Yesterday, we shared an interview from our podcast with Kyle Kentopp, a transgender man who is a minister in the process of seeking ordination within the United Christ who is also a lifelong southerner. Kyle has given us permission to share excerpts of some of his reflections on Christian theology from the perspective of the experience of a transgender person. I hope these help you consider in what ways we can re-imagine our faith and life in ways that embrace the full diversity of God’s table, allowing all to put their feet underneath God’s family table in the life of the church and common life of our wider communities.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Gender Through the Lens of Divine and Human Diversity
It’s important when attempting to discuss the nature of the divine that one first acknowledges human language is limited in its ability to refer to God. The Christian tradition regularly emphasizes God’s transcendence and unknowability; a Creator independent of a dependent creation, who therefore cannot be captured in the language of the created. It is often said that humans create God in their own image, shown in the continuous attempt to pin down the divine as one particular image above all others. In a world dominated by patriarchal societies, that God has been regularly and resolutely identified as male, even while tradition speaks of transcendence of all human boundaries and constructions. Implications of this link are significant and can be harmful. The singular identification of God as male has been translated into meaning that human men are created in the closest likeness to their Creator, therefore garnering greater favor. This sense of superiority has allowed for an ancient, continuous, and systematic subordination of women for centuries and has been used to justify crimes against them and their bodies. Yet fixing God into a singular image of masculinity is antithetical not only to this belief in divine transcendence but also to how God is recorded as referring to Godself in scripture. When Moses asked God in the burning bush who the divine was, the response, “I Am That I Am” (Ex. 3:14 KJ21), defied the attempt to name the divine as a certain particular image or nature. Biblical imagery also depicts the deity in female forms and as having what is typically thought to be feminine attributes, roles, activities, and responsibilities, a topic which will be returned to shortly. Therefore, with divine transcendence and a multiplicity of depictions on the nature and being of the divine in scripture, Dr. Carl Raschke and Susan D. Raschke argue that to hold to the notion that there is an inalterable, wholly masculine image of God “is not only idolatrous, it is quite unbiblical, if not blasphemous” (Raschke, 5).
However, God is also discussed as being immanent to creation, the life of creation having been given by God’s own breath (Gen. 2:7, Job 34:14-5, Acts 17:25). If God is the breath, sometimes specified as the Spirit, which allows all life to be, the divine is therefore within all things. The mistake made then is not that the deity is ever spoken of in anthropomorphic terms. As part of creation, God can absolutely inhibit a human form and did so in the incarnation. By taking on human form, the divine experienced the world as a human, showing active solidarity and participation in that experience. As will be further discussed later, this shows God does have a special relationship with humans in which the divine takes on a number of anthropomorphic different roles, such as King, Lord, Father, Mother, and so on. In also taking an active part of that relationship, humans are interacting with a personal, immanent God. It would be against the interests of religion to remove all anthropomorphic imagery in favor of divine transcendence because doing so would require the removal of divine immanence, one part just as integral as the other. To honor both expressions of the deity, one must be able to acknowledge the ability to not only take on many forms in multiple ways but to hold within the Godhead a unity in a diversity of characteristics. God is all in one, simultaneously beyond all and within all. The Bible is shown to follow this acknowledgement over the course of both Hebrew scripture and New Testament writings.
One expression of this tension and unity between transcendence and immanence is found throughout these texts in the use of gendered imagery for God. The numerous biblical texts which illustrate a mixture or switch of God as male and female indicate that the divine is beyond the human constructs of gender. At the same time, there are a number of fulfillments of certain characteristics or roles that one might ascribe to being more masculine or feminine. This is a difficult line to walk. In recent decades, some feminist and queer theorists have asserted that gender is in actuality an imaginary human construction as determined by a highly patriarchal society. This patriarchal ideal of gender is held up by a belief in a binary world in which men are male and present masculine, while women are female and express femininity. In this world, gender is determined by primary sex characteristics (i.e. the genitals). For these theorists, and to anyone studying gender, it is important to note that the idea of gender is not a historically fixed category. The ways in which gender is defined, separated, and categorized can be vastly different not only between one culture to another, but also within one culture over a span of time. For instance, modern American society is still structured off a belief in a gender binary, while Native Americans continue to uphold an ancient tradition in their culture of a third gender category, often described as “Two-Spirit” (Sheppard, 262). Yet even within this binary belief, the category of femininity has changed as women have worked tirelessly over the last few centuries to move away from an obligatory confinement to the house and family and have begun making their way into leadership positions in politics, business, and several other areas of the public sphere which had previously been reserved for men. Most of these women did not try to act as men when taking on these new roles and career paths but rather redefined what femininity means in the modern day world. The categories of gender themselves were never directly challenged but rather expanded and redefined. Raschke and Raschke note that the depiction of God has a certain gender has been more of a cultural concern than theological (3), considering the variability in how it comes to be defined over time and across the world in different cultures and communities.
