A Q&A with historians of the early church.
Dr. Burrus, your work explores the ways in which ancient understandings of gender have a lot to do with the architecture of classical Christian theology—even in areas that most people wouldn’t immediately suppose. Akin is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America and has a master of divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, so we can assume that he has been formed by the Calvinist/Reformed tradition as well as the more recent development of American evangelicalism.
Can you connect any theological dots between the theologians you focus on and the theological ideas we see playing out here—both in Akin’s remarks and the reactions?
Burrus: What strikes me is both the connections and the disconnections. Certainly classical trinitarianism tends to suppress the maternal role, with its focus on the begetting Father and the only-begotten Son who is the perfect image of that Father. (The ambiguously gendered Holy Spirit hovers in the wings.) The Virgin Mary brings the maternal back into the theological picture, one might say, especially in so-called Alexandrian traditions that emphasize the union of human and divine natures in Christ in such a way that Mary may be seen not only as the mother of the human but also the “God-bearer” or “Theotokos.”
However, Calvinist and other Reformation traditions reject the veneration of Mary and are inclined to see her as the mother of the human but not of the God. I rehearse these well-known theological doctrines to point out that the Christian theological tradition may collude in the downplaying of the maternal figure, who becomes a mere receptacle for male insemination. Thus, Akin is quick to protect the rights of the unborn child, who should not be “punished,” and [he] will in the case of rape insist on punishment of the father, or rapist, but he does not seem to focus on what this means for the sexually violated involuntary mother. It seems she is expected to say, like Mary in Luke’s Gospel when the angel Gabriel announces her unexpected pregnancy, “Let it be unto me according to your word.” [1:38]
Yet at the same time that Akin seems to downplay the female figure and to render her passive, he also imbues her with astonishing powers—namely, the ability to prevent conception in the case of “legitimate” rape. (As I indicated in my prior comment, the implication is that if she does not prevent conception, then it wasn’t “legitimate” rape; that is, she in some way colluded with her rapist.)
To my mind, this is inconsistent with the way that gender, the erotic, and procreation figure in the theological tradition—which is not in itself problematic, but in this case turns out to be hugely problematic indeed, from a feminist perspective! There is something especially gratuitous in the offense.
One could nonetheless discern possible influence of the Christian theological tradition even here, I suppose, if we think of the emphasis placed on the figure of the Virgin Mary, and on virginal figures more generally, as symbols of the closed nature of the church, defended against heresy or paganism—or whatever else might seem to present a threat.
So there the female body carries a huge burden of representation: her ability to protect the boundaries of her body, and to maintain her purity, reflects the church’s ability to do the same. In the case of a raped woman, we cannot deny that a boundary has been violated, so then we have to imagine that in another sense it has not really been violated; conception has not occurred.
Read the rest of the interview at Religion Dispatches.