Saturday, 6 June 2015

Is Providence Gendered?

In Providence Made Flesh, my international bestselling blockbuster on the doctrine of providence, I wrote this:

The role of Jesus in God’s providence points to a crucial question, perhaps the most crucial question that any theology of providence needs to address: What does it mean to say that it is a particular human being, indeed, a particular man, who exercises God’s sovereign providence over the whole of creation?

Terry J. Wright, Providence Made Flesh: Divine Presence as a Framework for a Theology of Providence. Paternoster Theological Monographs (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009), p. 232, italics original

Six years on, I still regard this as an important question, even if I cannot truthfully say it’s ‘the most crucial’ one any more. Occasionally, I think about crafting a response to the question, but, like with so many other planned projects, I’m just not getting around to it. I did think about it again at this year’s meeting of the Society for the Study of Theology, and had some provisional ideas for an essay, but I’m finding it difficult to motivate myself to do some proper research on anything at the moment beyond reading books for review. (Blame Facebook; blame Netflix; blame anything that isn’t actually me.) But this week, with all the fuss about gendered language in the Church of England’s liturgy, and with Steve Holmes’s excellently thought-provoking blog post on ‘God, gender, and transsexuality’, the topics of the man Jesus and the doctrine of providence have been thrust once more into the forefront of my mind. And so I ask: Is providence gendered?

God is not male; God is not female; God is beyond sex and beyond gender. But Jesus, even the resurrected Jesus, is a man and presumably cisgendered. (You’ll forgive me for using terminology incorrectly, if indeed I’m doing so. Gender Studies isn’t exactly my area of expertise.) So it is a man who exercises providential sovereignty over all things. But what does this mean in practice?

Georgia Harkness
At the risk of exposing my ignorance and playing into gender stereotypes, a man seeks to exert his authority over his sphere of influence by attempting to control it. To a certain extent, I suppose everyone needs to control his or her own world in order to maintain even a semblance of integrity; but, for a man, the temptation to control his environment by imposing his authority is often irresistible. It’s the classic zero-sum scenario: for me to become great, others must become less. Is this why so many accounts of providence struggle to avoid repeated charges of denying genuine integrity to the created order? Is there a link between God, mono/pancausal doctrines of providence, and male-oriented conceptions of sovereignty? And does this account for why so few women seem to write about the doctrine of providence (from memory, the only book-length treatment I can think of written by a woman is Georgia Harkness’s The Providence of God – which I’ve not actually read, despite it being on one of my bookshelves). I’m guessing, perhaps wrongly, that a treatment of providence written by a woman would differ quite significantly from one written by a man.

One way to deal with the matter is to bring ecclesiology into the providential mix – again, something I’m keen to do and hinted at in Providence Made Flesh. The resurrected Jesus may well be a man who exercises providential authority from the right hand of the Father; but the idea that God acts in the world through the Spirit-enabled actions and presence of the Church, which, in some way, is the body of Jesus, suggests that providence is definitely gendered but with every possible gender.


  1. Great questions to which I currently have no intelligent answers! :)

    I'm not totally convinced that *all* men 'seek to exert [their] authority over [their] sphere of influence by attempting to control it.' I do see it as a temptation, but I'm not sure it's true for all or that it doesn't apply to women either.

    Essentially, I'm not at all clear what maleness/masculinity and femaleness/femininity really mean or how they can be defined meaningfully in ways other than the strictly biological and anatomical. And I'm not sure that Providence's possession or not of a penis makes a great deal of difference spiritually/theologically... but maybe it does!

    1. It is a gross oversimplification or a gender stereotype (I hope this was implied) to say all men seek to exert authority, in much as it would be to say that all women are submissive and free to let others/men take control.

      But I think the relation between gender and providence is worth discussing, if only because the latter doctrine does appear to posit a man in charge and, historically, women have been oppressed in various ways by men.

    2. Definitely worth discussing! My own belief would be that a gendered providence wouldn't necessarily require men to be in charge, but I'd need to think a bit before I could justify that in anything more than an emotional way...

    3. Well, that's the thing: a gendered providence arises because a man is in charge - with all the baggage that surely entails for many.