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From the April, 2000 issue of Touchstone


A Journal for Men & Women by David Mills

A Journal for Men & Women

Raise the question of “women’s roles” among conservative Christians and you will send almost all the men scurrying for cover. So dominant are certain feminist assertions—that, left on their own, men will mistreat women and that the Christian tradition as we have it is the work of men left on their own—that men who are not guilty of a single chauvinist thought will grovel as much as they must to prove their innocence and enlightenment.

Even those who hold to the New Testament teaching on the headship of men tend to grant the feminist claims in every other way. Many will not use man and he generically, and we even see, once in a while, the hitherto unimaginable sight of very conservative men avoiding he when speaking of the Father and the Son and especially the allegedly genderless Holy Spirit. When they have to say they oppose women being put into positions of headship, they almost always add some qualifying phrase like “but I certainly don’t mean to say that women are inferior,” as if holding the biblical view were in itself evidence of misogyny.

A few weeks ago one of our readers, an old friend with some status in the wider world, wrote me to complain that Touchstone ran only male writers and “operates [on] a male-only basis.” In our articles “all references to Christians are always ‘he,’ never ‘she,’” and even my essay on “Imaginative Orthodoxy” “addresse[d] a male-only readership” because I called my readers “modern men.” For these reasons—the relative lack of women writers and the use of generic language—women don’t “rate in your pages.” In Touchstone, “Male is normative, female is exceptional.”

As a magazine opposed to the egalitarian project, of which feminism is the most popular expression, we would be prudent to scurry for cover with almost everyone else. We would not offend old and influential friends, for one thing, and we would please conservatives who either hold to the milder form of feminism, usually marked by belief (often quite aggressive) in the headship of women in the Church, or who do not hold to any form of feminism but dislike open opposition to it. We could begin publishing more women because they were women and impose on our writers a judicious use of “inclusive” language, in order to win some, as St. Paul said.

Two Reasons

It would be prudent to scurry for cover, but we have decided to stay in the open. One reason is that the editors share a sense of honor, alas probably now very old-fashioned, in which a gentleman does not dignify assaults on his character by changing his behavior to gratify his critics. But mainly, we act so contrary to popular opinion and political prudence for two reasons, one having to do with the nature of our work and the realities of human nature, which realities we are not inclined to reform, the other having to do with the need to preserve the traditional linguistic expression of the order God gave us, lest belief in it be yet further lost.

First, the sort of work we have been called to do limits the number of women who will be likely to write for us. More men than women write for Touchstone because the sort of polemical and analytical theology we favor is primarily a masculine enterprise, or at least a primarily male enterprise, and indeed has been since the New Testament (a collection written entirely by men, which suggests something).

For better or worse, for every Dorothy Sayers there is a Lewis and a Chesterton and a Knox and a Belloc and a Blamires and a Kreeft and many others. (The catalogues of evangelical publishers like Eerdmans or Baker and the pages of magazines like First Things and Christianity Today reveal this as well.) If another Sayers were to appear and offer to write for us if we dropped one of the senior editors into the middle of Lake Michigan in January, we would gladly draw straws—not because she was a woman, but because she was a genius who would write what needs to be written.

Such theology may be primarily masculine because, as some feminists argue, women are more “relational” than men and tend to “make connections” while men find distinctions and differences. If they are right, because Touchstone’s mission requires the drawing of distinctions and the pointing out of differences, it will, in a world marked by confused attempts to combine what cannot be combined, tend to be a primarily masculine work.

We are happy to make connections, but only when the differences of the things to be connected have been identified and evaluated. There are differences whose combination is ordained and fruitful, like that of man and wife, and differences whose combination is not, like that of two men who want to ignore the incompatibility of their sexual organs by referring to the false unity of “love and commitment.” The false claim of the second must be destroyed for the first to flourish, and this sort of critical analysis is a major part of our calling as a magazine.

Even on a less directly theological subject like Intelligent Design, the leaders in the field are all men. (This is true on the Darwinian side too, which suggests something). Publishing the major writers on the subject means publishing men. There is no way around this fact, except by bypassing the leaders in the field and publishing lesser figures because they are women.

This we will not do because doing so would betray our stewardship of the ideas we’ve been given to convey. What would be gained by dropping Phillip Johnson and Michael Behe and replacing them with women, except making happy the sort of ideological bean-counter who tallies the number of men’s and women’s names in the table of contents to make sure women are “proportionately represented”? Truth would not be served, and therefore women would not be served.

By going out of our way to find more women writers, we would be teaching, as feminists insist we teach, that “Women can write theology too!” We know that—it is kind of obvious—but do not want to be so condescending as to make a point of it. Women can compete with men, and we assume they rarely compete in writing theology because they have better things to do.

The Linguistic Factor

Second, we need to preserve the linguistic expression of the sexual order God gave us, because it says something about the nature of creation that is lost when no one uses he to mean “he and she.”

One way to do this is by resisting the linguistic imperialism of the feminist movement. Cultural compulsions, such as the demand for “inclusive” language, generally carry an ideological meaning and message, and it is a matter of simple prudence to test them thoroughly. The world is so much with us, and part of us, even those of us who are consciously orthodox, that we must avoid the worldliness we can see—refusing even to nod in its direction, or offer it a pinch of incense.

