A recent book offers a richly Christian perspective on sexual difference
It says something about the dismal state of contemporary US public discourse that the defining political question of 2022 was the title of controversialist Matt Walsh’s documentary: What is a woman? The question seems basic, and yet it proves surprisingly difficult to answer. Walsh’s reply—an adult human female—is satisfying in its simplicity, but ultimately circular: How then to define male and female? Obvious answers based on anatomical and even genetic features all fail in hard cases. It is less surprising than Walsh lets on, then, that secular authorities are without an answer to his titular question. To answer it requires a deeper understanding of the meaning of human nature.
Can Christians do better? This is the cultural context in which Abigail Favale, a Roman Catholic convert from postmodern feminism, offers a groundbreaking Christian perspective on sexual difference. Truly eye-opening treatments of hot button cultural issues are rare, but Favale’s book is one of the few. Her intimate knowledge of gender theory, the deep cultural critique inherent in her working out of Christian presuppositions, and her gift for lucid explanation make The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory (Ignatius: 2022) one of the most important books of the year.
A Conflict Over Meaning
Favale begins with an autobiographical diagnosis of current thought about gender. Chapter 1 traces her journey from youthful fundamentalism through Christian feminism into a contemporary gender theory foundationally at odds with Christian faith. The present western outlook on sexual difference, Favale writes, is postmodern and anti-theistic to its core. No God means no creator. No creator means no meaning inherent in the material world, including ourselves. “According to the gender paradigm, there is no creator, and so we are free to create ourselves. The body is an object with no intrinsic meaning; we give it whatever meaning we want” (30). Truth claims about meaning are attempts to impose power, not discover reality.
In chapter 2, Favale traces the alternate understanding of gender implicit in Genesis’ creation narrative. Her argument centers on a simple yet powerful point: When God created Eve, Adam did not have to ask her pronouns before recognizing her as woman. “Her body speaks the truth of her identity, and this truth is immediately recognized by the man” (40). Our bodies are not arbitrary or meaningless, Favale notes, for God is not a random or arbitrary creator. The order He created speaks his purpose. Our bodies reveal who we are—“the body reveals the person” (40). Their complementarity also speaks to our purpose. “The full spousal meaning of the body, outwardly declared by our visible sex characteristics, is the power to express love, to give oneself fully in love to another. This is the true telos or purpose of the human being: to become a reciprocal gift” (42).
Favale’s appeal to teleology is a radical challenge to much that is wrong with the contemporary west. Some aspects of our age’s secularism run so deep and appear so innocuous that even Christians have largely accepted them. One such assumption is the divorce of meaning from the created order. We typically think of things as primarily just “being” rather than foundationally “being for” a purpose. Favale reminds us that God did not just create a lot of basically amoral material stuff and then command us to follow some basic restrictions while we do what we want with it. He created an order charged with moral significance, and its design reveals its (objective) purpose.
How Did We Get Here?
Chapter 3 provides a brief history of feminism and the way later iterations morphed into gender theory. First Wave Feminism, which sought the vote, Favale notes, consisted largely of perfectly orthodox Christians. The Second and Third Waves, she argues, began to deviate from orthodoxy as social integration was increasingly believed to require abortion access and the designation of consent as the only legitimate restriction on sexual freedom. What Favale identifies as a Fourth Wave took a final step—rejecting the very idea of “woman” as a biological concept.
Favale traces that rejection in substantial part to the work of two major theorists in devaluing femaleness. The first is Simone de Beauvoir. “I can’t help but come away with the impression that she hates being female,” Favale says (64). “Woman is an absurdity,” for Beauvoir; “she is an autonomous freedom trapped in a body that is designed to house an other. Her only hope is to fight against her facticity, always—to become as much like a man as possible” (65). While Beauvoir is often celebrated for championing freedom for women, Favale argues the freedom in question—freedom from being women—is nothing to celebrate.
The second theorist is Judith Butler. Butler’s thought is deeply postmodern. Truth is not discovered but created through narrative. Gender, then, for Butler, famously becomes merely a performance. Whether one is a man or a woman is a question of what social norms one plays. The result is a toxic shift in our society’s view of maleness and femaleness. “Freedom no longer means being free to live in harmony with our nature…freedom is simply the pursuit of unfettered choice, endlessly pushing past limits and norms.” Such a view necessarily entails “denigration of the body, because the body itself is a limit” (83).
Chapter 4 turns to the impact of birth control on the social meaning of sex. Margaret Sanger’s early advocacy of abortion and birth control, Favale notes, was explicitly tied to the goal of breaking the chains of motherhood, with dramatic effect. “We now think of sex as a recreational, rather than procreational, activity…Pregnancy is often seen as a sexual mishap, a case of sex-gone-wrong, rather than the very outcome that sexual intercourse is designed to bring about” (101). She expands this theme in the ensuing chapters. In this brave new meaningless world, sex is only about pleasure. Its design forgotten, it no longer fundamentally matters whether the body from which one derives pleasure is male or female. If pleasurable appearance is central, it even becomes coherent to speak of “changing” one’s sex.
The Meaning of the Body
Favale’s solution, worked out through the last half of her book, is a rejection of the meaninglessness of the gender paradigm and an embrace of the reality and goodness of sexual difference. She starts with a definition. “A woman is the kind of human being whose body is organized around the potential to gestate new life” (120-21). In a simple yet brilliant move, Favale answers the question of sexual definition by teleology. She rejects the contemporary focus on what men and women “are” and looks instead to what we “are for.” She thus provides a principled way to think about biological sex that neatly covers hard cases as well as easy ones. Though Favale does not offer a definition for “man,” her approach suggests, “A man is the kind of human being whose body is organized around the potential to create environmental conditions conducive to fostering new life,” or something similar.
What impact might accepting our inherently gendered identities make? Favale offers several suggestions. First, it means appreciating the variety inherent within maleness and femaleness. If gender is about expression, defining people by stereotypes is actually reasonable. Conversely, Favale argues, “The idea that a boy is actually a girl because he likes pink seemed to me…a throwback to cartoonish understandings of femininity and masculinity” (158).
Second, Favale argues we require an understanding of freedom based in female, not just (young, healthy, single) male experience. “When freedom-as-choice becomes the open-ended telos of human existence, the body quickly becomes a problem, particularly for women” (110), Favale writes. “Women, by their very physiology, have bodies that are open to life” (112), and so the ideal of bodily autonomy “is fashioned from the norm of male embodiment” (113)—and a very particular kind of male embodiment at that, one might add. Favale asks us to imagine what an ideal based on integrity rather than autonomy might look like.
Finally, Favale’s system offers a principled and compassionate response to persons struggling with gender dysphoria. We have a duty to show real love to our neighbors. That means gently telling the truth, affirming who they really are, and seeking their actual wellbeing, not the weak inoffensiveness of merely ducking confrontation. Why should one avoid using inaccurate pronouns? “The affirmation model,” Favale writes, “cannot offer true self-acceptance…Because our bodies are ourselves, what is being ‘affirmed’, ultimately, is the patient’s self-hatred” (200).The Genesis of Gender should be required reading for anyone interested in the meaning of sexual difference. My one disappointment with the book is that there is not enough of it. Favale’s focus is almost entirely on articulating her theory and applying it to women specifically. Without begrudging her one moment of those worthwhile enterprises, I suspect the Christian world would vastly profit from further application of the same wisdom and thoughtfulness to questions of maleness and masculinity. Perhaps we can hope for a sequel.
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