Embodied Persons, Male and Female: Thoughts on the Body and Personal Identity

adameve

I find it hard to understand why some claim today that it is bigoted and mean-spirited to think that the biological complementarity of males and females provides an important clue to the personal identity of human beings. When someone speaks of men and women, it is certainly reasonable to assume that those terms reflect basic biological realities.  It is hard to see how we may think of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, etc., without reference to the physical bodies of those who are male or female.  If we try to do so, we will quickly find ourselves supporting a disembodied view of personhood that presents grave challenges for human dignity and is antithetical to the Christian faith.

“The facts of life” are such that it takes the bodies of two persons of opposite sex to conceive children.  As any physician or scientist will affirm, there are distinctive and biologically defined roles for men and women in this process.  It is also the nature of human beings to inherit physical and other traits from their parents.  In other words, the difference and complementarity of biological males and females stands at the heart of what it means to exist as a human being.

No doubt, throughout human history there have been men and women who would have preferred to have been born as members of the opposite sex.  It is one thing to acknowledge that, but quite another to conclude that their preference means that there is no abiding biological reality to the distinction between males and females.  It is one thing to hope that people who struggle with these issues will find peace in accepting the implications of the physical reality of their bodies for their personal identity.  It is one thing to reach out to them with compassion, as Christians should to all people with profound personal challenges.  It is quite another, however, to say that only vicious, ignorant oppressors would dare to think that someone’s physical body manifests whether that person is a man or a woman.

Granted, there are very rare cases of ambiguous genitalia or persons with a disparity between their chromosomes and the outward structure of their bodies.  Barring those conditions, it is hard to see how someone could even come close to making a coherent claim that he or she is “really” a member of the opposite sex.  Such an assertion would entail that the characteristics of one’s physical body are simply irrelevant to his or her personal identity.  The details of gender roles have varied throughout human history and do vary today in different settings, but the physical distinctions between the anatomy of males and females have remained.  Those who do not recognize that biological sexual identity is an abiding dimension of personal identity have taken a large step away from reality and the broad scope of human experience in the world as we know it.

It is not yet clear how far the agenda of deconstructing maleness and femaleness will go, but to make gender identity simply a matter of subjective self-definition should deeply trouble us all, and especially advocates of the rights and equality of women.  If our society comes to view physical bodies as irrelevant for the definition of who is a woman, then matters involving women’s bodies—such as pregnancy, motherhood, or violence against women– will be taken even less seriously than they are today.  If a simple declaration by a biological male makes him a woman, then the unique interests and cultural significance of those with female bodies must not matter that much.  Indeed, any claim that male and female bodies are even truly distinctive would become incoherent. The definition of who is a woman would then have no connection with the physical characteristics of the human body; those characteristics would then have only trivial significance.  The less standing the bodies of our neighbors have in our eyes, the less of an obligation we have to help them as embodied persons.  No, this way of thinking is not good news for the orphan, the widow, the stranger, or the rest of us.  The classic feminist phrase “our bodies, ourselves” would be replaced by a dangerously disembodied vision of personhood.

For Christians, the deconstruction of biological sexual identity is yet another manifestation of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism.   We cannot tell the story of the good news of our salvation without referring to biological men and women, for our salvation is the fulfillment of our identity and vocation as those created male and female in God’s image and likeness. (Gen. 1:27)   Just try to make sense of the story of the Hebrew people from generation to generation without such a perspective.  Contrary to those who think that Jesus Christ was uninterested in these matters, He specifically cited our creation as male and female in speaking about marriage. (Matt. 19:4; Mark 10:6)  Against the libertines who thought that what they did with their flesh sexually had no spiritual significance, St. Paul stressed that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit that will participate in eternal life.  (1 Cor. 6:12ff.)  Christ’s resurrection manifests God’s gracious intensions to sanctify every dimension of who we are:  body, soul, and spirit.    And since He is the Eternal Word Who spoke the universe into existence, breathed life into us from the dust of the earth, and told us to “be fruitful and multiply” as men and women (Gen. 1:28), it should not be surprising that His salvation is the fulfillment, not the repudiation, of our embodied personhood.

In this light, Christians must show true compassion toward people who struggle with gender identity without encouraging them to adopt self-definitions that ignore the physical realities of human personhood.  Christ invites us to the healing of every dimension of our humanity, which includes embracing the truth about who we are as embodied male or female persons.  For all of us, that is a struggle in one way or another.  Healing comes through the difficult task of offering every dimension of our lives to the Lord in humility.  We become more truly the people He created us to be when we reorient ourselves to Him in body, soul, and spirit. Our faith calls us to give more—not less—attention to the role of our bodies in sharing in the eternal life of the Lord Who made us men and women in His  image and likeness.

12 comments:

  1. In the current issue of Touchstone Magazine, Robert Hart writes about having biblical compassion for sex-change confusion in his article entitled: “Surgical Fantasy”. He quotes from a CNS News report from June 2 of last year: “Dr. Paul R. McHugh, the former psychiatrist-in-chief for Johns Hopkins Hospital and its current Distinguished Service Professor of Psychiatry, said that transgenderism is a “mental disorder” that merits treatment, that sex change is “biologically impossible,” and that people who promote sexual reassignment surgery are collaborating with and promoting a mental disorder.”

    Robert Hall, rector of St. Benedict’s Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, goes on to say: “It is time for the Church to look this matter squarely in the eye, and determine how to respond to it in the light of doctrine, including sacramental theology.” Your thoughts do indeed look at the misguided with compassion and address the need to speak the truth in terms of where they are misguided. Thank you for your posting.

