Ways of Knowing God: Gender and the Brain

by James B. Ashbrook

James B. Ashbrook is professor of religion and personality at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 4-11, 1989. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


How does gender affect the ways we perceive the world and come to know God? What are the implications of brain research for religious experience?

Neuroscience research has established that the two hemispheres in the brain make different contributions to what we know and how we act, although complex activity requires the entire brain. Left-half cognition involves formal logic; it uses language to interpret what it observes in consistent ways. The left hemisphere’s analytic processing -- item by item, step by step -- conveys the appearance of an objective reality.

In contrast, right-half cognition works according to a situational logic. Its information combines bodily perception and active imagination. It creates patterns or mosaics of meaning by a leap of imagination. The left brain specializes in an explanatory way of knowing, the right in an experiential way. Each is necessary; neither is sufficient by itself.

While these generalizations apply to male and female brains alike, brains may also vary according to gender. "Essentialist" gender theory maintains that men and women are essentially different, and that these differences are related to the brain much more than to culture. Because girls’ capacity for language (located primarily in the left brain) matures earlier than boys’, they rely more on verbal skills in solving problems, including nonverbal problems such as spatial tasks. In boys, however, the right hemisphere, which specializes in spatial-perceptual processes, matures earlier than it does in girls. Boys rely more on physical movement and spatial perception in engaging the world than on language skills.

The earlier development of the left hemisphere in girls enables both hemispheres to handle information in similar ways. The left brain processes nonverbal information as well as verbal; the right brain uses verbal strategies as well as nonverbal strategies. There is less division of labor, less specialization between the contribution of each half.

People with greater symmetry -- usually but not always female -- are more dependent on the situation in which they find themselves and more sensitive to the context, especially its interpersonal nuances. These individuals respond to subtle experiential clues which interfere with the process of abstraction. Perhaps that explains, in part, why a right-brain quality like intuition is more prevalent in women than men. Their interpretive capacity more easily senses and voices what is appernng with both hemispheres. Information is more integrated than discrete. At the same time, a more equal distribution of functions creates a liability: the person is less able to hone in on a few details which are relevant to a pattern.

Those children (usually male) who start talking at a later age show an extreme separation between their verbal skills and their nonverbal abilities. Instead of each hemisphere being a generalist, as is true of early maturers, each hemisphere specializes either in an analytic or integrative strategy. The right half handles perceptual information, the left conceptual information. In a male-dominated society, the male role is reinforced by the time of puberty.

The late-maturing male, growing into the male-dominant social world, can succeed or conquer with his narrowed left-brain view of the world. He is in the right place at the right time. Regardless of the fact that he may be working with a specialized half brain, the world is his and he made it.

The problem, then, is the woman’s. How can she be female (using her more generalized processing pattern) and still function in a social world shaped by a male-related way of specialized processing? Some females learn to adapt their processing skills accordingly. (On the other hand, men today may feel a demand to change their particular style of processing to include women’s distinctive participatory style.)

Men and women also, of course, share perceptions of the world -- here is a street; this is a Bible; there are the stars. Both sexes adjust to cognitive differences, and with age, women and men become more androgynous. But because the brains of women and men may differ in the basic features I have described, they often construct different worlds and have different understandings of God.

For example, many men have minimized the importance of "women’s intuition." They claim that an experiential approach to knowledge easily falls into subjective bias. In contrast, feminist thinkers tend to view with suspicion anything which claims objectivity. They value personal experience as an important source of knowledge, and believe we distort what we know when we don’t acknowledge our personal experience and histories.

This clash reflects different perceptions of what "experience" is. Perceptual origins also affect knowledge. In the physical and human sciences, according to Evelyn Fox Keller, a professor of mathematics and humanities, knowledge has come from "distinctive and often perverse masculine understandings of only masculine social experience."

Keller claims that "processes which involve a blurring of the boundary between subject and object" have come to be associated with the feminine, and the posture of "objectification" associated with the masculine. Thus, "truth itself has become genderized." As a system of beliefs, science has also acquired a gender, affirming the masculine value of objectivity, rather than a more broadly human value like participation.

In a similar way, Western Christian theology has acquired a gender. Theology often expresses what Rosemary Radford Ruether calls masculine values, like the concept of a sinful world, rather than the goodness of creation. The "masculine" typically sets up differences, while the "feminine" emphasizes connections. Women’s brains are predisposed to perceive life -- and God -- according to a pattern of connection and ordinariness, while men perceive life -- and God -- according to a pattern of polarities and otherness.

I. David Pierce, in his doctoral dissertation on cognition and theology, found that a sample of theologically liberal women were less inclined to use polar dimensions -- such as "human effort" versus "divine power" or "instrumental" versus "relational’ ‘ -- than either a sample of men or a sample of theologically moderate or conservative women. The theologically conservative women may have been socialized into the dominant male-oriented culture. The data support the feminist criticism of a masculinized science and a masculinized theology. Polar contrasts -- such as human effort versus God’s acting, "doing" versus "being," a redeeming God versus a creating God -- do not necessarily reflect "women’s ways of knowing" God.

Women’s experience seemed to be one of "continuity" with their social and biological realities. In their quest for God, they became what they already symbolized, "the fleshly, the nurturing, the suffering, the human." Instead of inverting what they were (most likely they didn’t have that choice) , they deepened what they were. Their symbols disclose less contradiction and more "synthesis and paradox."

Women gave the concept of "human" a meaning beyond the dichotomy of male and female. Because of their sense of continuity with life, a concept of "other" played little part. They drew on symbolic aspects of life closer to their ordinary experience -- eating, lactating, suffering.

Women appropriated the dominant view of the cosmos in a way different from men, and with different implications for both. Because men were high and lifted up, they needed to be brought low, "to renounce their dominance." Women, however, deepened their ordinary experience "when God impinged upon it." Their bodies not only served as "a symbol of the humanness of both genders but also a symbol of -- and a means of approach to -- the humanity of God."

A similar contrast in religiosity is evident today. Women’s experience of God tends to deepen their own humanity, making the everyday sacred, while many men experience a longing to overcome their humanity. An awareness of these differences can enrich "our understanding of both symbol and humanity," of both God and creation.

Brain research shows the brains of men and women are organized differently, and these gender-related but not always gender-specific differences could be construed as suggesting new stereotypes, another "dichotomy." That is not my intent. Neither sex alone bears "the image and likeness of God," only the species does (Gen. 1:26-27) Godlike "knowing" takes into account the experiences of both women and men.

In studying the subtleties of male and female differences, future brain researchers may eventually assist us in creating a model of behavior we can call fully "human" and truly "godlike" -- the male personality balancing the female in his being and the female balancing the male in her being -- one image, of equal parts, representing one humanity.