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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A Christian Defense of the Identities of Transgender Persons Part 4

If seeing this image anywhere near the word "transgender"
freaks you out, you might want to reflect on what baggage
you are bringing to this conversation.

This is Part 4 in a series which starts HERE

My separate series in defense of LGB relationships starts HERE

Introductory note: I have worked as hard as I know how to avoid creating a straw-man argument for the non-recognizing position. I have endeavored to present as fair (while still critical) a representation of those exegetical arguments I have been able to find, as possible, but am conscious of the fact that those arguments are (in my understanding) remarkably weak. I should point out that non-recognizing folk also make more general theological-anthropological and philosophical-anthropological arguments and that I have not addressed them in this post. I will do my best to address them in future posts. In the meantime if you know of stronger forms of the indirect exegetical argument I would encourage you to post them in the comments box where I will make every attempt to respond to them in  a timely manner. 

Here it is, the long delayed take on the oblique passages. Those parts of the Bible which are often thought to be relevant to the situation of transgender persons though they do not address transgender people directly. While I certainly have been working on a number of other things (did I mention I put a book out this summer?) I have also been doing my reading and my research so that I am now able to return to you, a more read and researched blogger.

What I have found is that the arguments against recognizing a transperson's identity generally boil down primarily to Genesis 1 and 2 (the creation account) and occasionally utilize Psalm 139:13 (God having created David while David was still in utero) and usually Matthew 19:4 (where Jesus quotes Genesis 1 as support for an argument about marriage and divorce). That is certainly not a whole lot to go on but it pretty much sums up the passages the anti-trans-identity Christians routinely cite in defense of their position (if you are in this group and there is an important passage you think I am missing please bring it to my attention, I am drawing predominantly on the work of Albert Mohler and Denny Burke). The key texts here are:

So God created man in His own image; He created him in the image of God; He created them male and female. (Genesis 1:27)
For it was You who created my inward parts; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. (Psalm 139:13)

The argument that is then constructed from these passages and - in the case of the Genesis text - their surrounding context, is that since God created humanity dimorphically (male and female), it must be God's intention that humanity restrict itself to a gender binary as any attempt to embrace a third (or fourth or fifth) sex or gender category (the passage is generally taken to refer to both sex and gender after an attack on any possibility of distinction between the two categories is made without reference to Scripture) would constitute an attempt to move beyond God's plan for the species.
Now I realize that the argument so far, regardless of how good or bad it is, doesn't actually speak to Wanda's situation (for an update on the extended illustration I am using for the series you are going to need to start at PART 1 - Short version: Wanda is a trans woman who was known as "Bob" for a while and would like to have her female gender recognized by her church). Wanda, like many trans persons in America today, isn't particularly interested in identifying or being recognized as a third gender, she identifies as, and would like to be related to as, a woman. However I think it is worth stopping here for a second to point out that the non-recognizing crew are presently deriving their conclusions from a philosophy which is built on the perceived implications of a mere one to three passages.

This break in the argument is brought to you by trans pride.

Back to the argument: Having established that God's sexually dimorphic design for the species implies God's intention that sex and gender remain binary in human society, the argument then moves to assert that since God is the one designing humanity, and (per Psalm 139) individual human bodies, we need to read the morphology of our bodies at birth (including genitalia and chromosomal makeup) as prescriptive of our sex and gender identities (remember that the necessary congruence of sex and gender is stated but not defended on any particular Scriptural basis). The experience of gender dysphoria and the physical non-binary morphology of intersex people is explained as a result of creation's fall into a sinful and broken state. Thus, the reasoning goes, when there is an experienced incongruence of sex and gender (or of sex morphology to conform to a dimorphic pattern), the goal is to help the afflicted individual achieve restoration to the binary ideal.

