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.
“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”
But the full potential of relationship between husbands and wives is God-ordained to be something greater than the other relationships listed. If a man or woman are to leave their father and mother and become one flesh, there has to be something different to that relationship than all others, something worth protecting. If we don’t cling strongly to the distinctiveness of the husband/wife relationship and what that entails, then there’s no reason that brothers/sisters and mothers/sons couldn’t enjoy the same experiences and benefits, which seems like the inevitable end result of the “gay marriage”
I would completely agree, Chris, and I suspect Emily would too, though I’ll let her speak for herself. The marital relationship is unique among those listed. It is deeper for the commitment it entails. It is richer too – not only for the obvious diversity of male and female partners – but also for the specific diversity of the individual male and female partners with their unique strengths and weaknesses. That is, there is something wonderful about a man and woman marrying each other, not only because they are man and woman but because they are THIS man and THAT woman – with the ways that their individual personalities, as well as their bodies, complement each other.
Which is why Emily is the most Catholic protestant I know.
Isn’t this at base, an Egalitarian response to the
Complementarian/Traditionalist viewpoint of Esolen?
There is a false dichotomy made between the differences between genders being
fundamental or the identity or the sameness being fundamental. They are both
fundamental (similar to the Trinity) and there is no reason to force a choice
between the two.
If the differences were not fundamental then how could the Apostle Paul write,
“I do not permit..” then ground it in creation and the created order?
Next, I think the major current argument against same sex marriage is that
children need a mom and a dad, instead of two moms or two dads. If the
differences are not believed to be fundamental then the claim/argument makes no
Now it is definitely possible for those who believe in fundamental
differences to teach their children improperly to have disrespect or contempt
for those of the other gender but that is not an argument against fundamental
Lastly, concerning Esolen’s claim that the “essense of manhood and
womanhood” is godliness, is cashed out differently depending on how you look at
manhood and womanhood. If men and women are fundamentally different and
fundamentally identical, then one would expect that godliness will have
similarities and differences and not simply be identical.
Most “egalitarians” aren’t arguing that men and women are identical. That, quite frankly is a rather over drummed up straw-man.
The arguments that try to define what is and isn’t a man by his behavior, in my opinion, do something so against the foundations of our faith. God created men and women with innate gender. “Male and female He created them…” Everyone seems to have no trouble agreeing with that statement. But the logical fallacy is that this “innate” gender somehow must be performed to be a “real man.” This is the strive and religious attitude Christianity is so apposed to. Manhood is not what you do but our relationship to God and listening to His will in our lives. This makes a man in the forest as a lumberjack just as “manly” as a graphic designer if they are both walking in God’s will.
What I think the writers are trying to impress is that the opposite of man is not woman. In sermons and general language usage its commonly said that women are men’s “equal opposite” but this in context is more derived from the thought that men and women complement, they are opposite in strengths. This does not mean that men and women are opposites in their essence. I know it sounds like semantics but t he implications are massive! To say that they are pitted against each other as opposites, eg. dark-light, up-down, soft-hard, is inevitably to say bad-good. It is natural to have an inclination– to favor, one side with all of these examples. Sadly the same is often implied that men are the preferred and women the second best choice. This is a HUGE thought in the context of christian gender study because it is commonly lumped into so many other ideals. If (I believe as do you) God made men and women as unique and complementing than they are not opposite but made for each other. As husband and wife, men and women, they are not at odds but one. The opposite of men are not women but ‘boys’ that is, the male who has not yet come into his own in the will of God for his life.
“Most “egalitarians” aren’t arguing that men and women are identical. That, quite frankly is a rather over drummed up straw-man.”
So what is the real argument that this straw man is aping? I feel like when I read egalitarian writers (which admittedly I have only done a bit), they are mainly reacting to this over-differentiation of the genders without providing their own explanation. It’s like they’re saying “Not that much, but more than none” with regard to gender differences. Quite frankly, that is not helpful to me.
Dorothy Sayers has a great essay on feminism, where she rejects it by explaining she doesn’t speak for women, but herself. She is human first, and female second. I think this is the idea that Emily and Eve are trying to get at. And I agree with it. However, she also describes gender differences as averages or trends, rather than essentials to our identity, and I am less comfortable with that.
