“But they’re BORN that way!” my Twitter interlocutor tweet-shouted, referring to gays and lesbians. The time was the height of the online debate about gay marriage, when many of us were linking to pieces articulating the idea that marriage was a natural institution between a man and a woman. Since then—early 2015, if I recall correctly, just before Anthony Kennedy made “gay marriage” a reality (so to speak) in Obergefell v. Hodges—the sexual revolution has proceeded rapidly, as the transgender juggernaut replaced gay rights as the burning issue du jour. Whether the presenting issue is homosexuality or transgenderism, the fundamental issue is the very concept of identity in our postmodern moment, something which the postmodern turn made possible, and indeed required.
A brief rehearsal of intellectual history is in order, to remind us how we came to this point. Franklin Le Van Baumer (1913-90) provided a simple, helpful division of Western civilization into three periods. The first is the Age of Faith, exemplified by Plato, in which the highest God superintends metaphysical reality above visible reality. This Age runs from the Greek philosophers through medieval Christianity, St. Augustine being informed by Neoplatonism and St. Thomas being informed in turn by St. Augustine. In this Age, God and metaphysical reality is stable, even if the visible world is a realm of illusory flux; Man is what he is. The second is the Age of Reason, epitomized by Francis Bacon, the man of science par excellence, in which (with a major assist from Descartes) empirical reality and Enlightenment reason located in the mind begin to divorce (and with that so do body and mind). Nevertheless, whether one is an empiricist or a rationalist, reality is regarded as stable—whether empirical or metaphysical—and Man is what he is.
But the third Age is the Age of Anxiety, with Friedrich Nietzsche as the prototype. Nietzsche was happy to point out the problems with Enlightenment conceptions of Reason, unraveling their internal contradictions in a way anticipating later French deconstruction. For Nietzsche, life isn’t fundamentally Apollonian but Dionysian. Apollo, son of Zeus, was the god concerned with reason, order, and logic, while Dionysius, another son of Zeus, was the god of drink, dance, sex, and madness. (Nietzsche often gets a bad rap; he was observing more than prescribing, and while “God is dead” is one of his recurring themes, in his poem “The Parable of the Madman” he has the eponymous character retort, “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”—the churches of Nietzsche’s day were often near empty.)
And of course intellectual history is tied to history: ideas have consequences, but events also give birth to ideas. What Nietzsche did philosophically two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the atom bomb did culturally: people on the ground came to distrust the institutions of religion and science. With religion and reason discredited, men and women turned to the passions. And this Age in which we now live, centered on the passions, has today become a Gnostic empire of desire. Gnostic, in that bodies have no meaning but are mere matter to be manipulated, problems to be solved; empire, in that the juggernaut of the sexual revolution is establishing itself as a totalizing ideology in culture, politics, and law; and desire, in that most men and women today seek nothing higher than the fulfillment of their felt passions.
This is what popular postmodernity has become. Theoretical postmodernity powers it at the elite levels, operating with a vision that sees the human person as a bundle of desires to be actualized at will, and to frustrate that actualization is an act of violence. Self-violence, if someone (say, a Christian with same-sex attraction) endeavors to live a life of chastity, or discriminatory violence towards others, if someone dare suggest that others ought to live in accord with what nature, reason, and religion teach.
In the wake of Obergefell, Sherif Girgis summed up well the culturo-political problem of rooting identity in felt sexuality:
It’s not that the New Gnostics [the sexual revolutionaries pushing the gay and now transgender agenda] are an especially vindictive bunch. It’s that a certain kind of coercion is built into their view from the start. If your most valuable, defining core just is the self that you choose to express, there can be no real difference between you as a person, and your acts of self-expression; I can’t affirm you and oppose those acts. Not to embrace self-expressive acts is to despise the self those acts express. I don’t simply err by gainsaying your sense of self. I deny your existence, and do you an injustice. For the New Gnostic, then, a just society cannot live and let live, when it comes to sex. Sooner or later, the common good—respect for people as self-defining subjects—will require social approval of their self-definition and -expression.
More recently Ryan Anderson pointed out “The Philosophical Contradictions of the Transgender Worldview,” observing that activists
claim that the real self is something other than the physical body, in a new form of Gnostic dualism, yet at the same time they embrace a materialist philosophy in which only the material world exists. They say that gender is purely a social construct, while asserting that a person can be “trapped” in the wrong gender. They say that there are no meaningful differences between man and woman, yet they rely on rigid sex stereotypes to argue that “gender identity” is real, while human embodiment is not. They claim that truth is whatever a person says it is, yet they believe there’s a real self to be discovered inside that person. They promote a radical expressive individualism in which people are free to do whatever they want and define the truth however they wish, yet they try ruthlessly to enforce acceptance of transgender ideology.
