Gender and the Divine Icon

Douglas P. McManaman
May 8, 2021
Reproduced with Permission

After a brief introduction to the first story of Creation, one of my Confirmandi asked whether to be created in the image and likeness of God, that is, in the image of “intellect and will” (mind and heart), means that we are free to choose our gender and sexuality. I was caught off guard by the question and other related questions that were asked, for such questions are not typically on the minds of people that age. Evidently, gender ideology is increasing its reach into younger and younger minds. What I would like to do here is offer a straightforward explanation as to why such ideology is inconsistent with a Catholic and biblical understanding of reality and, more specifically, of the human person. Let us begin at the beginning.

One of the fundamental truths asserted through the vehicle of the first story of creation in Genesis is that there are two ways to be man ( adam ): a male way and a female way ( zakar and neqebah ).

Then God said: Let us make human beings ( adam ) in our image ( zelem ), after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth. God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male ( zakar ) and female ( neqebah ) he created them. (Gn 1, 26-27)

There is quite a bit packed into these few lines. Firstly, the Hebrew word for “image” is zelem , which refers to a picture or statue. The corresponding Greek word is eikon, from which is derived the English word “icon”. An icon, in the art of Byzantine iconography, is a representation, but this word “representation” means much more than a simple depiction. An icon is believed to bring about a re-presenting, that is, a making present in the here and now of the person who is absent. To be created in the image ( zelem ) of God is to be an icon whose fundamental role is to make present or mediate the divine.

However, adam is both zakar and neqebah . These two Hebrew words imply relation to one another. The one cannot be understood without the other; zakar and neqebah imply an “existing towards one another”, for zakar (male) means “the one who has a tip” and neqebah (female) means “the one who is punctured”. The complementarity of the sexes is clearly implied; for each one individually is procreatively incomplete, but together, in the act of sexual union, they become reproductively one organism.

But more to the point, man and woman together are iconographic representations of God. They are icons of God not merely in Himself, considered in Himself apart from creation, but in His generous act of creating. The reason is this: it belongs to a mother to receive the seed of new life into her womb, to conceive it, nurture and eventually give birth to that new life, but it belongs to a father to transmit that seed. Creation is woman, because creation receives, for all creatures have a received existence. But it is God who imparts the act of existing to created beings. And so God is pre-eminently Father. But, according to the Genesis text, it is not the male ( zakar ) by himself who is the image ( zelem/eikon ) of God, nor is it the female ( neqebah ) by herself who is the image of God; both of them together ( adam ) constitute the divine icon. And so God in His active generosity, in His effusive act of communicating the goodness of existence to creatures, is re-presented in the icon of male and female.

The first mitzvah (commandment) is found in this account: “God blessed them and God said to them: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth” (Gn 1, 28). Again, man and woman are, together, the divine icon, the re-presentation of God who creates out of the inexhaustible abundance of his goodness. Man and woman (humanity) are called to exercise a royal or kingly priesthood, that is, they are called to be a mediator of God’s creative generosity by communicating the goodness of human existence to others, that is, to love others into existence. The family is a priestly and iconographic phenomenon--and of course, it is Christ who restores this royal priesthood, lost through sin, in his redemption of humanity (1 Pt 2, 9).

What this means in the end is that the two genders, male and female, are iconographic, and there are only two genders because ultimately reality can only be divided into two: God and creation--God as the giver of existence, and creation (mother), which receives from God all that it is.

Moreover, God is love, and His love is made manifest in what He has created. But the ultimate meaning of creation, including every creature that is a part of creation, is discovered in relation to its origin, namely God, just as the ultimate meaning of a novel is found in its origin, namely its author and the context in which he lives. In the same way, human existence is relational. What this means is that I only really discover who I am in relation to the ‘other’ who is not me , and so I only really uncover the mystery of who I am through love, through the generosity of an effusive giving of the self, as well as the free reception of the love of the other. As we read in the second account of creation: “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gn 2, 18). In other words, the human person has a radical need for others, a need to love and to be loved. However, it is not enough that the ‘other’ be ‘other than me’; it is necessary for that ‘other’ to be my equal: “The man gave names to all the tame animals, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals; but none proved to be a helper suited to the man” (Gn 2, 20). They were not suitable, because they are not his equal. And so, “the Lord God cast a deep sleep on the man, and while he was asleep, he took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. The Lord God built the rib that he had taken from the man into a woman. When he brought her to the man, the man said: “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gn 2, 21-23).

Woman is ‘of the same substance’, taken from a place equidistant from the head and the foot, namely his side, and thus she is his equal. It is in the giving up of their own self-directed, independent and self-sufficient lives in order to become part of a larger reality (marriage) that they discover who they really are. In other words, it is through a relinquishing of one’s independence that one discovers one’s freedom, just as it is through a losing of one’s self that one finds oneself (Mt 10, 39). What they discover is their iconographic nature.

But what is particularly noteworthy here is that the creation of the woman occurs while the man is asleep. In other words, he had nothing to do with the coming to be of the woman. The basic assertion here is that she is not a human construct, but a divine construct. A human construct is the product of the creative imagination and is not man’s equal; products are always inferior in dignity to their producer. I do not discover myself in that which is inferior to me, but in that which is equal to and other than myself. In short, male and female He created them, not us; male and female are not human constructs but have a profoundly religious meaning, an iconographic significance. The liquidation of this duality, the attempt to splinter it into a multiplicity of pieces is a modern form of iconoclasm; it is an obscuring of the significance of this icon, if not an attempt to destroy it.

