The phenomenon of transgender identity is difficult to discuss, and not least because each side tends to present it as beyond discussion, an open-and-shut case. One side views accepting an individual’s chosen identity as paramount and resistance not as simply erroneous, but downright offensive. Moreover, there is a (correct) recognition of the real struggle and suffering experienced by trans people. Yet the other side views the plain reality of male and female biology as so obvious (and often as a matter of religious truth) that it can envision no possibility of acceptance. What has increasingly resulted from this opposition are not reasoned arguments, but acts of coercion—whether in the Obama administration’s well-publicized anti-discrimination directives compelling schools and hospitals to accommodate “an individual’s internal sense of gender,” or in such backlash responses as North Carolina’s infamous “bathroom bill.”
Such fractious approaches to questions of social change signal that important things are at stake—and make it all the more important for us to have a careful and civil discussion. To this end I would like to consider two questions. The first is seemingly simple: What does a claim to transgender identity mean? The second is more complex: How does the debate over transgender identity and rights impact the common good?
Comprehending the phenomenon of transgender identity turns out to be no easy task. An Atlantic article, discussing the term “cisgender,” explains that “‘Cisgender’ refers to people who feel there is a match between their assigned sex and the gender they feel themselves to be. You are cisgender if your birth certificate says you’re male and you identify yourself as a man or if your birth certificate says you’re female and you identify as a woman.” The stress in this construal is on the feeling of identification with the gender you were born into—or, in the case of transgender people, of incongruence with it. But how can we clarify what that feeling of identification is in the first place?
The clinical diagnosis of “gender dysphoria” does not help much, since in the DSM-5 the focus is not on the experience of gender incongruence itself, but rather the subsequent impairment of normal functioning; the goal, quite understandably from a clinical perspective, is easing the distress caused by the experience rather than delving into the experience itself. (Or, perhaps, the range of experiences; according to the manual Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, “Transgender and gender non-conforming people have many different ways of understanding their gender identities.”)
One difficulty for science is that the phenomenon is not only complex but relatively rare, so good data from large survey populations is not easy to find. Both science and anecdotal evidence tend to recognize that sex/gender identification is not absolute. The ways we define “gender identity” in the first place have to be part of the question. A strong gendering of certain activities may increase a sense of incongruity in someone who is drawn to things associated with the opposite gender; the symptoms in the DSM diagnosis for children include, for example, “strong preference” for wearing clothing of the opposite sex, for toys and activities associated with the opposite sex, and for playmates of the opposite sex. Of course, many persons who experience some sort of affinity with the opposite gender express this affinity without having a persistent desire or conviction that they are the “wrong” gender. Thus, a key challenge is trying to arrive at a conceptual understanding of what is meant by this deeper desire.
And that’s really hard to come by. Noting the diversity of experiences, psychologist Mark Yarhouse recounts the saying that “if you’ve met one transgender person, you’ve met one transgender person.” The Atlantic article posits that gender is not a matter of two possibilities, of “cis” versus “trans,” but rather simply of “possibility itself”—not a fixed transgender identity, then, but a radical plasticity that is all about individual self-creation and autonomy. You might recall that Facebook now offers fifty-six gender options. We seem to be rushing to embrace an ethic that dismisses the need to posit a real self, in favor of exploring the possibilities as they come.
YET WHAT HAPPENS when we forsake the appeal to some core trans identity in favor of plasticity? Uncomfortable difficulties arise from the attempt to settle identity questions simply by appeals to internal experiences. The year 2015 saw not only the emergence of Caitlyn Jenner, but the controversy over Rachel Dolezal, a white NAACP chapter leader roundly condemned for claiming to be “black” based on her inner sense of identity. And consider this passage from the memoir of transgender economist Deirdre (formerly Donald) McCloskey. Of her own decision McCloskey muses aloud, “Why, then, did Deirdre join the women’s tribe?” She goes on to say that “the question does not make sense”:
Asking why a person changes gender is like asking why a person is a Midwesterner or thoughtful or great-souled: She just is. An identity is both made and not made. It is a romantic idea, which is strangely paired in the modern world with the antiromantic ideas of positivism in social science, that we all have an internal identity, fixed and readymade, and the only task is to express it. Will the real Deirdre please stand up? The “realness” is not right. We make ourselves, which is our freedom as human beings.
