Notes on The Church Impotent: Chapter 2

Chapter 2: Can a Man Be a Christian?

“Why are the pews of Christian churches filled with women” (27)?

Podles’ question is one that we must be able to answer. Women have outnumbered men in the church and have done so for centuries. Why? There are satisfactory theories for the low participation of men in a particular church or a particular time. These theories, however, fail to provide an explanation “of why women in general seem to be more religious than men.” In this short chapter, Podles evaluates several of the popular theories.

Podles outright rejects the theory that this problem is rooted in “the nature of religion or of man.” He writes, “If men are by nature non-religious, why do Islam and Judaism have predominantly male memberships and why have they for centuries evoked intense commitment from men” (28)? Furthermore, Christianity hasn’t alway had a male deficit and, even presently, Orthodox churches have a much higher male participation rate.

So how is it that Western Christianity has come to be dominated by women?

A few theories revolve around political and economic changes. Podles quickly breaks down three of these theories and ends the section with a social theory:

1. The industrial revolution caused a sexual division of labor. Previously, men and women worked along side each other on “farms or household workshops.” This changed as men went off to dangerous factories in morally destitute cities and women came to dominate the culture of the home. Consequently, people came to believe that “women are domestic and religious, men are public and therefore irreligious.”

2. The second theory claimed that “religion was a means of enculturating women to their domestic maternal role, to acceptance of powerlessness and dependency on men.” This “limiting” of women to the home drove them to find false transcendence elsewhere. Therefore, they used religion as a means of achieving “false transcendence” (29). 

3. A slight variation of the previous theory claimed that “women, excluded from government, commerce, and education, turned to the church, which allowed them to exercise their abilities and to gain some power and respect.” 

4. In America, Podles notes that “men’s crudity of manners led them to neglect women and prefer coarse male company. The only exception to this male neglect of women was the clergy.” Frances Trollope wrote, “It is from the clergy only that the women of America receive that sort of attention which is so dearly valued by every female heart throughout the world.” 

No doubt that all these theories have some truth contained in them. However, they are all heavily rooted in very specific set of circumstances and still fail to provide a general theory.

The next two theories attempt to locate an explanation in the very nature of women.

First, many have argued that women’s attraction to Christianity is tied to their weakness in one way or another.

Cotton Mather saw “the Christian fidelity of Puritan woman as their response to the danger of of death in childbirth.” Podles explains that this view argues that “it is the desire to seek shelter from the weakness of their bodies that lead women to Christianity” (30).

A similar argument has been put forth both by psychologists such as Freud and some ministers. In this variation, it is women’s greater emotional nature that draws them to religion. Men, Freud argued, are governed by a reality principle which corresponds “with the real, external world.” It is the toughness of the male mind that allows him “to face such unpleasant realties as the absence of a benevolent Providence that guides human affairs.” Women, on the other hand, “view reality as ultimately promising a fulfillment of our infantile desires for love and safety.” Consequently, women possess a need for religion that strong men simply lack.

Podles says that Victorians thought of heaven as a “restoration of the family circle beyond the grave.” He writes:

“Because Christianity reverses natural values, and thinks better of seeming failure and weakness—the cross—than of superficial worldly success, women’s exclusion from public life redounded to their belief” (31). 

In this scenario, religion “is a feminine activity, a matter of exalted sentiment, removed from activity and strife.”

This homeboundness of women made them more suitable for religion. This, in turn, fueled the temperance movement as it sought “to protect women” and their domain “from the vicious pleasures of men.” Consequently, “women took over the leadership of family prayers; men were obviously unsuitable.”

Second, many have argued that women’s possess a spiritual goodness that men somehow lack.

Podles cites Alberione’s Woman: Her Influence and Zeal as representative of the attitudes that “dominated Western Christianity.” It is this attitude which provided “the seeds of feminism that now dominates the church.” 

Alberione claims:

“…[that] woman is more naturally inclined to the practice of holiness.”

“[Woman] is more understanding in things of the heart, she is more spiritual than man. More humble, more tender, and consequently, more religious of man, she is more inclined to prayer, to charity, and to hope. More than man, woman feels the need for pure love; her love, less egoistic, is unselfish and prone to sacrifice.”

This attitude was pervasive within the clergy in the 1800s. It led society to conclude that “women had to be the saviors of men, drawing the errant male sinner back to home and heaven.”

Sarah Hale, a 19th century poet (she wrote Mary Had a Little Lamb), argued that “[man] is naturally selfish in his affections; and selfishness is the sin of depravity. But woman was not thus cast down.” She and others saw “the womanly element predominated” in Jesus. Therefore, Jesus’s “human soul, derived from a woman trained by a woman, was most truly womanly in its characteristics” (33).

Third, many believe that women have a nature receptivity that extends to the spiritual domain. 

Podles explains:

“In the Christian paradox, woman’s feminine passivity is more valuable than masculine activity: ‘The receptive, passive attitude of the feminine principle appears as the decisive, the positive element in the Christian order of grace.’ This receptivity is bridal. Christians must be brides of Christ, and men do not like this role, which could hardly be a greater denial of their masculinity.”

He concludes the chapter with Neitzsche’s claim that masculinity is unchristian. Podles writes: 

“Nietzsche saw a contradiction between the Christian and the masculine. Christianity is a denial of life, and ‘life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation, and at least, at its mildest, exploitation.’ Christianity is religion for slaves, weaklings, the effeminate, ‘a sacrifice of all freedom, pride, all self-confidence of the spirit; at the same time, enslavement and self mockery, self mutilation.’ Christianity denies the will to power, so it cannot be masculine. A man must therefore choose between being masculine and Christian; he cannot be both” (35).

Sadly, many Christians agree with Nietzsche. To be a Christian is to become feminine. Therefore, a feminized church isn’t the problem. “Men must change, not the church.”

Podles says, “Something has happened in Western Christianity that has caused it to react unfavorably to masculinity. But what is masculinity” (36)? That is the subject of chapter 3.

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