In principle this ought to leave open the possibility that the tension could be relieved through hormone replacement therapy and sexual reassignment surgery thereby bringing the sex into alignment with the gender. However it is very important to folks who are thinking along these lines to insist that these actions would constitute an attack on healthy organs and bodily processes and that the only legitimate way of restoring the individual to the desired pre-fall state, is to take them through therapies (either religious or psychological) which will help them to re-orient their gender identities in order to bring them into congruence with their physiological sex. This is often supported by an appeal to a semi-Thomist "natural law" idea (pointing to reproduction as the healthy purpose of genitalia) while some theological accusations of the Gnostic heresy (which, among other things, denied the moral importance of the body to spiritual development) are occasionally deployed.
If all of this seems weak, I should point out that it is generally bolstered by a number of ancillary, but non-Scriptural arguments. Transgender people are generally compared to folks suffering from mental delusions in an attempt to account for the testimony of trans people. Thomistic natural law theory is not infrequently employed to make teleological arguments about the "proper" purpose of the body. Examples of mental illness are emphasized while examples of physical illness are generally downplayed (the mind is generally taken to be more fully subject to brokenness and the fall than the body is) and, in the worst cases, (certainly not all) emotional appeals to disgust, pity, and fear are combined with hand wringing over the advance of "liberal" thought and the advance of "secular society". But these arguments, strong or not, are not part of the exegetical conversation and so ought to be put aside for the purpose of this portion of the discussion.
Fountainheads not Paradigms

What we are left with is then the argument that God created humanity as a sexually dimorphic species (male and female), that any deviation for a gender or sex binary must therefore be a result of human brokenness in the fall, and that restoration consists in changing the individual's mind to conform with their genitalia or in a supernatural relief of the individual's dysphoria. The problem then, is that this argument is flawed in each major step.

First, while the Genesis and Matthew passages could be legitimately read as a confirmation that humanity began as a dimorphic species, there is nothing inherently prescriptive in those passages (I encourage the reader to go check them out). As Megan DeFranza points out in her excellent book Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God :
Reading the Genesis account in light of the larger Biblical narrative, we are able to affirm the goodness of sex difference as the fountainhead of human difference without requiring the male-female pattern to become the paradigmatic form of the other. (loc.4517-4545 Kindle Edition)
Essentially, the Genesis account doesn't set up male-female as the pattern to which the species must perpetually conform but the origin from which the diversity of humanity is derived. This is made especially clear when we notice that there are all sorts of wonderful creatures and species which do not fit into the Genesis categories. As DeFranza points out elsewhere, bats, amphibians, platypoi, sunsets, and fungi all arguably fall between various Genesis categories and yet they remain "good". At the very least, the claim that Adam and Eve ought to be seen as the paradigm for human sexed-ness and gendered-ness rather than as the fountainhead is a legitimate exegetical debate.

Furthermore, there is Biblical warrant to conclude that redemption from a fallen state is more likely to look like a progression towards something new than a return to what was before. In term of Biblical narrative: humanity is restored to a city, not a garden; marriage is not restored in the Kingdom, but replaced with something else, and eunuchs are not (apparently) healed to become procreative, but given "a name better than sons and daughters" [Isaiah 56:4-5]. In short there is no biblical warrant to assume that healing the brokenness of the fall must look like a return rather than a progression to something new.

This is Allyson Robinson, a
transgender Baptist pastor.
She is confusing to
complimentarian theology
But even if the first points are granted, the third falls flat as an argument against recognizing Wanda as a woman. Even if humanity is necessarily reducible to a sex and gender binary such that any apparent deviation from dimorphic humanity must be credited to the brokenness of the fall, that does not imply that restoration must require changing a person's mind to conform to their body. It is just as possible, and arguably more likely given the existence of transgender Christians, that restoration to a gender binary would consist in conforming the body to the mind. This seems to be the position of Peter Kreeft who argues that gender dysphoria (he doesn't use that term) might be reasonably healed by a "sex change" either surgically on earth or supernaturally "in heaven [theological sic.]".

Ultimately the oblique exegetical argument seems to be almost as weak as the direct exegetical argument. In my next post in this series I intend to revisit the positive theological and exegetical arguments for recognizing Wanda in her own self-perceived gender identity before I go on to address some of the broader philosophical, social, and theological concerns which are being raised by those who would deny the legitimacy of Wanda's feminine gender identity.

P.S. If you are interested in cool ways you can show support for the transgender community, check out #illgowithyou they are pretty awesome.
Also for way more information that I have provided, you should head over to youtube and check out Austen Lionheart.

Part 5 is HERE

Monday, April 18, 2016

Wisdom of the Vikings Part 4: Worldliness

I know you got skills girl.


The traveller must
train his wits.
All is easy at home.
He who knows little
is a laughing-stock
amongst men of the world

This is part 4 in an ongoing series (the series starts HERE) bringing together the Hávamál (a collection of Norse wisdom poetry) and the still-evolving rules and mores of the Internet, particularly as they are developing in the realm of social media.

