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Saskia Wendel {*}

"As Male and Female He Created Them"

Theological Anthropology Aware of 'Gender'


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 3/2009, P. 135-140
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The question of both man's and woman's respective conception of him/herself belongs indissoluble to the question about our conception of the human being. The examination of the contemporary "gender" theories is therefore an essential challenge also for theological anthropology.


"God created (...) man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Gen 1, 27). This pericope is the key sentence of the theological anthropology. The idea of man as image of God is the basis of the theologically motivated reason for the dignity of the person. At the same time it is emphasized that human beings do not exist as neuters, not as an abstract "human being", but sexually differentiated as male, as female. Accordingly, one tried to give reasons from the theology on Creation for the gender difference and as a natural condition thus directly to derive it from the divine will. The question of both man's and woman's respective conception of him/herself belongs therefore inevitably to the anthropological question of the conception of man.

However, this issue arises once again, if one concerns oneself with contemporary 'gender' theories, as they are advocated very prominently by the American philosopher Judith Butler. For these theories criticize the in their perspective too naively taken for granted conviction of the natural fact of the gender difference, i.e. of a natural gender identity (sex) in contrast to the socially constructed role identity (gender). And not only is the motif of the gender difference critically considered in these concepts, but with it also the idea of subjectivity and freedom of the individual being, i.e. basic motifs of the modern age. Here basic questions and fundamental motifs of the theological anthropology are taken up by the "gender" theories, and theologians would be ill-advised if they would not take up the challenge coming from the 'gender' theories.

The church teaching authority has early recognized the explosiveness of the "gender" theories regarding the theological anthropology. Already in 2004 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Co-operation of Men and Women in the Church and in the World" in which it mainly takes as a theme the "gender" theories (see HK, September 2004, 443 foll.). There one criticizes theories using the term "gender" in order to "eliminate differences, and to regard them as mere consequences of historical and cultural circumstances." This church criticism of "gender" theories continues up to the present and comes especially from conservative Catholic groups.



The distinction between "sex" and "gender" for a long time dominated the discourse on gender, though already Simone de Beauvoir pointed to the fact that here the dividing-line can be quite blurred, because despite biological facts one was by no means to start from a fixed gender identity which was to be interpreted as substantial; and this applies, due to the influences of culture and society, also to one's own gender identity. "A human female" [Menschenweibchen], de Beauvoir says, was still far from being a woman.


What Does "Gender" Actually Mean?

Radical constructivists like Judith Butler have radicalized this thesis and abandoned the distinction between "sex" and "gender". In their opinion gender is not set in advance by nature resp. biology, but is the result of a performative discursive practice and thus a social construction. Performative practices are speech acts characterized by the fact that they do not form a term for a reality that is prior to language, but by practising language and naming they very first produce reality. They relate to the entire field of what is called "reality", also to the body and to "gender". Now the thesis that language has performative power and constitutes reality is not a typically radical-constructivist one, it rather belongs to the common knowledge of the philosophy of language. Language is a creative ability and thus a power that forms and sets reality, an ability which belongs to beings which are aware of themselves and talented for forming language. This makes it even to something more but a mere tool for communication.

This thesis, however, becomes radical-constructivist by the fact that the distinction between a non-linguistic reality that is "outside" of the discourse and the discourse itself is abandoned. This applies to the "outer" reality as non-linguistic cognition of the individual gifted with the powers of cognition and to the non-linguistic reality as well.

Moreover, in this radical-constructivist perspective linguistic practices constitute reality not by the relation of a sign to something that is marked by this sign. Signs relate to other signs, and the meaning of the sign is determined by the constant repetition and shifting of signs within the infinite string.

Applied to the category "gender" from it follows: In the opinion of radical-constructionists there is no non-discursive "outer" reality, such as e.g. "sex", from which a culturally moulded, linguistically produced understanding of sex (gender) has to be distinguished. "Sex", interpreted in the way of radical constructivism, is thus always already "gender".


The Body must not be Reduced to its Physical Aspect Alone

But if "gender" is the effect of discursive practices, then constant shifts and repetitions of the understanding of "gender" are possible, since any identification of "gender" can, as it were, evaded by the infinity of the shift of signs.



According to that perspective the meaning of "gender" results from this permanent shift of signs, as a result of which also the meaning of "gender" shifts. Seen in this way, "gender" refers to itself and no longer to any identity prior to it.

The discovery of the so-called "linguistic turn" in philosophy is without doubt correct. Language and discourse do not only reproduce our cognition but also constitute it. And one can without doubt also agree that language does not only represent reality but also creates it. The meaning of gender is therefore also discursively produced, and so the share of "gender" in our own sex identity is to be regarded as anything but low.