The romantic view does have something in it. You make yourself Dutch or American, a nurse or an accountant, a recluse or a social butterfly, piece by piece. But you have tendencies, which can be traced back to childhood. Anyone who has watched a child grow is impressed by the thrust of character. The dismal, fretful infant in arms will in eighty years be a dismal, fretful old lady. The cheerful infant will always be an optimist. No wonder people devised a word for it, the soul.
McCloskey wants identity to be a matter of freedom—“we make ourselves”—yet also appeals to the notion of the given temperament. The idea that “a cheerful infant will always be an optimist,” however, is false and dangerous. Do we have temperaments? Yes. Are we determined by them? We are not. And we surely do not want to tell the “dismal, fretful infant” that he or she is fated to that misery forever. “That’s just who the kid is” is not what parents should hear from the kindergarten teacher.
McCloskey’s account reveals a troubling conceptual instability in notions of the transgender phenomenon. On the one hand there is the conviction that “who I really am” is opposed to my existing biology. Yet ascertaining exactly what is meant by “who I really am” is complicated by the fact that gender identity is inherently destabilized by the assertion of radical plasticity. The claim that one is “really a woman” is difficult to make if there is no set identity of “woman” on which to anchor the claim. Hence, “who I really am” ends up being about “possibility”—who I really am is who I choose to be.
Once we arrive at this place, we are essentially saying identity is a matter of free expression of an internal sense, and therefore what we are supposed to respect is the individual’s choice of the expression of identity feelings, regardless of his or her embodiment. For a theologian, it is hard to miss the echoes of a kind of gnostic dualism here. Both liberal and conservative Catholics have spent decades trying to rehabilitate the goodness of embodiment from problematic spiritualizations that understood our sexual bodies in particular as suspect sites of corruption requiring rigid regimes of mastery. We are committed to an ultimately sacramental worldview where the body and soul are a unity. From this perspective, an immaterial sense that one’s body is the “wrong” one seems like a pretty big problem.
Then there is the issue of medical interventions on the body. Modern psychology catalogues a range of distorted, alienated experiences of one’s own body—that is, in generic terms, a sense that one’s body does not “belong to” one’s sense of self. Certainly—and this should always be highlighted—the person experiencing this alienation is not helped by blame or shame. Yet the therapeutic response is almost always to help a person become reconciled to the goodness of the body as it exists, not to recommend an aggressive alteration of it. Even the secular realm, in other words, implies a normative telos for therapy that favors affirming existing embodiment. So we must ask why the response in this case should be so different.
What I suspect is that the subjective sense of one’s own gender and sexual identity has become so important in our society that we are willing to sacrifice the body to it. In other words, the sense of gender identity being invoked here is construed as sacred. And the particular sense of the sacred has to do with a kind of radical self-determination. To stretch the metaphor, advocates of alternative gender paradigms are making a kind of “religious freedom” argument for having their sacred sense of identity accepted.
As with other sorts of religious-freedom arguments, the hard part comes from the fact that public life in our society entails a common life with many who do not share one’s convictions. Hence, the general assumptions about religious freedom are that its exercise should be given broad scope, but that such exercise should not harm public order by impinging on widely accepted public goods, and that any one set or sense of religious commitments should not be normatively enforced by the state.
But here our public discourse has surely gone right off the rails, as the race to protect transgender rights has quickly gained the power of the state (and its funding), simply through executive action. Promulgated by those with a deep conviction that they are on the right side of history, Obama-administration instructions on Title IX state the following:
when a student or the student’s parent or guardian, as appropriate, notifies the school administration that the student will assert a gender identity that differs from previous representations or records, the school will begin treating the student consistent with the student’s gender identity. Under Title IX, there is no medical diagnosis or treatment requirement that students must meet as a prerequisite to being treated consistent with their gender identity.
This is truly extraordinary. The conceptual difficulties discussed above are ignored—or rather, hidden behind the language that casts such an assertion as simply a matter of differing “from previous representations or records.” The reality of the body is entirely erased. Given this erasure, such a policy certainly cannot logically be distinguished from one allowing a student to claim a racial identity differing from “previous representations,” à la Rachel Dolezal. Meanwhile, the problems of public order, especially for adolescents and children, are also glossed over. The guiding assumption is that the public order must be revised to accommodate the identity preference expressed by the transgender person, regardless of the effects on others. Many real questions are ignored. Fears about predatory males taking advantage of women’s locker rooms may be exaggerated, but they remain nonetheless real. Privacy rights of others simply disappear.
