Friday, May 11, 2007

Transsexuality and Early Christianity

Personal gender, it would seem, is something of a paradox in early Christian thought. On the one hand there seems to be a certain amount of equivocality with regards to sex and the human person as both men and women were created in the image of God and on the last day humanity will be like the angels, neither giving nor taking in marriage. But on the other hand there do seem to be prescribed roles for men and women that suggest differentiation between the sexes is very real. To my knowledge the topic of transsexuality is nowhere directly addressed in the Bible. There are however a few early Christian texts where transformation from one sex to another occurs. I know of three texts that directly address the topic: the Epistle ofBarnabas, the Gnostic glosses in the Gospel of Thomas and the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity. The first of these gives an entirely negative view of transsexuality. The second gives implies that female to male transgenderism is necessary for women to attain salvation. The third is ambiguous.

The so called Epistle of Barnabas is a work written in either the late first century or the early second century of Christianity. For a time some portions of the Christian east may have put it on par with the Holy Scriptures. Tradition ascribes the epistle as being penned byBarnabas the companion of Saint Paul but the epistle does not make that claim for itself nor do the majority of scholars hold to that tradition.

The general point of the Epistle of Barnabas is to explain the Old Testament in terms of the Christian revelation. Rather than rejecting the Old Testament law, the author of the epistle seeks to find the true meaning that underlies the Law. Explaining why the Israelites were ordered by God to abstain from the flesh of Hyena, the author writes: ``Moreover, "You shall not eat the hyena." He means, "You shall not be an adulterer, nor a corrupter, nor be like to them that are such." Wherefore? Because that animal annually changes its sex, and is at one time male, and at another female'' [Barnabas, 10]. One can understand Barnabas' point in one of two ways. One interpretation would be that the act of transgenderfication itself makes a being ritually unpure, a ``corrupter.'' But one could also Barnabas' mistaken understanding of the biology of the Hyena implied that the hyena necessarily participated with multiple sexual partners. Being at various times male and at other times female, the hyena is biologically predisposed to be sexually infidelitous to its mate.

So in one interpretation, this passage may speak to the inherent uncleanliness in a being seeking to change from one sex to another. If the process of changing sex is itself a corruption, then it follows that a even a single change in sex consists of corruption. While a person seeking out a sex change would not be as corrupt as the hyena which continually wallows in this corruption, the act of changing sex itself is a corruption of the way that God made a particular person.

But in the Gnostic glosses to the Gospel of Thomas a different view is presented. The dating of the Gospel of Thomas is a matter of some dispute with some scholars arguing that it dates to the first half of the first century and other scholars arguing that it dates to the second half of the second century. Some scholars divide the work into two layers, an early `sayings' layer that was early and a later `narrative' layer that provides a Gnostic narrative that envelopes the sayings layer. Regardless of the date, the author has Jesus claiming that in order for women to be saved, they must become men:

Simon Peter said to Him, ``Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.''

Jesus said, ``I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.'' [Thomas, 114]

Here we see the idea presented that women are in some way less than fully human. The point of the author is that there is something about distinct about maleness which is lacking in femaleness that confers full humanity part of which is the capacity to be saved. In such a view, transgenderism from female to male is required to become complete and whole in spirit. Transgenderism in the other direction, from male to female, would be an intentional evil, a deliberate seeking out of a greater state to a lesser state.

Lastly, we have the memoir of the martyr Perpetua written in the very earliest years of the third century. Perpetua relates a vision she had prior to being led into the coliseum to fight the gladiators. In this vision she is being prepared for battle and ``Also there came to me comely young men, my helpers and aiders. And I was stripped naked, and I became a man'' [The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, 10]. What sets this treatment apart from the earlier treatments is that it is something that happened entirely in a vision and is incidental to the point of the narrative. Aside from Perpetua's narration of her vision before her martyrdom are two accounts of the actual martyrdom neither of which happen exactly as Perpetua's vision. It seems clear that Perpetua's vision was an allegorical explanation which portrayed her struggle being not against flesh and blood gladiators but against the devil. Perpetua's maleness in the vision does not seem to play an important role either in the vision or the first hand accounts of her actual death.

