Monday, March 06, 2006

Gender and Divinity (continued)

This post continues the discussion of "Gender and Divinity" (March 3, 2006) with Edgar Foster.

Blosser (from earlier post):
Nice point, again. Analogies always work only to a point. Obviously a corporate legal 'person' is an eidetic abstraction (the adjective 'eidetic' here serving no purpose but to appeal to your salubrious nomenclaturological appetite) and not a concrete reality, as God is. The claim Volf is making is that gender presupposes biological specification, and from that I surmise that you're wishing to infer or argue that gender cannot be specified in any other way but biologically. Would that be fair?
I believe Volf himself argues that a sexed body is requisite in order for gender to subsist. He most certainly denies that gender specificity obtains IN DIVINIS:
"The ontologization of gender would ill serve both the notion of God and the understanding of gender. Nothing in God is specifically feminine; nothing in God is specifically masculine . . ." (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 171-173).
Well of course that's because God isn't a species of anything, though we are. But why should we suppose that gender must be understood in terms relative to biologized human species? (Notice I'm not necessarily referring here to God, though the question of God is of course relevant.)
Gary Rosenkrantz and Joshua Hoffman similarly conclude:
"Indeed, assuming that God is nonphysical, and that a nonphysical being could not be biologically gendered,
it is impossible that God is biologically gendered" (The Divine Attributes, 2).
That's a moot point, though, isn't it; because I never disputed that a non-biological being couldn't be biologically gendered. I only raised the question whether gender necessarily is exclusively (or even ultimately, for that matter) biological.
John Cooper rightly observes that God's supposed genderlessness is based on a number of philosophical assumptions about ultimate reality (ENS REALISSIMUM). But he sides with those who eschew gender specificity in God because Cooper thinks that Christian believers customarily have confessed that God is not gendered. Moreover, he maintains that Scripture indicates God is neither masculine nor feminine.
It would be interesting to know what he thinks those philosophical assumptions are (I don't have Cooper at hand.) His eschewing of gender specificity in God is the traditional view of Christian tradition, in any case. I don't necessarily disagree with that tradition. I like Kreeft's notion that God in Himself embraces whatever is in either human gender, since the original must logically contain everything that is in its image -- though Kreeft goes on, as you know, to insist that God is masculine in relation to us. There are both biblical and metaphysical arguments one could make, I would suggest, for that point (but we may have been through that together).
Finally, Kallistos Ware makes a case that God is genderless based on God's boundlessness or qualitative limitlessness (i.e. infinity):
"God in himself is neither masculine nor feminine, since he infinitely transcends any such categories. Yet it does not therefore follow that we are free to apply to him whatever symbols we please."
Timothy (or Kallistos) Ware would seem to agree with Kreeft here.
As far as I'm concerned, independent of special revelation, all we have to inform our concepts of God is our phenomenal experience.
What about metaphysical (logical philosophical) reasoning? (I would have said "metaphysical speculation," but that usually gives non-Catholics unfamiliar with the tradition of scholastic speculation apoplexy.
. . . It is my belief that phenomena and special revelation should largely govern our view of gender IN DIVINIS. But you make an interesting comment above. Could you please explain what you mean by gender differences being expressed in one's psyche? I'm not sure that gender theorists would acquiesce to the notion that such differences are psychically expressed. For gender is considered a cultural taxonomy by most anthropologists. Volf ultimately contends that gender is rooted in a sexed body, but it is played out culturally or dynamically.
Well, let's assume for the moment that Volf is right and gender is rooted in a sexed body. Furthermore, let's add to that the quite widespread rejection of Platonic or Cartesian dualism one finds in contemporary discussions of human nature. Then we've got a syllogism:
  • Major Premise: Biological gender is innate.
  • Minor Premise: The psychological and biological are one, not two.
  • Conclusion: Psyches must be innately gendered too.
This would support such popular discussions as that found in the book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, the supposition being that, whatever connections these differences may have to biology (hormones, etc.), men and women have psyches that express themselves differently too.

