An Introductory Letter
This is a letter in response to the CRC report on gender and sexuality, and in particular to the recommendations of the report about gender transition. I write as a former member of the Calvin Philosophy Department (from 1989-2003) and formerly an office bearer at Eastern Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids. I am now Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale. I value my time with the CRC very highly, and I want to be as helpful as I can. My son Thomas and I did testify to the committee, but we do not find that their report shows any meaningful acknowledgement of that testimony.
My relevant experience is that my eldest child was assigned female at birth and had a gender transition at the age of 30. He is now Thomas Hare. During our time in Grand Rapids he was acutely uncomfortable with his assigned gender. This discomfort became more pronounced. There were several years when we were afraid he would kill himself. After transition he has become much more at peace with himself, and has started to be able to care for other people and to love the beauty of the outside world in ways that are new to him. I am very grateful to God for the technologies that have made this possible. I am also grateful for the support group that my wife and I found in New Haven, where parents of transitioning children could talk to each other. The position and some of the language of the current CRC report (denying the value of his transitioned life) are deeply harmful to our son and to us, and his perception that this is the position of the Christian church has led him away from the church and towards other non-Christian forms of religious expression.
As a philosophical theologian (someone who tries to use the discipline of philosophy to understand the basic commitments of the Christian faith), I need to say that I find nothing in Scripture or those basic commitments of the Christian faith that is inconsistent with saying that gender transition is for some people a blessing from God. Scripture does not address the topic directly, and could not do so because the technologies in question were not available. My own view, which I do not hold to be mandatory for Christians, is that being male or female or something else on the gender spectrum is not an eschatological status. This is why there is no marriage or being given in marriage in heaven, and why we will be in that respect like the angels. There may be something analogous in the new heavens and the new earth, but we do not know what it is. We do know that these statuses as currently practiced in society are full of sin, and are disordered by power relations. I think this is why we are told that in Christ there is not ‘male and female’, which I take to be a direct reference to the beginning of Genesis. We should allow individual conscience to find the right re-ordering. This is not the right place for a long disquisition. Suffice it to say that I think the CRC should not try to prescribe where Scripture does not. The current report is deeply harmful to our family and to all those who are in the same situation as we are.
A Detailed Summary on Gender Identity
My son, Thomas, has asked me to write a short summary of my views on gender transition for the purpose of helping the discussion of the recent CRC Report on this (and other) topics. I write this as someone who was an elder at Eastern Avenue CRC and taught at Calvin in the philosophy department for about 15 years. I am a Christian with a generally conservative theological position, at least by the standards of where I now am in New Haven, Connecticut. I have found that what count as liberal and conservative positions vary widely in different contexts. My son was assigned female at birth, and made a gender transition at about the age of 30. His video about his experience is available with the other materials on this site, and I strongly recommend looking at it. It is far better to approach the set of questions about gender transition after getting to know the inside story of those who have gone through it.
My idea is to see gender identity as a three-term relation, metaphysically speaking. Because I am thinking primarily of my son I will use male pronouns. There is something he found inside, a set of preferences for secondary sexual characteristics and for living a certain way, and he matched this at least roughly with something outside, with a social picture of what a man is like. The third term in the relation is the agent, the person himself, his heart or his will, which endorsed this match.
What does gender transition have to do with theology? Suppose we think of an individual essence, named on the white stone that God gives us in heaven as described in Revelation 2:17. What is the relation of gender identity to this individual essence? One way to ask this is eschatologically: in the next life are we going to be men or women or any of the other gender identities in between or different from these? I suggest that the analysis of gender identity as a relation is helpful in thinking about this. The social picture which is one term in the relation constituted by gender identity is itself likely to be a mixture of what is good and what is corrupt. Christian theology has the concept of sin. The prevailing social categories of virtue in the first century and now entrench power relations that are full of sin, though they are also not purely rotten; they are morally a mixture.
