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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Danger and Play and Proverbs 31

August 6th, 2022 | 10 min read

By Susannah Black Roberts

There’s been, I’m sorry to say, Discourse. So I figured I’d make things a little worse by highlighting an aspect of a thing that I wrote a couple years back for the Calvinist International (may it rise again).

What do women want? One of the things they want is to be themselves.

And it’s hard to communicate this to the tribe of Men, sometimes. I’d tried to do so, a couple of years ago, in that old TCI piece, thusly (I paraphrase):

You run into lots of conservative and/or Evangelicalish Presbyterian guys who grew up quite a bit more fundamentalist, or at least nondenom Baptistic. There’s a very common life experience that they share: extremely intelligent and driven, and also extremely pious, they found themselves, age around 15-18, confronting a kind of horror so deep it might rightly be called existential.

The message they were getting from their churches was that the one worthy career is missionary or evangelist, that any use of your time other than sharing the Gospel with your unsaved friends (if you have any) or with strangers (if you don’t) is time wasted.

Furthermore, the life of the mind is suspect. Doing any activity, getting passionate about anything that is not evangelism, is suspect. Especially philosophy, because of Colossians 2:8.

These boys are in a horrible pickle: they are just coming into their own strength of mind and body and their own sense that there is a big world out there to explore, and fascinating ideas to look at, and they are told that this sense – which is itself their own response to the Creation mandate – is sinful.

They are also just coming to the age where true friendship can take root, the kinds of friendships that will create world-shaking political movements or engineering projects or artistic schools, friendships that will win the battle of the Glorious First of June, and they are told that they must look at these potential friends as objects of evangelism rather than as fellow-subjects, collaborators; they must look, precisely, at them rather than with them at something else, some common scheme.

This is horrifically destructive.

There are a couple of typical paths out. One is to watch Chariots of Fire; obviously Eric Liddell was not a philosopher, but the sense of calling and correctness that he had in running, the sense of testing his own strength and making a big impact in the wider world, parallels these boys’ own drive, their own vocation to philosophy.

The other is to read Lewis or Schaeffer: Lewis is better because if you take the Schaeffer route you end up needing to eventually jettison Schaeffer’s own anxiety, and his presuppositionalism.

Anyway, one way or another, these guys learn, with joy, that their own curiosity and ambition and drive to explore the physical and intellectual and artistic worlds, to freely and energetically follow whatever specialist or generalist callings God has placed on them, is not sinful, but is in fact obedient. Become who you are: they finally hear this and say yes.

The Discourse aspect of this is that what these guys need to know, which they do not always know, is that women have this experience too. And (apparently) there are some churches that teach that they shouldn’t. The way I would put it is this: to be told that you can’t have these ambitions or hungers because your only proper job is nurturing is just as bad as to be told that you can’t have these ambitions and hungers because your only proper job is evangelism.

So, anyway, I’m thinking about this again in part because I’ve finally started reading Bronze Age Mindset (“Of course you are, because the Red Scare girls finally reviewed it,” said another friend last night.) What’s super interesting (to me) is that BAP’s analysis of women and what I had understood to be Simone de Beauvoir’s are basically identical. Women are “mere life,” growth, biology, imminence. Kind of a swamp.

What makes life transcendent, for both, is the male principle: differentiation, structure, real work as opposed to childbearing and rearing. Both have a deep distaste for the feminine and for the given, and both are basically existentialist.

I am told by a friend who is a closer reader of de Beauvoir that this is not fully accurate: de Beauvoir believes that women are perceived to be such, but that both men and women have aspects of the imminent and of the transcendent in them; that to be fully human, both must take the existentialist leap out of imminence, but that this is not a leap out of womanhood any more than it is out of manhood: there are, for de Beauvoir, precisely no “hoods,” no essences – not for men, and not for women either.

But she can’t quite stick to this, it seems to me. Even verbally, no one, and especially no social commentator, can for more than a sentence or so keep up the existentialist/nominalist schtick.

De Beauvoir writes:

“Man attains an authentically moral attitude when he renounces being in order to assume his existence, through this conversion he also renounces all possession, because possession is a way of searching for being; but the conversion by which he attains true wisdom is never finished, it has to be made ceaselessly, it demands constant effort. So much so that, unable to accomplish himself in solitude, man is ceaselessly in jeopardy in his relations with his peers: his life is a difficult enterprise whose success is never assured.

“But he does not like difficulty; he is afraid of danger. He has contradictory aspirations to both life and rest, existence and being; he knows very well that “a restless spirit” is the ransom for his development, that his distance from the object is the ransom for his being present to himself; but he dreams of restfulness in restlessness and of an opaque plenitude that his consciousness would nevertheless still inhabit. That embodied dream is, precisely, woman; she is the perfect intermediary between nature that is foreign to man and the peer who is too identical to him. She pits either the hostile silence of nature nor the hard demand of a reciprocal recognition against him; by a unique privilege she is a consciousness, yet it seems possible to possess her in the flesh. Thanks to her, there is a way to escape the inexorable dialectic of the master and the slave that springs form the reciprocity of freedoms.”

