On “Conversation” and Controversy

When is a conversation not a conversation?

Even though many of us use the word “conversation” to mean “anything people are thinking about in a collective way”, the traditional definition involves people talking audibly, and in real time with one another. In the Internet age, the majority of our communication platforms – email, texting, tweeting, blogging – free us from those constraints, making communication faster and easier. That’s the theory, at least. But as anyone who’s ever gotten into a Facebook feud about politics will tell you, or who’s been caught in an ugly dustup at work after hitting “send” on an email a tad too quickly, or, say, engaged in an online debate about complementarianism and the nature of the Trinity, the chasm between communication and genuine understanding enabled by the digital world can sometimes make meaningful communication harder, instead of simpler.

In her latest book, “Reclaiming Conversation”, Sherry Turkle explores the effects of the growing ubiquity of digital interaction on our most basic relationships at home, at work, and in our communities, and how developing (or re-developing) and modeling habits that protect and promote real conversation can be beneficial – personally, professionally and societally. It’s a thought-provoking book for those of us who are pondering the effects of the Internet on our relationships, or our souls. And it’s replete with imago dei ideas. Her central argument boils down to this: the more machines and screens mediate our discourse, the thinner and less effective that discourse becomes.

With all of the recent referencing of the Nicene Creed in the latest round of Trinitarian debate, we haven’t spared much thought for seemingly minor details such as the significance of somewhere around three hundred Christian bishops from across the Roman Empire traveling for weeks to meet in one place and collectively agree. This was way before the days of Google Flights and Uber, don’t forget.  But in the spirit of the Apostle Paul himself, when the truth was at stake, and error was encroaching, nothing but face to face interaction would suffice to sort things out. The result? Almost seventeen hundred years later, the words of the creed written by some of the earliest Church fathers are ones around which followers of Jesus pursue the most elemental basis of their unity, or their division.

Sherry Turkle’s arguments about the critical role real conversation plays in our humanity came to mind as I was reading this concise recap of the debate by Steven Wedgeworth. It’s an almost perfect summary of the substance of the debate.* Wedgeworth earns Taboo-grade bonus points for addressing the “tone” issue without using the word, and extra bonus points for noting that “some contributors have invited open and spirited debate, but others have taken offense at the very idea.” The occasionally problematic and personal nature of the controversy, and the outspoken willingness of some to address the issue through direct debate, are complementary (oh yes I did) case studies  in both the problem Sherry Turkle identifies about the limits of online engagement and the relational deficits it creates, and the solution to those deficits, namely, a return to the pursuit of genuine conversation to foster real and lasting understanding.

You’ll understand, then, why the genuine feeling of rising hope in my heart at reading Wedgeworth’s next phrase:

“We would like to try our hand at clarifying the real issues under dispute, and we plan to carry out this conversation in ….”

dissolved into forehead-thudding-on-desk-level discouragement to see it followed by this:

“…a series of (blog) posts  over the next few weeks.”

The rhetorical tools Wedgeworth generously offers to employ to build a bridge of peace between the feuding factions, are the same tools the two factions have been using to beat each other up with.

Sherry Turkle would be…disappointed. I can only guess what the Apostle Paul, or our brethren of the Nicene Council might say, were they not all blessedly and most gloriously otherwise occupied at the moment.

I don’t know what the final taxpayer cost per participant worked out to be after Constantine counted up the final bill. I can only imagine the discomfort the bishops and their traveling companions endured as they made their way on camels and ships and on foot to an ancient Bithynian town. But if they were able to choose from any of the methods we have today that enable learned brothers from different parts of the world to debate and deliberate over the critical issues of our collective faith in the spirit of “Reformed irenicism” Wedgeworth advocates for, I find it hard to believe protracted blog posts would be the method they’d pick first.

Should the major participants in the online debate thus far actually concede this point, the next step would likely be to decide who would be willing to participate in a real conversation, and then what the form and format of the conversation would be. In the spirit of Wedgeworth’s blogging partner Mark Jones’ exhortation that we name names,  Mark himself has been a major participant for the non-ESS side, and has stated publicly that he’d be willing to engage an ESS proponent such as Owen Strachan in a debate. Whether those two were to represent the two positions alone, or to be accompanied by other leading voices, might be for them to decide.

