Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Philosophy of Gender

As part of a discussion, I have been prompted to write a post regarding the philosophy of gender. That is, what is the masculine, and what is the feminine? Let us begin by distinguishing between gender and sex.

First, gender and sex are not the same thing. Sex is biological. The sex of a person identifies the person as male or female - testicles or ovaries. Now the way the terms are normally used today, sex and gender are both understood to refer to this biological classification. What's important here is what we mean here in discussing gender, rather than what the words may mean in the dictionary, or philosophically, or whatever else.

Gender - as we're using the word here - refers to a person's quality of being masculine or feminine. Now consider how we think about masculinity. What makes a thing masculine? Typically, people associate the masculine with men, and the feminine with women. They define the terms on the basis of males and females. Things are said to be masculine insofar as they are like, or related to, men. Things are called feminine if they are like, or related to, women. Now this makes sense, and it's entirely consistent with the way most of us have grown up thinking. It's just obvious, right?

Well, if we think about it, we will realize one very important hidden assumption in this way of thinking. Namely, this definition is based upon the idea that the biological distinction between men and women is a primary characteristic of existence. In other words, in calling things masculine or feminine based on whether things are reminiscent or related to men or women, we're implicitly asserting that the distinction between men and women is something upon which other things can be based. That doesn't mean everything can be based on this distinction, but that at least some things can be - namely, those things which are called masculine or feminine.

At first glance, this seems fine. However, there's a real problem here when we consider God. God is called "He," after all. God calls Himself "He" in the Scriptures. Now God is not a male. First of all, God is spirit - He has no biology! Second, God created maleness and femaleness. So God is not male, but rather, He is masculine. That God is masculine is something that the monotheistic religions agree on. In other words, it's not controversial. It's a pretty well established fact. Yet if God is masculine, and masculinity is based upon men, well then we obviously have yet another problem, because first, we have already recalled that God created maleness, and He cannot be based upon something He created for He existed "before" He created it, and because second, that would make God dependent upon and defined by something, which He, the eternal Almighty, the uncaused cause, the one necessary existing thing, is not.

The reality is that masculinity and femininity are not defined by that which is male or that which is female. Rather, masculinity and femininity are based, in some way, upon God. Yet God is masculine, not feminine. In this we seem to have another problem, for how can we establish what is feminine if that which it is based upon is masculine?

The solution to this problem, and the answer which really gives us what we need to fully understand this issue, is that gender is relational. It is a matter of the relation between things. Let's simply forget about the words "masculine" and "feminine" for a moment, and simply consider God. God is God. Everything else is not. The important relation here is between that which is not God, and that which is. Now let's replace our term, recalling that we call God masculine. That which is not God, then, we can call feminine. Note here that we're dealing with relations, not identities. This is a very important distinction, because it's the difference between saying that men are gods and women are not - not something that we're trying to do! Smiley

Therefore, let's consider the relations between God and that which is not. How does God relate to that which is not? We could certainly list perhaps an infinite number of items, but let's keep it simple for now. First, God is separate from that which is not God. He is apart from it, not a part of it. In other words, God is not in creation, but "stands" apart from it. Second, God enters into that which is not God to effect His purposes. He has to do this, obviously, if He is to interact with creation, for we just recognized that He is not a part of or in it. That is, God enters into creation, either as the Holy Spirit acts in the world or as the Second Person of the Trinity became Incarnate and so literally united to creation.

We could go deeper, but let's stick with these basic relations for now. Not only are these simple ideas, but if we think about it they are really two very fundamental aspects of the relationship on which other ideas can be built. Now these relations can be expressed by the terms immanent and eminent (or transcendent). The quality of eminence or transcendence is the quality of being apart from a thing, being beyond it. We often speak of God as transcendent, and by this we mean that He is beyond the world; God transcends creation. The quality of immanence refers to being in or with something. I am immanent to creation, for I am a part of it.

These are the two basic concepts we want to keep in mind as we discuss the relation of gender. Recalling that God is masculine and Not God feminine, apply these ideas and then consider the relations between men and women. When we considered God, we focused on two of the more obvious and important relations between He and Creation. Where men and women are concerned, let us consider what may be the most obvious important relations between them: the creation of new life through their union. We see here very similar ideas regarding immanence and eminence that we saw with God. In that ultimate of human relations, procreation, man is really apart from the "creation," that is, the baby. He enters into the woman from without and accomplishes His purpose, the fertilization of her egg, that is, the "creation" of new life. The woman, on the other hand, is with the child. Throughout the entire process she is always, in a very important sense, connected to the child, one with the child. The child is in a real way truly a part of her. The man is beyond the child, while the woman is with the child, and the child in the woman.

It is important here to make a realization: if the feminine is the Not God to the masculine's God, then in their relation to one another, women are like femininity, and men are like masculinity. As God relates to creation, He is eminent to it. As man relates to a newly created child, he is eminent to it. Now creation is really immanent to itself, just as woman is immanent to the child. This is the real meaning of masculinity and femininity, at least in the sense in which we say that we are all feminine to God, and in the sense that we are the bride of Christ, and so forth: the masculine is that which is eminent, and the feminine, immanent.

In fact, we can see some extremely interesting examples of this throughout history. Consider pagan religions, which worshiped idols. The gods of the pagans were immanent: they were a part of the world, not transcending it. It is no coincidence at all that the pagans almost always had priestesses. Their gods were immanent, and so their sacrifices were offered by women, that is, by the feminine. The Jews, who worshiped an eminent God, had priests to offer sacrifice. They had men, who are eminent in their human relationships, to offer to their eminent God.

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