Now Jesus Cannot Be Male?

This question of whether a male savior can save women has been around for decades. I first encountered it when reading Rosemary Redford Reuther (RIP May, 2022). Her answer was yes, although she admitted that his maleness had to be de-emphasized for women to elevate or emphasize his symbolic power of liberation. Feminist theologian Pamela Dickey Young responded sympathetically but by emphasizing (my words) the “scandal of particularity” in authentic Christianity that requires that the savior be a particular person and not merely a symbol.

I hesitate to wade into this debate, but it has arisen anew with some feminist pastors of a liberal or progressive theological posture asking again, decades after the first round of the conversation, whether a male savior is at least problematic for women. Their answer is yes. I wonder if they are even aware of the old conversation about this in feminist theology?

Jesus’s maleness should not be a problem for women, especially Christian women. When a Christian—male or female—raises the possibility that Jesus’s ethnicity or gender is a problem for anyone, I worry that the incarnation, belief in it, is at stake and may be shaking.

Years ago, an Episcopal church in New York City displayed “Christa”—a female on a cross. Predictably, of course, this raised a fuss—even among some feminist theologians. Could the Logos, the second person of the Trinity, have become incarnated as a female human being. Why not? My answer has always been that—“Why not?” I conclude that she would have had real difficulty gathering a following among the people of Palestine in the first century. But, metaphysically, ontologically, I don’t see any problem with hypothesizing that the Logos could have become human as a female.

But if that happened, would that be a problem for men? No, it shouldn’t be. Yes, it probably would be—for some men especially then.

But the overall issue is the “scandal of particularity” within classical Christianity which is that God became a single human being at a single time and single place in history. That human being’s ethnicity and gender does not matter to his being the savior of humankind. Many biblical scholars and theologians—including many feminists—have pointed out his liberating treatment of women. There is no hint that he was an example of “toxic masculinity.”

And there is where I think the current controversy is starting—with the impression that all men at least possess the potential to oppress women (and men). the MeToo Movement, for all the good it has done, is misinterpreted by many people as exposing all men as potential sexual predators. Even Jesus? It seems some Christian women are assuming so which is, I think, the reason for this new round of an old conversation.

I will dare to assert that Jesus’s maleness is crucial to the incarnation, not because maleness is more God-like or anything like that. It’s not. The issue at stake is the actuality of the incarnation and of Jesus Christ as more than a symbol.

In my book “Against Liberal Theology: Putting the Brakes on Progressive Christianity” (Zondervan, 2022) I talk about something called “symbolic realism” which I think is basic to liberal theology. The idea of symbolic realism is that what really matters in religion is the power of symbols to transform us into better human beings. There is a tendency, then, to reduce the importance of Jesus Christ as an ontologically divine-human person. What matters, then, is the power of the image of Jesus Christ as, for example, liberator or example of perfect God-consciousness or of “the New Being” (Paul Tillich).

The right response to this new raising of the question of Jesus’s maleness is for Christian leaders to emphasize Jesus’s treatment of women, liberating them from their secondary status, their oppression by men, accepting them into his inner circles, his revolutionary respect for women. The right response is not to diminish Jesus’s particularity which ends up denying the incarnation.

I realize this is an extreme analogy and I do not mean to compare feminists or liberal theologians with Nazis. I am only bringing this up because it points up a danger in ignoring or questioning or denying the particularity of Jesus Christ. The “German Christians” (pro-Nazi German Christians during the 1930s and 1940s) questioned Jesus’s Jewishness. Some went so far as they say he was an Aryan. This was one reason for the formation of the Confessing Church movement. Once we start denying the particularity of Jesus as a specific divine-human being with a specific ethnicity and gender we open a Pandora’s Box of possibilities including denying the incarnation itself.

Roger Olson

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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