Sabia-Tanis: Holy Creation, Wholly Creative - A Response
To complete this series interacting with the multi-view book Understanding Transgender Identities, here I offer a response to the final chapter, 'Holy Creation, Wholly Creative: God's Intention for Gender Diversity' by Justin Sabia-Tanis.
Justin Sabia-Tanis makes a helpful contribution to this conversation by drawing from his own experience of living with gender dysphoria and undergoing gender transition. Particularly valuable is his attempt to help readers think their way into what it might be like to live with gender dysphoria through an imaginative exercise (pp.209-210).
I agree with his focus on working towards the wellbeing of transgender people and his call for Christians to recognise the need to respect the full personhood of transgender people as those created in God’s image (p.216). I also appreciate the way he highlights the disproportionately high rates of poverty among the transgender population and condemns Christian organisations who have refused help to transgender people who find themselves in difficult situations (pp.220-221).
While Sabia-Tanis expresses an admirable concern for the wellbeing of transgender people and rightly calls on Christians to treat trans people with compassion, I would question the form that Sabia-Tanis seems to believe this compassion should take. While it is generally true that ‘[c]ompassion argues that we allow people to receive medical treatments that will alleviate their suffering’ (p.217), we do first have to consider the morality of any such treatments. This is something Sabia-Tanis fails to do. In fact, he bemoans the shift from treating transgender as an issue for medical and pastoral care to an issue of morality but offers no argument as to why this shift is wrong. I would argue that all three perspectives are important.
In arguing for the acceptability of gender transition, Sabia-Tanis cites his own experience as evidence, both his sense of God’s calling ‘to set out on a journey between and among genders’ (p.204) and his experience of transitioning as ‘absolutely life-affirming and life-giving’ (p.205). Later, he notes that many who have transitioned ‘testify that we feel that God has affirmed our decisions’ (p.216). Nowhere, however, does the chapter engage with biblical texts (such a Deut. 22:5 and 1 Cor. 11:2-16) or theological perspectives that argue against the acceptability of transitioning. His perspective seems to be shaped only by a subjective experience with no evidence that this has been measured against Scripture.
Sabia-Tanis also argues in favour of gender transition by rejecting suggestions that there can be any positive aspects to suffering. This being the case, he suggests that any possible means of alleviating suffering should be allowed (pp.218-219). However, this is a distinctly unchristian position on suffering. Though we often don’t ultimately know why God allows suffering and might not be able to directly trace the good it does, the biblical witness consistently sees suffering as able to do good to us (e.g. Mark 8:34-36; Rom. 5:3-4; 2 Cor. 4:17; 1 Pet. 1:6-7).
In challenging the idea that transitioning should be considered as a moral issue which could be sinful, Sabia-Tanis suggests that we should ‘reorient the question from one of sinfulness to a focus on a person’s relationship with God’ (p.208). However, this is a false dichotomy. It is precisely because of the desire to have a good relationship with God in which we are honouring him with our bodies that we should consider whether transitioning is moral. Having a good relationship with God, however that might be defined, cannot be used as a justification for any and every action we desire to take. Elsewhere, Sabia-Tanis talks of God accepting those who keep his word (p.204). What does it mean to keep God’s word in relation to our gendered identity? This question is never really explored.
The starting point for Sabia-Tanis’ chapter is his argument that gender falls on a continuum. He offers arguments from the natural world and from the Bible, but both sets of arguments face serious problems.
When considering the natural world, Sabia-Tanis notes that there are some plants and animals which are hermaphroditic and some which change sex. However, neither of these phenomena are comparable to gender dysphoria or gender transition. Hermaphroditic organisms could offer a parallel to some intersex conditions, but they cannot prove that hermaphroditic biology in humans reflects a good and deliberate diversity. It is noteworthy that Sabia-Tanis says there are some ‘species’ of plants and some ‘categories’ of fish of whom this is true (p.199). In these cases, hermaphroditism is not a rare occurrence as it is in humans but is a standard characteristic of the species. Organisms which change sex cannot be claimed as evidence that gender transition is part of creational intent since the form of change is very different: in plants and fish it is through natural means and for the sake of reproduction, in human gender transition it is through invasive medical intervention and, if anything, harms rather than assists reproduction.
The biblical arguments for gender as a continuum are also unconvincing. The argument that the binaries in Genesis 1 are not absolute (e.g. dusk occurs between day and night) cannot be successfully applied to humans for several reasons. Perhaps most important among these is Jesus’s affirmation that God created humans as male or female so that one-man, one-woman marriages might take place (Mark 10:6-7; Matt. 19:4-5). Thus biological sex is a binary structured around the procreative sexual union of a man and a woman. Looking to Genesis 2, Sabia-Tanis suggests that v.18 shows the creation of woman was to solve the problem of loneliness rather than to create separate genders. However, there must be more to the narrative than this or God could have created a human who was identically sexed to Adam. The fact that he doesn’t, thus facilitating the reunion of man and woman in the one-flesh union of marriage (Gen. 2:24), is significant in the Bible’s theology of sex. Finally, arguments from the positive acceptance of eunuchs in Isaiah 56, Matthew 19 and Acts 8 are not directly relevant to the question of transgender as eunuchs were considered to be biologically male, though unable to father children, and so are, if anything, a parallel to intersex conditions, not to the experience of gender dysphoria or gender transition.
Taking a step back, there seems to be something of a tension between the two main points of Sabia-Tanis’ chapter. He starts by making the case that God has created gender to be a continuum and thus gender variations are good and should be embraced. However, his second point - that transgender people should be allowed to transition as an expression of compassion and love for neighbour in the face of suffering – seems to undermine the idea that the continuum is good, both in its focus on suffering and on the affirmation of transition approaches which move one closer to a certain end of the continuum. It might fairly be asked, if gender is a God-given continuum, why do some seem to suffer because of their position on the continuum and why should there be a need to move oneself to somewhere else on the continuum?
Sabia-Tanis’ aim in this chapter is admirable: to wrestle with the reality of gender dysphoria and offer a truly compassionate Christian response. I fear he fails in this aim, however, because of an overreliance on subjective experience, some flawed logic in the arguments employed, and weak readings of the biblical text.