In his Space Trilogy, CS Lewis paints a picture of meta-masculinity and femininity not defined or bound by biology (the implication is that our biology is an expression of these more solid spiritual ideas). This is a fascinating idea as well, and I find some truth in it. But I do not know how to reconcile Lewis and Sayers on this point.
So where does that leave us with regard to understanding universal masculine and feminine essentials? There is so much diversity among both men and women that it is easy to find examples of men who are more “feminine” than some women, and vis versa (and I am not talking about sexual orientation).
Are our differences merely biological? Though by that I do not mean that our biology is a small part of our identity, quite the contrary. I’ve read Earthen Vessels, I get it. ;)
Can someone help me with this balance? Or point me to a resource that I can read for myself?
Fabulous question, Bethany. And one I’m still wrestling with myself. I tend to lean with Sayers on this matter, although CS Lewis has been hugely influential in my life. There are some metaphysical reasons I do so, which I hope to be able to explain further later on. Basically, however, it has to do w/ the supposition that the idea of an ideal or “form” for the male and female is more drawn from Plato than from Holy Scripture. Scripture certainly has much to say about God’s plan for God’s people, male and female, but I’m not sure there is a universal masculine and universal feminine that can be defined accurately outside of biological realities (i.e. the concept of a feminine soul and masculine soul).
Bethany, I also really appreciated what Sayers had to say about this, while having some of the same questions. A section of her essay I found really intriguing was the portion that dealt with how we see Jesus responding to women in the Bible, and what that implies about them. But even if we look at the commands in Scripture that are addressed specifically to men and specifically to women, they don’t seem to always follow our ideas of specifically male or specifically female ways of being virtuous (For instance, in 1 Peter 3, women are told to be courageous.)
To both Emily and H.G.,
Think there is a certain fallacy of equivocation going on here when speaking about gender and roles of men and women. What I mean’t to suggest is that our actions do not define what God given gender is. I say this because of how different that gender is expressed in our cultures. The mainly things in one culture are feminine things in another so what I was trying to clarify that I hesitate to quantify what is masculine and feminine. This doesn’t devalue our differences or make them any less real, I would more appeal to God’s infinities, that we in his image are male and female beyond a quantifiable measure.
As for the ‘egalitarians,’ the argument is not that they should have the same roles but that society should not define the roles that people take on, rather it should be decided upon by functionality and God’s voice. An example being until about 1950 1 our of 4 women worked outside the home in the U.S. It sounds a little nuts, but for a lot of people it’s what it took for the family to survive the great depression and WW2. Point: the nuclear family hasn’t always been practical and possibly not the only model of roles a family must conform to.
Does this clear it up what I mean a bit?
P.S. something also interesting Emily about the biological/metaphysical nature of gender is that secular science really hasn’t got a clue as to where it’s from. In a way it’s a bit of a “chicken or the egg” theory where it isn’t clear which comes first. I don’t know if there needs to be a “balance” per se because “balance” implies two or more things held in tension. We have a tendency to do this because of our English language and the way we rationalize but I’m not sure we can break apart and quantify those parts of our identity (much the way G.H. writes of being a “human-female-person”)
I don’t know how that makes you feel, or if it helps but I think it’s a pretty cool glimpse at God from creation.
Because different culture say something is for men to do while others say the opposite etc does not imply that we cannot tell anything about how men or women should act. One culture could simply be more twisted than the other in that particular area.
Next, because it is difficult to quantify exactly the differences between the genders does not imply that a great deal cannot be quantified.
Lastly, I think you are making a false dichotomy between society/culture talking about gender roles vs. functionality and God’s voice. There is no inherent reason that society cannot say what God says/is saying.
It is very Platonic. And seems to stand in opposition to Paul’s argument in Galatians that there is no differentiation in spiritual realities. It’s not that gender differences don’t matter–they are the means by which we express the inner metaphysical part of us–but simply that core metaphysical humanity is imago dei, not male souls and female souls. Men and women come to Christ the same way, they are redeemed the same way, and they are destined for the same glory–to be restored to the image bearers they were meant to be through Christ.
What I’m trying to say is that the concept is Platonic, but that’s not a reason to reject it.