Does this mean that gender identity is, for Christian theology, unimportant? Not at all. Gender identity is like the pervasive character of racial identity in the American context: it affects almost everything else. We have been coming to see how much of our lives, including our intellectual scholarly lives, is bound up in both race and gender. We have to go, so to speak, through this, and how we go through it may well have a decisive effect on what we finally become. But this kind of importance is not essentialist in the sense that it says we are essentially man or woman or white or black or brown. I think it is possible to imagine a world in which we exist but we are not bound up in this way with race and not bound up in this way with gender. This is one reading of one strange feature of Galatians 3:28, which says that in Christ there is not Jew or Greek, not slave or free, not male and female. Why the change to ‘and’? I think this text is quoting Genesis 1:27, and modifying it. The text recognizes a difference between the three dichotomies mentioned: in all three cases there is a wrongful social division to be overcome, but in the case of male and female we are called to modify what seems like a natural classification because we seem to have been created that way. I think that we do not know that we are gendered in our final destination, and we do not know that we are not gendered. But I think we might take gender transition in this life to be part of the path to our eventual entering into the love between the members of the Trinity which is our destination.
Sometimes people say that ‘sex’ is a biological term and ‘gender’ a term of culture or social construction. But this distinction has been made problematic by the realization that the biology (in the sense of what the biologists study) has itself been influenced by social conceptions. We do not have one term (‘sex’) securely anchored in natural science, and the other term (‘gender’) wandering about with the vagaries of social fashion. I am not myself a biologist, and I have to take this claim from others. But I am told that the three main ways of dividing people into sexes (by functioning genitalia, chromosomes, and hormonal levels) do not in fact cohere.¹ People may fit into one of these divisions and not the other two, and then choices are made in accordance with prevailing social norms. Also sections of the brain may be, though this is not yet clear, sexually dimorphic. Moreover, the biology in a different sense (the bodies we actually live with) has been influenced by social conceptions, because newborns with ambiguous sex characteristics have routinely been altered so as to fit the prevailing norms.²
Does all of this mean that we have construction, so to speak, all the way down? This would not be consistent with the important point that a transgender male may insist that being a man is something he discovered, not simply something he made. He discovers a set of preferences, some of which are for what is ‘biological’ in a broad sense, but are not directly concerned with reproduction. They include preferences for what are sometimes called ‘secondary sexual characteristics’ such as hair in certain places on the body, a voice at certain registers, a certain musculature, etc. We now have the technology for altering these features of a person with hormones and surgery and they are not the same as that person’s reproductive capacity. The set can also include preferences for reproductive capacity, but when we are thinking about gender transition these are not the key preferences in play. The set of preferences is not confined to biology in this broad sense, however, but extends to characteristics that have a large socially-defined content, such as the preference for being able to help elderly parents with heavy suitcases. This example has a physical basis, namely a certain musculature, but in other examples the preferences can be for items that do not have such a basis in the person’s own body, as for example a preference for smoking cigars. As the centrality of the person’s own body to the preference decreases, the amount of social construction increases. By the term ‘gender’ I am going to mean the first two of the terms of the relation I mentioned in the first paragraph, and with the term ‘gender identity’ I am going to add the third. In other words, gender is the set of these preferences together with the social pictures which these preferences either do or do not match. The gender identity is then the endorsement (the third term) added to these two, since I am taking ‘identity’ to imply ‘identification’. This analysis implies that both gender and gender identity have both biological and socially-constructed elements.
My central constructive suggestion is that we see the set of preferences that a trans male discovers and endorses as described in a life-narrative about a normative (value-based) trajectory that relates where he is now, how this has developed over time, and where his life is headed. This picture has the advantage of allowing that the preferences can change, and then making these changes intelligible within a structure. A story, for example about my son’s life, that he had unthematized gender preferences that were at odds with his assignment as female at birth, can make sense of all sorts of apparently anomalous events of his childhood and adolescence. This story-fragment can bring unity retrospectively to his experience even though it is only part of the story of his life as a whole. The connection between narrative and identity has been a large theme in recent analytic philosophy.³ As a theologian, I am proposing that the original story-teller is in fact not the person herself, but the Holy Spirit, and the person herself has the task of receiving and retelling this story as best she can. It is a comfort that God can see the whole picture all at once, even though our recapitulation of the story has to be temporally sequential.
