by Edith M. Humphrey, Ph.D.
(This reflection comes largely from the last chapter of my forthcoming book on C. S. Lewis, Further Up and Further In: Orthodox Conversations with C. S. Lewis on Scripture and Theology, St. Vladimir’s Press. It is the most speculative of the chapters, and I hope that it will both whet the appetite of the reader for the rest of the book, but also initiate what I think is an important discussion that we need to have at this time in the Church concerning the nature of male and female.)
In his books of fantasy, Lewis creates a compelling cosmos where his characters, both seen and unseen beings, live. These strange new worlds fascinate the reader who enters into them; however, Lewis also means to show us the world in which we live. Many have seen the obvious connections between his novel Perelandra (also known as Voyage to Venus) and the story of the temptation and fall in Genesis 3. As we come to the climax of Lewis’s story, we are delighted to discover that the “first lady” of this pristine realm does not yield to seduction, but triumphs, so that she and her husband enter into glory as the rulers of that world. By means of her encounter with evil, her temptation, her reasoning, and her final victory, we learn inverse stories about our own situation here in a fallen world.
However, there is another more basic phenomenon that we encounter by means of the Lord and Lady of Perelandra, and those with whom they are in communion. We discern in this new planet a pattern of reality that Lewis insists holds true for our world as well as this imagined strange one: the Higher descends to be with the lower. Those beings whom we might call “high” show their ability to indwell those things or beings which are lower; in response, the lesser things demonstrate what we could call a “sacramental potency,” that is, an inbuilt ability to show forth that greatness which has come to visit and indwell them. The very idea of “high” and “low” might be annoying to a twenty-first century reader, but it is part and parcel of a Christian view of the cosmos in which the Incarnation takes place. Part of the beauty of the created order is that it is designed to point to its Creator, and does this in regular and sometimes astonishing ways. As Lewis explains in his extended essay Miracles, “We might … find that it was the very nature of Nature to suffer Miracles.” Where the supernatural has visited our world, where the traces of God—or even of His angels—remain, the created order “tells the glory of God.” Indeed, the whole of reality is like a grand dance, or “ball,” with its intricate rhythms, beauties and relations. Some of these interconnections are visible to human eyes, and others are not normally seen. But those mysteries that we can perceive are connected with the unseen realms in deep ways that we can only glimpse.
The hero of this story, Ransom, catches a glimpse of such wonders, almost as soon as he sets foot on this lush and serene planet. In earlier travels he has encountered different kinds of creatures who are similar in their limitations to human beings, as well as eldila, angelic-like creatures surrounded by light, with their head Oyarsa (an archangel?) Ransom’s insight into these marvelous beings is amplified in Perelandra, where he hears a description, and puts before our mind’s eye, the cosmic dance of the bright ones. He even converses with the eldila, whose speech is “like parts of a music into which [they] had entered as instruments or like a wind blowing through … trees that stand together on a hilltop.” Their conversation with Ransom and the first parents of Venus takes on the quality of a litany or song of praise, punctuated with the refrain “Blessed be He!” Ransom (with the reader!) is drawn into praise by this hymn about the Three-in-One for whom each thing was made, Who is at the center of all things and Who is with each one of us. For Him and from Him and through Him is this great dance. The participation of the dancers is not a matter of equality, but proceeds by “giving place … receiving it, the small things by their smallness and the great by their greatness, and all the patterns linked and looped together by the unions of a kneeling with a sceptred love.” As they chant in joy, we hear about mutuality, the exchange of positions, the importance of each dancer, willing submission, and utter insignificance next to the true Center. Headship and mutuality come together in an unspeakable manner, with the give and take, the structure and flexibility, of a courtly dance. Even the beings of light demonstrate their acceptance of what we could call “inequality,” their place in the grand scheme of things.
Ransom, then, hears the ineffable song of the eldila. But he is also is illumined (and instructs the reader) concerning the great mystery of physical male and female. The physical male and female persons, he comes to see, live as a beautiful echo or reflection of spiritual realities that we could call “Masculine” and “Feminine.” In the presence of the perfect King and Queen of Perelandra, he grasps that he has lived his whole life “among shadows and broken images” with an understanding of the male and female that is terribly skewed. He is overwhelmed with the beauty and apt harmony of these two in the flesh. Surprisingly, though these two are themselves echoes of spiritual beings “higher” in one sense than they, they also command deep respect from these more powerful eldila, since they bear the image of a greater One. Ransom describes the wonder of encountering the Lord and Lady coming into their reign:
All was pure daylight … For as the light reached its perfection and settled itself … like a lord upon his throne or like wine in a bow … the holy thing, Paradise itself in its two persons, Paradise walking hand in hand, its two bodies shining in the light like emeralds yet not themselves too bright to look at, came in sight … And the gods kneeled and bowed their huge bodies before the small forms of that young King and Queen.
