In Them we live and move and have our being: sexual and gender non-binaries and the pronouns of God

1.

Today (March 7th) is the feast day for Saints Perpetua and Felicity. For those of you who didn’t manage to hear their vitae read out today: they were a noblewoman and a slave woman killed for their Christian faith in Carthage. It was gory, as these stories tend to be. Of the enduring Christian meditations on their martyrdom are a number of difficult elements, particularly with regards to gender. In the early ‘Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas’, before going into the arena, Perpetua becomes ‘suddenly a man’.*

Augustine of Hippo’s later takes up this theme in his later reflection, in which Perpetua and Felicity’s martyrdom allows them to be stripped of their [female] sex by the holy sacrifice of martyrdom. So Augustine:

their faithful zeal…that according to the inner self they are found to be neither male nor female; so that even as regards the femininity of the body, the sex of the flesh is concealed by the virtue of the mind, and one is reluctant to think about a condition in their members that never showed in their deeds. (Augustine, Sermons)

Eric Gill’s etching ‘The Triumph of St Perpetua’ follows this idea of martyrdom as the stripping of physical sex. Gill adds a racial element to his illustration: the prostrate Perpetua is black, a north African; the triumphant Perpetua is white and appears to be male, and is reaching for a branch-reward with male genital imagery.

The Triumph of St Perpetual (Tate Britain)
The Triumph of St Perpetua, 1928 (Tate Britain)

I have preached before on the extremely problematic message that the writer of Perpetua’s ‘prison diary’, Augustine, and Gill put out regarding the femininity of the body versus the masculinity of the soul, and how this typically patriarchal reflection lends support to negative things like body-shaming, association of higher or virtuous or spiritual things with men, the forbidding of holy orders to women, and so on, not to mention Gill’s apparent racial gloss on these themes which would seem to assocaite the risen, triumphant Perpetua with white masculinity.

Of course this is not the only way to read Gill’s work (though I find it difficult to read Augustine differently, given his other writings). One could screw up one’s eyes, give another glance at his etching, and see an intersex triumphant body rather than a male body. For now I will leave extended reflections on intersex conditions and theology to Susanna Cornwall, whose work in this area is extensive and impressive. Cornwall takes as her starting place the physical, theological reality that about 1% of human beings show discernible intersex attributes, which of course does not take into account all genetic/hormonal variation which may not present itself genitally or at birth. Cornwall is rightfully concerned for what this reality says to a (natural) theology of sexual binaries: namely, that such a binary understanding of sex, let alone gender, is not sufficient, and that Christians need to be thinking and acting in new, non-binary, ways regarding sex (and also gender).

Perhaps Gill’s intersex Perpetua is the artist’s interpretation of the well-worn passage from Galatians 3:28: ‘For there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’. Surely a difficult passage to interpret visually, but perhaps this is what Gill is doing? This would be a charitable reading, to be sure, and one that takes into account contemporary research into intersex which Gill may not have had available to him in the 1920s.

But giving this reading, offering Gill the benefit of the doubt, plays into the problem: the silencing of women. Gill can only depict of an intersex body (soul?) because Perpetua has already been killed in a violent fashion. Her sex has essentially been mauled out of her by — if you believe the traditional vita — ‘wild animals’ as well as soldiers in the arena. Having never seen a body mauled by wild animals with my own eyes, I am willing to grant that a body can only withstand so much violence before it appears to be a sexless, bloodied lump of flesh. But this is hardly the point. Or is it?

Worldwide, the factor most likely to increase an individual’s poverty, ill health, and likelihood of violent harm is…sex. That is, women are more likely than men to be poor, ill, to die sooner, and to experience physical and sexual violence.** These things are not the same as being mauled by wild animals, but they are, in a sense, the wholesale mauling of the female sex for nothing more than her femininity. Not every massacred, devout woman will have Eric Gill canonising her in a wood engraving, suggesting that she has transcended sex by her violent death.

But what about the men??’ I hear you clamour. Won’t they have to die to transcend their sex as well? Why am I so hard on them? First of all, I’m fairly certain men can man up and deal with this critique. Second of all, a vision of a boundary-less Christian community (no Jew, Gentile, slave, free, male, or female) which requires death flies in the face of a Christian theology in which Christ’s life, death and resurrection repudiate sacrifice one and for all. The Girardian critique is obvious and important here: Christian communities are no less susceptible than other communities (in fact, they may be more susceptible) to myths of redemptive violence. The Epistle does not read, ‘all will be one in Christ Jesus after they die, and women are especially lucky because this means they can transcend their female weakness.’ It reads, ‘all are one in Christ Jesus.’ This is the ‘now’ part of the ‘now-and-not-yet’ of the kingdom of God. This is not about some mystical communion of saints, some of whom have transcended sex and some of whom are stuck here on earth with our inconvenient urges, fluids, and wobbly bits. The epistle is talking about being baptised into Christ in the here and now, which practice openly puts an end to the dualisms we humans are so good at setting up, including those of sex.

2.

Those who know me or have read my writing in the past will be unsurprised that I am particularly passionate about the use of female language for talking about God. It is only through experiencing God’s, and indeed Jesus’, femaleness, that I am able to continue to go on in my Christian faith. I am a cisgender woman: that is, I was assigned female at birth and I feel at home, if not always completely comfortable, with that sex and its varied expressions. For me, meeting with the God whose trinitarian nature I am deeply in love with and also baffled by, and knowing deep in my guts that that God can inhabit and transcend gender, is vital. I need to meet with God’s female-ness in order to feel I can, sometimes, call God ‘father’ — although I disagree greatly with Sarah Coakley’s take on this practice.***

I am not willing to give up my constant arguments about whether or not it is right or helpful to address God as Mother, Sister and Holy Wisdom.† But if there is one thing that I have learned, it is that an emphasis on God’s femininity over and against God’s masculinity can have an unfortunate effect: it can reinforce the same sexual dualism against which I wrote above: God becomes either ‘male’, ‘female’ or ‘neither’. God’s pronouns are either ‘he/him’ or ‘she/her’.

