Editor’s note: I am publishing this reflection by Emily Alianello & Eve Marie Barner Gleason because I think this is an important issue and important to frame appropriately. I am grateful for their investment in thinking through this issue carefully.
In a recent essay, Anthony Esolen crafts a gentle gender manifesto against the backdrop of a recent announcement by the Boy Scouts of America. His appealing prose creates an idealized picture of boyhood, joyfully celebrating the identity of a young boy in a caring, functional family. But the lines of this image are etched in the ink of separation. In contrast to cultural confusion about the meaning of gender, Esolen claims certainty about the natural identity of every male, an identity that his description seems to indicate is based in difference from females.
While some of Esolen’s statements would profit from greater nuance, many of them are just common sense (“A boy is not a girl. A boy grows up to be a man”). We share with Esolen both his Christian faith and his delight in the beauty of creation. But Esolen conflates generally accepted and scientifically affirmed common sense about sex differences with deeply troubling metaphysical theories of his own, which veils the sweeping nature of his argument. These claims represent one approach to the complicated question of how Christians ought to understand identity and gender in a secular culture that tells them everything is choice, and all sexual differences are learned patterns. While Esolen’s article is appealing in its vision of simplicity, that appeal smuggles in some worrisome distortions and half-truths about human identity that have deep implications for how we talk about being human, and live in community as men and women. Our ends may be the same, but the words we use to get there are deeply significant.
Esolen describes the habits, mannerisms and body of Luke, a ten-year old boy, and the father who guides him. He presents these as incontrovertible proof of Luke’s essential boy-ness and the continuity this establishes with the men in his life. He writes, “None of this should be controversial.” And in many individual instances it is not. Of course boys model themselves after their fathers and fathers see themselves in their sons. Many boys also behave in ways similar to the ways other boys behave now and have behaved throughout history. There are also proven dissimilarities in the hormones that predominantly influence the development of the male and female brain—dissimilarities which result in observable differences between most men and women. We agree with Esolen where he draws attention to the continuity between fathers and sons, the value of men, and the unique strengths that men, on average, possess. These things are not controversial.
What is controversial, or rather what is faulty, is his untroubled equation of “It’s a boy!” with a full statement of the nature of male being. Esolen’s ontological argument that identity and purpose of males is rooted in sexual differentiation lacks appreciation for both the essential unity of humankind and the full scope of human diversity. The latent premises behind many of Esolen’s assertions are: first, that what is most important about a man is the way in which he differs from a woman; second, that these differences define his purpose; and third, that the healthiest families and societies structure themselves around affirming and encouraging these differences above all else. Although Esolen is right that fathers and mothers transfer their understanding of their purpose as men and women to their sons, assumptions such as these lead to a deeply problematic understanding of what it is to be not only human, but a man.
It is the commonalities, rather than the differences, between men and women that are the ground of our identity. Our differences, while real, are not fundamental. Men and women do indeed have different chests and different average heights, but we both have souls. While certain virtues or traits may be, depending on circumstance, inflected toward men or women, the most central ones are not. As Christ followers, both men and women are called to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, and self-control. Both ought to love God with all their heart and mind and strength, and love their neighbor too.
Esolen makes the divide of difference much more complete than either Christian Scripture or our own experience teach us. He says only in married love “does one give of oneself, forever, to someone who stands across a divide in being: the one who begets, the one who bears” (emphasis ours). Here we strongly disagree. Sperm and egg, penis & vagina, these do not represent a divide in being. The anatomy of men and women are different and yet wonderfully similar. We aren’t simply begetters and bearers. We are co-laborers in the forming of our offspring. The paradox and complexity of love making is part of its wonder. Women are not, as the ancients sometimes postulated, mere earth into which the man plants miniature humans. Male sperm is not complete in itself like the seed of a plant. Down to the cellular level, human reproduction is so much more gloriously complex and beautifully complementary. While the sperm determines the gender of the new person, the egg selects the sperm. As when he calls the man the sower and the woman the field, Esolen is wrong—very wrong. It is not necessary, and ultimately counter-productive, to claim this divide in being in order to establish the reality of male and femaleness.
We must think carefully about how we characterize the divide between men and women. We are the same substance: bone of bone, flesh of flesh, as our first father poetically declared. When Esolen claims that men and women are divided in their very being, that they are reflections of the “wholly other,” he stands outside the Scriptural testimony about men and women as common bearers of the imago dei in creation and joint heirs in redemption.