As Free "Subject-Person" Image of God

It is the merit of the radical-constructivist approaches that they sharpened our awareness of this moulding and constructing of "gender" - against rashly equating e.g. roles and behaviour patterns of men and women but also the moulding of body images with natural conditions or qualities of "male" and "female". But radical-constructivist approaches are to be criticized just for the radicalization of the "linguistic turn" outlined above, especially as regards the universalization of the discourse and of the "gender" aspect, and the "body oblivion" associated with it.

However, the term "gender" is by no means necessarily to be understood in this radical-constructivist way, but then the old distinction between "sex" and "gender" has to become noticeable. As the basis of these considerations may be used a theological anthropological approach that, following a philosophical theory on awareness and freedom, develops the teaching on man as image of God and relates it to the question about the meaning of "gender".

The question about man's conception of him/herself has for a long time, both theologically and philosophically, been answered by pointing to man's nature or substance, which determines man as human being and by which in turn man proves to be the image of God. However, this anthropology which was in line with the substance ontology can already since Kant's critique of the metaphysics of substance be regarded as outdated. And at the latest since Heidegger's criticism of an essentialist understanding of existence, an anthropology oriented toward substance metaphysics is, at least in the mainstream of philosophical anthropology, regarded as a relapse into the anthropological Stone Age.

There is also the theological problem that a literal interpretation of Gen 1, 27 gives the impression that God created "finished" human being in his act of Creation, even "finished" sexually differentiated human beings. This creationist perspective contradicts scientific findings, not to mention the fact that this idea is ultimately caught up in anthropomorphism, with repercussions on the conception of God.

Here, however, the connection with certain theories on consciousness is of special importance, in which consciousness is not understood as a form of reflective self-knowledge, i.e. as practising thinking ("I'm thinking myself") but as a pre-reflective certainty about one's existence, which thus precedes every thinking but also every experience and every act of will; with the philosopher Dieter Henrich and Manfred Frank it can be called "familiarity with oneself". This familiarity cannot be produced by thinking, because the self-reflection is already dependent on the knowledge of itself at which the reflecting being already aims. This knowledge emerges not only just in the act of thinking, but is the prerequisite of the act of thinking: The pre-reflective self-certainty (pre-reflective self-awareness) is the basis of self-knowledge (reflective self-awareness) taking place in a reflective way.

The pre-reflective awareness enables the individual being to take up the perspective of the "ego". Only by means of this perspective it is possible for the 'ego' to relate to other beings, to the world. The perspective of the "ego", and connected with it the "Jemeinigkeit" of all abilities of reason ['Jemeinigkeit' - i.e. all of them belong just to me], yes, even of all performances of my life, determines thus the "being-related-to-the-world" of the being. At the same time uniqueness, singularity is given to this being by virtue of its consciousness. Nobody else can take up its perspective and its "being-related-to-the-world".

In its uniqueness the being is now subject, but here the term 'subject' does not mean some separate entity, as e.g. the terms 'being' and above all 'substance'. Rather, the term 'subject' refers to a perspective, namely that of the "ego's" singularity in "being-related-to-the-world", but not an ontological condition. Through this perspective, however, the being is torn away from its state of pure individuality. It is not an isolated individual among others, not an insignificant part of a mass, it is also no part of the material world; it is "someone" and not "something".

This difference between "something" and "someone" is often also used to distinguish between things, events and persons. Persons are distinguished by the fact that they are "somebody". The being that is aware of itself could therefore also be called 'person'. However, there a popular misunderstanding is to be cleared up. The terms "subject" and "person" do not mean the same thing.



The term person means, in contrast to the term subject, i.e. "being-in-the-world", the relation between beings, of one being to other beings; it means in general the ability of beings to relate to other persons and other things, ultimately, to what we call "world". Human beings are by virtue of consciousness always both subject and person.

It is true though that the human being as person is always already put into the midst of speech acts, into discursive practices; as a person it participates in these practices and exercises them. The entire area of discursive activities therefore becomes noticeable only at the level of the person. But it can also only occur because of the fact that the being has at its disposal the perspective of a subject, which is precedent to the discourse and which makes it possible for it to develop and exercise discursive practices. On the level of the person, however, the entire field of performative acts and social constructions develops, which e.g. radical-constructivists analyse in such a persuasive way; but on that occasion they forget that these acts are conditional on something that in turn cannot be discursively produced, because the thing for which reasons have to be given would in this way explained by itself.

