Dr. Edith Humphrey wrote a chapter in a forthcoming book about C.S. Lewis and his perspective on the nature of human sexuality. The book is titled Further Up and Further In: Orthodox Conversations with C. S. Lewis on Scripture and Theology, and it is to be published by St. Vladimir’s Press. I think Edith has a lot of good things to say, and I think she brings important tools into the fray that we ought to utilize in continuing to build a distinctly Christian theological framework with regards to the anthropological questions of modernity.
I have a lot of thoughts on this subject, as I have been contemplating the matter for many years now. Therefore, I will attempt to sort through all my thoughts by writing them down here and now. As someone who is naturally wired as a theologian, my anthropological perspective will be primarily rooted in the truth of the scriptures, and I build upon that foundation using complementary dualism from ancient China: the yin–yang of Taoist metaphysics. I know, you probably didn’t see that coming, but you’ll see why I find it helpful by the time you finish reading. However, first we must talk of scripture.
“Neither male nor female”
St Paul is usually referenced when it comes to this discussion, because Galatians 3:28 says the following:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
This verse is typically used to suggest that there is no spiritual distinction between men and women, because Paul states how there is “neither male nor female” in Christ. This exegetical conclusion is then expanded to the idea that, concerning gender, the soul of a person is exclusively distinct from the anatomy of the body. An individual’s internal conception of their own maleness or femaleness is then interpreted to be merely a result of their intellectual experience of their own bodies (and how the movements of those bodies are interpreted by culture at large). In other words, such an anthropological speculation is a result of a particular exegesis of the text. Therefore, we must determine whether or not such an exegesis is consistent with the text.
Taken out of context, such a sentence seems persuasive. However, upon reading the surrounding context, the conclusion becomes less and less persuasive. Paul first states the difference between faith and law (Gal 3:23-25). He then says that we (the faithful) are all ‘children of God’ through faith (Gal 3:26), because we have been baptized into Christ and have put on Christ (Gal 3:27). Then he talks about removing the distinctions between Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, men and women. The very next verse, Paul says we belong to Christ, being the descendants of Abraham and are heirs to the promise (Gal 3:29). The most important verse comes next, when he says there is no distinction between a slave and an underage heir, even if the heir owns the estate (Gal 4:1). The reason is because the heir is (temporarily) still under the household authority (Gal 4:2).
In other words, Paul is juxtaposing law and faith to say that everyone now has equal access to the Logos of God through the gospel, because the importance of earthly categories, rankings and distinctions do not carry over to heavenly things. The playing field has been leveled. Ethnicity holds no spiritual weight (“Jew nor Greek”), because even gentiles can come to faith and put on Christ. Status holds no spiritual weight (“bond nor free”), because even slaves can come to faith and put on Christ. It is in this context that Paul adds male and female to the list, because even women can independently come to faith and put on Christ to be heirs of the promise. Rather than concluding that Paul is making complicated metaphysical claims about the nature of men and women, I think Paul is simply emphasizing the holistic and inclusive nature of the gospel.
The Yin-Yang and Lady Wisdom
Edith mentions how the scriptures often use feminine language to describe certain aspects of God, such as wisdom. Yet, at the same time, the scriptures do not refer to God as a she. What are we to make of this? Well, I will certainly not suggest some kind of Sophianism and imply the existence of a female deity, rather, I suggest we take a look at ancient China for some help in developing a framework for discussion.
In Taoist metaphysics, the yin-yang represents two equal and opposite complementary forces working together in harmony. Yin represents shadow, the passive, negative, earth, and feminine, whereas Yang represents light, the active, positive, heaven, and masculine.
