SEXUALITY, GENDER, AND CHRISTIAN TRADITION: A COURSE OUTLINE by Giacomo Sanfilippo

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Because of my public profile through Orthodoxy in Dialogue, many people have come to me online and in person for spiritual and emotional support whose children are transgender or who are transgender themselves. 

Recently there occurred a first for me: a married man with small children, whose wife has come out to him as transgender and has begun the surgical component of his transition. For now, they remain married.

What I offer those who seek me out—in my unworthiness and with all my inadequacies—is an open heart, a listening ear, a complete lack of judgmentalism, not a trace of know-it-allism, and no one-size-fits-all responses based on any kind of “ideological purity.” Some of my Orthodox brothers and sisters disdain this approach as “liberal” or “progressive.” I, on the contrary, consider it to be rather traditional.

How many of our bishops and priests in the Orthodox Church are equipped to deal pastorally and sensitively with these real-life scenarios? How many of our future bishops and priests will be sufficiently equipped, especially given the inevitability that these kinds of pastoral issues will arise more frequently over time?

Frankly, the outlook for our future pastors does not look hopeful. The new dean and the long-time history professor at one of our seminaries in the US, for instance, have declared open warfare on these kinds of questions, and have characterized me and my colleagues at Public Orthodoxy and The Wheel as prowlers who would be better off drowned. (See here, here, and here.)

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The PhD in Theological Studies program at the Toronto School of Theology, an ecumenical consortium of theological colleges affiliated with the University of Toronto, has a required course in which doctoral students learn how to design a 1-semester course of their choice. This includes producing a complete syllabus and a detailed outline for one session.

What I created and hope to teach somewhere—once I’m ABD—consists of a seminar course called Sexuality, Gender, and Christian Tradition

For those unfamiliar with academia, a seminar course amounts to a glorified discussion group. It’s hard work for the students. It presupposes that each student actually does all the readings and comes to class every week fully prepared to contribute to the conversation. A paper of significant length and depth is due by the end of the semester. Both as a student and facilitator I have found seminar courses to be far more gratifying a teaching/learning method than lecture courses, and far more intellectually engaging.

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Sexuality, Gender, and Christian Tradition is structured around two parallel sets of readings on a given theme each week: 

Set 1 – Scriptural passages and pastristic commentary on those passages.

Set 2 – Secular readings on the same or closely cognate theme.

This juxtaposition of religious and secular texts is not meant to disprove the one with the other, or vice versa, but to bring them into an uneasy conversation with each other. My students will be informed that, for the sake of grading, there will be no right answers and no wrong answers, but also no easy answers: anyone who facilely dismisses the religious or the secular texts under consideration will not fare well in the course.

“Devil’s advocate” is one of my favourite roles to play. (I do it with myself all the time to keep myself as theologically and spiritually honest as possible.) My students will quickly learn that I challenge them on everything, both things with which I might agree and might disagree.

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The 12-week course is organized as follows:

Week 1 – In the Beginning

Since no one will have done any reading, after going through the syllabus briefly we’ll have a free-wheeling discussion on the following questions (relevant whether the class is fully Orthodox or ecumenical):

What is “Tradition?” What is “the Church?” What is the Bible? Where did it come from? How do we define/describe/understand its authority? How do Old and New Testament relate to each other? Who or what are “the Fathers?” What authority (if any) do they have for you personally or for the church to which you belong? What is “sexuality?” What is “gender?” Is there a difference between a person’s “sex” and “gender?” Does each human person have the body created and given to him or her by God? At what moment does a new human person begin to exist?

Week 2 – Male and Female He Created Them

Week 3 – Be Fruitful and Multiply

Week 4 – An Abomination to the Lord

Week 5 – For Where You Go, I Will Go; A Woman Named Martha Had a Sister Called Mary

Week 6 – David Loved Jonathan as His Own Soul; The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved

Week 7 – Eunuchs for the Sake of the Kingdom

Week 8 – Thou Didst Knit Me Together in My Mother’s Womb

Week 9 – The Eye is the Lamp of the Body

Week 10 – O That You Would Kiss Me with the Kisses of Your Mouth

Weeks 11 & 12 – Essay Presentations

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Male and Female He Created Them

Week 2 is the course session for which I prepared a detailed outline.

Set 1 readings will consist of Genesis 1:1-2:3, Genesis 2:4-25, Genesis 5:1-2, and 27 pages of patristic commentary from the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series (ACCS, a phenomenal resource published by InterVarsity Press).