So we are left wondering just what that aspect of Perpetua's vision meant. Was becoming male in her case simply a side effect of being portrayed in the vision as a gladiator? Was it a condescension so that she would retain her modesty when being attended to by the youths who aided her while she was naked in the vision? Whatever the point of her transgenderfication in the vision was, it does not seem relevant to either her salvation or the actual events of her subsequent martyrdom. The only conclusion I can draw is that it seems to have been an image that comforted Perpetua. When faced with the prospect of death by physical combat in the area, Perpetua was comforted by the idea of having the physique of the man during the challenge.

There is an important question not being addressed here. The reader will probably have observed that I've assumed that gender and sex are identical with regards to biology. In doing so, I have somewhat begged an important question. To seriously examine the issue, it is necessary to address is the question of whether or not the early Christians saw a distinction between gender and sex. Linguistically speaking, they most likely did. The Greek word patria (heritage on the father's side of the family) has a female gender. The notion of a father anything having a female gender implies such a distinction. But it is unclear whether this distinction applies to biology, especially human biology. A rigorous assessment of this question could very well pull out greater meaning from the early Christian texts cited above.

Another question that I did not address is what it means to be male and what it means to be female outside of what it means to be human. It would appear that while sex is essential part of what it means to be human, neither maleness itself nor femaleness itself is. I base this statement on the incarnational theology of Irenaeus of Lyons.

He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise He was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also, and becoming an example to them likewise. Then, at last, He came on to death itself, that He might be "the first-born from the dead, that in all things He might have the pre-eminence," the Prince of life, existing before all, and going before all. [Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies Book II. Chapter XXX.]

Irenaeus says that by becoming a child, Christ sanctified the children. He changed the very nature of what it means to be a human child. The Irenaean view of incarnational theology leaves us with three alternatives. Christ was a both male and female. The author of the Gospel was Thomas was correct in stating that females need to become males in order to be saved. Neither maleness nor femaleness is itself essential to what makes us human.

While there is a medieval Jewish tradition that God created the first man an woman as hermaphrodites based on the verbiage of the Genesis story (male and female he created them), it is not clear to me just how ancient this view is. Further, I know of no acceptance of this notion by any Christian group in either antiquity or modernity. Consequently, I think it fair to reject this the proposition of Jesus being a Hermaphrodite as being outside of the Christian tradition.

The Gospel of Thomas, as mentioned above, is a Gnostic work. Throughout Christian history, Gnosticism has been a minority view and a view condemned as heretical by the balance of Christianity. Ireneus' work usually referred to as Against Heresies was actually titled The Refutation of Knowledge (Gnosis) Falsely So Called and was a lengthy treatise aimed squarely at refuting the various Gnostic understandings of Christianity. I think it fair to say, then, that Irenaeus' incarnational theology rejects the notion that females must become males in order to be saved.

Which leaves us with the conclusion that what it means to be male and what it means to be female is not essential to humanity. While sex is an essential human characteristic, whether a particular human person is male or female is accidental rather than substantial. While it is part of our makeup and determines who we are as a being, it does not determine what we are as a human. There is no scriptural basis that I am aware of for arguing that the male of the species is more (or less) human than the female of the species.

But this conclusion does not help us in our quest to know what the early Christians would have thought about the topic of transgenderfication. While we have an example of one (heretical) Christian group thinking transsexuality was necessary for women to achieve salvation, it is clear that this position was certainly in the minority. We also know that at least one early author held most likely, but not necessarily, held that transsexuality itself was corruption. But then there is the ambiguity of Saint Perpetua's reported vision where a saint of the early Church found comfort in the vision of becoming male on the eve of her martyrdom where the transgenderfication was neither necessary nor literal. The student of ancient texts, it seems to me, is left in a state of aporia wondering just what to make of it all.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Kant and Marx on Enlightenment

Immanuel Kant defined The Enlightenment as the overcoming of self-imposed immaturity. He suggested that this process was inevitable provided that society as a whole had obtained the freedom to use reason. In many ways this view of Enlightenment met its end in the thinking of Karl Marx who posited that the lack of maturity in society was the direct consequence of the material forces in any given mode of production whereby at least one social class must exploit one or more other social classes for its existence. In the Marxian view, the real Enlightenment will be the product of an eventual communist revolution and what Kant views as freedom is merely an illusion. While Marx appears to offer a stronger argument, his view of Enlightenment is rather vague on what is certainly one of the most important questions of philosophy, ``what does it mean to be a human being?''

