Recently Pope Francis criticized, as he has in the past, transgender ideology, especially teaching children they can choose their own gender, observing to an audience of Polish bishops: “We are living at a time when humankind as the image of God is being annihilated.”
The Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si last year warned, on the same issue, that “thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation.”
Transgenderism as a movement, like all utopian ideologies that seek to reinvent creation, will eventually fade, but only after leading further astray and doing great harm to many souls. The church’s duty against such temporarily fashionable ideologies of the world is always to affirm the unchanging truth of human dignity bequeathed through bearing God’s image.
Within parts of liberal Protestantism, these desires to reinvent creation are often closely aligned with reinventing the Creator. This past Father’s Day, the sermon at a prominent Washington, DC United Methodist congregation, delivered by the previous United Methodist chaplain at a local university, sought to minimize God the Father as only “metaphor,” no less useable than God the Mother.
In a way then, according to this perspective, God is Himself/Herself transgendered, not a permanent reality. Transgender ideology asserts that each autonomous, empowered individual may subjectively choose a gender, permanently or momentarily, that all others must fully accept. But evidently God, who in the Jewish-Christian tradition reveals Himself only as Father and not as Mother, does not have this same freedom. God must instead yield to whatever “metaphor” others assign.
As this former campus chaplain explained: “When we embrace the metaphors, we can sing those Father hymns with newfound gusto, knowing that they do not bind us in the way we conceive of God. Knowing that God is Mother is no less true.” These “metaphors” are just “signposts” pointing to a larger mystery, he insisted. Other “metaphors” include “CHRIST IS A SON, BELIEVERS ARE A FAMILY, HUMAN BEINGS ARE CHILDREN,” he added, with this claim in all caps, presumably for emphasis.
This kind of assumption is standard 20th century Western Protestant liberalism, and it hasn’t evinced much staying power because, among other problems, it ends up making the Deity more remote and unknowable, and ultimately implies that God is possibly not much more than a projection.
Traditional Christianity, whose claims have more trans generational and transcultural staying power, has always asserted a more concrete message about a Deity who reveals Himself in pretty dependable, knowable ways, not as an amorphous transgender cloud, but as the Father of all creation, who is in eternal union with His co-equal Son and His co-equal Holy Spirit. As one theologian remarked after reading the Father’s Day sermon:
Abba, Father, is the name by which Jesus referred to God. It is a name in that it not only identifies the god we’re talking about, but also that which identifies the relationship intrinsic between Father and Son. A denial of this language is a denial of the relationship between the Persons of the Triune Godhead. It leads to heresies that deny God’s work in the world in session to the uniqueness of Jesus.
So the theological issues and stakes are significantly greater than the selection of comfortable metaphors. C.S. Lewis had this explanation:
Christians think that God Himself has taught us how to speak of Him. To say that it does not matter is to say either that all the masculine imagery is not inspired, is merely human in origin, or else that, though inspired, it is quite arbitrary and unessential…We know from our poetical experience that image and apprehension cleave closer together than common sense is here prepared to admit; that a child who has been taught to pray to a Mother in Heaven would have a religious life different from that of a Christian child.
The church’s theology of the Trinity and of God as Father is ancient, rich, and endlessly transformative, offering far more hope, and affirmation of human equality and dignity, than the more transitory narratives offered by declining liberal Protestantism.
God as revealed in Scripture and through the life of the universal church is very tangible. He was a Father long before there were earthly fathers, who are themselves a shadow and projection of the one true Father. The term Father is not merely a “signpost” to some greater but unknowable cosmic reality. Instead, loving earthly fathers are called to be signposts to the eternal Father, who is love Himself.
Likewise, human persons are not merely self-actualized individuals who must will themselves into gender identities only recently conceived by a branch of Western secularism. Instead, each person is lovingly created male and female in the divine image, with divine purpose, with cosmic, eternal importance, and organic to all creation.
Transgender ideology may seek the “absolute power over creation” against which Pope Francis warned. But God the Father and Creator, in His mercy, has spared us that undesirable possibility.