One could of course deny the minor premise and still argue that psyches are in some way 'gendered' as well, though not by virtue of being rooted in a biologically gendered organism. For example, if one were to accept that the soul of a human being is capable of subsisting apart from the body in the 'intermediate state', as much of Christian tradition has assumed, then I think one could try to make the argument that the soul of, say, the apostle Luke is a masculine soul, whereas that of Lydia is feminine. If someone were to counter that such a difference were based solely on the soul's having been previously lodged in a biologically gendered body and its residual associations with that previous incarnation, I suppose one could counter with some notion of Creationism (as opposed to Traducianism) with respect to the origin of the human soul, where the identity is divinely determined independently of the biological process of organic generation and then (either simultaneously or subsequenly) infused into the biological organism. In that case, I suppose, one could argue that the identity of the soul -- including its gender orientation -- is something independent (even if concommitant with) biological gender -- perhaps somewhat as in Malebranche's doctrine of Occasionalism. But that's all another matter.
You raise some issues that would probably take us down familiar beaten paths. What is mind? Is it metaphysically possible for mind to exist independently of the body? Is it possible (logically speaking) to conceive of mind as gendered independently of the body? These are tough questions with no easy answers, from the vantage-point of logic.
True. But that doesn't mean one can't build a decent metaphysical case for one view or another. Plato would have certainly thought the mind or soul capable of existence apart from the body. Aristotle was in two minds about the matter (no pun intended). On the one hand, he seemed to view the individual soul as the animating principle of the body, which would not survive the body. On the other hand, he seemed to accept the notion that the rational soul, or at least the rational part of the soul, is capable of subsistence independently of the body, though of course the question of whether such a rational soul could sustain a personal identity was moot for him. Coming up into the later Christian centuries, the notion of a soul that survives the body becomes somewhat entrenched, based on the tradition (found also among the Pharisees) that the body of the deceased would later be resurrected, and, thus, the emergent notion of an 'intermediate state' (see, e.g., Loraine Boettner's book Immortality, or, for that matter, the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on 'Immortality.'). I would also recommend the book with which you are familiar, John Cooper's book, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monistm-Dualism Debate (2000).
Regarding your final sentence above, keep in mind that when Volf refers to God's lack of gender specificity, he probably has in mind God the Father or God the Son, not the risen and exalted "incarnate" Christ.
The above reference to Volf raises interesting questions. For example, the question to what extent the identity of the Second Person of the Trinity as "Son" is dependent or independent of the biologically incarnate and physically gendered historical Jesus. Someone might want to argue that the question of gender as pertaining to the preincarnate Logos purely rests on incarnational associations. One might raise the counter-argument, however, that the identity of the historical Jesus is already fully established in the pre-incarnate Logos, but only comes to expression in His incarnate form in the historical Jesus. After all, the Second Person of the Trinity is understood to be the "eternally begotten" Son of the Father prior to His incarnation.

Friday, March 03, 2006

A reflection on religious doubt

You raised the question of 'doubt' today in a conversation with me. You said that you remembered when I was received into the Church and now found, ironically, that you were having doubts about your faith. You said that I must have "faith," as though it were some sort of achievement. This got me thinking.

Curiously enough, as soon as I got back to my office, I received an email with this provocative quotation on the question of 'doubt' by St. Thomas Aquinas:
"Doubt can happen to some in matters of faith but this is not because of any lack of certitude in the thing itself but because of the weakness of the human intellect. And yet it is at least true that whatever can be obtained in the knowledge of the highest realities is more desirable than absolutely certain knowledge in matters of least importance." (Summa Theologiae Part One, Question 1, Article 5).
The last sentence has, it seems to me, a Pascalian implication: though our knowledge in matters of least importance may seem much more epistemologically certain in terms of 'disinterested' scientific categories, our knowledge of the highest realities is much more desirable. I'm sure you've read Pascal, so I'll say no more about this now.

The first sentence, however, is no less intesting, because it supposes a distinction between what is subjectively certain and what is objectively certain. Matters of faith, it says, are not lacking in (objective) certitude, but may seem (subjectively) uncertain because of the weakness of the human intellect.

This leads me to an observation: I was puzzled when you referred to me as a person who seemed to "have faith," because it seemed to suggest that faith involves some sort of virtue. I can imagine only one circumstance in which that might be so: in the circumstance that one's fidelity is called upon in the face of prima facie data that may suggest the opposite -- as, for example, when one is confronted by 'data' suggesting his wife's infidelity, but gives her the benefit of his doubt because he trusts her (and it is virtuous in such a circumstance to doubt the 'data' and trust her).

On the other hand, I usually don't find myself called upon to exercise such 'virtuous' or 'heroic' faith in matters of religion -- perhaps because my faith has never been tested quite like that of Job in the Old Testament. In any case, this is where Aquinas' statement, to me, makes a great deal of sense. He says that our lack of faith comes from "weakness of the human intellect." He does not intend "weakness" here, I believe, in any sense suggesting any defect of moral virtue. Rather, I believe he is thinking about the metaphysical deficiency of the human intellect vis-a-vis its supernatural object, which, in this case, far surpasses its limited capacity. Because of this weakness, our knowledge of God must rest on a posteri inductions from the empirical record of history (about Jesus, the Bible, the Church, etc.), metaphysical inferences of an analogical nature based on divine revelation (about God's existence, and loving, merciful, fatherly nature, etc.), and existential intuitions forged out of our cultivation of a personal relationship with Christ (about his faithfulness, forgiveness, fidelity, etc.).

When someone says I have "faith," then, I feel rather awkward and uncomfortable if this suggests that faith is some sort of virtuous achievement, because faith -- as a species of "intellectual assent," is something effortless. It is effortless to believe in something when you have the right facts to support your belief. It becomes difficult to believe when those facts are covered over by apparenly contradictory facts suggesting the belief is not well founded. If I have faith, perhaps it is because some things seem evident to me that to not seem evident to others.

