Thursday, April 11, 2013

Sacramental Sex

Last week I wrote about the slow eradication of masculinity from our culture.  But that is only half of the story.  I don't think I adequately investigated why this was so problematic.  Getting rid or marginalizing masculinity (or femininity for that matter) will have a disastrous effect because of our human nature.

We should probably first make some distinctions.  The first one should be the terms sex and gender.  Often people use these words interchangeably, but they are not coterminous.  "Sex" refers to the biological difference between men and women.  Boys and girls are different.  If you don't get that, I can explain it to you.  All boys have something that no girl has.  Every guy has that little something not found with a woman.  You know what I'm talking about, right?  

The answer, of course, is the Y-chromosome (if you answer was something else, please get your mind out of the gutter.  This is a family friendly blog).

The presence or absence of the Y-chromosome determines if you are genetically male or female.  A man losing certain, um, appendages would not mean that he ceases to be male.  And for people who are physically hermaphroditic, the Y-chromosome will determine their sex.

Gender is a bit different.  This refers to all the differences between men and women that are not caused by biology.  Women wearing dresses, wearing makeup, playing with dolls or men wearing neckties, playing with action figures, and farting in each others' faces in order guess what they had for dinner the night before are all activities and behaviors that are not determined by biology.  Men can wear dresses.  Women can play with action figures.  There is nothing in our biology that would stop a woman from being the quarterback of a football team.  There is a limitation in biology if a man wanted to give birth to a baby.

Regarding gender, we need to make a further distinction.  It has become very popular to reduce all gender differences to social differences.  If there is a difference in gender behavior that is not specifically biological, then many social scientists say that it is simply a social construction.  Men don't wear dresses simply because society says so.  Women don't play football because society says so.  And to be sure, that is the case for many things in our culture.  And women have historically been kept away from achievement in politics and sciences because they were prevented from doing so.

But I am not so ready to accept that all of this is social programming.  The reason why is that there is more to our nature than biology and society.  

There is also the soul.

CS Lewis believed that gender was a spiritual concept.  There was something about our nature as men and women that was not just skin deep or marrow deep but soul deep.  The soul of a man is different than the soul of a woman.  In one of my favorite passages from anything Lewis wrote, he describes the masculine and feminine principle in a mysterious vision from Perelandra.  The main character meets the gods Mars (called Malacandra) and Venus (called Perelandra), the essence of Masculinity Itself and Femininity Itself (please forgive the extended quote):

 Mars shone with cold and morning colours, a little metallic - pure, hard, and bracing.... Venus glowed with a warm splendour, full of the suggestion of teeming vegetable life.

...Both the bodies were naked, and both were free from any sexual characteristics, either primary or secondary. That, one would have expected. But whence came this curious difference between them? He found that he could point to no single feature wherein the difference resided, yet it was impossible to ignore. One could try - Ransom has tried a hundred times to put it into words. He has said that Malacandra was like rhythm and Perelandra like melody. He has said that Malacandra affected him like a quantitative, Perelandra like an accentual, metre. He thinks that the first held in his hand something like a spear, but the hands of the other were open, with the palms towards him. But I don't know that any of these attempts has helped me much.

At all events what Ransom saw at that moment was the real meaning of gender. Everyone must sometimes have wondered why in nearly all tongues certain inanimate objects are masculine and others feminine. What is masculine about a mountain or feminine about certain trees? Ransom has cured me of believing that this is a purely morphological phenomenon, depending on the form of the word. Still less is gender an imaginative extension of sex. Our ancestors did not make mountains masculine because they projected male characteristics into them. The real process is the reverse. Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex. Sex is, in fact, merely the adaptation to organic life of a fundamental polarity which divides all created beings. Female sex is simply one of the things that have feminine gender; there are many others, and Masculine and Feminine meet us on planes of reality where male and female would be simply meaningless. Masculine is not attenuated male, nor feminine attenuated female. On the contrary, the male and female of organic creatures are rather faint and blurred reflections of masculine and feminine. Their reproductive functions, their differences in strength and size, partly exhibit, but partly also confuse and misrepresent, the real polarity.

All this Ransom saw, as it were, with his own eyes. The two white creatures were sexless. But he of Malacandra was masculine (not male); she of Perelandra was feminine (not female). Malacandra seemed to him to have the look of one standing armed, at the ramparts of his own remote archaic world, in ceaseless vigilance, his eyes ever roaming the earthward horizon whence his danger came long ago. "A sailor's look," Ransom once said to me; "you know ... eyes that are impregnated with distance." But the eyes of Perelandra opened, as it were, inward, as if they were the curtained gateway to a world of waves and murmurings and wandering airs, of life that rocked in winds and splashed on mossy stones and descended as the dew and arose sunward in thin-spun delicacy of mist. On Mars the very forests are of stone; in Venus the lands swim.

Lewis tries to put into words a spiritual reality that we see as inextricably linked to the physical.  He reverses the common notion that sex is primary and gender is a social construction added later.  Instead, gender is a spiritual reality that all creation participates in.

I had trouble making sense of this until I heard a phrase from John Paul the Great's theology of the body.  In it, the pope called the body the "sacrament of the person."  The old school definition of a sacrament is "an outward sign of an invisible reality."  This is where the penny dropped for me.  There is an invisible, but real nature to our masculine and feminine souls that is expressed in an outward, physical way.  And that way we call the body.

This is why it is always going to be problematic to try and marginalize masculinity or femininity.  We cannot be genderless, because it is at the core of our being.  Our sex is sacramental.  It shows us who we are down to our souls.

1 comment:

  1. I probably don't have it right, but Masculine and Feminine have often struck me as one of the balances symbolized in the Yin and Yang.