SERMON TEXT - The Wisdom of Nature - Balance of Male and Female
Last weekend, the royal grand national horse racing competition, marked an historic moment, with the first women jockey to win the race in its 182 years history, especially significant, when women were officially excluded from participating in the race up until 1977.
This journey towards including space for women in the great institutions of Western civilisation is a very recent one in the context of the flow of history. According to the UK Law society website, women were not even legally recognised as ‘persons’ in 1914, and so were legally excluded from practising law because the law stated that they were not really ‘people’. In terms of University education, it was only in 1920 that Oxford opened its doors to women and only 1948 that women were permitted to study at Cambridge, and even then, Cambridge reserved the right to give preference to men..
Despite the slow and gradual opening up of Western Institutions to women, there are also countless stories over the past 100 years of women who made remarkable discoveries and yet who were not given credit. Rosalind Franklin discovered the double helix formation of human DNA in the 1950’s while at King’s College in London, but credit was given to Watson and Crick who received the Nobel prize in 1958.
Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission with her research partner Otto Hahn, but only Otto Hahn was given credit with a 1944 prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Dr Grace Murray Hopper was the person who first invented Computer Programming language, but it is John von Neumann who is celebrated as having created the first computer program.
What all this suggests is that Western Civilisation as a whole has lived with an extremely unbalanced male dominance for centuries and that was still largely legally in force in the UK as recently as 1975. Up until the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, it was still perfectly legal to hire men over women for no other reason than they were male. And so despite the fact that women were given the vote in 1918, sexist practice was still legally in practice 57 years later, which shows how slow social change really is. And so despite the strides that a country like the UK has made in the past 46 years in creating greater balance and freedom of opportunity between men and women, it should come as no surprise to hear in the past few years that on the whole, men are still paid higher salaries than women for doing the same work. Cultural change is a very very slow process.
Now last week I got back to a preaching series that was started just before Covid hit us last year, exploring the Wisdom we can learn from Nature, using the book 8 Master Lessons of Nature, by the writer Gary Ferguson.
It has been a long tradition in the Christian Church that nature is like a second Bible. Paul points to that in Romans 1:20 where he writes: "Ever since God created the world, God’s everlasting power and deity—however invisible—have been there for the mind to see in the things God has made.". St Augustine who was very influential on most of the Reformers said: “It is the divine page that you must listen to; it is the book of the universe that you must observe.”
The title of Gary Ferguson’s 4th Chapter is: “Healing the planet and ourselves means recovering the feminine,” and in the pages that follow he makes clear that when he is speaking of the recovery of the feminine, he is talking about moving towards a greater balance between the masculine and the feminine in the world today, and not about the dominance of the feminine over the masculine. In the language of Chinese Taoism, the balance of masculine and feminine is much like the balance between the yin and yang in that symbolic circle where the yin and yang of life interlock with one another and balance one another. This balancing of masculine and feminine he suggests needs to happen not only across our societal structures, but also within our own individual psyches.
And so as we observe and read the Scripture of Nature, Gary Ferguson points out that in most major groups of mammals, there is a much greater balance between male and female leadership than has been the case in the history of most of humanity for the past 6000 years. And so he writes that “In countless species, from meerkats to whales, elephants, chimpanzees, wolves and lions, females hold both nurturing and leadership roles.
He writes that “...The fact is, in mammal species, where males and females are roughly the same size, female leadership is often the norm. Even when males are larger, such as in chimpanzees, gorillas, lions and wolves, it’s often still females who make critical leadership decisions.” He writes that while female leaders in the animal world can have impressive physical strength, it is their relational instinct and their ability of building coalitions that makes female wisdom and leadership a critical part of survival in the natural world. And yet at the same time, males in many of these species also play critical roles in not only hunting and defending territory, but also in caring for the young, often engaging in endless rounds of play with cubs that is a critical part of their growth and development.
And so Gary Ferguson writes that nature has created a world in which the success of elephants, wolves and lions and countless other species comes from a full expression of both sexes. He says the idea that one gender is more important that another is a human illusion – one that ignores the fact that nature is a balance between the two.
