FSG: Faith, Sexuality and Gender

On the margins of orthodoxy

The Meaning of Suffering 27 November 2008

Sounds a bit portentous, that title: it’s a bit like saying ‘the meaning of life’. Indeed, if you were able to understand the ‘meaning of suffering’, then you probably would be a long way down the road to discovering the meaning of life.

It’s a natural reaction to natural or man-made disasters – like yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India – to wonder and even despair at a supposedly loving God who could permit such things to happen; indeed, who could allow them to be perpetrated in his name. Why didn’t he and his angels step in to thwart the plans of the bombers and hi-jackers? Why didn’t he prevent there from being so many innocent people in the murderers’ firing line?

Might as well ask Christ to step down from his cross. As an all-powerful and all-loving God, you’d think he would be capable of doing so; but he chooses not to. Why?

Well, the beginning of an answer is indeed to be found in the Cross of Christ. God doesn’t just hang around while his human children suffer; he hangs there with them – on the cross – and suffers in their place. This is not an abstract concept: our suffering is Christ’s suffering. When we suffer, we are not sharing in Christ’s suffering and cross in a ‘merely’ symbolic and sacrificial sense (in that we might choose to offer up our suffering as a sharing in Christ’s suffering for the remission of humanity’s sins); but Christ truly suffers in us: our life, our suffering, our death are one. God therefore allows suffering to happen in that he suffers it – in both senses.

Why? Because he loves those who cause the suffering. Ultimately, that means all of us, as – through our sins – we bring suffering into the world both directly (by hurting others) and indirectly: through the tear in the sacred, living fabric of the created order of which our sins partake, like the tear in the veil of the temple at the time of Christ’s death. But, in a special way, Christ’s love appears concentrated upon those who least ‘deserve’ it from our all-too human perspective that mixes justice with revenge. Christ in the people mown down and blown up in Mumbai passionately loved those who were doing it, and offered the suffering and death of the victims for the forgiveness of the murderers’ sins even as they were committing them.

Why? Because only such an unfathomable, endless love has the chance to stir the hearts of the gravest sinners when at the appointed hour they might realise that God did not love the sin but loves the sinner, and allowed the sin to happen because he wanted to give the sinner that very chance to sense the love of God and turn in repentance towards it. Otherwise, the sinner – the beloved of God – might well be lost for ever, and not just in this life.

But what of the victims? Who could ever doubt that those beloved-of-God, and sharers in his passion, are not alive in him for ever more: their sins remitted? It is we who mourn them who must suffer; and we do so – if we do so in Christ – for those who caused us that pain. And in Christ, that suffering will be made good – for all.

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Male and female he created them 21 May 2008

Mexico was scandalised this week by the country’s first wedding between a male (female-to-male – FtM) and female (MtF) transsexual. Not surprisingly, the ceremony incurred the wrath of the Catholic Church in the country. However, as the bride’s sister was quoted as saying, “At the end of the day, it’s a marriage between a woman and a man, so what’s the problem with blessing this union in the eyes of God?”

This is indeed an intriguing question: if an FtM transsexual counts as a woman in the eyes of the Church, and an MtF transsexual is considered a man, then a marriage between both of them – so long as neither of them have been married before – is in fact a female-male union, even if it is the spouse who plays the male role who is the ‘woman’ and the bride is a ‘man’. However, the problem is not in the bare facts but in the spirit with which the couple are committing their lives to each other, which precisely does require that the husband should be a ‘man’ and that he should make the type of commitment that husbands make to wives in Christian marriage (to give himself utterly to the wife out of love, to the extent of being prepared to sacrifice his own life if necessary to save his wife’s life, as Christ died for humankind); and that the bride is a woman making a bride’s pledge to her husband: to love and obey him as she would Christ.

Of course, saying that a marriage involving an FtM and MtF transsexual couple does not comply with these defining parameters of authentic marriage does mean that one is asserting that the couple in question are really a woman and a man, and not – as they see themselves and appear physically to others – a man and a woman; i.e. that ‘woman’ and ‘man’ are terms that relate only to the ‘birth gender’ (the physical, anatomical sex the individuals were born with) and no other understandings of gender. Part of the reason for the insistence on this criterion is of course one of the integral purposes of Christian marriage, in the traditional understanding: that of having children and bringing them up as Christians. The ‘woman’ or ‘bride’ must, in this scheme of things, have been born with the bodily organs required for her to become a mother within marriage; and similarly for the husband / potential father.