The King and Queen are male and female, both in body and in spirit. Their great glory has its origin in the fact that they are reflecting God’s image. But it also comes from their perfect echoing, each and together, of Masculinity and Femininity—a unified wonder not normally seen by the fallen human eye.
By means of Ransom’s enraptured observations, Lewis describes bodily and psychic gender as a reflection of something greater. He argues against the idea that the principles of Masculinity and Femininity are simply a projection of our physically gendered state. In his view, it is the opposite. Beyond the human gendered condition, there is something even more solid to which our sexual natures point, and in which we participate—realities of which we can hardly conceive. In this unseen relation of Masculine and Feminine, there is one who is dominant, while the other reflexive and responsive; yet there is also a matching, or a mutuality. We glimpse at Lewis’s meaning as we look beyond the Lord and Lady of Perelandra, to the head eldila (Oyéru). Perelandra (for whom the planet is named), shows forth the Feminine, and Malacandra (the Head of another planet) the Masculine:
Malacandra was like rhythm and Perelandra like melody … [T]he first held in his hand something like a spear, but the hands of the other were open, with the palms towards him. ‘Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex … Female sex is simply one of the things that have feminine gender; there are many others, and Masculine and Feminine meet us on planes of reality where male and female would simply be meaningless … [T]he male and female of organic creatures are … faint and blurred reflections of masculine and feminine.
It is hard to grasp Lewis’s meaning and important to realize that he is also writing a story, in which main his character Ransom is reflecting on these mysteries, but not carefully elucidating a philosophy. What we can say is that he does not have in view vague Platonic ideals. Rather, he is using the capitalized adjectives (Masculine and Feminine) to gesture at unseen angelic wonders. More than that, Lewis is hinting at a Christian mystery unveiled by the apostle in Ephesians 5:32, where Christian marriage is said to be linked to Christ’s love for the Church. In a 1948 article (“Priestesses in the Church?“), Lewis explained it this way:
One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church … With the Church, we are farther in: for there we are dealing with male and female not merely as facts of nature but as the live and awful shadows of realities utterly beyond our control and largely beyond our direct knowledge.
I am a great lover of Lewis, but I do not think that he is right in every respect. Some have worried deeply about the very matters that we are considering here, and have thought that especially Lewis’s earlier writings show an unchristian chauvinism against women. We need to be careful not to flatten out Lewis’s thought here, however. Notice how, in describing the Lord and Lady of Venus, he attempts to preserve the mysterious tension of hierarchy-with-mutuality. There is certainly an asymmetry in their relationship, just as we might say, looking at the Holy Trinity, that the Father is not the Son, and that the Son is begotten by the Father, not the other way around; at the same time, each possesses equal dignity. Also, this tension is found, in this and his other early novels, where we see surprising reversals of the norm: the Perelandran Lady fights the major battle; in the subsequent novel, the mystical Jane aids in the protection of her husband Mark, rather than vice-versa. I would argue that what saved Lewis from what we may call hierarchalism was his creedal Trinitarian faith. For example, in his essay “Christianity and Literature,” he speaks, with astonishment, of the way in which 1 Corinthians 11 forges an “apparent equivalence of the woman-man relations with the relation between … the First and Second Persons of the Trinity.” Here Lewis is pointing to St. Paul’s analogy in 1 Corinthians 11, that woman is to man as Son is to Father (at least in terms of headship). These two factors—a fully orthodox grasp of the Holy Trinity, and the recognition that the male-female communion is (at least in part) a reflection of this—served him well. Eventually, this combination issued in a nuanced and careful understanding of the relation between husband and wife, especially in his later novels.
Lewis, from the beginning to the end, insisted that “equality” does not mean “interchangeability:” the Father is not the Son, and male is not female. But he was able to create strong women in his many of his novels, beginning with his awe-struck representation of the Perelandran Lady. Though he became more careful in the articulation, he retained, right until the end of his life, his view of Masculine and Feminine mysteries in which the human gendered condition participates. For this reason, he insisted that the progressivist (whom he calls the “innovator”) should not tamper with these human images: the living metaphors reflect something given, something real, something hidden from human eyes.
