celebrating difference…

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.  That’s the title of a book, of course, by American author and relationship counselor John Gray. He argues that women and men represent distinct worlds – it’s like they’re from different planets. And he tries to describe these different worlds or planets. In this well-known book, many of the things he says may seem to be common sense. He says that in the face of stress men tend naturally to withdraw (he calls this retreating to the cave), while women naturally want to talk about things. Men he says, like to do things on their own, while women like to work collaboratively. Men tend to look after themselves while women tend to look after others.

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus has sold more than seven million copies. And of course there are other books not unlike John Gray’s – books that promise to give us insight into the differences between women and men – books that promise to help men and women in their marriages and intimate relationships because they will begin to understand one another better.

It’s remarkable that in our culture there are, on the one hand, strong voices that tell us that women and men are fundamentally different from each other. For many of course, this is just common sense – that women and men are quite different. John Gray and others tap into this common sense.

But on the other hand there are the other strong voices in our culture – the voices of those who insist there aren’t really any differences between women and men. This idea is usually expressed in these terms: anything a man can do a woman can do. Women and men have the same abilities. There’s nothing the one can do that the other can’t do. Here the idea of equality between the sexes goes hand in hand with an insistence on their sameness. They are equal. They are essentially the same.

So there is a common sense out there that says women and men are different – and there is a common sense they are equal, with no substantial differences between them.

You may remember that the President of Harvard University stepped into the middle of this hornet’s nest of debate a few years ago.  As part of a speech at the National Bureau of Economic Research (sounds like a exciting place to work) he offered some reflections on the fact that there are fewer women in science and engineering positions at the highest level of the university. He said there might be various reasons for this, including discrimination. But he also offered the opinion that one part of the reason might be that there are slight differences of aptitude at the highest end of the scale. He suggested that there are biological differences between men and women, and these differences might be expressed in terms of aptitude at the highest levels of ability in terms of mathematics.

Now of course, as you may remember, this caused a firestorm of controversy – Summers eventually resigned from Harvard. He was accused of being sexist or of being careless in his research. Some defended him – others attacked him. Now I’m not in any position to judge Summers comments on the research, on the data he was pointing to in his speech. I’m not a scientist. I don’t know whether he was right or wrong on the data.

But having read a lot of the opinions expressed at the time, it seems clear that Summers got caught in the middle of this cultural tension. He got caught between, on the one hand, the common sense notion that there are real differences between women and men, and, on the other hand, the idea that we are all equal and are essentially the same. Our culture is conflicted on this question. It is easy, as Summers discovered, to get caught up in the tension between these two points of view.

Let me shift gears for a moment and turn to some comments offered by another scholar, who happens also to be the Archbishop of Canterbury – Rowan Williams. In a video that Lambeth Palace produced in advance of the recent wedding of William and Catherine, the Archbishop reflected on the nature and purpose of marriage. And he had this to say.

“Marriage is a commitment that says, not only that I’m prepared to spend the rest of my life with you, but to spend the rest of my life finding out about you. There is always going to be more of you to discover.” He adds: “There is a mystery and delight at the heart of human beings that it is possible to spend a lifetime and more exploring.” There is a mystery and delight at the heart of human beings that it is possible to spend a lifetime and more exploring.

In this video, the Archbishop doesn’t explicitly root his comments in theology or scriptures – yet there is no doubt that’s where they come from. And perhaps his comments are rooted in a passage we read this morning from the creation narratives of Genesis. You’ll remember that after God created the first human being – God then forms a second creature from the rib of the first.  And when God brings this second creature before the first, the man declares: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Isha (woman) for out of Ish (man) she was taken.”

Here the creation narrative of the Hebrew bible, of our Old Testament, want to tell us something about the human. With this amazing and beautiful declaration, words that are Hebrew poetry, our scriptures want to tell us something about the human.  The man begins with this astonished declaration: “At last.  Wow. Finally.” There were all these other animals and creatures but none of them was like the earth man – none of them could be a companion for him – none of them could ease his loneliness – none of them could build and grow together with him. None of them was sufficiently like him. But here, with the creation of other – At last. Finally. Wow. Here is one like me – bone of my bone – flesh of my flesh. Man and woman are fundamentally alike – communication and companionship is possible between them.

And yet, in this wonderful poetic exclamation, there is also an acknowledgment of difference. She will be called Isha (woman) for out of Ish (man) she was taken. She is called Isha. He is called Ish. They are not the same. With his astonished declaration, the man acknowledges that the woman is different from him. Now he doesn’t try to tell us what the difference is. He doesn’t try to explain how they are different from one another. She is similar enough to be a companion to him, to ease his loneliness – they are similar enough to build and grow together – but they are not the same.

So what’s the difference? Again, the man doesn’t say. Later on, after brokenness has entered the world, man will have much to way about what woman is – who she is. And woman will become largely silent. But here in the moment of creation, in their first moment face to face, there is a simple affirmation – fundamentally similar, yet different. They know each other, but remain unknown to each other. They know each other, but remain a mystery to each other.

Thus the Archbishop declares: Marriage is a commitment that says, not only that I’m prepared to spend the rest of my life with you, but to spend the rest of my life finding out about you. There is always going to be more of you to discover.” He adds: “There is a mystery and delight at the heart of human beings that it is possible to spend a lifetime and more exploring.”

Does it surprise us to think that a husband and wife could, after twenty or thirty or fifty years of marriage, look across the breakfast table and say to one another: “Who are you?”  In many cases it does happen, in the best sense. Indeed, this is an altogether appropriate expression of the mystery and delight at the heart of the human. Of course, between any two humans there is difference and the unknown – and yet the mystery and delight and difference of the human is expressed first and fundamentally between man and woman. This means that the most important question that can pass between wife and husband, the most important question to shape the way they interact, is the question: Who are you? I respect your difference. I give you space to become the woman, the man you are. I look forward to discovering and affirming, again and again, that I don’t fully know you. You are a mystery to me. I delight in this mystery.

The covenant of love between husband and wife, their willingness to acknowledge the mystery of the other – their willingness to set the other free to be different – for us this covenant of love is set within the grand framework of God’s love in Jesus Christ. We are created and redeemed in Christ. To set the other free to be different, is really to set him or her free for service to Christ and his way.

Yes, there is a shared path – a shared path of companionship, a shared path of growing and learning (at last – bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh). Yet each walks that path in the mystery of their unique being as woman or man (she is isha, he is ish). Each sets the other free to walk in the way of Christ, to exercise gifts, to express love, to develop personality, to pursue vocations that are rooted in his or her particular mysterious being.

The relationship between husband and wife, at its best, gives expression to this mystery and delight that lies at the heart of the human: “There is a mystery and delight at the heart of human beings that it is possible to spend a lifetime and more exploring.”

Of course every relationship between a woman and a man, whether it is an intimate relationship or not, is one in which this mystery and respect must be expressed. Yet in the relationship between wife and husband there is a special challenge and opportunity to express this mystery and delight. Acknowledging the difference and mystery of the other is no easy task – it requires discipline, self-control, and openness for surprises. Setting the other free for service in his or her own way is no easy task in the context of a shared life. Yet in all of this the Holy Spirit of God equips and blesses us, through the strength of the risen Jesus, whom we serve and in whose kingdom we live. Thanks be to God for the truth and mystery of the human – man and woman together in the world. Amen.


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