I just saw that Mark tweeted today that he’s written a post for Desiring God on the Trinity on which he hopes we can all agree. I can certainly hope that way too. If those hopes are realized, and one blog post is sufficient to bring unity and clarity where so many others seem to have done the opposite, that would indeed be a mighty example of the wonders our God mysteriously moves to perform. I look forward to reading it. But whether our hopes are realized or not, I hope all of us take time to consider the relative merits of continuing to pour the new wine of 21st century debates in what are now relatively old wineskins of social media engines like blogposts and Twitter threads, forgetting that our faith centers on the Word who became flesh for us.

and that that might have some significance about how his shepherds, and his sheep, engage with one another, for our greatest good, and His highest glory.

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*Wedgeworth states that “The relationship between the eternal Father and the eternal Son in the godhead has been appealed to as an archetype for the submission of the wife to her husband within marriage”. As various women participants have noted, the actual archetype proposed is for submission of women to men ontologically as an expression of femaleness, thus spreading across all categories of interaction, not just the covenant categories of marriage and church. Rachel Green Miller reviews a new book by two leading ESS proponents that makes this connection very strongly and distinctly. Aside from the usual egalitarian suspects, no one who rejects ESS (that I know of) rejects the classic complementarian arguments regarding the covenant boundaries of marriage and church incorporating submission of wives to their own husbands, and church preaching and oversight being confined to qualified and called men.

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Of summer jobs and ontological submission

If you ask my fifteen-year-old daughter about her career goals, she’ll instantly tell you they involve “being invisible.” This isn’t just because she’s an introvert. It’s because she has a passion for technical theater and stage managing, which is, as simply as I can describe it, the art and science of doing the parts of theater that orchestrate what happens on stage, without requiring you to ever be on it. It involves a lot of pushing buttons, and plugging and unplugging cables, and wearing black from head to toe. But the biggest part of the job involves her broadcasting a constant, quiet stream of instructions to a team of light, sound and stage technicians via a headset. And so now I have a problem with her summer job.

Traditional complementarian teaching would consider my daughter’s aspirations to a vocation that involves being a quiet helper of others as commendable, even womanly. What could be more feminine than not wanting to be up front and center, but preferring to work quietly in the background, literally shining the lights on other people on stage? But the complementarianism attached to the latest iteration of the Trinity debate, while affirming my daughter’s natural reserve, would take issue with the requirement that she be giving orders to big burly stagehands about when they should be raising and lowering backdrops. Unless the burly stagehands are women. (But then, they’d take issue with the burly women stagehands.)

This is why challenging distorted theology about the Trinity and its attachment to gender definitions matters.

This is where it matters

Right here, today, as my eldest daughter is getting ready to start her first paid summer job as a stage manager for a local children’s’ theater.

According to the arguments for the stream of complementarianism outlined by the authors of “The Grand Design” (and the increasingly vocal leaders of an aspirationally and aggressively influential organization dedicated to it),

my daughter’s exercise of her emerging abilities to flawlessly orchestrate the actions of a team of men (and women) to bring Frozen to life on a community theater stage, will distort her femininity, the masculinity of every man she instructs, and the gospel.

According to CBMW, my fifteen-year-old girl needs to get a different summer job.

I’ll gladly take suggestions in the comments. But remember that lifeguarding is out, too. (Too much potential for more distortion of her womanhood because of all that yelling at men to get out of the water if she spots a shark).

On Imago Dei and Ways Forward Down Winding Roads

“Are women human?” Dorothy Sayers asked the world that question in an essay she wrote in 1947. And the evangelical church, at least in the last century or so, has tried to dodge the issue by pulling a Princess Bride – “Skip to the end – say man and wife!” Conversations, conferences, books and blogs about biblical womanhood abound, but not about biblical person-hood. But there are a myriad of problems in considering the practical implications of womanhood, without understanding their foundation in a woman’s humanity.

The most common model for examining, and then defining, biblical womanhood has been to consider the passages where women are addressed or featured prominently, and then to stretch and pull the applications from those texts across as many groups of women as possible, like so much pizza dough on a peel. Women who fit the demographic in question are privy to a plethora of books, memes, and ministries dedicated to the minutiae of obeying a subset of a single chapter of Scripture. For women outside the demographic – those not yet married, not married anymore, or currently without children – the conversation becomes either about making yourself perpetually ready for a particular season, like some kind of womanhood- prepper, or about supporting other women in it – as though womanhood were some kind of spectator sport only certain women are qualified to play, while the rest stand on the sidelines with pink pompoms and cheer.

