Anxiety, Unity, and Womanhood

Jess Ferrell
Monday, February 29th 2016
Mar/Apr 2016

Plane rides are my worst fear (though my husband tells me all my fears are my "worst fear"). What can I say? I blame my parents for making me feel relatively safe and secure for so many years. They were slow and sneaky, forcing me to grow up one shoe size at a time. The first panic attack I can recall was the night before my wedding. It wasn't that I thought my husband couldn't take care of me, but I knew I would need to take care of him, too, and that in many ways we would each need to take care of ourselves. It became my job to keep myself alive. Unfortunately, it has occurred to me that even this is not entirely in my control. It's the great human crisis we can endure only by masterful sidestepping.

My husband read a particular Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip to me after our house was recently burgled: "This is one of those things you always figure will happen to someone else….Unfortunately, we're all 'someone else' to someone else." We often view death the same way. Martin Heidegger gave words to common public sentiment: "One of these days one will die too, in the end; but right now it has nothing to do with us." But the fact remains: my death awaits me, and yours you. This is the traumatizing absurdity we all face, and pat answers such as "trust in God" or "have more faith" often provoke more guilt than assurance. I would like to suggest that we Christians who struggle with anxiety consider the idea that the hope of the gospel is nearer than we know, especially for women who uniquely identify in their bodies with life.

In this regard, I have become smitten by twentieth-century existentialists. Existen-tialism is notoriously difficult to define, but it can be said that it approaches the question of the nature of the human being in a way unlike the scientist. Instead of analyzing the world from a calculated and "distant" perspective, the existentialist recognizes that humans are not creatures outside looking in, but inside looking out. Heidegger called this way of existing in the world everydayness. Our knowledge of the world, Heidegger would argue, is not ultimately driven by raw information, but by care. These men have altered the way I think about my life, giving words to my sentiments and clarity to my confusion. Even atheists have renewed my hope in the great mystery that the incomprehensible God has made himself accessible to humans through their everydayness. There is simply no other way to speak to a creature; if the words of God do not touch creatureliness, then they do not touch the creature at all. Oh great mystery, that the Word of God touched creatureliness in the most literal way possible, by taking on flesh, trapping himself in our everydayness so that we might be free to find him there.

If Christ has sought to save your body through his body, then dear reader, I urge you: do not despise your body. It is the speaking place of God. What eyes must we have that the very same God who said to Moses "You cannot see my face, for no man can see me and live" also said through the Son "He who has seen me has seen the Father." What ears must we have that God revealed himself to Israel through the words, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one." And if the body is indispensable to the knowledge of God, then let us not dismiss the fact that there are two differentiated human bodies, that of the man and the woman. How might their different experiences of embodied everydayness influence their consideration of God respectively? What does the man's body mean? What does the woman's body mean? These questions cannot be answered in isolation from each other. Andre LaCocque, a professor of Hebrew Bible at Chicago Theological Seminary, has said that male and female identities are contingent, not absolute, as if they could be described apart from each other. If this is the case, I cannot help but wonder if the image of the Triune God is seen most clearly not in man and woman as they are in themselves but when they are joined together in love.

This important point aside, I would like to draw the reader's attention to the significance of life-capacity for the woman specifically (the presence of the seed in Scripture is also essential to understanding the gospel, but that is a subject of such magnitude, it deserves separate attention). I believe the more pressing issue today, in light of the many developing women's liberation movements and the simultaneous continued marginalization of women, regards the meaning of female identity. I grow just as weary of "gender equality" as I do of men who gloss over the Pauline edict that "women should keep silent in the churches," as if this did not stir up desperate questions in the deepest recesses of my soul. To take away a woman's voice’is this not to take away the woman? (I don't believe Paul intends that a woman never speak in church, but that is another issue altogether.) The point is this’the only thing worse than being mishandled is not being handled at all. Within the walls of the dear church, I sometimes hold up my hands and watch the flesh dissipate until I see only a faint outline of my fingers as I disappear into a realm of trinkets, a more or less ornate appendage to my husband. Conversely, outside those walls are many feminists who would have me be a human and no more, as if true unity with my brothers could result apart from diversity. I disappear again. When calling myself a Christian does not mean enough and calling myself a feminist means perhaps too much, I am not sure what word to use. I don't think there is one. All I know is that whether in the church or in feminist circles, a distinctly female identity has felt like a bit of a dunce cap, something to be ashamed of.

This is tragic, because womanhood is cause for great celebration. Whatever femininity may or may not mean to you, I am here addressing the meaning of one undeniable aspect of femininity’the possession of the womb. Is it too dramatic to say that the womb is a part of a woman's everydayness? Far from it! The woman's life is circumscribed by cycles, like the earth, which no sooner encircles the sun than it goes dancing around it again, like a great symphony after swirling into variations tumbles inevitably again to its theme. The theme around which the woman revolves is life. I ask, then, what does the womb mean? Perhaps this is an odd question to you, but the problem is not that there is too little meaning in this word but too much. The meaning of the body is too splendid for reduction to a perfect arrangement of words, but I will attempt at least to say something beautiful and true about it. It is my opinion that through the eyes of faith, the womb means a great deal and is a source of great hope to all women alike.