Basil Mitchell has a parable of a freedom fighter from the Second World War:
In an occupied country during the second world war, a freedom fighter meets a mysterious stranger and spends the night in deep conversation. The stranger tells the fighter that he is on the side of the resistance, even if at times he might be seen helping the enemy. They never meet alone again. The fighter's faith in the stranger is constantly tested. Sometimes he helps members of the resistance and they are grateful that he is on their side. Then the stranger is seen with German officers, going into their headquarters and attending parties with them. Sometimes he is seen in police uniform handing over patriots to the occupying forces. However the freedom fighter still trusts him. Sometimes he asks the stranger for help, and he receives it. Sometimes he asks and no help is given, but he still feels that 'the stranger knows best'. His friends in the resistance finally say, 'Well, what wouldhe have to do for you to admit that you are wrong and he is not on our side?' The partisan refuses to condemn the stranger. Sometimes his friends say that if the stranger's conduct is what he means by 'being on his side' then the sooner he switches sides the better. Despite being tempted to lose faith in the stranger, as he sometimes sees him appearing to help the enemy and sometimes not, the figher always says t himself, 'The stranger knows best.' (Source.)
On the one hand, from the point of view of the skeptical agnostic, the freedom fighter could easily be taken to be a sort of fideist -- someone who 'blindly' believes. On the other hand, from the point of view of the fighter, it could be that he 'knows' something that others do not see by virtue of having had this personal encounter with the stranger. It's possible that he may have different data. Or, it's possible that he may have no different data, but perceives the same data differently. We all know, for example, how people say the "love is blind" -- whereas it is almost the exact opposite that is the case. It is the lover who sees in the beloved what the indifferent skeptic may not see. The Baptist evangelist, Billy Graham, may wake up in the morning and see a world saturated with the handiwork of God. The French existentialist, Albert Camus, may wake up and gaze upon the same 'data' and see a world evacuated of all meaning, pointless and utterly absurd.

Why is this? Does it mean there is no objective reality, that meaning is in the eye of the beholder? No, of course not. But it may mean that the 'evidence' and 'facts' are not simply neutral 'data', but always presuppose an interpreting subject. The question, then, might be: whom do you trust? Whose understanding of life and the world seems most penetrating, insightful, and trustworthy?

Gender and Divinity

In one of our arresting dialogues many aeons ago, I wrote:
Making divine triadic relations the basis for gender content may seem perplexing to those who analyze gender scientifically. Volf's analysis may also lack cogency or persuasiveness for non-Trinitarian Christians. Nevertheless, his notion that gender is rooted in a sexed body appears to have potential explanatory power. Since God the Father evidently does not possess a corpus that is biologically sexed, it evidently follows that He no doubt transcends gender. See Volf's Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 172-176. For an alternative approach to the question of gender, see appendix [not yet numbered]."
You then offered the following rejoinder:
Nice point: and the inference is a bit like asking how a business corporation like Microsoft could possibly have any legal rights like a human person, since, unlike a human person, it has no physical hand with a pinkie on it.
In my opinion, Volf's argument that one should not ontologize gender in God because deity does not possess a sexed body is not analogous to denying legal rights to Microsoft because it does not possess a physical hand with a pinkie on it. According to Volf and other thinkers, gender appears to be rooted in a sexed body. The very concept of gender presupposes a sexed body (e.g. a corpus informed by hormones, genitalia, or chromosomes). On the other hand, it does not seem that legal rights are rooted in a sexed body. Legal rights may be rooted in human personhood; but that is not the same as contending that sexed bodies are requisite for the extension of legal rights.
Nice point, again. Analogies always work only to a point. Obviously a corporate legal 'person' is an eidetic abstraction (the adjective 'eidetic' here serving no purpose but to appeal to yo salubrious nomenclaturological appetite) and not a concrete reality, as God is. The claim Volf is making is that gender presupposes biological specification, and from that I surmise that you're wishing to infer or argue that gender cannot be specified in any other way but biologically. Would that be fair?

Again, I think Volf has a point. Human gender is certainly expressed biologically in our experience. I'm not sure that's enough to claim that its 'rooted' in biology in the sense that, say, gender differences that might express themselves in one's psyche are exclusively dependent upon biological gender differences. One would have to make that case, it seems to me, which would require further assumptions about the nature of a body and its possible relation to a mind or soul, even if one wishes to go in a holistic or non-dualistic direction.

I guess what I might contend is that the question of whether the Persons of the Godhead can be conceived of as gendered in some way might be analogous to the question of whether human minds can be conceived of as gendered in some way independently of the body. As far as the Godhead is concerned, of course, Trinitarians are stuck with one Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, whose gender is already accepted as specified, however the psycho-somatic question is settled.