January 31, 2013

Male and Female He Made Them: A Response to Dr. David J. Dunn


By Nathaniel Torrey
@nathanieltorrey

How essential is being a man or a woman to the experience of being human? For some, whether we are male or female is merely a biological fact; it offers no imperatives or necessary conditions for how we experience the world. For others, sex is understood as informing our experience of the world, who we are, and how we ought to behave.  This understanding is certainly in alignment with traditional Christianity. We are told in Genesis 1:27 that, “God made man; in the image of God He made them; male and female he made them.” To be something that could be called an image of God, humanity was made male and female. Right from the beginning our sex is revealing to who we essentially are: creatures made in the image of God.

Dr. David J. Dunn, while admitting he is not of the first camp that relegates sex to mere biology, he does not agree that our sex is essential to our humanity. In his blogpost over at the Huffington Post, he claims that the belief that a person’s biological sex is essential culminates in Christological heresy, an error in our understanding of who Christ was and ultimately how his life, death, and resurrection made salvation possible. The supposed problem with saying our sex is essential, “is that it means that only half of humanity can be saved because only half of humanity was assumed by Jesus. Jesus Christ is a man. Thus he assumed male nature. Women, I’m afraid, have yet to be redeemed. They must still await the coming of their Christa.”

Because salvation is available to men and women, Dr. Dunn argues, sex cannot be understood as being essential to our humanity. Since Christ is both God and human in every essential meaningful way, and must necessarily be so in order to save mankind, if all of humanity is saved then sex must be something that can be cast aside as accidental or unessential to humanity.

But there were many things Christ was not, yet those things he wasn’t aren’t somehow less essential to being human.  For example, He was not married. Yet, marriage is a sacrament, at least in the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. While monks and nuns are called to be celibate like Christ, many are called to leave their parents and to join their spouse to be one flesh (Genesis 2: 24). Neither of these is less human that the other; they are both ways in which human beings glorify God. Just because Christ was celibate does not mean married couples are somehow not essentially human, and therefore condemned to damnation.

The fact that Jesus came sexed at all shows that being male or female is part of what it means to be human.  If sex were not essential to being human, Christ would have been incarnate as a neuter. Going a bit a further, I would argue it is theologically significant that Jesus came as a man and not a woman. While neither is less human than the other, being a woman and a man are simply different things.  If men and women are indistinguishable,  Christian marriage as an image of Christ and his Church doesn’t make sense.  Christ is described as the bridegroom and the Church the bride. If the two were interchangeable, why describe them that way? It only makes sense if we understand that the love of a husband for his wife and the wife for her husband are not simply interchangeable (though given Dr. Dunn’s defense of gay civil marriage, he might be comfortable admitting that the love between two consenting adults is the same whether it’s a man and a woman, a man and a man, or a woman and a woman). To put it in the language of another image of Christ and the Church, it would be saying that the head is literally the same as the body.

Another example of how our understanding of sex affects our theology is the Trinity. It matters that we call two persons of the Trinity Father and Son, not mother and daughter, or even mother and son. This is not to say that the persons of the Trinity have particular genitalia. What it does say is that what we know about a relationship between a father and his son, which is different than between a mother and a son, or a father and a daughter, reveals something to us about how those persons in the Trinity relate to each other (which is why the Filioque, the Latin addition to the Nicene Creed that says the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, is problematic because it turns the father-son relationship into two indistinguishable persons with the same abilities. But that’s a topic for another day). Understanding the relationship between God the Father and God the Son as a relationship between a father and a son is different than if it were described in the terms of other relationships of parents and children. The difference in other relationships between parents and their children consists in their sex. If that is true, then we must conclude that sex is somehow defining and essential to human beings and how they relate to each other.

However, just because being a man or a woman is essential to being human doesn’t mean all boys must wear blue and all girls pink. How maleness and femaleness manifest themselves in different eras does change. A man wearing tights 300 years ago would have been manly, while if he wore them today many would question his manliness (though they are in danger of making a comeback).  Recently, women have been deemed essentially the same as men in their ability to perform in combat roles in the U.S. military. It is times like these that we need to examine what manliness and womanliness are at their essence and understand what it means that human beings, as male and female, reflect the image of God.