What does it mean that "the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now"? The curse of the woman in childbearing is a metaphor for the curse of creation and for those who "have the firstfruits of the Spirit," who "groan inwardly as [they] wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of [their] bodies." All creation and humanity are in need of new life. Though the woman's pains were surely multiplied in childbearing, new life itself was not taken away. I cannot help thinking that in some way every mother has made a complete mockery of the curse. Though it has sunk its nails into her every nerve, her tears dry and eventually turn to laughter and love, and she is ready to pay its price again. Labor cannot outdo its reward, absurdity cannot outstrip meaning, and scars cannot cover beauty. There is an over-abundance of life that breaks through pain just as life bursts through the thistles and thorns of the ground, for believers and unbelievers alike, which I hear especially in the promise, "Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." Women participate uniquely in their very bodies in this inability of death to eradicate new life.

Lest anyone think I have forgotten the tears of the weary ones, whose bodies cry "Life" but cannot answer their own call, while I don't admit of anything truly insightful to say, I respectfully offer my thoughts. If nonbeing is a derivation of being, then I do not see how the meaning of a woman's body could ever be taken away from her, and this loss of meaning is indeed a great threat. (Paul Tillich said that the threat of meaninglessness is even greater than that of death, for there is no worse nightmare than a meaningless death. If death, however, could have meaning, perhaps it could also be overcome. As the woman's labor pain ushers in new life, the Christian's death means the same thing.) For the woman unable to bear children, if there is a shadow that follows her, then there is a light shining on her. If there is brokenness, there was first wholeness. If there is an absence, then there is a presence’as Sartre said when he reminds us that fear, guilt, and shame are all emotions we feel when we are alone but not really alone. And how can we deny this when heartache and separation have perhaps conjured up more presence of love in music than has intimacy? For the happy lover, the presence is felt in the touch of the other; but for the rejected, the presence is still powerfully felt in the song. What I mean is this: the woman who cannot conceive still lives in a life-emanating body, and nothing can take this away from her. She is magically haunted by a reverberation through her bones of a note that has not yet resounded, if that were even possible. I do not, of course, pretend to understand things I have not yet experienced, and I do not ignore that theirs is the greater burden.

As for me, I am a lonely sort of woman for a number of reasons, but one is this (and I realize this is a caricature): I am stretched between women who think little of new life and women who think of little else, between those who think new life is a mere preference of lifestyle and those who think it is a mandate. And here am I, trying to light a candle that will illumine this place where I stand. Hello? Is anyone there? The mother can see death and reply, "What little you seem to have to do with me. I am food. I am home." What are these if not the dearest cradles of life? But I am a spare room, and my body constantly reminds me of this. I cannot escape it. The meaning of my body knocks from inside. There are those with children, those who cannot have them, and those who do not want them. But where are the voices of those who wait deliberately while humming under their breath the soft tune of life and salvation, cognizant of a literal hollow beneath the heart? What does it mean to be that woman? For now the only solidarity I have in this regard is in being a complete cliché: "I have some things I want to do first." I look forward to the day when I will perhaps realize more of my fundamental possibilities as a uniquely female human. But until then, although I may dangle in a tin can thousands of feet above the sweet, sweet soil, I carry in my body the mysterious anticipation of new life, and by this I fundamentally mean life eternal.

Indeed, this is the main purpose of my writing: not to address so much the unique burdens of women in regard to the womb, but to respond to the greatest common human burden, the opposite of life’death. What good could come if women in the church would recognize that, whatever authentic resistance toward death may be experienced in this lifetime, they are in the unique position of having had this resistance sewn into their being in the form of a unique capacity for life, whether this capacity is fulfilled or not. Women sing a life song in their bodies; it is their blood's rhythm, stretching to their fingertips. The story of life that comes to us through suffering is nothing else than the story of the gospel. The gospel story is told to us in our very bodies! How perfectly the gospel was portrayed in the body of Mary through whose pain in childbearing came not only life but the Life of the world. In Christ, the curse of the woman is a shadow of a spiritual death stripped of power by the Victor "who is your life." Through faith in Christ who brings everlasting life, life abundant, the sisterhood of believers cannot be broken. Despite our ages, despite our day-to-day schedules’whether we are mothers, grandmothers, workers, or all of the above’we have in common bodies of life, the powerful meaning of which has not been dissolved by the curse, just as eternal life has not been lost by Adam never to be found again. Christ, taking our curse in his suffering on the cross, has defeated death by his resurrection. Though death still awaits us, Christ has embarrassed it, leaving it dumbstruck and without retort when we ask, "Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?" Sisters, when you look at your body, do not first think of its imperfections or how you would improve upon it’but first see how you are "fearfully and wonderfully made" and marvel at the nearness of God, that even in the meaning of our bodies he is "actually not far from each one of us." May we with such words of life guard one another against every kind of fear.

Monday, February 29th 2016

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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