God’s Glory Imaged in Sexual Differentiation
Lynnae Douglas, M.A.R. ’18 (NALS Seminary Center)
We were in a prominent hospital on the Upper East side of Manhattan, just yards away from the illustrious Central Park, when my husband announced we had another healthy son. A nurse present for this wondrous occasion gruffly muttered under her breath, “It’s 2018, the baby can be whatever it wants.” I recall being shocked and puzzled, even if delirious, as I watched my husband give a chilling glance. The nurse had unusually poor bedside manners, I supposed, and we dismissed the comment and went on in our joy as we embraced our baby boy.
I had no idea that in only five years, her subversive comment that sounded merely confusing and fringe at the time would underscore the prevailing assumption of gender and personhood in our culture today. What does a body have to do with one’s gender? It’s 2023, and the reigning idea is that meaning can be imposed on our bodies. Biological limits can be disregarded, or in some cases surgically removed, in favor of this new “Gnosticism,” as the inner, psychological self dictates terms and wages war against the confines of the body.
The Christian Church has a different story to tell, and the Church’s proclamation of the goodness of the body and the goodness of sexual differentiation has always sounded strange amidst the clamor of fleeting social trends. The Church confesses that human persons were created by God according to His own image and likeness (Genesis 1:26–27), and just so are infused with His divine goodness and freedom. It is precisely in our sexed bodies that this image-bearing finds concrete form.
Of course, this image has been marred by the unreality that is sin, but Christ our Lord has nevertheless restored this image to fallen humanity when He took on human flesh as the Image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). This reflection will not account for the distinction between the natural goodness of being made in the image of God and the graced participation in Christ’s own life that is beyond natural means.1 Rather, it will assume the latter and seek briefly to ponder how sexual differentiation relates to bearing the image of God. In other words, what does being made male and female have to do with the eternal glory of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? I will offer just two answers, and conclude with how we, as members of Christ, might reveal with greater clarity this reality, particularly in our tumultuous cultural moment.
First, males and females living in harmony together reveal in an analogous, creaturely way what is true of Father, Son, and Spirit, that is, that God is three distinct Persons who have one nature. It is as three Persons in perfect unity that the Godhead eternally enjoys fellowship and freedom in self-giving love. Out of this free love God chose to create human beings after His likeness. Males and females reveal this same distinction and unity. Despite the conventional wisdom of our day, males and females are neither interchangeable nor altogether dissimilar. They are not generic beings but bodily distinct human persons who share one nature. Thus, by analogy at least, males and females are uniquely capable of revealing the eternal communion of the Godhead when they yield to one another in acts of mutuality and self-giving love.
Secondly, it is males and females together who reveal the glory of God through subduing creation and begetting children. Adam could name animals and speak with God, but he could not have dominion over the earth and fill it as a solitary human, for this is a “corporate project for a great multitude throughout many generations.”2 Thus God forms Eve who corresponds to Adam in her bodily “otherness,” she is fit for him. Both are fully human, but each lacks that which only belongs to the other. In the union of their bodies, male and female image God’s oneness and have the potential to create new human persons on whom God sets His love. God reveals His glory to His creatures as the Source of all that is, and once again in an analogous way, males and females image God by participating with Him in His divinely appointed social order and bearing new life unto His glory.
In our culture today, these two ways that men and women uniquely image the Holy Trinity are seen as regressive ideas that need to be cast aside or at least greatly reduced in their assumed importance. Mutuality and reciprocity do not compute when persons are reduced to categories of power dynamics. Furthermore, being freed of one’s reproductive function is viewed as a humanizing, liberating goal so one can escape the constraints and sacrifices that are inherent to child-rearing. Yet the Church has been called to proclaim what is true and lovely and good about human persons—which includes their God-given bodies and their biological capabilities—even to those who are determined to erase creaturely distinctions and natural limitations.
It is by serving, not being served, and losing one’s life rather than finding it that we are conformed to the Image and Author of life Himself. When Christ bestows His own life upon us in our baptisms, we are given grace to live out our vocations as husband or wife, father or mother, son or daughter, neighbor and friend as God intends from the beginning. Husbands loving their wives as Christ loved the Church and wives receiving and honoring their husbands as unto Christ is indeed a mystery that is inherently attractive, for it reveals God’s divine glory as it embodies the mystery of the Gospel: Christ’s one-flesh union with His Bride (Ephesians 5). Parents receiving the gift of new life with joy, trusting that this new person can only come through the union given and blessed by God, bears fruitful witness to a world that often views children as nuisances to avoid.
Moreover, Christian men and women in any community, cooperating together by the power of the Spirit of holiness, are uniquely disposed to recognize the other sex as gift rather than opposition.3
The distinct other may be visibly seen in what is material, being male or female, but Christians are given baptized vision which marvels at the handiwork of God in the Other, and lifts the eyes of the Christian to contemplate the Other. This vision no longer regards others according to the flesh (2 Corinthians 5:14–17), which doesn’t mean we somehow shed our bodies, but that in our concrete givenness, we see and apprehend with the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:1–5). In our union with Jesus Christ, whether male or female, our differing gifts, capabilities and desires are all being remade in His likeness. The same Spirit that bestows Christ in Baptism enables men and women to see Christ in the other, and so relate and act accordingly.4
It is easy to take aim at the absurdity of my nurse’s comment and the ideology that undergirds it, and doubtless it is needful to think critically and to speak clearly of this pseudo-religion. But it is much harder to set forth the good that God established from the beginning by living as members of Christ’s Body in communion with others, males and females, who make visible what is hidden and eternal. In sacrificing for and receiving the other, and recognizing the goodness of our created differences, we are imitating in a creaturely mode what has always existed in the life of God. We do not know what effect small deeds done in faith might have on a hurting, confused world, but as we share in the life of God through his Son by the Spirit’s power, distinctly as males and females, we can trust Christ’s words in John 1:5: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
For an excellent discussion of this distinction, see Dr. David S. Yeago’s forthcoming Apostolic Faith, pp. 64-65 and 74-75.
Yeago, Apostolic Faith, 79.
This point is carefully elaborated in Abigail Favale’s The Genesis of Gender, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2022, 51.
It is worth noting that, just as it would be destructive to affirm the new cultural creed (i.e.: there is no consequential difference between males and females because meaning is assigned to the body), so too it would be destructive to totalize biology in such a way that our whole personhood and way of being in this world is dominated by it. This is a tempting reaction to the current madness, yet it too would be ideology and would not lead us toward the Truth, the Whole Human, who alone sets us free and makes us as we ought to be.