Kant understood immaturity to be dependence on others, especially in the realm of reasoning. In his view people are immature when they look to others (pastors, professors, rulers, authors) for the formation of their thoughts rather than taking the time to think things through on their own. Kant was especially offended when the root of immaturity is the refusal of individuals to accept responsibility rather than an incapability of those individuals to think things through. The refusal to accept responsibility makes one's immaturity self-imposed.

Kant explicitly stated that this freedom deals with one's public life and not one's private life. He uses these two terms in a way that is confusing to we who tend to reverse their meanings. With regards to the private sphere, Kant means an individual's professional role. For example teachers, pastors or government officials would all be acting in a private capacity because they are representatives of their employers. In these types of roles Kant argued that one ought not to have the freedom to critically use reason because one is representing someone else. When serving in such a capacity, Kant argues that a person has been hired precisely to be doctrinaire and to toe the party line. But Kant does not believe that this restriction of intellectual freedom should extend to the public sphere where every individual is a human being with the right to critically use reason. In fact, Kant argues that one has not only the right to critically use reason but also has the obligation to apply reason in a systematic fashion in order to seek out the truth. In this view the schoolteacher by day follows the dogma set forth by the board of education but outside of the boundaries of the school day has the intellectual freedom to question, dispute and critique that very dogma.

When individuals do this on an individual basis, however, Kant observes that it is difficult and the results are not usually very impressive, akin to a single person leaping over a puddle of mud. But if all are made free and able to pursue the systematic application of reason, the results are society wide and each generation becomes more able to reason than the generation before. Kant conjectures that this process ends in the very changing of societal principles. The most important of these to Kant is the change in principles of governance whereby governments begin to respect the political rights of all especially with regard to personal autonomy and the freedom of individuals to pursue the application of reason.

But where Kant viewed political freedoms as the eventual end of the Enlightenment, Marx saw these same political freedoms as symptomatic of the lack of true freedoms. Marx based this view on a materialistic outlook of history where humanity is entirely defined by the totality of all social relations. Chief among these social relations in Marx's thought was the mode of economic production.

In Marx's view, the process of Enlightenment which Kant speaks of comes about as the consequence of a specific mode of production (industrialized capitalism) under which the owners of the means of production (the bourgeoisie) exploit those they hire (the proletariat) as laborers in order to extract profit. (Profit in the Marxian view arises because the owners of the means of production do not pay the laborers full value for their labor.) The illusion of political freedoms, Marx argues, fools the proletariat into thinking that they are free when in fact they are not. Marx holds out as evidence that they are not free the fact that because each labor thinks of his or her self as an individual rather than as a species-being, each laborer is fundamentally alienated from his or her own essence as a human.

Consequently, Marx desires not political freedom as the result of Enlightenment but actual freedom as the result of an actual revolution. Marx, the strict materialist, holds that material freedom rather than ideological freedom is the only true freedom. Further, he holds that material freedom can only exist when humanity is no longer alienated from itself as a species being. The largest aspect of this freedom is the freedom from having to continually produce as a means of continuing one's own existence. So long as one has to sell one's labor in order to acquire necessities as food and shelter, one is not free on a material level according to Marx. Hence, Marx holds that freedom, true freedom, will only come when there is no more class conflict and no longer will one or more classes exploit others.

A good example of Marx's views can be seen in his essay On the Jewish Question where he criticizes Bruno Bauer, charging that Bauer misguidedly chastises Jews for maintaining their Jewishness while seeking political rights. Marx's criticism is that the political rights sought by the Jews are merely the outward form of Christian ideology which is a theoretical application of Judaism. Bauer's mistake, Marx charges, is that he doesn't see that all religions are illusory and that the conditions that gives rise to the illusion of Christianity are also the conditions that give rise to the illusion of political rights. Consequently, if destroys a religion but not its material base, its form will remain. Industrial capitalism, Marx argues, is the material basis of Christianity and even if Christianity is destroyed, the material basis will remain and something very much like Christianity will simply take Christianity's place in the superstructure built on top of the economic base of industrial capitalism.

