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Paul Vallely: Peterson, Newman, and God-talk 

26 January 2018

Gender rows are at root about theology, Paul Vallely finds


THE gender wars are hotting up again — to the delight of ideologues on both sides, it seems. Chan­­­nel 4 bosses have called in “security experts” to protect their news presenter Cathy Newman, who, they say, has been subjected to “vicious misogynistic abuse” on social media since her interview with Professor Jordan Peterson, a clin­­ical psychologist from the University of Toronto. Professor Peterson gained a huge online following for his attacks on political correctness, identity politics, and the “cultural Marxism” which he sees latent in the Western media elite.

He and she were never going to see eye to eye. But she probably did not expect to be joining women such as the classicist Professor Mary Beard, the Labour MP Diane Abbott, and the BBC’s Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg as vic­tims of vitriolic social-media hate-storms.

It is important, however, to distinguish between abuse and criticism. I know very little about Pro­fessor Peterson, but I have worked with Ms New­man and like her. Yet I have to admit that, while some of the attacks on Cathy were person­ally abusive, the vast majority were merely scath­ing of a very poor interview, in which she hardly listened to what the psychologist said, and, in­­stead, went on to ask her next question based on what she had assumed in advance that he was going to say. So anxious was she to put words in his mouth that she resorted to telling him “so what you are saying”, or words to that effect, no fewer than 28 times.

An altogether more interesting feminist approach came from Professor Daphne Hampson, whom I recently heard deliver “An introduction to gender theology” to an all-boys school. Perhaps her most arresting assertion, when asked about the post-Weinstein #MeToo campaign, and the row over equal pay at the BBC, was to suggest that all this is “deeply bound up with how we think about God”.

Professor Hampson, who describes herself as a “post-Christian”, began by asserting that transcen­dent monotheism ill fits with what we now know about the world. It was born in an era “when the earth was the centre of creation, Jerusalem was the centre of the world, and the Cross was at the centre of Jerusalem”. Today, we know that we live in one small part of one of at least 100,000 million galaxies.

Since that old era, our intellectual development means that ways of talking about God as a domin­ant male — king, lord, judge, father — are inap­­propriate. Projecting female characteristics on to God is no solution. God is not a someone up there, but, rather, a force that moves between people and connects them.

This kind of critique of the deep structures of gender is more fruitful, though it is hard to see why Christianity should be uniquely in the firing line when something similar can be detected more universally: in Aristotle, the Pythagorean table of opposites, or the yin and yang metaphysics of Daoism.

For all that, Professor Hampson remains convinced that we would all be better off without Christianity, but rejoices in the fact that she is allowed to say so. “In the Middle Ages,” she adds, “I’d have been burned alive for saying this kind of thing.” But then, they didn’t have Twitter then.


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