In Which We All Run Screaming into the Sea…

Can we bear one more article on same-sex marriage without running screaming into the sea? I cannot. So let’s not talk about it. Instead, let me ask a question I’ve been asking for five years now. I am still trying to work through a coherent answer, but have moved from assuming there must be one to wondering whether a coherent and fully developed answer is even possible. That question is the following: what is the theological purpose of human sexual differentiation? What, that is, do we think/know/assume to have been God’s purpose in creating us male and female? In other words, why does God create us male and female? Is there a purpose to that differentiation, and if so, what is it? Can we know what it is, and if we can know it, can we draw conclusions from that purpose governing our behavior? (Pace Hume, I’m inclined to think that in some cases at least you can draw an ought from an is.) E.g., if we assume that God had a purpose in mind, can we derive from that purpose, say, a prohibition on sex-reassignment surgery?

Forgive me for sounding like a pedant, but as I always have to tell my students: consider carefully what the question is asking and not asking. As I’ve been thinking about this question, and trying, and then failing, to write a book about it (though I’m still hoping to salvage an article and publish it later this year), here are some dead-ends I will not go down again because I think they are unprofitable or just plain wrong:

  • God is some great “complementarian” who somehow matches up male and female bodies as well as personalities, psyches, temperaments, etc. This, it seems to me, was the great weakness of the much overblown “theology of the body” of the late John Paul II (and many other Christians I’ve read–Orthodox, evangelical, and Catholic) which, frankly, I’ve largely considered a weird mixture of cultural nostalgia and philosophical romanticism but theologically vacuous.
  • Sex and gender are the same thing. Here I would agree with much of feminist thought that sex and gender are not in fact the same thing, and that the former may be biologically determined in significant measure while the latter is much more culturally conditioned. Thus even if I conclude that God has a purpose in creating us male and female, I find it very hard to believe that such divine teleology goes so far as to assign cultural roles too. In other words, God may have a purpose to our being male and female, but He likely doesn’t care that a man is a stay-at-home dad while his wife is a cut-throat CEO.
  • Male and female are the same as masculine and feminine: From my second point this follows closely. I generally subscribe to the belief that notions of “masculinity” and “femininity” are largely culturally determined and not theologically significant or even very interesting. In other words, I don’t think God cares two hoots if I join a crochet club while my wife joins the Marines. I am not, in other words, an “essentialist.”
  • Sexual differentiation means nothing theologically: Some would have us believe that God creating the human person as male and female means nothing–that it is no more theologically significant or even interesting than the fact that some of us are Chinese, black, or Polish; that some have red hair or black; that some eyes are blue and others hazel. I don’t buy this argument at all, and find it very trivializing. Eye color and race do not merit discussion in Genesis: sexual differentiation does. However you interpret that text, it’s not nothing.
  • Sexual differentiation means nothing eschatologically: Some Orthodox theologians (e.g., Valerie Karras), ostensibly basing themselves on a difficult and controverted text of St. Gregory of Nyssa, seem (if I understand them correctly) to argue that sexual differentiation is given to us now as a post-lapsarian concession purely for reproduction, but in the eschaton all this will disappear or at least be irrelevant, and that therefore it can hardly be said to have great relevance or meaning now. (Through this dodge one is able to smuggle in approval for both same-sex relations as well as the priestly ordination of women.) Having read Nyssa, I think his ambiguous text is made to bear too much weight here. Moreover, I’m not concerned with trying to peer into the eschaton and then retroject meaning from that back into our temporal existence here and now. The plain fact is we are sexually differentiated now. Why?
  • Procreation: I’m not convinced that procreation is the sole reason, though I think it is one of the significant reasons, and any theology of sexual differentiation cannot overlook it–nor rest its case entirely on it.

So, to return to my question: why does God create the human person male and female?

Let me tell you where I’m at with this question in my own on-going reflection: I think that there must be some purpose to it, that sexual differentiation is not irrelevant, and that a coherent theology of sexual differentiation will be useful in shoring up traditional teaching on marriage as well as the restriction of presbyteral ordination to men. My hunch–a very inchoate hunch at this point–is that the theological meaning of differentiation must lie in Trinitarian theology in which there is difference that does not destroy lived in unity that does not consume. But how to, well, “flesh” this out?

