Saturday, March 24, 2012

The intersexed Christ

Laura Wood had a post recently on Dr Susannah Cornwall, a professor of theology at the University of Manchester who believes that Christ might have been not male but intersex:
[I]t is not possible to assert with any degree of certainty that Jesus was male as we now define maleness. There is no way of knowing for sure that Jesus did not have one of the intersex conditions which would give him a body which appeared externally to be unremarkably male, but which might nonetheless have had some “hidden” female physical features.

What's going on here? Why would a theologian be so concerned to argue that Christ was not male?

The answer has to do with a debate within the Anglican Church over the consecration of women as bishops. There are evangelicals within the church who have argued against women as bishops, and it is in response to these arguments that Susannah Cornwall has resorted to the idea of Christ being intersex.

Here is how Susannah Cornwall puts the evangelical position:
Many evangelical theological beliefs about human sex and gender are grounded the belief that there is an ontological difference between males and females – a difference in their very being and existence, and the cosmic significance thereof.

For example, argues John Piper, “The Bible reveals the nature of masculinity and femininity by describing diverse responsibilities for man and women while rooting these differing responsibilities in creation, not convention … Differentiated roles were corrupted, not created, by the fall. They were created by God” (Piper 2006: 35).

In similar vein, Andreas J. Köstenberger and David W.Jones say, 'The man and the woman are jointly charged with ruling the earth representatively for God, yet they are not to do so androgynously or as ‘unisex’ creatures, but each as fulfilling their God-ordained, gender-specific roles. Indeed … it is only when men and women embrace their God-ordained roles that they will be truly fulfilled and that God’s creational wisdom will be fully displayed and exalted.” (Köstenberger and Jones 2010: 26)

Even more explicitly, Dennis P. Hollinger asserts, “Being male and female is less a designation of functions, and more a designation of humanity’s twofold ontological way of being” (Hollinger 2009: 74).

As a second step, such anthropologies assume that it is always possible to know who is male and who is female, and that gender should supervene on sex.

This can be seen in documents like the Evangelical Alliance’s 2000 report on transsexuality, which says, “The doctrine of creation with the story of Adam and Eve, and the insistence that ‘male and female he created them’, shows that our sexual identity is part of the ‘givenness’ of how we have been made”.

Those who oppose the ordination of women to the episcopate – as well as those who continue to avow that women should not or cannot be ordained priests at all – maintain that there is something ontologically different about women and men which means that, because of the very nature of their being, women cannot perform some or all of the roles appropriate to men.

You don't have to be an evangelical Christian to hold to such positions - traditionalists of all stripes would believe in something very similar.

And our position is stronger than we sometimes realise, as it is physically embodied in the natures of men and women. When we look around us, we do not see abstracted, genderless creatures, but sexually distinct men and women. And in our daily life we perceive the natures of men and women not only to be complementary, but to align with how we have been created bodily.

The modernist position is an awkward one, as it has to uncouple our being from the way we are embodied. And that is what Susannah Cornwall attempts to do. She writes:

intersex disturbs the discreteness of maleness and femaleness, and might therefore also disturb the gendered roles which are pinned to them.

What she means is that there exist intersex people who can't be easily classified as male or female and that this therefore is proof that maleness and femaleness isn't written into us as we might think it to be. She is trying to tackle head on the strength of the traditionalist position.

But it's not a persuasive argument. Only 0.018% of the population fall into the category of intersex. It is clearly an abnormality rather than a proof that we are not made male and female.

Her argument therefore seems desperate. She resorts to wild speculations about Christ being intersex:
[Christ]  might have had ovarian as well as testicular tissue in his body. He might, in common with many people who are unaware of the fact, have had a mixture of XX and XY cells. Indeed, as several scholars have pointed out with their tongues both in and out of their cheeks, if the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is taken as scientific fact, then Jesus certainly had no male human element to introduce a Y chromosome into his DNA, and all his genetic material would have been identical with that of his mother (that is, female). There is simply no way of telling at this juncture whether Jesus was an unremarkably male human being, or someone with an intersex condition who had a male morphology as far as the eye could see but may or may not also have had XX chromosomes or some female internal anatomy. The fact that, as far as we know, Jesus never married, fathered children or engaged in sexual intercourse, of course, makes his “undisputable” maleness even less certain.

I'm glad that I don't have to pin my position to such an unlikely scenario. I don't think it makes even a dint in the more traditional view. We can be encouraged that a modernist theologian has taken her best shot at us without doing any damage at all. If anything, she has only underlined how strong our position is.


  1. The only thing that Susannah Cornwell has proved with her arguments is that women should definitely not be bishops. She's a perfect example why female ordination is wrong. Shooting oneself in the foot much?

  2. Susannah's entire position centers around what I would call "the exception to the rule, the outlier or the anomally, should become the rule and proves that the rule doesn't exist". If anything anomalies and outliers prove that the rule (e.g.generalizations) exists. For example a couple of people are born blind. Does that mean that most humans cannot see or that the eye was made not to experience sight? No. If a couple of women are taller than men does that disprove the observation that most men are taller than women? No. A couple of people from broken homes turn out alright. Does that mean that broken homes are therefore okay and that it doesn't matter? Should we endorse broken homes? Can she internalize the fact that we are not all special snowflakes and autonomous individuals? That individuals together make up a group and that groups make up communities, which in turn make up sectors and then society? We aren't all the rare ones. Most of us are common in one sense.

  3. I wish no ill towards British people but there is something odd in the water of Britain. British feminists are at it again. First we were exposed to an argument for infanticide, then we were introduced to the idea that pregnancy is barbaric and that artificial wombs should be created and now we have those who believe that Jesus Christ was not a man. What on earth are these ethicists?

  4. If you need X to be true for your line of argument to have any punch, and the only evidence that X is true is that it would be convenient for you if X was true, and you can hold out no hope there will ever be more evidence than that in your favour, you're in a feeble position.

  5. I was approached recently by outreach Christians, Chinese, and their draw card was to say that God was of both sexes because he made humanity in his image. I was like really? You're trying to win me, a young man, over with this? Hit the road, pathetic.

  6. Well argued Mark. Susannah's agenda is showing! As Orwell said, "Some ideas are so stupid, only an intellectual could believe them."

  7. I'd like them to explain Jesus circumcision in Luke 2 and the fact that the Angel when speaking to Mary referred to Jesus as He. The twelve blokes he had around him seemed to be in no doubt as to his gender either.

    Oh I forgot. The big bad church only allowed certain books into the bible that supported their narrative and not the feminista narrative. It must have been because the God of the bible was too weak or too stupid to make sure that what he wanted us to know would be able to stay in the bible.