While these theories and considerations certainly make excellent, and true, comments on gender, this paper will not argue that it is a wholly human construct. What these theories who argue construction seem to miss is that just as sex and gender are two related but ultimate separate categories, there is similarly a significant distinction between gender and gender expression. The categories of gender expression are determined by socio-cultural factors while the inward identification to gender has yet to be properly examined. All ways in which humans outwardly signify their gender is cultural constructed, from hair styles to types of clothing to certain kinds of makeup or certain kinds of colors or certain kinds of toys. However, the transgender experience indicates that gender goes deeper than that. If gender were not real, then what is it about the transgender individual that sparks such a strong aversion to the gender/sex they were assigned at birth and, for many transgender individuals (though certainly not all), such a strong identification with “the other” gender? If gender is something that is only taught through social and cultural dissemination, then why can a transgender child grow up in a society structured around a gender binary (which categorical denies the existence of transgender individuals) and still insist that they are not who everyone around them expects them to be?
[I see] … gender [as] real and an inward identification to a certain way of being human. However, this is also with the understanding that male and female may only be two categories within a myriad of other genders that have not been acknowledged in American society but make appearance in other cultures and time periods, including throughout Biblical times. Approaching the Bible in such a way requires one to see the manifestations of God as both male and female as representing that male and female are two parts of one whole. The unity held within the Godhead of the diversity of categories indicate that not one gender is superior or created in greater likeness to the divine, as patriarchal societies have long maintained is a favor awarded to men in the interpretation that God is strictly male. Rather, this unity serves to indicate that a greater likeness to the divine requires a certain balance of male and female. For this, the transgender community would be humankind’s trailblazers, for transgender people assert a certain gender, yet confuse or deny the culturally constructed gender definitions and expressions as asserted by society. The issue at hand, which those who advocate for an abolishment of the categories of gender speak to, is that these constructions of gender can be severely limiting to an individuals ability to be authentic and utilize their talents and potentials to the best of their abilities. This is something that cisgender people (people who feel their gender is congruent with the one assigned to them at birth as determined by primary sex characteristics) similarly find themselves having to navigate. It is safe to assume in every person’s life there is at least one instance when they are told they cannot do something they want or enjoy doing because it is not an appropriate activity for their gender/sex. Sometimes this has minimal impact and the individual might find it easy to “correct” themselves to the ideals of gender in their society. Other times, it can be constraining an individual not to follow their passion and talents, such as a woman denied a career in the field of technology. Also, teaching individuals that they are supposed to be a certain way may lead to them feeling that there is something inherently wrong or strange about their inner gender identification and the expression they feel most connected with. The ideal of a man as being consistently strong, independent, and unemotional can be linked to damaging consequences, such as an increasing problem of steroid use in adolescents attempting to reach the ultimate male ideal of a strong, defined body (Kramer, 74). Therefore, it is important to all kinds of humans, not just the transgender community, to engage with the topic of gender, what it means, and how it should be categorized. The constructs humans have placed around gender have been far too restricting for far too long with centuries of damaging effects. It may be predicted that the evolution in the thought of gender will continue to remove these restrictions while maintaining an individuals right to identify as best suits that individual using particular gender categories to do so. It is that gender is imaginary or needs to be done with, but that it needs to be expanded to encompass a greater variety of expressions. Ultimately, this may lead to every individual holding within themselves as “mixture” of what is now defined as masculine and feminine characteristics, though certainly each individual may identify most strongly with a particular expression over others. For humans to reach such a point is arguably for humans to reach a greater likeness to their Creator, whom will be shown to hold within the Godhead a “mixture” of male and female.
[I seek] … to not only affirm the transgender experience with the very text that has been so often used to demonize and dehumanize transgender individuals for thousands of years but to also propose that the essence of the transgender experience may holds revelations about the divine nature, for as Paul says “For from the creation of the world the invisible things of Him are clearly seen, being understood through the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). God is regularly spoken of as disclosing Godself through creation and through experiencing that creation. If transgender people exist, then it is by God’s breath and intention. If God then found transgender people to be a mistake or sinful, surely the community would cease to exist. Yet people who embody, exhibit, and express variant forms of gender and sex have continued to maintain a significant presence in every culture around the world since the beginning of human history. Therefore, it may be argued that the transgender experience and community could very well serve to reveal new dimensions of the divine nature beyond the human constraints that have limited God into, at the extreme embodied by the long-standing androcentric image of God, an idol that manifests solely as male.