4. Doctrinal Arguments
Friday, November 18, 2011
New Church Perspective in Brian Smith, Kristin Coffin, doctrine, male vs. female, ministry, ordination, organized religion

Brian Smith and Kristin Coffin offer a dialogue-style collaborative piece dealing with five subtopics as follows:

  1. The ramifications of an all-male priesthood.
  2. Systemic sexism in the Church.
  3. The burden of proof and the status quo.
  4. Doctrinal arguments.
  5. The role and purpose of the clergy.

This is the fourth piece in the series: Women as Ordained Priests (or Not). -Editor.

Brian's Doctrinal Arguments

My primary goal in presenting some quotations from the Writings is to make sure that these are readily available for readers to consider. I will simply have to neglect the work of tying these passages together with arguments and my interpretations due to the limits of my current scope and space. I will also wholly ignore arguments people have offered regarding the masculine form as the representation of the Lord in His divine human (such as New Church Life 1995 pg. 196, 252, 299).

1) That Differences Exist:

The first point, on which we likely agree, is that there do exist qualitative differences between men and women. The strongest passage on this point is Conjugial Love 33 “nothing in the two sexes is the same, although there is nevertheless a capacity for conjunction in every detail” (see also Conjugial Love 32).

2) Differences Imply Different Areas of Strength:

Following from the existence of differences between the sexes, it is argued that the two have distinct duties or functions to which they are suited. We see it stated that “a husband has duties appropriate to him, and a wife duties appropriate to her, and a wife cannot enter into duties appropriate to her husband or a husband into duties appropriate to his wife and perform them properly” (Conjugial Love 174). (This same number suggests that we could easily distinguish between masculine and feminine duties if we just put our minds to it - not so much the case these days).

The immediately following passage drives this point further. It says that even though we may think that the differences between the sexes arise simply from upbringing, the reality is that the affections of men and women differ so dramatically so as to make the proper inward performance of the other’s duties impossible (Conjugial Love 175).

3) What the Differences are:

Now we enter the much more controversial area. Let me cite several passages for readers to examine further on their own. Conjugial Love 90 speaks of the male sex receiving the “truth of wisdom” in the intellect which makes him “intellect-oriented” while the female sex is described in Conjugial Love 91 as “will-oriented in response to the intellectual orientation of the male, or in other words, to be a lover of the wisdom in a man.” We can read similar distinguishing teachings in the following places: Conjugial Love 32; 33; 66; 159; 165; 166; 168; 175; 188; 201; 210; 223; Heaven and Hell 368; 369; Arcana Coelestia 226; 8994. These teachings describe women as “a form of love,” as entering into a “higher warmth” (contrasted with the “higher light” entered by men) and as having an “affection for truth” rather than an “affection for knowledge of truth” (Conjugial Love 66; 188; 8994).

There are probably other English words which could be used to translate the Latin, and even then, it is difficult to be sure what is being described. I think the words “orientation” and “emphasis” are useful here. It is not that women are less smart than men, but rather that they emphasize and prioritize differently than men which makes the two uniquely suited to play distinct roles (see Conjugial Love 208.2).

4) Different Roles which Follow:

There are several more specific statements which describe the distinct duties and habits of the two sexes. In some cases we may be reading a description intended to illustrate a point rather than anything approaching a definitive ordinance. On the other hand, there are flat-footed statements like Conjugial Love 168, 174, and 175 which clearly assert that the one cannot properly perform a duty appropriate to the other.

Conjugial Love 175 describes “duties appropriate to husbands” as those in which “understanding, thought and wisdom play the primary role” whereas it is “will, affection and love” in the case of wives.

Specific examples are given of how women lead in regard to the developing of the marriage relationship (Conjugial Love 156; 160; 165; 166). The same is said of child care (Conjugial Love 174; 176) handwork - and generally “domestic” functions are described as the special province of women (Conjugial Love 91).

On the other hand, men are connected with functions related to serving the public (Conjugial Love 90), pursuit of knowledge (Arcana Coelestia 8994, 66) and public speaking (Conjugial Love 165). Furthermore, in the proper order of things, religious truth is first acquired through the husband in a marriage (though the church is not completely formed until received by the wife) (Conjugial Love 63, 125).

My reading certainly finds that the heavenly doctrines make a distinction between the functions which men and women can properly perform, including in the area of religion. I don’t find “ought” statements, but rather “cannot” statements. The tone of “ought” is found in references to Deuteronomy 22: 5 in which men and women were commanded not to wear the clothes of the other. Lacking strong “ought” statements in the heavenly doctrines, we could conclude that men or women are allowed to attempt the duties of the other, provided that they are clear that, despite appearances, they will be forced to rely on the wisdom of the other sex in order to effectively serve the function.

