The future of complementarity: men and women are not interchangeable (Introduction)

Philosopher Robin Bunce is back on the blog with some more insights about the Future of Complementarity conference run by Think Theology earlier this year.  Robin is Director of Studies for Politics and Graduate Tutor at Homerton College, University of
Cambridge.  He is a historian of ideas and has written on politics and contemporary culture for the Huffington Post, the Guardian, the Independent, and the New Statesman.  The other posts we’ve published about the conference can be found HERE


Complementarity is not merely a theology of gender, it’s an aesthetic: an understanding of beauty. According to several speakers at THINK 2018 women and men are not just different, that difference is beautiful. Surprisingly, for a theology which claims to be rooted an ancient text, this is a very modern aesthetic, perhaps even a post-modern one. For this ‘beautiful difference’ is a beautiful absence. The aesthetic of complementarity arises from what men and women are not: ‘men and women are not interchangeable.’ This is the aesthetic of artists like Kazimir Malevich, Dan Flavin and Carl Andre, or more recent practitioners of rigorous hard-core absence like Turner Prize winner Martin Creed.


‘Beautiful difference’ and ‘men and women are not interchangeable’ are the two slogans to emerge from THINK 2018, and it’s the second that concerns me here. As I’ve prowled moodily around Cambridge this autumn, I realised I’ve come across the phrase before. Not in the Bible of course – that goes without saying, but somewhere. It turns out that since the end of the Second World War a series of writers have used the phrase ‘men and women are not interchangeable.’ Yet, even though the phrase occurs again and again in theological discussion it never means the same thing twice.  CS Lewis, then Karl Barth and latterly Tim and Kathy Keller have all argued that ‘men and women are not interchangeable.’ But for radically different, and often contradictory reasons. Advocates of complementarity are continuing this trajectory, repeating the same words, but meaning something new.


The story of how we get from CS Lewis’ view that ‘men and women are not interchangeable’ to Wilson and Alistair Robert’s radically different view that ‘men and women are not interchangeable’ is a long one. Fearing history-of-ideas-fatigue or ‘annalist’s fever’ as its sometimes know, I’ve split it into three parts, which I’ll be publishing between now and Easter.


You can find Part I HERE.


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