I recently came across the following tweet:
The ideas presented by “bella” interested me for a number of reasons. For one, they give a presentation of erotic desire that seems to overlook the writings of Plato on the matter. But what particularly interested me is the author’s treatment of “otherness,” one that has been common in a number of Christian circles. She seems to present an idea of human “otherness” as most full or meaningful in sexual difference.
This is a position similar to that held by many Christians when it comes to the question of homosexuality. Homosexuals are flawed, it is argued, in that we fail to have a full appreciation of otherness. Our desires are fundamentally “narcissistic,” in that we are drawn to our own sex, to bodies like our own. Homosexuals are, in a way, “lesser men,” because we are unable to truly appreciate “otherness,” which is found most fully in sexual difference.
This position (holding that full otherness is found in sexual difference) comes partly out of one reading of Genesis. In Genesis 2, man is created and found lonely. So a helpmate is created, a woman. Some Christian apologists read this passage and say, “Yes, God made a woman because man needs an other, meaning someone different from him by virtue of sexual difference! The solution to man’s loneliness, and his need for an other, is sexual difference!”
But this interpretation of Genesis 2 comes partly out of what is lost when the Hebrew text is translated into English. Commenting on Genesis 2 and its use of the Hebrew words adam (human), zakhar (man), nekievah (woman), ish (husband), and ishshah (wife), John Paul II writes that the loneliness in the passage refers not only to “the solitude of man-male, caused by the absence of the woman,” but to “the solitude of ‘man’ (male and female).” It is “the solitude of ‘man’ as such and not only that of the male.” John Paul II argues that Genesis 2 concentrates on this loneliness as “a fundamental anthropological issue that is in some way prior to the issue raised by the fact that man is male and female.” So even before the question of relationship through sexual difference, Genesis 2 presents a person who needs relationship with others simply by virtue of his humanity, whether this relationship be with other men or with women. Every human presents us full complete otherness which responds to the loneliness we have by virtue of our own humanity. When faced with any other, male or female, we are faced with a profound mystery of unimaginable depths.
But even still, that which draws Adam towards Eve and causes him to exclaim in ecstatic joy is not her otherness. It is rather, sameness. Adam finds his voice for the first time because he recognizes himself in woman. This is not narcissism. It’s the beginning of human love. He sees, at one and the same time, both himself and other. Indeed, it is only through this other that he is able to really confront himself. In the first lines of love poetry in the Bible, Adam proclaims:
“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”
So the primary lack of otherness is Adam’s lack of human others, whether they be male or female. And while sexual difference is important here, one can recognize that the anthropological issue of loneliness is not resolved first and foremost by it. It is resolved first by a human other, who draws Adam in and causes ecstatic joy by her sameness. This might help explain why, among the baptized children of God there is “not male and female [ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ], for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This unity does not mean that the thrill is gone and otherness is negated, as our Twitter friend seems to suggest. Rather, the loving-erotic union of the children of God with God and one another brings about a true fulfillment of identity, a full recognition of otherness casting out loneliness. We are truly found and claimed by God and one another.
In ways that could be reframed today, both Augustine and Aquinas underscore the point that sexual difference is not the source and summit of personhood and identity. For Augustine, the real reason for the creation of woman was for the sake of procreation. He writes, “Now, if the woman was not made for the man to be his helper in begetting children, in what was she to help him? She was not to till the earth… If there were any such need, a male helper would be better, and the same could be said of the comfort of another’s presence if Adam were perhaps weary of solitude. How much more agreeably could two male friends, rather than a man and woman, enjoy companionship and conversation in a life shared together.” Similarly, Aquinas writes that woman “is not fitted to help man except in generation, because another man would have proved a more effective help in anything else.”
These passages ought to be criticized for not recognizing the great contributions women make to humanity and to creation. And we should value the important relationships had between men and women today. But these passages should also caution Christians who want to say that the Christian tradition insists that otherness, love, and personal fulfillment are most fully and fundamentally found in sexual difference.
I recognize the concerns of the Christian apologist. There is a desire to preserve an appreciation for manhood and womanhood, masculinity and femininity. But in their efforts to cure contemporary problems, many Christian apologists create new ones (while also failing to resolve the original issue). A bad argument for good reasons is still a bad argument. Here, a link between sex and otherness was created in ways that are problematic when placed against the Christian tradition.
There are a number of other concerns I have about Our Twitter friend’s comment. I worry about the extent to which she reduces masculinity and femininity to stereotypes needed to drum up lust. I also worry that the inability to find meaningful “otherness” outside of sexual difference will doom one to friendships characterized by a shallow codependency. (I hope her friendships transcend her theories and would like to propose an alternative here and here.) But those will be questions for another time.
is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. His writings focus primarily on Catholicism, homoeros, and law, and have appeared in Logos, Commonweal Magazine, Church Life Journal, and other publications. In his free time, he enjoys hosting seminars, creative writing workshops, and dinner parties.