Thursday, June 3, 2010

Beatus Vir?

I am generally more opposed to gender-neutral language as a philologist and a partisan for words than I am as a theologian; in matters of biblical translation, I am even more firmly of this opinion. The NRSV, although very responsible, I find, in the Old Testament, is often a little too enthusiastic with its removal of gender in the New. Whenever these arguments arise, there are generally two philological points that are made in favor of use gender-neutral terms where older translations had generally used "brothers/brethren" or the generic "man." The first is that, in Greek, a plural which designates a mixed group will always be masculine (there are historical-linguistic as well as social reasons for this; historically speaking, the feminine gender is a later development of the masculine); the second centers on the Greek word ἄνθρωπος, which can denote a person of either gender. Both arguments to me seem to drag Greek into an English problem (something to be expected in translation), which is the shift the word "man" has undergone in its meaning, and the political interests which have attached themselves to the shift.

My main aim here, however, is merely to note one of the many cases of over-enthusiasm on the part of the NRSV translators: James 1:12. In the Greek, the first part of this verse reads

Μακάριος ἀνὴρ ὅς ὑπομένει πειρασμὸν

which might be very literally translated:

"Blessed man, who endures temptation."

The NRSV, however, translates

"Blessed is anyone who endures temptation."

To someone with a smattering of Greek who reads that translation, knowing that the translators of the NRSV pay careful heed to render terms which in the Greek are neutral as to gender with correspondingly neutral terms in English, would probably assume that the Greek here underlying "anyone" is ἄνθρωπος, not ἀνήρ. It is possible that in this case the translation committee chose to follow one of the minority readings: two codices, one of them from the fifth century, do have ἄνθρωπος instead of ἀνήρ. It seems more likely, however, that they felt the translation "blessed the man" would be read so as to imply to a modern reader than only men are blessed in enduring temptation, and it is here that we run into dangerous territory. I shall try to be brief.

Such interpretation misunderstands the way language operates in male-dominated societies, assuming that a word, like ἀνήρ or the Latin vir, which denominates a masculine human being, cannot stand for humanity in general, or that a supposedly neutral term, such as ἄνθρωπος or the Latin homo, really imagines humanity as equally as we today would like. Any man writing in the ancient world would not think twice of the idea that the male stands for humanity as a whole; we may now be hesitant about submitting to the subtle ramifications of such an assumption, but they would not have questioned it. When James uses ἀνήρ, he no more means to exclude from blessing those women who endure temptation than the author of the first psalm, rendered in the Septuagint Μακάριος ἀνήρ, meant to exclude from blessing those women who "walk not in the counsel of the ungodly." In the minds of these authors the priority of the male does not annihilate all human kinship between the sexes.

An excellent example of this inclusive but not equalizing use of the masculine may be found in the second chorus of Sophocles' Antigone. The chorus begins

πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει.

Many are the things wondrous and fearful, none more than ἀνθρώπος.

A world in which the word ἀνθρώπος denominates the human being without any sense of gender would not allow him to continue in the next strophe, as he goes on the describe humanity's conquest of nature, and call this οὕ ούδεν δεινότερον, this thing than which nothing is more fearful, περιφραδὴς ἀνήρ, "man most cunning." It is clear in this passage that, for Sophocles, although he was certainly aware of their different resonances, being as he was poet of the first rank, both ἀνθρώπος and ἀνήρ may stand for all of humanity.

Although we may be uneasy at the implicit hierarchy in this view of things, we should also be conscious that our zealous division of the sexes, while we undertake it in the name (so sacred to our ears!) of equality, is only a different way of skewing our perceptions. I do not know to whom it would not be readily apparent that the instances of this 'inclusive masculine' which I have cited apply to all human beings. Indeed, a language that cannot perceive that the first Psalm, "Blessed is the man," does not exclude the greater half of the human race, or that the praises of Proverbs 31 ("She considereth a field and buyeth it...She openeth her mouth with wisdom: and in her tongue is the law of kindness") are not applicable to women alone, is a language as incapable of figurative speech as it is of profound reflection. Perhaps there is a problem with the historical relation between the sexes, but it will not be solved by pretending than neither one is completely human.


James Patrick Conway said...

To me it is quite clear that God created Man in His image. There are no if, ands, or buts about that. Why should the vanguard of gender equality stop at changing 'mankind' there, why not change Genesis to say 'God created human in his image' or further change the story of Genesis so that Man and Woman are created at the same time? To our ears their different and distinct creations smack of gender inequality do they not? There are many stories in the Old Testament where women are clearly not treated as equals and to deny the patriarchal language and heritage of biblical times would be to deny both history and scripture. To argue that God is beyond gender or somehow represents both genders is to belittle and make insignificant the fact that He was born of a woman as a man and lived His life on this Earth as a man. The fact that God choose to reveal the word in the flesh in a masculine form, to me, does not mean he does not view women as equals, it does mean that we have come full circle from the Genesis passage "I have created Man in My Own Image". Man in fact was created to mimic and imitate Christ, we must never forget that or imply it was somehow the other way around with Christ taking on a masculine form for some other arbitrary reason. It is also important to consider the role of Mary in the equation and the significance that the only being that has ever bore or contained God fully in her person was a woman. That to me shows you the distinct but equally important destinies God has for Man and Woman alike. By using Mary and creating her as a clean vessel for His birth, God in effect wipes out the mistakes and sins of Eve and creation is truly born anew. And in many ways this rebirth of Man through a second creation in the Incarnation parallels not only our own birth but in many ways mirrors our own rebirth through baptism. By emphasizing that feminine journey and role without inventing new terms or resorting to distorting the true meaning of the Word of God, we can see that women play just as unique and important role in the Church and in Christianity itself, but one that is somewhat distinct from the role reserved for man. God came as a Man and arguably is a man, and to assign neutral terms or joint terms is the road to blasphemy and the bastardization of Scripture. Yet He came through a woman and could not have been born without Her grace.

