Theology & Spirituality

Sex, Gender, and Theological Presuppositions: John Piper and Judith Butler in Conversation

The following fictional conversation brings together two influential figures on completely opposite ends of an intellectual spectrum. On the evangelical “right,” we have John Piper, Baptist pastor and theologian, co-editor of the influential work Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The central claim of the book is as follows, “The Bible reveals the nature of masculinity and femininity by describing diverse responsibilities for man and woman while rooting these differing responsibilities in creation, not convention.”1 On the secular “left,” we have Judith Butler, philosopher, gender theorist, and writer of the influential work Gender Trouble. The central claim of the book is, “Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.”2

Maybe the awkward conversation that I constructed below is only of peculiar interest to myself. On the one hand, it is silly and purposively awkward as it brings together two thinkers that typically would have nothing to do with one another, and certainly wouldn’t be as sympathetic to each others’ views as I am portraying them in this dialogue. Also, I find the contrast between Piper’s popular appeal within evangelicalism and Butler’s academic appeal within gender studies departments pretty funny. And, I find Butler’s hyper-academic writing to be hilarious when transferred into a conversation.

But, on the other hand, I think the bringing together of the two thinkers is instructive for at least one reason. Philosopher James K.A. Smith, summarizing a tenant within the theological movement of Radical Orthodoxy, argues that, “All discourses and disciplines proceed from commitments and beliefs that are ultimately religious in nature.”3 That is, underneath all academic disciplines lie certain presuppositions, one may say “religious” or “theological” presuppositions, that are confessional in nature. For example, in economics there is the presumed “rationality” of the human person, in the hard sciences we have the presumed orderliness and lawfulness of the world, and in business schools we have the presumed purpose of business to “maximize shareholder value.” Below, we see two different presuppositions in gender theory regarding normative sexual practice and the createdness of the human person, resulting in two very different end goals for their work.

A quick note, I am hoping to write this dialogue without preference for either Butler or Piper’s point of view. I am merely wanting to illustrate the radically different understandings of gender and sexuality that result from the differing presuppositions of the two thinkers. Moreover, I certainly do not think Piper’s theory is the only one open to Christians, for it represents a particularly conservative “complementarian” reading and application of certain biblical texts that pertain to male leadership in the church and home.

Judith: John, It’s so great to see you, it’s been so long!

John: Judith! I haven’t seen you since high school, how’ve you been?

Judith: Well, I’m currently a Professor at California Berkeley, where I teach Comparative Literature.

John: That’s awesome, I’m currently a pastor in Minnesota.

Judith: Oh a pastor? You know, I am continually frustrated at how Christians promote and embody a gender binary.

John: I’m so with you! Christians are doing a poor job of portraying biblical manhood and womanhood. “It is taking a tremendous toll on generations of young men and women who do not know what it means to be a man or a woman. Confusion over the meaning of sexual personhood today is epidemic.”4

Judith: Wow, I’m not sure you understood my statement. By the gender binary, I’m referring to a “regime of truth that stipulates that certain kinds of gendered expressions are false or derivative, and others, true and original.”5

John: I’m sorry, I misunderstood you. However, I do believe that there is a truth to what you are calling “gendered expressions.” The bible, what I believe is the Word of God, has a vision of “mature masculinity as a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women.” Likewise, “mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men.”6

Judith: Don’t you realize, however, that your definitions of masculinity and feminist rely on a “discursive production of the plausibility of that binary relation and suggest that certain cultural configurations of gender take the place of “the real” and consolidate and augment their hegemony through that felicitous self-naturalization.”7

John: I’m sorry, I didn’t catch any of that, can you explain?

Judith: Yes. Your definitions of “masculinity” and “femininity” within a leadership/submission binary are not natural to humanity. The definitions of yours rely on “the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.”8

John: I get the sense that we are coming from two entirely different frameworks of interpreting humanity. Can you please continue?

Judith: Sure. “Men” and “Women” do not simply exist as identities outside of cultural expression. To summarize, “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.”9

John: I see, so in your view ritualized discursive practices produce gender rather than gender being purely natural. In my view, however, there are patterns of practice, one might say “roles,” that God has created us to enter into. So, in one sense, I think we agree that gender is about performance, only that I believe there is a true performance given to us by God for the two genders.

Judith: I can tell we utterly disagree on the performative nature of gender, but please continue.

John: In order to rid our culture of gendered confusion, a confusion you seem to advocate, we need to understand from God’s Word “what manhood and womanhood are.”10 Mature manhood is to lead, provide for and protect women, through “serving and sacrificing for the good of women, “not presuming superiority over women,” “feeling the responsibility to provide a general pattern of initiative [for his family],” and “taking initiative in disciplining the children.”11 Women, on the other hand, are to “affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men,” through an “inclination to follow [the husband’s] leadership,” “discerning and delighting in mature masculinity (as opposed to abusive and immature men),” and “nurturing and strengthening the strength she receives [from her husband].”12

Judith: I cannot get behind any of this. Your “normative sexuality” and “policing [of] gender” “delegitimates minority gendered and sexual practices.”13 Following Foucault, you are continuing the reproduction of “the heterosexualization of desire” that “requires and institutes the production of discrete and asymmetrical oppositions between ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine,’ where these are understood as expressive attributes of ‘male’ and ‘female.’”14 There is a “heterosexism at the core of [your] sexual difference fundamentalism.”15

John: Again, we have very different presuppositions regarding the createdness of the human person vs. the freedom of the human person to perform within whatever gendered (or non-gendered) framework she wishes. My framework cannot allow for this freedom, either in terms of gendered or sexual expression. What is the end goal of your “performative” gender theory, what do you hope to achieve through this? It seems that our differing presuppositions regarding our theories will produce far different goals to our work.

Judith: Well, my end goal is to “denaturalize” gender, “countering the normative violence implied by ideal morphologies of sex and uprooting the pervasive assumptions about natural or presumptive heterosexuality that are informed by ordinary and academic discourses on sexuality.”16 However, “the positive normative vision of [my work], does not and cannot take the form of a prescription: “subvert gender in the way that I say, and life will be good.”17 And you?

John: Well, as I said previous, I want to clear up gender confusion, one might say gender trouble, that is pervasive in our culture by showing how God’s Word reveals “God’s good design.”18 The greatest problem that thwarts God’s good design, I believe, is not the “women’s movement, but the spiritual aimlessness and weakness and lethargy and loss of nerve among men….Where are the men with a moral vision for their families, a zeal for the house of the Lord, a magnificent commitment to the advancement of the kingdom, an articulate dream for the mission of the church and a tenderhearted tenacity to make it real?”19

Judith: We couldn’t be further from each other, have a good day John.

John: Let’s catch up again sometime.

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George Aldhizer

George Aldhizer

Raised in North Carolina, George works as an accountant and lives in New York with his wife and son. His writing is animated by Abraham Kuyper’s exclamation, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

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