Of course such a worldview will be self-contradictory, because it’s rooted in an intellectual and cultural movement that rejects reason itself as contradictory and oppressive. Perhaps the irony would be lost on activists, but they’ve progressed to the point that they employ the “transgender unicorn”—an imaginary, non-human entity—to illustrate the dynamics of transgenderism. Sex (better than “gender,” which best belongs in the realm of linguistics) is an intrinsic part of the human person, but the unicorn reveals that transgender activists in good Gnostic fashion have transcended the human person. It’s a false transcendence, rooted in ideology, not reality.
We Christians also have an identity, and Jesus Christ already brought the human person to true transcendence 2000 years ago. As grace builds on nature, in Baptism our natural bodies and our souls are united to Jesus Christ and we are made to share in the very life of the Trinity. In Baptism, writes St. Paul, “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” and so “[w]e were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3b–4, quoted in the Catechism at §1227).
In a great grafting, then, we are “in Christ” and Christ is “in you,” that is, us (a pair of St. Paul’s favorite phrases found throughout his letters). We share identity with Christ. Grace builds on nature, and so we remain who we are by race, by sex, by upbringing, by social location, by personality—we’re not destroyed, as in Gnostic transgenderism—but above all we also share the existence of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ to the point that St. Paul can write, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the fidelity of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, my translation).
Although the incoherence of the ideology of the sexual revolution is shown as activists present claims of convenience depending on the moment, as Anderson points out, once somebody identifies in a sexually revolutionary way—gay or trans—activists will claim that the felt identity in question is immutable. In religious liberty debates they then assume, and claim, that religious identity is something chosen and thus mutable. So while those who identify as gay or trans have that as their fundamental, immutable, unquestionable identity, the reverse is the case for us Christians. In their view, we need to change our beliefs to get with the times and accept the sexual revolution lest we do violence to the very identity and existence of sexual Others.
And so the World of whose hostility Jesus Christ warned (see John 15:18–19) wants us to deny our identity, our very selves. We are supposed to surrender the cosmology of Genesis 1–2, with the image of God as male and female and marriage and procreation as its crowning and continuation, which Jesus himself, the Creator on earth, affirmed in Matthew 19:3–9, for a whole new cosmology that denies the sexual complementarity at the heart of creation.
Indeed, a 1993 editorial in the progressive publication The Nation asserted that “gay people…have been forced to invent a complete cosmology.” Rod Dreher, reflecting on that assertion, wrote,
Gay marriage signifies the final triumph of the Sexual Revolution and the dethroning of Christianity because it denies the core concept of Christian anthropology. In classical Christian teaching, the divinely sanctioned union of male and female is an icon of the relationship of Christ to His church and ultimately of God to His creation. This is why gay marriage negates Christian cosmology, from which we derive our modern concept of human rights and other fundamental goods of modernity. Whether we can keep them in the post-Christian epoch remains to be seen.
And so we’re really dealing with conflict of cosmologies, a revisionist, revolutionary Gnostic cosmology on one hand, and the traditional Judeo-Christian cosmology on the other, and in that conflict we are supposed to commit a sort of suicide.
But we cannot be asked to surrender our convictions, because we are convinced they concern our very identity. Jesus Christ, himself the Creator (see John 1:3), is our identity, indeed our origin and destiny. As such it’s not really true that we simply choose to be Christians, the way one joins a club or chooses a university, though the secular mindset assumes religious belief is chosen for irrational reasons and thus can (and should) be unchosen for rational reasons. Reflecting in particular on religious liberty, Matthew Franck observes,
Why should religion, and the freedom of religion, have a distinctive and special status in political life? The answer begins with a fact that will appear to contradict something I said earlier, when I characterized religious communities as voluntary associations. In the sense that they should be understood as freely entered into, and freely exited, that was a true description. Yet at bottom, religion as an individual experience is in some sense non-voluntary. As the fathers of the Second Vatican Council said in Dignitatis Humanae, the 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom, “the truth . . . makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.” Some 180 years earlier, James Madison, in his famous “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” said that “the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men.” In each of these great documents of religious freedom there is a recognition that our belief cannot be compelled because it is compelled already, by our own best grasp of the truth. In this respect, religion is not so much chosen as it is accepted, as a truth one has discovered or has learned.
Put differently, most religious people don’t simply take a leap of faith, but in their journey have found on rational grounds their religion to be true.
In sum, if identity is a matter of self-definition, then our identity as Christians baptized into Jesus Christ is every bit as valid as every other claimed identity out there. And yet the Church must not reduce itself to another identity group seeking power among, over, and against others. Rather, the Church is true locus of human community (as it alone restores fallen creatures to the Creator of all things) that will judge angels and rule the world (see 1 Corinthians 6:2a and 3a), once again, as in Eden. We will become once more the glorious stewards of creation the Creator ordained us to be.
The water of Baptism is indeed thicker than the blood of soil, race, and nation and certainly thicker than competing cosmological claims based on self-perception. Our identity is Christian, even Jesus Christ. We are reborn this way.
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