BUT MY CONCERN about public order is different, running deeper than potential individual incidents. It is hard for me to understand the kind of state protection of transgender rights put forth in the Title IX instructions as anything other than a firmly individualist and libertarian assault on a fragile ecology of sexual development, with state power deployed to champion a particular conception of gender identity at the expense of the ecology—an ecology of sex and gender congruence—assumed and desired by others. That a useful concept of human ecology might be said to run parallel to the physical ecology of the natural world is a concept elaborated by John Paul II, reiterated by Benedict, and affirmed by Francis. In Laudato si’, Francis writes:
Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment. Pope Benedict spoke of an “ecology of man,” based on the fact that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will.”
A nature that cannot be manipulated at will. I assume that we have as much interest in a sexual ecology as we do in a natural ecology. Thus, while it is reasonable for the state to tolerate, if not endorse, the wide exercise of individual autonomy, we also have a responsibility to ask questions about any potential damage done to our understanding of the common good, which also has real costs for individuals, especially children.
The prevailing response to this kind of assertion is twofold. Some will suggest that my concern is no different from beliefs about “ecology” that once included segregation of the races, and that expressed special horror at interracial marriage. I would dispute the analogy. The case against miscegenation was notable for the shoddy pseudoscience mustered by those who sought to ban interracial marriage on the grounds of a bogus racial taxonomy. By contrast, the widespread stability of sex/gender congruence is far more robustly supported by scientific evidence than is the claim of a fundamental transgender identity. To destabilize this default position of body/soul congruence is to allow exceptional cases to reshape the entire ecology.
A second response is that there is no reason to think an individual’s transgender identity does any harm to anyone else. This is a more difficult question. It certainly seems true, in a pluralist society, that if Caitlyn Jenner wants to undergo this or that medical intervention, this should be tolerated, since no obvious reason exists to outlaw it. What is being demanded, however, is not tolerance, but affirmation—an affirmation, moreover, that is being asked of children and adolescents for whom sexual development is a fragile and complex social process. Again, if we grant the persuasiveness of the “gender possibility” argument in explaining the trans phenomenon, then it seems necessary to acknowledge that affirming and accommodating the transgender identity of one child will affect other children, in much the same way that gender stereotypes about alpha males and compliant females affect them.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying that gender incongruity is a choice in any direct sense. But in an ecology normed by “possibility” rather than by “congruence,” forces that shape and reshape gender identity will be altered. We typically gloss over the common good when discussing questions of sex and gender. But there are issues of the common good at stake here, and I am sufficiently anti-libertarian to believe the transgender phenomenon raises very tricky questions—ones that should not undermine respect for the dignity of every person, but that seem to indicate the need for caution before we plunge ahead, radically altering social norms and practices. Given the conceptual difficulties involved in discerning the gender implications of “who I really am,” plus the longstanding preference in both Christianity and in the general society for a unified body-soul anthropology, and the significant capacity for human folly and self-deception in these matters, at the very least we would seem to need a yellow light, not a green one.
But we are not likely to proceed cautiously, given the power of sexual libertarianism in our culture, the fascination with the sacred character of individual sexual and gender exploration, and the broad disinclination to believe that society has any responsibility to limit individual expression for the sake of the common good. Like market libertarianism, sexual libertarians proceed as if the sexual ecology is only a matter of isolated individuals entering into contracts; the only limits they recognize are those that prevent coercion. There is no larger common good, merely individuals seeking to satisfy preferences. This deeper social illusion goes far beyond gender identity; still, the questions raised above about endless sex and gender “possibility” become acute at these boundaries, and our inability to think in terms of the common good more obvious.
No doubt, amid this sexual libertarianism, everyone does their best to muddle along, and will continue to do so—just as market libertarians want us to do with the sometimes violent swings in an economy. But for either group, what must never be questioned is the sovereignty of the individual. In an essay that only gets better and more prophetic with time, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” Wendell Berry rightly suggests that we cannot solve either our sexual or our economic problems until we recognize that community—not the individual and not the state—is the place where the complex nurturing of natural and cultural ecologies can be sustained. In the space of community, we can in the long run tend both to our concerns about those who are unjustly excluded because their voice sounds wrong or they have the wrong length hair, and to a stable development of the mature—and yes, gendered—sexual ecology that will undergird family and society in the long run.
