This is a review of my reading of the doctoral thesis titled “Intersex and Imago: Sex, Gender, and Sexuality in Postmodern Theological Anthropology” by Megan K. DeFranza at Marquette University in 2011.
This dissertation is very carefully documented, rigorously sourced, and includes numerous direct quotes from theologists across the ages. If you’re curious about how we got where we are in the church’s response to intersex and gender issues, it’s worth your time. I was surprised by quite a few things.
The author begins with a fairly detailed review of intersex biology – the various types and their prevalence.
She then turns to investigating how we got to the current set of social and religious views on sex and gender.
It turns out that quite a lot of our “traditionally” binary view of sex and gender is VERY historically recent.
Until about the Victorian era, eunuchs and castrated and intersexed people (what was called “androgynous” or “hermaphrodite” are intersex variations) were well-accepted in most societies around the world, and in fact deeply honored in some of them. In the church, in particular, castrata and eunuchs were deeply valued for their freedom from sexual concerns and their ability to worship among men in ways that women were not permitted to worship. Generally, it seems that all those societies understood that gender was a spectrum, not binary.
However, it’s not as simple as that might seem.
Until the Enlightenment, the eunuch and intersexed and androgynous and hermaphrodite forms were essentially understood as falling somewhere along a continuum from perfect (male) to completely imperfect (female). The female was conceived of as being basically a male with undeveloped or imperfect organs; doctors didn’t even have words for the female organs, but described them as inverted male organs. So intersexed people with anomalous genitals were understood as degrees of imperfection.
So only the male was accepted as perfect, worthy of rule, and women were always subservient and minimized in some form. Even the honored eunuchs and castrata suffered such subjugation, despite the honor given to them for their function.
In different older eras, and societies, how the different types of intersex manifestations were handled varied greatly. For example, in some ancient cultures, and still today, intersexed persons are forced to live as male, even if those conditions appear at puberty after years of successfully living as (and appearing completely as) a female. In other cultures, the opposite is true.
But either way, until fairly recently they were all understood and accepted as “normal variations” although rare.
But the rank misogyny about male perfection was pretty strong. Even Calvin and Luther, two obvious heroes of the church, lived in societies where there really was only one sex – the male – and the female was understood to be an imperfect, mis-created male. One of the main thinkers of the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas, calls women “misbegotten males.”
At any rate, the strictly binary understanding of “God made male and female ONLY” is actually a very recent philosophy. It was at that time that these other non-binary forms began to be directly attacked and suppressed, both from society and also more importantly from the church.
The largest change seems to have come in the last 70 years or so, once modern medicine realized it was possible to “correct” anomalous genitalia or hormone issues, at which point it was possible for the church to write them off as just deficient humans that could be “corrected.”
It’s intriguing to see how much the church understanding of sex and gender and even homosexuality/heterosexuality has morphed along with secular society. There’s very little independence there; in pretty much every era, the thinking within the church followed that in society.
The same is also true, interestingly, in how male headship of the family and the church and society evolved. It’s all part of the same spectrum, because the male position and the male gender and sex are intimately tied in all these thought processes.
As a result, any assertion by today’s church that its gender roles and sexual norm values are Bible-based and therefore absolute truth doesn’t pass any rigorous examination. It’s too recent to believe that.
Quite a bit of the content commented upon in this work starts from, and critiques, writings from the former pope John Paul II, and Stanley Grenz (1950-2005), who wrote extensively on theological anthropology and human sexuality. The current Pope extended some of John Paul II’s work but also went more liberal in many ways.
The Roman Catholic and evangelical theologians tend to (especially from the current Pope) insist that the Trinity experience eros, not just agape. Not sexual eros, but still eros in the sense of deep affectionate emotional love, not just other-serving agape or brotherly phileo.
Marriage lovemaking/sex is often unremarkable and often sacrificial – often agape, not just eros, not some explosion of amazing passion that models the Trinity somehow. Rather, we sometimes have to sacrifice to meet the other’s needs, and it’s misleading and often harmful to convey the idea that marital sexuality is supposed to be constantly earthshaking and life-changing.
“Lewis named eros, along with storge (affection) and philia (friendship), natural loves which can be elevated by divine agape to become revelations of divine love while, nevertheless, remaining human loves.”
A lot of time in the thesis is spent evaluating different writers’ thoughts on the Biblical symbolism of marriage and love and eros and agape against their views of the proper understanding of the relationship between the Godhead and between God and man and the relationship between man and woman (or any pair of lovers).
…”the analogy between sexual ecstasy and spiritual union is better likened to the joy of spouses celebrating their golden anniversary, rather than the excitement of newlyweds.”