While this particular bit of wisdom might seem to be a fairly prosaic platitude on prudence, I think it actually represents a particularly salient perspective on the subject. The more contemporary platitude is familiar enough: Better to  remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt has be variously attributed to Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln and few others (quote investigator has a nice treatment here). It provides the worthwhile advice that talking too quickly can get you into trouble and that it is when we speak - or type - in haste that we are most likely to embarrass ourselves. It's certainly a helpful couple of cents for anyone getting ready to venture into the wild anarchy of online forums and contentious Facebook threads.

But in this piece from the Hávamál we tap into a piece of wisdom more precisely directed at the wild unregulated frontier environment of Vikings and, per my hypothesis, the internet. Online the great tendency and temptation is to engage with the full force of one's personality and opinion. The anonymity of the web is infamously heady and it can be tempting to show off one's erudition or unload the full weight of your opinions on some poor, unsuspecting commenter, much like a young Viking warrior eager to prove her mettle by pitting her skills against some older stranger. Worldliness reminds us that having been considered a wit among your circle of friends or a bright student in your own school is no guarantee then when you go to cross words (or axes) with strangers in a strange place, you won't end up humiliated. Thus the wise viking, like the wise internet user (anyone one want to start recommending Viking-esque titles for internet users? I sense a developing need for such a term. Put your ideas in the com-box) must train his wits and remember that what was easy at home (on his own Facebook page or Twitter feed) surrounded by friends and family (in that internet echo-chamber where we can control whom we interact with and how we are perceived) may prove woefully inadequate amongst men of the world (in the larger world of forums and com-boxes). 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Wisdom of the Vikings Part 3: The Positive Value of Courtesy and Hospitality

 From the Hávamál:


The newcomer
needs fire
his knees are numb.
A man who has made
his way over mountains
needs food and fresh linen.


A guest needs
giving water
fine towels and friendliness.
A cheerful word
a chance to speak
kindness and concern.

While these very much carry on the basic message of the last entry, I think there is something particularly worthwhile in the shift from commending hospitality as a way to avoid offending others in a highly volatile, unstructured environment, to the positive commendation of hospitality and positive treatment of strangers as a good in itself. Online, as in Medieval Iceland, the flip side of the great risk inherent in a minimally structured and defended environment is the greater reward of new friends and a mutually supportive community. Much has been made (and will be made) of the joys of growth and encouragement to be found in the new avenues of connection the internet has made available, from online dating, to meetups, to discussion forums and the collaborative creativity of Instagram and Pintrest. 

But like meat-space communities, these digital friend-spaces and groups can only be built when a host is willing to offer an encouraging word, a comfortable and and safe space to the "newcomer" who needs fire, food, and fresh linen. By keeping a community open and welcoming to newcomers and guests we build strength, warmth, good fellowship, and good cheer; we keep out the night and preserve a protection against the trolls.

To follow this series from the beginning, click HERE

Part Four: Worldliness

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Wisdom of the Vikings Part 2: How to Seat a Guest

How to Seat a Guest

Giver of the feast!
Your guest is here.
Where shall he sit?
Fast temper grows 
in a far seat
Prompt him not to prove
his mettle.

One thing I think is really exciting about internet interaction culture is that it has caused us to rethink our understanding of hospitality. In historically individualistic "western" America, we have adopted a hospitality culture formed out of paradoxically government-ensured safety. Our hospitality ideals are not, therefore, driven by concerns over safety and the preservation of social peace, but by the promulgation of comfort and warmth. As a result we largely restrict our hospitality to those we are comfortable with and often feel justified being inhospitable to those with whom we prefer not to interact. If we don't feel comfortable with someone we have little difficulty ensuring that they do not enter our homes, we can be fairly effective in cutting off contact with them.

While this situation has its own strengths and weaknesses, it is noticeably different from the contexts of both Medieval Iceland and the internet, where it would require significant and peculiar security measures to keep someone out. Furthermore if we commit shaming, unfriendly, and inhospitable acts against someone in America, we are not in any particular danger from them, whereas in Viking Iceland such an insult or even simple failure to honor a guest could reasonably be expected to result in violence and even death.