Set 2 readings will consist of two articles: “Defining, Assigning and Designing Sex” by P.-L. Chau and Jonathan Herring, and “The Dynamic Development of Gender Variability” by Anne Fausto-Sterling. The first introduces readers to intersexuality (previously known as hermaphroditism), its statistical prevalence and variations, and the medical and legal challenges that ensue immediately after the intersex baby’s birth and later in life. My students will be responsible for the medical section. The second article, written by a woman who holds a PhD in developmental genetics, argues that a child’s eventual gender identity—i.e., whether or not the child will grow up to identify with his or her biological sex—becomes fixed very early in life, often as early as 2 or 3 years of age.

By means of a PowerPoint presentation I will propose the following kinds of questions for the students’ consideration and discussion:

  1. What are your thoughts on the scriptural, liturgical, and theological use of “man” or “men” to mean all human persons regardless of gender?
  2. What might be the theological reason(s) that Gen 1 culminates with the creation of the human species?
  3. What might be the theological reason(s) that Gen 2 begins with the creation of the male, proceeds to non-human creatures, and ends with the female?
  4. Is the creation of the woman in Gen 2 a divine afterthought or the culmination of the creative act?
  5. What might be meant by “a helper fit for him?”
  6. Does the creation of male and female provide a biological (reproductive) account of human origins, a societal paradigm, a model for all paired relationships, a type of Christ and the Church, all of the above, or something else?
  7. Are maleness and femaleness essential or accidental to the divine image and likeness? In what way(s)?
  8. If the divine image and likeness refer in a particular way to that in us which is akin to Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, rather than akin to the Father or to the Trinity, what might this mean for all human persons regardless of gender? What might it mean specifically for male persons and female persons?
  9. Can it be said that each human person somehow contains all that is male and all that is female within himself or herself?
  10. Does the incarnation of the Logos as male subsume, or not, all that is female? (Gregory of Nazianzus, d. 390: “What is not assumed [by Christ in His incarnate human nature] is not saved.”)
  11. Does Origen’s complete spiritualization of “reproduction” as an interior process operative within each human person advance or confuse our understanding of gender?
  12. Are intersex babies created by God?
  13. Does God create intersex babies?
  14. Does God create babies intersex?
  15. Do you subscribe, or not, to the popular dictum that “God creates everyone perfect,” or that “God doesn’t make mistakes?” If so, how do you account for the numerically significant incidence of babies born with “non-normative” bodies (sometimes called “birth defects” or “deformities”)? Or for even one such incidence?
  16. Is a child born with an intersex body endowed with the divine image and the capacity to acquire the divine likeness?
  17. Does an intersex person possess the divine image to the same, greater, or lesser degree than a person born with an unambiguous reproductive system?
  18. Does a person’s capacity to acquire the divine likeness depend to a greater degree, a lesser degree, or not at all, on the “correct” configuration of his or her genitals, or on their surgical “correction” when “necessary?” Under what conditions, if any, might it be theologically or spiritually necessary, or justified, to “correct” an intersex body—especially, but not exclusively, an infant’s body—through medical/surgical intervention?
  19. Under what conditions, if any, may an “uncorrected” intersex adult enter into a sanctified, intimate relationship in the sacramental economy of the Church?
  20. To what extent, or not, should the gender or the genital configuration of an intended partner matter when an intersex person wishes to marry in the Church?
  21. What happens when a child, from a very early age, begins to sense an internal dissonance with gendered expectations of himself or herself? Consider this question not only psychologically and emotionally, but also theologically and spiritually. 
  22. What does it mean to be “assigned” a gender at birth? Isn’t the baby’s gender simply observed and announced, not “assigned?” 
  23. When the attending physician or midwife proclaims “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” what actually takes place at that moment? Or rather, what complex interplay of serial actions and interactions begins to take place? 
  24. Are gender variant children created by God? 
  25. Does God create gender variant children? 
  26. Does God create children gender variant? 
  27. Do these questions elicit a reaction more ambivalent, less ambivalent, or similar to the same questions about intersex children? 
  28. Theologically we speak of the creation of “man” as something occurring in a distant, mythical past. Yet the creation of the individual person—you, me, your best friend, your spouse, your neighbour, the beggar on the street corner—takes place at a precise historical moment, in a precise social, political, economic, cultural, and familial setting. To what extent is it theologically legitimate, or not, to take into account—whether positively or negatively—these social factors in order to appreciate the complexities of what it means to be created by God in His image and likeness, at such and such a time, in such and such a place? 
  29. Can we agree, or not, with Romanian Orthodox priest and theologian Dumitru Stăniloae when he writes that we are not created by God alone, but in a certain legitimate sense by ourselves?

I wonder what are the possibilities or likelihood that such a course as this could be taught in an Orthodox seminary.

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Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto and editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue. He holds a recent BA in Sexuality Studies from York University in Toronto and is an alumnus of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto. Earlier in life he completed the course requirements for the MDiv at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He has written for Public Orthodoxy, The Wheel, and the Toronto Journal of Theology.

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