Earlier this year I published a six-article series on life, death and some of the things in between. In 30+ years of writing professionally these articles have attracted more reaction than any other single thing I’ve written about. Most of this has been good, and I’ve got to meet some interesting people. One of the messages I’ve received recently on this topic comes from a 20 year-old man with a very good question. I share this question and my answer with you here because it touches on a common source of confusion when it comes to making sense of faith and truth in the world. I hope you find the ideas here useful, regardless of your religious view point.
Young man asks: Although I’m a spiritual person, I’m not a Christian. One of the things that doesn’t ring true to me about Christianity is the rigidity of gender roles. Not only with respect to who you like to date, but also with roles in the home. I am a man, and have never had any questions about my gender. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoy decorating, cooking, cleaning, and just the overall action of nesting. Don’t you think the traditional roles that Christianity promotes of men as the provider and women as the homemaker is a little too rigid for the uniqueness of individuals? I’m not saying I want to be a stay at home dad, but nonetheless I want nesting to be part of my life in some way! Let me know what you think.
A not so young man (me) answers: One of the things about religions is that they’re all like a wooden ship in at least one regard. They all tend to attract, grow and retain barnacles. Christianity is no exception. After 2000 years of sailing, there are a great many barnacles clinging to the hull of Christianity, and depending on the particular branch of the faith involved, you find different barnacles. The rigid gender roles that you mention is one such barnacle, and it’s mostly a product of the fact that the entire world has had fairly rigid gender expectations for most of recorded history. It’s only in the last 100 years, and only in the Christian west, where the rigid roles have been changing. There’s one main thing to remember in all this. When you scrape off all the barnacles from the hull of Christianity, and then go further to get right down to the most basic nubbin of what biblical Christianity is all about, you find just two things. I find them both compelling:
Thing#1: God is preparing a place so perfect no human mind can fully comprehend it.
Thing#2: God is preparing the right kind of people to live in such a place. The people must be up to the task of living in perfection or their mere presence will ruin it.
To expand a bit . . . the traditional Christian view is that God is preparing a perfect place for people to come and live in a world of permanent and ever-expanding beauty, peace, truth and love – a reality that makes the fanciest parts of our world look like a garbage dump. While God is preparing such a place, he’s also offering to do something else that’s absolutely essential. In order to live in a perfect reality without ruining it, God needs to prepare the hearts and minds of people so they have the love, the submission and the wholesomeness to be able to live in perfection sustainably. I’m sure you’ve noticed how the people you’re with have an enormous influence on your experience of life. Imagine people that move in next door to your home and they let their own place go to ruin, they spend evenings ripping up and down the road in a loud car laying down rubber for selfish pleasure? They yell, and scream and hit each other in anger and under intoxication. Is not your enjoyment of your present home in large measure dependent on the people who live nearby?
The main thing to understand (and C.S Lewis, the famous Oxford professor touched on this several times in his writings), is this: When you’re dealing with a place of perfection and eternity, even the tiniest personal flaws of the people living there can and will expand, grow and ruin it. Eternity is an awfully long time, and this is why God has a two-pronged project going on. He’s preparing a place, but he’s also preparing a people for that place. You can’t have one without the other. The thing is, God will not begin working on anyone unless you give him permission. As far as I can tell, this is because preserving free will is very important to God because true love (his highest virtue) can only exist when love can also be withheld and rejected. This is why God is very careful never to completely overwhelm anyone by a full revealment of himself. And now, back to the barnacles analogy for a moment . . .
Like I said, the rigid gender roles you’ve noticed about traditional western culture are no different than any other traditional culture. And in the case of Christianity, the gender role thing is not even discussed in any iron-clad way in the bible, let-alone held out as some kind of requirement of the faith. If you look at the main part of Proverbs 31, for instance, you see a description of a valuable wife and you’ll see that there’s a description of a woman who earns her own money, she buys and sells land, she hires people to plant a vineyard, she leads in important ways. This passage is the classic one held up as an example for married women. But even this passage, found as it is in the bible, does not claim to be any kind of rigid definition. The Proverbs 31 lady is one example of many options for living well in God’s eyes. To be sure, there are some things that fit God’s definition of perfection and some things that do not, but whether a man changes diapers or a woman runs a road grader for a living is up to those people and their preferences.
As for your enjoyment of organization and beauty and what might traditionally been regarded as female pursuits, there’s nothing unchristian about it. I certainly understand the impulse you feel because I feel it myself. Due to what’s required of me in my life now, I don’t get to exercise things like I used to, but for the first 8 years after my first child was born I was essentially a full-time stay-at-home Dad because Mom worked what amounted to full time hours. I washed 90% of the dishes, I cooked, I washed and folded mountains of laundry, I did all the grocery shopping, plant care (we probably had at least a dozen plants in pots around the house then) and I took a lot of enjoyment in this. There’s a saying that comes in handy for many things, including this point you’ve raised. . .
“Never judge a target by the arrows that miss the bullseye.” In the case of Christianity, the very centre of the bullseye is that two-part project God has going on: making a world of perfect beauty, peace, permanence, love and kindness; while at the same time growing a people worthy of that place. This perfection process is rarely complete in a person on this side of eternity, but all God needs is permission from each of us to begin. He continues the process (with our partnership) while we’re alive in this world – a world that’s a strange blend of beauty and ugliness. Ultimately he will bring this process to completion in a realm beyond this one. Jesus himself said:
“In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there you may be also.”
There’s something peculiar about life and beauty that I’ve noticed over the years . . . Is it not true that no matter how beautiful something is, there is always a component of emptiness or lack? Your home may be beautiful, but there are worries, no? The cost of rent, the prospect of having to pay more rent in the future, threats to the beauty and peace of the neighbourhood . . . Isn’t there always something to bother you, something in life that isn’t perfectly right? This same inability to find and enjoy perfect beauty and joy is elusive everywhere you look is it not? Even standing on the shores of a beach on a big lake near my house, looking out at the shimmering water, without a care in the world, I still feel the inability to fully take in all the beauty. For me the feeling is one of wanting to drink in the entire lake, which of course I cannot do.
God has given us a taste for beauty (some of us more than others), but do you agree that it’s never fully obtainable? This world is like the brochure for the main event that God really has in mind, and it includes unimaginably delightful opportunities for you to use and enjoy your love of beauty and order. There is nothing unmale about this, at least not from the biblical perspective. Like I said, the Christian proposition is very simple: God is in the process of making a perfect world that will be filled with nothing but perfect beauty, perfect climate, perfect colours, tastes, sounds and smells, plus perfect work for us to do alongside perfect people. God is also offering to make each of us into the kind of person that has what it takes to live in such a place without ruining it. Everything else about the faith is either additional information that relates to this big, divine project, or it’s barnacles . . .