It should be no surprise that North America has been gripped by the story of Bruce Jenner’s transgender journey. This is a topic that is not going away any time soon. I blogged about this difficult topic three years ago in “The impossible problem of transgender children“. Blogger James McGrath just tackled the topic in a thoughtful and nuanced article titled “Transgender and Christianity: From Andi to Bruce Jenner“. In this article I’m going to make some brief comments to the end of providing a primer for transgender theological reflection. My comments are driven in particular by the challenges presented by the evangelical context.
Distinguish the Topics
To begin with, we need to recognize the common practice among evangelicals of categorizing transgender issues in with a dizzying range of topics including homosexuality, open marriage, pedophilia, bisexuality, intersexuality, and transvestism. What is more, one often finds the single category offered for all these and other disparate phenomenon is “perversion”.
The fact is, however, that these are all separate topics and each requires independent theological reflection. This ham-fisted analysis is reminiscent of the new atheist who analyzes everything from ISIS to unrest in Northern Ireland to Ted Cruz’s political policy with the blunt category “religion”. If we wince at this blunt analysis in the new atheist, we ought not engage in similarly blunt analysis here.
Beyond the Natural Law Assumption
According to natural law theory, we can derive an ought from an is. While natural law offers a powerful framework for sophisticated ethical reflection, it can also be appropriated to provide a hopelessly crude analysis.
Consider the ethical topic of intersexuality, that is, individuals who are born with ambiguous gender identity. What is the right way for a person who is born intersexual to live? Must they have surgery to determine their gender? And if their parents made this decision for them (as oft happened in an earlier time), then what if they later conclude their parents made the wrong decision? And what if they don’t identify with either gender? Can they still have a romantic relationship or does this entail that they must remain celibate? These issues are complicated, to say the least. And I don’t think we can derive any simple answers from natural law. (For more on the topic of intersexuality see my articles “Male and female he created them, but not always? Christianity and intersexuality” and “Intersexuality: the pastor’s dilemma“.)
When it comes to transgender issues, the lesson may be that we cannot necessarily derive an ought of gender from the is of gender. That is, just because a person was physiologically born male or female, that doesn’t entail that they ought to be that gender. To be sure, it may entail that, but we cannot presume that it does.
Expand your data set
So how do we find the way forward? Evangelicals tend to pride themselves on their fidelity to the Bible and their commitment to derive their theological doctrines and ethical opinions from scripture. The reality is, however, that everybody reads scripture with a particular set of cultural, theological, and personal assumptions. Rather than deny that this is the case, we are better off becoming self-aware of how other assumptions guide our reading and appropriation of scripture.
When it comes to an issue like transgender identity, this mean that we are not going to settle the matter simply by proffering our set of biblical proof texts and censuring and/or stigmatizing all those who disagree with us. Rather, we would do wise to cast our net wide. Seek the counsel of others. Speak, as I have, with Christian clinicians about this difficult topic. (I have spoken with two Christian psychiatrists on this topic and they both supported gender reassignment surgery.) And here’s a great exercise: if you know anybody who identifies as transgender (I don’t), then if they are willing, invite them to share their story. Nothing breeds theological and ethical nuance like the complexity of real life narratives.
Finally, whatever you conclude on a topic like this, be sure to extend Christian charity to those with whom you disagree both inside, and outside, the Christian community. Remember, if you speak with the ethical and theological wisdom of the best bioethicists and theologians, but do not have love, you are only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. And goodness knows, the world has enough of those.