“It is thus profoundly ironic that the lens through which many modern Christians have come to interpret marriage, the fantasy of romance, turns out to be so splintering and isolating a phenomenon. Romance, through its exclusive focus on the one true love, ends up separating people two by two from any other substantive human relationship.”
“Marriage is not THE icon of the social Trinity but AN image of divine love.”
The thesis spends a lot of time exploring the “social trinitarianism”, an increasingly common theological perspective that the Godhead is a relationship, not just an authority ordering of three parts of the Godhead. It leads to our current emphasis on the idea that to represent the image of God, we too must be in relationship, both with each other and with God.
In particular, social trinitarianism in some ways breaks the idea that the Father/Son relationship, with the Holy Spirit as a binding force, models the binary man/woman+God (and male/female) structure, which has often been used in Catholic/Evangelical theology to reinforce strict binary views of sexuality and gender.
“A fully social trinitarianism will take seriously the presence of a third who does not undermine duality but opens up the kinds of relations possible by moving beyond two subjects in relation. Reading divine relationality through the lens of the I-Thou or male-female leads more readily to the ontological duality of Yin and Yang, rather than the fruitful community of the Trinity.”
“It is the recovery of the social Trinity that can protect theologians from sexualizing Trinitarian love and from asking more of human sexuality than it can possibly bear. Such a shift should help retain the goodness of human sexuality without elevating it in such a way that Christian sexual ethics are undermined, celibacy is devalued, and sexual dysfunction is misread as spiritual dysfunction. Such a vision makes space for the unmarried, the non-sexually active, for eunuchs, and for intersexed persons to be recognized as fully made in the image of God—for these, too, are called into the community of faith as members of the social imago.”
In trying to understand Jesus’ unusually strong (for that culture) defense of the eunuch in Matthew 19:12, and understanding why Jesus never married or fathered natural children despite his 33 years of age in a culture where marriage was early and parenting was extremely socially important, some LBGTQIA+ activists have suggested that Jesus was intersex or at least a eunuch himself. Along these lines, “Kessel suggested that a parthenogenetic conception (the development of an unfertilized ovum) would have rendered Jesus chromosomally female (XX since he took his flesh entirely from Mary his mother). His phenotypic presentation as male may have come about through natural sex reversal. While Mollenkott’s recital of Kessel’s proposal does not list a specific intersex condition as a possible reason for “sex reversal,” I would suggest that a severe case of Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia in an XX fetus could have produced a substantial enough phallus for sex assignment as male and the development of male secondary sex development.”
It’s interesting that Galatians 3:28 says “Jew OR Greek,” “slave OR free,” but finally “male AND female.” It’s almost as if the binary understanding from Genesis, “male and female He created them” is explicitly done away with.
“Among those thinking theologically about intersex, three solutions have been proffered: Omnigender proposed by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, the End of Gender proposal of J. David Hester and the Kenosis of Sex Identity posited by Susannah Cornwall.”
“There are those of us whose bodies match the current criteria for accepted maleness or femaleness, but this does not necessarily mean that this will be so forever. Perhaps intersexed bodies threaten non-intersexed people because, as historian and activist for intersex issues Alice Dreger says, ‘The questioned body forces us to ask exactly what it is—if anything—that makes the rest of us unquestionable.’”
“…rather than assuming intersexed bodies will be perfected to unambiguity,” (in the Resurrection at the end of the age), “we ought to ask what eschatologies of perfection suggest about our own body anxieties.”
“Quite simply, it is neither possible nor desirable to specify what resurrection bodies will be like; but the one thing they will all share will be a redeemed body story rather than an unproblematically ‘perfected’ body by human standards.”
While it’s not discussed in the thesis, this does lead me to ask: Will disabilities, as well as intersex characteristics, disappear in our heavenly bodies? Would someone necessarily WANT to be made “perfect” if that was not their earthly lived experience? Their idea of perfect may very well differ from abled views.
It’s also not discussed in the thesis, but I wonder if the oft-quoted (by evangelicals) idea that every societal collapse has been preceded shortly by a breakdown in gender roles is misreading the cause/effect. Could it be that the reaction against rigid gender and sexual binary is a FUNCTION of a malfunctioning society, which is trending towards collapse? Fascism has often appeared in history shortly before the collapse, and fascism is often a reaction by the right wing moralists against perceived moral collapse. This thesis review of history implies that these gender and sexual mores have always been present, but are often hidden in nearly plain sight. It’s only at the end of that society, when fascist tendencies are growing and seem to lead to the collapse, that the issue becomes so apparent and part of the ranting by the purists. This would flip the narrative on its head, from the perspective that perhaps it’s the fascism that causes the collapse, just as the society was approaching some real justice for the oppressed. I think it’s arguable that we see that happening today with the sudden rise of Christian nationalism – both in the US and in Russia.