I assume you are referring to Galations 3:28. I have always taken this to be a statement of equality, rather than negation of “differentiation of spiritual realities.”
I think we can look to John’s description of the Great Multitude to see that we shall retain our race, ethnicity, language, etc. in the kingdom to come (Revelation 7:9). If we keep these lesser differentiators, why would we lose our gender as well?
Certainly not a reason to reject it but to evaluate it for what it is and consider whether it is consistent with biblical paradigms. In terms of Gal 3:28, I was not arguing that it was a negation of differentiation, but that gender–like race, ethnicity–are not metaphysical properties. They are essential and significant to personhood, but we are not Gentile souls or Jewish souls so why would we expect to be male souls and female souls? My concern is not to minimize these differences but to articulate that the differences are physical not metaphysical. (And again, this is in no way to minimize the physical. I fully expect to be female in my glorified body, but it is simply that–a glorified body, not a soul.)
What exactly are you trying to avoid by denying that gender is a metaphysical property?
Just a moment available here to drop back into this conversation about the applicability of the platonic concept of forms. I actually find the concept quite attractive up to a point and agree that it is not necessarily opposed to Scripture. There may well be some congruity with the idea of the first and second adam standing for humanity. But as for the masculine and feminine soul, I have serious difficulty in applying the concept there. Again, more later. Sorry to just drop in & jump out.
If there is differentiation in God, we are Trinitarian vs. Unitarian, then how can one be opposed to differentiation in the image of God?
I agree with Bethany below that Galatians 3:28 does not blow away any and all distinctions. Our sameness/identities does not need to be set against our differences.
I’m not arguing against differentiation just what we understand that differentiation to be. To my mind, it’s essential that there be a base line for human identity that sets us apart from the rest of creation–that is shared by the genders but not the rest of creation. But are we talking about two different kinds of imago dei? Or one imago dei expressed in two differing genders?
I would say that our identity is fundamental while our differences are also fundamental. I agree with you that our human identity set us apart from the rest of creation, but I don’t have to deny or downplay any of our differences in order to agree.
Next, how do you understand the difference between your two question concerning gender and the image of God? I’m thinking the Trinitarian analogy would go with the later.
Since you bring up the Trinitarian pardigm, maybe you can help me in this:
Is it fair to think of human identity in terms of body+soul? If so, does it follow that the gendered body=the different persons of the Godhead while the non-gendered soul=essential nature of the Godhead–the “Godness” of each member?
Is that what you mean by the tension between sameness/differentiation?
I am not sure if having a gendered soul is problematic…. I don’t think that such would necessarily deny the essential unity of the human race of both genders.
For me, the gendered soul concept is problematic because we believe that God is not gendered. Christ was incarnated in male humanity but his essential “Godness” was not gendered. Neither is God a hermaphrodite–simply the combination of two genders. I suppose I pushback against it as well because my soul–the metaphysical part of me–is not being transformed to mirror some female God but to conform to the essential nature of Christ. If men and women are both called to image Christ, it cannot be in His maleness–there has to be something more essential that we are imaging.
I think the underlying question is what does gender outside of the context of the body? One reason for the question is that God is never referred to as essentially an “it”. Also one would ask if it was arbitrary that Jesus came to earth as a man vs. a woman or whether there is some essential aspect of himself that was better portrayed that way.
I think it may be helpful to think about how we speak about God by analogy (as opposed to strict identity or by strict equivocation). God is our Father but he transcends even an imaginary perfect human father.
At bottom, I don’t think that I have a problem with the idea that God in His three persons is in some way a combination of both genders. Such would only be a problem if God was Unitarian because such would imply a confusion of important distinctions.
“…the underlying question is what does gender outside of the context of the body?” In reference to God that’s brilliant. But as you pointed out, can our gender and our identity be removed from our spirits? If we are accountable based on the actions within the lens of our identity as male and female how can we be separated? Secondly, If we reflect God’s nature in accordance to living by His will, which in part is differentiated according to our sex, are we then not glorifying him through our engendered behavior? There for I would lean towards God holding both “essences” of our gender. Perhaps not as clearly divided or evident as we view each other as male and female.
