Is Christianity Good for Women?

The other day, I saw a sign advertising a symposium titled “Is Christianity Good for Women?” I know nothing about the symposium, so what follows is not a criticism of that specific event. Titles of lectures and symposia on posters are often crafted provocatively to try to cut through the “white noise” of all the other posters on the wall. Article titles often do the same. And who knows? The collective answer of TCT readers might be: “But of course!”

Although I have nothing pro or con to say about this particular symposium, the sign did occasion two concerns. The first was how such a sign would have been greeted if it had said: “Is Islam Good for Women?” or “Is Hinduism Good for Women?” How about “Is Enlightenment Liberalism Good for Women?” It’s not clear to me that any of those other posters would be allowed in the modern university. Wouldn’t the question “Is Islam Good for Women?” or “Is Hinduism Good for Women?” be seen as communicating a certain lack of respect towards those religious traditions?

It’s easy to imagine a proud Muslim woman asking: “What do you mean, is Islam bad for me? Isn’t that a terribly prejudiced question? Do you think I’m only Muslim because I’m a brainwashed fool? How bigoted and demeaning.”

Someone might say, “But Muslim women are second-class citizens, and Hindu women are subjected to wife burning and honor killings.” A Muslim or Hindu woman might reply: “But those are cultural, political uses to which my faith has been put. Every faith has ways in which it can be abused. Are you going to judge my Muslim faith (or my Hindu observances) based upon such abuses? Do you want me to judge Christianity by the use some idiots made of it to support the Holocaust? Or Enlightenment rationality by twentieth-century mechanized warfare and damage to the environment?

Teresa of Avila by Corrado Giaquinto, c. 1735 [private collection]

I suppose the title of such a symposium might be recast as: “Is Islam – apart from all the abuses people have made of it – Good for Women?” It is, admittedly, not as catchy. And someone might ask whether the so-called “abuses” were somehow inherent to or caused by the principles of the religion. In which case, we’d be back to the original title.

But this brings me to a second, more difficult question. On what ostensibly neutral basis would such a judgment of “good for women” versus “not good for women” be made? What would a devoted Muslim woman be likely to say about wearing a headscarf? Having known a few, I can tell you that they consider it a symbol of their faith. What would a Discalced Carmelite be likely to say about not wearing shoes and about the rigorous life she and her sisters lead? That these are symbols of their faith and practices that make them very happy indeed?

So too, how would an NBA basketball player speak about the topic, “Is participating in the Ramadan fast bad for NBA basketball players?” His first reply might be: “There is more to my life than being a basketball player. And as it turns out, I do all right in the finals. So define what you mean by bad.” Most of us assume that “bad for NBA basketball players” in this context would mean “bad for their performance.” But is their “performance” really the only consideration of “good” vs. “bad.” Then what about capable pro athletes who commit horrendous crimes? Are they “good” athletes?

Someone schooled in the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition might at this point reply that a player guilty of a horrible crime may be “good” qua athlete, but “evil” qua person. That might work for the basketball player, but what about women? Can we say she is “good” qua woman, but bad qua person? It seems not. So how do we define “good” qua woman or, getting back to our original question, good for a woman – or a man, for that matter?

Perhaps we might set forth a view of the human person and then try to identify what would be “good” for a person of that sort – enough nutrition, sunlight, friendship, developed virtues, etc. – and then ask whether Religion X or World View Y either provides or subtracts from any of those key elements. The problem with this approach, however, is that religions and world-views often offer different views of the human person. Which one should be definitive?

We might change the whole approach and propose the topic: “A Christian woman talks about why Christianity is good for women.” Then we might learn (a) what the Christian view of the human person is, and (b) why a Christian woman devoted to that view of the human person and human flourishing thinks Christianity is “good” for women. The Muslim and Hindu woman could do the same.

What they mustn’t do, however, is judge the flourishing of the other person based on criteria alien to the other. The Muslim mustn’t say, “You can’t flourish; you have no headscarf,” any more than the Carmelite could say to the urbane atheist: “You can’t flourish; you wear shoes.” This rarely happens, however, among thoughtful, courteous religious people.

Perhaps the most common thing in our society is for the urbane secular humanist to presume he or she has a “neutral” standpoint by which he or she can judge all the others. When this happens, the question “Is Christianity good for women?” means “Does it measure up to the standards of secular humanism and Enlightenment rationality?” The answer to that question will clearly be no, and it will be no for all women (or men) who don’t accept the standards of secular humanism and Enlightenment rationality.

Is Christianity good for women? That’s a question for a good Christian woman.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.