I am only just now giving fuller attention to what it is that Lewis might be suggesting by this conviction about unseen mystery, and the way in which our gendered condition points to it. Certainly St. Paul himself gestures to a similar wonder in Ephesians 5, where he says that the relationship of husband and wife indicates, in some sacramental way, the communion between Christ and the Church. That the New Testament itself hints at such connections means that we should not dismiss Lewis’s notions as merely fanciful. Perhaps, in fact, we should take the caution that he offers concerning tampering with these things, as utterly timely in our age of transgenderism and sexual questioning. What if the gender-inclusive “innovators” among us are meddling with things that we do not understand? What if Masculinity and Femininity are not concepts constructed by the human imagination or by society? The pervasiveness of such symbolism in Scriptures and the Christian tradition is instructive. To a generation brought up on children’s books like The Paper-Bag Princess, where the heroine does the rescuing of the prince, Lewis poses this question: “Suppose …that the mystical marriage were reversed, that the Church were the Bridegroom and Christ the Bride?” Well, if we suppose that, Lewis cautions, we may well have formed a different religion, and not kept the Christian faith.
Is metaphor window dressing for an ineffable concept? Or are some metaphors real, living things that partake of the reality? The one who has a sacramental view of the universe would say, yes, they do. Not all metaphors are artistic fancy. For Lewis to take seriously male and female in humanity is similar to insisting that wine and bread become the presence of the Lord in the Eucharist. The creatures are part and parcel of a bigger picture of reality, and may be caught up explicitly into this real world. Paul Evdokimov, in Woman and the Salvation of the World, is one of the few contemporary theologians who has tried to go beyond the frontier in exploring the deeper meaning of male and female. He types woman as the stronger spiritual being in the pair, and suggests a special connection between woman and the Holy Spirit, while man mirrors the Word, or the Son. But both stand in relation to the Father. Going further, because the Father is Himself the ultimate mystery, he insists that “a man does not possess the paternal instinct in the same way as a woman possesses the maternal instinct.” His understanding is that the female charism is prophetic, while the male charism is priestly—and both are to give glory to God together. Their life together is also redemptive: “As the Glory of man … woman is, in her luminous purity, like a mirror that reflects the man’s countenance, reveals it to himself, and thereby corrects it … The prophetic function of woman that is directed toward his being changes him.” In reasoning thus, he points to the icon screen at the front of the Eastern tabernacle, where Mary appears on Christ’s right and John the Baptist on Christ’s left. And he reminds us that female and male are meant to show forth Christ’s love for the Church. Thus, human sexuality has multiple functions beyond the biological. Some may raise eyebrows at how Evdokimov construes the mystery. However, he is salutary in reminding us, with Lewis, that Masculinity and Femininity are not insignificant features of our human persons: they partake of greater realities than we can hardly imagine.
All this is very different to the way that many are teaching and have been taught in the contemporary church. Lewis and Evdokimov may not have everything right. These two speculative thinkers may sometimes confuse cultural observations with theology, and mix in human imagination with Holy Tradition. But I think they are worth hearing. For they stand against the flat rendering of gender today, and are at least thinking about the mystery of who we are. Moreover, who we are, and how we talk about it, are related to our understanding and talk about God Himself.
As Christian people, we claim that something new has happened in the human understanding of God. We have been told, and believe, that God himself came to dwell among us, and taught us truly if not exhaustively about his own nature, and about how He should be named. Our knowledge about the Father comes not simply from what we know of human fathers, by our own understanding, but by God himself taking up our human language and teaching us the best way to use it. As the Reformers said, “God ‘lisps’ his word to us like the parent to an infant.” And so, God gives us back our own words about him, showing the name that is best suited to his nature, and filling in what that name means. It is very instructive that one of the entries in the revised Canadian Anglican hymnbook neutralizes the idea that Jesus has revealed something essential about God in the way that he calls God “Father.” Hymn 283, in its optional verse for St. Joseph’s day in the Western Church is alarming:
All praise, O God, for Joseph, the guardian of your Son.
Who saved him from King Herod, when safety there was none.
He taught the trade of builder, when they to Nazareth came,
And Joseph’s love made ‘Father’ to be, for Christ, God’s name.
