where, instead of being a window or lens that opens up the way for me, it shuts it off. But for me to go to a church, some of the only churches that I’ve found, which pay attention to the language of gender inclusivity, they’re all white! They’re all upper-middle class. So it’s a tradeoff. I’m not saying that this black church shouldn’t pay attention to that…
TOJ: Well, obviously, these are not absolutes in the sense that if you’re church isn’t doing X or Y, then you are not seriously engaging issues of sexuality and gender. But are there possibilities that you’ve seen that have encouraged the conversation of breaking down some of the borders, or have encouraged a kind of dismantling of a primary identity of a person as a sexual being?
MMF: Well, I’m only going to talk about gender for a minute. It just so happens that, I think for two hundred years, the church has been overwhelmingly female. Yet, its leadership has been primarily male. So I think that naming ultimate reality and naming humanity in ways that honor women just seems like a no-brainer. That doesn’t mean that every church wants to do it. That doesn’t mean that all women want to do it. In fact, femaleness is so marked—in fact a sociologist has given this a name called “girl-stain”—and it has to do with what I was saying earlier about being marked or unmarked. There are lots of ways where using the female as a designation or an attribute ends up diminishing or denigrating something. And one sociologist calls this “girl-stain.” And there are lots of examples of that.
But frequently, to use female imagery for God, for some people, connotes sexuality in a way that calling God “Father” ostensibly doesn’t. At least, people will say that it doesn’t. So it’s tricky. You can’t just require all churches to do a verbal oil change.
Secondly, you can’t tell people what they mean when they use language. We understand ourselves to own language. That doesn’t mean that we don’t understand or get at the additional effective meaning, the sense of which we don’t fully understand the effect of the terms that we use. But you can’t tell people what they mean. In fact, if you bring this subject up directly, some people will say, “Oh, I don’t think God has a gender. He… blah blah blah.” or “God isn’t a man or a woman. He… is beyond sex.” But you hear that “he” functioning in there. So you can’t tell people to change language because women feel diminished by male language, because a lot of women will say that no, they don’t. And a lot of people make good arguments for how the function of male language is constructive and, in fact, a lot of people will make the argument that God tells us in the bible what to call him, and he tells us to call him “Father.” It’s not a metaphor.
But what you can do, and what I think is really useful and vital, is to have classes or discussions asking what language about God is most meaningful to people. Ask people to talk about their images of God and sort of begin to open up for people this wide range of biblical images—even beyond biblical images. In my experience doing this with groups in churches, sometimes you’re surprised how peoples’ images of God transcend simple or predominately personal images of God as a big ol’ white man with a beard, a grandfather and so forth. I mean, frequently people have more complex, sophisticated images of God than ministers assume that they have. But even if they have a belief that primarily God-is-literally-a-man or literally-a-person, who is somewhere up-there, just having a conversation opens up all this richness, and you can introduce biblical feminine images that are in scripture. There’s a lot of literature that is enormously rich on this. I have a feeling that churches have stalled out on this for a while.
But you were asking me what communities do this well. I’m idealizing, but they would be communities that have a kind of freedom to expand their repertoire and to learn from each other. A minister or a leader can bring a wider repertoire. There’s always more that people in a church community can learn from the tradition and from each other in order to get people to think about what’s implied by their images of God. What are the limitations of their images and why we might need a whole host of images, rather than just one? A community ideally that’s willing to talk about the trinity, and what in the world the trinity means. Because, the idea that people in churches understand what this “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” is actually about is silly. If you’ve been raised in a Christian community and you’ve heard “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” from the time you were a kid, you’ve primarily developed your understanding of that from being a kid. And kids think literally. I don’t know a lot about child development. But, in my mind, you think of a big white guy with a long beard, a sort of blue-eyed handsome dude in a white robe with long brown curls, and a bird. I mean, that’s not exactly what the trinity was about.
So I really, really, really resist the literal reading of that language—it’s the refusal to take seriously the incredibly difficult task of getting at what that doctrine was supposed to be, what it was functioning to communicate. With any type of historical, contextual appreciation, you have to think there’s no way that formula reproduces what it was primarily devised to do” without a whole lot of education. I mean, I’ve been educated about what the doctrine meant, I hear the formula, but it doesn’t communicate that kind of radical understanding of perichoresis, or the singularity of each historical dimension of God’s relationship to the world, the interpenetration of each of the three person’s and so forth—that formula doesn’t communicate all of this to me.
Opening up a space for hearing female images as a way to alter sensibilities, to alter consciousness—that’s going to look different for every kind of church. I mean, some communities are happy to do that. Some communities are going to hear that as a diminishing and a staining of God. Well, that automatically gives you a message or makes you need to ask, “If that stains God to say ‘She,’ what does that imply then about my understanding of my female sister in Christ? I guess she’s got a stain too…”