All of which sounds well and good. Yet these are not days where “the long run” is a paramount consideration.
Luke Timothy Johnson
Our society’s never-ending conflict over sexual identity and public policy has settled of late on the rights of persons who are transgendered. Specifically, should such persons be allowed to use public restrooms or school locker rooms according to their gender of choice rather than their gender of birth, or should they be forced to do the opposite—or must public institutions such as schools provide designated restrooms for them? Should public funds be used to enable gender-changing surgeries? Is society obligated to formally recognize, approve, and provide appropriate medical and other services to those claiming to have gender dysphoria? Should people who resist the social engineering called for by the “transgender community”—and advanced by executive order during the latter part of the Obama administration—be considered bigots? Or has liberalism perhaps at long last run amok, revealing itself as plain silliness?
Veterans of the civil-rights struggle for racial equality, who then gladly worked to realize the feminist dream of gender equality, then urged the acceptance of gays and lesbians and the rejection of language and practices that marginalized them, can be forgiven if they suffer a bit of battle fatigue when they are now asked to work for the rights of the transgendered. But we know the pressure is on when Caitlyn Jenner not only appears on the cover of Vanity Fair, but is the subject of a laudatory essay in ESPN, recipient of its Arthur Ashe Courage Award. It appears that sides must be taken. Immediately.
A DIVERSE SOCIETY'S effort to retain some coherent shape while tending to the needs and desires of each segment of its population provides almost as many insights into the cultural condition of the United States as did the 2016 presidential campaign. One is that the pace of social change, or at least the agitation for it, is drastically accelerated by social media and the 24/7 news cycle, and that for users of Facebook and Twitter, immediacy is all. Another is that our understanding of civil rights continues to change, as the classic conception of rights as entailing obligations morphs into one of rights as a form of entitlement. The right to vote derives from the obligations of citizenship, the right of assembly entails the obligation to participate in assemblies, and so on. But what is the basis for the “right” to be recognized by others according to one’s chosen gender?
Closely connected to the role of the media and the proliferation of rights language is the polarization of political rhetoric, not least at some of our nation’s most prestigious universities. Mudslinging, to be sure, is an honored American tradition. But it is startling to hear, especially among those ostensibly committed to inclusion, language so divisive: liberals are not simply wrong, they are demonic; conservatives are not merely in error, they are evil. In a paradoxical twist, agitators for the recognition of sexual difference in the name of diversity demonize any appeal to norm or nature as oppressive; they seem unaware of the way in which “diversity” easily becomes an equally hegemonic norm. The current craziness—there is really no better term for it—of discourse about gender on many college campuses is illustrative: when everything masculine is identified as “toxic” and in need of ideological correction and behavioral control, it is not difficult to understand why gender dysphoria should afflict a young man’s life.
The roiling political energy of the current social moment—its ready surge into federal, state, and local litigation—also reminds us how confused our notions of public and private have become, a confusion aggravated by the omnipresence of streaming videos, instagrams, tweets and all the other mechanisms of “social” media, and the direct discharge of such effluent into the “news” media. Traditionally, one’s sexual profile was considered largely a private matter, of interest only to oneself, one’s partner, and God; but no longer. Such changes also reflect the particular set of assumptions about the body that emerges in a privileged and luxury-laden society: that the social and physical world alike are answerable to each individual’s feelings concerning himself or herself; that such imperatives are as urgent as those pertaining to crime or the economy; that sexuality is not primarily about human relationships, but about “identity”; that the body is an instrument of human volition and all but infinitely malleable, a problem to be solved rather than (to borrow the Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel’s language) a mystery to be celebrated and suffered. Such assumptions encourage the notion that sexual or gender dysphoria, some degree of which is arguably a normal and even necessary component in psychosexual development, is a problem that can and should be fixed, and now.
Kierkegaard called observations such as the ones I’m making here “preliminary expectorations,” those throat clearings that prepare for the main topic. The real question I want to pursue is whether Christian theology has anything to offer our present situation. My effort focuses on gender, identity, and the body, and begins by addressing a theological tendency I regard as profoundly unhelpful, precisely to the degree that it pays no attention to actual human experience—and thus, in fact, fails to “respond” at all.