This is, it seems, a nice, domestic picture of Jesus and his father. Yet, look at the assumptions here: Jesus could only understand about God being like a father, because he had a positive experience of father at home. It was his human experience of father, and that alone, that opened the door to this way of picturing God. What audacity is here! First, there is no indication in Scripture or the Tradition about Jesus’ theological development, and how he owed it to his human parents. It is of course most probably true that Jesus’ human environment played some part in his thinking: but the self-consciousness of the One who was truly human, but also the Word of God and truly divine, is a mystery far beyond our comprehension. Who are we to assume that Jesus’ name for God was born of his own, human, particular, limited understanding, and that we can do better, or use richer terminology? When Jesus taught us boldly to say, without condemnation, “Our Father,” was this the simple fruit of his environment and upbringing, or was he revealing to us, in fact, opening to us, as his redeemed brothers and sisters, a new way, a true way, of addressing God? Was St. Paul simply incorrect when he continued in this tradition, telling us to bow our knee to the Father, because he is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?
But role-model theology, made popular by authors such as Sallie McFague, in her influential Metaphorical Theology (1984) and Models of God (1987), puts a large question mark beside the “Abba” (“my father”) language of our Lord. A whole generation of priests and pastors has been brought up intent to repudiate any talk of hierarchy and patriarchy. They have been taught, and pass on by means of sermon and contemporary hymnody, that our talk about God is simply made up of human images. Thus, we are at liberty to change the symbols. Today, our picture of God should avoid gender terms like Father, or use both equally (Father and “Mother”). What Lewis envisaged as a ridiculous extreme in his early essay on priestesses has come to pass, because metaphor is now understood simply as our way of seeking to name the unnameable, mysterious God. As with the subjectivist menace, so with this teaching: it is all about how we feel. The first threat leads to the abolition of man; the second leads to the abolition of the Christian God—or, at least in our memories. In all this talk about gendered language, we reach back behind a squabble about names to root issues. Metaphorical, or role-model, theology urges us to “try out new pictures.” If we do not, these innovators exclaim, we are not putting forward descriptions of God most suited for our own day. The language of God as Father may devolve into idolatry, they caution, because we are mistaking the language for the mystery: when we use language to speak about God, it also communicates what we think about people.
It is indeed true that language about God is connected with our language about people. And there are many titles, biblical and traditional, that help us to fill out the picture of our ineffable God, who will always be greater than we can describe Him. But we also must remember the grand story of the Incarnation, in which God moves into our arena, assuming human language with human nature and showing us about Himself, as well as about our true human nature. It is primarily a movement down into our midst, not a human grasping up as we try to imagine God by mustering as many images as we can find.
How, anyway, does the Bible treat this? We have imagery in the Bible which speaks of God’s Wisdom as feminine, and God’s Word as masculine. But never does the New Testament call the Holy Spirit “She,” and the Christ is always called “He.” There is a normative pattern, such as Lewis has discerned, in the Great Tradition of the Church, beginning with the Bible. It is within this symbolic universe that the mystery of marriage (as we see in Ephesians 5) plays its part. Yet, from time to time there are surprising reversals. It is helpful to consider the “virtue” (literally, the “manliness,” from the Latin, vir) of the mother of the Maccabean martyrs, so celebrated in Scripture and in consequent hymns. It is helpful to remember that the asymmetrical picture of husband (to love) and wife (to respect) is headed in Ephesians 5:21 by a call to mutual submission. Lewis was well aware of this when he spoke of absolute submission as due only to God Himself. Our human headships are nothing in comparison to our common service, our “bowing of the head and subjection of the neck” to Christ, our God. In the end, St. Paul’s balancing words prove to be a rudder that helps us to sail straight in uncharted territory: “In the Lord, woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God” (1 Cor 11:12.) It is not, after all, mainly about us and our positions, but about God, who calls each one of us and who is Himself the center. He it is who gives each of us our significance.
Further than this I dare not go. I have no full answers. Indeed, I am not sure about the answers suggested by Evdokimov, though I do find it intriguing to consider whether woman, in her femininity, shows forth the Holy Spirit, and man shows forth God the Word in his masculinity. If this be so, then I hasten to add that the Holy Spirit is not, in essence, Feminine—at least, not in terms of the grammar suggested by Lewis or the Scriptures. That would be to subordinate the third person of the Trinity, and to import actual gender into God. But certainly the energies of the Spirit, the way in which the Spirit works, are frequently described in terms that we consider to be feminine—bringing to birth, indwelling, comforting, and the like. Moreover, if the male specifically shows forth Christ, so too does the female, by virtue of her baptism and chrismation. This is a complex state of affairs, with common, distinct, and overlapping iconic functions of male, female, male and female together, and the particular person. We are interconnected with God and the unseen world in multiple personal and corporate ways, much as an interval takes its various places in a musical piece, showing different aspects of the melody or the harmony by its placement.