24 thoughts on “In Which We All Run Screaming into the Sea…

  1. Adam, all very good discussion points. You may want to add to your bucket of things to ponder, however, that God also created hermaphrodytes. The fact that they are not mentioned in Genesis to me has about as much value as the fact that dinosaurs are not mentioned there (well, perhaps not quite as much, but you catch my drift). There are also other types of gender deviations from strictly male/female that are better known to specialists. I think that any theological discussion on matters of gender needs to take this into account rather than, as is often the proclivity in certain circles, write these facts off as statistical errors.

  2. Adam, as I was reading I started thinking, as you touched on in the end, that it has to do with God’s nature as Trinity-the relationship between Beings who are the same yet different (or distinct, I should say). If we reproduced asexually, even if we did it several times in our lives, I wonder if we wouldn’t focus all our altruism, love, honor, what have you, on our own genetic line (let’s say, “Clan”, including our parent and our offspring, but also the other offspring and descendants of our parent) and other Clans would just be Others. Like tribes whose name for themselves translates as The People, implying that other others aren’t people. Would we even be able to relate to Jesus if he came from a different genetic line? Just a thought.

    Inga, I can almost guarantee you that the other genders would/will be explained as a consequence of the Fall and a reflection of how all Creation is out of true because of it. That’s how homosexuality has been explained to me.

    • Well, I’m gonna throw myself out there as being in that last comment. I, too, would say “because of the fall” for the physical condition but I think we need to also be VERY careful not to reduce anyone with a gender mutation to that mutation. How crass. A person is a person. So, a physical condition can be a result of the fall but we also need not to sin by reducing someone to what they’re born with. It would be like reducing someone born with one arm to “one armedness” whatever that would be. That’s how I’ve tended to hold things in tension.

      • Father Oliver, I hear you, but I think this is a more complex question than the way we see it through the lens of JudeoChristian culture. As you must well know (especially considering your geographical location), other cultures have a concept of three genders, and in general (without getting into too much detail here, especially as I am not by any means a cultural anthropologists), there are other ideas about gender in the world than the duality we are accustomed to in our tradition.

        As for homosexuality being post-lapsarian, as Jeff suggests above, this view also seems to be challenged lately. However, I agree with Adam’s general thrust in his essay: it is impossible to wrestle with these issues without first parsing through the theological basics of our anthropology.

        • Igna,

          Gender is a fairly recent and western conception. Saying other cultures have different gender taxonomies is a way that this recent western classification is applied to them, but I doubt those cultures have such a concept.

          Even if they did, it is irrelevant, since there is no legitimate inference from the fact that such and so culture has a concept, to the conclusion that the concept is true, let alone normative.

          If we are not to look at the matter thru a Judeo-Christian lens, what reasons do you offer than we should presuppose the truth of a non-Christian one? Your proposal here seems to presuppose the falsity of Christianity which seems to preclude your position from discussion in this context.

          Whether such a view is challenged says nothing as to cogency of the challenge. Lots of views are challenged, that does not imply that the challenge is rational.

          And I’ve known Fr. Herbal for a while, in grad school no less. And while we do not always agree, I think it is safe to say that he has the theological basics” regarding anthropology down.

          • Perry, a statement like this – “Your proposal here seems to presuppose the falsity of Christianity which seems to preclude your position from discussion in this context.” – serves only to shut down discussion, not to further it. Thank you for illustrating the point of my own article elsewhere on this blog.

        • Inga
          I agree work on anthropology has to done and I’m not going to claim we cannot learn anything from other cultures but I would say we first need careful work in patristics and then branch out to other cultural perspectives. Personally I give science more weight than anthropology.

          • I think we should give serious attention to how much our theology is influenced by culture and science. Maria alludes below to what we now know to be a completely different concept of gender in patristic times, when a woman was indeed considered an underformed human. (More on this, for example, in the recent paper by Bea Dunlop on St. Macrina given a conference at Holy Cross Seminary.) So the “duality” of gender as we discuss it today is actually not coming “straight out of our Tradition” as fundamentalists would like us to believe. Which makes the subject both considerably more complicated and more fascinating.