THE TOPIC OF gender has not been absent from recent theology. In fact, following Karl Barth’s insistence that humans are constituted as male and female, and that it is impossible to think of a humanity apart from these categories (Church Dogmatics), gender has played an important role among Catholic theologians such as Hans von Balthasar (Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory), John Paul II (Theology of the Body), and Angelo Scola (The Nuptial Mystery). Gender also appears as a fundamental category in the influential Protestant theologian Stanley Grenz (see “Theological Foundations for Male-Female Relationships,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society). Though these authors do not agree in every respect, they share a basic perspective, one that makes their approach to gender problematic not only for addressing questions like transsexuality, but for thinking theologically about sex at all.
First, this perspective takes Scripture as both the starting and end point for thinking about gender—not all Scripture, which in fact has many and various ways of talking about real men and women, but rather select passages in Genesis 1-2 and the letters of Paul (especially 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5) that connect “male and female” to language about the image of God. Second, it reads the ancient narratives and correspondence as though they yielded revealed truth concerning human ontology; thus, the shift from “he made them male and female” to “they are in the image of God precisely as male and female.” Third, it embraces essentialistic conclusions concerning “male” and “female” among humans, with certain binary characteristics and dispositions taken as standard for the respective genders, a stabilization that follows from making gender a constitutive element of being created in the image of God. Fourth, and quite shockingly, we find among such theologians the tendency to argue from analogy to something like gender roles in the interrelationship of persons in the Trinity, corresponding roughly to the complementary roles ascribed to human males and females. Such an argument can seem like pure projection, from the happily gendered human family to a blessedly gendered trinitarian god. But it too appears necessary once one accepts gender as an essential and constitutive element of human personhood, and insists that human persons must reflect “the image of God.”
Such convictions tend naturally (even if not necessarily) to the ascription of traditional, “complementary” roles for men and women in the social realm. Thus the almost frantic need among some Christians to assert that marriage is between a “male and female,” with any other possibility regarded as both unnatural and irreligious. These understandings support hostility toward feminism and, often in the same breath (see Angelo Scola), toward homosexuality. It scarcely needs stating that from this perspective, the prospect of a “transgendered community” would be deeply disturbing, a rejection of creation and indeed of the image of God.
THE APPROACH TO human sexuality I just outlined is based neither on observation of human behavior, nor on genuine philosophical reflection on the behavior of real people in conversation with all the texts of Scripture, but rather on elevating selected texts of Scripture perceived as possessing a distinct and absolute revelatory character. A better theological consideration of human sexuality requires a more capacious interpretive framework. However important Scripture is as a witness to God’s activity in the world, and however truly Scripture participates in divine revelation, it is wrong to proceed as though revelation were contained in it alone. If theology has to do with the Living God, then it must pay attention to the ways in which God continuously manifests his power and presence in the world. Catholics have always regarded tradition as a second source of witness to God’s work—in liturgy and Creed, to be sure, but above all also in the living testimony of the saints. For where holiness speaks, the church must pay attention.
Theologians need to read Scripture within a complex conversation that includes the voices of tradition alongside the witness offered in the contemporary world by human experience and reason. Regarding subjects like sex and gender, theologians risk seeming deaf to the voice of the living God if they do not listen carefully to what God might be up to in the sexual experience of actual humans and in the study of sexuality and gender offered by philosophy, anthropology, psychology, and—for goodness sake!—biology.
Theologians are required, then, to give as much attention to the specifics of human experience in live human bodies as they do to the exegesis of ancient texts in dead languages—and not least because the special arena of God’s self-disclosure is the human body. Close and disciplined attention to the body is all the more necessary because bodily expression is always ambiguous, always difficult to decipher. If we believe, however, that God lives and continues to touch us, then we must learn something of the grammar and syntax of real bodies. By no means are the symbols of Scripture to be ignored or dismissed: on the contrary, we would have no clue about what to listen for in bodies were it not for the shaping influence of Scripture’s language; we would not search for spirit in the body, or treasure each human body as in some fashion the image of God, were we not instructed by Scripture. My point is rather that attention to human reason and experience allows us to understand Scripture in new ways. Sometimes we are led to see that Scripture’s language is true but not adequate; in such cases, attention to experience can help us appreciate the transcendent value, but also the limitation, of Scripture for theology.