In the past year, a number of dictionaries and other publications have made the news for officially adopting ‘they’ as a third person singular pronoun. (For example: ‘I was talking to Bernard and they said to me, “Let’s get a pizza.”‘) These moves were heralded as ‘bold’ by some and as ‘capitulation to the transgender agenda put forward by the media’ by others (presumably those who [a] cannot tell the difference between non-binary and transgender and [b] think that there’s such thing as a simplistic ‘transgender agenda’).

What is worth mentioning is that humans have been using ‘they’ as a third person singular pronoun for  a long time. I use it when I need to talk to someone about a sensitive situation but don’t want to be indiscreet and give away the person I am talking about. I use it when she/he or him/her is just getting annoying or clunky in long pieces of writing. Importantly, however, I also use it when talking about people who ask me to use ‘they/their’ about themselves, because they are gender non-binary, that is, they feel that neither masculine nor feminine pronouns exhaust who they are. Gender non-binary-ness is not the same as intersex, just as gender isn’t the same as sex. Nor are intersex and cisgender opposite ends of the spectrum — the clue is in the suffixes of those words (see previous sentence).

What does this all have to do with God, though? We do not have an insight as to whether or not Jesus was intersex — though if we did, it would be an interesting thing indeed. All we have is the claim of orthodoxy:  that God is beyond our notions of sex and gender (which of course scuppers any arguments against women’s priesthood or leadership based on their sex, p.s.), and also that God became incarnate in what appears to be a male body. The old argument that ‘God saw it good enough to reveal Himself using masculine pronouns and in a male body, so those pronouns are good enough for me’ is bandied about regularly, clobbering those who would commune with their sister, Jesus, and the counsellor, Her spirit. Another argument goes, ‘Well, if you really want to say that God is beyond gender, then you should just avoid all gendered language about God. Just say “God’s” instead of His or Her, or “Godself” instead of “Himself” or “Herself”.’

There is precious little scripture evidence for priesthood except for the priesthood of all believers, and yet I part of a church which ordains people to three orders of ministry. There is precious little scriptural evidence for sacramental practices being open only to ordained persons and yet…the church. Therefore, I suggest: there is actually quite a lot††  of scriptural evidence for female language about and towards God, and yet the church willingly ignores it. Why should this be? And what, I ask, should we do instead?

3.

We could use ‘they’ as the third person singular pronoun for God, perhaps. But God as ‘they’ is going to be confusing, aren’t they? Not least because Christians must find a weird balance between God’s one-ness and three-ness, unity and trinity, perichoretic cynosure, chaos in stability. We get a bit clumsy with language of God’s trinity because we are deathly afraid of all forms of heresy which appear to make reference to ‘three gods’. (And oh, these heresies are many. Most Trinity Sunday sermons employ at least one of them.) The truth is, language is difficult, especially English. Talking about God as ‘they’ is going to freak people out, just as referring to one person as ‘they’ does. ‘We pray that God, with their mighty and and their outstretched arm, might deliver us…’  Does that make you squirm, and why? It did me. I didn’t want to encapsulate in one word what most collects try to say in two or three phrases just before the ‘amen’: the oddness of trinity.

Using the pronouns they/their for God isn’t going to take away God’s strangeness; if anything, this practice will add to it. God who is a comforting, white-haired grandfather (or grandmother)? Gone. God who is a first century Galilean carpenter? Hiding. But I wager that Christians should get better at de-familiarising ourselves with our images of God in order to meet Them again, anew, in all Their creativity. This doesn’t mean our old images of God have no value, no precedent, and that we may never use those images again. It just means playing around a bit, letting go those things we thought were salvific about God (God’s gender) in order to be with what/who is actually salvific: God Themselves.

A note:

I realise that this practice will not be possible, or desirable, for many Christians, for various reasons. Another alternative would be to alternative between  masculine and feminine pronouns (or even masculine, feminine, and neutral pronouns). If done carefully, this constant switching has the possibility to encourage a fluidity to God’s gender which is actually quite a common practice amongst Christian spiritual writers. (On which topic, see for example Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus our Mother: studies in the spirituality of the High Middle Ages; or Tim Bulkily, Not only a Father.)

Another note:

I cannot stress enough how important it is to disentangle intersex-ness and non-binary-ness of gender. Just don’t confuse the two!

__

* Virginia Woolf, eat your heart out.

**  Statistics of violence against intersex people are difficult to measure but there is general consensus that this violence comes in numerous forms and occurs and numerous times during people’s lives as different intersex characteristics come to light.

*** Coakley, in God, Sexuality and the Self, suggests that feminists, above all others, must pray to God as Father because it is only in their submission to this practice, and indeed to God, that they can transform all the sinful patriarchy that god’s fatherhood has stood for in the past.

† Take me for a cup of tea sometime; I will harangue you at your leisure.

†† El Shaddai = God, the many-breasted one; also in the Old Testament God is referred to as midwife, rock (a female noun and Hebrew slang for wife or midwife), presence/shekinah (female), nurturer, (female) teacher, and Wisdom/hokmah. And these are not limited to the OT. In the NT for example, God is pictured as a mother hen and a woman looking for a lost coin.

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