A focus on the totality and primacy of difference risks reducing manhood to ‘being different from women.’ While we are certain that Esolen is aware of the range of wonderful differences among men, we suggest that his argument would benefit from celebrating these differences as well. A man is not most fully a man when he is as completely different from any woman as possible. Rather he is most fully a man as he most accurately reflects the image of God. And women have this same high calling. This change in emphasis does not negate the reality of difference, but it does place commonality and difference in their proper order. As Christian men and women are transformed into the image of Christ, each of us will find that we have become as uniquely masculine and feminine as we are supposed to be – and yet have more in common with each other than we ever imagined.
The reason we as male and female, single and married, old and young, ought to appreciate and honor and serve each other is not because we are wholly other, but because we recognize the ways our diverse giftings strengthen our entire community. The Apostle Paul refers to diverse spiritual giftings as being for the “common good.” Yet, in Esolen’s articulation of gender, there is little sense of men and women collaborating as partners—what Carolyn James has called the blessed alliance. All humans are image bearers—and to whom do we bear the divine image? To each other, of course. In that sense, we are all what Esolen might call alter egos—the joy of our relatedness is in finding in each other a reflection of the same image we ourselves bear. It is difference mingled with similarity, not difference alone that is so joyful, so communicative.
This leads to our second point: there is in this equation of gender and purpose a willingness to find ultimate ends in the differences of gender. When Esolen says that the sexual form of a boy is a clear indication of his goal and purpose, i.e. for a women, for a family, he is speaking a partial truth that misses a more essential truth. For if sexual union with a woman in order to father children is what a man was made for, then what shall we say of the men who do not father children, or who live a life of celibacy? We must find the telos of both men and women in something other than beautiful diversity of sexual difference or the good of sexual union between a husband and a wife. Esolen suggests this himself when he says that the “essense of manhood and womanhood” is godliness. In shared humanity we find the realest purpose of both men and women, to rightly image and worship the God who made them. Any attempt to rescue a healthy view of sexual order must not lose sight of these ultimate ends.
Finally, Esolen casts a vision of family and society where the healthiest families are those that do most to recognize and encourage sexual difference. Again, there are some truths to this. We agree with Esolen that it is foolish for families to ignore differences between their sons and daughters. But a vision for family that over-emphasizes sexual traits runs the risk of missing that each child is a unique person, a combination of father and mother (and their fathers and mothers) in both physical traits and personality. Sons model themselves after their fathers… and also their mothers. Fathers see themselves in their sons… and also their daughters.
A wise family recognizes the particular strengths and weaknesses of its members, molding training and instruction and praise to suit the needs of each child. Emily’s mother recognizes and cultivates her youngest son’s artistic talent, which is like her own. Emily’s own life has taken the path it did in part because her father recognized and provoked her intellectual curiosity. Eve’s husband has eagerly learned wisdom and compassion from his mother, enriching their marriage in many ways. Likewise, society as a whole is stronger for valuing the diversity of its members’ gifts and offering corresponding opportunities.
We realize that the core of Esolen’s argument occurs in a specific context and is devoted to a defense of gender that is very much centered on the question of sexual purpose. But this is all the more reason to be very careful with words, and to craft a celebration of boy and girl, man and woman that avoids overly broad categories. These oversimplifications threaten to exclude boys whose experiences differ from Luke’s. Further, they diminish the full potential of relationship not only between husbands and wives, but also between brothers and sisters, mothers and sons, friends and neighbors. Western culture swings between extremes of a genderless world and a pornified one; it embraces gay marriage on the one hand and sells endless princess toys on the other. Both GQ and Cosmopolitan are best sellers in the magazine racks. This cultural incoherence is not best responded to with a Christian version of sexual extremes, reducing the end of God’s chief creation to affirming sexual difference. For what is most important about a man is that he is the creation and image of God. It is in this he finds his purpose. So then, as families and as a community, we have an amazing opportunity to raise Luke and Lucy to recognize and rejoice in difference without making it an end in itself, to pursue virtue in themselves and encourage its development in each other, and to love God and their neighbor. If they do this, they will be fortified against the extremes of any culture.
Emily Alianello is a PhD Candidate in English at the Catholic University of America. She teaches writing to undergraduates, tries to write a dissertation, and drinks a lot of coffee.
Eve Marie Barner Gleason is a nonprofit communications professional with a background in public policy. She and her husband are active in their Northern Virginia community and love laughing at the antics of their dog, Coco.