Sunday, 31 July 2011

Pastoral Epistles 4: Women

It forces us to think again about the urge to unified cognitive consonance in our readings of the Bible: the desire to make everything fit together into a seamless conceptual whole. That many people attempt to do this with a text as varied, in terms of provenance and content, as ‘The Bible’ is already a strange thing, amounting almost to hubris. But it speaks to something important about human nature. For example: to read the pastoral epistles is almost inevitably to attempt to encompass their myriad laws and strictures about how to be a Christian without sacrificing our collective sense of how to be a human being in the 21st-century. Here’s one stumbling point, familiar enough from other Pauline writing:
I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarrelling; also that women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion. Let a woman learn in all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was no deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. [1 Tim 2:8-15]
This passage entails cognitive dissonance in much of the Christian west, where the role of woman is no longer so oppressively or restrictively defined. One way of reconciling this is to revert to an old fashioned conception of sexual politics. This is the approach taken by some churches and societies, those called (oddly, it's always seemed to me) ‘fundamentalist’. Another way is to downgrade or mentally erase this passage from one’s understanding of the gospel (as it might be: prayer is good, but there’s no need for women to be submissive). Both these strategies, though, have their problematic aspects. The Conservative might say to the liberal believer: picking and choosing amongst which verses to believe and which not cannot avoid arbitrariness. The liberal might reply: such picking and choosing is an unavoidable part of reading these gospels—for the same Conservative who insists on the general submissiveness of women, or who fulminates against outspoken contemporary feminism, simply is not outraged in the same way by women who have their hair in pigtails, who wear a gold cross around their necks or who put on their ‘Sunday best’ to attend church. (The Liberal might add: it is better to be clear about the ideological preconceptions that shape how we pick and choose scripture: in this case, the open ideological belief that women are equal to men as against the hidden ideological belief that they are inferior. But this is to move in a different direction). One answer, we might think, would be to live with a scrupulously orthodox attitude to everything the Bible says; and there are, of course, people who attempt this. But the attempt is undermined by its own commitment to inclusiveness. In this passage, for instance, women are abdured that ‘silence and submissiveness’ is the route to learning; but the reason for this is state of affairs is that a woman, Eve, was ‘deceived’ by Satan. To put this another way: the virtuous thing is for women to do what they are told by masculine authority, without disputing or challenging it; and this is a necessary state of affairs because of the very great wickedness performed by one woman, a long time ago, when she did what a male power told her to do, without disputing or challenging it.

The larger form of this problematic is that the New Testament lays down a great number of specifically lettered instructions whilst at the same time telling its readers to ignore the letter and concentrate on the spirit of the text (the letter kills, the spirit keeps alive). In the case of 1 Tim 2:8-15, the insistence on the subordination of women is actually a statement about the grounds of instructional insistence. How can we know the validity of this passage unless we test it, question and challenge it? But how can question and challenge the authority of this passage when the passage itself, and the Epistles as a whole, instruct us not to question and challenge authority? Of all catches, this is the twenty-secondest-ist.

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