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Gender identity as a way of knowing God

July 23, 2009

A few days ago I posted a passage from Sarah Coakley’s article, “Is there a future for gender and theology?,” which prompted several of you to email me asking for the full text, and urging me to get moving with a real post about it! Here it is, typical Meg, clumsy but passionate:

Even though it’s only 9 pages long, Coakley’s article raises enough for me to think about for weeks, but I want to start by summarizing her main points, and then sharing the one thing that stood out to me the most, which is the way that I believe her work her creates a theology of gender that is welcoming to the trans-community, and that is not only not transphobic, but is non-cisnormative. I’m going to try to stay away from theologian-speak, since I know that you all come from a variety of religious and academic backgrounds, but I apologize in advance if I slip into the comfort of buzzwords.

First, Coakley begins by addressing the three main complaints about systematic theology, which is the framework from which she approaches her question about the relationship between theology and gender. Systematic theology is “an integrated presentation of Christian truth” and “wherever one chooses to start has implications for the whole, and the parts must fit together.” It tends to deal with large themes, like Trinitarianism, Christology, or eschatology, rather than analyze specific books or passages. The most significant criticisms of systematic theology are these: it claims to be able to fully know God, it is “inappropriately totalizing, and thereby necessarily suppressive of the voices and perspectives of marginalized people,” and it is “phallocentric, that is, ordered according to the symolic male model of thinking which seeks to clarify, control and master.”

Coakley’s response to these three critiques is rooted in a methocology of “theologie totale,” which emphasizes the significance of reflective and contemplative practices in theology. She writes (emphasis mine):

Systematic theology with contemplative and ascetic practice is void; for theology in its proper sense is always implicity in via. It comes, with the urge, the fundamental desire, to seek God’s face and yet to have that seeking constantly checked, corrected and purged. The mere intellectual acknowledgement of human finitude is not enough (and in any case all too easily forgotten)… it is the actual practice of contemplation that is the condition of a new knowing-in-unknowing. It must involve the stuff of learned bodily enactment, sweated out painfully over months and years, in duress, in discomfort, in bewilderment, as well as in joy and dawning recognition.

So basically, what she’s saying is that if we stop to sit with, and in, Divinity, any notion of being able to fully grasp God will be erased; we will be reminded of the reality of the world, which will force us attend to the voices of the oppressed; and we will come to value the supposedly feminine ways of knowing God, through our bodies and our unconscious ways of relating. From this perspective, systematic theology is far less about nailing down who God is, and much more about constantly finding new ways of speaking about God that are relevant to the brokenness of our world.

The part of the article that really caught my attention was under the title, “Why does gender matter?” Coakley summarizes secular theorists’ view as a “powerful symbolic means by which culture slices humanity normatively into two (and only two) and thereby imposes, by continually repeated rituals of reinforcement… an oppressive and restricted form of life on those who do not fit the binary alternatives.” In contrast, Christian fundamentalists claim that the Bible procludes any gender expression outside the binary norm.

In Coakley’s opinion though, gender “is about differentiated, embodied relationship – first and foremost to God, but also, and from there, to others.” Sounds awesome, right? Here is the passage the fascinated me the most, and that I want to focus on here:

A theological view of gender…also has an exchatological hope, one that it sees not as pious fiction or wish fulfillment, but as firmly frounded in the events of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection. Gender, the sense just given, is ineradicable… but gender is not unchangeable; it too is in via. What is fallen can be redeemed and sanctified – indeed rendered sacramental by participation in Christ. In this sense, gender may be seen not merely as a locus of oppression but just as much as the potential vehicle of embodied salvation.

I had to read that about 15 times to understand what it was saying, so I’m going to try to summarize here. First, since we’re doing theology, we believe in God, and we believe that God became a human being, and we believe in salvation. Gender is not fixed, it is dynamic and dependent on our own growth as well as the world around us.

“What is fallen can be redeemed and sanctified.” The way I read it, it is absolutely not that an individual’s gender-identity can be fallen, but that our culture’s notion of gender is fallen. We do not need to do away with gender identities, but rather look for ways in which our understanding of gender can be redeemed as a force for justice and compassion, rather than oppression. In fact, it can even be “sacramental!” We can find God through the process of exploring our gender identity!

Thomas Merton, one of the most famous twentieth century contemplatives, wrote about “the false self,” and the “true self.” In a passage from New Seeds of Contemplation that I go back to again and again, Merton wrote that:

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man I want myself to be but who cannot exist because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love . . . outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.

Our society’s rigid binary gender structure forces people to live as the “false self,” and to exist “outside of life,” by not allowing us to explore the dynamic and non-conforming nature of each of our gender identities. This is most oppressive to people whose gender identity is outside the cisgender norm.

It is not humility to insist on being someone that you are not. It is as much as saying that you know better than God who you are and who you ought to be. How do you expect to arrive at the end of your own journey if you take the road to another [person’s] city? How do you expect to reach your own perfection by leading somebody else’s life?… You must have the humility to work out your own salvation in a darkness where you are absolutely alone. . . .

The difficulty with using this passage as it relates to the discovery of gender identity is that it puts the onus on the individual to explore outside the binary norm, without recognizing how difficult and even dangerous it can be to live as a trans person. Recognizing these limitations of Merton’s description of the false vs. true self as they relate to gender identity, I think his point that acting as someone that you are not makes it impossible to fully know God is crucial to this discussion. On the flip side, Coakley’s assertion that “gender may be seen…as the potential vehicle of embodied salvation” suggests that by discovering our true gender identities, we find ourselves and God.

Interested in learning more about queer theology? Check out Whosoever, an online magazine for the LGBT Christians.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2009 1:06 pm

    Perhaps we can find the sacramentality of gender in the shaking loose of gender binaries. I think if we engage in this as a community – the destabilization of binaries – there’s both more and less at stake. There might be less at stake for people who already live and embrace fluid genders, less chance for things to go wrong, be misunderstood, etc. But at the same time, more would be at stake for the whole community to explore where we can encounter the divine outside of either/or dichotomies.

    • July 27, 2009 10:16 pm

      Lindsay, that’s pretty much exactly what Coakley goes on to say. She compares the binary approach to the Trinity: “The irreducible threeness of God cannot be insignificant for the matter of gender twoness, since the human being is made precisely in God’s (trinitarian) image.”

      When Jesus transcended the twoness of God and the world, he neither did away with difference nor reinforced the divide; he transcended it, offering us an example of the flimsiness of binaries that we consider to be absolute.

      This is all good in theologian speak, but what does it look like in practice? Coakley would urge us to contemplative prayer to find the answer. I guess I want more practical advice though, especially in terms of pastoral care and preaching on gender!

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