Every conscious being, however, does not only have self-awareness. For just by the fact that it has self-awareness, it has still something else: freedom. As already the term 'consciousness' and with it the terms 'subject' and 'person', also the term 'freedom' does not define some 'being' or 'substance'. Moreover, freedom is not confined to the freedom of will; it rather means first a mere ability, an action ["Tathandlung"] as the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte wrote, on which the individual ability of freedom of will is based. For differently to freedom of will, this ability does not relate to individual objects, but makes freedom of will, i.e. to make decisions or to choose, possible at all. Man's self-awareness and freedom of will belong therefore inextricably together.


Consciousness, Freedom and Corporeality are to be Thought Together

Through those reflections upon the theory of consciousness the conviction of the dignity of the person can be justified, since this dignity is rooted in the uniqueness of that being which has been identified as a free subject-person. The dignity of the person can therefore at first be substantiated also autonomously, without referring to the conviction of God's existence. And it must be possible in this way to justify the conviction of the dignity of the person, because otherwise it would not really be universally valid; that is to say, otherwise it could not be recognized as valid also by those who are not "religiously musical".

However, this autonomous statement of reasons allows a theological connection resp. an interpretation from a religious perspective, which starts with the question about the reason for the uniqueness and freedom of beings. For a finite being cannot have this reason in itself. At this point the traditional doctrine on man as image of God comes into play. One can of course keep the question about the reason open. One can regard it as absurd, as relapse into bad metaphysics. One can try to answer it naturalistically and to localize the reason of consciousness to neuronal processes and say goodbye to the idea of freedom as an illusion.

However, one also can the reason, according to a religious belief, identify with an unconditional cause, ultimately with God as the ultimate Absolute. Man's consciousness, uniqueness and freedom are then to be interpreted as the Creator's gift, in this respect that God has 'portrayed' himself in the consciousness and freedom of each individual conscious being.

At the same time is also clear that God portrays himself not only in the consciousness and freedom of the individual being but also and above all in the body, because consciousness, freedom and corporeality have to be thought together. Here another traditional motif of the theological anthropology is taken up, which is significant in addition to the 'Imago Dei' doctrine: the unity of body and soul of the human person.


Preliminary remark:
In the following the author of this essay describes two aspects of the human body. For the biological, physical aspect Mrs. Wendel uses the German word 'Körper', for the personal aspect 'Leib' [der Leib ist mehr als nur Körper - the body is more than only 'corpus']. In this translation for 'Leib' is used 'body' whereas the Latin 'corpus' is used for 'Körper'.


Man's Body, Both in Physical and Personal Respect, as Image of God

Often the body is reduced to, resp. identified with its physical aspect and thus more or less understood as thing. But the body is, as the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty aptly describes, a "two-leaved being." On the one hand it is a thing among things and thus the object of perception, but on the other hand someone who touches and sees things, and is therefore not a thing. As a thing among things the body is an objectified 'corpus' to which I can give a name, which I can define, dissect and analyze. But the body is more than just a 'corpus'; it can by no means be separated from being existent and from its consciousness.

As the subject is always person, and as the person as "being-in-the-world" is always already part of discursive practices, so the body is, due to its dual structure that corresponds to the dual structure of subject and person, not only a 'corpus' but a body. Body is the 'corpus' when and insofar as the person perspective is represented by its "being-in-the-world", like the finite beings that have at their disposal the subject- and person perspective.

The 'corpus' becomes body if it becomes the object of speech acts, of performative acts. As part of discursive practices the 'corpus' is already body



and therefore subjected to all conditions and interdependences of "being-in-the-world", hence also to the power of discursive practices and to the mechanisms of construction which are connected with them.

But discursive practices can also be interpreted as part of the realization of freedom, to which conscious beings are entitled and which constitutes their dignity. They live and realize their individual life story, their individual identity, and this is not determined essentialistically, but is formed and develops just in that performance of freedom which also includes the ability to realize one's potential in different discursive practices and performative actions.

However, this self-realization does, differently to the assumption of radical-constructivism, not take place according to the conditions of a quasi-omnipotent discourse, and it does also not take place in the way of endless shifts of meaning, but it takes place in accordance with the dignity of the person, i.e. ultimately in accordance with every conscious being's uniqueness and freedom, which are marked by its subject- and person perspective and which enable human beings to produce discourses, to shape them, and to behave to them.

If beings who are aware of themselves and who as subjects and persons and by realizing their freedom are images of God, and if subjectivity and personality are expressed through the 'corpus' and through the body, then the 'corpus' or the 'corpus' that has become body is also image of God and thus expression, shape of the reality of God. The human being is "Imago Dei" not only as consciousness and freedom, but as embodied awareness and freedom, which are realized in the 'corpus' and its fundamental performances.


