By Nathaniel Torrey
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.