Gender as Eternal Reality

But whence came this curious difference between them? He found that he could point to no single feature wherein the difference resided, yet it was impossible to ignore. One could try — Ransom has tried a hundred times — to put it into words. He has said that Malacandra was like rhythm and Perelandra like melody. He has said that Malacandra affected him like a quantitative, Perelandra like an accentual, metre.

[W]hat Ransom saw at that moment was the real meaning of gender. Everyone must sometimes have wondered why in nearly all tongues certain inanimate objects are masculine and others feminine. What is masculine about a mountain or feminine about certain trees? Ransom has cured me of believing that this is a purely morphological phenomenon, depending on the form of the word. Still less is gender an imaginative extension of sex. Our ancestors did not make mountains masculine because they projected male characteristics into them. The real process is the reverse. Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex.

Lewis, Perelandra, pp. 171-72

This portion of C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy is quoted in a helpful new article by Colin Smothers on Desiring God, “Was C.S. Lewis an Egalitarian?” Like Smothers, I have found Lewis’ fiction to be very persuasive regarding the goodness of complementarity between men and women – that the equal value of men and women is in fact more beautifully displayed in harmonious difference rather than in flat uniformity. And that this good eternal contrast should be displayed in society, the family, and the church. As I think back to what has made me a convictional complementarian, after God’s word, Lewis’ fiction would be one of my top influences. If you’ve never read his space trilogy, The Great Divorce, or Narnia books with this lens, it’s well worth the effort. The key here is that Lewis is not a man imprisoned by the blindspots of his particular time. But as a self-proclaimed “dinosaur” immersed in ancient mythology and languages, he is one of those gifted to see through his culture and to see things more permanent.

Why would fiction, of all genres, be so convincing? Sometimes that which offends our personal culture-shaped logic still resonates deep down when we see it in narrative. Pay attention to which themes keep showing up in our favorite films and stories. These are the things we really know to be true, regardless of what our editorials and think pieces say. The sacrifice of one hero saves the many. Humanity really is worth saving, in spite of our deep brokenness. Troubled characters can make a fateful choice which irredeemably confirms their nature to be evil, and thus their death is just and cause for celebration. Sin must be atoned for. Men and women are deeply different from one another.

It’s hard to argue logically – or biblically – for complementarity in a way that resonates as beautiful in our current Western cultural moment. But stories and narrative can still very much show it to be beautiful in a way that speaks to our consciences and to the eternity in our hearts. Storytellers are therefore a crucial part of the culture wars, one aspect that we conservatives tend to neglect. This is likely one reason why Lewis and Tolkien are everywhere right now. Though long dead, they are some of our few really effective storytellers.

The point which Lewis communicates through his stories that has lodged so deeply in me is summarized by the line, “Our ancestors did not make mountains masculine because they projected male characteristics into them. The real process is the reverse. Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental one than sex.” In my own words, gender is an eternal reality that must exist in the nature of God himself, because it is displayed throughout all creation. Yes, it shows up – downstream as it were – in human sex and gender, but like Lewis says, it appears in countless languages also – both in their very structure and as they attempt to describe reality.

This point resonated so deeply with me when I came across it in Lewis because we also find this to be true as we survey human cultures throughout history and around the world. The reality of masculinity and femininity are universally recognized by the thousands of diverse human cultures that have colored this planet. There has never been a neuter society. Even allowing for great diversity in its expression, the principle of fundamental difference between manhood and womanhood – and the dance of cooperation and competition between them – is always there. Once again, the book of human culture is telling us something about the nature of the universe and about God himself. The reality of binary gender is bleeding through the pages of human culture absolutely everywhere we look.

This is one reason many of the arguments for egalitarianism feel so shallow to me. They present as overly-dependent on critiquing stereotypes from 1950s America. Forget the 1950s. Why would we need to ground complementarianism in such a narrow slice of time and culture? If it is indeed true, then our questions must go much deeper and broader. Why have the tribal and religious institutions of Melanesia and Central Asia been male-led from time immemorial? Why did the ancient Persians recognize the man as the leader of his home? Why have indigenous societies overwhelmingly structured themselves so that the woman’s primary sphere is the the home and the man’s primary sphere is outside the home? Why did the myth of the Amazons exist for the ancient Greeks, serving as a legendary inverse society? Why do so many writers throughout history find the difference in roles between men and women to be honorable, and we find them so distasteful? Have we honestly wrestled with why are we the global and historical oddballs when it comes to how we feel about this topic, and why we are so proud of that?

In spite of the egalitarian air that we breathe in the West, we shouldn’t settle for simple responses that chalk it up to The Patriarchy or the results of the fall. Differences in role and manhood and womanhood are clearly visible before the fall in Genesis 1 and 2, as they should be if they are indeed reflecting deeper eternal realities of gender. The New Testament continues to affirm the differences in roles even as it deepens our understanding of our spiritual equality. Yes, male domineering leadership over women is very real and very universal since sin and the curse perverted these differences and twisted the dance into a cold war (with periodic open combat). But the answer is not to attempt to be the first neuter society in the history of humanity. Nor to remake the church or the home into the image of a fictional universe where masculinity and femininity are temporary, fading things imposed by culture.

Instead, we need to lean in and listen to writers like Lewis who seek to understand the eternal beauty of masculinity and femininity. This will help us place the biblical commands for male and female roles in their proper context. We need some bigger backdrops for this discussion – the breadth of human history and culture, the universe, even the nature of God himself.

Photo by Peter Conlan on Unsplash

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