Dualism, Individualism, and Gender Theory

This modern form of iconoclasm--gender ideology--is really the result of a number of philosophical strands that can be difficult to fully unravel. There are two stands, however, that I’d like to briefly call attention to. The first strand that plays a significant role in gender ideology is philosophical dualism, which we see in early Greek thought (i.e., Socrates and Plato) and which was resurrected again in the 17th century by Rene Descartes. Dualism splits the individual into two distinct substances: a material substance (the body) and an immaterial or spiritual substance (the soul), and it is the immaterial soul or mind, not the body, that is regarded as the true self.

Dualism, however, is entirely incompatible with the biblical understanding of the human person. The reason is that man is a unity of spirit and matter; he is one, not two. To be human is to be “from the earth” ( humous ). Matter is an essential aspect of material substance, and man is essentially material. The soul is not a substance, but a principle of a single living substance, namely the life principle that makes matter living. It is not the soul that is inside the body; rather, it is the body that is inside the soul--for there is no “body” without the soul. According to classic Hebrew thought, you are your body. The Hebrew word for living body is basar , which is translated as 'flesh', which refers to the whole living man, that is, the total person. Contrary to dualism, “I” am not other than my flesh. Hence, I am male precisely because my body is male, and she is entirely female precisely because her body is female. We don’t determine our gender; rather, it is determined for us, like so much else in our lives. But our freedom consists in our ability to freely accept and embrace, or reject and rebel against, all that determines us (our limitations, our gifts and lack thereof, our environment, inherited traits, etc.).

And this takes us to another strand that runs through this particular ideology, namely, Sartrean Individualism. For Jean Paul Sartre, man is a “pour-soi” (for self, a conscious existent)--as opposed to an “en-soi” (in itself, i.e., an unconscious thing). Man is a pure existent without an intelligible nature or essence--this is what Sartre means when he says that “existence precedes essence”. Man is totally free to determine “what he is”. He determines his essence by the free choices that he makes. And so there is no prior human nature or essence which man must learn to live in accordance with; rather, freedom is absolute in that we determine our nature by our choices. And so there is no “humanity” as such, and thus there is no universal moral law, no natural law, to which human beings ought to freely conform. Traditionally, a morally good act is one that promotes the fullness of one’s nature. But there is no human nature, according to Sartre; it is the individual who determines “what he is”. Sartre is fully aware that on the basis of these principles, a person may do whatever he pleases--but, Sartre warns, one must be willing to deal with the consequences of one’s freely chosen acts. Strictly speaking, however, there is no such thing as a “crime against humanity”, and the reason is that there is no humanity, no universal human nature of which each individual human is an instance. Each existent determines his own nature.

According to Sartre, all relationships between human beings are characterized by conflict; for as one “pour-soi” gazes at another “pour-soi”, he objectifies him and thereby reduces him to an “en-soi” (an in itself, an unconscious thing or object). The other resists this reduction of himself to an “en-soi” by gazing back at the other, reducing him to an “en-soi”. Hence, the conflict at the heart of all human relationships. Love is not possible in this scheme of things. Ultimately, hell is other people (Cf. No Exit). The “pour-soi” struggles to maintain himself, but to do so is destined to fail. In this Sartrean framework, I am most fully myself the more I escape the influence of others. But as I choose to be the person I will to be, the more I fill up my “nothingness” and become an “en-soi” (a determinate thing). Yet I cannot help but choose. In this framework, no one may tell me that I ought to choose this way or that way, or that I have a duty to choose this, that, or the other thing. What “ought” to be done has meaning only within the framework of an already established “essence” that I have chosen for myself. The duties that belong to the essence of another may not belong to that which I have determined for myself, and so I have no obligations, because there are no universal obligations or precepts rooted in a universal human nature. I simply have the right to make myself into the person I have chosen to become.

Concluding Thoughts

It should be obvious how this Sartrean Individualism, which pervades gender ideology, is completely consistent with Sartre’s atheism and utterly inconsistent with the Judeo-Christian understanding of the human person. Man is more than an individual; he is a person with a determinate social nature. A human person is not a “for-self”, but a “for another”. Hell is not other people, but absence, isolation and loneliness; heaven is an entering into Trinitarian communion and the communion of saints. Without other people, I remain a dilapidated fragment of what I can be and am meant to be. Human persons are profoundly limited, specifically by matter, and thus by time, place, and sense perception, but these limits are not a curse; they are my freedom, for they allow me to depend on the goodness of others--they allow us to depend on one another. Furthermore, man is not completely and entirely free; rather, his freedom is limited by limited options, the limits of human nature, and a geographic environment within a specific period of history. However, man is not “determined”; for his dignity consists precisely in the fact that he is created in the image and likeness of God, in the image of knowledge and love (mind and heart). He can make free choices, ones that will either destroy him, or choices that will perfect him. Although I cannot change that which determines me, I can freely choose how I am going to relate to all that determines me.

Moreover, I am not free until I am bound (Karl Jaspers), that is, bound by responsibilities and commitments rooted in a nature I did not choose for myself. As a male, I am able to exercise a ‘fatherhood’. My perfection lies in embracing that masculinity and freely choosing to love like a father, and in so doing mediate the love of God who is pre-eminently father. As a female, one is able to exercise a ‘motherhood’. Her perfection lies in embracing her own femininity and choosing to love like a mother. In so doing, she mediates the kind of ‘motherhood’ that exists in God, which according to St. Maximillian Kolbe, is the Holy Spirit, who delights in the union of Father and Son and Who is that union. A woman mediates the love of creation redeemed, the motherhood of the Church for whom Christ the Bridegroom is everything. In so doing, they live as icons, mediating God who would otherwise be absent, and a world in which God is absent is a world of darkness. Gender ideology may only be superficially about tolerance and acceptance; at a deeper level it may be an attack on the fundamental vocation of the human person to be a light in the darkness, a mediator of the divine generosity.