"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, December 3, 2010

God, Sex, and Gender

If you live anywhere in the West today, you could be forgiven for thinking that the only topic that arouses Christians to passionate debate is sex. In particular, most Christian traditions, for thirty years or more, have been asking about the permissibility of ordaining women and approving of homosexual relationships. Lurking right behind these questions is the more interesting and important question of what it means to be created male and female--the theological significance of sexual differentiation and gender. In debates about same-sex marriage, that question is often overlooked by some Christians who prefer instead to indulge in sociological prognostications and apocalypticism on the cheap, usually rolled into one: "gay marriage will bring about the end of civilization as we know it!" Instead of sloganeering like that, Christians should be doing what they alone can do, and that is: ask, and attempt to answer, the question of why God made us male and female, and what the significance and implications of that are. Most Western Christians have only recently begun to contemplate such questions. To date, the best such book raising those very questions is  
Creation & Covenant: The Significance of Sexual Difference in the Moral Theology of Marriage

by Christopher Roberts. But that book has little to say from the East apart from a couple of inadequate sections on Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa. But we cannot fault Roberts, and for two reasons: first, no early Christians asked the question in any serious or systematic way of what, in theological terms, human sexual differentiation means; and, second, most of us in the Christian East have ourselves only begun to ask the questions of what, theologically, the meaning of both sex and gender are. For too long, the question either did not occur or, as when recently it did, we have often replied very inadequately. If Orthodox Christians hope to be taken seriously--as I do--in discussions about why marriage is between a man and a woman, and why the tradition of priestly ordination is reserved for men, then we must come up with deeper, more satisfying arguments that ultimately answer the question: what purpose did God have in mind in creating us male and female? I am myself trying to ask such questions in a book (under contract with T&T Clark) tentatively entitled "Sexual Differentiation and the Christian East: Sources Ancient and Modern."

Now a new book comes along to continue asking those questions:

Patricia Beattie Jung and Aana Marie Vigen, eds., God, Science, Sex, Gender: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Christian Ethics (University of Illinois Press, 2010)vii+287pp.

This is an interesting and important book that very clearly saw its goal as asking questions rather than providing definitive answers. As the great moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre put it in his book on Edith Stein, we live in a culture impatient with questions and always desirous of immediate answers. But philosophers such as Stein, and theologians worthy of the name, must know that some things can never be answered definitively, and that the value of asking the right questions can be enormous. Those seeking simple solutions will have to look elsewhere than in this book. But that is not a fault. It is, in fact, very commendable of the editors to have assembled such a unique gathering to attempt to bring together diverse disciplinary perspectives on questions of theological anthropology and human sexuality and gender. What makes such a gathering, and resulting book, so important is that, for too long, most contemporary Christian reflection on sex and gender--especially among Catholics, and to a lesser extent among Orthodox--largely consists in repeating rather essentialist, romanticized, and frankly shop-worn slogans about "complementarity" and "image of God." Too little theological reflection has taken account of what the biological and social sciences have to say, but this book attempts to do just that, and it is about time. We owe the editors and authors thanks for breaking important ground here.

The editors, one a Lutheran and the other a Roman Catholic, gathered together over a dozen academics, almost all of them at Roman Catholics at Loyola University in Chicago--though there is an Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Mennonite among their number as well. This was designed as an interdisciplinary symposium, and so we have professors of biology, literature, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy alongside a half-dozen or so professors of theology. The one glaring absence here is, of course, that of the Christian East. One looks in vain in this collection for any reference, however passing, to any Eastern Christian figure--e.g., the Fathers, Bulgakov and the Slavophiles generally; and, more recently Elisabeth Behr Sigel, Verna Harrison, or John Behr--who, alongside such scholars as Eve LevinAnna Lisa Crone, and others have done so much to advance our understanding of sex and gender among the East-Slavs and the Eastern Orthodox. It is tiresome to treat the label "Christian" (as in this book's subtitle) as a synonym for "Western." What is even more problematic here is that most contributors are Catholic, but act as though Catholic=Roman; they seem oblivious to the fact that the Catholic Church includes 23 non-Roman Eastern Catholic Churches and thus the world of the Christian East is not extraneous exotica they could ignore but a very part of the communion to which they already belong. The editors did, as I just noted, a very commendable job in seeking out non-theologians to help shed very welcome and useful light on what biology and other disciplines say about sex and gender. But why could they not have looked a little bit farther to ensure that even one Eastern Christian voice was included? This is not just special pleading. The question is all the more acute because some of the contributors here write as though their questions were new and nobody had ever shed any light on them when, in fact, as I will presently show, we have had the better part of century's worth of reflection from some enormously influential and important Orthodox figures on precisely some of the issues raised here. In addition, one essay treats Ethiopian Christianity--a country with deep Eastern Christian roots, and the largest Oriental Orthodox Church in the world--but totally ignores the tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which is not even mentioned.

