Wednesday, October 24, 2007

In the Image and Likeness of God

Today’s reflection focuses on Genesis 1:27. (The following is the King James translation - see the note at the end of this essay):

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

Just for flavor, here is the Douay-Rheims version:

And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them.

Both translations are toward the “literal” end of the translation spectrum, and both grate on modern ears, in different places – “created he him” in the KJV, and “to his own image” instead of “in his own image” in DR.

And, from a "literal translation" point of view, I would give the award to DR for keeping to the literality of the Latin in the Vulgate:

et creavit Deus hominem ad imaginem suam ad imaginem Dei creavit illum masculum et feminam creavit eos

What I remember from the Latin I was taught in the seminary, ad definitely comes across as "to" rather than "in," as much as the "to" might grate on the ear in English. On the other hand, I would probably render hominem in this context as "humans" or "human beings" or even "people" rather than the "man" used in both KJV and DR. One might argue that "man" was intended by the KJV and Douay translators in 1611 and 1609 to mean all humans and not just men - though the 1776 American Declaration of Independence, in stating "all men are created equal" wasn't really interpreted as including women, until 1920 when the Constitution was amended to allow woment ro vote, or 1964, when women were included in the Civil Rights Act of that year. I doubt that the translators in the early 1600's were any more enlightened than Thomas Jefferson.

On the far end of the spectrum are the “dynamic” translations that try to convey the meaning and capture the spirit, if not using the exact words of the original. One example of this is the Contemporary English Version (CEV):

So God created humans to be like himself; he made men and women.

It is interesting what happens when one gets farther from the literal translations and deeper into the idea of “interpreting” what the translator thinks the writer (or earlier translator) may have meant. The CEV version reads very nicely – it’s in modern English, but it doesn’t convey the meaning that I read in the more literal KJV and Douay.

But let’s return to the message, and the reflection – those more literal translations emphasize how all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. This is so important that it is repeated two times. And then we hear that we are created “male and female” in this image of God – that is, that each one of us is both “male and female” – it’s clear, at least from what I understand, that it is “male and female” and not “male or female.”

Despite the images we see of God portrayed as an elderly gentleman with a long white beard (perhaps the most famous image being the Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican), we actually have a God who is all-male and all-female, as well as being (at least for Trinitarians) a Triune Being, one God in Three Persons: Father, Son and Spirit. (Some scholars posit the idea that it is possible that even more Persons than the official three being supported by the Hebrew term Elohim, and include Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) and Holy Light (Santa Lucia) as “Persons” – even “female aspects” of God – but these are usually seen as being part of the Holy Spirit, and of course, then one gets close to the Roman idea of a corporate God, a Jupiter Optimus Maximus, into which all the various “gods” of myth, legend, and religion were being seen as aspects or persons.).

Male and Female.

Aside from the Taoist Yin-Yang and the Jungian animus/anima concepts, supporting the idea that every man has a “little bit of woman” inside and every woman has a “little bit of man” inside, the experience of many transsexual and transgender people seem to confirm the idea as well.

Even if we look to the mystery of fetal development, we can see that as a baby develops in utero, the early development is not sex-differentiated. Both “male” and “female” embryos have rudimentary sex organs that develop from the same cells, and in the same way, up to a point, and each initially has Wolffian and Mullerian “systems” in development. It is only after a few weeks that these cells develop into testes, ovaries (or ovotestes, in some cases), and prostate or uterus (or in some cases, neither), and a penis or clitoris (and yes, sometimes the development is something else). In most cases, the Mullerian system of ducts will disappear in boys, and the Wolffian system will degenerate in girls – but not always and not always entirely.

One resolution of the first Creation story with the second (the “Adam and Eve” story) is that Adam, as originally created in God’s image, was “male and female.” In the second story, this “male and female” Adam was put into a deep sleep while God separated him out into two people, Adam and Eve. The Hebrew story here is surprisingly similar in ideation to a creation story mentioned in Plato’s Symposium, attributed to Aristophanes, which also postulates a sort of combined “male-and-female” being as the initial creation, and posits that they were divided in two, though the Greek version shows a greater allegorical understanding of booth the nature of Eros and the idea that there are different sexual orientations. Not only are there “male and female” people being split in Aristophanes’ story, there are “male-and-male” and “female-and-female” people as well. On the splitting, though, each half is busy seeking its other half, whether that other half is same-sex or opposite sex. One might posit that the bible story covers the majority, but doesn’t necessarily cover everyone, if one is meditating on sexual orientation.

But we’re thinking about sex assignment and gender identity, and how most people see gender identity (or more specifically sex identity, as my intention is to refer to the feeling of “rightness” in being a man or a woman – something that is a given for those who are cissexual).

I take great comfort in knowing that I am, like everyone else, created in the image and likeness of God. I have had the experience of at least trying to assimilate as a man in accordance with the gender expected by society based on my birth-shaped genitals, while never feeling right in that assimilation (indeed, it was the source of a great deal of frustration, anxiety, and chronic depression usually referred to as gender dysphoria). I have the experience of being a woman, since starting the transition process, and feeling correct and comfortable with myself in this experience, finally not having to put on an act to be who I am.