Marx's argument against Bauer rests upon the example of the United States. The US, Marx asserts, is an atheistic and democratic state based on fundamental political freedoms. But even though the US is secularized, the people of the US remain deeply Christian. Christianity has been removed from the government but continues to exist in the private lives of the citizens, Marx argues, because the material basis for the religion has not been destroyed. This view concludes that only when the material base of Christianity, industrial capitalism, is destroyed will Christianity whither away in all its forms.

At first, this critique of the Enlightenment project seems very strong. If Marx is correct in his materialist conception of history that all political ideas are the result of particular sets of social relations that comprise various modes of production, then he offers a compelling account of the history of ideas. But Marx is vague on what it means to be human. His assertion that humanity is defined by its consciousness of being a species-being is vague at best. The tension in his view is heightened when one observes that Marx actually goes so far as to imply that this connection may not be entirely material. And if it isn't entirely material, then cracks appear at the very foundation (strict materialism) for his social critique. It is difficult to see how a purely materialistic view of humanity can hold forth a teleological view of history.

And it is on precisely this point that Kant's conception excels. Kant's argument doesn't rest on a hidden relationship between individuals but on empirical observations. For Kant, even though free will may be a chimera, it is enough that human beings appear to have free will. The mere appearance of human action, for Kant, is sufficient basis to attempt the construction of universal laws that human actions appear to follow.

[This is an edited form of my answer to two essay questions from the final exam I took for Professor Robert Rethy's Late Modern Philosophy class at Xavier University in 2005. Professor Rethy wrote that my essay concerning Kant and Marx was brilliant so I thought that it might be worth sharing. The portions relating to Marx's critique of Bruno were a separate answer to the portions contrasting Kant and Marx. But I thought that it gave a very good look at what Marx was trying to say so I folded it into the body of the answer to the other question.]

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Persian love poetry, Sufi Mysticism and System Of A Down

Recently, I've still wading my way through Lapidus' A History of Islamic Societies. Last month, I came across two unique insights. The first was on Persian love poetry and its gradual folding into Sufi mysticism. The second was on Sufi mysticism itself as developed by the mystic al-Ghazzali (d. 1111AD). Outside of his mysticism, al-Ghazzali is most notable for his development of philosophical arguments in The Incoherence of the Philosophers that attempts to demonstrate that the scientific method (and rationality itself) are utterly flawed because there can be no natural laws outside of God's providence. In his view, fire doesn't burn cotton when cotton is held to a flame because it is the nature of cotton to combust when exposed to sufficient heat but because God, at that moment in time, wills that the cotton burns. His arguments were so forceful that they ultimately changed the way that all of Islam thinks about philosophy for many centuries. To this day some schools of Islam have adopted his rejection of natural laws.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. In the tenth through the thirteenth centuries, Both the Persian and Arabic languages were both widespread throughout Islamic civilization. It was in these years that Muslims finally began to become the majority religion in most Islamic controlled areas of the middle east. Prior to this age, Christians of various sorts still outnumbered their Muslim rulers. Nestorians were dominant in Persia. Armenians elsewhere. Orthodox in other places. Aside from the battle of ideas, there was a battle over where Persian or Arabic would be the dominant language of the cultured elite.

During this period of time, a new literary genre of poetry developed in Persian speaking culture. This literary convention took the form of a lover pining away for a beloved that was completely unattainable, usually in the form of a lower ranking member of a royal court or an ignoble hero of might ``consumed by physical passion'' and whose love was sublimated ``into an idealization of a perfect but inaccessible woman.'' [Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies, Second Edition. Cambridge University Press. 2002. p130.] Frequently the genre had stories of ``the lover who suffers just for a glance, while his only comfort is wine.'' [Ibid.]

Over time, Lapudis argues that this image of the lover constantly unconsummated suffering for his beloved began to be used by Sufi mystics as an analogy of the love the mystic has for God. In this view, the divine is unattainable and we material creatures can only yearn to be fulfilled. Lapudis doesn't go into detail about how the Sufis handle the idea that our only consolation in our longing for God is wine. I suspect that they view it as the tragedy of the material condition that the human being looks to distraction and dissolution rather than focusing on a love that can never be consummated. Here lies a key difference between Islamic mysticism and Christian mysticism. For Orthodox Christians, our love for God is not unfulfilled. While in this life we Christians do see the world through a darkened glass, we also have real experience of God through the God-made-Man Jesus Christ. While the Sufis can only experience visions that are ``like'' God, Christians can experience God himself.

