Religion & Liberty Online

The Genesis Paradigm vs. the Gender Paradigm

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Professor and author Abigail Favale has built an academic career in gender studies and feminist literary criticism. Her latest book brings a wealth of experience and meditation on these subjects and provides both guidance for Christians and a potential source of vexation for enemies of the permanent things.

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Abigail Favale’s The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory presents a positive vision of gender as part of God’s good creation. She describes and responds to contemporary gender theory, showing how it is contradictory to the Christian understanding of gender in general. Perhaps most practically, she makes a compelling case for rejecting “preferred pronouns” and suggests what Christian love to the trans-identifying person could look like.

As a teenager, Favale exchanged her evangelical Christianity for a fervent faith in feminism. After beginning her career as a professor at George Fox University, she converted to Roman Catholicism. To questions of contemporary feminism, gender theory, and postmodern philosophy, she brings the insight of a trained academic. Conservative responses to gender theory exist, most notably from Abigail Schrier, Matt Walsh, and Ryan T. Anderson, but until Favale there has not been a truly satisfactory Christian analysis of the transgender phenomenon. Though portions of Favale’s book rely on sacramental theology, her conclusions are accessible to adherents of all strands of traditional Christianity.

She begins by presenting sexual difference as a gift enabling harmony. Favale reads Genesis 1­–3 as God’s work of crafting harmony into creation. She argues that Christ “turns our eyes back toward Genesis and urges us, with divine help, to reclaim the goodness of the created order, the gift of our bodies and the earth, and to cultivate anew a dynamic of reciprocity between the sexes.” Within this creational order, “sexual difference is understood and experienced as gift, as a source of fruitfulness and love.” This orientation towards the giftedness of creation, with our creaturely responsibility lying in receptivity, gratitude, and wonder, marks Favale’s theory as distinctly Christian. She argues that

a Christian approach is one that seeks to move from the wilderness of sin and into the realm of grace, all the while remaining attentive to the voice of nature and the voice of God. This means taking Genesis seriously, regarding it as “true myth,” as a divinely revealed cosmology that describes our origin so as to give an enduring account of our identity and purpose as human beings, as woman and man. Within this redemptive order, we can recover our wonder. We can recognize anew the abundance of the gift—the gift of our bodies, the gift of our shared humanity, and the gift of our sexual difference.

Without crossing into naivete, Favale maintains a consistent vision of the goodness of the sexed body and its realities. “We find the body’s giftedness within its finitude, its limits and flaws, because these limits reveal to us our interdependence and awaken us to our ultimate vocation: to give and receive love.…Our bodies are continual reminders to us that we are not autonomous, that the fantasy of self-creation is no more than a fever dream, a symptom of underlying illness.”

Favale’s emphasis on receiving one’s nature opposes feminism’s focus on social constructions of human nature. She traces feminism’s attempt to build what she calls “the gender paradigm” in contrast to the “Genesis paradigm.” She notes that fourth-wave feminism has moved far from its original goals of legal equality: “Even more embracing of gender plurality, fourth wave feminism took the unprecedented step of rejecting the idea that a ‘woman,’ by definition, is a biological female.” Favale follows the same logical trail Scott Yenor identifies in The Recovery of Family Life, beginning with Simone de Beauvoir’s “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” and ending with Judith Butler and the idea that “gender is a performance.” Favale notes that such a view of women “is cast as freedom from femaleness.…Women are not valued simply for being; they must prove their value by doing.” Butler’s project, Favale notes, dismantles “the norms of gender and sex in order to dismantle the so-called heteronormativity.… The very idea that heterosexual reproduction is natural is, for Butler, a harmful script that must be rewritten.” This commitment to rewriting nature, to rejecting humanity’s place within the natural order, Favale calls “the gender paradigm,” which proclaims that “we are not created beings; we are products of social forces. Reality, gender, sex—everything, even truth—is socially constructed.”

In affirming a Genesis paradigm, Favale focuses on biology and shows that the potential for creating new life is an essential organizing principle for female biology. As such it exists at the level of gametes. “There is no such thing as a third gamete or a spectrum of possible gametes,” notes Favale. “This invariable feature of our humanity ties us intimately to the rest of creation. When the gametes combine, they create a new member of the species. The sex binary, then, is the necessary foundation for the continued transmission of human life.” This biological understanding of the sexed human body becomes Favale’s ultimate response to transgender ideology: “If, however, sex is fundamentally about how the body is organized in relation to gamete production—a potentiality than cannot be endowed by a scalpel—then the undeniable truth is this: it is not possible to change one’s sex, because sex is constitutive of the whole person.” Biology, Favale shows, renders transgender ideology impossible; in the face of biological clarity, the dream of reshaping the body’s appearance to match a desired sex collapses.

As her work concludes, Favale moves to application. If creational order exists, then Christians have an obligation to operate within the Genesis paradigm rather than the gender paradigm. As such, how one uses pronouns becomes significant.

When it comes to men and women, we need to use reality-based language.…Whenever possible, I avoid pronouns when directly speaking with or writing about trans-identifying people, in order to avoid alienating someone I am called to love.…To call a male “she” is a lie, an inversion of the reality that that word names, a reality I happen to belong to, one that I have not chosen, but that has chosen me. I object to the very concept of preferred pronouns, because pronouns do not name a preference. “She” names what I am, my female birthright with all its blessings and burdens.

Favale will use preferred names, but pronouns function as an ontological statement about what one is. To use a false pronoun would be to utter a lie. Favale believes Christians are called to interact with others through love. That love does not mean condoning a disorder but rather committing to speak truth. Her goal is for the trans-identifying person to shift paradigms. Such a one should begin

to see herself as a creation of God. Considering oneself as a being who is created moves the discussion of identity to new ground, setting the frame of a transcendent order—an order beyond the natural that sustains its existence and safeguards its meaning. To be a creature, rather than an accident, establishes the human person as being-in-relation with the divine.

Far from condemning the trans-identifying person, Favale argues that love requires speaking truth and seeking to help such a person live in alignment with reality as God’s creature. “It is in recognizing God as Creator that we find our identity; this recognition reveals our purpose, and the fulfillment of our purpose makes us free.…To be Christian is to regard oneself in relation to the cosmos and the cosmos in relation to God.… I cannot truly honor creation if I do not honor my own body, which is itself part of creation.” Honoring the body begins with receiving the body as a created gift.

As Favale makes clear, the “gender paradigm” and the “Genesis paradigm” stand logically opposed. Favale’s clear writing and logical reasoning are a gift to the church. Favale equips pastors, priests, and lay Christians to perceive gender as God’s good gift. She calls readers to practice love toward those who struggle with body dysmorphia and to find joy in seeing themselves as integrated beings made as they are by a loving God. It is not enough to express dismay at wrong ideas; the church also needs to proclaim the goodness and desirability of biblical teachings. The Genesis of Gender proclaims the goodness of male and female bodies, and in so doing calls us to rejoice in the gift.

Josh Herring

Josh Herring is professor of classical education at Thales College, working to develop a new model of teacher preparation, specifically with attention to shaping future teachers intending to join the classical renewal movement. He and his wife live in Wendell, NC. Josh is a voracious reader and a regular writer with the Acton Institute, Liberty Fund, and The Federalist. He hosts The Optimistic Curmudgeon podcast and tweets @theoptimisticC3.