It is suggested that much of our current problems with the destruction of the planet is due to a masculine dominance rather than a masculine and feminine balance. For example, much of our pesticide culture which is decimating insect populations around the world is the out-flowing of a masculine energy that has forgotten the importance of relationship. When faced with a problem, a dominant masculine approach would have a tendency to use strength and force rather than relationship. Gary Ferguson writes for example that in China, when sparrows began eating rice in their rice fields a policy was made to kill all the sparrows and then discovered that the insects grew out of control and destroyed more of their rice crops than the birds ever ate. This, suggests Gary Ferguson, was male energy at work, unbalanced by a feminine recognition of relationship. If we are to save the planet, Gary Ferguson believes that masculine strength and force need to be balanced with feminine relationship and coalition. Instead of seeing nature through the male lens as something needing to be conquered, we need to learn something of a feminine approach of how to live in better harmony, coalition and relationship with nature.
Now as we turn to the written pages of scriptures, it is clear in reading Scripture that Hebrew culture was, like much of Western culture and history, highly patriarchal, with an enormous masculine dominance. Every morning, Jewish men would have prayed, “Thank you God that I was not born a women”. And yet how remarkable that in the first of the creation passages in Genesis, some inspired Jewish writer (almost certainly male) tells us that God made both male and female in God’s image. Both are in God’s image. This is a profound insight. The writer does not see the male as superior to the women, but rather through both, the fullness of God’s nature is revealed and disclosed.
It is also fascinating that in the second creation story in Genesis about Adam and Eve, the dominance of the male over the female is clearly regarded a result of what people often refer to as the fall. When the first human beings fall into sin, God says to the women, “your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you”. The implication is that it was never God’s intention from the beginning that husbands should rule over their wives. This arrangement comes about as a result of disobedience and sin. The implication is therefore that the undoing of sin should therefore lead to the undoing of male dominance, and the bringing about of a greater balance and partnership and harmony between the masculine and the feminine, rather than seeing competition between males and females where one needs to be regarded as better than the other. “Are boys better then girls?”
The person of Jesus stands in stark contrast to the heavily patriarchal Jewish culture of his day. In many ways, Jesus was quite a major disruptor of Jewish patriarchy symbolised by the scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the most dominant institutions of Jewish culture in Jesus day.
In contrast to the Rabbi’s of his day Jesus is recorded in Luke’s Gospel as having female disciples. (Luke 8:1-3). At the time of Jesus, it would have been unthinkable for a Jewish Rabbi’s to have female disciples. Girls were never taught to read or memorise the Scriptures. They were excluded from such activities. But in Luke, Mary is described as sitting at the feet of Jesus. This was the posture of a disciple. Keith Giles even suggests that this was the posture of someone who was themselves in training to become a Rabbi. And Jesus affirms her in this role. She has chosen the better part he says.
Lastly, Jesus as a human being seems to have integrated within himself both the masculine and the feminine. Carl Jung believed that this is the journey and the task required of any human being who grows into greater wholeness and fullness. He spoke of the anima and animus. The anima refers to the unconscious feminine side of a man, and the animus refers to the unconscious side of a woman. For men to grow toward spiritual and psychological wholeness, Jung believed that men need to get in touch with this unconscious female aspect of their personality. And for a women to grow toward spiritual and psychological wholeness, Jung believed that women need to tap into the unconscious masculine energy of their personalities. The male and female principles are present in each of us, and both need to find balanced expression within each of us.
This was certainly true of Jesus. He combines both formidable strength and amazing tenderness and vulnerability. He is an active leader amongst his disciples and yet in the Garden of Gethsemane he is able to surrender his life completely into the hands of the one He calls Abba.
When faced with confrontation he stands his ground and holds his own, and yet how easily he is reduced to tears when he stands outside the tomb of Lazarus and when he enters Jerusalem and weeps over a city that is headed for destruction.
When we call Jesus the saviour of the world, it is not just that Jesus died for our sins that we might go to heaven. Jesus could equally be regarded as saviour because he reveals the kind of balance, wholeness and one could even say holiness that is necessary to bring greater balance and wholeness to human society and that is also going to prove essential in saving the planet. Amen.