Gender in trouble?

I read John Milbank’s piece (published last week), What liberal intellectuals get wrong about transgenderism. As expected, I found that some of what he says expresses (rather more forcefully) my own concerns. I hesitate to enter into a public conversation about these issues, both because I am a Catholic moral theologian who takes the magisterium seriously, and also because I sometimes suspect that my first reactions (which I’ve hardly got beyond) are likely to be visceral rather than intellectual. And nobody wants to hear what my viscera have got to say. So, I’ll let Milbank speak a bit.

What is more, it is possible that liberals have too easily assumed that there exists a new consensus over abortion rights, gay marriage, transgender issues and positive discrimination (as opposed to formal equal access) for women and racial minorities. In reality, it may well be that a large number of people either reject or have doubts about these things, but feel that it is no longer acceptable to say so. Their real views perhaps emerged anonymously as one aspect of the votes for Brexit and for Trump.

The only person I know personally who voted for Trump would cite dissent from that imagined consensus as one factor in his decision.

In what follows I am not denying that there are some people with confused bodies who deserve our every help toward a viable individual solution. Nor that there are others with unfathomable psychological conditions estranging them from their own corporeal manifestation. Perhaps, in extremis, surgery is the only solution for them.

But many people rightly sense that the liberal obsession with the transgender issue has gone beyond merely wanting to help this minority. It has become a whole movement to change our notions of gender. And its preoccupations come across as irrelevant to most people, unjustified in its conclusions, and apparently condemnatory of the normal with which most people identify.

My shaping by the academic lunacy Milbank later decries makes me cringe at ‘most people.’ Not because I don’t think it’s true. The majority of people don’t feel they’re in the ‘wrong body’ (though, given the choice, I would trade mine for Halle Berry’s or Angelina Jolie’s in a heartbeat), and are attracted to the ‘other’ body. From a purely evolutionary standpoint, this is what you’d expect. I’m just worried about the way that ‘most people’ have made life very difficult in the past for people who are ‘different.’ I am, after all, the mother of a teenage girl with Down Syndrome. Milbank again urges compassion, though:

I repeat that there are some people who really do have a psychic disparity with their gendered body. They may be a very small minority, but they should be listened to — and liberalism has certainly helped us to treat them with understanding and compassion.

But we should still consider irremediably psychic disparity with one’s gendered body to be a highly rare exception, and normatively one should assume (with the sensus communis of all ages) that gender indeed follows upon biological sex. Otherwise, one is embracing a most bizarre dualism of mind and body or soul and body.

True. And I would add that nobody who thinks s/he is in the wrong body wants one that is biologically, sexually ambiguous. Which makes me wonder whether it is not the oppressive ways in which ‘normal’ gender performance has been enforced that are to blame here. Listening, as Milbank recommends, seems indispensable here.

And without bodily sexual difference, there would of course be no prompting to the social imagination of gender. This is the very simple point that is naïvely overlooked as too naïve by the Butlerian thinkers. It is dangerous to suggest that any and every claim to be in the wrong body requires the expenditure of scarce health resources, rather than some form of guidance. If we treat gender identity as so easily laid aside, we could lose our bedrock understanding of what human nature is. 

Gender is, of course, not so easily laid aside: the Butlerians have got that wrong (if Milbank has got them right). One of the key points of Gender Trouble is that the social construction of gender does not negate its power. That’s one of the things structuralism tells us, rightly: that we are shaped by constructions like gender.

Sexual difference is a fundamental aspect of our humanity. As Genesis has it, ‘male and female [God] created them.’ While I am willing to fight for a flexible understanding of what ‘male and female’ means, I think that to give it up entirely is neither possible nor wise. And to do so would be to reject entirely one of the other beliefs that Judith Butler and this Catholic moral theologian share: bodies do matter.

Bodies matter so much that gender dysphoria drives young people to suicide. Whatever I might say, once I get beyond my visceral reaction to these issues, it will never lose sight of that.

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What worries me

Well, honestly, a lot of things worry me. Stupid things and little things and big things and almost impossible things. But Rowan Williams names precisely what worries me about what I do as a theologian: “[the desert fathers and mothers] seem very well aware that one of the great temptations of religious living is to intrude between God and other people. We love to think that we know more of God than other people…” (Silence and Honey Cakes).

That worries me. It probably worries me more because I am not the smartest theologian I know. Not nearly. (Since you asked, I would certainly rank Rowan Williams as one of the two or three smartest theologians I know.) I spent an awfully long time trying to write a Very Clever conclusion to my book, Rethinking Christian Identity, and eventually realized that in trying to write a sexy and theoretical finale, I was trying to be someone I am not. Yes, I read the necessary books by de Certeau. But in the end I didn't write about that stuff. I wrote about discipleship, because that's what seemed to me to be the heart of Christian identity. It's about following Jesus. This is not a Clever and Original idea. It's a commonplace in Christian theology from the gospels onward.
 
