The Emergent Theological Conversation

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Exclusion and Embrace

Chapter 4: Gender Identity

Reflection by Danielle Grubb Shroyer

In Chapter 4 Volf moves into the often perilous world of gender identity and offers us alternative ways to relate to one another as men and women in light of the Trinitarian life of God.

Volf first asserts that God language, whether it be masculine or feminine, must be recognized as coming from the constructs and limitations of our world. If we agree that God is not inherently gendered, then to speak of God in gendered ways is simply a means of making God personal. We cannot rightly describe a covenantal God as a divine It. We look to God to find ways of being fully human. Therefore God is not Father in a way that tells men how to be fathers any more than it tells women how to be mothers. I would go further (or more specific) to say that, in the spirit of embrace rather than exclusion, it is most fitting for God language to have a proper balance in our theological discourse. We cannot move forward with the rest of Volf’s argument if in our churches we are stuck silently reiterating a God who is inherently more male or female.

Volf is clear to delineate delicately between gender and sex; that is, he declares our sexed bodies as constant while our gender identity is fluid, constantly changed by societal and cultural factors. He then argues that our relation between one another as men and women ought to be grounded in the life of the Trinitarian God in whose image we were created. He cites Joseph Ratzinger’s description of the inner divine life as “relatedness,” one that is defined solely by its relations. The difficulty with such a view is that it inevitably ends in dissolution rather than distinction. If the Son is only the Son because he gives himself fully to the Father, there is no Son left at the end. Most women understand this argument well, as for generations to be married was to subsume one’s own identity into the identity of the husband. Furthermore, Ratzinger’s emphasis on self-giving love has been the basis for justifying a one-sided submission that all too often has left women with nothing left to give. This is not the covenant relationship of Scripture.

Volf uses Jurgen Moltmann’s response to Ratzinger as a much needed remedy to Ratzinger’s “relatedness.” Though relationship within the divine persons is important, and self-giving is a critical component of the love relationship between them, we must also recognize the reciprocity of relationships. As Volf puts it, “Persons are not relations; persons stand in relations that shape their identity” (180). In making such a turn, there is now a way to make space for the other; there is a possibility of self-giving that maintains one’s own unique identity.

Volf refuses to be wooed into the impossibility of describing “masculinity” and “femininity,” only stating that we ought to root our understandings in sexed bodies and allow the social construction of gender to continue to operate in a fluid state. He instead seeks to recast our ideas of gender identity in what I would term our vocational response to our God. We find in Scripture not prescriptive identification of how to be a proper man or woman, but “accounts of the successes and failures of men and women to live out the demands of God on their lives within specific settings” (182). How can we tell the story of God in a way that truly makes space for both men and women to find ways to answer the call of God in the specificity of their own situation?

Volf also mentions two alternative- and faulty- attempts to “equalize” gender identity. The first is by attempting to overlook our gender distinctions entirely, and the second is to synthesize them into a new whole. The danger in both is similar. Our concerted attempts to neutralize or synthesize gender either renders them both unimportant, or worse, further endorses the subjugation of one into the other. We cannot hide from our differences; to do so simply masks the ways we have failed to live in peace with one another. Volf instead proposes the reciprocal relationship between genders described in the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:11: “Neither is woman without man nor man without woman.” This dynamic relationship of “woman not without man” and “man not without woman” maintains both the uniqueness of our sexed bodies and the tensions between our mutual self-giving.

How are we- both personally and in our places of ministry- making space for the other? Are we doing enough (or too much) self-giving or do we spend our time primarily expecting to be given to (or taken from)? Are we being honest with ourselves in the way we have all failed to live in a spirit of mutuality and self-giving love with one another?


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