When 150 students, faculty, and staff members from Calvin Theological Seminary gathered in December for a panel discussion on issues of gender bias, one might have expected a room electric with nervous energy.
As one panelist stated, “We will have failed if we’re not all a little uncomfortable by the time we finish today.”
Yet the conversation was charitable and respectful, a tone set by panelists Claudia Beversluis, provost of Calvin College; Shirley Hoogstra, vice president for student life at Calvin; and Rev. Jack Roeda, senior pastor at Church of the Servant Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.
Professor Ron Nydam, facilitator, made it clear that the meeting’s purpose was not to debate issues of biblical interpretation regarding women’s roles in the church, but to shed light on invisible ways in which men often are favored and women disfavored in church life.
Beversluis said people don’t intend to be mean or biased, but they often operate out of unconscious interpretative frameworks. She playfully asked listeners to identify their “most professorial professor,” and pointed out how qualities that work positively for a male often work against a female.
A male professor who is absentminded may be seen as thoughtful, Beversluis said, while a female may be seen as scatterbrained. In the same way, a male professor who is grumpy may be seen as demanding excellence, while a female is labeled a crab, or worse.
Hoogstra applied the image of “an invisible knapsack” that is often used to describe white privilege to the situation of males who “carry around an invisible package of unearned assets—connections, maps, keys, code books, passports, and blank checks—that they can cash in each day.”
Applied to life at the seminary, male students can assume that no one will question their call to ministry, that they will receive a call to a church, and that they don’t have to worry about what their failure in a particular area will say about all males.
In the spirit of Advent, Rev. Roeda spoke of repentance as the proper posture for welcoming Christ. “But in order to repent,” he said, “we first have to see what has to be changed.” He pointed to Reinhold Niebuhr’s conception of love as a “profound unwillingness to violate the other’s integrity . . . to bless the other person, to make the other person fully alive.”
Whatever else theological education aims to be and do, he said, it should provide an ethos and impetus to increase this kind of love for God and neighbor.