A Confident “I don’t know.”
I saw an article title online that asked what the church should say to Bruce Jenner. The article counseled compassion (and judging from the comments following it, many sorely needed the counsel!). But compassion was quickly obscured when it seemed like what most people wanted was to have a pronouncement they could deliver to Jenner.
My purpose here is not to convince people to have a specific opinion on Bruce Jenner. I think this is one of those topics where we are short on good information and probably will be into the foreseeable future. Those on either side who claim expert knowledge strike me as taking what they do know and extending it with plausible argumentation. Which is fine, so long as you recognize that the results are not certain. And being wrong in either direction could be gravely damaging. Caution is in order. If this post leaves your favorite theory as to how this condition arises intact, that’s just fine. I’m not certain myself.
I find it imaginable that transsexualism is a real objective problem where the brain is formed with the body map of the opposite sex inside of it. This possibility suggested itself to me after I read V.S. Ramachandran’s book Phantoms in the Brain, which described phantom limb syndrome. Body maps don’t always match the body, and the problem, while it might be said to be “all in a person’s head,” is an objective problem of wiring and not merely the result of faulty thinking or bad psychology. The problem is hardware and not software. Though we don’t have solid proof, I could imagine this was true, and it would fit with how deeply ingrained these beliefs are in people, some of whom seem far too young to have been talked into them.
I also find it imaginable that transsexualism is a psychological error, and that the individuals involved have tragic histories that led them to faulty conclusions as to how they can make their lives better. Most of the time I am not inclined to think this is true of everyone who claims the disorder, let alone most. But before reading Ramachandran, it was my guess for everyone. But maybe I’m wrong now. I could imagine it turning out true, even if it currently appears much less likely.
And there might be the odd individual who wishes to be captain of his or her fate and just have surgery for no compelling internal reason. I think this is the rare exception. I see this individual as dimly as most conservatives.
In any case, I’m not inclined to search for odd theological categories to apply. I read one writer who tried to argue that Jenner’s choices are rooted in Gnosticism, because they don’t take Creation seriously. The answer given, though, seemed to itself assume Pelagianism, because it suggested that we all come out of the womb as perfect as Adam and Eve. Male and female created He them, so any problems in this area are imaginary. Right. Between Genesis 1 and 2 and us is Genesis 3. The fall puts us in a position of not knowing as much as we would like about how Creation ought to look. And sometimes it leaves us desperately seeking solutions that won’t work. The fact that a solution is a bad one does nothing to alleviate the fact that a real problem is being faced.
But even having a theory as to how this might arise doesn’t answer everything. When I have watched documentaries covering several individuals, I often find the wiring theory more plausible for some individuals, and the psychological theory for others. It is conceivable that even if there is an objective problem in the brains of some, others are merely in the grips of a developmental disorder that would respond to therapy. And in other areas of life, we often have such questions. There are mental disorders that might tend to excuse certain behaviors. But even when we acknowledge the existence of a disorder, we can wonder whether the individual in question really does have the disorder excusing their behavior or not. Two people who agree on general theory may apply the theory variously.
This is the current state of my thought on this subject. And it could change, either to the right or to the left, over time. I could imagine new information leading in any number of directions. Perhaps the future consensus will say both sides were wrong for reasons we can’t now guess.
All that said, it has given me a place from which to ask another question. Why do we have to know the answer to the question of how this arises in the first place?
Some would argue that we have to preach the Law to people before they can be ready to hear the Gospel. Therefore we have to be clear this is wrong. Some might even add that it is easiest to stay clear about this if we choose the theory that assigns most blame to the individual. (Ouch!) As a strategy, this seems wrong-headed to me. Whatever the status of such a life course, there are other sins that are probably easier to use to drive guilt home. When St. Paul offers a sin list, he leaves all sinners in one big pile and says, “There is no difference.” Plus, I don’t think anyone has to be perfectly clear on the sinfulness of every one of their sins to be saved. (Who ever has been?) Declaring moral bankruptcy before God might actually involve believing that one’s judgments are corrupted. Jenner may be very ready for the Gospel, whether he is right or wrong in his course of action. And if he is not ready, it might be for very different reasons. Conviction of individual sins is also important, but that often happens over time, as our understanding deepens. New knowledge can serve to convict or excuse in ways we cannot know beforehand.
Others would argue that we have to know what to counsel people who are in this situation. I actually have more sympathy with this idea, when it is sincere. When I read articles about how self-serving some of the early practitioners were in this field, I shudder. And I tend to believe in some of the grim statistics I’ve read about how these surgeries go. (As a guy, I hate picturing the male to female surgeries. Ouch!) And about regret later. But whatever your or my opinion comes to, we are not the ones who have to make the decision. And after reading even a handful of articles, will we really be as knowledgeable as parents who read article after article, month after month for years, trying to save their kid, while hoping they could avoid anything damaging? What bothers me the most in reading many treatments has been how categorical and final many pronouncements have been, not merely about what people in this situation should do, but how it arises. Some articles would almost have me convinced that the word “chromosome” was in the Bible. Or that early psychodynamic theory was derived from the book of Genesis. Do Christians really have a leg up on everyone else on whose science is most to be trusted? Even if we have an unchanging ethical standard, our knowledge of how the world works is subject to change and correction like anyone else’s.
Still others will say that this is a problem for inside the church, whatever the outside world does. This makes the most sense to me, especially when St. Paul said, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church?” (I Cor. 5:12). But if this is the case, then I think what the church says to Bruce Jenner will be a local matter, decided by the pastor of the church he attends, and the laymen around him who get to know him. And they may not all agree with each other. It might even be helpful if they didn’t! When we aren’t sure of things, hedging bets can be a good thing. Jenner may primarily need support, or he may primarily need reproof. Having some who offered nothing but support and others who attempted to reprove might not be the worst arrangement. (I’m sure if they thought hard enough, most people could think of other individuals in their lives where such questions of what to do about so-and-so arose among well-meaning friends!) There is nothing unique in suggesting that life confronts us with some mysteries where we don’t know what is best to say. And afterwards it is often surprising whose words proved to be saving.
I wish that sometimes what the church was willing to say was, “I don’t know.” It is often a fine answer.
The church should teach the Ten Commandments and proclaim the Gospel. It should over the years try to teach the whole counsel of God. How that finally works itself out in the life of an individual is mysterious in all cases. It can be so in one more.