The Blessings of the Binary Bind
(From The Christian Post and Salvo Magazine blogpost)
I caught myself chuckling as I listened to radio hosts Armstrong and Getty mock the latest revelation of Hollywood darling, Demi Lovato. A year ago, she had announced that her pronouns were “they/them.” Now, she is letting the world know she’s feeling more feminine. “She/her” will be acceptable. Some say mockery is the best medicine to treat the wokeness infecting our culture. JP Sears and Matt Walsh have perfected this form nicely and I do admit to enjoying the satire.
On the other hand, there is something tragic here. The most obvious concern is that gender dysphoric teenagers will find themselves regretting irreversible alterations to their bodies. Fortunately, most who suffer from gender dysphoria do not go on to full sex reassignment surgery. Many understand that feelings about identity are fluid and simply declare, “I am neither.” Or both. Such a choice does avert painful body reconstruction. But is this an entirely good thing? To be free from gender limitations altogether?
We do wonder how a 13-year-old can declare, “I shall not be bound to one sex or the other.” How did our children become so untethered to basic reality? As a people, have we forgotten that liberty is always bracketed by limits?
The blessing of boundaries
Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers the phrase “at the origin” to describe God’s original intention for his creatures. In the Garden of Eden, God provided everything and only fixed one limitation on human freedom. Doubting God’s word, Adam and Eve did not understand the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was designed as a protection and a guide. It would protect them from unnatural choices: It was not in their nature to do life while always judging what is good or bad. This boundary would affirm their identity as belonging to God, the proper source of human power and purpose. Compliance also guaranteed their freedom, eventually to expand in authority over the whole earth (Genesis 1:26 – 28). As theologian Ray S. Anderson summarizes: “The command of God was both limiting and liberating.”
After the first humans defied that limit, as the curses indicate, their potential to misuse their powers had to be further curtailed. Since the Fall, additional natural, legal, familial, and cultural boundaries continue to serve as curbs to human folly and guides to fruitful living. Simple traditions, for example, that children ought to respect their elders, are like signs and barriers on a mountain road. They both protect from danger and provide pathways to life.
We have come not to like limits. We resist guidelines of faith, tradition, and even natural law. According to Mary Eberstadt (The Primal Scream), many young adults, raised in daycare, feel cheated and resist authority. Further, a Marxist flavored education leaves students suspicious of all power differentials as they protest social rules and sex roles. As sexual taboos themselves become taboo, sex itself loses definition and purpose.
Students demand to know: “Why should society tell us who we are or whom to love?” In TED X talks, young people share how they decided they were non-binary. Invariably, they report a painful past peppered with rejection and bullying. Of course, we can empathize. Who of us has never felt shame for being too skinny, too fat, or just inadequate in some way? The dissonance between one’s feelings and perceived gender demands is painful. But rather than denouncing the bullies or reimagining gender expectations (it is okay to be a boy and like poetry), nonbinary kids blame the body. Unfortunately, to repudiate sexual differentiation effectively guarantees a permanent conflict between a floating, subjective self and an ever-pressing fact: you are this and not that. To the gender dysphoric, the sexual distinction feels like a cruel limit, not a guideline. But denying it does not resolve the dissonance.
One cannot break free from the body. As millennials (10% now embracing this nonbinary contagion) protest the delimiting message of their body, they become even more attached to it. We watch them on social media, the body a never-ending project, as they display an endless array of piercings, tattoos, and exotic hairstyles. We can almost hear the cry for affirmation.
The acquisition of “likes” on YouTube surely bolsters identities and dampens self-doubt. But could the drive for recognition suggest a deeper reality? That we are relational beings fashioned after a relational God. Christians understand the Trinity as a fellowship of love, a dynamic differentiation of persons, existing and operating as one. Created in God’s image, the man and woman were to function in similar communion, different but united as “one flesh.” According to Anderson, this differentiation of opposites constitutes the basis for real intimacy and freedom. Freedom to be “for another…”
Hidden blessings of the binary
Steeped in projects of self-actualization, we have forgotten the “other.” We also understand that the other is a limit – often a hard wall to our own aspirations and needs. Born in and surrounded by sin, mistrust is understandable. We do not know that the sexes are designed for each other, to complement and fulfill each other. We assume hierarchies only serve those at the top. It is not surprising then, if we find Jesus’ teachings – reminding us of original design -- at first unintelligible.
Jesus tells us that if we love our life, we must lose it (John 12: 25). Those who are last will be first and the kingdom of heaven belongs to little children. Further, it is better to serve than to be served, and better to give than to receive (John 12:25; Matthew 19:14; 20:25-28; Acts 20:35).
Such teachings mystify us. Yet, as an example of natural revelation (see Romans 1), the body itself awakens truth, reminding us that we are not designed to define or complete ourselves. We are limited, bound to only one sex. As adults affirm this physical reality, children are protected from anxious self-absorption. And invited to look beyond their own resources.
Traditions that uphold the value of each sex foster curiosity and even the possibility of delight. Excited friends who gather at a gender reveal party know there is something special about being born as one sex or the other. Common wisdom affirms this -- that each sex carries a potential, an ultimate purpose toward the other and toward the future. As Erik Erikson observed, even very young boys and girls carry a dim awareness that “genitality has a procreative function.” Although to be worked out in different cultures, “… each sex carries a uniqueness which includes (but is not summed up by) its difference from the other sex; a uniqueness which is founded on the preformed functions of the future inseminator and the future child-bearer.”
Efforts today to homogenize difference deprive children from knowing they carry value merely by existing in one form or the other. Sameness deletes any special contribution or need that one sex might have for the other. Depriving children of inherent gender worth, sex educators make it all the more difficult for young ones to find their place in the world. To invite a child to question the very message of his body – both as a limit and a pathway to a life purpose – how is that not child abuse? Inevitably, as public school teachers are told to avoid terms such as wife, or mother and father, these children lose both self-esteem and any obligation to the other sex.
In contrast, traditional views of gender promote a mysterious otherness, hinting at possibilities beyond the self. Even young boys and girls sense this as they snicker in each other’s presence. Or avoid each other altogether. As children mature, they grow more open to the opposite sex with its potential for giving and receiving. Should we not then celebrate customs that affirm differentiation, such as when boys and girls dress differently or line up separately? Or when a boy opens the door for his girlfriend? Such customs exist for a reason, honoring this primary form of humanity, a mystery of different beings, limited and limiting, offering possibility and promise. Yes, the binary is a bind. But one that reminds us we are not to live in isolation, but to be with and for another.
 Creation and Fall: A Theological Interpretation of Genesis 1 – 3 (New York: Macmillan publishing Co., 1959).
 On Being Human: Essays in Theological Anthropology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 59.
 Anderson, 81.
 Childhood and Society (New York: Norton and Company, 1963), 91.