Please note that I have made some changes in this article, in listening to comments and observations.
Despite all social discussion to the contrary, the most irreducible level of our human existence is binary – we exist as male or female. This intuition, stated in the story of creation, has a profound place within the Christian gospel. The story of our salvation is revealed to us in terms that are male and female. Far from being grounded in some antiquated view of humanity, the Christian story, the story of Jesus, is a profoundly human story. It reveals that this most irreducible level of our humanity is neither incidental nor unnecessary. To be human can only be expressed in terms of male and female. Any other account of what it means to be human is a mere abstraction, ignoring the only way we can possibly know ourselves.
This imagery is woven into the Biblical narrative of our salvation, at least as it is related in the New Testament and preserved in the teaching of the Orthodox Church. Christ is born of a woman, the Virgin Mother of God. And this portion of the story is not incidental to our salvation. It is not a mere dramatic device to get the story rolling. The story of Christ’s conception is of a piece with the whole account of Jesus.
The story of the human fall from communion with God is a male and female story – including the somewhat comical note of both Adam and Eve seeking to pass the blame on to someone else. But, just as we are created male and female, so we fall, male and female. And just as we fall male and female, so the story of our salvation is told, male and female.
Mary is the New or Second Eve, in the words of the Fathers. Christ is not incarnate apart from her “yes.” Her self-emptying answer to the angel, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to your word,” is the New Testament counterpart to Eve’s disobedience. An even greater role involves the very heart of her existence as woman. As we say in the Creed, “He became incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.” The flesh, the whole of the human nature that is united with the divine in Christ, is a gift from the Virgin. Christ’s humanity is Mary’s gift, not a special creation within the womb.
Every woman who gives birth, gives of her humanity (just as every man who is united to a woman gives of his humanity). To be human is to be the gift of a man and a woman, through the mercy of God. In the case of Christ, we confess that there is no human father. Christ is born of a Virgin.
Our salvation, when the story is rightly told, is the work of God and Man, the work of the God/Man Jesus Christ. As the Fathers repeatedly said, “God became what we are that we might become what He is.” The Orthodox account of Christianity is the story of a union: first a union in the womb of Mary, but also a union on the Cross and a union in the Resurrection and the Ascension. There is no genderless version of the Christian gospel that is orthodox.
Tragically, the role of male and female has largely been removed in contemporary versions of Christianity. In an overreaction to Roman Catholicism, Protestant Christianity increasingly told the story of our salvation with minimal reference to Mary. For many contemporary Protestants, Mary’s womb is but a borrowed space, her role quite secondary. Our salvation is related as a payment, a death that assuages the wrath of God and allows God to see us as though we were righteous. There is no union. Baptism becomes but a token symbol, the Eucharist a mere memorial. The entire human story, that can only rightly be told with reference to male and female, is transformed into a story of contract and payment, a sexlessly neutral theological event.
This account of salvation provided the groundwork for the modern view of humanity. Gender in the modern world is but a biological inconvenience, something to be minimized if possible, reimagined when necessary. What matters about human beings in the modern world is that they produce and consume. We exist for the economy. Career trumps child-bearing. Gender expectations and traditional roles are dismissed as patriarchal nonsense that prevents people from fulfilling their dreams and vocations.
This modern account of what it means to be human is deeply flawed. It is driven by modern economics and makes being human into an abstraction, divorced from reality. Our technology allows us to ignore the realities of our biology – and thus to live make-believe lives. We are able through technology to pretend that sexual intimacy is about pleasure and self-fulfillment and not about procreation. Any account of what it means to be human that requires the wide-spread intervention of technology is simply delusional. It is a lie.
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, procreation has been moved to the laboratory and artificial wombs. All human beings practice birth control and perceive sex as a purely recreational activity. Through a series of accidents, one of the characters is removed from this technological world and becomes pregnant. She sees this as tragic. What was once seen as science fiction has now come to resemble many aspects of our times. We are living in a fantasy novel.