In the feminist claims the world may well be telling us something important. It may well, as I suspect, be forcing Christians back to the tradition, behind a modern view of men and women that is in fact anti-Christian, even if conservative Christians and secular feminists both think this view biblical or traditional. “Difference feminism” can be simply the explanation of the meaning of the created order, and of the differences between men and women, that fallen men (here I mean males) have failed or refused to recognize.

But we are so worldly ourselves that we will not hear what feminism is telling us if we listen to it without extreme hermeneutical suspicion (to borrow a term from the liberation theologians) and a presumption in favor of the tradition as that canon from which the world has been far better purged. Feminism may explore the created order, but the egalitarian movement of which it is a part is too committed to assault on that order for its insights to be taken uncritically.

The other way to preserve some understanding of the sexual order is to use the linguistic forms congruent with the revelation. We do use the traditional generic (or inclusive) masculine—as did, again, the New Testament writers, and not only them, but also many feminists outside the United States. In fact, I recently found the generic he used by Joyce Carol Oates, of all people, in the New York Review of Books, of all places, when six of the seven people she was including in “he” were women. There are a number of good reasons for the inclusive use of he and him, and their use does not imply—and until very recently would never have been taken, even by women, to imply—that one operates on “a male-only basis” or that women “don’t rate.”

That is to read into the language what the language does not say. That some feminists claim to hear in the generic and inclusive he a diminution of women or to feel that it excludes them does not in itself constitute an argument for replacing it with the terms they want. Not least because many other women, as intelligent and learned as they, if not more so, do not hear or feel this at all. (In this case, “consciousness raising” is less a discovery of things one did not see before than a form of spiritual and intellectual hypochondria. That the hypochondriac thinks his minor indigestion is a major heart attack is no reason for his friends to rush him to the hospital.)

Inclusive Man

Similarly, we use the politically incorrect Man to mean Man because there is no other way of saying what it says. There is no “inclusive” alternative for the word, and as Patrick Henry Reardon has written in Touchstone, the loss of a word is the loss of the idea or reality to which it points. In the case of the phrase to which my friend objected, I used “modern men” rather than “modern people” or “modern persons,” because I was speaking of things related both to the nature of man and to our present circumstances, my subject being the human imagination as it operates in the late twentieth-century West. I could not have said this accurately any other way.

But our usage of such terms as he and Man is not just a question of accuracy, though for me that alone would settle the matter. There is a theological reality here, too, that makes us even more unwilling to revise the traditional usage.

The feminist claim is that the generic he and man cannot include women and in fact teach their inferiority. My friend, who is the mildest sort of feminist, argued this. But the claim is not true, and indeed it is a very dangerous mistake. A Christian cannot argue that the male cannot include and comprehend and stand for the female, for that claim destroys the Incarnation and the Atonement. It is a natural and reasonable corollary of the patriarchal nature of our God—that the Pater is the Arche, as Father Reardon has put it—and of the Son’s Incarnation as a male, not that the male is “normative” and the female “exceptional,” but that the male is in some way paradigmatic and symbolically inclusive.

For this reason, I think, the generic masculine has been the dominant usage in Christian writing since the beginning, and so we use it. Whatever may be said in favor of the alternative, it is used so much even in conservative writing that someone must hold out for the generic forms as a reminder of those eternal realities to which they point. At the very least, we are simply correcting an imbalance.

A Solvent

One may argue, as do conservative Christian feminists, that the “masculine bias” of generic language reflects the attempt of the dominant males to ensure their power by linguistically marginalizing and excluding women, but one thereby undermines the authority of the New Testament itself and the reliability of the tradition by which all we know of it has come down to us. If the Fathers so corrupted the language of Scripture in their own interest, they surely made up or rewrote the stories in their own interest—which is why the more thorough feminist scholars have rejected Christianity and not just tried to remake its language.

I am never sure if even conservative men and women realize what an effective solvent this sort of thinking is: like a strong acid, once applied, it dissolves far more than one intended. One may have wanted only to take the layers of old paint off the tabletop and find that the acid has eaten away the wood as well. If being written only by men is bad, the New Testament is bad; if the use of the generic and inclusive masculine excludes women, the Christian tradition excludes women. One may say this, of course, but if it is true, one ought to reject the faith entirely and not bother trying to make cosmetic changes to its language.

I suspect some sense of the risk they are running explains the egalitarians’ slightly desperate attempt to find an egalitarian core or essence to the New Testament, as evidenced, for example, in their inevitable misreading of Galatians 3:28 as announcing the abolition of sexual differences. In this case, the egalitarian acid has eaten away their ability to read the text and to relate it rightly to the rest of Scripture. (To the beginning of Genesis, for example: if there is no male or female in the egalitarians’ sense, how do babies get born?)

Our True Aim

In all this, it is not so much feminism, from which good can be derived, as the egalitarian project—the destruction of the hierarchy and difference God has written into the creation—that is our target. It is only after liberation from this project that the insights of feminism can be rightly heard and women’s roles rightly identified and valued. If we are right about the shape of reality and the linguistic usages that follow, we are doing more for women and for men by insisting on this shape than are those who avoid them in partial, prudential, and in the end (if I may put it this way) unmanly submission to the feminist pieties.

David Mills, for the editors

David Mills , former editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream and columnist for several Catholic publications. His last book is Discovering Mary. He and his family attend St. Joseph's Church in Corapolis, PA.

“A Journal for Men & Women” first appeared in the April 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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