            As for Christian anthropology, it is formed around the person of Christ, of God Incarnate, n’est-ce pas? If my translation of Fr. Schmemann’s series of Russian talks ever sees the light of day, I discuss that subject in the introduction. There is both tension and synthesis between scientific approach to anthropology and – for lack of better word – spiritual one, and it is the synthetic aspect that I think should be at the core of Christian approach. That would indeed be in the spirit of patristic tradition.

      • Fr. Oliver,

        Completely agree with your point about not defining people by their physical disabilities. People with disabilities are not defined by their disabilities.

        In the same vein, it is unhelpful to define ourselves by our sexual temptations. For this reason it is my belief that the terms homosexual and heterosexual should not be used to define people. The term man defines something essential about me. However to refer to me as “the straight man” is to assume that my sexual desires define me.

        As a single man any sexual action outside of marriage is a sinful act. Instead of defining me based on my relationship to another with terms like “husband, father, uncle, or grandpa” (all of which are only potentially relate to me) these terms only look to my sexual desires and are introverted. In the same way it would be appropriate to refer to me as “the single man” because it accurately shows me as not being in a marital relationship with a woman.

        • I agree that sexual activity outside of marriage should be taken to confession. I also agree that first and foremost we are human and should be defined that way. That said I do think we would be naive to ignore how important gender and sexual difference has been for us people and I think a case could be made that defining according to orientation started with pejorative a like “fag.”

  3. I am continually struck by the one reason, intent if you will, given by God: that it was not good for Adam to be alone. Who has done work in this area that, initially at least, is not gender specific. It’s revealing that — of course — the companion should be a woman for procreation precisely because Adam was alone. But certainly after thousands of generations, men and women were not only not alone but were enjoying the company of the Incarnate One. Even in the desert we realize we are not alone but enjoy the company of God in our midst even where two or three are gathered. Gender difference might answer how Adam’s “aloneness problem” should be solved, but as a gay man in the 21st Century it doesn’t answer how my “aloneness problem” resolves. Has anyone done significant commentary on this? I know the ancient rabbis were very clear mudrashicly how the angels were quite put out by the Creation of humans and were not in the mood to keep Adam company. Those stories are fun to read but they point out how Adam’s singularity –and not his gender/procreativity — was the First Divine Concern. Anyone?

  4. “We are awash in evil and the battle is still to be waged. We are right now in the most discouraging period of that long conflict. Humanly speaking, we can say we have lost all those battles.”
    ~Dr. James Dobson, 2009 farewell speech upon retiring as president of Focus on the Family

    Two of those battles are against the abortion industry and militant homosexuality and now gay “marriage”. The right to life movement has just marked 40 years since Roe Vs. Wade and 60 million legal abortions. Millions of evangelicals, Catholics, and other pro-moral Americans have spent time, money, picketing, demonstrating, educating, being jailed, and otherwise sacrificing for the unborn, all to no avail. There is nothing to indicate any type of major victory in the foreseeable future. Locally, at the Red River Women’s Clinic in downtown Fargo, Right-to Lifers are marking an annual “40 Days for Life” campaign with a day and night vigil in an ongoing attempt to drawn attention to the pro-life cause. Echoing Dr. Dobson’s 2009 sentiments one activist call the results “disheartening”, stating “I thought it would have been gone by now”, In reference to the Roe v. Wade decision. Likewise, the gay rights movement, which marked its beginning in 1969, has achieved one victory after another with Minnesota being one of the latest state capitulate, making 18 states to legalize gay “marriage”. And now the Supreme Court has ruled for the federal government and according to Romans 1:32, has pronounced a death sentence on America. What was once called perversion, we now call “marriage”. We are in uncharted moral decadence with this one. Never before in history has homosexual relationships been termed “holy matrimony”, even being sanctioned by some churches. Moreover, we have knowingly reelected a president that openly supports this perverted arrangement.

