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?