Well, yes, I see this: and the funny thing is that without the negative-coded language she could be Nietzsche, here. My more-careful-de-Beauvoir reading friend says she is not necessarily agreeing that this is eternally so, but that it is the pickle into which too-essentialist post-nineteenth century men have put themselves. She can understand the existentialist pushback:

“She thinks (and I think too!) that we all want being and existing, but there’s so much rhetoric involved, particularly in 19th c. French literature, that’s like, be happy, woman! you’re Nature! which personally would annoy me. If someone told me I was the embodiment of something else and not me, like piled dozens of bad novels on my head about this, I would go berserk.”

The thing is, we do want both “being” and “existing” in her terms – we want rest and adventure at once, receiving a gift and imposing our wills—the home in port and the open sea – but everyone wants this, men and women. It’s answered in the New Jerusalem. And my instinct is that there is no harm if men see, in women, an ikon of the New Jerusalem, which is herself the Bride. There would, I think, be a harm if they did not see this in us. But as they do, they must remember that she also is searching.

It’s interesting to realize that where we are now is precisely in the church militant: in that aspect of her that is pictured as a ship, the Barque of Peter, the Ark. Stories about ships, my husband has noticed – we watched Master and Commander together early on – are stories about worlds that are both adventuring and enclosed: a ship like the Surprise is a home, a world, but it is a world on an adventure. This quality of being a world, a home, which is itself on an adventure, is… I’m not sure what it is. It’s something important.

What would our scriptures say to BAP’s typology? Eve is the mother of all living; there is that jungian sense of fecundity; but she’s also the highest *refinement* of human being, the one whose existence throws the differentiation of the sexes into relief; Adam knows himself as different from the animals by naming them, a task of culture and differentiation, but above all by recognizing and naming her.

Her existence proves that existence does not precede essence, which is if you think about it kind of funny. She is a living repudiation of existentialism. The Second Sex indeed. Own it, sisters.

Typologically, there are then two kinds of women (and of course in every woman there is a struggle between these two): the strange woman who breaks down barriers and does not respect her own, and the wise woman whose very body is, until the right time, a hortus conclusus.

That wise woman is Wisdom herself, who builds her house with seven pillars, who is paganized as grey-eyed Athena but who always was better than Athena.

If you as a man see in women only chaos, only Tiamat, that means that you have been listening not to her but to the woman Folly. You have been learning from her, and what you have learned is disorder, senselessness.

“Stolen water is sweet
food eaten in secret is delicious!”
But little do they know that the dead are there,
that her guests are deep in the realm of the dead.

Having learned that from her, you believe that the fault is in Woman. It is not. It is in you.

And women ourselves – what are we to do? Well, we’re going to have to be existentialist essentialists, I suppose: We have to choose, in virtue, to become the woman Wisdom: to become who we are, rather than to fail to become her, and instead become the woman Folly. (For the fans, I will delicately point out here that this is not, for each woman, a choice between being Sophia Williams and Diana Villiers.)

I am enough of an Anglo-Catholic to suspect at least that we have a particular ally in this: the one who has the name which contains the word for the primal sea, the womb of all life – yam–, but who is a specific person, a woman in history, one drop of that sea –mar.

That was Eusebius’ derivation of her name; Jerome translated this into Latin as stilla maris; at some point a copyist made one of those possibly-guided-by-providence goofs and transcribed this as Stella Maris, and one of Mary’s most ancient titles is thus Star of the Sea. (It is a serendipity that the Latin for Sea is Mare.)

Women can and should nurture children; this is, yes, one of the things we are for; most of us feel this. This is good and beautiful, and when we do this, we are in some sense embodying an archetype, and that too is good. If in fear of being swamped by your own nature, you reject that nature, you are hurting yourself. But my de Beauvoir close reader friend puts it like this: “It’s hard to defeat this move when it asks you to embody a good quality; it’s just that no one is a quality.”

This is tricky! We are not nominalists and we don’t want to be! But we also are not, ourselves, the Forms.

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

To refuse to become a nominalist, to know and love the fact that we have natures and are, in those natures, caught up into the heart of the world to such an intense degree that Christianity and Paganism can seem to overlap; but also to know ourselves as reasoning individuals, uniquely called, and to refuse to squash ourselves or each other into immanentist-essentialist boxes: it’s a tough needle to thread! But that’s what we’re here for, gang.

To clarify, because one must do this, in the Discourse: none of this means that women ought to be priests. I don’t think they should, or – really – can be; a man is the matter for ordination, as water is the matter for baptism. Nor does it mean that we should seek the difference between men and women only in the prescriptive commands of scripture: in a thin complementarianism of arbitrary prohibition and instruction, as though God were a voluntarist: that would indeed be tyranny, and God is no tyrant. There is nothing arbitrary in Christ’s choice of twelve men as his apostles, any more than there is something arbitrary in his choice of that other Mary to be the one who bore the news, first, to them.

But it does mean that in discussing any of these things, men had better know what they are dealing with, and one of the things that they are dealing with is the ravenous desire, the good desire, to know and make and learn and build, which God placed in their sisters as he placed it in them.

“The true man wants two things: danger and play. For that reason he wants woman, as the most dangerous plaything.”

I suppose there may be some women who, while being truly themselves, do not themselves want danger and play. I’ve never met one.

Susannah Black Roberts

Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.