Whose "feminine" is "THE feminine"?

In an article published in the Friday edition of The Age, Leslie Cannold, senior lecturer at the Centre for Gender and Medicine at Monash, decides that the Government shouldn’t let religions get away with what she sees as blatant sexual discrimination. Apart fromt the tricky businesses of the freedom of religion and the separation of Church and State, there are a number of things I want to take issue with in her article.

It should be noted that her intention is to criticise all three abrahamic faiths, not just Christianity, so when she says “church” in the article, she means “church/synagogue/mosque community”. So when she says that “most Australians” would agree that it should be unlawful for someone to be denied “a leadership role in the church” or to be “physically segregated” on the basis of race, she is right–at least as far as Christianity and Islam is concerned, but not Judaism. I don’t think “most Australians” have an issue with Jews chosing only Jewish people to be their rabbis or for segregating Jews and non-Jews in their places of worship. Leslie should also be thankful that modern Judaism has no priesthood as did ancient Judaism, which defined the requirements for priesthood not only by race and gender, but even more specifically by tribal pedigree–they had to be a Levite to boot.

She describes leadership in religious communities as “aspirations and opportunities”. If she means this in terms of “ambitions”, she is working with the wrong categories for what is essentially a servant role.

Her main accusation however is that “sexism” plays an “integral role” in the Abrahamic religions. I think what she means is–and what makes her wild is–that we actually distinguish between male and female. We have a particular understanding of what it means to be male, and what it means to be female, and proceed on this basis. What she calls “sexism” we call “making distinctions”.

In the same vien, she says that Dan Brown was correct in his “general thesis about the determination of the first Christians to suppress the feminine.” Which prompts me to ask: Whose “feminine”? I would argue that the Church strove to defend “the feminine” from confusion with “the masculine”. What was being opposed was a corruption of “the feminine”, and what was proposed was a purification of “the feminine”.

This purification was not a “sacralisation”, mind you. Christianity has never sought to sacralise either “the feminine” or “the masculine”, for it is clear that these are categories that belong to the world of the profane rather than the world of the holy. Nevertheless, “the feminine” and “the masculine”, like all created things, are good in themselves but are capable of and in danger of corruption, and require purification. As part of this purification, the Christian faith (I can’t speak for the other religions) has always sought to properly distinguish between male and female by seeking to understand God’s role and purpose for both men and women. Thus purified, both “the feminine” and “the masculine” are able enter into the realm of the holy.

Paul, of course, gets a fair beating in this article. He is supposed to have brought his “Hebrew” ideas of the uncleanness of the female into Christianity. It should be stressed that Christainity, by adopting Jesus’ teaching that the origin of uncleaness is the human heart and not any external matter, did not adopt as part of its dogma the idea that women were less pure or more unclean than men.

She claims that women had to “maintain dutiful familial relationships with men: fathers, brothers, husbands”–but so also Christian men had to maintain dutiful familial relationships with women: mothers, sisters, and wives! Roles are important, yes, but not only for women.

Ah well, one could go on. Not worth it really, because in the end, we are talking about different “feminines”.

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