THE BLOG
06/28/2012 11:33 am ET | Updated Aug 27, 2012

Gender, God and Spirituality

What we are searching for in any authentic male or female spirituality is the good and healthy meaning of maleness or femaleness, each being one half of that mystery of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Is there any essential or cross-cultural nature to the one half of the image of God that we call masculine or feminine? Do men approach spirituality differently than women, have different starting places and different symbols? My studied opinion is that we do have quite different entrance points, but nevertheless end up much the same, because the goal is identical -- union, divine union, where we are being guided by One who is neither male nor female, but "all in all" (1 Corinthians 15:28).

Anthropologists suggest that the majority of male initiation rites were concerned with leading the young male on journeys of powerlessness, whereas female fertility and puberty rites had the exact opposite function: to sign the young girl with emblems of power and dignity. The rites gave them both what they needed to get started, but from opposite starting places. The male could not be trusted with power unless he had made journeys of powerlessness; the female would not even know she had power unless she was taught and encouraged to trust it.

This could seem shocking, but read the four Gospels and note Jesus' consistently distinctive attitude toward the two genders. He is invariably calling the woman upward: "Go your way; your faith has restored you to health!" (Luke 8:48) and "Neither do I condemn you" (John 8:11). To a woman who has just spoken "up" and "back" to Jesus, he says, "Woman you have great faith!" (Matthew 15:28).

Conversely, he is steadily calling the males downward: "Zacchaeus, come down!" (Luke 19:5); "If anyone wants to be first, he must be last" to the Twelve (Mark 9:35); and "Get behind me, Satan" to "the prince of the apostles" who wants to avoid suffering (Mark 8:33). Our selective memory is really rather amazing, that we have not noted this clear pattern in the Scriptures. Could that be what we mean by patriarchy?

Agency vs. Relationship

Something that I find intrinsic to a spirituality for men is what is called the agentic (agere = to act or do) character of most males. Men love to move things and experience themselves as "agents" of change. According to social psychologists, most males prefer from childhood to experience themselves as initiators of movement -- fixing, rescuing, building up and tearing down the world. Males like to test their embodiment against the pressures and invitations of reality, and "superheroes" are often their favorite action toys.

Men also don't really trust or admire a process, a group or a religion if it does not ask a lot of them. They like to push, but they also respect being pushed back in the right way. Men are inclined toward a most lovely and beautiful heroism whenever possible and find their power through facing (or creating!) stress. Heroic "sacrifice" creates men at their best and at their worst.

This agentic quality is in counterpoint to the relational preference of most women. Most women prefer circles of sharing to pyramids and hierarchies. They prefer conversation to construction. They will usually choose nurturance and empathy over competition and climbing. They will normally choose connection over simple performance games.

In my opinion, most organized religion does neither agentic service nor relational nurturance very well. It usually gives men little to do, little to move and little to build. It also puts a particular kind of male, educated in philosophy and theology, in charge of the nurturing, relational world of Christianity, asking of them a kind of pastoral work for which they are frequently not gifted. We end up with lots of preaching and very little healing. We end up with the "edifice complex" instead of a house of hospitality. We end up with "worthiness contests" instead of ministries of reconciliation, peacemaking, prison or hospital visitation, bereavement work, etc. If our Trinitarian God is relationship itself, how can we live inside of this Mystery without deep capacities for relatedness, connectivity and mutuality?

Being Precedes Gender

We both lose out, unless there is real Encounter for both genders. At that point God takes over and gives the male or female soul what only God knows it needs. Gender cues and biases are now impediments. In the end, a true spirituality is one that affirms men and women at the level of their deepest identity, their true selves in God, an objective and ontological ground -- actually much deeper than mere gender, which is always in cultural flux. Ironically and paradoxically, this non-gendered and theological foundation is what most deeply affirms them precisely as males or females in the long run. The questions in the second half of life are much more metaphysical, philosophical and cosmological: How am I a part of the whole? How can I connect with The Center? What evokes my sense of primal wonder, awe and humility? "How can I let go?" much more than "How can I hold on?" Gender issues fade into the background, while we ourselves become more androgynous.

A man or woman must first and foundationally know who he or she is "hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:3). Then we can -- almost by accident -- know that it is also good, even wonderful, to be a man or a woman, one gendered half of this larger mystery of God. The category of human is deeper than any cultural definitions of male or female gender. The category of pure holiness is broader than any male or female examples of the same; in fact, they start looking very similar toward the end.

Ironically, calm and secure male and female identity is what makes mature partnership between males and females possible. Men and women are most alike at their most mature and soulful levels. Men and women are most different only at their most immature and merely physical levels.

The True Self, who we objectively are in God, is prior and superior to any issues of gender, culture or sexuality, which are all "accidental" to one's foundational core as a child of God. This is why it is pure heresy to call a transgendered, gay or lesbian person "intrinsically disordered." (The intrinsic foundation of the human person is given by God and untouchable by any human intervention whatsoever.) Gender is a combination of biology, psychology and personal history, which are all good and necessary entrance points to the temple, but spirituality is learning how to live in the temple itself (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). What makes spirituality precisely "spiritual" is that it connects us with the Core and the Center, not just the circumference; with the essence and not just the accidents.

But What Gets Us There?

This is the unique area of male and female spirituality, as I see it: the differing symbols, stories, images, rituals and metaphors that get us to enter the temple. We must honor the need for action, movement, building, repairing, rescuing and heroic hardship that men love. We must honor the community, relationships, empathy, intimacy, healing and caring that women value. We know, however, that the final spiritual question, and the goal, is to get men and women to love and live both of these.

All things being on course, the genders tend to be much more alike than different by the second half of life. This illustrates much of my lived experience: men start hard and get softer, whereas women start soft and get harder. It can often be a quite difficult dance of missteps, misinterpretation and mutual hurt until we meet somewhere in the middle.

I cannot illustrate huge differences between male and female spiritualities except in their starting points, style and fascinations along the way. This is significant, however, and has huge pastoral implications: men must be challenged in the world of doing; women must be challenged in the world of relating. But the object and goal of all spirituality is finally the same for all genders: union, divine love, inner aliveness, soul abundance, generous service to the neighbor and the world. In these essentials and in the Great Whole "there is no distinction ... between male and female" (Galatians 3:28). Mature Christian spirituality leads us toward universals and essentials.

Gratefully, Christ "holds all things in unity ... the fullness is found in him, and all things are reconciled through him and for him, everything in heaven and on earth" (Colossians 1:17, 19-20) -- including everything sexual that seems to be split in halves.

This article is excerpted from Unitive Consciousness: Beyond Gender by Fr. Richard Rohr, © 2012 Fr. Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation. The unabridged, 3,000 word version is available for purchase at the CAC Mustard Seed Bookstore. www.cac.org.