Monday, December 9, 2013

Are Male and Female Brains Wired by God?

Earlier this week, an article titled "Male and Female Brains Really Are Wired Differently" jumped to first place on The Atlantic news site. I was instantly interested, especially since I've tried several times this semester to teach my students exactly the opposite.

Many students start college believing that men and women are in fact wired, or biologically programmed, for certain life pathways. Men, they wrote, were "wired" to be bold, to take charge, to lead. Women were wired to raise the kids. Students always brought up this presumed biological wiring as an established fact, beyond question.

In sharing this, my goal is not to criticize my students. (Why would I criticize them? I love my students, and they're smart!) My quarrel is not with my students. My quarrel is with the common evangelical teaching, which students are picking up on, that men and women are hardwired by God for certain personality traits. However widely accepted this teaching is, it is at best only a partial truth, at worst an affront to human beings and to our Creator God.

Perhaps I, as a single woman without children, am more aware of how the lurking offense in the term, "wired". I am not married. I do not have children, nor do I ever expect to. I was never one of those girls who coos over the new babies at church. Quite the opposite: When I was in my early teens, I volunteered with my mother at a local VBS, and instead of playing dolls or Legos, I cornered the children and read them whatever book I could persuade them to sit still for.

So when evangelicals (or anyone else, really - the leadership / nurturing stereotype is one that Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, addresses) say things like, Women are wired to be nurturing, the statement strikes me as false. I feel like I'm being asked to turn in my "woman card". Don't like kids? our culture asks. Gee, you're not very feminine. Of course, we do the same thing to men. You like kids? we say. Gee, that's so unusual for a man. At Bob Jones University, I started referring to myself as a feminist specifically to indicate that I thought it was okay for a woman to want a job, instead of simply wanting to be married and have children, which was one of the most common career goals among women there. The simple word for all this is, of course, stereotyping: We hold to very limited ideas of what defines a man and a woman, and we pass off these stereotypes as the mandates of a human brain wired by God.

Unfortunately, wiring is neither a scientifically nor a biblically accurate term to apply to the human brain. While the brain does in fact have wires, we are not wired, at least not in the sense of having pre-programmed personality traits and abilities based on our gender. The reality is, thankfully, much more complex.

Scientifically, researchers assure us that even though men's brains are, on average, different than women's brains, these differences are not an infallible guide to our behaviour. The Atlantic article concludes like this:

As Anke Ehrhardt, a psychiatry professor at Columbia University Medical Center cautioned during a recent panel on neuroscience and gender, "Acknowledging brain effects by gender does not mean these are immutable, permanent determinants of behavior, but rather that they may play a part within a multitude of factors and certainly can be shaped by social and environmental influences."

In other words, a computer is wired in that its electrical connections determine precisely, inescapably what it is and is not able to do. We are not wired in that sense. Sure, there is wiring our brains, but that wiring is only one very tiny part of who we are. Secular researchers such as Ehrhardt point out our upbringing and education, by the historical time period in which we live in as influencing our identity. To these influences the Christian adds also free will and the Providence of God. C.S. Lewis suggested that "good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different not only from evil but from other good". Thus, influenced not only by electrical impulses but by our own will and by the hand of God, we do not mature into robots, each identical in our Christlikeness; we become instead wholly individual, each of us a unique, though marred, picture of Christ.

To say that we are wired, then, may sound scientific, and it may sound Christian. Yet truthfully, to call human beings wired is to erase the most important part of the Christian life: the grace that God gives us to walk, of our own free will, with Him.

Some time ago, I stumbled upon the excellent article, "I am Not a Sex-Fueled Robot," by Micah J. Murray. This, probably, was where I first became aware of the deep problems surrounding the word wired applied to Christian believers. Murray, in his post, pushes back against the idea that men are utterly consumed and driven by their sexual desire:
Men and women are not wired by God at all. We are flesh and blood and breath and electricity all bound up together in skin. We are whole human beings fully alive. Wires are for robots.
In light of Murray's analysis, the problem with attributing human behaviour to wiring is that it makes humans into robots, and forgets that we are in fact "whole human beings fully alive" - a beautiful phrase, and one that leaves room for God's transformative grace in our lives. As "whole human beings", we have choices that robots do not have, and we receive grace that robots do not have. My tablet does not get to choose which book I read when I open my Kindle app. My computer does not choose which web pages I visit. No, I, a whole human being, make those choices.

Thus, when we are talking about what it means for men and women to live Christlike lives, we must not say they are wired for particular behaviours: We choose, or we do not choose, to walk with Christ. We chose, or we do not choose, to demonstrate love, and joy, and kindness in our lives, and the other fruits of the Spirit. Kindness is not something programmed into women, nor is courage something programmed into men. These are virtues that all human beings are meant to develop, individually, as they become more and more like Christ. To that end God does not rig our brains so that we demonstrate then automatically.

More important still, my computer cannot receive grace. My own laptop is in the process of dying. It's left hinge has come undone, and a fan frequently whirs in the background. When my computer dies, I will not extend it "grace". I will simply get in a new one. In fact, when my computer makes more ordinary errors, I do not extend it grace. I reboot it. For an inanimate object there can be no forgiveness, but we are "whole human beings" and not inanimate objects, and so for us there is forgiveness.

You may be thinking, "Wait - we're not wired? But I thought men and women were made different by God." Truthfully, the evangelical church tend to exaggerate these differences somewhat. As a friend and I recently discussed, the virtues usually assigned to men (say, courage) are valuable for women, and those assigned to women (say, gentleness) must also be practiced by men. It is difficult to think of a characteristic that women, or men, should have which the opposite sex would not also benefit by developing. Mostly, we are not to be "women" or "men" but Christlike individuals, by God's grace choosing to walk with Him. Yet whether men and women are different is not, ultimately, the point. If there are in fact differences, they are not "wired" into us but something for us to develop individually, as God has created us and as He gives grace.

Let's retire the word wired, which does injustice to the individuals God has created us to be. As Murray points out, we are not robots. We are more than electrical connections in our brain, part of a body that will one day die. Let's talk instead about the choices that we make, about a willing heart that loves Christ and wants to follow hard after Him. And most importantly of all, let's own up to the times that we choose wrong, and talk about the grace of God for every mistake that we, fallen but whole and living human beings, make.

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