The book is divided into three sections; the table of contents may be viewed here. The first section sets the scene with broadly "methodological" essays focusing largely on how religion and science may talk to one another. These are all short essays. Jon Nilson's, on Roman Catholic authority and moral theology, has a few things to say that may be of interest to those having no background whatsoever in the issues he addresses, but the ecclesiologist, ecumenist, or other specialist reader will find nothing new here.   

The six essays in the second section are designed as reflections "on human sexual diversity." Of these, the most interesting and substantial is John McCarthy's "Interpreting the Theology of Creation: Binary Gender in Catholic Thought." Though marked by several typos, this is nonetheless a very thoughtful, respectful probing of reflection on creation theologically understood 'first and foremost [as] a 'relationship'" and "not a moment" (134). The author seeks to show that "statements of the Roman Catholic Church on sexuality and gender" are perhaps not "informed deeply enough by a Catholic theological reflection on creation" (133). Creation names a relationship of difference, and there is what he calls a "betweenness" in the relationship of creation-Creator. The author spends the rest of his chapter reflecting on this "betweenness" and trying to find language and categories to describe it. The obvious lacuna here is, of course, any reference to the profound and groundbreaking (if somewhat controversial) Sophiology of Bulgakov, which was precisely such an attempt to reflect on the "betweenness" in the Creator-creation relationship. That entire trajectory of theological speculation is unacknowledged in this otherwise commendable essay, which could have been strengthened by engaging Bulgakov and the argumentative tradition he inspired down to the present day.

The other essay that clearly suffers by ignoring the Christian East is the last one in the book by Patricia Beattie Jung and Joan Roughgarden: "Gender in Heaven: the Story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Light of Evolutionary Biology." This is certainly an interesting and worthwhile essay, engagingly written, but it is unnecessarily weakened in three ways. First, and very surprisingly, it breezily conflates "sex" with "gender" and then baldly asserts that according to Roman Catholic teaching, "Gender is eternal" (225). But the Church has never said that. We simply do not know--beyond a rather general and vague sense that, in the age to come, we will remain embodied creatures, but in new, resurrected bodies where marriage (as with all the sacraments) will pass away, along with the need to procreate. Second, the authors assert that the story of the Ethiopian eunuch "has been much neglected and continues to this day to evoke little commentary." We are to take this assertion on faith, but should not do so. The story did not escape comment by Eusebius, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, St. John Chrysostom, Origen, Augustine, and others. It may not have been commented upon as much as other texts, but it was not entirely ignored. The authors go on to assert that this text "was rarely represented in Christian iconography." But there are Ethiopian (and other) icons of precisely this scene, and numerous recent studies on Ethiopian iconography, none of which are referenced here. Nor is the tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church  herself acknowledged, which is a glaring omission given that it is the largest Oriental Orthodox Church in the world, claiming well over 30 million members. That Church sees the story of the eunuch as foundational to her history and a key part of the introduction of Christianity into the country. Third and finally, the authors again assert--again without any evidence--that "we believe there was considerable division within Christianity over questions about gender in heaven for centuries before the onset of the Middle Ages" ( 237), a claim repeated almost verbatim twice on the next page. That may have been the case, but piously asserting it, without actual evidence, does not make it so. There are clear echos here of the ploy Robert Taft has described many times of inventing a past to meet present felt needs.

Still, in sum, this book, limited though it is to a Western perspective, is nonetheless useful in attempting to build bridges between theology and the sciences. Eastern Christian theology can perhaps benefit, mutatis mutandis, from some of the work here, and can certainly benefit from imitating the symposiasts' attempt to build bridges between science and theology--which has not often been recently done in the East. This book very commendably brought together important, thoughtful, generally respectful perspectives to deepen an  important dialogue--one which I very much hope continues--and for that the editors and contributors, together with the University of Illinois Press, deserve our thanks.

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