    How did this happen? If Christ has taken all authority on earth and has delegated that authority to His Church (Matthew 28:18-20) then it is Christians that should set the moral climate for their civilization. How have we failed so miserably? Why have we lost these battles . . . or should I say battle? Homosexuality and abortion are very much same issue. That is the confusion in and rejection of biblical roles for men and women. Think about it. Abortion is the ultimate rejection of a women’s role of being a helpmeet to her husband by bearing and nurturing his children. Homosexuality is the ultimate confusion in sexual orientation, men relating to men and women to women romantically and sexually. Where and how has the church failed in showing the world the way, the truth, and the life?

    Some of the clearest mandates in the New Testament concerning roles are for male headship and female subordination, in the home, the church, and the church being a pattern for society:

    “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.”(Ephesians 5:22-24)
    “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.” (I Corinthians 14:34, this is in reference to women raising doctrinal issues in the assembly of the church)
    “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have authority over the man, but to be in silence.

    For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” (I Timothy 2:11-14)

    Christians are too embarrassed to declare these principles, teach them in our churches and practice them in our homes. If the truth cannot be proclaimed in church among believers what hope is there for the world? We see the results every day in the abortion mills, gay pride, parades, and gay “marriage”. Also, over 100 young women have come home in body bags from Iraq and Afghanistan. Now the Pentagon has declared female soldiers eligible for frontline combat duty. It begins with gender confusion in headship and subordination.

    Why should this be so difficult and offensive? We find headship and subordination in the Trinity. The Son does the will of the Father: “For I came down from heaven, not to do Mine own will, but the will of Him that sent Me.” (John 6:38). The idea here is that if being the subordinate member was good enough for Jesus it should be good enough for Christian women.

    Is this just a trivial matter? Hardly, this is as foundational as any principle in the scriptures, going all the way back to Eden and the fall of man: “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife” (Genesis 3:17) God charged Adam. The headship/subordination relationship with the “first Adam” got turned around and mankind was lost. The headship/subordination relationship with the “Second Adam”, the Lord Jesus Christ, stayed in its proper order, and mankind was redeemed.

    In the New Testament the apostle Paul could not have made it clearer: “Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored.” (Titus 2:3-5). Want to know why Christ, His Church, and His Word are being mocked and laughed at? There you have it.

    Is this why the right to life and traditional marriage efforts have failed? As terrible as abortion and rampant homosexuality are, they are only symptoms, symptoms of gender confusion. As long as Christians battle for symptoms and ignore real underlying issues, the battle will continue to be lost.

    Why gender differentiation? I don’t know. But I do know it is important, foundational.

  5. Adam,

    I agree that we need a coherent theology of differentiation, though I am concerned that you seem to imply that its purpose may be to shore “up traditional teaching on marriage as well as the restriction of presbyteral ordination to men.” This is precisely the motivation behind the rather extreme versions of sexual-differentiation-which-obviously-points-to-male-headship which have been adopted by Orthodox theologians in recent years, such as Hopko, Wesche or Farley. So concerned are they to substantiate a practice they articulate a theology of female submission that sounds more like evangelical protestantism than Orthodoxy.

    You are correct that Genesis 1-3 mentions sexual differentiation, but Gen 1-11 (of which 1-3 is meant to be a contiguous part in the interpretation of the redactors) moves right into issues of nation (as in ‘a people’) and wealth/class/status. That sex is a fundamental difference that shapes who we are seems obvious, but it is not the only one of concern in scripture. Galatians 3:28 underscores that difference is more than sex.

    I spent a great deal of time thinking about sex and gender in light of difference, in part because I am unwilling to dismiss the ways I engage the world in and through a female body as simply post-lapsarian (I don’t agree with Karras here, though I think it is important to point out that visions of the eschaton significantly shape our liturgical theology). This isn’t because I think my body is somehow eschatologically significant as female, but because who I am as a person is shaped by my body, my gender, my resistance to assumptions about my gender and its “appropriate expression,” etc. These formative experience shape how I love, who I love, and how I receive love. They enable me to love some better than others, and likely love some in ways that others cannot. It is my difference, my otherness, my uniqueness that comes together to make me, a person. I think Trinitarian relationality says something, namely that to be a person is to be oriented towards another, it is ‘ekstatic relationship’ that makes us persons. Sex is a part of this, but it is not all of this.