  • J S Lang

    The church-related (not the same as “Christian”) college I attended had a sculpture in the library called “Christa,” a crucified Jesus but one that was a bit lumpy around the pectoral area. The sculptor (a lesbian – imagine that) said that her attachment to Christianity was possible only because she ceased to think of Jesus as Son of God and thought of him/her/whatever as Child of God. Interesting religion, but it’s not Christianity. If that sculptor is still alive, she must’ve been pleased at The Inclusive Bible, which calls Jesus “God’s Own” instead of “Son of God.”

  • David J. Dunn

    Thank you for the accurate summary. I appreciate you pushing my thinking. I do think you are conflating sex and gender (bride and bridegroom belong to the latter), and thus the exten to which you think gender is constructed remains ambiguous. I think there is a difference between saying that sex is a part of our nature and saying that sex is essential to our nature. Thus St Gregory of Nyssa posited that we would be neuter in heaven. Sex was added to us because God saw that we would need to reproduce because of our sin. I disagree with Gregory, by the way.

    Good catch on the relationship between gay marriage and this issue. The post came out of my attempts to work through an Orthodox way of thinking about same-sex orientation, which my tradition does not do very well. Though I think it would be premature to read an ulterior motive behind my post, only wresting. (-:

    • Sandy N

      I have Greek friends who attended Orthodox schools where all the teachers were priests. They tell me that the Orthodox church is quite familiar with same-sex orientation and how to deal with it.

      • http://Www.davidjdunn.com David J Dunn

        Like many things, Sandy, it depends on whom you ask. I have had some rather public debates with a few priests who would concur. They respond that SSO is a a perversion of nature and a clear violation of Scripture. My opinion, which I state somewhere on my blog, is that Orthodox theological anthropology cannot think of being gay as a kind of orientation or anything like what we know today. We can only think of it in terms of the act of gay sex. It is basically a fornication issue. The arguments of my respected interlocutors have more in common with Catholic natural law theory and Protestant biblicism, both of which are rather foreign to the Orthodox tradition. You will find priests who agree with me on that point, regardless of where they stand on the issue of SSO in general.

      • Sandy N

        I wasn’t referring to the Orthodox churches’ officlal teachings, I was referring to the practice of clergy engaging in sexual relations with boys under their tutelage, also with other priests. I don’t know if this is true of Orthodox in the US, but my 3 Greek friends, all men, were educated in Greece under Orthodox priests, and they’ve said it was very much an “open secret” back in the 1970s and 80s.

    • Nathaniel Torrey

      Thanks for your response to my post. The reason you might think I’m conflating sex and gender is because I think they are intrinsically linked to each other. I tried to deliberately use “sex” instead of “gender” in the article to get at this. The bifurcation I think is a mistake.

      I think you hit the nail on the head about orientation language. To talk about homosexuality as an orientation already cedes the argument for making homosexual normative. This raises the question: “How much do our sins, even if we are naturally inclined towards them, define who we are essentially?” I think it is safe to identify as A sinner (as in the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”), but to say that you are a particular kind of sinner seems not quite right to me.

      Have you read the Antiochian archdiocese’s page on homosexuality? I think it is pretty illuminating on this score.

      http://www.antiochian.org/node/17905

      I’m curious about your stance on natural theology and how it relates to Orthodox theology. Natural theology’s claim is that God can be known unaided, without the help of revelation, albeit in a limited sense. This seems to square with St. Paul (Romans 1:20) and St. Athanasius in On the Incarnation. Is natural theology, in that case, really incompatible with the Orthodox tradition? I’m inclined to think that the knowledge of God gained through unaided contemplation is true, but since it it can not be salvific in and of itself, one’s time is simply better spent worshiping, fasting, and praying(the knowledge gained through contemplation could lead one to worship more regularly, pray more, etc. but it on it’s own offers no grace).

      • http://www.davidjdunn.com David J. Dunn

        I think we are all only particular kinds of sinners. I think we really need to listen to the experiences of gay people in the church, and we need to recognize that there is something unique about them. I mean, I try to imagine if heterosexuality were considered a sin. In this alternate reality, where kids say things like, “That’s so straight!” how would I feel if I spent my entire childhood liking girls and being told that my feelings were sinful and that acting on them was even worse. I had to pray really hard and ask God to change the way I felt, or I could spend my entire life celibate. Thinking about sin in the abstract can belie the fact that there are real people who are hurting and confused and lonely. Whether you are a Christian who believes homosexuality is sinful, or if you think it is all part of God’s diverse creation, the fact of the matter is that the church does a terrible job attending to the needs and experiences of gay people.