The terms “male” and “female” in Genesis 1:26, the passage that figures so prominently in conservative interpretations of gender, offer a classic example. Like the terms “night” and “day” in the same account, they identify in rough fashion what anyone can observe: males have penises, females have vaginas; night is dark and day is light. But closer observation exposes the descriptive inadequacy of “day” versus “night,” their binary opposition excluding the liminal and intermediate stages of “dusk” and “dawn”; and we can identify still further gradations in light and darkness that challenge the adequacy of the terms “night” and “day.” So also in the case of the binary opposition of male and female: the observation of real humans reveals a variety of ways in which “male” and “female” can be individually embodied and expressed.
ONE EXAMPLE OF rigid gender distinctions in our thinking that requires reconsideration is presented by the phenomenon called intersex. This is not a case of sexual activity or orientation, but a condition of birth. Though the numbers are debated, perhaps as many as 1 to 3 percent of humans—at any rate, a not insignificant number—are born with ambiguous organic and/or hormonal gender markers. In varying degrees, the most obvious being true hermaphroditism, these newborns fall between the category of “male” and “female.” Such infants are otherwise healthy, but their gender lacks clear definition. They are “inter-sex.”
Even though Jesus recognized the existence of “eunuchs who have been so from birth,” and referred to others who become eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven (Matt 19:10–12), the moral and theological implications of intersex have only recently begun to be addressed (see Margaret Farley’s Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics or Megan DeFranza’s Sex Difference in Christian Theology). Although in some societies sexually ambiguous individuals have been recognized as such, and even given special roles, our society has medicalized the condition and “fixed” it—sometimes with unfortunate consequences—through surgery, hormone treatment, and socialization into one acceptable gender or the other. In the same way that those who are single don’t fit neatly within the theological concept of the image of God held by those who conceive of that image in terms of male and female in covenant, so those who are intersexed would seem not to bear God’s image.
The “fact on the ground” of intersex, therefore, calls into question a theology that, on the basis of Scripture alone, attaches the image of God to a clear and absolute distinction between male and female in their complementary (covenantal) roles. For a theological approach that begins in another place, namely with the question of what God is up to in the world of real bodies—of actual men and women—the phenomenon of intersex becomes an occasion for asking what God might be up to in bringing humans into the world in such fashion.
To begin to answer this through experience and reason, we can approach, in addition to Genesis 1-2 and the passages in which Paul reinscribes traditional gender roles (Rom 7:2-3; Col 3:18; Eph 5:21-33; 1 Tim 5:14; Tit 2:4-5), those places in Paul where he states a more radical understanding of gender, ethnicity, and social status. His declaration in Gal 3:28 that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” serves as the premise for his argument that the problem for relations in the church is not the fact of being either Jew or Gentile, but rather the insistence on making being a Jew an absolute good: “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Ethnicity, in other words, becomes merely a relative good when viewed in light of the “new creation” that is Christ (Gal 6:15).
Letting experience and reason guide our reading of Scripture leads us to the realization that gender is properly neither a moral nor a religious category. Rather it is a biological and social category, rooted partly in physical facts and partly in social construction. It is therefore a relative rather than an absolute good. It is not constitutive of humans but is rather an accidental (if extremely important) dimension of being human. Sexual behavior, in contrast, is both morally and religiously significant. As I have argued elsewhere, the church’s concern for holiness requires that expressions of eros be characterized by fidelity, fruitfulness, and chastity. Regardless of what organs are brought into play, the church cannot say “yes” to sexual behavior that is promiscuous, coercive, abusive, non-reciprocal, or violent, while on the other hand it must listen receptively to sexual lives (again, regardless of what organs are involved) that are faithfully covenanted, that nurture life, and that are chaste in manner.
BUT IF GENDER IS a relative rather than an absolute good, how should we see the effort to cross from one gender to another? (Note, I am taking up only the first of what Rogers Brubaker in Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities helpfully discerns as three distinct meanings in “transgender”: the “trans of migration,” in which the goal is to move from one gender to another; the “trans of between,” in which one seeks to live idiosyncratically within both genders; and the “trans of beyond,” through which a form of human existence that is in some sense “genderless” is the ideal.) I think it fair to state that the desire to change one’s gender is not itself a moral issue. It is not in itself a disordered drive, or a form of rebellion against the creator. It could be, to be sure, but it need not be; like the discovery of one’s sexual attraction to persons of the same gender, it may in fact be a recognition of oneself that is deeply respectful of the Creator. In some cases, indeed, the dysphoria arising from one’s gender identity may arise from deeply rooted circumstances of birth such as those we recognize in intersex.
