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Back to Basics: Aristophanes Was The Original Complementarian


I expect you know from your own experience, as do I, that in the workplace you need input from both men and women to achieve the best results. But this is a subjective statement – how can I prove it to you?

Well, if you watch ‘The Apprentice’, I think you will agree that, year after year, the initial single-sex teams are much less successful at the given tasks than when the sexes are mixed up at a later stage.  Stereotypically, women bring a priori  thinking, commonsense, intuition and imagination to the table, whereas men bring a posteriori   thinking, logic, ‘inside the box’ and clear-headedness.


Christian Complementarianism

This commonsense wisdom has been transmuted by some Christian denominations into ‘complementarianism’ (not, please, ‘complimentarianism’ which, if it were a word, would mean paying each other compliments!). I have no problem with the idea that the sexes are complementary (or complete each other) – this is exactly what I believe. I have always found wisdom in the eastern idea of yin and yang, the two opposing but complementary harmonies, each of which carries the germ of the other: none of us is 100% male or 100% female.

But these denominations then make a huge leap (with no logical justification that I can see, other than selective editing of the Bible) to say that women may only serve the Church in subservient roles.  There is a wealth of material on this in cyberspace: James Prescott blogged on 8 November;  Rachel Held Evans makes a lot of sense to me in ‘Complementarians are selective too‘; Krish Kandiah blogged today on ‘Women, Men, Church and Twitter‘ , summing up the debate. He concludes:

I know there are evangelical Christians on both sides of the debate. I know there are good and bad arguments being used by both sides. I know there are actually a range of egalitarian and complimentarian positions. There are “hard” and “soft” proponents. There are those that are lead more by the scripture than by the culture and those that are lead more by the culture than the scripture – on both sides. I know there are people that have been hurt on both sides of this debate, and I recognise that women who have felt their God given calling have been dismissed have been particularly hurt. My hope is that we can build a centre ground coalition that champions the centrality of the gospel, the authority of scripture and a gracious respect and honouring of women and the recognition of the need for a hermeneutic of humility when it comes to the scriptures and a spirit of generosity when it comes to those we disagree with. I want to start a peace process – not just that we agree to disagree but that we find a way through an issue that is splitting the church right down the middle…I’d love to know why you think this is the issue that is dividing the church at the moment?

The Wisdom of the Ancients

But  is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us (Ecclesiastes 1.10). In this case, it was in 385 BC that Aristophanes’ spoke on the origins of romantic love at Plato’s Symposium, here described by Dr Edward Spence, in ‘A Tale of Two Loves‘:

Aristophanes offers a story dealing with human nature and the human condition. Human beings were once spherical, with eight limbs like an octopus: four arms and four legs, one head with two faces and four ears and two sets of genitals, male or female, or both, so that they were any one of three kinds: male-male, male-female, and female-female. One day they offended the gods and to punish them Zeus cut them in half, scattering the two severed halves in opposite directions. Since that day, we are always searching for our other half. When a half meets its other half, each is overcome by Eros and each delights in being with the other. The reason for this is not, or at least not merely, a desire for sexual intercourse: on the contrary, the soul of each wishes for something it cannot put into words. Lovers desire to live a common life and die a common death, to become One again, in a complete and lasting union. The reason for this is our ancient nature: we were once a unified Whole. ‘Eros’ Aristophanes tells us, ‘Is the desire and pursuit of Wholeness’.


Aristophanes’ Story is the Story of the Fall

Aristophanes’ story is the story of the Fall; not dissimilar to that of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Heaven. We need healing, precisely because, when whole, we were impious and arrogant, prepared in our wholeness to challenge the gods. We find an analogous story of humanity’s fall from grace in Plato’s dialogue the Phaedrus. In that dialogue, Socrates relates to the character Phaedrus, (who also features in the Symposium) how our souls were once winged and circled the heavens with the gods until – getting too close to earth they became enamored with its sights and sounds and lost their wings, crash-landing to earth like Ikaros. But once in a while,upon encountering the face of the beloved, our souls become amorously and strangely agitated, and growing wings again long to take flight to the heavens from which they came.


