Gregory of Nyssa and a Genderless Humanity

Gregory of Nyssa’s interpretation of human nature and gender is a provocative departure from commonly accepted ideas in the late ancient world. To recognize the ingenuity of his approach, it is fitting to consider two common alternative paradigms.

One comes to us as the myth of Aristophanes, told through Plato’s Symposium. Originally there were three human races – male, female, and hermaphrodite. Each individual was spherical and actually a doubled self, both sides anatomically complete. In a bout of hubris, they assailed heaven. As punishment, Zeus sliced them in half, and the resulting half-beings now must seek each other out for completion. (The originally male and female beings explain homosexuality, and the original hermaphroditic beings explain heterosexuality.) Each of us is fundamentally incomplete, looking for another to supply our lack.

The other alternative, adopted by many Christians, viewed gender (as we know it now) as an integral part of our nature. However, the masculine was identified with nous or the rational faculties whereas the feminine was identified with sense perception and with sexuality (contra contemporary Americans, who tend to regard males as the more sexual gender). This identification creates a clear spiritual hierarchy, since early Christians associated the image of God with the higher rational faculties. A common theme found with variations in the Gospel of Thomas, Philo, Jerome, and others, is that a woman who devotes herself to God spiritually transcends her gender and becomes male. Under this paradigm, males and the masculine are unequivocally superior to females and the feminine. Augustine, an heir of this tradition, modifies it somewhat toward equality.

Gregory of Nyssa’s view of gender diverges widely from the two paradigms above. His theology of creation indicates that gender is not a dissociation from previous wholeness nor an essential aspect of human nature. Instead, Gregory’s creation theology is informed by his eschatology. Finding in Paul that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Gregory reasons that there will be no gender in the final state, and thus that gender was not part of the original created intention. He takes as a matter of course that the original blueprint for humanity corresponds to the final product.

Human nature, then, is essentially and primitively genderless. God intended for them to procreate spiritually after the manner of angels (whatever that means). However, God foresaw that they would fall into sin, and in his provenance created humans with gender so that they would be able to procreate after the manner of beasts. The logic seems to be that since the Fall was a result of the first parents falling prey to the sensual side of their natures, they became enslaved to sensuality and would not have the spiritual state required for spiritual procreation.

The foundational insight of Gregory’s theology of creation, then, is that gender is accidental to human nature. Several significant consequences follow from this premise. First, each individual is spiritual whole in himself or herself. Humans do not need to find completion in another person, but only in God. Vows of virginity do not make a woman spiritually male, as per Jerome, but prepare the person for the deified state.   Further, both genders are spiritually equal, since the image of God is itself genderless. One wonders what this theology would have accomplished in the church if it had been widely embraced and if it were not held in check by hierarchical cultures.

Gregory’s creation theology is a welcome departure from theories that make men and women spiritually dependent on each other for completion or that subordinate women to men. Yet, there are still concerns. Most contemporary people identify more strongly with their gender than seeing it merely as a way to procreate. Most see their gender as an integral part of their personality; even transgender behavior points to a more than biological need to identify with gender. Gregory’s theology does not seem to leave room for gender to play any important role in constructing human personality, including spirituality.

[Note: this post is a reflection on Gregory of Nyssa’s views on gender as presented in J. Warren Smith’s Passion and Paradise. The informal nature of a blog exempts me, I believe, from precise footnoting.]

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Published in: on March 3, 2012 at 11:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review – Beginnings by Peter Bouteneff

I’ve spent most of this year getting better acquainted with the Church Fathers, so I was happy to come upon a copy of Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives by Peter Bouteneff. Bouteneff, a professor at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, combines contemporary reflection and historical examination in this surprisingly easy read. The book begins with a preface addressing methodological issues, detours into a historical-critical examination of the creation narratives, continues with a chronological examination of the material from the Septuagint through the Cappadocians, and concludes with some theological reflection.

Beginnings contains far more than regurgitated line-by-line commentary on Genesis 1-3. The Fathers’ readings are related to the broad contours of their theologies and hermeneutical methods. The genealogies of recurring themes are traced so that the reader apprehends the process of exegetical maturation. Bouteneff’s theological reflections occur mostly in the introduction and conclusion so that they do not crowd the body text.

Although it contains a wealth of useful information, several noticeable flaws mar the work. After finishing the book, I wondered if it had been mistitled. Bouteneff’s ironically modern historical-critical reading of Genesis 1-3 is entirely unnecessary.  How does his post-Enlightenment opinion about the text illuminate the ancient Christian readings? The survey of the Septuagint and Philo are not Christian either, and even though I recognize that they (the Septuagint more than Philo) provide the background for much Christian reflection, Bouteneff does not refer back to the material in that chapter often enough to warrant its inclusion.

The chapter on Paul is particularly disappointing. Why choose Paul rather than John or the whole of the New Testament? Revelation 21-22 is chock full of creation imagery, but is ignored.  Bouteneff’s most prominent conclusion is that Paul does not offer an Augustinian account of original sin; his argumentation is dubious. He insists that Paul does not subordinate women to men in any way, committing him to an implausible exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11:7-12. At the end of this chapter, we are one-third of the way through the book but have yet to move beyond the New Testament.

The chapters on the Fathers are better than the previous ones, but still frustrating. For one thing, the only Western theologian mentioned is Tertullian, who merits slightly less than five pages. Augustine is not mentioned at all; this is possibly because he is slightly later than the Cappadocians, but I suspect that Bouteneff’s strongly anti-Augustinian theological leanings encouraged the omission. In addition, the chapters are not optimally composed. Bouteneff spends much more ink than necessary developing each theologian’s overall theological vision. For example, of the 25 pages devoted to Origen, only about 10 deal directly with his reading of Genesis. Bouteneff moves from the general to the particular in such a way that the discussion of the creation narratives does not drive the book forward. Rather, it seems tacked on at the end of each chapter as an illustration of the theologian’s hermeneutical method. The overall effect of this presentation (besides the tediousness) is that the book becomes more about the theology and hermeneutics of the Greek Fathers than about readings of the creation narratives.

With only slightly more than 100 body pages dealing with the Fathers, some of which is squandered on irrelevant details, Beginnings makes a mediocre start at explicating the ancient Christian readings of the creation narratives. I doubt this book will be of great help to many students, and I strongly encourage those who do pick it up to read selectively. Likewise, Bouteneff’s theological reflections are of small use to evangelicals, who share little of his doctrinal outlook.

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Published in: on June 5, 2010 at 10:43 pm  Comments (1)  
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