Nor is the quest to change genders a religious issue—at least, not in the way it seems to those who connect “image of God” with a specific gender assignment. With respect to being rightly related to God, gender is among the adiaphora (non-essential things). Regarding eating foods offered to idols, Paul observes that “Food will not bring us close to God; we are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do” (1 Cor 8:8). He states elsewhere that “The kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). The same principle applies to gender: it is irrelevant to our closeness to God. Of course, this also means that if I make gender change an absolute good (I cannot be myself in this body) rather than a relative one (what counts is serving God and others in any body), I may in fact reveal a disordered desire, a form of idolatrous impulse. The moral or religious issue is not our gender, in other words, but what we make of it.
Christian theologians must take seriously both the order of creation and the order of the liberating new creation in Christ. For Paul, the Resurrection and exaltation of Jesus as “life-giving Spirit” (1 Cor 15:45) establishes us in “a new creation: everything old has passed away. Paul himself seems unable to grasp the full implications of this new order; what is clear to him is that all those markers that were formerly taken to be absolute are now rendered relative. In his discussion of marriage and virginity (1 Cor 7:1-40, e.g.), he argues in the same way he did concerning the eating of foods: neither marriage nor singleness by itself matters, neither being male or female; what counts is service of the Lord.
In the middle of that argument, Paul shifts from the “male-female” binary to “Jew-Gentile” and “slave-free,” again diminishing their importance in a world “whose present form is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31). Circumcision, he says, means nothing, nor does uncircumcision; but “obeying the commandments of God is everything” (1 Cor 7:19). So also with slavery: someone in the condition of slavery is (in Christ) “a freed person belonging to the Lord,” just as someone in the social condition of freedom is “a slave of Christ” (1 Cor 7:22). It is true that Paul’s specific advice is for people to “remain in the condition in which you were called” (1 Cor 7:20). But once gender, ethnicity, and social status are defined as adiaphora, the way is also open for persons to change: not because becoming a Jew or a free person—or a male—would put one in an advantageous position with God, but because it is possible to “keep the commandments of God” in any of those conditions.
I HAVE SUGGESTED THAT a conversation structured by attention to a different selection of texts from Scripture, stimulated by contemporary experience, and disciplined by scientific inquiry can lead to a more benign view of transgendering. But openness to what God is telling us through present-day experience must be accompanied by a firm commitment to the moral principles that guide all expressions of human sexuality. Openness to gender change does not equal openness to sexual vice. Christians need always to remind themselves that, in light of the resurrection of Christ, their bodies are not first of all for their own disposal, but as Paul states, are first of all “for the Lord” (1 Cor 6:13). The point of embodiedness, for Christians, is not to find one’s own special identity or erotic fulfillment; our bodies are given to us for service to others and the world in that distinctive Christian expression of love (agape) that seeks not the good of the self but the good of the other.
Because the church is committed to such moral principles, and to an understanding of agape that transcends eros, it should be the ideal “safe space” for discernment by individuals and groups concerned about gender. The hope for Christians to find wisdom concerning the body is clearly not to be found in the contentiousness and distortion of contemporary academic, political, and media discourses; Christian discernment, it need hardly be stated, cannot proceed in the overheated manner of our public disputes. Instead of social media, discernment requires face-to-face conversation; rather than the glare of publicity, intimate and honest exchange. Rather than compelling others through legal injunctions, discernment seeks to move together toward deeper mutual insight and understanding; rather than petitioning for one’s own “rights,” it strives to serve the needs of others. Rather than regard the body as a machine that is infinitely malleable, such discernment appreciates the mystery of all embodiedness, and listens carefully for what the Spirit desires to be heard in our own bodies and those of others.
In sum, the church ought to be the place where openness to change is a corollary of belief in the new creation and its endless inventiveness, even as it remains the place where the goal of change is greater than the discovery of the autonomous self. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
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