Sermon from February 24: Undoing Duality

Undoing Duality

Epiphany VII; February 24, 2019

Genesis 2:18-25

In June 2016 a circuit court judge in Multnomah County, Oregon decreed that legally Jamie Shupe was neither male nor female, but non-binary. Jamie's birth certificate was changed appropriately and Jamie uses the pronoun "they," not "he" nor "she."[1] I first heard about Jamie on a podcast ("Hidden Brain") about gender stereotyping and started thinking about this sermon then. When the judge made her ruling on Jamie's behalf, I imagine there were some preachers who were denouncing it: "God made us male and female, not male, female, and non-binary!"

I could have used Genesis 1:27 for today's sermon – "God made them male and female" – but there is greater richness in the story of the creation of Eve. Both, however, reinforce that my imaginary preacher's point, so let's reflect on that a bit. And in doing so, I'll let you know a little more about how I read the Bible.

Then the LORD God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone." The ensuing story seems almost comical: God experiments with what would be a suitable companion for Adam before finally getting around to making Eve. But many of the Bible's stories have a humorous edge, and I'm sure the story-teller wanted us to enjoy the picture of God making things and bringing them to Adam to be named, and God saying, "Hmm; that's not quite right either." If God had brought the dog to Adam as a companion, I wonder if God would have stopped there…

There are two hints in the story, I think. One is obvious to all of us: that no matter how wonderful our relationships with non-human animals, in general human beings are intended to have relationships with other human beings. Most scholars do not take this story to mean that unless you are married you are not fulfilling your calling as a human being. Not all of us are right for marriage. But scholars do tend to agree that this and Genesis 1:27 both make clear that we are only fully human when we are in relationship with one another.

The other hint is more subtle and only suggests itself if you read Hebrew. Before the creation of woman, the human creature is referred to as adam, which means "human being" in the general sense. It is, of course, also the source of the name Adam. In Genesis 2:23, when the woman is created, then the creature formerly called adam is instead called ish, which means "male human being." In former times, when we would use the word "man" generically to refer to all human beings, then adam meant "man" in the generic sense and ish meant "man" in the specific sense. In other words, the human creature in the first part of the story seems to be non-gendered; after the creation of Female, then the creature becomes Male. That suggests to me that although our gender-identity is significant to who we are as individuals, it really only matters in terms of how we relate to others. There is no "male" without "female."

But that still leaves us in a binary situation. So to come clean with you about how your Pastor reads the Bible: I have to keep in mind that people's thinking has changed over time. The stories in the Bible don't change – and shouldn't change – but the background for understanding them changes. St. Augustine set the understanding of Genesis that has dominated Christian thought for centuries, but it wasn't the same understanding as the early story-teller who circulated the story of Adam and Eve. And our background for understanding has changed since St. Augustine.

It would be wrong to say that until recently human beings understood everything as duality: male and female. Because there have always been exceptions: people who had the organs of both, people who felt themselves to be neither, and so forth. But until recently, such persons were considered either monsters or sacred.

Those of a certain age have experienced a lot of change. Sex roles believed to be traditional (such as male and female roles in dating and in the household) were undone. The expectation that the only legitimate sexual love was between male and female has been undermined. We struggle with the expectation that your biological sex and your emotional gender are the same, and many of us are okay hearing statements such as, "I felt like a man in a woman's body." And then there is this question of dual gender: Jamie Shupe was born male, by the time of their discharge from the Marines was registered as female, but three years ago was declared non-binary. We are living in an age of "male, female, and other…"

So I have to ask myself: the writers of the Bible assumed that everyone was either male or female, and any variation from that was simply a fluke or wrong. I do not assume that; I assume that human beings are more complex than that. I assume that the overwhelming majority of us are male or female, have a gender-identity that matches our biological sex, and are predominantly heterosexual. The majority, but not all of us, and that this diversity is good. So what do I do? Do I decide that the writers of the Bible assumed correctly and try to change my thinking to something more traditional? Do I simply reject the Bible? Or do I struggle to understand the stories of the Bible with a different set of assumptions?

Here's an analogy. The writers of the Bible assumed that the Earth is stationary and the Sun orbits the Earth. That's the way things look: if you stand outside for a couple of hours, you will see the Sun move across the sky. And you don't feel the Earth moving. If you were in a car doing 60 miles per hour, you would feel it. Surely if the Earth were turning at about 1,000 miles per hour, as they say, you would feel it. Well, we know that isn't the case, and we know why, but we also know why the ancients assumed it to be true. So when the Psalmist sings about the Sun rising from its bed, running across the sky, and returning to its bed for the next circuit (Psalm 19) we don't say: Well, that must be right and the Earth doesn't orbit the Sun. And we also don't say: I reject the Bible. Instead we understand the poem differently, given we understand the relationship between the Earth and the Sun differently.

And so that is what I do with the story of Adam and Eve. I'm not going to reject the story and say I can't believe the Bible. And I'm not going to say that the biological and emotional understanding that generated this story is absolute and we moderns have to get in line with it. Instead I will ask: given that I don't think in binary terms, what do I make of the story? And my understanding goes back to the first line: It is not good for the adam – the human being – to be alone.

Ah, but why is it okay to undo duality, to say that it's okay to change our understanding? That's a key question, and one that I can answer only by analogy. I will say that not everything we moderns come up with is right, of course: there is still more insight into what it means to be human in the Bible than in your psychology textbook. But thinking people will pay attention to what research tells us is true. Here are my analogies.

Sure, Genesis 1 says God made us dual, but it also says that God made us in the image of God. God is three, so if our humanity reflects the image of God, shouldn't we have three genders? Or if I want to be less literal, can I not believe that just as God is both singular and plural, so humanity is one but has more than two categories? Consider race: in the United States, we tend to think in terms of "white" and "everybody else," but we know that is not accurate. People come in a wide variety of races and ethnicities, more than two. And then there are the colors of nature: although brown and green dominate, there are many other colors too, thank God and flowers. I love to play games, and many games are for only two people and have only two sides: chess and checkers, for example. But many more – and those that I happen to prefer – have many colors and involve many people. I love an afternoon spent playing Dungeons & Dragons with about five other people, or a game of Catan with six players.

But for me the root question is theological: is God dual? Is God two-in-one? No, God is three-in-one, and the multiplicity of races and genders and colors suggests to me that God loves diversity. If God loves diversity, perhaps there is more diversity in the world than even the writers of the Bible knew. So they told our sacred stories in the terms they understood at the time. We have to do some work to understand what those sacred stories mean, and they are still sacred stories. To go back to Genesis 2: that says to me that Jamie Shupe and others like them have their place in the Garden.

Robert A. Keefer

Presbyterian Church of the Master

Omaha, Nebraska


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/16/jamie-shupe-first-non-binary-person-oregon 

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