If you want to understand ‘complementarian’, I suggest you need to look hard at the yin and yang Taoist symbol again:

Yin and Yang illustrated from the Tao Te Ching

 Being and non-being produce each other.

Difficult and easy complement each other.

Long and short define each other.

High and low oppose each other.

Fore and aft follow each other.


How did the idea of yin being superior to yang, or yang being superior to yin ever come into it?



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This post is based on ‘Why we need both women and men in the church’ first published on 4 November as a guest post on Anna Blanch’s blog, Goannatree.

Complementarianism is part of the much wider topic of Dualism, which you can read a short introduction to here.


Image Credit: ‘Stained glass in the university’ by Nikita Starichenko licensed from Shuttercock.

Image Credit: The Tao image is downloaded from wikimedia under a creative common licence.

‘Is There Anybody There?’ Said The Traveller

Do you ever get the feeling God is laughing at you? Not unkindly, just in a gently amused sort of way.

I have been travelling for most of my life, and for much of that time, wherever I was, the local church was a featureless concrete block built in the twentieth century. Now, I know the theology: God is everywhere. It should make no difference to one’s ability to worship whether one is surrounded by breeze blocks or stained glass. But over and over again I found myself ruefully muttering the first half of Psalm 137 – ‘As for our harps, we hanged them up…How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’

In the fullness of time, my husband retired; we returned to the Hampshire village that had been the Brigadoon which sustained us through our exile. At the heart of the village is a 12th century church, built on the ruins of an earlier Saxon one.  And that’s when I dreamed that God chuckled at my foibles and just asked ‘Better now?’ I had to admit that it did make all the difference, even though I knew it shouldn’t have. Not that I’m alone in this failing – far from it. The French describe the love of old buildings as an attraction to ‘les vieilles pierres‘ (old stones). Admirers of antique furniture wax lyrical about patina. A building in which people have been worshipping God for nearly 900 years does have an atmosphere which a new building does not.

I seem to remember a programme by James Burke about the idea that stones retain echoes, which form a sort of  -theoretically readable- patina. I asked my friendly (I wouldn’t say ‘tame’) hippogriff, Tim Skellett (@Gurdur). His reply?

There have been a couple of SF stories on reproducing sound waves recorded into pottery through minute, sound-caused wobbles in the potter’s hand as the potter inscribes decorative lines in a pot on a turnwheel. However, the idea is implausible owing to any such fluctuations being lost in statistical noise and far larger minute tremors in the hand. I would think the program you heard probably picked up from that idea (the original SF story is very old now). As for stones in stone buildings, the physical scale of the stone is simply too immense for sound waves to have any such effect, sorry.

There is more on the Heathen Hub thread at the hyperlink, if you would like to follow this up.

So that’s that, then. And yet…

Walter de la Mare answered the question which forms the title of this post in his strangely compelling poem:

But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.

I have been carrying around with me for nearly thirty years a piece of paper on which is written a poem given to me by a work colleague, Jean Bull, who has since died. We had been having the discussion about sermons trapped in stones, like flies in amber. I have never been able to find the author – do any of you know it?


Eternal Life

There is no death for words.
The loneliest ship probing new seas
Has no real silence.
Voices blow in the wind,
The air is taut with cries, calls, song,
Shouts and lamentations.
Like tired birds in the rigging cling
Words spoken long before.
No mountain top can offer solitude
Rocks echo, and the whispering trees
Shelter more secrets than their own.
Stars live in rocks, and rocks reveal
Themselves in stars.
Each to the other lends a permanence.
And words vibrate there, questioning
Offering another immortality.

Perhaps the sweet words of Jesus
Throng rock and spire
Sending a hurricane that shrieks
And clamours through the uneasy world –
No word that’s spoken ever dies
But, fugitive, lives on.

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The main illustration is ‘Arches in the Bastille at Grenoble’ by Bruce Amos, via Shutterstock.

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