In light of this I would also be hesitant to agree that an “…essential aspect of [God]himself that was better portrayed that way,” without noting that this ‘better portrayal’ has a great deal to do with context. I don’t mean that to sound like a relativist rather I think assuming some greater presuppositions (men and women in the image of God equally) implying a male interpretation of God as superior is counter intuitive. I also don’t mean to quibble so perhaps that is assumed within your comment, and if so disregard.
I have also heard some rather interesting studies on the more “feminine” attributes of God in reference to the psalms. I think this is an interesting thought conservatives have tossed out with the liberal extremists, but perhaps there is something to be said for the theory. All to say, I have not done enough of my own study to make a substantial claim.
This conversation has been great, though remarkably off topic. Thanks to the authors for such a fantastic article. It was both graceful and clear; making more well delivered points than many people manage to make in a book. A much needed reply to the source article.
It depends on what you mean when you talk about a God “who would be in some way a combination of both genders.” If you mean that all the wonder and beauty of the design of gender somehow resides in God as it’s source, I agree. All things (including gender) are “from Him and through Him and unto Him.” But if you mean that there is an essentially feminine nature of God and an essentially masculine nature of God then I have to disagree because it would limit my ability to come into the fullness of His nature–His complete Trinitarian nature. There would be parts of Him that would be cut off to me.
I assume that you would respond that this wouldn’t necessarily cut anyone off from the fullness of God’s nature because His love, peace, etc. would be expressed in both genders thus making us equally capable of expressing His nature. But doesn’t that just get us back to where we started? We are both expressing something that is more essential to His nature than gender. Otherwise we end up with gendered virtues.
Also, how would we be able to identify the masculine/feminine soul apart from the body? We would only be able to realize the gender of a soul by the individual’s physical gender–which would, in essence, establish physicality as the primary source of identity. (It would also leave little room for the equal personhood of multi-sexed individuals–would they have both male and female souls? Would they be more fully human? Or less?)
You’re right that the underlying question is what does gender mean outside of the context of the body, but I suppose I don’t think gender exists apart from the body. It is a tremendous part of the equation of human identity, but it is a physical part not a metaphysical one.
You make a really great point about masculinity and femininity in regards to coming into God’s fullness. I’m interested to hear G.H.’s response. My only thought is that perhaps unity with the God-head is not a lining two checklists up of who He is and who we are but rather we all (sanctified and made holy) fit into unity with Him through many facets, like a diamond. I mean that our unique differences in the entirety of our being (personality, our life story, our opinions) all fit into a facet of God’s infinite. But that’s only a thought…
My only concrete thought in regards to your point is a problem I do have with gender roles. Should women not be allowed to teach because they were unfortunate enough to be put into female bodies, though their souls are equally qualified to hear wisdom from God? This is a bit of a riddle and I don’t mean to be hyperbolic. It’s just a question, if men and women have this sameness within the spirit. It does make Galatians make a little more sense though…
I would say that as far as coming into or reflecting God’s full Trinitarian nature, that is something that only Jesus could do as an individual human while finite man or female cannot do such. To accept such is not embarrassing or shameful to either gender.
Next, I don’t and never have had a problem with gendered virtues. If men and women are essentially different then one should expect that there will be differences in how they are supposed to display or portray various virtues.
When one steps away from the body, gender could stand for essential differences.
As far as multi-sexed individuals go, I don’t think I have ever heard of a person who is a fertile man or woman. They are either not fertile at all or fertile as a man or woman while also having the non functional sex organ from the other sex. So I don’t think there is ever a question of having both souls.
Hannah, another Esolen essay gave me cause to look back at this and reflect on the changes in our lives over the last 5 years. What a gift to meet you online before you became a famous author. :-)
Hannah, is very well said. These are the most important of my objections too. In addition, the idea of a gendered soul combined with the idea of Platonic forms for the genders, which really seems to be threaded through many Christian conversations about sex and gender, leads to the conclusion that it is the duty of individuals to conform to the form. Since we have no real objective evidence for what the form is biblically, and nothing but averages from social science, what we end up with is some powerful spokespersons, clergy members, their wives, bloggers, authors and others, who articulate what they think the ideal is and attempt to persuade others of their own gender or the other gender to conform to their concept of how persons of one or the other sex should behave. Needless to say, this has engendered a great deal of confusion, needless shaming, and has had some quite negative consequences, the worst of which may be that it has obscured Jesus Christ as the ONE into whose image all believers, male and female, are being transformed.
