In my previous post, I shared some of the ways in which I’ve been wrestling with gendered imagery for God, the first person of the Christian Trinity often referred to as God the Father. In this entry, I’d like to reflect on ways I am reconsidering the gender of the Christ.
It is only recently, after reading Melinda Bielas’ post “Waiting for Jesus… I mean, Superman” (December 17, 2013), that I began to question male language for the Christ. I got into an interesting conversation with Grace Kao in January about it. My thoughts on this topic are still unformed and more theologically “speculative” than I usually share on this site, but I’d love to hear what you think. I think it is important for Christian feminists to consider the doctrines of the faith and assess where they support the co-humanity of women and when they degrade it.
This, of course, is the issue with the male-imaged Trinity. If God is presumed male, even if not in official doctrine but in practice or imagination, maleness is deified and femaleness is made invisible or subjugated. Melinda Beilas, in the FAR post cited above, makes the further claim that “dependence on a male savior prevents Christian women from claiming their own personhood, independent of a patriarch.”
I love Jesus and consider him to be my savior. I do not think his maleness is a part of what saves me, but I can recognize the potential for the Christ figure as the hero in yet another narrative where I–the weak, helpless, or incomplete woman–am rescued by the prince, the knight, the male lover, or some other strong man.
Troubled by these gendered associations, I started to reflect on what Jesus’ humanity means. In the development of the doctrine of Incarnation, Christians have asserted that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. I don’t wish to dispute that Jesus of Nazareth was a man, a male human. But what I wonder what happened to his humanity after his death and resurrection, after those events so central to the Christian understanding of salvation that we celebrate in the coming weeks. Christians believe that Jesus is still alive. We pray to him and talk to him and worship him. So I wonder what his humanity is now. Is the living Jesus still male or was that just an earthly facet of his being? Even if he was male for the decades he lived on earth, must he remain so for eternity?
There has been much debate on the nature of Jesus’ material body in the history of Christian theology. The veneration of holy images in the Eastern Church is a very tangible way of proclaiming that God appeared in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. John of Damascus, a Syrian monk and priest born in the latter 8th century, is a Church Father known for his defense of icons. John compellingly argues that Christ’s assumption of human flesh was not temporary in the way that someone puts on a coat in winter and then puts it away in the spring. Jesus’s body is not a seasonal garment. Christ’s flesh remains his own even after he returns to God, which means that the identity of the Logos (eternal Word) is eternally bound up with human flesh.
It would seem that if I accept John of Damascus’ argument, I must accept that the living Jesus has kept his male body. But really, what does that mean? Is Jesus floating around on some other plane of reality as an embodied human with male body parts? By distinguishing between sex and gender, I think there is another way to work through this confusion, or at least work with it. Sex refers to differentiated biological characteristics like chromosomes, hormones, and internal and external sex organs whereas gender describes the characteristics that a society or culture associates with a sex. Certainly, there is connection and also gray area between the concepts of sex and gender. But the fact that we can linguistically make sense of the phrases a “feminine man” and a “masculine woman” operates on this distinction between sex and gender. Sex is expressed in maleness/femaleness and gender is expressed in masculinity/femininity. (Obviously, I am reducing these to binaries for explanation, but I do NOT believe that only two options of sex or gender can and should exist.)
I remember that my concern with the first and third persons of the Trinity is not really whether God is male. God is not male, as maleness refers to an organism’s sex, and neither God the Creator, nor the Holy Spirit has chromosomes or sex organs or reproductive systems or anything that would identify sex. My concern has been with the gendered language that we apply to God: He, Father, King, Lord, etc. So why should I be preoccupied with Jesus’ sex instead of his gender?
Even if Jesus was male and continues to be male, he does not have to reflect the gendered norms of our contemporary culture. The gendered conception of masculine is always shifting; to be a “real man” in the 21st century is different from 1st definitions of masculinity. So I argue that because Jesus, the living Christ, the eternal Word, is not a part of our contemporary culture, we err in associating him with gendered tropes of a man saving the damsel in distress. My savior may have been a Jewish man in the 1st century CE, but he was never a knight in shining armor or Superman. He was not what his people expected him to be. I hope he is much more than what traditional Christians and feminist Christians like me imagine and expect him to be. We are limited by our finite minds, our language, and the gendered norms of our culture and era. Jesus, both human and divine, is not.
I suppose that after all this reflection, I am still left with a male savior. I will say that Jesus is a “he” but also admit that I do not know what that means. But I know this: My belief that Jesus is Savior grounds my hope that we can be saved from gender logics that make his maleness significant. The way we manipulate gendered norms to hurt and kill bodies and souls is sinful. I believe Jesus saves us from our sin but that the full redemption is not yet complete. So I pray that our distorted perceptions of gender will one day be transformed.
Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.