Regular readers of BCC will have noticed that posts expressing women’s discomfort or anger produce intense comment threads. Almost invariably, a male commenter comes along and attempts to engage with the ideas that he sees operating in the post, only to find himself accused of not listening. Frequently, these male commenters respond by suggesting that women don’t want discussion, but simply want their feelings affirmed. Many threads have led to this impasse—to a “conversation about the conversation” instead of whatever the original post happened to be about.
As a man, I’ve struggled to know how to respond to these threads. Knowing the women of BCC has been the most morally transformative experience of my recent life, and I feel urgently the need to honor their perspectives, for which I am deeply grateful. And yet I’ve had a hard time knowing what to say beyond “thanks.” That’s important, to be sure, but as a form of engagement it’s rather inert. At other times, I’ve tried to engage by calling out mansplaining, by, you know, mansplaining to mansplainers about how mansplaining works, and these efforts have been neither helpful nor productive. I’ve even been modded!
I’ve come to believe that both of these responses—the bare thanks and the aggressive calling out—resulted from a lack of empathy on my part. I’d listened enough to know what mansplaining was, and I valued listening enough to believe that my BCC sisters’ voices were worth hearing, but I hadn’t yet learned how listening and empathy really work. No doubt I still have quite a bit to learn, but in this post I’d like to share some of what I’ve figured out this past while.
Recently I’ve found myself reading books on pastoral care. (See this recent post, for instance.) One of them, Carrie Doehring’s Taking Care: Monitoring Power Dynamics and Relational Boundaries in Pastoral Care & Counseling, usefully changed how I think about the relationship between empathy and listening. As the subtitle suggests, Doehring believes that both empathy and listening require attention to the power dynamics that inform relationships. Speaking as a man in a Mormon context can carry authority that’s simply inaccessible for women. In my own case, I’m a high priest who’s served in a bishopric. Few if any Mormon women have the opportunity to be as visibly or vocally prominent as I already have been. Male voices predominate in our General Conference meetings: even the women’s meeting is 25% male, and he gets the keynote spot. Whether I rail against these facts or accept them as the proper order of things, they inflect the way that my voice carries in conversations with women, and especially in conversations about women. I’d wager that men have given more General Conference talks about women than women have! (Yes, I’m dropping a hint for Ziff from ZD to do the analysis.)
It’s possible, then, that within Mormonism men have more authority to speak about women’s issues than women do. So, here’s where the need to listen comes in. In this case, listening includes refraining from imposing theological interpretations on women’s speech. It’s not that the theological categories are irrelevant, but that their application needs to come from the speakers themselves. In a later book, Doehring recommends that people in positions of power favor inductive approaches that help others find theological meaning in their own experiences over deductive approaches that make sense of experiences in terms of a given set of doctrinal axioms. Mansplaining tends to operate in this deductive mode, even though there’s nothing inherently less rational about the inductive approach. Women, and especially the women of BCC, know what the doctrinal categories are, but they haven’t been given much cultural opportunity to participate in defining them in their axiomatic forms (such as they are, given Mormonism’s atheological bent). It’s not that the concept of Atonement, say, is therefore irrelevant to women, but rather that the concept of Atonement as usually circulated in Mormonism may not yet be adequate to certain aspects of women’s experience, even though the Atonement itself obviously is. That theological work only happens when women do it, and for that to happen, they need space to do the work.
And here’s where empathy comes in. It’s simply not my place, as a man, to work out a theology of miscarriage (for instance). (I should admit here that I only realize that such a thing is necessary by the grace of BCC’s women.) This isn’t because miscarriage can’t have an impact on me—it can—but rather because I can’t directly experience it. I can never really know the feeling of losing a pregnancy. I can guess at the emotional toll, but the particular physical pang of it remains beyond my ken. But I cannot therefore dismiss such a theology as irrelevant to me. As Paul writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor. 12:21, NRSV). The theology is relevant for the simple reason that I have women in my life, and they matter to me. My human experience is incomplete and impoverished without theirs. A father’s feelings about the loss of a pregnancy absolutely count, but they can’t substitute for a woman’s. A theology of miscarriage needs both perspectives, which means that both parties need room to do the necessary theological work.
The real question here, though, is how exactly the relevance works. Here’s my best Doehring-inflected attempt at articulating that. Empathy turns out to be a matter of maintaining a proper distance from its object. Too little distance (which Doehring calls merger) risks a loss of personal identity in the experience of the other. If, after doing the work of listening to women reflect theologically about the experience of miscarriage, I presumed to speak as though I knew what that was like, I would be forgetting my own maleness and, in the process, committing a kind of ethical violence by displacing the voices of those to whom the experience belongs. Too much distance, by contrast, risks disengagement, a callousness that in extreme forms manifests as sociopathy. That is, I can’t relegate miscarriage to the category of “women’s issues” and then treat that category as a useful repository for things I can safely disregard as irrelevant to me.
In other words, although men and women experience the loss of pregnancy (to continue with the example) in different and incommensurate ways that thus require relatively distinct theological work, the body of Christ ideal calls us to see past those distinctions without obliterating them. We need to enter into each other’s theological spaces, but as guests. When women post here about matters of concern to them, I believe that men should see that as an act of hospitality. We have been invited into a sacred space, and we should respect its sanctity. The first rule of hospitality is never to refuse anything your host offers you. As many missionaries know, that sometimes requires eating strange foods and finding a way to be polite about it. Here, it means taking in the perspective on offer and sitting with it. You might do the equivalent of saying, “Tell me more about this food. I hadn’t tried anything like that before.” Hosts are typically trying to show guests the best they have to offer, and good guests can facilitate that. Saying, “Well, at my house we do it this way” is usually both unhelpful and offensive, unless the host has asked for such advice.
Empathy, then, means learning how to be a good guest and a good host, and knowing which set of skills to apply in a given moment. The church’s structure means that men are more often cast in the role of host. At this point the paradigm becomes problematic, because women shouldn’t have to be guests in their own church. Or perhaps we need to realize that we’re all guests. Correcting the situation requires that we acknowledge spaces in which women host the theological conversation—and not just about “women’s issues.” God’s house has many mansions, and we should recognize all of our houses as part of that whole. If the Atonement is the heart of our theology, surely we all benefit from learning about the myriad ways in which it can produce what Doehring calls “liberative integration,” the state of our being made free to participate fully in our communities. Anyone who values such freedom should work to make it available to everyone.
Empathy, the process of learning to inhabit the tension between personal identity and other-centeredness, is the key to that freedom. It requires the combination of self-assertion and self-effacement that usually goes by the name of “meekness.” It means a willingness to sit as a guest in uncomfortable places, because there’s no other way to learn how to love the people who live there. It means never forgetting that you’re a guest, even after you’ve gotten more comfortable. It means learning to find ways to create a sense of home for people who may feel that they’re only guests at Church. As Paul put it, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, NRSV). That doesn’t mean that those differences disappear “in Christ,” but rather that we’ve learned to share our common messianic home, where we can all be completely ourselves as welcome guests in each other’s lives.