Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What is sexual difference? Part II

No comments :
Sexual difference is one of the most contentious topics today.  We toss around the word “gender” with a panoply of meanings, though each person professes the utmost confidence that his (or should we use the gender neutral “hen”?) understanding of the term is the most accurate.

So, in a quest to understand what sexual difference is and why it matters, we are carefully defining our terms.  This post is the second in a series. 

In Part I of our reflections, we looked at who God is and summarized that He is relational, has unity and difference (three Persons, one God) and that within God there is both giving and receiving.  In Part III we will focus on the visible ways in which we can see the Trinitarian stamp in humanity, but first we must take a quick (and confessedly inadequate) primer in metaphysics.  To understand why the visible has an inherent logic and meaning, we must understand something of the invisible behind it.

In Ancient Greece, the philosopher Aristotle asked the question, “What is being?”  He came to understand it as composed of two things – each necessary for a thing to exist, but not reducible to each other – form and matter. 

Form is the principle of unity.  It is what actuates a thing.  Because a thing has form, it cannot be “mere matter.”  Therefore, a whole is greater than its parts.  A person is still a person if his finger is cut off.  Likewise, a frog dissected in biology class cannot be magically put back together again as a living frog.

Matter is the material.  In modernity, this tends to be that to which things are reduced, because form, is in a sense taken for granted: if it gives matter its being, then we think all we see is just matter.  But if things were merely matter, they could not exist.

Fast forward from Aristotle to St. Thomas Aquinas.  Instead of beginning with the question, “What is being?” he wanted to know why things exist.  For Aristotle, the world was eternal and therefore it seemed an irrelevant question.  But for Aquinas, who believed that the world was created out of nothing, this was an important question with which to begin. 

"Angels at Mamre (Holy Trinity)" by Rublev is in the Public Domain
St. Thomas Aquinas had a more comprehensive notion of what it means to be, which includes the “real distinction.”  An existent or entity is composed of esse (being or “that a thing is” and essence (“what a thing is”).  Essence is composed of form and matter.  So, for Aquinas there are three dimensions of a particular being – esse, form and matter.

Though belief in what is immaterial has always been part of humanity, there has been a shift in the last several centuries to not take these immaterial realities seriously.  In many ways we seek value only in what is provable through experiment and what is tangible or makeable.  Metaphysics is not visible and therefore is not seen as true or as valuable.  But it’s vital for a full and philosophical explanation of the human person to understand what form is.  When it is denied by the world at large, we miss out on huge implications of who the human person truly is.

In answering the question, “What is sexual difference?” we start with God who is eternal Gift, a Communion of Persons in which the Father gives to the Son, the Son receives the Father and gives Himself in return, and the Holy Spirit is the love that they share.  In Genesis 1, the pattern of God creating and then saying, “It is good” is interrupted before the creation of man.  Here, God pauses and looks into Himself, seeking in a sense the “blueprint” for the creation of the human person in His own image and likeness.  There is a “Trinitarian logic” at the ground of the human person, both physically and metaphysically.  Esse/being in all its fullness gives itself to existents/entities and “receives” from them.  Likewise, form – although invisible – gives shape to matter, which in turn receives and instantiates form.  This logic of gift is then made visible in our male and female bodies.  God has not only given us the gift of ourselves but also the ability to give – a reflection of and a participation in His own generosity and love.

In our next post in this series we will look more closely at the meaning of sexual difference and what our masculinity and femininity reveal to us about being human.  

No comments :

Post a Comment

We would love to hear from you! Please keep comments respectful and relevant to the topic at hand.