Insights on Intersex image

Insights on Intersex

Following a podcast discussion we had with Megan DeFranza, author of Sex Difference in Christian Theology, Alastair Roberts wrote a very helpful and wide-ranging set of reflections on intersexuality. They are all well worth considering, both pastorally and theologically. I've posted a few paragraphs, but you should really read (or even, for that matter, listen to) the whole thing:

On sexual dimorphism:
There may be some sort of an empirical spectrum between male and female, albeit one overwhelmingly populated at the poles. However, the existence of such an empirical spectrum is not proof against sexual dimorphism, because there remain only two functional forms of sex around which specific human beings are clustered. All intermediate forms are departures from these, without an integral purpose of their own ...

On intersex and gender:
Cases where the sex of a person’s body is truly ambiguous raise particular challenges, as identifying as either man or woman is difficult or impossible. Such exceedingly rare cases are particularly worthy of our reflection as they provide the most apparent exceptions to the gender differentiation of humanity. Yet this is, I believe, exactly how we should approach such cases—as exceptions, rather than as denials of the rule. Appreciating such cases as exceptions need not and should not entail a dismissal of them from significance for our reflection upon sex and gender. It is this category of exception that seems to be lacking in the conceptual frameworks of many people on both sides of such debates: for some, every exception undermines the norm; for others, every exception must be suppressed, pathologized, or forced to conform to the norm ...

On sex in a fallen world:
Steve Holmes’ claims that ‘we cannot specify with any exactness what it is to be male or female, theologically speaking … not because the binary is not a part of being human; it is because we have almost no access to what it is to be properly human.’ This statement—‘almost no access’—strikes me as theologically untenable. It is one thing to acknowledge that all of our knowledge is fallen, limited, and distorted by sin, quite another to adopt such a radical agnosticism ...

On circumcision:
It seems to me that circumcision poses genuine problems for any intersex theology. As I have observed before, the biblical narrative foregrounds the reproductive organs of many of its characters in a pronounced way—it is frequently a tale of circumcised foreskins and opened wombs. The sign of the covenant is placed upon the male sex organ. Unless we adopt a Marcionite approach, we must reckon with the peculiar significance that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ gave to the male sex organ in circumcision. This poses problems for any position that wishes to negate the theological significance of sexual—and gender—difference and its relation to reproduction—even when we acknowledge that things have changed in the New Covenant. If the difference between the sexes and between persons with ambiguous and entirely unambiguous sexual characteristics is a matter of indifference, why did God institute a primary covenant ritual that was so overtly sexually differentiating? Such questions often expose or provoke huge theological divergences.

On the incarnation:
The suggestion that we should imagine an intersex Jesus—or a black Jesus, a queer Jesus, an English Jesus, etc.—strikes me as a theologically problematic potential obscuring of the particularity of the incarnation (different attempts theologically to justify such images fare differently in terms of their obscuring potential). As we are reminded in the Feast of the Circumcision, Christ came to earth in the fullness of time as a Jewish male, born as the male seed of a woman, under the Law, the son of David, and the heir of a particular lineage. The Jewish male body was the bearer of unique covenant meaning and Christ bore that meaning. This claim will obviously raise unsettling (and important) questions for many in other areas, but I believe other theological resources are available to us to answer such questions. The body in which Jesus came to us is not a matter of theological indifference.

On who is “at the table” in the discussion:
I think it is important to push back against the frequent contemporary insistence or assumption that we are never in the position to declare on anyone else’s identity or experience in any way and that such discussions are somehow the territory of those with the first person experience of the identity. Lest we forget, the first Christian council was a group of Jewish men deciding upon the status of Gentiles. Likewise, although it is important that we listen to the first person testimony of intersex persons—and I hope all of us engaged in these discussions have done and continue to do this—the issues under discussion will seldom be settled primarily by appeal to first person experience. While a court should listen to eye-witnesses, for instance, it does not follow that a court would be better off if it were run by eye-witnesses. That intersex persons need to be present in and attended to in the theological conversation as witnesses to the character of their conditions does not in itself equip them to settle the medical, philosophical, and theological questions associated with their conditions.

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