Normativity, Naming, and the Divine Image by Natalie Weaver


Natalie Weaver editedOver the past two days, I have been considering the challenges and competing perspectives on Carol Christ’s post, “Who is Gender Queer?”  I’d like to weigh in with some thoughts on normativity, naming, and the divine image.

I do not identify as genderqueer.  But, like Carol describes in her post, I have often felt misfit or misnamed.  As we all do, I internalized categories of masculine and feminine in childhood and somehow felt myself to be “masculine” in my physicality, my dark eyebrows (which people – frequently strangers – felt regularly inclined to describe, critique, and even molest in bathrooms, checkout lines, and salons), my hairy legs (which seemed hairier than my girlfriends’ legs in grade school), my interests, even the way I thought.  My sense of my sexual self felt somehow masculine because I never experienced my body passively.  I climbed and jumped and ran more than my female classmates, and I had much smaller breasts than the women in my family.  The real proof for me, though, was that I never had a period on a 28-day cycle.  I grew up thinking I was defective and generally not a very good female.  All of this, of course, I now know merely reflects the onslaught of normative messages I unwittingly accepted in my formation about the experience, presentation, and performance of physical sex and gender.  

So, as a kid, I didn’t fit, sort of, and I kind of still don’t in some of my social and professional spheres … and in this sense, “fitting” is probably a perennial tension for every human being that has ever lived under the sun.  The problem of fitting is aggravated, though, when social conditions prescribe, proscribe, circumscribe, legalize, and criminalize how we can experience and live in our bodies.  Then, “fitting” becomes not about one’s own aspirant placement among established norms, but about the ability to participate in society safely, freely, and joyfully.

Let me also add, here, I speak not as an outsider on this point but as one who has had direct experience with intersex in a very intimate relationship.  I learned that a sizable, minority population of human beings across time and culture actually does not fit, cannot fill out an application, cannot use a public restroom without conflict or fear of exposure, and is at risk of exploitation in ways both conceivable and inconceivable because of bodily difference.   Intersex is one among the range of possible variations on normative sexuality.  But, in all cases, when society cannot or will not accommodate the spectrum of human sexual potentialities and gender presentations, we face a systemic silencing and erasure of human life in its remarkably diverse manifestations.  Self-naming and claiming is in these circumstances not about relative privilege and power but about survival itself.  And, here, we have very far to go…

As one who now writes and speaks about intersex and theological anthropology, I am always pushing back against the language of “disorder.”  “Differences,” perhaps.  “Diversities,” better.  But, I struggle with “disorder” because I would like to see a day when we might genuinely embrace the abundant diversity that comprises the humanum.  The risk here, of course, is that we might pedastalize difference in a way that becomes distorting – as when intersex/third gender/middle sex persons are treated as divine consorts or when white people are fascinated with African-American hair (this was a multi-week discussion in my feminist theology course one year when we studied womanist authors).  Making difference into something exotically entertaining is perhaps as insulting and dangerous as treating difference with derision and marginalization.  But, at the risk of sounding naive, I really do think it is tragic that we so often experience and articulate differences theoretically and practically from the perspectives of disadvantage and disruption rather than from the perspective of divine-imaging and incarnation.

Fully knowledgeable of the trouble with biblical references, I nevertheless cling to the Genesis idea that humanity bears the divine image and that “it is good.” I confess that I add to the text my own gloss when I presume that the imago dei persists in all the created world, and I celebrate the wisdom this text teaches to me, namely, that the unfathomably bio-diverse world we live in is good, and that we are good, and that we are good as we are made.  (I am, furthermore, not at all concerned that the authors/redactors of this text could possibly be horrified by my appropriation of their material.)  The other great piece of wisdom in this story for me is that creation occurs by an act of speech, and that as co-creative image-bearers, we also create by acts of speech, by acts of naming, by the speech of acclimation, by the speech of proclamation, by naming it good.  It is good because we deem it so, because we so name it, because we so claim it.

Between and among the rallying points where different identities, politics, and social agendas converge and diverge, I think one vital truth must be spoken at every opportunity… namely, that a healthy world is a diverse one.  No natural system is healthy or sustainable apart from a rich and diverse biology, and human beings are no different.  Speech as an act of creative-making helps us to identify, to affirm, and (hopefully) to rejoice in our own richly layered selves and experiences and to see the magnificent, magnetic appeal of the diversity of others.  If we must have one at all, this should be our norm.

 

Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D.is Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013)Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014).  Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin.  Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology.  Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan.  For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.

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Categories: Gender, Gender and Sexuality, Naming

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9 replies

  1. Beautiful Natalie thank you for writing such a well written blog on the diversity of us ALL Blessed Be.

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  2. Funny Natalie, while I notice your eyebrows on your photo what stands out for me is that your eyes are so green and greenly gorgeous.

    I hear what you are saying about the power of speech and naming. But it also seems to me that foregrounding the power of speech in creation is part of a process of dis-identifying creation and birthgiving, whether that birthgiving be human or other than human, not only individual, but including the whole process of evolution. A male God creates through speech. a female Goddess (who could also speak) created through her body as well.

    Oh what a tangled web we are trying to weave and unweave.

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  3. This conversation on FAR has brought back a childhood memory. At the age of seven I stood outside alone on the school playground and spoke aloud to myself: “I am not a boy and I am not a girl.” Physically my gender is unambiguous, but apparently at seven years old I did not want to put a check mark in either box. I did not have a name for what I was, but I was clear about what I was not.

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  4. No two people are anything like each other. So why do we think there is any such thing as normative? There are probably at least 20 different genders, but we judge only from the outside. It’s the heart and soul that truly makes the person who they are.

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  5. Thank you Natalie. I have been wondering if there is anything we can say about all human beings – even down to fairly basic physical functions like breathing – and finding that possibly all descriptions have to be made in recognition that they do not apply to all people. Which has some resonances with your thoughts. And then applying this to the words we use to and for the divine opens all sorts of conversations. I found your thoughts really helpful – much appreciated
    Margaret

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  6. Wonderful post, Natalie. The following “hit home” with me: “The problem of fitting is aggravated, though, when social conditions prescribe, proscribe, circumscribe, legalize, and criminalize how we can experience and live in our bodies. Then, “fitting” becomes not about one’s own aspirant placement among established norms, but about the ability to participate in society safely, freely, and joyfully.” So many of my students talk about never even thinking about the possibility of doing x, y, and z, saying that societal constraints were so strong, they did not entertain the possibility (even) of taking part in x, y, and z as those activities took place in “mainstream” society and they never felt welcome (or safe) there. Makes a lot of sense to me as I grew up in a conservative, fundamentalist home where associating with “the world” was forbidden except for what was needed for physical survival. Thank you for your insight.

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  7. Thanks, Natalie, for this wonderful post. Although I agree with Carol that God’s word creating the world undermines the Goddess giving birth to it, I love the idea of speech and naming as a (human) co-creative act. Co-creation takes us beyond the difference between the uniqueness of the individual and the universality of being human. Each of us as individuals (unique) then creates with the Goddess (my name for the universality upon which our individual lives are built) to hopefully expand our human-ness. What are other ways that we do this and NOT erase diversity? I’m sure many of you here have thought about that. Please reply.

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