A desire (or preference) is central in a desire-profile if it has large unifying power over the normative trajectory of the profile as a whole over time. To unify is at least to give an explanation with a relatively simple set of terms. The kind of explanatory power I have in mind is that the explanation should make what is explained more intelligible. The narrative is, I have said, value-based, and so the intelligibility is going to be in terms of what is good. Gender is pervasive, but that does not show that it is central, in the sense of making large sections of what we do normatively intelligible. To answer the question about centrality we need to make another distinction. Intelligibility in terms of what is good needs to be divided into centrality for a destination and centrality for a path. I want to suggest that it is reasonable to think that gender and gender identity are central in this sort of way to the path, both negatively and positively, but we have no knowledge about whether they are central to the destination. One reason for saying they are not central to the destination is that as we get older we start to be able to see our earthly lives as a whole, since there is not much more or new that we are likely to accomplish. One side effect is that we start to see what has shaped these lives by external influence, and recognize the contingency of this; it could have been otherwise, and it changes from one generation to another. Since, as I have construed it, gender identity is a three-term relation, and one of these terms is a social picture, the contingency of the social picture makes the gender identity itself seem more fluid or labile.
In what way might gender identity be central to the path? This centrality is supported, in my son’s case, by the fact that a large number of the decisions he made for several years took their rationale from his hope for and then his accomplishment of gender transition. Romans 8:26 says that we do not know what we ought to pray for. In the context, this should mean that we do not know how to pray towards our destination, since we do not see this yet. We long for it, and for movement towards it, but we can only express this in groans that go beyond speech. But, I suggest tentatively, the Spirit sees it. The Spirit has the story about how, by what path, we can get to our inheritance as children of God, and this is the ‘mind of the Spirit’ which God knows, because this story is in accordance with God’s will. Our task is to retell this story, to recapitulate it. But we will not be able to do this completely until the hope becomes sight. This progress is what I have been calling a ‘trajectory’, and there are a number of questions that the reader is likely to have about this idea. We can ask whether gender is central in God’s loving will to the path and to the destination. I have discussed the destination, but what about the path? Genesis 1.27 tells us, ‘God created humankind (in Hebrew, adam) in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”’ This passage has centrally to do with what I have called ‘the path’, how we are to live on this earth in regard to reproducing and ruling (or stewarding). It suggests a created order which is a kind of polarity within the human species. This follows similar polarities earlier in the chapter between light and dark and dry and wet. God divides the day from the night and the land from the waters. In the same way within the human species, God divides male and female and links this division to procreation. It is important to see that these divisions do not, in the earlier cases, mark out exclusive areas, as one might divide a cake. There are day and night, but there are also dawn and dusk. There is dry land and water, but there is also marsh and there are areas that are seasonally dry and wet. So it might be very important, even central, on a human path to discern where on this polarity of male and female one belongs. But it would not follow that there were only two places one could be.⁴ On the other hand ‘male and female’ is not like ‘dark and light’ or ‘dry and wet’. Genesis is emphasizing that in this polarity male and female come together for procreation and God blesses this in the very next verse. This does not mean that the division into male and female is only for procreation, but it is at least for this. There can be all sorts of differences on the spectrum of what I have been calling ‘gender’, and some of them are not reducible to reproductive capacity. Thus it is wrong to say that a man or woman who is not fertile has thereby lost all point in being gendered.⁵ Also, I do not mean to imply by the language of ‘polarity’ that there is a single clear line with ‘real men’ on one end and ‘real women’ on the other. I just mean to point out that with all three distinctions (light/dark, dry/wet and male/female) there are grey areas, but with the third there is also a purpose which includes at least reproduction but should not be confined to this.
I want to end, then, by saying that my wife and I have observed in the trans male I have been thinking about what we take to be the fruit of the Holy Spirit. It is not that he is always loving or joyful or self-controlled. But nonetheless there is a new character after his transition, an ability to care for other people in a new way, and to pay attention to the beauty of the world around him. His own expression of this change is more Buddhist than it is Christian. But it is noticeable. It is the kind of change we associate with effects of God’s Spirit. My wife and I have been blessed by his care for us.
From time to time a member of All One Body will post to this blog. We will also have guest commentary. Stay tuned!