I say ‘must have been born with the bodily organs etc.’ rather than simply ‘must have the bodily organs’ because an authentic marriage – one in which the spouses firmly believe that God has called them to commit themselves to one another – logically must have been intended by God for those individuals from all eternity, which therefore requires that one of them be born female and one male. This ‘authentic’ marriage would be contrasted, for instance, to ones in the future where it is theoretically possible that there might be genetic and / or stem cell-based treatments that would enable women to transition entirely into men, complete with functioning genitals; and for men to become women in every physical respect, including with functioning ovaries and wombs. In such a case, would the MtF ‘bride’ not in fact be ‘really’ a woman in every sense – physical and psychological, sex and gender – while the FtM ‘husband’ was ‘really’ a man?

On the other hand, would such an apparently total gender reassignment in reality be any less artificial and superficial than the treatments presently available? The fact that the transitioned woman and man would not just appear as such but would actually be fully female and male anatomically would not of itself invalidate the view that they were ‘really’ a man and a woman respectively, based on the bodies they had been born with – which was as God created them and therefore intended them to be.

But you’d now be paradoxically in the situation where a woman and a man were, in every normal sense of the terms, female and male (physically and psychologically) – and even, who knows, capable of conceiving children ‘naturally’ – but who would be denied marriage on the basis that they were really (‘spiritually’) male and female, and therefore not capable of fulfilling the roles of husband and father, and wife and mother, respectively. On this view, the fact of being female or male would depend not on what you as a person feel you are, nor on how society views you, nor on your present bodies, but on how God made you and what you therefore are in his (or her) eyes.

So one authentic Christian way of living out one’s vocation, as a transsexual, is to accept that, in some mysterious way, one is really – in God’s eyes – a woman even though one feels that one is really a man; and vice-versa for psychological women locked in men’s bodies. As a Christian, it might be better not to undertake a gender reassignment, if one were able in faith to accept the body one was born with as something that God wished one to take on – in the manner of a cross that had to be borne (in the other sense) as part of our sharing in Christ’s suffering for the sins of the world. But by the logic I have attempted to map out, whereby the appearance of gender (even, in theory, the actual possession of a fully female or male body) has nothing to do with the ‘real’ gender (psychologically or spiritually), a transsexual should in no way be condemned for seeking to transform her or his body to align it with her or his psychological gender. Nor – on the other hand – should transsexuals expect or demand that all Christians accept that their ‘new’ genders are their ‘real’ genders from the spiritual perspective, to the extent of authorising and carrying out Christian marriages of the sort discussed at the beginning of this post.

But equally, this does not justify the rejection or condemnation of transsexuals, whether transitioned or not, but calls for a new flexibility and openness of thought and compassionate understanding, whereby one accepts that the gender a person feels they are may be quite the opposite of how they were born or what they appear to be; and that the gender they appear to be may be quite the opposite of what as Christians we are entitled to believe they are. Perhaps this new expansion of the horizons of our thinking will help not just Christians but society as a whole to be more open to the plurality and shades of gender experience, including those which are found but so often suppressed in people who feel their gender identity is wholly ‘normal’ and aligned with their anatomical sex.

So in this life, it is legitimate to believe that we are called to accept the gender we were born with as something essential to what we are and are meant to be in God’s eyes and plan. But in the life to come, these gender differences – including those internal to the self – will no longer matter as we will be reunited with the God in whose image both male and female humanity was created; and, who knows, both the male and female sides of ourselves will be reunited and reconciled in him. After all, the biblical text says, ‘male and female he created them’; and not, as we so often interpret it, ‘male or female’.

 

Embryos, Persons and the Mind of God 28 March 2008

“What one always has to bear in mind is that it’s the children that should come first – not chronologically or causally in this instance, of course, but in our thinking about what ultimately is in the mind of God for his children, as ‘our’ children have lived in his mind for all eternity. Does he want our children to be born of a father and a mother, and to grow up in the love of their father and mother? There can be no doubt, from the perspective of Christian faith, that the answer to this question is ‘yes’”.

The above is a quote from my last post, on gay marriage and adoption. This appeared first in my now discontinued (re-branded) blog, BTCP: Bisexual, Transgender, Christian and Proud Of It. There it inspired a couple of comments, which I haven’t copied over to the new format, one of which was to the effect that if it was in God’s mind to bring children into this world through the loving union of a father and mother, wouldn’t he just do this? My reply – paraphrasing myself – was essentially ‘no’: it might be God’s will that this should happen, but our sin impedes and distorts God’s will, and must therefore be allowed to damage creation (if our freedom to choose evil as well as good is to be genuine); and that God could not arbitrarily alter the laws of biology he had made to reflect and express his loving purpose in creation simply to prevent us from abusing those laws to create and destroy human life without regard to the moral law.

