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Don’t Make Gender Platonic

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According to a wise theology professor, heresy is “trying to find a simple solution that squashes the frustrating nuances and baffling complexities of the truth.”

It is fitting that something so personal and holy, such as our gender, our very mode of operation in this world, would be buried under centuries of heresy, error, and social taboos. Certainly, we seek to understand something so mysterious and sacred as the gender of the human person, and it is doubly certain we fall miserably short of comprehending it.

Recently, a friend shared with me a blog piece with the provocative title: “Why Man and Woman are Not Equal,” which perfectly captured one of the most common gender heresies (especially among conservatives and the neo-Victorians dwelling among us): the Sentimental Heresy.

This piece posits:

Women create, shape, and maintain human culture. Manners exist because women exist. Worthy men adjust their behavior when a woman enters the room. They become better creatures. Civilization arises and endures because women have expectations of themselves and of those around them.

As I was reading this blog post, I was reminded of Dorothy Sayer’s wise, witty, and no-nonsense lecture-turned-essay entitled: Are Women Human?” Sayers’ essay cuts right to the heart of the problem, and strips this impersonal heresy of its sappy and sentimental clothes. The heart of her lecture is thus:

It is my experience that both men and women are fundamentally human, and that there is very little mystery about either sex, except the exasperating mysteriousness of human beings in general.

To describe a female person’s function as simply a civilizing influence on men is not only vaguely condescending, it is simply false. If women are human, then they are capable of both virtuous and vicious actions, as all humans are. And we may assume that women, like all humans, are good influences on others when they are acting virtuously and bad influences on others when they are acting poorly.

Sayers objects to rhetoric that stereotypes “Women” as a distinct social class of human, “all in a flock like sheep.” She quotes D.H. Lawrence:

Man is willing to accept woman as an equal, as a man in skirts, as an angel, a devil . . . an ideal or an obscenity; the one thing he won’t accept her as is a human being, a real human being of the feminine sex.

In her article for Solidarity, “Gender Reality,” Sr. Prudence Allen dives into the origin of “gender ideology,” and one of the first ports her pen lands on is the Neoplatonic ideals of a cosmic, abstract form of masculine and feminine. These “reveal a certain tendency to devalue the concrete individual human being, man or woman, in comparison with some abstract ‘real’ form.” This could be called the Neoplatonic Heresy.

Separating gender from the individual person is never going to be able to reach the heart of the mystery of gender. There are many ways in which our discussion of gender actually hinders rather than helps us see the individual human being. Generally, the human being can best begin to be understood when we first acknowledge that the human being is inexplicable, and that the human being’s gender is a mystery beyond our comprehension. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies, and one of them is our very self.

Theology, as another wise theology professor said, can only properly be done on one’s knees. In order to find anything resembling orthodoxy, the theologian must constantly remain in a stance of awe, reminding herself that she is splashing in an ocean whose depth she cannot fathom. Although throwing up one’s hands and saying “well it’s a mystery” may appear to be the antithesis of the academic endeavor, it seems to me like a very good place to start.

Featured Image: Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (ca. 1655); courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Renée D. Roden

Renée D. Roden is a Master of Theological Studies student at the University of Notre Dame and a graduate fellow of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.