“…gender identity” is a “regulatory ideal” resulting from “compulsory heterosexuality.”
But “arguments suggesting that Jesus was overturning the goodness of heterosexuality must be recognized as arguments from silence, especially in the face of the weight of biblical evidence for heterosexual marriage and against alternative sexual activity.”
“…discussions of sex/gender differences remain useful so long as they are understood as ‘two overlapping distributions for males and females, with average differences between the two groups.'”
“Recognizing that ‘few, if any, individuals correspond to the modal’ (the statistical average) can help liberate everyone from oppressive gender stereotypes so long as we are willing to differentiate between statistical norms and ethical or aesthetic ideals.”
“An unambiguously sexed body, while it may be the cause of some unsolicited privileges, can
nevertheless remain a source of personal insecurity. … The intersexed are not alone in needing to come to terms with their own embodiment — the possibilities and limitations, abilities and disabilities, temptations and strengths, trials and joys which vary according to each individual.”
“A secure sex/gender identity can be just as much a stumbling block to transformation in the image of Christ as an unclear sex/gender identity.”
“While we need not put to death our sex/gender/sexual identities, all of us—male, female, and intersex—must place the privileges and pain associated with these identities under the cross of Christ—dying to pride and privilege in the kenosis which Cornwall has recommended but also dying to the need for revenge, to insecurities, to self-hatred, and despair.”
“It may be that virtue was conflated with vir“… (Latin for “male”) …”in the ancient world observing that one of the most powerful rhetorical devices effective for motivating men to change their behavior is shaming them with accusations of being or becoming effeminate. Unfortunately, it is a rhetorical device still employed by preachers today. Although arguably effectual, the conflation of virtue with manliness replaces the gospel of holiness and maturity with a hierarchically-gendered system of oppression—shaming men into virtue instead of calling men, women, intersex adults and children to grow in holiness, being conformed to the image of God in Christ.”
The author’s own ending summary of her thesis says this:
This dissertation has attempted to heed the voices of the intersexed who are calling for recognition and inclusion in the human family as well as for better medical care—easier access to medical records, collaborative medical intervention, and a moratorium on non-consensual surgeries (chapter 1). In light of their voices, I have worked to show that Christian theological anthropologies, even conservative Evangelical and Roman Catholic theological anthropologies, do not necessarily stand in the way of these goals. On the contrary, Christian theological anthropology can aid the case of the intersexed by showing that intersex persons have been among the human family and recorded in the history of Christianity for millenia (chapter 1), that the intersexed were honored by Jesus (who raised them up from symbols of shame to become icons of radical discipleship), that the intersexed have participated in church leadership and public service in the Church and Christian societies, and that they have provided resources for thinking theologically about the significance of sex, gender, and sexuality in this life and the life to come—both in the early church and the middle ages (chapter 2), and again in the postmodern period (chapters 3 and 6). Having established the validity of including the intersex in the human family as intersex, I went on to explore how intersex can challenge, correct, and help to construct a better theological anthropology for the postmodern period. I urged Roman Catholic and Evangelical theologians to move beyond discussions of the woman as paradigmatic “other” to include other others; revisioning the place of Adam and Eve as progenitors rather than paradigms of human difference-in-relation (chapter 4). I then argued that theological discussions of the social imago must retain their basis in the social Trinity— inclusive of sex/gender difference as one important difference in the community without grounding relationality (human or divine) on sex differentiation or sexual desire/activity and without conflating the related but discrete categories of sex, gender, and sexuality (chapter 5). Moving from the binary pattern of Eden to the “not male and female” of the Eschaton, I worked to show how christology and eschatology both challenge and enrich our notions of human personhood made in the image of God in Christ, especially as it relates to sex, gender, and sexuality. I argued that, rather than dismantling the categories of male and female, space should be opened up for the addition and inclusion of intersex whose humanity was also taken up by Jesus Christ in the incarnation. I concluded by suggesting that while sex, gender, and sexual identities are not erased by identification “in Christ” they must, nevertheless, be de-centered, in order to promote the healing of individuals and reconciliation in the community so that male, female, and intersex can emulate and participate in the mutual-dependence of the perichoretic love of the Trinity in purity (chapter 6). In all, great mystery remains, even as we begin to explore the possibility of thinking beyond the binary framework of humankind made in the image of God.