The reality of the gendered account of the gospel is carried over into the life of the Church. The Body of Christ, the Church itself, is spoken of as the “Bride of Christ,” and its final union with Him at the close of the age as the “Wedding Banquet.” The imagery of marriage (with its implied conjugal union) is a primary way the Church speaks about the human relationship with God. The relationship between a man and a woman is not something incidental to our existence, a side-show for pleasure, it is somehow of a piece with our complete destiny in God. Every celebration of the Eucharist is a marriage feast, brought forth from the Bridal Chamber.
The modern view of human beings is that we are autonomous centers of consciousness whose choices and decisions bring about self-actualization. Male and female have nothing to do with our humanness in this view. Being human is about choice, decision-making, freedom and autonomy. The givenness of gender is therefore an obstacle to our fantasy existence. The lofty words of choice and freedom, enshrined in the laws and philosophy of our land, are actually just disguises for saying that we are producers and consumers. When a human being’s ability to choose is impaired, we despair that they have somehow lost their personhood. To produce and to shop are the core of our being.
This modern account represents a wholesale attack on the true dignity and worth of human beings. We become subservient to nothing more than economic interests, a disguised way of saying “survival.” Survival is the role of a beast, not a human being. “Man shall not live by bread alone,” we are told.
Our salvation is a Divine/Human event. But to be Divine/Human, it must be at least truly human. Humanity viewed as nothing more than a survival strategy cannot be saved. “You cannot serve God and mammon.”
This directs our attention back to the truth of our existence. From the beginning we have existed as male and female. That human beings continue in existence is wholly dependent upon our being male and female. There is no other way to be.
The most authoritative definition of male and female in the Tradition is found in the work of St. Maximus the Confessor. He states that male and female are “energies” of our human nature. That is a way of saying that male and female are not something that exists on the level of choice – they are the very mode of our existence. Male and female are the normative expressions of our humanity.
We have become aware in modern culture, that not everyone experiences that “mode” of existence in the same way. The reasons for this are complex. There are certainly physical, genetic and environmental factors that disrupt that normative expression. It must be remembered that all experience of our humanity is, at present, tragic (tragic=fallen). There should be no triumphalism for those whose experience is perceived as “normative.” The Church grounds the sexual expression of our gendered mode of existence in marriage and procreation. The wisdom of Scripture is not rightly viewed as an uninformed, antiquated understanding of what it means to be human. However broken male and female marriage has been at different points of history, it remains foundational for child-rearing and the well-being of society.
The grounding of our sexual existence in the confines of a life-long union of man and woman is the foundation of human culture. It predates any notion of government or the State. The many experiments with other treatments of sexual existence have proven to be dysfunctional and disastrous for the most fundamental tasks of our existence. If it is not so in every instance, it is so in the aggregate. The commandments we have in this regard are for our well-being.
The frustration of modern culture with the Christian tradition of being human is with the limits it places on choice and freedom. We demand that every choice we can imagine should be available for us to realize. The Church fully and completely understands the nature of this demand. We call it “sin.” Human existence must not be grounded in consumption, much less in unfettered consumption. When it is – we ultimately consume one another and ourselves. It is also the case that our modern paradigm has little place for the tragic – we do not suffer well nor do we help others to bear their suffering well.
The roles of women and men in the life of the Church, though varied in many ways, are nevertheless grounded in this primary understanding of a truly human, gendered existence. That the ordained priesthood is expressed in men rather than women (for example) is an affirmation that gender matters and is of consequence. Male and female are not interchangeable.
The burdens that we encounter in our gendered existence (most of which are created by the false expectations of the modern view of humanity) are no different than the burdens of having a body. I am not what I imagine myself to be – I am a human being and I am what my body says I am. Existence is inherently given, not invented.
The autonomy and choice demanded in the modern model are in deep conflict with the traditional understanding of what it means to be human. In this conflict, the Church rightly points to Christ. He is the example of what it means to be fully human. The shopping-careered humans of the modern world are sad caricatures of that Christ-like existence. Self-defined, self-designed, self-authenticating, self-affirming – self, self, self, self, is no way to exist.