The ancient world saw sexual difference as a tragedy; Christianity affirmed the goodness of being created male and female. What can that tell us about today’s debates?
“Male and female he created them.” Scripture’s commonsense view, which has now become controversial, was once revolutionary. Before Christianity, the ancient world viewed sexual difference as a fall from a prior state which was sexless or solely male.
In Hesiod’s account of the Pandora myth, the men of the Golden Age live with gods, participating in their immortality. Then, after a dispute breaks out, Zeus constructs a trick on men: a beautiful woman who is, in truth, a poison for man. The rest is well known. Mankind accepts Pandora into his home and is inaugurated into an age of reproduction, suffering, and death. Sexual differentiation brings the Golden Age to a close.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, written around 1800 BC, Enkidu is created from clay to live an idyllic existence as an animal among animals. Then a hunter, furious that Enkidu helps his fellow animals escape his traps, hires a prostitute to “treat the savage-man to the skills of a woman.” She seduces Enkidu and so strips away his animal existence. He becomes mortal, and for this misfortune he rages at the woman: “The place of thy festivities may the drunken defile with vomit.” The message is clear: woman is a curse for man.
In Plato’s Symposium, as in Aristophanes, humans originally have two faces until Zeus, fearing their power, splits them into two sexes. To divide man is to weaken him, ensuring that he does not encroach on celestial realms. Ancient Greek thought was concerned with escaping from this weakening. The Athenians developed a founding myth in which Athens was born from the god Hephaestus and the soil. This womanless origin, as the classicist Vigdis Soleim argues, confirmed Athens’ political set-up, in which “there are only male citizens.”
The Scriptures critique this view. Genesis declares that sexual differentiation, far from a wound to or a fall from divinity, is a part of the original order of Epimenides and Pandora creation: “male and female he created them.” And this is “very good”.
In ancient myths, man is a threat to the gods – and therefore has to be divided into two sexes. In Genesis, the difference between man and God is clear from the start. The verse “it is not good for man to be alone” is read sentimentally today: Eve is created for the sake of Adam’s loneliness. But a Jewish tradition suggests another reading. The medieval exegete Rashi explains God as reasoning thus: “I shall make an help meet for him in order that people may not say that there are two Deities.” Rashi cites Rabbi Eliezer: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said: I am alone in My world and this one (Adam) also is alone in his world. There is no propagation before Me and this one (Adam) has no propagation in his life; hereafter all the creatures will say: Since there was no propagation in his life, it is he who has created us. It is not good for man to be alone…”
The difference is subtle. Both the myths and the Scriptures understand that sexual differentiation has its most profound meaning in the separation of man from God, but in the myths this separation represents a loss of divinity; it is only in the Scriptures that the male-female distinction is part of the glory of man. Thus Eve is a “help” or a “helpmate” for Adam, not simply in the sense of helping him to reproduce, but in helping him to be united to God.
In Genesis, man’s bifurcation into male and female cannot be considered as a fall, the loss of a golden age, or a punishment from envious gods. Rather, being male and female is a perfection of our creatureliness, and any attempt to undo this constitutive difference can only be a step towards idolatry – towards a vision of man as a unitary, solitary, and nonprocreative competitor with God. Only God can be “God alone,” requiring no exterior relation for his intelligibility, God “perfectly comprehending Himself,” as Aquinas puts it. Man, to be man, needs woman. Woman only is woman in a dynamic reference to man. Thus, whereas the myths tend to mourn the arrival of the female as a curse, Adam rejoices in being given the woman, as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” – that which he is and which is, nevertheless, not reducible to him.
The joy of the man in the woman is precisely a joy that affirms the creaturely, non-divine status of both. He does not praise the woman as “my partner” or “my other self” but as “my flesh” and “my bone.” Pandora would not be lovingly called “flesh,” precisely because she inaugurates the age of corruptible flesh – which remains in envious comparison to the divine flesh of the gods.
Some Church Fathers argued that Satan targeted Eve because the woman represents a weaker principle than the man; by nature more passionate, earthly, and prone to vice; an easy target for serpentine suggestion. Catholics are not obliged to agree; indeed, those statements from early Fathers sit uneasily with another axiom of Christian thought expressed by Aquinas, that “when the devil attacks someone, it results in honor, since the devil attacks those who are holy.”
In some respects, the Christian hope that man is freely offered a chance to participate in the Divine Life complicates the picture. Man really is destined to become like God. The lie of Satan is a temptation to take through human hands what is already offered by the generous hand of God. It is no accident that the first battles over the content of Christian orthodoxy were battles with a Gnosticism that reasserted the conquered myth of primal androgyny. Supporters of tis heresy argued for a kind of divinization that depends on the destruction of sexual difference, as in the Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas”:
Simon Peter said to them: “Let Mary go away from us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said: “Look, I will draw her in so as to make her male, so that she too may become a living male spirit, similar to you.” (But I say to you): “Every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Only God, the author of nature, can lift us to the heights of divinity without doing violence to our nature. Man’s idolatrous attempts to be “like God” without the gift of God can only be acts of violence against the nature of man; which is simply to say that, without the gift of God, man can only pretend that he is something he is not. This is usually figured by a hatred and rejection of sexual difference in general and women in particular. Man’s help against idolatry is now seen by the eyes of sin as a stumbling block to all would-be divinity. This transformation of the woman is present in Adam’s complaint against his wife. She falls in his estimation from the flesh of his flesh to “the woman you gave” – that is, another Pandora, given by God as a curse for man.
Unfortunately, Christians who (rightly) criticise the transgender moment sometimes choose the wrong target: they accuse those suffering form gender dysphoria of being themselves Gnostic. Nothing could be further from the case: persons identifying as transgender, in their experience of the immense difficulty of sexual difference, in a sense confirm the Christian view. They rarely resolve the painful bifurcation of their body and their “felt-sense” by denying sexual difference as a reality of God’s very good Creation; instead, they run towards it, struggling to find which of God’s masterpiece they really are: male or female.
However, this is very different from the arguments being presented today by those who deny gender difference; who say that someone with gender dysphoria need not struggle because, in fact, “male” and “female” are contingent, cultural modifications of what is at base, neither male nor female, just human flesh.
This postgender philosophizing would describe itself as a mode of accepting all gender identities. In fact, it is a way of negating them all. Christianity understands this negation better than it understands itself.
From its long experience of asserting the fundamental good of sexual difference, the Church can more accurately describe gender ideology as a rarefied sexism; a fundamentally post-Christian need to erase “woman” from existence, and thereby attain to a new human nature, that of the sexless unit which only ever appears gendered by an extrinsic, and usually violent imposition. This attempt does not actually alter our nature, but masks a new hatred and resentment of sexual difference, and especially of women, who remain as a sign and sacrament of the creaturely self-insufficiency that we would shirk off.
Marc Barnes is an editor of New Polity
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