So where does that leave me, as a teacher of theology? Well, the book was published, and the only review I have seen so far didn't write it off as just repeating stuff everyone already knows. I'm grateful for that, and for the reviewer's practical response to the book, which was to read Gregory of Nyssa. But I am never going to be a person who trades in cleverness. I know how much I don't know, and I would far rather start with cards on the table. I know what I do know, and I have confidence that I can teach the subject. I also know that I am not going to win arguments with John Milbank about Plato or political theory. (By the way, he's in that small group with Rowan Williams.)
 
I would, however, be perfectly happy talking with John, even arguing, about Jesus. Not about Christology, certainly, but about Jesus. And that's what worries me. Because not trading in cleverness all these years, first as a graduate student, and then as a teacher, has meant that I put a great deal of emphasis on faithfulness to the gospel and on spiritual discipline; I say that it is more important to be faithful than clever, if you are a theologian. It isn't knowing about God that makes good theology; it's knowing God. (It is both, of course, and you can't just have one or the other, as Andrew Louth suggested a great many years ago in an essay about theology and spirituality. And he's another theologian I would place on the top of the smart list.)
 
But do I thereby imply that I know God better than my students or my colleagues? Good heavens, no. Teaching theology to people who are training for ministry is an awesome privilege and a serious charge. What qualifies me to stand in front is formal and academic knowledge; it's having practiced talking about the God we all know in particular ways, ways that are faithful to the Bible and the Church's memory of Jesus preserved through the ages in its sacred doctrine. I certainly can make no claim to “know more of God” than my students. Faithfulness is a shared enterprise, and spiritual discipline is for the Church and not solely (or even primarily) for individuals.
 
A lot of the things that worry me are petty, even ridiculous. But not this one. I take Rowan Williams' words to heart. This should worry me. I don't have any formula for getting it right, for teaching sound doctrine intelligently to intelligent people, and simultaneously bearing in mind that it's not all about intelligence; or for bearing in mind that in the classroom faith does actively seek understanding, that the exercise of the intellect is a part of faithful discipleship. It is enough that I worry about it, I think, so long as the 'worry' always becomes 'pray.' This work I do is like the rest of my life before God: possible only by his grace.
 
 

like that

It says something about me, and about where I am these weeks and months, that my last two posts begin with ‘some days are like that.’ Like what? These days are full of beauty that I can’t quite appreciate, joy that I know is there but just can’t feel, and love that knocks quietly but insistently on the door of my heart as I struggle with the lock.

I had this dream several nights ago in which I was insisting to a couple of colleagues that going through the motions is important. Developing habits consistent with the hope you ought to have, even when you don’t have that hope, is not a bad thing. What do you do, I asked, when the love of your life doesn’t feel like it did at the first? You do what you would do if it did, and maybe, if you’re lucky, you find that it is still there.

What I didn’t say in the dream, of course, because it was (after all) a dream, was how difficult it is to do. It is incredibly soul-wrenching work. I write about the character of Christian identity, in my life as an ‘academic’ theologian (whatever that is); I say that John Milbank is right: the heart of our Christian practice, our being and believing and acting Christianly in the world, is receiving life, and love, and our very being from God. Apart from God, we cannot persist. (See Colossians 1: 17, or listen to Rich Mullins’ song ‘All the way to kingdom come’ if you don’t believe me.) Feeling like we are apart, but acting on the certainty that we’re not…well, you get the picture.

These days are like that. I wonder, is this accedia? Is it depression? Or is it the ordinary bumps in the road, jarring me and knocking me off balance? Does it really matter what it is? What it does is make me irritable, jumpy, tired and inconsiderate. My dad might call me ‘temperamental’, as he used to when I was a teenager, by which he mostly meant ‘grumpy.’ I find the laundry exhausting and am driven to despair by wooden train track on the floor. Everything that happens seems to upset me, and everything that might happen worries me.

So why am I sharing my misery? I hate complaining. I usually take it as a sign that disappointment has won, and stands over me, triumphantly smug. That may be. That was certainly true when I got up this morning, because yesterday I was frustrated that the activity of resting in God was not available to me in the noise and commotion and mess of my cluttered house. Janet Martin Soskice came to me this morning, though (not in person, of course, though I would dearly love to meet her someday):

Most Christian women…think that what they do around the home is worthy in God’s service–they do not think, they have not been taught to think, of it as spiritual. And here, monastic figures who, apparently, found God over the washing up or sweeping the floor will be called to mind; but these are not really to the point, since servile tasks were recommended because they left the mind free to contemplate. What we want is a monk who finds God while cooking a meal with one child clamouring for a drink, another who needs a bottom wiped, and a baby throwing up over his shoulder (The Kindness of God, pp. 22-23).

That’s my failure. I think that because receptivity is active, that the sort of activity I should seek is quiet contemplation. No, no, no! It works both ways: the activity that is typical, ordinary, and ‘mindless’ is also–or can be–a form of receptivity. This is what the prescribed movements of Benedictine prayer should teach me. It is not that I need to do something different (‘you are in the right place NOW’–thanks Sr Catherine Wybourne), but I need grace to re-frame what I am doing. I need God to reveal himself to me in the wiping of noses and bottoms, and in the picking up of toys and clothes off of the floor.

For the moment, though, I am just going through those motions. But just a little, tiny bit of hope peeks out from beneath a pile of things to be sorted. And for that I am immensely grateful.