For us to be truly Christian we are taking an affirmative stance in following Jesus wherever He takes us and that will include many places that are uncomfortable to our modern senses. As you mentioned elsewhere the Episcopalian church has just given up and taken to ignoring Scripture it finds inconvenient or detrimental to the views of its post-Enlightenment modernized parishoners. To me that sounds about as Christian as following Christ only partway to the Cross and then turning back since it makes you uncomfortable. When I made the conscious decision to follow Christ again and more fully after a period of wayward faith, I decided to put Him first and ignore the feeling of discomfort I had at some notions of the Christian faith. I think that women that find these terms offensive should really take their modern blinders off and focus on what really matters: God died for your sins on a cross and He died for men and women alike. What can be more profoundly universal and equal than saving everyone who chooses to follow Him? He came to save All Mankind, including women too.

James Patrick Conway said...

Huzzah! It is not just a problem with Latin and Greek translations either, English has historically used the plural 'man' to refer to all of mankind. Imagine what today's promoters of inclusive language would say to a modern statement devoid of ancient pathos but historically significant all the same "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind". This statement would clearly reek of intolerance and gender inequality and would have been blasted by the media sources as sexist drivel not to be taken seriously as opposed to the very humble step of saying that man made one small step by landing on the moon, one man acting by himself, not as an agent of a state, but as a representative of ALL of humanity and he takes ALL of humanity with him to the moon. Humankind sounds like a word that is created by a committee (it probably was!) and just sounds awkward to the tongue.

It gets even worse when we refer to God as you well know. Some churches, even some Catholic ones, are now inserting the phrase "Kingdom/Queendom" of God. This is wrong for several reasons. First is the idea of Queendom which is a word that does not even exist and which was never historically used to refer to any kind of state or territorial existence. Even when Elizabeth and Isabella were powerful Queens their realms were still called kingdoms. If that historical usage of the term does not make it gender neutral I do not know what does.

For theological reasons it presents issues since it brings up the concept of 'gendering' God and possibly giving Him a female form that he never took in Scripture or attributing female attributes to Him that are not scriptural either. Additionally since the original language referred ONLY to a kingdom by altering it to say "Queendom" are we not in fact creating a new realm and not the real realm as described in the Bible? Is this changing the word so drastically from its original meaning as to make it meaningless? While not as significant as replacing all the references to Him/He in the Bible, it does raise the question of whether or not we are altering and removing the very sense of the Kingdom of God by creating this term. If Scripture is truly the Word of God who are we to so drastically change the words and the very meaning behind them? Also it is jarring and distracting, because for most of us the spiritual idea of the Kingdom of God is a comforting one, one that reminds us what awaits us if we act as dutiful Christians in this life. Yet none of us fully understand what a Queendom is and when that word is uttered at prayer or even in the liturgy it sends a chill down the spine and forces someone to think about gender equality and other concepts inherently different than the simple spiritual reflection of what the kingdom means for us.

Charles Augustine Rivera said...

I'm very strongly against mediatrix/redemptrix theology anyway, but I think it becomes especially problematic when it is used as the basis for a theology of the sexes. Women ought to imitate Mary, yes, but men also ought to imitate Mary, and both women and men ought to imitate her only because she herself imitates Christ. When we do too much to single out Mary (or Lydia or Deborah, as some on the other side might) as a model solely for women, we are buying into the same separation of man and woman that causes people to reject 'man' as a term for all humanity. Man and woman are not absolute categories, they are classes of human being, just like carpenter, priest, tall, or blond. Christ is the one and only perfection of humanity (menniscnyss, "mannishness" the Anglo-Saxons would say), and that goes for both men and women. Just as a physicist imitates Jesus the rabbi, so a woman imitates Jesus the man.

My point was intended to be a little more subtle than the usual railing against disgendered language. First, I was pointing out that even in Greek or Hebrew, where there is a supposedly gender-neutral term for human being, that 'neutral' term is used by male authors in a male-dominated society with the male in mind as representative; this was the point of the Sophocles quote. Therefore, there is no such thing like a gender-neutral term for humanity in a male-dominated society, but there are plenty of ways of speaking about humanity using either male or female language. Nowadays, however, we have words that just mean 'human being,' but as with all words that just mean one thing, the have all the usefulness of a pointing finger: deictic impotence.