Wednesday, February 11, 2015

What is sexual difference, Part I

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Two years ago when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for a pair of cases regarding the redefinition of marriage, I attended a March for Marriage held in Washington, DC.  Although many people were energized by standing with thousands of supporters of marriage (“marriage without adjectives,” as Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse likes to say), I left the rally rather discouraged.

People representing both sides of the debate were present.  People on both sides represented their beliefs through chants and slogans written on cardboard.  In a culture accustomed to expressing profound and mundane thoughts in 140 characters, perhaps this seemed normal to most people.

I felt trapped in front of the Supreme Court building, physically because of the chaos, but even more so, trapped by misunderstood vocabulary and the limitations of sound bites and slogans.  The truth of marriage cannot be expressed in the confines we have been handed.  The truth is a delicate set of paradoxes. 

Chief among the words that must be defined before a true conversation related to so many hot-button issues today can take place is that of sexual difference.  “Gender” is viewed as something fluid that we define for ourselves.  Commonly, sex is considered whatever reproductive organs I happen to have, and gender is viewed either as a social construct related to those reproductive organs or as the sex that I feel like or that to which I align myself.

By St. Petersburg College Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Is there an inherent meaning in gender or sexual difference?  Does it matter how we define it, how we understand it, how we talk about it?  Could an adequate view of sexual difference be key to assisting us on our quest to discover the meaning of being human?

To define sexual difference, we must plunge deeply into our origin as human persons.  This is a question that cannot be answered superficially.  Rather, we must go to the heart of who we are in order to discover why we are created male and female.   Consequently, to answer the question, “What is gender or sexual difference?” we really have to start with the question, “Who is God?”  A comprehensive answer is impossible in about 1000 words, but what follows is a brief summary.

Jesus’ disciple John tells us that God is love.  Yes, God loves, but even more so God is Love.  Love is who He is.  Love requires three – the lover, the beloved and the love which they share.  Love, however, is not three separate actions.  The giving and receiving in love are united as one. 

One person cannot be love because love requires three.  The three Persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – are Love in their unity and giving and receiving.  The Father pours Himself out as a gift to the Son.  The Son receives the Father and in return gives Himself to the Father.  Their love is so powerful that it is a third Person – the Holy Spirit. 

God is so generous within Himself that in this superabundance of love, He created the world.  Adam and Eve, as all of us, were created to receive everything as a gift – their own lives, each other, the world around them, their relationship with God.  There was no reason to grasp or to take.  All that they needed had already been given.  But in that moment of encounter with the serpent, Eve decided to not trust the goodness and love of God.  By grasping at the gift rather than receiving it, our original parents testified to their doubt that God would really provide for all that they needed and desired.  Rather than trust the Fatherhood of God, Adam and Eve took matters into their own hands.  Rather than value the gift of being creatures, they sought to become the creator of their own destiny and identity. 

Thousands of years later, we are making the same mistake today.  Instead of receiving our lives, our identity, our femininity/masculinity as a gift from God, we have attempted to take and to fashion ourselves.  But in order to be a man or a woman, in order to be a person, we first must receive.

A large portion of feminist sentiments over the years have been driven by a perceived negativity of receptivity.  Aristotle, for example, identified woman with passivity (matter) and man with activity (form).  Act was considered perfection, leaving women to be perceived as a sort of deformed male – completely passive.  This was the reining philosophical interpretation of gender for centuries.  However, as time went on and receptivity became associated with weakness, ignorance and inferiority, women desired to shed the title.  If receptivity really is about weakness, ignorance and inferiority, then women would be justified in their desire to find a different role.  But somewhere in our history, we were invited to change our perception of receptivity as not purely passive, and therefore, not inferior.
In the Incarnation, being both fully God and fully man, Christ revealed God to us.  The great mystery of the Trinity entered our radar because of Jesus Christ.  He spoke throughout the Gospels about his oneness with the Father and His call to send the Holy Spirit.  The three Persons of the Trinity are each fully God, and yet they are not cookie-cutter images.  They are unique Persons, all one God.  Consequently, there is an order within the Trinity. 

Since God is a Communion of Persons in love, and love requires both giving and receiving, there is an order of these two actions in God as well.  In Philippians 2, we see that Christ is the one who receives from the Father.  Love is initiated by the Father, without Him being greater than the Son or the Holy Spirit.  If all three are “equally” God, and yet there is a giving and receiving within the Trinity, then receptivity in God cannot be less than giving. 
Before the revelation of Jesus Christ, no one could conceive of receptivity as being a good in the same way as giving.  If giving is equated with power, then only the giver could have the “goodness” of being in control.  St. Thomas Aquinas saw the receptivity of Christ, and knowing that Jesus is not less than the Father, drew the conclusion that Christ’s receptivity had to be equal to the Father’s giving.  For many years, these conclusions about the equality of receptivity stayed in the realm of Trinitarian theology.  In the 20th century, the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, meditated upon the “perfection” of receptivity in creatures as well. 
It’s important to note that in terms of Creator-to-creature, both men and women receive.  Each human person receives his life as a gift from God.  Each of us receives the opportunity to respond to the love of God that has existed eternally. 

When we discover that receptivity is not a disadvantage and that all of creation is on the receiving end of the gift, we begin to realize that women hold a privileged position of representing the good of receptivity to the world.  Giving and receiving are not about power, but about service and love.
At the same time, not only do men both give and receive, but women do as well.  We are not two halves that make a whole, nor are we a positive and a negative number that balance each other in the end.  Yet, just as there is an order within the Trinity that does not cancel the equality of each Person being fully God, similarly there is an order within our human interactions that allows us to give and receive love in image of the One who created us. 

Back to our question, “Who is God?”  There are three major points to emphasize as we seek a definition of sexual difference. 

·      1) He is relational.  The three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – are always in relation.  In fact, without their relationship, they would not be the Trinity – three Persons, One God.  Their relationship is more than just a friendship:  God is love.  Within God Himself, there is the Lover, the Beloved, and the Love that they share.

·      2) He has unity and difference.  God is three Persons who are “as great as” the others and are completely united.  At the same time, however, the three Persons are different.  They are able to share in eternal love because they are both different and perfectly united.

·      3) Within the Trinity, there is both giving and receiving.  If there was only giving, God couldn’t be love.  If there was only receiving, God couldn’t be love.  It is only because both giving and receiving are present in perfect abundance in God, that God is love.  We might think of receiving as something that weak people do, but God invites us to see otherwise. 

The fact that we are created by God – as is the entire world in which we live – allows us to see something of God around us.  In all that He creates, God leaves His “Trinitarian stamp.”  There is an inner logic to every person and to the whole world that is rooted in the Trinity.  The more we come to understand who God is, the more we are able to see who we are and why we are present in the world – and why we exist as male and female. 

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