It should be observed how ancient China seems to have also understood humanity as a universal microcosm (as the Hebrews understood). The observable world around them was understood in distinctly human terms, and what events take place in nature had significance for one’s individual life (omens, for example). If we really reflect on the intimate dance between a husband and a wife, it isn’t too difficult to see how it is reflected in nature. The husband actively descends from above upon the passive wife to plant seed and water her earth, and the woman receives and grows it in the ground of her womb, so that new life may sprout up from within. Thus, when we observe how seeds are planted in the earth, and how we observe the rain and the process of germination, we see why we call certain things male and certain things female. Men and women have this particular mode of existence that is observed everywhere else in nature, perhaps because nature was created as a prophetic reflection of Adam and Eve and their particular mode of existence: namely, to replenish the earth.
There is a distinction to be made between male/female and masculine/feminine. The former has to do with an outer anatomical reality, and the latter has to do with a continuum of our inward energy. It is my belief that “wisdom” in the Old Testament is classified as feminine precisely because wisdom is a passive agent (yin), not an active agent (yang). Wisdom is not so much like the one who runs around in the grass playing sports, wisdom is like the one quietly reading their favorite book. Wisdom reflects the quiet stillness of an attentive mind, not the active movements of a boisterous speech. I believe this is why something like strength is masculine in nature (yang), since it is an active agent. This is why strong women in ancient times were spoken of (often as a compliment) as being “manly.” Not because the woman was unattractive or not feminine, but because she manifested her masculinity (her “yang” energy) with regards to something like strength, boldness, or courage.
“It is I who am a man, you are all women.” -Amma Sarah, chastising monks
Androgen and Estrogen
In modern times, we might call such energies androgen (yang/masculine) and estrogen (yin/feminine). Both men and women have androgen (such as testosterone) and estrogen, but to different degrees. This is why one ought to see that the male and female are more nuanced than was formerly understood, being confined to certain objects (cars or dolls) or colors (blue or pink), regardless of how the individual manifested their inner “yin-yang” energy. A female may break the stereotype by having a bit more yang energy than her female peers (which manifests itself in an active sense, in that she is more drawn to playing outside rather than secluded reading), this does not make her male. Conversely, a male may break the stereotype by having a bit more yin energy than his male peers (which manifests itself in a passive sense, in that he is more drawn to secluded reading rather than playing outside).
It seems to me (based on anecdotal evidence) that the modern reality of gender confusion is generally a male issue. That is, there seems to be more men who struggle with this than women. If this is the case, we should wonder why. Perhaps it is because for far too long, the West has defined what it means to be a man by a certain level of testosterone, and in doing so, a vacuum was created where discontented “yin-males” did not know where exactly they belong. Perhaps the rigidity of such a culture pushed them into the only other visible category: female. However, I believe differentiating between female and feminine is an essential distinction. Female is always a question of anatomy, and feminine is always a question of energy. The problem with using a word like “feminine,” is it has an inescapably misleading connection to the word “female.” A man can be feminine (expressing a particular kind of yin energy, perhaps even down to the physical appearance), but what man would want to be called “feminine?” When a man is called feminine, he immediately interprets such a statement as an attack against not merely his masculinity, but his maleness. This is why even the word feminine is part of the problem, and should be changed to something else entirely. Perhaps articulating the matter in terms like yin-males and yang-males, or yin-females and yang-females, is more helpful in getting to the essence of what we are talking about.
It is my hope that I offer something to this conversation that brings it further along, even if it be nothing more than to be proven wrong. In her last paragraph, Edith says that we are indebted to C.S. Lewis for “venturing into the quagmire” that is the anthropological discussion of sexuality. I like that illustration. No real progress is made when we (as Orthodox Christians in particular) dismiss that which is difficult because of the pseudo-virtues behind that beloved word “mystery.” Mystery is not an excuse for spiritual, intellectual, or conversational stagnation. We must be like the perpetual newness of flowing rivers (or “living water,” as Christ put it), not the stagnant mosquito-infested pond. God says, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5), so perhaps we should reflect our Creator.
Mystery is not an excuse to fossilize ourselves, it is the motivating agent to move us further up and further in.