I knew that I “should have been a girl” even when I was four years old. In my case, being created by God as “male and female” is perfectly natural, even if it is not the usual experience. My body developed with male genitals and a brain that is in part female (See Zhou J.-N, Hofman M.A, Gooren L.J, Swaab D.F (1997) A Sex Difference in the Human Brain and its Relation to Transsexuality. IJT 1,1, , reprinted from NATURE, 378: 68-70 (1995)). My underlying self-identity has always been consistent with that of being female even if my genitals were shaped differently. This is true even though I spent a very long time trying to deny that identity, and to construct a male “persona” to hide it. Early in my transition, I tried to continue to deny my essential identity, and for a time felt that I might have been “bigendered.” It was only through the process of resolving conflicts between my real feelings and those of the constructed persona I had built, that I realized that the real me was there all the time, and that I spent many years suffering by trying to keep myself in denial.

When confronted with the idea of transsexuals or gay people, many Christians feel a conflict. This is best noted by the Catholic Church’s Catechism references for how to deal with homosexuality.

2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

The Catholic Church, at lease, takes the position that homosexuality can be “deeply seated,” though the assertion that homosexual acts are contrary to natural law is clearly incorrect on the basis of an understanding of science and nature that is more advanced than the writings of Aristotle. For a really wonderful exposition of scientific research see: EVOLUTION'S RAINBOW. Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People; by Joan Roughgarden, University of California Press, 2004.

Still, there is a conflict between the “Under no circumstances can they be approved” in Para. 2357 and the “They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” in Para. 2358. The tension between these two paragraphs often underscores the Catholic Church’s approach to gay, lesbian, transsexual and transgender people. Under no circumstance can the Church be seen as condoning homosexuality, while at the same time the Church is compelled to accept gay and transgender people, and asserts that there should be no unjust discrimination against us.

This explains at least some of the actions of Catholic hierarchy. I was asked to leave my parish church in Valhalla when I started transition. At the time (August 1999), the associate pastor of Holy Name of Jesus, Rev. David Clifford, met with me and told me that if I stayed wt Holy Name, that I would be creating a “scandal in the Church.” He also said that I should go to some other parish where no one knew me as Paul. Doing so would avoid the conflict between “condoning” the transsexual and not “unjustly discriminating” against me.

The same sort of thing happened to a gay couple I know, Michael Sabatino and Robert Voorhees. They sang in a choir at a Catholic parish church in the Bronx. It was not a problem to the Church that they were gay. It really wasn’t even a problem that they got married in Canada. But when the news media covered the marriage, all of a sudden there was a “scandal in the Church.” The pastor told them that they couldn’t sing in the choir anymore, as it would seem too much like the Church “condoning” them. They now sing in a choir at an Episcopal church in Westchester.

Similarly, reports of the way the Diocese of Albany treated a retired Catholic priest who was a transsexual in transition, Rev. Denise Brennan, surfaced after the matter was investigated by a conservative Catholic publication, The Wanderer, and then got picked up by the New York Post. Initially, the diocese was supportive of Denise Brennan’s medical needs, but when the media picked up on it, steps were taken to distance the diocese from the transitioning Father Brennan. Once again, the attempt was made to be “accepting with respect, compassion and sensitivity” that got derailed when it started to look like “condoning” and “creating a scandal in the Church.

Many of the evangelical fundamentalist Christianist types who maintain a business of treating gay and trans people like lepers in our society make it clear that they don’t believe that transsexual or gay people can be “natural.” They believe that who we are is a matter of choice, and that we are all choosing to be sinners. So they believe their strident condemnations are a good thing and that this will gain them heaven, when it’s pretty clear that is not the case, and that if they don’t repent, they will almost certainly find themselves quite surprised to be numbered among the Goats on the day of Judgment (see my previous entry, and Mt. 25).

For me, I know that God created me as I am for a reason. I may not know that reason, but I am striving to try to make the world a little better place tomorrow than it is today. I am not junk – God does not create junk. I am special – perhaps closer to that initial creation than most cissexual people can experience. My very existence threatens them because they have never had the occasion to question their gender identity in any way, and are uncomfortable with people like me for whom the experience of gender dysphoria was much more than merely “a trial.”

Many gay and trans people, finding themselves rejected by conservative Christianists, themselves will reject religion. Others will find a denomination that does not treat them as evil. Our voices should be heard – if only to help bring the Christianists to the possibility of averting their assured eternal damnation.

NOTE: When I quote from the Bible in this blog, I will usually be using the King James version unless I note otherwise, because that is the version most of the six-day creationist evangelical fundamentalist Christianists use. With my Roman Catholic background, I suppose I should really use Douay-Rheims. In any event, these are both translations of earlier Latin Bible translations (though true for the 1609 Douay, in the mid-1700’s a Catholic bishop made some “corrections” to Douay based on then-available early Greek and Hebrew manuscripts), which are themselves one or two translations removed from the source languages. Muslims, at least, understand that translations lose something, and insist that their Holy Qu’ran is only accurate in Arabic. With the more modern discoveries of ancient texts (including but not limited to the Dead Sea Scrolls), modern scripture scholars have found that even St. Jerome’s Vulgate (the official Catholic Bible version, in Latin) is in many places a rather shoddy translation . Oh well – we work with what we have, I guess.

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