We cannot reflect on Christian experience without first taking a look at universal human religious experience. This background gives us a clearer vision of the specific qualities of Christian experience.
In any authentic religious experience, Christian and otherwise, people are open to a relationship with the Absolute. They enter a relationship that is different from any other because here a human being is addressing the Divine, ultimate Reality, the First Principle of existence.
We recognise this similarity and are aware that it cannot be underestimated, but we immediately see that this very similarity leads us forward to identify that which is specifically Christian.
Our experience of the Christian faith tells us, and confirmation is given by the entire story of salvation in the Old and New Testaments, that there is no human action at the origin of this experience. It is a completely free initiative on the part of God to call human beings to his presence. God speaks to us and we are drawn to respond.
After we make this distinction, we go on to see that the direction of the relationship that deals with the divine You is totally vertical. However, when it is in the person of Jesus Christ, while the You does not lose transcendence, it also becomes horizontal. It is a relationship with the One who has accepted our human condition totally.
It is precisely the centrality of the relational dimension in Christian experience that makes us realise that this dimension is also very important to the female way of being in the world, in particular in the context of interpersonal relations.
That is why we can feel the profound harmony between Christian experience and a woman’s tendency to relate in a way that is characterised by an ability to listen and readiness to accept.
In this sense it is not rash to declare that Christian experience has features that are originally feminine. This gives rise to a question that demands a definite response: do these features imply that this is a privilege pertaining to women?
The answer is obviously ‘no’. There is a long history of male holiness. Every man who sincerely believes is capable of witnessing to this in his life. We have to go further in order justify our statement.
If we concentrate on spoken expression, we see that the argumentative and assertive style is historically seen to be exclusively masculine. This raises a parallel question to the one above: are women precluded from using this style?
In this case too the answer is ‘no’. Both questions lead to the undeniable possibility that every human being can integrate both male and female aspects, with the prevalence of those attached to their own sex. This does not imply the absence of those attributed to the opposite sex: “In this perspective, that which is called ‘femininity’ is more than simply an attribute of the female sex. The word designates indeed the fundamental human capacity to live for the other and because of the other”. A woman can be totally feminine and yet express herself with argumentative rigour, something that is usually associated with men (and the most recent history of theology demonstrates this). Likewise, a man does not compromise his masculinity when he reaches the maximum of Christian experience which is usually recognised as being female.
Christian experience, moreover, although its realm is in the interior life, is at the same time a community experience of communicated and shared faith. Here the interpersonal relationship between believers of either sex facilitates integration, from each one’s personal perspective, of that which pertains to the other. This does not mean that we tend towards forms of indistinct confusion. Men and women need to be prepared to live their faith with ever greater maturity and wider possession of universally human gifts, no matter whether they are labelled masculine or feminine.