A seminary-class grader once wrote this comment on an assignment turned in by the female who would go on to become his school's first female professor: "Your questions are really insightful for a woman."
Recently one of my female seminary students told of feeling she did not matter to God. She described seeing herself as the less-favored one as compared with men. She said she constantly grapples with questions, such as, ‘Does God really love women the way he loves men?’ ‘Does God see women as inferior to men?’ and ‘Why did God allow women to be treated so poorly?’” Some of her questions stem from how she has heard the Bible interpreted. In her world, women who do great things for God are the exception to God’s first-best.
I thought of these interactions when I read recently about Martin Heidegger. Next year marks the fortieth anniversary of the death of this German philosopher, and even after all these years, researchers are still sorting through the nearly one hundred volumes of writings he left. Indeed, he cast a wide net that spans from the west to China, Japan, and the Middle East. But despite his great influence, his view of one group as containing “exceptional” members—parallel to a hermeneutic that does the same with Bible texts about women—gives me pause.
The director of the Martin Heidegger Institute at Germany’s University of Wuppertal has recently put forth a black notebook in which Heidegger wrote his thoughts from the 1930s into the 1970s. And in these private notebooks he penned some overtly anti-Semitic content.
Many have wondered how Heidegger could have held such beliefs while teaching so many Jewish students and having a Jewish mistress. In an article on the subject for Foreign Affairs, author Gregory Fried points to Heidegger’s notion of “the so-called exceptional Jew, an idea that circulated among even the most virulent anti-Semites, including top Nazis. According to this view, in spite of the baleful impact of the Jewish people as a whole, rare Jewish individuals could stand out…. Hitler himself was thought to have lent personal protection to 340 ‘first-rate Jews’ by awarding them German or half-Jewish status. In deeming these Jews exceptions, such practices actually reinforce the general rule by allowing anti-Semites to explain away as anomalies those Jews with whom they felt some personal connection.”
The same logic Heidegger used when speaking of Jews has been used by some biblical scholars to explain away insightful comments by women and to discount the ministries of women prophets in the Bible such as Deborah and Hulduh. According to such experts, Deborah was not God’s first choice—Barak was. And Hulduh, the prophet? God uses a woman only when a good man can’t be found. The message: These women were exceptions.
Replace “Jew” with “woman,” and it’s easier to see the logic behind such conclusions:
“The so-called exceptional [woman], an idea that circulated among even the most virulent [misogynists]… In spite of the baleful impact of [women], as a whole, rare [women] could stand out…. In deeming these [women] exceptions, such practices actually reinforce the general rule by allowing [sexists] to explain away as anomalies those [women] with whom they felt some personal connection.”
Many men and women alike, in an effort to reconcile women’s practices with some of Paul’s hard-to-understand instructions, would have us believe that in God’s ideal world, women never impart God’s truth—and when they do, God is dealing in the realm of anomaly.
Indeed, it’s not just men who think this way. In her book about men and women in the church, Sarah Sumner described a conversation she had with a female leader in China who saw herself as such an “exception.” In explaining away her gifting, this leader went so far as to insist, “God does not view me as a woman.”
In every era in which God used male prophets, we also find at least one female. In Paul's interactions with the church at Corinth, the issue at stake in chapter 11 was not actually whether women could prophesy as a rule, but rather how they should do so. And when Joel’s prophecy (Joel 2:28; cp Acts 2:17) reaches its ultimate fulfillment, we will again see women speaking God’s word as a sign that the Spirit is being poured out. Such women’s prophetic utterance will be something wonderful—not a failure of male leadership, not an exception because a good male can’t be found, and not an anomaly.
The logic of such “exceptions” is unjust. It’s wrong in how we talk about other races; it’s wrong for how we talk about other nationalities; and it’s wrong for how we view any group. People have a long history of using such reasoning to justify prejudice. Let us not be among them.