Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner and What It Means to Be Human

 

Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam, 1511-1512

 

If one of the central purposes of Cruciform is to offer a Christian perspective on (American) culture, I suppose it’s time I wade into the cultural issue of the day: Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner.

Actually, I’m not going to comment directly on Jenner himself. Instead, I want to look a bit deeper at what his attempted change in sex from man to woman and the discussion it’s generated means about how we answer this question today: what does it mean to be human?

Like others who identify as transgendered, Jenner has stated that he has always felt like he was really a woman, that whatever the state of his body, on the inside he wasn’t a man.

Implicit within this perspective is an understanding of what it means to be human, and specifically, of what the essence of the human being is, which is thousands of years old and which has cropped up in numerous religious and philosophical systems, from versions of ancient greek philosophy to today’s New Age spiritualities. This perspective is technically referred to as body-self dualism, and essentially it sees the “self” — the person, the source of worth and dignity in the human being — as distinct from the body.

In other words, body-self dualism understands the body not to be truly personal; instead, the body is merely a means, a tool which the person dwells (or is entrapped) in. The human body, in this understanding, is merely sub-personal.

For a variety of reasons, body-self dualism is ultimately a false understanding of the human person. But my purpose in this post isn’t to engage in a deep study of the philosphical arguments against body-self dualism (for that purpose, I’ll refer you to this article by Patrick Lee and Robert George). Instead, I want to focus on the theological issues which it raises.

Now, most people — probably even most Christians — might initially think that Christianity holds to a body-self dualism. After all, Christians believe that the human being is composed of both body and soul, and that while the body will die, the soul will exist forever.

In fact, however, any similarities between traditional Christianity and body-self dualism are only superficial, and beneath those similarities lie profound and ultimately irreconcilable differences. Let me explain.

Yes, it’s true that Christianity holds a form of dualism: the human person consists of both body and soul. But there is a key distinction: Christian dualism is body-soul dualism, not body-self dualism. And those three letters — -oul vs. -elf — make all the difference.

For Christianity, the “self” — the person — is not the soul by itself, in or out of the body. Rather, for Christianity, the human person, the “self”, is actually the union of the body and soul, the composite of the body and soul. Contrary to one popular opinion, Christianity doesn’t denigrate the body, but just the opposite: it elevates it, given it the status and dignity of human personhood. While body-self dualism sees the body as merely an instrument of that which has real and intrinsic value (the self), Christianity sees the body as having inherent and intrinsic value, precisely because it is one part of the union that together makes up the human person.

For me as a Christian, then, it’s technically imprecise for me to say that I have a body… it would be more accurate to say that I am a body, or even more precisely, to say that I am a body-soul composite.

The difference here with body-self dualism is substantial, for while body-self dualism says that the person is some immaterial, non-physical (presumably spiritual) reality, Christianity instead says that the person is the unity of the body and soul together.

This actually manifests itself out in everyday life. Think about our ordinary language; we say things like “Did you see that sunrise this morning?” or “I heard the most amazing song today!”. Note what we don’t say: we don’t say, “Did your eyes see that sunrise this morning?” or “My ears heard the most amazing song today!” Our ordinary way of speaking itself implies an understanding of the human person as one of a profound unity between the matter and spirit, not of a strong dualism between them.

This is why it is is deeply problematic from a Christian perspective to argue that my “real self,” the “real ‘I’” is one sex and my body is another, because it presumes that my person, my self, is something other than my body, while for Christianity, my person, my self essentially includes my body. For Christianity, there is no “I’ that is “inside” my body… the “I” is my body, united as it is with my soul.

Ironically, the extremely high value which Christianity places on the body is the source of many of the doctrines which many  Americans are uncomfortable with. Abortion… contraception… man-woman marriage… euthanasia and yes… transgender issues… it is precisely because Christianity so highly values the body that it teaches what it does on these issues (for more on this, I’d recommend another Robert George article).

It’s essential that we walk with, pray for, support and love those who struggle with their sexual identity. And in doing so, we can be confident in assuring them that not only we, but God Himself is with them as they carry their cross, and that the ultimate end of their personal Way of the Cross is not Calvary, but the Resurrection.

Thoughts? In what ways does this post confirm your understanding of the human person and/or of the Christian understanding of the human person?

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10 thoughts on “Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner and What It Means to Be Human”

  1. Thanks for taking us deeper on the transgender issue. I had not heard an explanation of the difference between body/self and body/soul and it makes so much sense.

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  2. Chris,

    If I said I have always thought of myself as a pirate, would it be ok for me to poke out an eye and replace my hand with a hook? Or I always saw myself as an offensive lineman, should I then use that to rationalize being over-weight? Or that I see myself as being a dominating person, does it justify my dominating my wife and children? Or a budding Hemingway so I can also be a suicidal alcoholic? That is all crazy isn’t it?

    A person who is disabled or suffers with disease courageously finds the means to live within their situation. Do do otherwise is cowardly.

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    1. I hear you, Troy, but given how deeply — and unconsciously — our culture has adopted this body-self dualism, I’m not surprised… ideas — good or bad — usually have a way of working themselves out in a society…

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  3. I know in today’s world it isn’t polite to say “this is nuts” or “you are nuts” so I don’t go there.

    I say, “I have sympathy and understand you are nuts.”

    Btw, “you” is not you Chris and what you wrote. You appear nuts to me but someone with as cute of kids as you are can’t be nuts. 🙂

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  4. I’m glad you are addressing this issue because everyone seems to be talking about it wherever I go. The hairdresser asked me what I thought and I was able to explain briefly what is going on with the situation. This article is good for me to learn from and ingest. The other article you referred to on Facebook actually gave me talking points for discussion with other people because it helped me give simple points of view.

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  5. Great article Chris. Great insight found in our language. It’s natural for us to consider our body and soul as one. Interesting.

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