    I am also un-willing to dismiss the various ‘trans-’ sexes or same-sex orientations as results of the fall. Scientists, such as the Orthodox Gayle Woloschak, point out that same-sex orientations appear to be a ‘normal deviation on normal,’ which is science speak for saying they are on the spectrum of normal. To assume such bodies and orientations/preferences are the result of the fall is an interpretive leap that presumes that somehow such persons cannot engage in the only thing we as humans are called to become, lovers of God and neighbor, in and through such bodies and orientations. If, on the other hand, trans-persons are able to do so in and through their bodies, I am not sure that it really matters if they keep their bodies ‘static’ and ‘appropriately’ binary (I have other thoughts on cost, effect of ongoing hormone treatment, etc). Physical bodies come in a huge diversity, even within spectrums. I suppose I think that our worry over what is post-lapsarian just allows us to judge the capacity of another person without stopping and asking, how do they love God and neighbor in their uniqueness, and how do I help them do so as they are? This seems the more important focus, not sorting out people who are more or less affected by the fall.

    All this (admittedly less organized here than in my dissertation) points me to the importance of difference as a radical uniqueness of human persons in which we are all ‘other’. Sexual difference is one important ‘other’ but even as a woman, I am still ‘other’ than other women. We need to find a way to acknowledge differences without reducing us to homogenous groups.

    None of this directly responds to procreation, though I don’t see that it de-emphasizes it either. Procreation is on aspect of male-female sexual intercourse. That some members of humanity procreate does not mean that all members must do so. Especially since it seems we have done a good job and filling the world and might want to consider other ways of interpreting our mandate to encourage the fruitfulness of all of creation.

  6. Inga,

    In fact in regards to gender, a convincing case can be made that the pagan and medieval European cosmology treated each heavenly body as “gendered” in a particular way. Venus was femininity while Juno was womanliness. Mars was masculinity, etc. Lewis makes this point in The Discarded Image, I believe.

    This seems to me the important point in talking about gender and sex, and the difference between them when discussing hermaphroditism and other disorders: it does no good to critique the “two- gender model” because we’re talking about sex, not gender, when we are talking about physical mutations.

    A strong case could likely be made that human bodies tell us a lot about human nature, just as they do about the divine nature (image and likeness). Everybody recognizes a body that is not formed in accordance with human nature, just as we can recognize a clock not formed in accordance with clock nature (fulfilling its natural function). It seems a mistake to add complications to gender theory because of hermaphroditism and other disorders, just as it seems a mistake to change the concepts of clockmaking because of some clocks which came off the factory floor with no hour hand.

  7. Andrew, scientists have indeed spoken of more than two-sexes (Anne Fausto-Sterling), so it is not a moot question. The human body can and does tell us something, but not everything, about human nature. Orthodoxy consistently called us to become above our nature, that is to be like the one truly full human Christ. Our church tradition only recently has chosen to emphasize his maleness. Late-ancient theologians were quite clear that his sex was not what we emulated, but his love for others. I think one direction this recognition of our call to become like Christ is to define our human nature not by our bodies, but by virtue of our relationships.

    As for everyone recognizing bodies not formed in accordance with human nature, I am not so sanguine. Slaves were once believed not simply socially different, but to have a different nature than free persons (in the ancient world of our theological forebears); race/nationality/color has quite recently been seen as a form of falling short of full humanity which is white and male. While people like Hopko, Wesche and Farley like to talk about gendered abilities corresponding sexed bodies, the ancient world, including some of our theologians, actually thought women were less than fully human, not that they were differently human.

    Human beings are not clocks and entering the conversation with this presumption can, I think, blind us to the genuine diversity of human bodies, human ‘genders’, and human ways to uniquely love and become like Christ.

    • Not sure anyone would deny the humanity of women in modern times (of coarse you are correct about some people dehumanizing non-white people). Today many unborn children are denied human rights and are killed through the horror of abortion.

      You are correct that Christ’s love being emulated does not center on His gender. We see this through the love that Christ showed to women in his society. The mercy shown to the adulteress, or the women at the well. Jesus’s ministry was obviously not confined to teaching men. Our Lord shows us His love for the women in this story.

