Neither men nor women 'have it all'

By Phyllis Strupp
Posted Jun 29, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] A 22-year old artist recently shared with me her views on making the world a better place. “Men can’t get pregnant, and that’s just not fair,” she mused. “Maybe there’s an alien race carrying a more highly evolved Z chromosome, and members of this race could get a man or woman pregnant. If they came to the earth and got men pregnant, men would know what it is like to tend the seed planted by another, and birth new life from it. Then men would be more nurturing, and everything would change. Wouldn’t that be great.” As she hurried off to draw a picture of what the alien race would look like, I admired her Generation Y enthusiasm for envisioning a positive future.

She’s not the only one with big ideas on how to forge a new and improved version of American society. In July/August issue of the Atlantic in an article titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton University professor, former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, and a mother of two teenage sons, calls for a social paradigm shift with regard to the arc of a successful career, family values, and the pursuit of happiness. The cornerstone of this new society would be allowing both men and women greater flexibility in when and where work gets done to enable a healthier work-life balance.

One of the major benefits of this shift would be America’s renaissance as an “Innovation Nation,” citing evidence that the lack of innovation in corporate America is linked to a dearth of women and flexibility in the workplace. The momentum for this change is growing in part because of Generation Y males, who are interested in integrating active parenthood with their professional lives. As Ms. Slaughter puts it, “We have a new generation of young men who have been raised by full-time working mothers. Let us presume, as I do with my sons, that they will understand ‘supporting their families’ to mean more than earning money.”

Generation Y, aka the Millennials, born mainly in the 1980s and early 1990s, are largely missing from the Episcopal Church. As a group, these young people tend to be spiritual and not religious, supportive of gay marriage, comfortable with diversity and optimistic about America’s future. If the Millennials were coming to church in greater numbers, some golden calves of Episcopalian liturgical customs would be challenged, such as referring to God as a “He.” In the past 20 years, when the habitual use of male language for all three members of the Trinity has come up in conversation, the lack of formation on the issue was evident. For instance, years ago one white woman priest showed me a book called “She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse” which suggested that the use of male-only language for God is a form of idolatry. We should call God “She” to prove we are not enthralled to idolatrous language for God. Our talk ended when I asked if the author advocated referring to the devil as “she” also.

Another time, a white man priest complained that the language of church had become too feminized, and it was a real turnoff to him and most men. I asked him for an example, and he cited the common use of words like “relationship” and “love.” When I suggested that the language was more masculine than feminine, such as referring to all members of the Trinity with the words “he,” his,” and “him,” he said, “Oh those are just pronouns.”

More recently, there was a conversation on this subject among Episcopalians organized on LinkedIn. In responding to a challenge on this issue by a young white female priest, an older white male priest defended the use of male language for God, saying that traditionally wisdom and the Holy Spirit were understood to be the feminine divine. But when’s the last time you heard “She” used for the Holy Spirit in church?

The “God is male” belief that underlies the official liturgies of the Episcopal Church is at odds with the realities of living in America today. Ms. Slaughter had nothing to say about the role of religious institutions in perpetrating the status quo, but maybe that’s where the sexism problem really originates. Maybe underneath the “He-God” language is this unconscious belief: God has it all, God is male, ergo men can have it all. Because God is not female, women cannot have it all.

As one priest said, “If it’s not in our liturgy, it means that we don’t get it.” So, apparently we don’t get that God is not a male.

The Bible and the church’s other liturgical tools have a wealth of hope and wisdom to bring to today’s concerns, but these old treasures need to be combined with some new ones to be relevant in this time and place. As Jesus put it in Matthew 13:52: “Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

Here’s an old treasure from the storeroom: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28

And here’s a new, modern treasure: God has it all, but God is not a male. Ditto for Christ and the Holy Spirit. Men and women cannot have it all, but the Trinity can.

It’s time we reconsider our language for God, and be open to fresh new ways to describe the indescribable to provide meaningful worship for all generations — and survive as an institution.

Then one day, a visionary article like Ms. Slaughter’s might mention the Episcopal Church as a model for integrating family values and the pursuit of happiness into institutional policies and culture. And one day, we just might be ready to discuss the Z chromosome (and other evolutionary tricks that God might have up Her/His/Its sleeve) at coffee hour with the next generation. And God willing, God will finally say, “These people honor me with their lips and their hearts are very near to me.”

– Phyllis Strupp is the author of Church Publishing’s Faith and Nature curriculum and the author of The Richest of Fare: Seeking Spiritual Security in the Sonoran Desert.

Comments (3)

  1. The Most Rev. T.D. MacLam says:

    The question/ complaint /observation by Prof. Slaughter is NOT about gender neutral language in the liturgy. It is one that should concern the Church, however, and perhaps not one that affirms “having it all.” The issue needs to be one of social justice but not just for educated, upper income, white women.

    Jeffery Goldberg (“Is a True Work-Family Balance Still Possible?” Bloomberg News, 06/28/2012, says:
    “The other issue Slaughter mentions too fleetingly is that the problems of most professional-class women are ultimately caviar problems. The vast majority of American women must work in order to feed themselves and their children; they have little time to consider their own fulfillment. Not to mention the hundreds of millions of women around the world who spend their days trying to keep their families alive by gathering firewood and water, and by scraping together a dollar or two a day.” … “Slaughter herself seemed unaware that it might have been difficult for her to run a division of the State Department while keeping her family in Princeton, New Jersey.”

    The balance between work and family is sometimes not achieved for those electing a demanding career. That is by choice. It is NOT choice which makes it necessary for a single parent to work two jobs, or for one parent to work two jobs so that the other parent can work fewer hours and care for children (paid child care for persons of average means is largely unaffordable).

    The other issue is this: In “having it all,” I believe we are subscribing to a crass materialistic life in this individualized nation which is leading us further away from the spiritual wealth afforded by Christianity and into the dark abyss of spiritual poverty (away from God) and fast looming economic poverty which is fast on our tails as a result of so few who actually do have it all, at least in terms of material wealth.

    Secular prosperity preaching, in the guise of equality can easily beguile the reader or hearer, but we have to look at the facts of this one well-to-do woman; her concerns are extremely narrow. Let us not be galloping off on issues which more divide us than gather us. The justice in liturgy must be general, not centering our focus on pronouns, just as the Prof. Slaughters must expand their attentions to the expanding numbers of less fortunate people among us. That is the duty given us all by Christ.


  2. Fr. Michael Neal says:

    “If you have seen me you have seen the FATHER.” “I and the FATHER are one” … pretty simple … let’s not “confuse” scripture …


  3. Roz Dimon says:

    Right on Phyllis re: “It’s time we reconsider our language for God, and be open to fresh new ways to describe the indescribable to provide meaningful worship for all generations — and survive as an institution.” I would include in that a fresh approach to the creative and visual language that speaks to our own time and culture as distinct (while drawing on rich tradition and content) The digital realm is a fertile place for this renaissance of innovation to sprout as a source of passionate and exciting and extending connection to our “on-the-ground” liturgy — if our church looks to it with an open spirit rather than one that is fearful of change.

Comments are closed.