5) Conclusions:

But what of an organization which, from these teachings chooses to exclude women from ordination?

Though I support the right of the General Church to make this policy decision, I think there are several challenges to this decision.

Consistency. Though the General Church does not employ stay-at-home fathers, it would seem that the teachings about women’s expertise in the raising of young children would apply in these cases. It also seems like it would make for a more consistent policy to also exclude men from positions teaching very young children and girls.

Complexity. The current job descriptions of the General Church paid clergy seem to include some functions for which women are equally, if not better, qualified. This weakens the doctrinal case for excluding women from this job. However, the valid doctrinal objections are centered on the more central functions of the priesthood - study and teaching of the Word.

The actual success and impact of the church stems from all people responding to the divine. Many statements make plain that the goal is a balanced, married, outcome including the reception of the Lord by both men and women together (Conjugial Love 56; 63; 125; 208; 210; Arcana Coelestia 315; 1641.2; 2284; 2704; 4844; 6822; Apocalypse Explained 746.17; 820.6; 1179.4; Divine Love and Wisdom 432; Deuteronomy 4: 9, 10; 6: 6, 7; Matthew 5: 19). In certain processes the man or woman will temporarily play the leading role, but always with the goal of enriching the marriage between the two.

I am quite comfortable with the current General Church position because I do not understand this position to be a denigration of women (though I can certainly see how it can be taken that way). It seems a fair reading of the texts to conclude that men are better suited to priesthood and I am content if an organization wants to take that position as I think many people are served by this approach which more starkly highlights the distinction between the two sexes.

My comfort with this position comes also from the fact that the Heavenly Doctrines make conjugial love to be the fundamental love from which all others follow, with the care and raising of children being the first love to follow. In both these key areas the Heavenly Doctrines (and experience) tell us that women play the primary role. Modern society’s preoccupation and emphasis on the supremacy of forensic tasks, I believe, is misguided and distracting.

At this point in my life, I find Conjugial Love 63 and 125 to be the most compelling on this topic. Even though a marriage is addressed, rather than the priesthood of a church, the process of apparent masculine leadership in the things of religion seems significant and in keeping with descriptions elsewhere in the Heavenly Doctrines, including those which emphasize the more receptive role of women (Conjugial Love 165 and Arcana Coelestia 8994).

Kristin's Response

My responses are written in correlation with Brian’s numbered paragraphs. Please refer back to his words for clarity.

1) Every cell in the female body has two X chromosomes, and every cell in the male body has an X and a Y chromosome. (Though it’s important to acknowledge here that there are exceptions to this rule; that’s a conversation for another time.) In that sense, no part of a man is female and no part of a woman is male. But, this inherent dissimilarity often isn’t visible when we look at men’s and women’s bodies on a macroscopic level. Some women are far stronger than the average man; some men don’t grow facial hair. If you needed something that was on a high shelf, and a very tall woman offered to reach it for you, no one would say, “No, thank you; women are short, so I’ll just wait for a man to come along.”

2) These passages seem very central to the argument against the ordination of women, so I want all of our readers to go read Conjugial Love 174, 175, and 176 in their entirety. (Don’t worry; we’ll wait).

So, my primary issue with these ideas is that they exist in the context of a husband and a wife, specifically as they work together to run a household and raise children. The greater discussion is the way husbands and wives are mentally and spiritually united to each other. And the still greater context is a book of marriage advice. I can’t see any reason to assume that these ideas should be applied to the management of a church organization, or a community, or a school. Furthermore, it can be difficult to tell when Swedenborg switches between making an observation, and mandating a course of action. His refrains of “anyone can see this” suggest to me the former in many cases. And finally, these passages (and Conjugial Love as a whole) are peppered with comments and assumptions about the way men and women relate that seem unhelpful or untrue unless you assume an 18th century viewpoint.

3) I want to divide the teachings about differences between men and women into two categories: 1) those which refer to the way the genders relate to each other in marriage and society, and 2) those teachings which refer to the way men and women each inherently are from creation. For me, the first category includes Conjugial Love 174-176 and other similar ideas about appropriate duties. The second category includes ideas like “form of wisdom” vs. “form of love for wisdom,” and will-oriented vs. intellect-oriented.

The problem of context is highly relevant here. Again, any time Swedenborg is talking about a husband and a wife in their marriage, I don’t think he means for those ideas to be applied out of context. We also need to ask, what is Swedenborg’s intended audience? What are the antecedents to his pronouns? What is going on with this book historically? In my experience in Bryn Athyn, I feel I was taught that Swedenborg was above literary and historical analysis -- that the doctrines need to be taken at face value and without question. But this seems like such an un-Swedenborgian approach! Conjugial Love especially seems indigestible without asking all these questions. When I read the passages that you mentioned, they don’t seem relevant to the priesthood at all.