This got me thinking about how we live in the mind of God, both during our temporal existence as living and breathing human beings, and in His eternity (which we view from our time-bound perspective as ‘before’ and ‘after’ our mortal lives). And how does that relate to our human personhood, and the ethics of human reproduction and embryo research?

My point is this: from the perspective of faith, human life by definition is always personal in the sense that it is an embodiment – a bodily image or reproduction – of the personhood of God himself: Father, Son and the love of the Spirit that unites them and gives rise to the whole of creation as the expression and reflection of the divine love and self-understanding (the Word). In this light, insofar as any actual human life form comes into existence, it necessarily has this essential personal character – as part of its DNA, one might say. This is the case from the moment of conception: the human person that has lived in the mind of God for all eternity now also lives in a time-bound, physical form. The Concept (the Word) has manifested itself in a material body: conception; the Word becomes flesh; a human being is made in God’s image. That human personhood is therefore as complete in a single fertilised ovum or a collection of undifferentiated embryonic stem cells as it is in a newborn baby or mature adult: alive, and able to survive and prosper outside the womb.

When I say that this intrinsic personhood of human life is built into our ‘DNA’, this is also a reference to the fact that, with respect to our genetic inheritance, we are all the expression and product of the union of our biological father and mother, even if the loving moral and spiritual union of our father and mother that God wills for us was absent from the specific biological process of our conception. God loves us into being even when love is absent from the human reproductive processes involved.

Those who attempt to morally justify embryonic stem-cell research seek to do so by denying that undifferentiated embryonic cells do constitute a ‘human person’ or ‘human being’ that might have rights similar to those of born human beings or even foetuses, such as the right to life; the right not to have medical experiments conducted on one’s body / person against one’s will; or the right not to have one’s fundamental genetic structure manipulated and combined with that of other species. It is doubtless scientifically and descriptively true – looking at the question from a materialist perspective – that a collection of undifferentiated embryonic cells does not (yet) have the characteristics that one tends to think of as defining personhood: the beginning of the formation of a recognisably human body, with all the immensely complex variety of cell and tissue types, and bodily organs.

But firstly, the religious – or certainly, the Catholic Christian – moral objection to stem-cell research is not based on such a definition of personhood: the bodily characteristics that appear to denote our status as human beings and persons are in a sense only the ‘outer’ material form of our personhood that in essence lives and exists in God. Once those cells exist, a human person that lives in the mind of God has begun to unfold in time and space, and to reveal and be a small but integral part of God’s loving creative and redemptive purpose.

Secondly, from a purely logical perspective, it is quite arbitrary to declare that after, say, 14 days from conception, what had previously been regarded as a mere collection of undifferentiated cells is now to be regarded as an embryonic human person with rights that it did not have during the first two weeks of its existence. The embryonic person would not exist now had it not gone through 14, or however many, days of undifferentiated-cell existence. This is a continuous process; and to declare that in the later stages of its development, the embryo has a humanity or personhood (humanity defined as personhood) that it did not have in the necessary earlier stages that went before seems completely illogical and self-serving; and it flies in the face of our intuitive perception of when our lives as human persons begin: from the moment of conception when the DNA structures that define who we are started to be laid down.

Besides which, the time limit from which embryos and foetuses are recognised as human beings or persons with legal and human rights is arbitrarily moveable depending on the purpose that is being justified: 14 days in UK legislation with respect to regulating stem-cell research, but 24 weeks when it comes to the legal limit for abortions. When does an unborn human person become a full human being and, as it were, a citizen with full legal rights? It appears to be the case that what defines the threshold for an embryo or foetus to be recognised in law as a human person in this way is merely the point at which they become physically (visually) recognisable as viable, autonomous human entities from the particular perspective that is invoked: that of the medical researcher who recognises that, beyond a certain point, he is extracting cells not from an amorphous, undifferentiated mass but from an actual living embryo that is starting to take on the visual, albeit microscopic, form of a human body and person; or the perspective of medical practice and childbirth, where the 24-week abortion limit was based on the latest stage at which a foetus could not survive if plucked untimely from the womb – a time limit which, for that very reason, is being revised in the current UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, as medical advances have made it possible for foetuses to survive from an earlier age.

This really is a rather primitive and, indeed, material, irrational and superstitious way to decide when an unborn human entity becomes a human person: simply when it corresponds to our bodily image of a human being – paradoxically defining the humanness of unborn life purely in relation to the appearances and conditions for survival of born life. The unborn clearly don’t stand a chance if the odds are so heavily weighted against them. In reality, the vision of faith and the science in this matter fundamentally concur; at least when the science is logically understood as describing a process whereby recognisable bodily-human personhood (what we think of as our existence and personhood) necessarily begins in the undifferentiated (‘unrecognisably’ human) embryonic stem-cell state. If we are living human beings and persons now, that is because what we are now was already laid down and was potential within what we were from the moment of our conception – and, in the light of faith, within the eternal mind of God.