It is not a good idea, I think, to plead “mystery!” too quickly, as a means of halting a discussion. Sandals must be removed when we are on holy Ground, but God does play host to us, and sometimes invites us to come closer. Because of the current crisis in understanding human identity, more dispassionate thought on gender and our common humanity is required. We must not allow political and social pressures to control our forays into this mystery, but they may be an important catalyst. Consider how much more clarity the Church acquired when it was forced to think about the nature of the God-Man because of the heresies of the past. My hope is that we will similarly come to more clarity about this wonderful mystery of human nature because of the challenges of feminist and sociological gender-studies.
Contemporary catholics like Dorothy Sayers, and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, who in all other respects cleave to the Tradition, have said that they see no theological reasons for retaining the tradition of ordaining males only to the priesthood. This may be true, if we take “theological” in the very narrow definition as “talk about God.” But why is it that the Bible, while it sometimes uses the feminine imagery for a God who transcends human sexuality, never addresses God in feminine terms? (God is compared to a mother bear, a mother eagle, a nursing mother, a midwife helping a woman in childbirth, but is never actually called these. He is called “Father.”) And does this clue lead us to wonder if there are reasons for the Tradition that we can glean from theological anthropology—a careful study of who we are as human beings?
What if there is reason to think, as do Lewis and Evdokimov, that the asymmetry of male-female relations is not simply a cultural matter, but something given? What if Jesus’ appearance as a male who gave up prerogative is the human echo of something far more profound about God? After all, human beings, male and female, together and singly speak of or show forth God simply by who they are. This is the challenge that Lewis poses to us, independently of specific roles or actions that women and men may or may not live lawfully live out. My own impression is that it is not a particular understanding of male priesthood, but lay apathy and the clericalism of the Church that has done damage to women (and lay men). And it is not simply a matter of clergy seeking power, but of laypeople happily relegating so large a domain (beyond service at the altar) to the already overburdened clergy. Women and lay men, too, are called to ministry, and given numerous gifts for that purpose. The current restriction of service in many quarters can be remedied without a new theology of ordination that would admit women to serve at the altar as “priests.” Even if this delegation of tasks were to happen, however, the questions being asked by our feminist friends compel us to think more deeply. Is the tradition concerning ordination arbitrary, or has Lewis, however roughly, sketched something of ultimate importance that concerns each of us, and all of us together, when he speaks about the use of gendered language?
As we embark on this discussion, it may be helpful to erect some boundaries to guide the quest concerning human sexuality and gender that it seems we must pursue together in the twenty-first century Church. I offer these to mark off the danger points:
- We cannot say that all symbols are merely human expressions, and that language and action are detachable from the reality to which they point.
- We cannot say that gendered language is expendable in talking about God or humanity.
- We cannot say that there is an absolutely confined role for each gender—reversals are part of our story.
- We cannot say that the relations of Father, Son and Spirit are symmetrical, nor can we say that they are not mutual and equal.
- We cannot say that the relations of husband and wife are totally symmetrical, nor ought we say that there is no mutuality or equality.
- We cannot say that there are no “higher” gifts and no “lesser” gifts—but all are necessary, and the higher need the lower, so that sometimes it is impossible to discern which is more important.
- In God-talk, we cannot forbid the use of feminine imagery, for the Bible uses it.
- In God-talk, we cannot ignore the usual or normative use of masculine language, even if it is uncomfortable to us.
These, I think, give us some parameters, both guarding us from danger and recognizing the mystery. I believe that, though Lewis sometimes irritates, we are indebted to him for venturing into this quagmire. He recasts the contemporary debate concerning gender and spirituality by his astonishing use of symbol, and does not let us rest with easy answers. If we follow him, we will not think mistakenly that gendered symbols are arbitrary and infinitely malleable. Instead, Lewis opens up the metaphorical world of the Scriptures for us, showing how they may be inextricably intertwined with reality. These mysteries we must guard, but also probe, for we want both to remain in Christ, and to learn more and more of Him.
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Dr Edith M. Humphrey is the William F. Orr Professor of New Testament at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. She is the author of many books, including Scripture and Tradition, Grand Entrance, and Ecstasy and Intimacy.