I found the beginning of a path through my frustrations with the biblical womanhood framework that was simultaneously confining and full of holes, by way of a book called “Made For More”. In it, Hannah Anderson challenges the “identity myopia” of concentrating our definition as women (and men) on segments of life that are narrow in scope, and temporal in nature. In this “nearsightedness of the soul…(w)e can see the details well enough, but we can’t grasp their significance; and when we glance away from them, even momentarily, everything else is out of focus and blurred.” (pg 12) Anderson argues that the clearest lens through which to view ourselves as women, and then walk accordingly, is not one of temporal roles which last only for a season (if they occur at all), but the lens of the One from Whom, through Whom, and to Whom both women and men live, in every moment of life. Womanhood begins with who God is (in His nature), and what He has done (in the gospel), before it is about the things we do for Him as women. “We forget”, Anderson states, “that we can never understand what it means to be women of good works, until we first learn about the goodness of a God who works on our behalf. We forget that nothing about (our works) will make any sense if they are not first grounded in the truth that we are destined to be conformed to (God’s) image through Christ.” (pg. 105)

For years I had lived with a tension I felt deeply but struggled to understand fully – that my mission to follow Christ was somehow mitigated by my gender, that my ability to be like Christ was limited by the fact that He was and is a man and I was not, and that the real working out of my salvation seemed to be mediated through my identity as a wife and mother. In rediscovering the importance of the doctrine of imago dei to my identity, I began to see Jesus’ incarnation, life, death and resurrection, as not merely about my restoration as a woman, but more importantly, my restoration as a human being. Consequently, the living out of my restored humanity as a woman was as equally about reflecting the full nature of the triune God in my womanhood, as it is for a man in his manhood. And to do so faithfully requires a lifelong pursuit of the triune God whose nature is revealed to us in 66 books about one Person, not just a couple of chapters and prooftexts and characters sketches about women.

In that light, the term “complementarianism”, as it has been traditionally defined, appears be as least one cause of the identity myopia so many women like me have experienced, instead of its cure. In its centering on gender roles, the boundaries of our identity are drawn imprecisely around separate, temporal states (adult manhood and womanhood) and what we are to do in them, instead of more broadly but precisely around the shared state of our humanity – a state that is fixed and constant from the moment of conception to natural death. In its narrow focus on headship and submission, complementarianism distills all of the orbits of the collective creation mandate down to two, and to one relational dynamic within them, in that same temporal season of adulthood. No wonder so much of the current debate has been about what the term “complementarianism” doesn’t mean, or about what 51% of the human race can’t do. A term that is bounded so narrowly doesn’t leave too much room inside it for “is” or “can.”

But the term “ImagoDeian” does.

Inside the meaning of ImagoDeian, there is room for:

  1. The emphasis of Genesis 1 and 2 on male and female’s joint definition as image bearers as the foundation for the way we should see ourselves and every other human being.
  2. The glory of woman being derived from the way in which God makes her – uniquely forming her from one who is already alive with the breath of God, into one who displays the life-giving power of God.
  3. The argument that the order in which God made man, then woman, is about man’s incompleteness, not his supremacy.
  4. The definition of the nature of woman’s completion of man as that of a “necessary ally” instead of the ameliorated “suitable helper”.
  5. Multiple relational pictures of Christ’s oneness with His people: –marriage, and singleness (as depicted by Paul and by Jesus Himself), and the church as HIs unified Bride.
  6. The recognition  because of the Fall,, our bodies to fall short of the glory they were created to display, through aging, disease, sin, and defects whose causes are sometimes known and sometimes yet to be discovered . Nevertheless, as with every other aspect of our humanity, the dignity of our body is found, not in the measure of its functionality, or the degree of its beauty, but in its very existence, which was initiated by God and for God.
  7. The primary axis of conformity to the image of Christ is guided by our common living out of the one anothers, the bearing of the fruit of the Spirit, Who indwells men and women in equal measure, and our common living of the life to which we have been called . The secondary axis of our conformity to the image of Christ is guided by the distinctions of maleness and femaleness through which His image is expressed, the contexts in which those distinctions operate (wife, husband, employee, employer, marriage, home, church) and the specific commands God gives regarding each one. These two axes form the framework inside which we exercise our gifts and callings, in the way God directs, through the power He supplies, with Christ’s life as their source, and His glory as their object, the glory of the One in whose image we are all made.

