Friday, September 18, 2009

The Mystery of Gender in the Creation Narratives

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

I am reading a fascinating book entitled Beginnings - Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives, by Dr. Peter Bouteneff, professor of dogmatic theology as St. Vladimir's Seminary. It is an in-depth study, rather scholarly in its approach, of how the early Church, from the time of the New Testament through the time of the great Cappadocian Fathers of the 4th c., understood and interpreted GEN. 1-3. Some of the Fathers will concentrate on the Six-Day Creation Narrative; while others will focus more of their attention of the narrative concerning Adam and Eve in Paradise.

The issue of the equality of men and women has always been a complicated and sensitive one throughout the centuries. The definitions of "masculinity" and "femininity" and the relationships between men and women often obscured the biblical text's original understanding of gender and sexuality - overwhelming so at the expense of women. And the invocation of "feminine weakness" has often led to a moral "double standard" that allowed for a certain hypocrisy to prevail, even within Christian societies and cultures. In his study of St. Gregory of Nazianzus - called the Theologian - Dr. Bouteneff reveals a famous Church Father who saw through these socially-driven pretensions. Dr. Bouteneff introduces a well-known passage from St. Gregory with these words: "In Gregory we have one of the few early fathers to devote serious reflection to questions of gender, informed by Genesis 1-3. ... Gregory ... intends to show the men in his audience that they are no better than women and that Christ saves both:"

How then do you demand chastity, when you do not observe it yourself? How do you demand that which you do not give? If you inquire into the worse: the woman sinned, and so did Adam. the serpent deceived them both; and one was not found to be the stronger and the other the weaker. But now consider the better: Christ saves both by his Passion. Was he made flesh for the man? So he was also for the woman. Did he die for the man? The woman also is saved by his death. He is called the seed of David; and so perhaps you think the man is honored; but he is born of a Virgin, and this is on the woman's side. The two, he says, shall be one Flesh; so let the one flesh have equal honor. (Oration 37)

Dr. Bouteneff then soberly comments: "He (i.e. Gregory) brings us a long way from the Eve-centered misogyny of Sirach and some patristic texts." (p. 143)

Under the theme entitled "Adam and Us," Dr. Bouteneff summarizes St. Gregory's approach in this manner:

When Gregory speaks of the paradise episode, the main character is as often 'me' or 'us' as it is 'Adam': the serpent constantly seduces us (Or. 14.26) and 'I came to know my own nakedness and clothed myself in a garment of skin, and fell from the garden' (Or. 19.14). This is found in one of St. Gregory's most famous passages:
"We were created that we might be made happy. We were made happy when we were created. We were entrusted with Paradise that we might enjoy life.... We were deceived because we were the objects of envy. We were cast out because we transgressed.... We needed an incarnate God, a God put to death, that we might live. We were put to death together with him, that we might be cleansed; we rose with him because we were put to death with him; we were glorified with him, because we rose with him" (Or. 45.28).

Dr. Bouteneff concludes this section with the following summary:

Gregory universalizes and existentializes the paradise narrative as he also did gender and genealogy, partly because of the rhetorical and oratorical character of his theology. Not only does it talk about the enormous practicality of Adam, Eve, and paradise; it bypasses any idea that we can blame the person of Adam for our sin or that we inherit his guilt. (p. 145)

The above is simply a "mere taste" of the many riches found in this well-written and well-researched book by Dr. Peter Bouteneff concerning the foundational narratives of the Bible. As we grapple with these texts today in a highly-charged and controversial atmosphere, it is essential that we, as Orthodox Christians, understand the approach and interpretive methods of the Church Fathers as we attempt to build on their work.

Fr. Steven

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