“Of Course He Isn’t Male,” or Who, Me? Sexist?

David Kelsey

Two ingrained traditions that many YDS women protested right off were 1) churches’ refusal to ordain women and 2) the overwhelmingly male language conventionally used of God in worship and theology: God as “Father,” “Lord,” “He,” etc., and for human beings: “man.” Probably because I grew up in a clergy family in which it was assumed that the refusal to ordain women was an outrage, I thought, “Well, sure, women ought to be ordained.”

My engagement with the language issue was more complex. My first reaction to it was acute embarrassment that I had never noticed how one-sidedly male conventional usage was. But it was now clear that traditional ways of talking in church were deeply painful to many women. This language was experienced as something that marginalized and in some way demeaned women and privileged men in a community in which there was supposed to be “neither male nor female,” but all on an equal footing before God.

As I saw it, women persuasively argued that this conventional way of talking was just one more piece of evidence that Western culture is sexist. Its arrangements of power reinforced a hierarchy that systematically and unjustly subordinates women to men. I could see it wouldn’t do for men to work on changing these conventional ways of talking merely as a way of being “polite” to women’s sensibilities, or being “pastoral” to their hurts, or to refuse to take part in acts of mere “political correctness.” The core issue was injustice. One might be skeptical of the power of changed language usage in church and theology to strike a significant blow to the actual structure of a sexist culture inside and outside the church. It was nonetheless important, I thought, for the church to cast off complicity with that injustice by forsaking language that provides religious justification of that injustice.

So I became a sympathetic male who thought that church and theology needed to work at changing the way we talk about God and humankind.

One day in class in the late ’60s someone asked, “Why not use female as well as male images and pronouns when talking about God? Has anyone ever really thought God is male?”

And I heard myself answering, “No! Traditional theology has consistently said God does not have a body. Of course he’s not male.”

Classroom Complacency

Everyone in the room was too polite to laugh. But the absurdity of the contradiction between speaking in a sexist way against a sexist understanding of God was blatant. It stung because it was itself sexist. Who, me? Sexist? I was the well-meaning theologian who joins feminist theologians in critiquing sexist use of language in Christian life and thought. It was a consciousness-raising moment. I experienced personally what I had complacently said in class: sexism goes a lot deeper than the way we consciously and explicitly use language. Sexism lies in inarticulate and unconscious feelings, attitudes, and stereotypes that profoundly shape our conscious perceptions and thoughts from child- hood on. Deeper than habits of speech, sexism is the many ways in which we are complicit in the in- justice of a sexist culture. If we were truly to resist injustice in the form of sexist attitudes, discourse, and power arrangements in church and in our own lives, it would have to involve changes that go much deeper than being more “sensitive” in the way we speak in worship and theology. Resisting sexism is a much longer project than learning how to talk about God without using male pronouns. For me it has been a work ever in process.

YDS women protested a third sexist theme as well, pointedly and repeatedly: in their experience, the men did not listen to them, did not hear them, either in class or in informal conversation. In their perception they were marginalized. That protest helped (pushed?) me further along in the project of learning how to resist the culture’s sexism, and my own, in two ways.

For one thing, it taught me to pay more attention to a dynamic going on in the classroom. My first teaching job was in a men’s college, and I was fascinated by the subtle and not so subtle student power struggles in discussion sections and seminars. They were generated by different personality needs, insecurities, aggressiveness, etc., or they were extensions of social power struggles in other aspects of the college’s life. But they rarely had anything to do with either the topic of the day or the content of the discussion currently underway.

Power Struggle

There were certainly power struggles in my YDS classes, but I also began to see dynamics that, too often, specifically marginalized women in class discussion. For example, a woman would make a comment, silence would follow, then a male student would make another comment that related to the previous one only in the most tangential way. If a male student did directly respond to the woman’s comment, he would tend to address either the male teacher or other male students as though the woman were not present and the men in the room had only overheard her comment in passing. I began to recognize that a male teacher’s responsibility included making sure discussion was brought back to the woman’s ignored comments in a way that directly involved her.

Women’s protest of their marginalization taught me to pay attention to the kinds of issues and questions that were repeatedly pressing for them. Men tended to ask whether, say, the doctrine of God or of the church or Christology as argued in the text we were discussing was coherent, and how it compared to that of certain other theologians, and why it was persuasive or not. Women were more often likely to ask whether the proposed argument undercut or gave Christian justification to the cultural sex- ism whose injustice oppressed them. For women, theological discussion was generally issue-oriented liberation theology. Men tended to ask what the theoretical implications are of a theological proposal for issues of social ethics. Women tended to ask what the implications of the proposal are for the attitudes, emotions, passions, and beliefs that foster mutuality and friendship, not only in relation to God but in everyday relationships. Both men and women were deeply interested in whether theological notions sustained and encouraged their own agency. But there was a difference. Men’s questions and ideas tended to focus on their own individual agency in relation to God, despite a good deal of abstract talk about human beings’ inherent “sociality.” Women’s questions tended to focus on nurturing their own agency in and through their relationships with others.

Changing the Culture

Now of course, not every woman and man in my classroom fit into these generalizations. Another thing I learned from women’s protest of their marginalization in an academic setting is the danger of relying on “false universals,” especially about the “nature” of women and of men. On this point the history of controversy within feminist theology itself about whether there is any such thing as, respectively, the “nature” of “women” or “men,” is a salutary caution. Learning to pay attention to these things greatly enlarged the range of topics, issues, and questions that I recognized as properly “theological.”

The women’s movement at YDS also shaped me indirectly by helping to change the school that was the environment of my working life for forty years. It helped change the composition of my set of col- leagues by insisting on the urgency of appointing women to what had been an all-male faculty. The school found the right people. Margaret Farley was appointed in 1971, and Letty Russell in 1974. This started a process of gender change of the faculty that has been as important as it has been slow.

The women’s movement also helped change the curriculum. Women students persisted that feminist points of view be represented in every course in the curriculum, and they demanded seminars that focus exclusively on feminist thinkers. The women’s movement also changed the environment in which I taught by changing the school’s local culture. YDS’s ethos had not been much different from the men’s college in which I had taught and the one from which I had graduated. Particularly important for women in the 1970s were women’s consciousness-raising groups led by women for women in the school. Sex- ism is so pervasive and deep in our culture that, raised and formed by it from childhood as we are, it is as invisible to all of us as the air. The feminist women’s groups aimed to raise the consciousness of women for whom the unjust effects of cultural sexism in the society generally and in YDS in particular remained invisible. This led to heightened awareness within the school of the effects of sexism and more intense protest about them.

In retrospect I can see that the YDS women’s movement protests against sexist language use in the school and sexist practices of classroom teaching, and the ways in which their presence changed the environment in which I spent much of every day, have helped me further along in learning ways to resist the culture’s and the school’s sexism, and my own. In a way, this has been a personal process of repentance. I don’t suppose I have been terribly successful in moving very far. It’s not only a work in progress; if it’s going to go very deep, repentance turns out sometimes to be a very slow process. 

David Kelsey ’58 B.D. ’60 M.A. ’64 Ph.D. is Luther Weigle Professor Emeritus of Theology at YDS, where he taught from 1965-2005. His books include Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), Imagining Redemption (Westminster John Knox), 2005, Between Athens and Berlin: The Theological Education Debate (Eerdmans, 1993), and The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Fortress, 1975).