Interrogating gender binaries in the Bible and Christian spirituality – transgression, transfiguration and transcendence. Conversation between Sue Miller and Sharon Ferguson

Transgression, Transfiguration, Transcendence: interrogating gender binaries from the perspectives of Christian spirituality and the Bible

Sue talks with Sharon about her PhD.

Sue Miller is the Susanna Wesley Foundation’s Principal Research Associate
Revd Sharon Ferguson is a PhD Student sponsored by the Susanna Wesley Foundation

Sue:
This is an exciting and emerging theology, so where in the Bible is your starting point?

Sharon:
I’m exploring to what extent different modes of understanding and expressing gender might resonate with certain Christian concepts of the human made in the image of God, and called to union with God.  I will be looking at the Genesis creation myth and the concept that ‘ha adam’ was initially a genderless, primal, earth creature and how we came to define humans as two distinct genders, male and female.

Sue:
Are there any examples of pre-Biblical or parallel thinking of a different understanding of gender or have we selected only one model from which we formulated our current position?

Sharon:
Sally Gross[1] points out that ‘in Rabbinic Judaism there was recognition that not everyone was born male or female. Rabbinic texts use two terms, tumtum and ‘aylonith, to designate people of ‘intermediate gender…’

I will be exploring this further as it shows that there’s more than one way to understand our identity.

Sue:
What might this mean for the Christian understanding of our relationship with the world, with each other and with God?

Sharon:
Richard Ekins and Dave King[2] proposed four ‘ways’, ‘modes’ or ‘styles’ that trans*[3] people use in societies characterised by a bi-polar (male/female) gender divide to create their own identity. These are: migrating, oscillating, negating and transcending.

I wish to concentrate my study on the latter two ‘modes’, negating and transcending’. These modes involve a move towards either eliminating or going beyond the binary divide – becoming either ‘gender-less’ or ‘gender-full’.

Sue:
How will you approach this study?

Sharon:
By interviewing both church-going and non-church-going people who identify in a non-binary gendered way, I want to explore how this influences their spirituality and ways of relating.

How have they interpreted and made sense of the Bible?
How has this influenced their capacity to experience a relationship with the Trinitarian God?
How has it affected their ability to be in relationship with others?

The Hebrew Scriptures perceive the human person as a ‘living nephesh’ often translated as ‘soul’.

How does our sense of gender affect our understanding of the relationship between our souls and our bodies?

Sue:
It will be really interesting to compare both church-going and non-church-going people. Will you be considering other types of gender models as well?

Sharon:
Yes. I’ll also revisit the biblical texts dealing with eunuchs asking questions such as, is a eunuch for the sake of the realm of God someone attempting to be genderless in order to return to the pre-fall state of being? Is this supported by Paul’s letter to the Galatians when he claims that in Christ there is no male and female and Christ’s instruction that there is no marriage in heaven? Or by Isaiah’s statement that eunuchs and barren women will have a name greater than sons and daughters?

Sue:
What do you think is the key question for our contemporary Church understanding of gender and identity?

Sharon:
We are offered a very strong biblical view of what maleness and femaleness constitute but what makes a man a man and a woman a woman and are they really the only options?

Helen Savage[4] concludes that:
There is indeed a real need for a theology that is prepared to engage with pluralism and complexity, and not one that is simply too scared to offend those whose beliefs that sex, gender and sexuality are simple matters and who thereby seek to bless inappropriate and often damaging social models.

Sue:
Regarding your focus of Transgression, Transfiguration, Transcendence, what is your perspective on transgression within this complex debate?

Sharon:
Gender variance is currently seen by many Christians as a transgression. I will ask to what extent a successful transfiguration of the bonds of a binary gender construct might allow us to transcend, to go beyond gender in ways that are potentially transformative of the Christian understanding of the relationship to God and others.

[1] www.queering thechurch.com/2011/ Queering Genesis: Male and Female (And Others) He Created

[2] Ekins, R and King, D., ‘Transgendering, Migrating and the Role of Autogynephilia’, Gendys 2K Conference Report (2000), 41

[3] I use the word ‘trans*’ to refer to anyone who transgresses the gender norms as defined by their culture. This can therefore include transvestites, transsexuals, gender queer, gender fluid, gender variant or any other definition and may or may not include surgical and/or hormonal intervention.

[4] Savage, H.,Changing Sex?: transsexuality and Christian theology, Durham E-Theses (2006), 256