Gender as Love: A Theological Account of Human Identity, Embodied Desire, and Our Social Worlds [a review]
In this cultural moment, gender is one of those things that it seems we are not allowed to have thoughtful, quiet nuance on. There are two sides: you either believe in a highly prescriptive masculinity and femininity that reflects something essential about who you are, or you believe that gender is entirely a social construct that can thus be deconstructed, reconstructed, and remixed in endless ways. The essentialist view seems for some to be the only viable option for those who believe in the "givenness" and goodness of the material world, and yet others are able to highlight the many ways in which it results in excruciating oppression—so how could it be good? The social construction view has been embraced by many precisely because it seems so able to confront this oppression. Yet at the same time if gender is merely the construction of different social groups in their own cultural contexts and there is no stable ground underneath that, we forfeit any ability to morally confront the subjugation of, say, women or intersex/DSD individuals in other cultures or other times.
Fellipe do Vale believes that there is a better way forward than either of these options in the way that we think about and do gender. With his new work, Gender as Love, he makes the case that gender is something worthy of theological reflection, and that in fact theologians could offer a word that is clearer, more compassionate, and more just than any offerings available in the current conversation. His primary convictions are these:
- Contra social constructionists of gender and especially sex, reality as it comes at us in our sexed bodies is stable beyond merely what we make of it; it is real and not merely a social matrix.
- Contra gender essentialists, gender is more complicated than just a straight line derivation from reproductive biology or else it would always and at all times present in exactly the same way.
His example for the first conviction is that while his grandfather lived in 20th century Brazil and "observed standards of masculinity" to which do Vale doesn't hold, that the two of them are nevertheless the same kind of thing. Similarly, it is important for him to be able to tell his daughter that while they were of a different time and culture than her, "women such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth" are nevertheless similar to her in meaningful and important ways and that she could therefore aspire to be like them.
In regard to the second conviction, he says this:
If being a woman is identical with being an adult human female, then it does not matter for gender’s definition whether a woman shaves her legs, wears certain kinds of clothes, or performs any other kind of social activity. This, it seems to me, is a steep price to pay on account of the high import virtually all humans place on some kind of cultural activity for their genders. On this traditional view, therefore, culture is deflated and made irrelevant to gender.
He distills these convictions into four theses for "tenable theologies of gender":
- Gender is an essence, though this is not reducible to or identical with biological determinism or biological essentialism.
- The complexity of gender, the noetic effects of sin, and the current conditions of oppression complicate our epistemic access to gender’s essence. All the same, we can be assured that issues surrounding gender will be rectified in the eschaton.
- Any theory or theology of gender must be consistent with and supportive of the cultivation of justice.
- Gender is concerned with selves or identity and with the way selves organize social goods pertaining to their sexed bodies.
Much of the book, then, is given to explaining and defending these four theses. Ultimately, do Vale ends up with a view of gender as something that comes at us in our lived experience, and it is a complex mixture of biology and history and culture and ideology all at once that we don't even necessarily need to police in a theological way. He leverages 1 Corinthians 11 to say that "The interesting thing about a Christian theology of gender is that there is, in fact, nothing (or, at most, very few things) explicitly stated in Scripture about what women and men must be like in context-independent ways or what the specific goods are by which a woman or a man must be identified." He unpacks that further to say that even where Scripture calls men and women specifically to act in certain ways, "they are often injunctions about how best to live as Christians within the culture in which they find themselves, a culture having already provided gendered goods for them to love. In their world, these are gendered goods; how should a Christian think about them?"
This isn't so much a gender agnosticism as much as an epistemic restraint: though we have moral grounds for the evaluation of some goods, we must be very careful not to say more than we actually have warrant to say. In contrast to Christian theologians who task themselves with recovering a purported biblical manhood and/or womanhood, that is, trying to say something ontological about who all men are or who all women are, do Vale's explicit aim is to move this conversation out of the world of ontology and into the world of ethics.
For some, I suspect that this will probably feel somewhat unsatisfying. Many, if not all of us, feel that existential ache to understand ourselves, and it would be quite lovely to have an exhaustively specific divine word outlining every corner of what our sexed and gendered existence must and must not be and how to make sense of the ways in which our bodies and minds and desires deviate from what seems to be the average experience. For do Vale, though, a project to find such a word is doomed from the start.
In many ways, I appreciate what he's trying to do. I come into this world, into 21st century American culture, as a male not having chosen what this culture deems to be acceptable norms for males, and finding that while some of them are true of me, others are not. I hate football, I'm vegetarian, and I'm not a gym beast. But on the other hand, I'm pretty handy with house projects, I do the work on my own car, and I have a mustache. I could go on. I didn't choose for any of these to be male stereotypes that I either align with or buck against. Some of them are ephemerally cultural (Working on cars being a "masculine" activity that Paul quite certainly did not engage in!) while others stem from my biological existence (e.g. my mustache).
I think that do Vale would encourage me to come at these gendered norms as a Christian not with heavy-handed pressuring to live up to every last one, nor with the indifference of "you do you" with regard to gender. Instead, I should come at them with a mind of moral evaluation. For example, the alpha masculinity of the alt right that trades on the objectification and subjugation of women is something that a Christian ought to reject because it is unjust and screechingly grinds against the ethic of gender as a way to love my neighbor.
I did find his overall posture of epistemic restraint to be sometimes wise and sometimes coming close to a cop out. His final word on the question of intersex/DSD individuals, for example, is more or less a shrug. He argues that "we are simply not in a position to know" what to make of such sexual ambiguity. That's better than blustering if one does not know, but it struck me as strange to bring up the issue and take so much time confronting the work of Defranza and Cornwall only to say that he doesn't have that much of an alternative other than "let's not make a world where they feel uncomfortable."
To the intense shame they may feel in a world in which they do not seem to fit, he proffers communities of grace where one's worth and dignity is not a function of living up to the community's stereotypes of a body's maleness or femaleness. This sounds nice, but it's unclear to me how this would materially be different than most churches' currently (stated) positions. Churches that adhere to traditionalist readings of gender, for example, would overwhelmingly "welcome" an ambiguously sexed individual into their congregation, but they would nevertheless most likely deny such an individual any meaningful participation in church leadership—thus reinforcing the felt shame of their existence and the challenge of believing in the God who created them. do Vale makes clear in the book that he does not see ordination as a gendered good and so this scenario wouldn't even arise for him, but the fact of the matter is that it would arise for thousands upon thousands of churches across the world, and it goes unaddressed in the present volume.
That being said, overall I found the work to be interesting, clear, and thought-provoking. I appreciated his epistemic restraint for the most part and his inclination to speak of gender in ethical rather than ontological ways. I'm on board with the call to morally evaluate gender as it exists before us and how we might live in it as Christians rather than to try to attempt some kind of "theological police" action. I would recommend the book to anyone who wonders how to bring moral-theological tools to bear on how to think about our gendered existence.
DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.