    1. Martin,
      Thanks for your message. I appreciate your mentioning the Touchstone article. Yes, we need a theologically-informed response to these matters.
      Peace,
      Fr. Philip

      1. Dr. Paul McHugh finds himself in the absolute minority on the topic. Here is the good write-up, on a Christian blog, of all places.

        http://www.readthespirit.com/third-way-newsletter/

        Quoting from it: “while it is valid to cite Dr. McHugh as an expert or authority on the subject, it is completely unwarranted to present him as some sort of final word (when dealing with science it is usually problematic to assume that there is a total consensus), and anyone who decides to reference Dr. McHugh in support of an argument or position they are defending should be aware that there are many well credentialed vices which oppose him. While he has a degree of authority on the subject, his expertise must be situated in the context of overwhelming dissent from the medical and psychological/psychiatric establishment.”

  2. Thank you, Father, for your kind words. I am blessed to know 3 young people who are in the process of changing their genders. I say that I’m blessed, even though I don’t agree with their decisions, because God allows me to pray for them every day. I’ve heard their stories, and my heart breaks for their confusion. I want to make it “all better” for them and I continue to ask that my prayers will help them. I wish Christians would stop making bathroom and cross-dressing jokes, and I pray for them as well.

    1. Laura,
      Thanks for your message.
      God bless you and the young people you mention!
      In Christ,
      Fr. Philip

  3. Father, with all respect, you are offering a gross oversimplification of what is an extremely complex and varied issue. Even more alarming is the quote in the first comment, ““It is time for the Church to look this matter squarely in the eye, and determine how to respond to it in the light of doctrine, including sacramental theology.” For the Church to look “squarely in the eye” of anything, an enormous amount of work needs to be done which, frankly, a great number of churchmen is profoundly unqualified to do. You and I were both at a conference where a priest made a remark about IVF, saying “this woman was looking for a blessing to kill her babies” – a remark which caused everyone in the room with a modicus of science training to roll their eyes, but that is fully symptomatic of the level of ignorance which informs many of the ecclesiastical pronouncements on anthropological challenges of today.

    Speaking for myself, I know several transgender people, men and women. For all of them, the reassignment procedures were a medical necessity, with an alternative being a complete psychiatric demise. All of them are now well-adjusted, normal people. One, incidentally, was kicked out of the house by her deeply religious parents when her gender dysphoria began to manifest itself. I don’t believe that essays such as this are helping to recognize the depth of suffering that people who are not gender-normative or sexually-normative face in their lives. The talk of compassion rings hollow when it is offered only on condition of the “normative” rules.

    1. Inga,
      Thanks for your comment. Though I am sure that you will not find it completely satisfying, I will refer you to my earlier response to Alex’s comment. There is surely a lot of work that remains to be done in articulating Orthodox responses to these matters that are properly informed by both theology and medical science.
      Peace,
      Fr. Philip

  4. Fr. Philip,

    Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful post. You said “[f]or Christians, the deconstruction of biological sexual identity is yet another manifestation of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism.” Could you elaborate on this more? I find it an intriguing thought.

    Regards,

    Adam

    1. Adam,
      Thanks for your comment and question. Gnosticism was quite varied, but was characterized by the belief that physical reality is intrinsically corrupt and of no positive spiritual significance. Consequently, Christians influenced by Gnosticism held a Docetic view of Christ which affirmed that He only appeared to have a body. (Hence, He was not born, did not die, and was not truly resurrected.) His physical body was not real, and ours would consequently have no spiritual significance. Those who deny that the physical differences between men and women have any significance for personal identity, let alone any spiritual significance, denigrate the body. God’s creation of us as males and females then becomes meaningless and irrelevant. Salvation would be a disembodied reality for which our biological maleness and femaleness would have no importance at all. Such a way of thinking would take us well outside the sensibilities of the biblical narrative and of coherent accounts of how the God-Man is our Savior as those created male and female in His image and likeness.
      Peace,
      Fr. Philip

  5. Father Philip: I think that one must at least admit the possibility that our long-standing manner of thinking about gender could be incorrect. Everyone knows that sexuality and gender have more than just a mechanical character. That is why a very young child may have the same “equipment” as an older one, but only responds sexually as puberty occurs. It is also why the actions by a partner may result in arousal, while not having the same affect if the gender of the partner is different. In other words, one’s pleasure, happiness, fulfillment and sense of rightness “resides” more in one’s brain than in one’s genitalia; hence, the efforts by some to create harmony between the two through sex-reassignment. This in no way downgrades the importance of the physical reality of genitalia; it simply acknowledges the importance of the cerebral (yet still biological) reality of one’s brain. Both are gifts from God. Some would even say that our uniquely human character as thinking beings takes priority over the visible, manipulable, outward attributes of the other body parts. One would not put the wrong battery into a cellphone or tablet — this does not mean that one fails to appreciate the importance of a power supply, only that matching one with the other is crucial.

    1. Alex,
      Thanks for your response. You’ve raised important questions that certainly can’t be resolved in a short exchange online. My main concern in this little posting has been to respond to rhetoric that seems to disregard entirely that human beings are embodied persons, as well as that being biologically male or female has to do with both genotype and phenotype. The integration of body, soul, and spirit is surely more holistic than the relationship of a battery to a piece of technological machinery. Our brains, thoughts, and desires may be misguided and not in accordance with reality. There are very deep matters at stake here about what it means to be an embodied person in the image and likeness of God. I’m dubious that cultural trends in the West during my lifetime are uniquely so insightful about these matters that ancient and cross-cultural sensibilities should be discarded. Let’s stay in touch and conversation about these and other matters.
      Peace,
      Fr. Philip

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