But let us return to Lapudis. As the Sufi school of Islam developed, it found an adherent in the scholar al-Ghazzali. Ghazzali was originally a widely respected scholar in Baghdad who found himself more and more discontent with the world. After a six month struggle over whether he should become a hermit which ended in the complete failure of his health and inability to even eat, he disappeared and wondered the desert and mountains for ten years after which he returned to Baghdad as a Sufi master.

One of the more interesting aspects of his thought is his view that Islam (which he thought to be the one true religion) requires a total submission to God that occurs in three phases. The first phase he likens to the relationship between a man and his lawyer. The lawyer has power of attorney to represent the man in a specific matter. The man trusts his lawyer but retains the right to make the final decision and only trusts the lawyer in specific matters. This phase, I think, is a very apt description of the way many of us Christians treat God. We compartmentalize God and submit out lives to Christ only in certain aspects. In other aspects we rely on ourselves. Even in aspects where we rely on God, we retain the right to change our minds if we think God is making a wrong decision. (Or at least I know that I am guilty of this. I'm not certain I should presume to speak for all Christians.)

Ghazzali's likens the second stage to the relationship between a small child and his mother. The child completely trusts in his mother but talks to her only when he wants something. He cries. He tugs at her skirt to get her attention. He is fearful of the outside world and trusts that his mother will always make everything right. The submission the child has for his mother is much more complete than the submission that the man has for his lawyer, but it is still a submission that is self-seeking and selfish. The mother, for the child, exists for the child. We Christians are also guilty of this sometimes. We tend to make God into our God and only our God. Whether it be in American Exceptionalism where we hold that the USA is a divinely guarded nation with an inalienable right to take whatever steps we hold to be in God's will or whether we presume that God does not love those outside of the Church as much as God loves us.

Ghazzali likens the third stage to the relationship between a corpse and the one who is washing the corpse in preparation for burial. In this stage, the submission is complete and the individual exerts no will but lies entirely in the hands of the washer. The washer will do as he wills and the corpse will not, cannot, complain. I'm not certain what to think about this stage. At least at the superficial level, it has no small amount of similarity to the teachings of many of the desert fathers. (Which is probably not accidental. Many non-Islamic scholars of religious studies hold that Sufi Islam was heavily influenced by the mysticism of Christian desert monasticism.) And yet I can't help but think there is something wrong about this analogy. The corpse has no choice at all and everybody dies whether they decide to or not. On the one hand one could presume that the washer of corpses is preparing the body to either be lovingly buried or to be burned as an infidel. I haven't read enough of al-Ghazzali's writing to know if that it is what he had in mind. But on the other, this analogy seems to me to open the door to necessary universalism. Quibbles aside, I find something oddly compelling in the idea of putting oneself so much at the mercy of God that one is like a corpse in his hands while he is preparing us for burial.

But the perverse side of me wonders what happens if one combines these two analogies. What I think we would get is my mishearing of System Of A Down's hit song ``Hypnotized.'' The refrain for this song runs thusly:

I'm just sitting in my car
And waiting for my girl

I don't find this to be a very interesting lyric. But as a person with a hearing problem, I misheard the lyrics when I first heard this song. I only discovered the real chorus once I looked the words up on the Internet. Prior to that I thought that the refrain went:

I'm just sitting in my coffin,
waiting for my girl

Which is fantastically much more morbid, the love of the corpse waiting for his girl, unrequited until she joins him in death.

But I'm not certain how to even begin making this into an analogy of our relationship with God, let alone one that is palatable to either Sufi mystics or to Orthodox Christians. Maybe this analogy is best for describing the world as it is presently, fundamentally disordered. If we had no hope of meeting God face to face, the most we can hope for in romantic love will always end in death. Without the experience of the triune Godhead, all we can hope for is that our eventual heartbreak be brief in duration, that either we die first or that our beloved not spend much time in tears while we wait in our coffins for their deaths. But instead, we Christians see death not as eventual heartbreak but as a taste of the true communion that we hope to find on the last day when we are finally truly united as one.