Sexual differentiation is our greatest natural resource. The fact that Adam and Eve are not identical, but corresponding, is not just a part of God’s creation. It is the best part. The fruitful tension between husband and wife, the unity-in-diversity of humanity, along with its vital outcome of children, is how continuity and diversity are sustained in the world. It is good for God’s glory, and our ability to see and show his glory. But, as with any natural resource, a good thing can be squandered. Minerals, forests, water, fertile land, and other natural goods, can be exploited, poisoned, or destroyed. Sexuality is no exception.
[Note: this essay was first published by Crisis Magazine and is reprinted with permission.]
There are a lot of reasons why we distrust sexuality. A lot. Sexuality has been so misused, abused, and distorted we no longer trust it. It has become depleted soil. It breaks and crumbles like dry dirt. We do not trust it. So we are frightened by it. The commercialization of sex and the sexualization of commerce have hardened our hearts against God and the way he made us as men and women. We might still have bodies, but we do not know what they are for. We might still have longings, but we have nowhere to plant them. We are free, but we do not know what freedom is for.
Think of sexuality as a field, and our ideas about sexuality as our farming practices. The soil has become compact from misuse. Nothing can break through the rock but the tractors of sexual agribusiness: careerism, consumerism, spermicides, hormonal manipulation, abortion, pornography, entertainment media, no-fault divorce, and so-called “cohabitation”—agrarian methods which, in my openly biased opinion, have turned the soil of sexuality into a field of unprecedented selfishness. Media-saturated, corporately controlled propaganda has crowded our thinking about sexuality with unmatched color and noise. Truth looks pale, fastidious, crude by comparison. When it comes to sexuality, we have become accustomed to newspeak, ironic chatter, euphemism, and cant. Male-and-female creation might be our precious shared resource, but it has been so contaminated, lost to wind and erosion, and filled with artificial stimulants, we no longer recognize it.
That frightens us.
What is the solution? We get so bogged down by all of the sad, awkward, tragic abuses of sexuality that our attitude is one of fear. We are afraid of history. We are afraid of our bodies. We are afraid of what the Bible will tell us about them. So what is the solution? Is it a good thing that men and women are not identical?
The solution to sexual confusion begins with coming face-to-face with the character of God. A young man once worked for three months at the Home for Dying Destitutes in Calcutta. He was looking for answers. On the first morning there he met Mother Teresa.
“How can I pray for you?” she asked.
“Pray that I have clarity,” he said.
She answered emphatically, “No, I will not do that.”
“Why not?” he asked, startled.
“Clarity is the last thing you need,” Mother Teresa said. “What you need is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”
Brennan Manning told this story. He said we do not need more insights or clarity. We need a ruthless trust in God. “Trust in God and trust in me” (John 14:1). Before we need more insights, statistics, or professional perspectives, we need to “have known and put our trust in God’s love toward us” (1 John 4:16).
When it comes to sexuality, Christians do not trust in a philosophy or in a theory. St. Paul cries out, “I know who it is that I have put my trust in” (2 Tim. 1:12). We trust in a Person: Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. So ask yourself the brutally honest question: Is God good? Do you trust Him?
Is Creation Good?
I want to read to you some of the earliest lines of the Christian tradition. You have probably heard them before. Many times. But this time, I want to invite you to pause over the words. Set aside other distractions. Listen now:
“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”
…so God created man in his own image and likeness,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them with these words:
“Be fruitful. Have dominion.”
…And God saw everything he made, and behold,
it was very good (Gen. 1:26-31).
This is not ironic chatter or polluted dirt. This is good soil. Soil like black butter, soil so rich you could throw a seed in it and watch it grow. Soil handed down from one generation to the next, handed down with all the love and hope and faith of a covenanted people, handed down with holy zeal. This is our inheritance. These first lines from Genesis are God’s gift to us, to help us understand not only ourselves, but his character.
God created us in his own image and likeness. He fashioned us as male and female, and he saw that it was very good—good, as in awesome. Ultimately, human sexuality is good because God is good (Ps. 100:5). And because God is good, all creatures are good by nature. Evil is always a parasite on something good. Evil is a distortion, a misuse or abuse, of what God originally made as good. No matter how much we corrupt God’s design, it will never be so completely corrupted that the original design and purpose is utterly lost to us.
Making people male and female was not the idea of some dead white bigot in the late Bronze Age. Differentiation of the human race into two complementary sexes was God’s idea. We are the image-bearers of God. We have been blessed, “Be fruitful, have dominion.” We are sons of Adam and daughters of Eve—and this is awesome.
If “the heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the word of his hands,” and if they “reveal knowledge” every day (Ps. 19:1-2), how much more do you, as the male-and-female creation made in the very image of God, declare the glory of God and reveal knowledge?
Listen to the Land
I am fascinated by a recent trend that bridges agriculture and ecology. It basically notices that the land is not a blank slate, but an ecosystem. For example, farmers grow crops on land that used to be a prairie or deciduous forests. If the farmers walked away, over time the fields would turn back into the ecosystem they want to be. So rather than simply imposing our will upon the land and force-feeding it chemicals and poisons to make it do what we want it to do, we should try to grow our food in such a way that works with the land. If we do not listen to the land, we will destroy it.