        On creation, that is a big question. My very short and inadequate answer is that natural theology requires a nature-grace distinction that is not really a part of the Orthodox tradition. Nature is being deified. Thus we think of it eschatologically, which makes it a poor basis for any kind of theology because, in a manner of speaking, nature has not happened yet.

    • Jeff Johnston

      Dr. Dunn –
      1. Why do you think that the terms “bride and bridegroom” are unrelated to sex? Marriage has always been related to the sex of the couple – male and female – because their conjugal union is capable of producing children and usually does so.
      The specifics of how a culture thinks about men and women may differ, and the roles and actions in a culture may differ, but those (what you label constructs) are not arbitrary and arise from distinct male-female differences.
      2. I’m curious as to whether you think a “same-sex orientation” (whatever that is) is “essential” to the nature of a “homosexual” or if you think it is a social construct.

      • http://www.davidjdunn.com David J. Dunn

        1. I do not believe I said that bride and bridegroom are unrelated to sex. I said that the terms belong to gender, not to sex. Bride is a social construct applied to women in our culture. It is related to sex, but it is not essential to what it means to be a woman.

        (Of course, to say that there is something essential to being a woman is to beg the question a little bit. Sexual binaries are also difficult to construe at a purely biological level.)

        2. There is the gay bogeyman again, eh? I think you are asking if I think gay people are born that way (not if I think gay people do not belong to the human species, to wit, they have a different nature). I do not know. I think the answer is somewhat irrelevant. I do not think there is any way to be able to determine what the origins of same-sex attraction are. I do think that we need to take seriosuly the testimony of gay individuals, and those who know them well, that they have been this way their entire lives.

      • Jeff Johnston

        Hi David – I’m responding to your response, hoping this post comes out in the right order.
        1. I would argue that the term “bride” is very related to sex – the femaleness of the bride is integral to God’s image in humanity and to marriage, procreation and parenting. I don’t think you can split it off and say it “belongs to gender” as if it were purely a social construct. Actually, the term “gender” was borrowed from linguistics and applied to “identity” by folks like John Money, a Kinsey cohort. The idea that “gender is a social construct” has some truth – but is not the total truth. The more biblical idea is of sex – which has to do with separation – humanity’s separation into male and female. It is that separation that Paul, Moses and Christ point to as the basis for marriage – what was once one (somehow) has been separated and is now two (male and female). The longing to reunite comes from that longing.

        2. The capacity to be a bride is essential to being a woman – essential to the female sex and to femininity.

        3. I should have been more clear in my second question. Forgive me. Here’s what I’m wondering: What do you mean by this statement,”My opinion, which I state somewhere on my blog, is that Orthodox theological anthropology cannot think of being gay as a kind of orientation or anything like what we know today”? What do we know about “being gay” that biblical authors and church teachers did not know? What do we know about “a kind of orientation” that they did not know?

        4. Yes, we can take someone seriously when they say, “I’ve always been that way.” So we ask serious questions, such as, “What do you mean you’ve always been that way?” Do you mean when you were five you wanted sexual intimacy with a man? Or do you mean you felt different from other boys and men? Did you feel envy? Did you think you were better than? Less than? In what ways did you feel different or think you were different? Where did those thoughts come from? What does it mean to a child to “be gay”? To an adolescent? To a teen?
        In addition, we would also take seriously those who say their orientation has shifted.

        Thanks,

        Jeff Johnston

  • Salvatore

    Regarding the idea that sex is essential to being human “means that only half of humanity can be saved because only half of humanity was assumed by Jesus.”:

    I think of the following passages of the Scriptures:

    Genesis 2:21-24: In which we read that Eve was created out of Adam. Thus in a sense, before Eve was created, Adam comprehended Eve. (Earlier in this chapter, we read that God created Adam out of “the dust of the ground”, and that God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul”.)

    I Corinthians 11:8: In which we read: “For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man.”

    Hebrews 7:9-10: In which we read that because Abraham gave a tithe to Melchizedek, the Levitical priests, who descended from Abraham, also gave a tithe to Melchizedek.

    Romans 5:12-21 and I Corinthians 15:21-49: In which we read that Adam and Christ are compared, and Christ is called the “last Adam”. Notice that Paul says that “by one man sin entered into the world”–he does not say by one man and one woman. In I Corinthians 15:21 we read: “For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.”

    Taking these passages together, I think one can come to an understanding as to how Christ, as a man, could redeem women, even though He assumed male nature and not female nature.