"Sex" Belongs to Human Beings as Subjects and as Persons

The corporeality was, inter alia, described as the ability to be open to other beings, hence as ability to relate to other human beings, marked in the perspective of the person. This implies also the aspect of desire. The desire is admittedly always desire for something or someone, but it is based on an ability which is not yet related to objects and therefore not yet determined as regards content: the ability of desire, which is connected with corporeality. Human beings can long for many things, goods, and the experience of certain events or emotions. But they can also desire other persons with whom they have a good relationship. This relationship will then get an erotic dimension, if it is also about longing for the flesh of the other person. That longing for other persons in the dimension of the body can now also be called "sexual desire". It belongs to the conscious life of fleshly beings. Only through this desire another person can erotically attract me in the world.

This desire can now be labelled with the term "sex"; and "sex", the sexual identity is then at first not yet bound to the objectified, interpreted 'corpus', but to the body and its ability to desire. However, to be male or female in the meaning of "sex" does then not yet refer to particular physical features or body images. 'Sex' is thus by no means used to describe those body images, e.g. by classifying 'corpora' as "male" and "female" ones. 'Sex' is therefore not simply identical with the sexual difference, nor is it a generic concept used to differentiate particular specimens of the human species as men and women.

However, "sex", sexual desire and the gender identity connected with it is realized in the personal relationship between the desiring ego and the coveted other being. "Sex" does therefore not only belong to the subject perspective - as ability to desire, but also to the person perspective - as a specific desire that is felt and realized in the relationship with other people. "Sex" belongs therefore not only to the human being as a subject but also as a person. But exactly here the difference between body and 'corpus' becomes again noticeable, because in the relationship with others the body is already 'corpus' with all the well-known discourse practices and design mechanisms associated with it. And precisely here begins the shift from "sex" to "gender" according to the transformation of the body as 'corpus'.

This "gender" level has now to be analyzed and on that occasion has to be pointed to certain interpretations, as e.g. "male" and "female", which are to explained by the socialization theory and the action theory. It should be noted here that in the wake of the modern age the self-image of women, especially in Western societies has considerably changed. In their majority they define themselves at least no longer as "others" of the male, but like the men as free "subject persons" and therefore vested with the same dignity and rights but also with obligations.

The same applies to men who do no longer want to live in the ruts of traditional roles. Starting from this discovery then the criticism of establishing roles or ascribing this or that nature and of the attempt to understand those roles not as 'gender' regulations, but to locate them on the level of "sex", in order to take them away from the dynamics of interpreting and planning one's life at the level of "gender" and thus to immunize them against criticism.



What does this mean for theological anthropology and the idea of man being the image of God? For the definition of man as image of God the distinction between "male" and "female" is first completely irrelevant, because each conscious being is an image of God and as such vested with an inalienable dignity, regardless of any differences which can become noticeable in the concrete life, also irrespective of the gender difference. The Creator's intention is expressed by the fact that He wanted to set as His image someone different from Him, and that He wanted to take up a relationship with this His creature, and that this relationship includes God's absolute promise to His creature that salvation and liberation is granted to him/her.

In the act of creation God has now, however, given to his image also "sex", so that it is able to desire others and can be desired by others. It is also the will of the Creator to give consciousness and freedom to His creatures, just because they are His image, so that they can, admittedly, answer their Creator for their lives but can nevertheless lead their lives self-determined and responsible, and can therefore also develop their creativity. This freedom constitutes the dignity of the creature, and does by no means inevitably lead to arbitrariness and sin. It only degenerates to an arbitrary use of freedom, if the fundamental requirement is ignored: We are to respect the dignity of every life and to feel responsible for it, so that every human being is able to realize his/her freedom and to live under humane conditions.

Also the historical realization of the freedom and uniqueness given to us belongs to the performance of that freedom. God has therefore given to us also the ability to form our life as a man, as a woman by performatively falling back also on "gender" determinations. How we in concrete terms realize the conscious life given to us and the dimension of "gender", which roles we develop here and how we change these roles is, regardless of social coinages to which we are subjected, given into our responsibility, for precisely this reason that we are free as images of God. Criterion of this way of life is for Christians the respect for every human being as image of God and the practice for which Jesus of Nazareth as the perfect image of God set an example and to which we are trying to correspond as his disciples.


    {*} Saskia Wendel (born in 1964) who in 2001 gained her doctorate and habilitation in Münster is since October 2008 Professor of Systematic Theology at the Institute of Catholic Theology at the University of Cologne. From 2003 to 2006 she was professor of systematic philosophy with a focus on metaphysics and philosophy of religion at the Theological Faculty and the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Tilburg, Netherlands, and from 2007 to 2007 Fellow at the Max Weber College of the University of Erfurt.


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