Furthermore, and most compellingly for me, I’m not convinced that anyone can make claims about my behavior, loves or talents just because I’m a “will-oriented” human being. What does that look like when the rubber meets the road? What does it mean that women are inwardly wisdom, veiled over with love? I’m not convinced anyone really knows. I think that these are epic and intangible spiritual concepts, true on some level way beyond our basic observation. Our mistake has not been to believe in differences between the genders. Rather, the mistake is to inappropriately use those spiritual concepts to assume, teach, and limit social behaviors; and to enforce our conclusions without exception.

I do think it’s easy to observe that in general, men are more thinking and women are more emotional. But I don’t think you can say those differences exist because of men’s intellectual perspective and women’s volitional perspective. I believe the differences we generally observe are socially taught, that they are sexist, and that they stem from centuries of gender inequality and a cultural philosophy that values logical thinking above all else.

Even if we did conclude that some gender stereotypes are grounded in innate truth, there’s no cause to deny the possibility of exceptions. If a woman -- as a form of love, living from her passions -- finds that her talents and loves happen to manifest in a way that would make her an awesome minister, then why not? There are plenty of men who, despite their intellectual “higher light,” are terrible candidates. The Doctrines do not specifically say that these spiritual qualities of men and women suit them to different practices; they merely say that these qualities mean men and women approach life in different ways. The leap to “appropriate duties” has only been made by Swedenborg’s readers.

4) If a woman undertakes the study and teaching of spiritual truth, and she does it in a feminine way from a more inwardly will-oriented place, will her teaching necessarily be worse? Her spiritually feminine proclivities do not disable her rigorous, insightful, and rational mental capability. This touches on one of the biggest misunderstandings of men and women I see in the Church. For all their quoting and interpreting and disclaiming, I think some people basically take these passages to mean that woman’s emotion will color her every thought, and thereby corrupt any intellectual exercise. I have felt this attitude pouring in from around the General Church. And I think it’s the assumption at the root of the all-male ministry policy.

All people were given the intellectual faculty as a tool to learn truth, purge the will of evil, and regenerate. Women have this faculty, and it is obviously good enough for this purpose. How then can the Church claim that women are insufficiently intellectual to study and teach truth as a minister? (Thanks to Shada Sullivan for this observation.)

I also want to address a problem in our common terminology. To be will-oriented is to be volitional, motivated by desire and zeal and love. It does not mean being led by emotion, impulse, and bias. I feel that Bryn Athyn vernacular confuses these ideas, and ends up invalidating the feminine perspective because it’s too subjective and irrational (i.e. emotional). To be intellect-oriented means to look primarily from the seat of one’s understanding and rationality, and it does not mean being free from one’s feelings (i.e. objective). This confusion of terms goes back long before Swedenborg, and I think we’ve made the mistake of superimposing ideas from our sexist cultural heritage on Swedenborg’s insights about the spiritual nature of gender.

Similar misconceptions exist in the popular understanding of the brain. The left hemisphere is not logical, and the right hemisphere is not emotional. The difference is in their mode of processing. The left brain is a linear processor; it works slowly and methodically; it’s responsible for language and step-by-step consideration. The right brain is non-linear; it works much more quickly, shooting off in many directions at once; it’s responsible for reading facial expressions and tone of voice, but not the definition of actual words. I could go on -- I could recommend entire books -- but the point is that the two hemispheres work together holistically, and emotion and rational decision-making happen in both. I think that the intellect and the will interact similarly.

Conjugial Love 168 shows how men and women are incapable of each other’s special wisdom and perception. I concede that this is true, but I don’t see that one kind of wisdom makes a better priest. Neither does one kind of love. If Swedenborg doesn’t jump to this conclusion, why do we?

Kristin Coffin

Kristin lives in Austin, TX, working as an assistant for the newly planted New Way Church. She grew up in Bryn Athyn, and studied religion at the college there. Kristin has great affection for Swedenborgian teachings and the General Church, and hopes to see it move in more progressive directions in the coming years.

Brian Smith

Brian continues to thrive in his marriage to Janine. He loves his growing son Kai and new daughter Adelaide. He tries to minister in Toronto, Canada where they live. He is trained and employed to study sacred scripture with the purpose of empowering people in their desire to live well. Brian enjoys complaining, reading, writing and dreaming of what could be.
Article originally appeared on New Church Perspective (http://www.newchurchperspective.com/).
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