Are you saying that the persons of the Godhead are somehow non essential or less essential than the essence/unity of the Godhead?
I’m not sure we need to reject the form concept as purely Platonic and not at all Scriptural. For myself, I used to think that Greek philosophy was in opposition to Hebrew spirituality, but then I realized that God chose Paul, educated under both systems, and sent him through Macedonia and Greece, even though he wanted to go to Asia. As a result, I think historical Christianity has been strengthened by certain elements of Greek thought (though not all).
Furthermore, I have noticed at least once in scripture (though I unfortunately cannot remember a reference, I will have to study up) where the language is implicitly built on a structure borrowed from the allegory of the caves.
Finally, I do not think that the specific idea of forms necessarily conflicts with the gospel. In fact, I think it harmonizes quite nicely. I think it is a very good way to understand God’s promises of new bodies and being perfect. We shall no longer be shadows, but will be our full, solid selves.
I also have two counterpoints to your reluctance to accept the idea of male and female souls. One, scripture doesn’t really teach that the human person is described as soul/spirit separate from the body. Matt fleshes out, hah, this tendency and why it’s incorrect in Earthen Vessels. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. (You can pay me later, Matt ;) ). Our eternal selves will be at least as physical as our current ones, only better.
Two, even if we have a concept of self that is separable from our biology, what do we have left? I find the idea of an androgynous soul to be less in line with scripture than gendered souls. After all, even God, who is spirit, identifies as male in his communication with us, and in his incarnation. I will not pretend to understand that fully, or what it means for the forms of man and woman. But I will trust that God is good.
Bethany, I eagerly bought, read and very much appreciated Earthen Vessels. I even agreed w/ Matt most of the time ;-)
If what you write concerning Dorothy Sayers is accurate, then she seems to fall into the same or a similar trap as the authors if this article. Dorothy was a human female person first. At no point was Dorothy or any other woman able to peel away her femaleness and then experience bare humanness. She seems to be forced into making a choice due to the false dichotomy of either sameness or differences can be fundamental and not both. Now she probably experienced the common aspects of her nature that she shares with ever other human being, but that aspect is not opposed to her femaleness. Because she experiences something first does not make it more fundamental than what she experiences second anymore than our experiencing our exterior first makes such more fundamental than our heart, lungs, etc which we cannot see. She does not have to choose one or the other.
Lastly, if the differences are simply an issue of averages and trends then one cannot make the argument dominant argument against same sex marriage that children need a mom and a dad. At best all you could say is that some men or some women have trouble duplicating what can be found in the opposite sex while others have no problem.
You will have to read Sayer for yourself then, because I am confident that I am not doing her justice. That said, I have to disagree with you just a little. It is man and woman’s shared humanity that makes our differences meaningful. Also, when I say human first, female second, I am not placing gender separate from human identity, but rather close. Gender is the first, most basic aspect of our diversity, one of two and only two expressions of the human person.I imagine that it is because our shared humanity is so obvious(though it was not always) that we so easily jump to focusing on gender differentiation.
Could it not be as easily said that our differences are what make our shared humanity meaningful? My overriding point it that neither differences nor our identity/shared aspects are more fundamental than the other side.
I concede your point, and ask you to concede mine (though it is not a condition of my concession).
Our shared humanity is easier to understand and define than our gender differences. Furthermore, misunderstanding the significance of our differences has led to a great deal of harm in gender relations throughout history (though of course, this is one of many manifestations of our sin nature). I think this is why some of us are taking such great pains to rightly understand the gendered part of our identities (This is where language fails me. I do not mean that gender is a compartment of my identity, only to negate the opposite – that it is the whole of my identity).
I agree completely. I suppose for me the question is most easily solved by answering another one:
With which does a female human have more in common–a female cat or a male human?
Which ever category you answer that with is the category that is most basic to her identity. I agree that gender is a massive part of human identity but the assumption of imago dei must predicate any understanding of it. If only by the slimmest of margins.
That’s a really helpful way to put the question, Hannah. I’ve actually put it that way myself in past conversations!
