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Gender should have no significance

22 February 2013

Many people do not want to be constrained by their body, says Harriet Baber

I RECEIVED an email from my daughter, with a link to an article on the vote against the draft Measure for consecrating women to the episcopate in the Church of England. Were there women bishops in the Episcopal Church in the United States, she asked.

I was happy to say that there were, because I believe that the essence of the Christian message is liberation from the body: from nature and natural affiliations, and from race, gender, and kinship. Jesus had no use for family values: he advised his followers to leave their kin, and to let the dead bury their dead.

This is not a respectable line to take, nowadays. We are supposed to love the body, and to affirm tribal affiliations in the interest of multiculturalism.

I disagree. Race, ethnicity, and gender constrain us. Ethnicity is all very well if your ancestry is Scottish or Scandinavian. Such identities are strictly voluntary: you can ignore them, or take them up as hobbies. You wear a kilt, or eat lutfisk once a year. No one expects you to make a fuss about ethnicity, or condemns you as "self-hating" if you don't.

But, if you are dark, a person of Italian, Greek, or Jewish descent, you are pressed to affirm ethnic identity. And if you are very dark - African-American, Hispanic, or otherwise visibly brown - you are hit with innumerable burdensome obligations and expectations.

Political correctness imagines populations of dark people aching to preserve their ancestral cultures, but forced to assimilate. In fact, many of us want nothing more than to assimilate, but are excluded by our genetic make-up, and pressed to affirm our ethnic heritage. We want to be liberated from the body.

As a woman, I want to be liberated from the body, too. Rejecting the body, dismissing gender and sexuality as inconsequential and external to who we are, liberates us.

Some opponents of women's ordination imagine that supporters of it are concerned with equality, and so assure us that women are "complementary", not inferior. This misses the mark; it is difference as such that is objectionable.

Differences in expectations, and options determined by the unchosen accident of gender constrain us and force many of us - both men and women - into moulds that we cannot fit comfortably. Women are expected to be nurturing, empathetic, and patient, and do "caring" work in the home and in the labour force. I cannot meet these expectations, and I would not do caring work, no matter how highly valued or highly paid it was. Equality - in dignity or respect, prestige, power, or pay - is not the issue.

When it comes to strictly theological doctrines, I can put up with a lot. Trinity? Real Presence? No problem. But I cannot live with a Church committed to the doctrine that unchosen "natural" characteristics, such as gender, are theologically significant.

The course of civilisation, and of the Christian story, is one of liberation from nature. The Hebrews freed God from the land: wherever the tribe went, Yahweh, in his portable tabernacle, went along. Christianity liberated God from the tribe.

Nature in and of itself is morally neutral. It is good for us when it gives us what we want -sexual pleasure, aesthetic experience, and all the good things of our incarnate lives. It is bad for us when it thwarts us - in particular, when it boxes us into race, ethnicity, and gender.

Christianity liberates us from nature. This is the radically countercultural message of Christianity.

Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, USA.

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