This week we are talking about transgender, a topic of frequent inquiry from our listeners, and to help us, we welcome to the podcast Rob Smith, a pastor and theologian who lectures in systematic theology and ethics at Sydney Missionary and Bible College in Australia.
Rob, last time you said gender dysphoria is real; it is the experience of a real, felt distress, which some people have, when their psychological or emotional gender identity or sense of gender doesn’t match up with their biological or birth sex. Of course many Christians are agnostic here. We need to be informed so we can be careful in what we embrace or deny. So are there any common precipitating causes behind gender dysphoria?
That is a very important question and, in some ways, an obvious, important question to ask. And I have to make clear: I am not a medical doctor nor a psychologist. I am a pastor and a theologian. But I am talking with doctors and psychologists and sexologists and others about these issues, trying to come to grips as they are with this question of causation.
In it is the perhaps disappointing answer to the question. Nobody really seems to know. There are various theories out there and, in some cases, it may be easier to determine what the causes are for this particular person or that particular person. But in general it is something of a mystery. Now, having said that, the general answers or at least the ways of trying to think through an answer are simple enough. Is it nature? Is it nurture? Or is it some combination of the two? Is it determined by our hereditary and biology, or is it determined by our environment and experience, or is it some interaction?
Certainly there would be people who have tried to discover some sort of biological cause or nature component, and there are different theories that anyone can read about if they go researching on this: prenatal hormone theories, for example, or brain difference theories. But the bottom line is none of these theories are clearly supported by the evidence to date. So, that is not to say that there can’t be some sort of biological contribution to these things. But it is certainly not clear, and it is certainly not determinative.
But that suggests, I think, that the cause lies more obviously in the realm of, again, nurture or environment. There is often an interaction between these two things, between nature and nurture, as most psychologists now recognize. You can’t really separate out heredity and environment. One person has written, “biology interacts with both cultural context and personal choice,” and so it is the old chicken and egg. These things impact one another. But I think it is fairly clear that major contributors have got to line the area of environment or nurture.
This is where it becomes very case-specific. For all children going into this world, there is a sort of process of sexual labeling and differential treatment, but that goes on as people react: it is a boy; it is a girl. Therefore, dress them a certain way and give them certain gifts, and just interact on the basis of that. But children can pick out mixed signals and develop confused perceptions of gender roles and they can make assumptions. If they like a certain thing, does that mean, “I am not like the other girls or not like the other boys?” and then there can be issues of gender envy or even gender idolization, if that would be a way of talking about it.
“As human beings, God has given us a distinct body and soul, but they exist in psychosomatic unity.”
And there are all of those things that can go on for a person. And then there is also some other what you call medical, psychological conditions like, for example, Asperger’s syndrome. There is a very high correlation between girls with Asperger’s syndrome and their experience of gender dysphoria, which makes sense. If one of the features of the Asperger’s syndrome is a difficulty connecting with your social context, reading social cues, and interacting straightforwardly, then it make sense that you might still be confused about who you are and where you fit into the matrix of things.
So I wish I had simpler answers, but I think that is sort of the best we can say at this point.
Not simple at all. That point alone is good for Christians to hear. It is complex. So it forces the question: How deep is our biological gender coded into us individually? Are souls engendered? Does biology reveal the true me?
Now, we are moving into the realm of theology and philosophy and, again, it probably won’t surprise you there’s a contested field here and there are different thoughts and different answers that people will give. My view is that, as human beings, God has given us distinct body and soul, but they exist in what some theologians like to call psychosomatic unity. And so, there is integration there, or interaction there. Some philosophers talk about this as dualistic interactionism, so that it is therefore not possible just to have a body of one kind and the soul of another. The two are knit together. “You knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13), not just, “knit my body together.” The two are given by God.
Now, again, one of the interesting questions within that is, “Does our biology determine our personality, or does it simply reveal the person that God has made?” I don’t know that we really have to answer that question, because the end point is the same, that there is a congruence. We have sexed bodies and we are gendered persons, and our sex both reveals and, in large measure, determines our gender. And so, that is certainly my view.
“The resurrection of the body is going to be a transformed version of this body, but it will be a version of this body.”
Again, if you trace back the history of Christian discussion on this, you have people like Thomas Aquinas, and I think he said souls are sexless or genderless and it is only bodies that have gender and others who therefore speculate within the eschaton we will be asexual and that sort of thing. My reading of Scripture is: No, no, the resurrection of the body is going to be a transformed version of this body, but it will be a version of this body. Therefore, we should expect that we will be sexed and gendered in the world to come, even though, as Jesus says, there will be no continuance of marriage and other things. So, again, some of those things we will have to wait and see, of course.
But the simple answer, I think, to the question is: Yes, I think our bodies and souls are designed by God to speak to one another. We have male or female sex and masculine or feminine gender as a consequence.
That’s helpful. And it honors Scripture. Thank you, Rob. Tomorrow, we will pick it up here, and I’ll ask, why is transgender such a big deal for the church?