Our culture pretends human sexuality is a blank slate. The truth of the matter is, it is a God-made ecosystem. True, you can clear-cut and bulldoze this ecosystem. You can force-feed it chemicals and poisons. It is a free country. You can make this ecosystem do whatever you want it to do … you rebel. But in the end, you will only destroy it.
Sexual differentiation is our greatest natural resource, and the only appropriate response to any natural resource is gratefulness—loving, careful, godly, attentive gratitude. When we are grateful for a gift given to us, we naturally become stewards of that gift. The care of the earth is, after all, our oldest and most noble responsibility. Our bodies are no exception. Male-and-female creation has been entrusted to us as a gift for our survival, happiness, and nourishment. It has the great reserves of life. Even more, it is a gift for seeing and savoring the majesty of God.
Listen to the land. What does it want to be? Listen.
Some readers might roll their eyes, “Next you’ll tell me not to fight cancer or to avoid aspirin when I have a headache.” But being a man or a woman is not a headache, and it certainly is not like having cancer. A tree frog is said to be able to change color when moved from one background to another, but it takes at least two hours and considerable effort on his part to accomplish this. An acorn can grow into an oak tree, but it cannot become a blackberry bush. To watch it try would break your heart. Whatever cultural values, social roles, or interpretations you place on your body, it is still your body. People have different perceptions of reality—different gods, social structures, types of food eaten, climates. Zen Buddhism changes the way you perceive reality. Obesity changes the way you perceive reality. Short people experience the world differently than tall people. Does the sexual structure of the body also affect our experience of reality?
An alien from outer space can know that the human population is made up of men and women, but it cannot really know what it is to be a man or woman. It cannot experience reality from the inside, from within the situated-ness of being a man or a woman. Does the sexual structure of the body affect our experience of reality? If you are a man, for example, does the structure of your body affect your behavior and relationship with the world? Do you know—not theoretically, but from the inside—menstruation, female orgasm, pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, or menopause? No, you do not. And no woman will ever know from the inside what it feels like to be a man. I’m not talking about so-called “effeminate men” or “masculine women.” I am talking about our sexual structures at their most foundational level; and I am saying we should not despise them, but delight in them.
Our culture has been trying to wash away the messiness of being male and female; it reminds me of the way ancient Gnostics used to distrust matter, especially male-and-female matter, and tried to scrub it clean. If someone tells you cleanliness is next to godliness, the only appropriate answer is, “Yup, next. Right now, I’m working on godliness.”
We Are on Holy Ground
Our bodies are bearers of truth. They are instruments of love, carriages of grace. Out of a population of billions, some people have chromosomal abnormality. Some people are impotent. Some people are albinos, saints, geniuses, or Pulitzer prize-winning poets. Some people are eight feet tall. Some people can befriend lions. Some people give birth without pain. But we should not take human extremes as norms. The truth is, giving birth is painful. People do not befriend lions. We are all men or women here. Vive la difference, and stop trying to draw up new blueprints.
In general, we have to be careful not to be bamboozled by the classical fallacy of equivocation:
If women and men are not physically and emotionally equal, then the sexes are not entitled to equal rights and opportunities!
This argument may seem plausible at first glance, but only because between its premise and conclusion it moves between two very different senses of the word “equal.” Sometimes equal means “identical”; other times, equal means “entitled to equal rights and opportunities.” It is possible for two things to be unequal in the sense of being different, but equal in the sense of having the same status. In other words, it is possible for men and women to be different (“unequal”), yet entitled to the same rights and opportunities (“equal”).
Can we trust sexuality? I think so. The juxtaposition of the sexes is our greatest natural resource, a resource rooted in a ruthless trust in God’s good character. Like any other life-sustaining resource, it is an undeserved gift and worthy of our respect. It was not meant to be exploited, polluted, or commercialized. It was intended for human flourishing, for the procreation of children, for our mutual society, help, and comfort. We have been given this gift in trust.
So what’s the takeaway? The takeaway could be summed up in this passage from Scripture: “Sow righteousness for yourselves, reap the fruit of unfailing love, and break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, until he comes and showers righteousness on you” (Hosea 10:12).
In other words, listen to the land. Work with it, not against it. Do not live your life in spite of being a woman or a man, but through being a woman or a man. People will look at you like you are a dinosaur who has not yet heard that your kind were supposed to be extinct. But, in fact, you will simply be a man or a woman. You might even be doing what you were made to do—glorifying God and reveling in him with your most basic gift: your body. Sexual differentiation is our precious shared resource for bringing glory to the Trinity.
So seek God like never before. Break the hard soil. Sow into your life the seeds of righteousness. It will not always be easy. But we will not be able to reap the fruit of unfailing love unless we trust God with a ruthless trust “until he comes and showers righteousness on you.” To cherish the gift of male-and-female creation, to foster its renewal, we must work hard to restore fruitful tension, mystery, and responsibility to embodiment. Seek first the Kingdom of God, and then even this will be added unto you: yourself.
At last, we are on holy ground.
Listen to the land. Praise God in it. It’s a command: “Glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20).
Read it in Crisis Magazine.