Online the consequences are not that dire of course, but they are similarly volatile. A "guest" or commenter on a blog or in a Facebook feed needs to be greeted with respect and welcome. Think back to how many host-replies begin with a polite "Thanks for your comment!" or "Thanks for reading!" even when the host follows it with a disagreement. Wise moderators work to make sure that commenters do not feel that their voices are being mocked on silenced unjustly (we will get to dealing with purposeful trolls and flamewars another day). These gestures, making sure that all commenters are treated with respect even when they offer deeply divergent or even ignorant takes and opinions, are vital in a world where there is no guaranteed protection from aggressive repercussions (and the internet is becoming impressively sophisticated when it comes to the legal destruction of people's personae, reputations, and profiles).

So again, Norse wisdom proves timely in the internet age. Aphorisms developed in a more anarchic culture of honor and shame give us a touchstone for a digital frontier of the barely-regulated internet. When someone comments on your blog or Facebook feed, or responds to your tweet. Treat them with respect, see to it that they feel appropriately honored in your environment or else be prepared for her to prove her mettle.

Part 3: The Positive Value of Courtesy and Hospitality

Click HERE for the beginning of the series.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Wisdom of the Vikings. From The Hávamál Part 1: Intro and Advice to a Visitor

Starting a New Project

An awesome student of mine recently took a trip to Iceland (right?!) and, being awesome and all, brought me a copy of the Hávamál, a didactic eddaic poem of Norse and Viking wisdom aphorisms. As I flipped through it, stopping on this entry and that, it struck me that it would be a lot of fun to blog on the 91 selections in my edition. So, in an attempt to revitalize my blogging and think through ethics, history, and contemporary internet culture I am going to try and offer a brief reflection each of the entries in my book at a rate of around four a week. Let's see how it goes.

Some Oversimplified History and Poor-man's Sociology

The Norsemen who settled Iceland are really exciting group in history given that, in addition to being Vikings, they set up a society which is arguably the closest thing humanity has produced to an organized Anarchic system. They did have laws and a recognizable social order so the anarchy was imperfect but they also depended on popular executive enforcement and - within  the limitations of certain family and semi-tribal systems - popular legislation and adjudication.

Basically they had a gathering place where a bard would recite their constitution and laws from memory. Then they would bring their complaints against one another and collectively vote to pass new laws and sentence people for infractions. If someone was voted guilty it was up to the community itself to enforce the ruling. So if a person was strong enough to resist punishment, or had enough tough friends that nobody wanted to go after him (or her, Vikings were delightfully egalitarian for their day) then they basically got away with it. The major punishment was being declared an outlaw (major or minor) which meant that laws no longer protected you and someone who killed you and/or stole your stuff, would not be guilty of any wrong doing.

 As I reflected on this, it struck me that this structure, popular enforcement of collaboratively generated and adjudicated laws, is pretty similar to the ways in which many parts of the Internet operate. Blog com-boxes, Facebook feeds and comments, and various media comments sections are created in a remarkably frontier-like manner, then policed according to communally evolving standards and enforced with widely varying degrees of rigor by the proprietors of those digital spaces. Major punishments include blocking and banning but have to be enforced by the community and a person who "trolls" and established "troll" is not guilty of trolling. In effect the social zones of the internet are functionally analogous to the family-claimed homesteads and hamlets of the early Icelandic settlements. I'm looking forward to seeing how far this analogy will actually extend but if you want to preempt me in the comments, have at it!

Here's a Crash Course Video on The Vikings

What am I Actually Doing Here

With all of that in place, I thought it would be a lot of fun to publicly explore applicability of Viking wisdom in an internet age. So I will be posting individual aphorisms from the Hávamál and then trying to apply them to internet ethics and culture before offering a little evaluation of the wisdom (or lack thereof) that emerges.

So Without Further Ado

1. Advice to A Visitor

When passing
a door-post
watch as you walk on,
inspect as you enter.
It is uncertain
where enemies lurk
or crouch in a dark corner

This is a picture of a happy teacher
This one translates pretty easily and goes straight home. If we just substitute "door-post" for "Facebook post" or "com-box" I think the reminder/caution is really well taken. When a friend or even acquaintance wrights or shares something, we are immediately and automatically in a somewhat precarious situation. If we "walk on", or scroll by and refuse to engage there is some safety there, but at the cost of potentially meaningful engagement and at the risk of offending a friend by rejecting their invitation (a sort of mental/intellectual/cultural offer of hospitality). But if we "enter" and engage with the post, it is uncertain whether enemies or trolls (the Icelandic or Internet variety) lurk in a dark corner. At the end of the day I think the insight here is that the world is unavoidably dangerous and that caution will serve us well.

Part 2: How to Seat a Guest

Get it on Amazon