I would say that misunderstanding the significance of our differences can only come from misunderstanding the significance of our identity. They are not two separate problems but instead two sides of the same coin. If one looks again at the trinity, one will see that two major heresies: Modalism (God’s oneness is fundamental while His threeness is not) vs. Tri-theism (God’s threeness is fundamental while His oneness is not) are not two completely separate errors but where they get one side of God correct while messing up the other. Both sides are messed up. If one side is correct then the other side will be correct.
H.G. I don’t think Sayers is at all saying being human is opposed to or exclusive of being female. But that both men and women are human as well as male and female. We have to be able to talk about both. Saying there is only difference is as wrong as saying there is only similarity.
I don’t want to say that the differences are only averages or trends, either. I think there is something also uniquely valuable in being a man and being a woman. But like S.J., I am hesitant to codify what that is or to completely explain it. And I want to be careful when doing that to say things that we know are true. Shared participation in bearing the Image of God is true. Being created male and female is also true. The two have to be held closely (as Bethany says below)(sorry, I’m not sure about the best order or way to respond to all these great comments!), but the second cannot negate the commonality of the first.
“Most “egalitarians” aren’t arguing that men and women are
That, quite frankly is a rather over drummed up straw-man.”
In no way were my comments attacking a straw-man. The authors explicitly embraced
real differences that are not fundamental. Or put another way, fundamentally we
are all identical. One must embrace such or egalitarianism makes no sense. To
embrace fundamental differences kills the claim that the roles must be the same
or their is injustice.
Next, the arguments concerning behavior do not exist in a vacuum. They come
from first asking the question what is a man’s purpose/nature/final cause and
then asking if the behaviors are according to said purpose/nature/final cause.
Such is not very controversial. The controversy comes when one asks what a
man’s purpose is. As I was saying above, there are fundamental identities and
fundamental differences between men and women.
At what point did Esolen say anything about being a graphic designer is not
as good, in terms of nature of being a man, as being a lumberjack?
“What I think the writers are trying to impress is that the opposite of man
is not woman.”
I disagree that they seem to believe such. It seems that they believe such
but that such is not fundamental to our human personhoods.
We never said that fundamentally we are all identical. In fact human beings are gloriously diverse. But what makes us worthy of respect is that we are, male and female, the pinnacle of God’s creation, his own image bearers.
I think SJ read us well when s/he said “What I think the writers are trying to impress is that the opposite of man is not woman.” While, on average, many men and women may find they have different sets of strengths and weaknesses in common with others of their sex, this description of observed reality should never be taken as a prescription to maximize or minimize a given set of personal strengths, based solely on one’s sex. Rather, male or female, Christ-followers should use our strengths to serve, as did Jesus, our Lord.
I was going to contribute some thoughts regarding perichoresis and the ontologicial nature of the Trinity, but others have beaten me to the punch.
If I could press into a little more pastoral angle, I would say this: the difference between a godly complementarian marriage and a godly egalitarian marriage is rather difficult to distinguish. If we reduce the complexity of the conversation from men and women to one man and one woman, then loving submission looks very similar across cultural and subcultural divides (having witnessed very complementarian marriages in America and India).
I suppose the same principle may be at work, then, with godly complementarian parenting and godly egalitarian parenting. That’s why the authors of this article do well to push beyond these common categorical distinctions to a conversation about similarity and difference. Perhaps this is a conversation about difference in degree, and not in kind.
I might also add that the authors contribute an important counter-example when they talk about difference-sex parents. I always find it amusing when the typical examples are fathers and sons, or mother and daughters. I’m a father with two daughters, so I don’t know what it’s like to raise a son, but I do love my daughters, and one of them is exactly like her mother, while the baby, I suspect, will turn out a little more like me.
That’s a really good point, David. It’s so important that we communicate the value of opposite sex parents in the development of their children. Daughters need their dads and sons need their moms, just as much as they need their same sex parent. Both parents are vital to the development of children of both genders – and not just to point their children to the same sex parents as role models .