    • To paraphrase Archmandrite Zacharias on that question: men and women have the same goal–unity with Christ, but get there differently and express that unity differently.

  8. Since I have been contemplating and studying this question for most of my Christian life I have some observations. I think they are good observations. Unfortunately, they are not very well organized, categorized and footnoted and are probably unconvincing to anyone who does not accept certain fundamental assumptions:

    1. God did indeed make us male and female for a reason
    2. That reason goes beyond simply procreation (although procreation is a significant part)
    3. That the differentiation between male and female is significant.
    4. That the interrelationship between male and female we experience today bears very little resemblance to what it is supposed to be (like all else).
    5. There are only two genders
    6. There is a hierarchy of gender
    All of these appear to me to be inherent in the Biblical accounts and descriptions.

    To put it simply: my own contemplation over some 40 years has led me to the conclusion that the male-female synergy and the hierarchy involved in it is essential for we humans to fulfill some of the basic commandments that God gave us in the Garden before the fall: 1. Dress and Keep the Earth; 2. Be fruitful and multiply; 3. exercise dominion over all the earth.

    One of the first dysfunctions that resulted from the fall was between men and women and as, I believe, St Isaac the Syrian pointed out that for complete theosis, the rift between man and woman must be healed.

    Now, I could go into a long, rambling discourse about each of these points, but that would not be fruitful. Perhaps, if anyone is interested, specific questions about certain elements would be more productive and lucid.

  9. Maria, what in Pete’s name is a “coherent theology of differentiation” and why do we need it? The phrase alone makes my head ache.

    “Science” is just, if not more disordered on this topic than the rest of us. “Science” has never been about objective reality (whatever that is) and is certainly not so these days. It is bought and paid for by those with ideological/political agendas that are rarely affirming of Christian Tradition.

  10. I would add one thing: How we are sexually tempted and sexually gratified has absolutely no bearing on this discussion other than to note that it takes a man and a woman to procreate naturally. Non-natural procreation I find an abomination.

  11. Adam,

    I would be interested to hear more on your first dead end: “The Great Complementarian.”

    Most of the authors I have read regard the explication of complentarity to be a strength of the Theology of the Body, rather than a weakness.

  12. Male and female we were created. We need to learn what that means, i.e, how to be male or female in a Christian way even though we live in a non-Christian culture which is antithetical to such an endeavor. Such an effort, like our salvation is unique and deeply personal and intimate but male and female are the general categories we are given to work within. Period.

    After 40 years it comes down to this for me: we are all called as Christians to be chaste and celibate before marriage; chaste and faithful after marriage. Chastity as defined by the Church is purity of heart, mind, soul and body, rejecting all sin, repenting if one falls and in general leading a life of repentance and prayer to allow God’s grace to overcome the temptation of the passions–all of them including, but not limited to the sexual ones but certainly includes no sex outside marriage. Faithfulness speaks for itself but it is also multi-layered and takes on different textures in different relationships.

    The world, the flesh and the devil put enormous road blocks before us in being able to fulfill those goals. Working through those detours and roadblocks is going to be different for every person and each person needs some level of pastoral guidance including repentance and forgiveness.

    As Wesley Hill details in his thoughtful book: Washed but Waiting, the sexual temptations can be a deep and difficult struggle and at some point that struggle may need to be brought openly into the community with which we worship.

    However, overly complicating the issues is not a way to a Christian solution. There are simply not 58 genders as Facebook would have. That sought of thing is simply insane.

    There is no marriage except for marriage between a man and a woman. If the state wishes to establish legal contracts for other types of agreements, the state can do so. That does not make it correct or beneficial for the moral health of the society, but it has the authority to do it.

    The Church, on the other hand, has no such authority.

  13. One half of a married couple is supposed to reflect Christ the Bridegroom physically. This must be why the Church objects to two women marrying each other. But if a black or Asian couple marry, the groom can hardly be said to reflect Christ physically. So, if a black or Asian guy can reflect Christ spiritually, not physically, why can’t a dyke?

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