In viewing a woman’s place in the world, and in the kingdom of God, through the lens of imago dei, a host of things – from the context for submission, to the exercise of our gifts in different seasons of life – fall into clearer focus (too many to begin detailing in a post that’s already too long, but that merit an entire series of their own). I agree with Fred Sanders – in general, because that is the way of wisdom, but also in this particular point- that imago dei does not necessarily make the way from the doctrine of God to the doctrines of human society more direct. But I would argue that imago dei can still serve as a type of true north for the twists and turns of the journey, especially as the winds of a dying secular culture blow harder and hotter in our faces. More importantly,  it can steer us clear of the potholes and rabbit trails that more imprecise terms can, and have, served to steer so many so far off course.

 

A different way forward?

The past several month’s simmering over some of the increasingly pointed rhetoric of a subset of Reformed leaders about the nature of complementarianism and its connections to the gospel, finally boiled over this week. Much of the early gentle stirring and heating was done by women like Wendy Alsup, Persis Lorenti, and Rachel Miller, although I’ve weighed in as well. Several weeks ago, Aimee Byrd, of the rhetorically spicy Mortification of Spin podcast, decided to kick things up a notch and take on some particularly troubling arguments coming out of the most recent CBMW conference, line by line. That led to some more stirring at the MOS site (including a turn by yours truly). Several of us made various attempts to politely invite a response from the CBMW folks, but were met with relative quiet.

Then, last Friday and Monday, Aimee brought out the big guns in form of one Dr. Liam Goligher, to get the bottom of things with a big infusion of creeds, catechisms, a sprinkling of hints about heresy and a passing reference to Islam. That did the trick. Yesterday, both Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem posted responses. Since then the discussion has been going at a fairly decent boil in three different languages – English, Latin and Greek, all in 140 character-sized morsels and longer form blog posts. I’m glad that the theological underpinnings of hypercomplementarian arguments about headship and submission and their tenuous ties to the Trinity are being examined. It’s important. But I’m a little worried that the practical reasons my fellow Blue Stockings began writing about this issue in the first place are getting lost in the midst of all the twenty-dollar words being thrown around. I’m concerned that this is turning into the kind of “theology-in-the-abstract”argument that gives theology, and tussling theologians, a bad name.

That’s why I’m wondering if this lady with only a bachelor’s degree in one language might weigh in with yet one more Latin phrase – one more familiar to the majority of Christians, which serves as the permanent tether between the transcendence of the Godhead, and the finitude of His creatures.

Namely, the imago dei.

The doctrine of imago dei is grounded in the first two chapters of Genesis, which describe with poetic beauty God’s crafting of man and woman, as distinct from the rest of creation. Imago dei is the place where ad extra and ad hominum meet.

For some time now, complementarianism as a term has been struggling under the weight of multiple awkward definitions, caught up in what men and women purportedly must do differently to define who they are essentially. But the first two chapters of Genesis say not one word about those distinctions. The focus of Genesis 1 and 2 is on God’s creation of the world and of humanity as a whole. It’s about men and women’s unified nature and unified work. The focus is on who God is, who we as human beings are, and what we as human beings are to do. The focus is on imago dei.

I’d like to propose that at least a partial solution to the arguments about the definition and implications of complementarianism and its connections to the Trinity, is to throw the term out altogether, or at least subordinate it (ha!) to one that has a closer correlation to the Trinity.

I’d like to offer up “imagodei-ism”, or being an “imagodei-an”,  as that term.

I’d like to propose that, instead of eisegeting gender frameworks from New Testament texts back into Genesis, we begin where God does, and go forward from there.

And to cut off all the usual objections before they begin, let me say clearly that I’m not arguing that we just quit talking about gender, or the institutions of marriage or church or whatnot.

But what I am arguing is that the reason for much of the last couple of years of increasing debate and doubling down on tertiary issues about who can be a police officer and whether Christianity has a masculine feel, is because we’ve missed some of the implications of the primary issue of what it means for all of us, every human being from conception to natural death, to be made in the image of the triune God.

This is not an original argument, by the way. It’s an argument made by a dear friend of mine in a book that I’ve reread every year since it was published. It got some traction, in some quarters. But judging by this week’s conversations, it didn’t get nearly enough.

On Monday, I’ll lay out the book’s arguments, and why I think they’re central to helping us move forward in a more unified way, at a time when unity in the midst of secular social and political upheaval is sorely needed.