Thank you, dear ladies, for your gentle rebuke. I’ll say in my defense what Lewis said about the demonic strategy for dealing with cultures generally. The devils get Puritans to worry overmuch about drink and not about spiritual pride; they get dissipated people to worry overmuch about spiritual pride and not about their dissipation. I think we are about the last people in the world to run the danger of overemphasizing the differences between the sexes. Perhaps it would be a good exercise for members of each sex to try to imagine what it might be like to be a member of the other sex. This is why, by the way, I cannot accept the fundamental assumption of feminism, which is that there are “women’s issues,” separate from the interests of men and children; or “men’s issues,” for that matter. I do believe that the union of the three persons in one God is shadowed forth in the sexual division in mankind — and that that sexual division is a great and mysterious good. In believing this I think I have the great poets of our heritage with me: Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare … My belief that man is for-woman and woman is for-man is just a specific application of what Pope Benedict has said about being-for; this does not mean that we are not all to be for-one another, but that the being-for is obvious in the matter of the division of the sexes, and no, I do not believe that orientation is to be confined within the bounds of marriage. That is, there is a sense in which, in a decent society, women understand their womanhood in relation to man, and men understand their manhood in relation to woman; each sex being a gift to the other.
Thank you for your kind reply, Dr. Esolen. I completely agree about “women’s issues” being one of the destructive side effects of feminism. I think you are very right that in many ways that our culture certainly does not over-emphasize differences between the sexes. But I wonder if in some other (more perverse senses) American/Western culture does? The reason I thought of GQ and Cosmo is that both those publications (and the strands of culture they represent) do make the sexes too different, by reducing them to sexual objects for each other (rather than whole persons who give to each other in more than just sexual relationships, our lives gaining good from this diversity, as you say, beyond marriage alone). This is, perhaps, connected to the tendency of our culture to also prioritize sexual “orientation” as _the_ essential part of identity (rather than _a_ part). Because of these factors, I think that continuing to bear in mind our shared status (created beings, image bearers) helps the Christian to talk about (beautiful, healthy) difference as well?
Dr. Esolen, thank you for engaging our thoughts a bit. There is certainly “a sense which” the sexes are uniquely for each other. That’s what we meant in referring to the idea of the “blessed alliance” between men and women which strengthens both as we appreciate and partner with each other. And, I also agree with you, and with Sayers (referenced elsewhere in this conversation), that a great weakness of modern feminism is the division of men’s and women’s interests, as if they were some radically different thing.
marriage is enjoyable when it is honorable before God and humans as says at http://unn.edu.ng/department/religion
Even if gender differences are “averages or trends” why is that mutually exclusive from some sort of essence? That is to say, having a male body means that I am, from the start, associated with a certain average or trend contrasted with the corresponding feminine stereotype. It doesn’t follow that I have to conform. Indeed, some of those trends will be virtuous, some will be vicious, and some will be neutral. However, it is clear that humanity as a whole, averaged, will be more spiritually “balanced” than just mankind or womankind alone. Of course, this is true for all diversity, whether essential or socially constructed. However, I think all this talk, which seemingly exists to try to uphold somehow the idea of heteronormative gender scripts (whether by ‘sacrificing the form to save the content’ or ‘sacrificing the content in order to save the form’) actually open up, basically, a whole “theology of queerness.” A man or a woman has to take gender into account in their self-narrative. But it does not follow that the “goal” is conformism to some sort of essence or average trend. Rather, what is important is that a man is going to grapple with his manhood, and a woman with her womanhood. It’s not just “This fact about me doesn’t matter,” in the sense that most people don’t place much emphasis on attached or detached earlobes or any sort of identity or affinity based on that. Rather, it matters exactly because people are going to confront both how they are similar and how they are different from other people sharing their biological sex, how much they are normative and how much they are queer (defined relative to the gender scripts of their culture and indeed all of human history). A man is not someone who has achieved the performance of some essence. He’s someone who has integrated (somehow!) the fact of his maleness into his self-narrative. For some (I think tragically, and as a product of the actually very violent gender-space we’re living in) this “integration” actually takes the form of a narrative of rejection or revolution (ie, trans people). But for many integration means just that: integrating the raw material fact of a male body into ones own identity in the face of all the various (and often incoherent and conflicting) messages culture and history send about what it’s “supposed to mean” with what it means to you.
[…] a beneficial outcome; a beautiful voice for art or liturgy, financial security, or social status. “He” would still be a “he.” In contrast, the “mutilation” a transwoman endures to achieve feminine characteristics does not […]