This is why, for me, it is so revealing that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which has provoked such heated debate in the UK during the last week owing to prime minister Gordon Brown’s initial refusal to allow his Labour Party MPs a free vote on its morally controversial aspects, should sanction such diverse measures as the creation of hybrid human-animal embryos for the purposes of stem-cell research, and the removal of a legal reference to the ‘need for a father’ on the part of children born to Lesbian couples through IVF or other assisted-conception treatment. This latter provision extends to the very birth certificate of such children, in which it will now be possible for both women to be registered as the real (biological) parents, even if neither of them actually are the genetic parents (for instance, if a fertilised egg from another couple is used as opposed to IVF using the eggs of one of the women). This means that such children are officially without a father. They retain their existing legal right to try and trace their genetic father as soon as they reach the age of maturity (18 in the UK); but they will never be allowed to officially recognise that person as their true father – in the eyes of the law, he becomes a ‘mere’ sperm donor and no more.

The thread that these two measures in the Bill have in common is that they involve a denial of those two aspects of unborn human life that are fundamental from its very beginning: that it is personal and a product of the union of a man and a woman, in the sense that, from conception, the human entity is an individuated, unique and living combination of the DNA of its parents – DNA which in turn defines their personhood. And from the faith perspective, the unborn human being is also of course sacred: a living human person ultimately made by God in his image, which we are therefore commanded to respect and protect. And such is, not just the vocation of the believer, but the true calling of science: not so much to determine the ‘mind of God’ through empirical and theoretical enquiry into the material world that is in God but is not God; but to seek ways to cure the ills of our mortal existence that do not violate the purity and beauty of human life that is called in Christ to share God’s mind and love for all eternity.

 

40 Years On: Two Generations Paying For the Sins Of the Fathers 27 March 2008

I have an adopted mixed-race sister, born in 1968. It’s only just occurred to me that this makes her not just a ‘love child’ but a child of the 60s’ ‘love revolution’. Apparently, her genetic parents were lively, interesting young people in swinging London; no doubt swept along to some extent by the wave of idealism and ‘free love’ of those heady times. Not a parentage to be ashamed of, in many ways.

But in other ways, my sister’s history, and indeed that of my whole family, speaks of the destructive long-term impact of the break down of traditional sexual morality and family life that set in on a mass scale as a result of the sixties sexual revolution. Two years on from 1968, and my parents were separating as a result of my father’s affair with another creative young person immersed in London life: an out-of-work actress temping at my father’s office. This separation, and the divorce that followed it, was an enormously traumatic event for my mother, my siblings (adopted sister plus genetically related brother) and me. We carried the scars of it for many, many years afterwards. Our subsequent relationships have all been rather fragile and have involved unhappy break ups like that between my father and mother; and my own sexual and emotional development was profoundly stunted and distorted by it. It took me decades – literally – longer than it should have done for me to disentangle my confusion and guilt about my sexual orientation and gender identity; and maybe the mixed nature of these, which I now accept (bisexual and androgynous respectively), was intensified more than it would have been if I’d grown up in a happy home with a father I could look up to.

My personal history is of course replicated throughout our society, where now almost as many marriages end up in divorce as don’t, and there are many lonely, unhappy children out there, bearing the brunt of unstable parental relationships and neglect. It’s not an entirely negative picture, however. Different kinds of family unit have developed, including happy second marriages with children from both previous relationships; and many children with only one significant parent in their lives are of course hugely loved and valued.

But an enduring cultural legacy of 1968 and all that is a continuing selfish individualism and irresponsibility that many people bring to their sexual relationships: thinking only about their own gratification and about ‘what’s in it for me’, rather than the long-term consequences of unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and broken hearts and homes. So many people, it seems, are no longer prepared or able to accept difficulty, renunciation and sacrifice as an integral and enriching part of loving relationships, where it is often necessary to place the needs of others and the long-term good ahead of the promptings and desires of the ego and of now. And in many cases, that is because those people lack a knowledge of the greatest good, and the greatest love (that of God himself), in whom all sacrifice is consummated and all suffering – so transitory in the perspective of eternity – is made good.

Those of us – and there are many – who’ve been unlucky in our human loves (as have our children after us, in many instances) but blessed to encounter something of the ineffable love of Christ must therefore offer our struggles and heartaches for those who put their own wishes, dreams and pleasures first, and yet do not know true love and peace: not that of 1968 but of eternity.

(Originally posted on http://btcp.wordpress.com on 18 March 2008.)