Yesterday, Bondings 2.0 featured excerpts from Daniel Walden’s essay in Commonweal earlier this year about gender and Catholic theology, specifically as it relates to transgender people. Today’s post details a response from Commonweal contributor Paul Griffiths, as well as Walden’s further response. If you would like to read yesterday’s post, click here.
Griffiths, while agreeing with parts of Walden including the reality that gender and assigned sex are indeed different, nonetheless says Walden’s writing is “its own form of nonsense” because of “distortions and crass simplifications.” His piece, “Gender and Identity,” can be accessed here.
First, Griffiths rejects Walden’s ideas about maturation being about people’s growing into telling their own story, not the story parents and society imposed on them at younger ages. Griffiths writes:
“In such a view, only I have primary access to my experience, and it’s that experience which, properly narrated, shows me who I am. I may share that showing with you, and when I do, your first task is to listen and nod. What I discover via introspection is myself; I’m the owner of me; and I am, therefore, the only one with rights to say who I am and to dispose of myself as I see fit. That’s the kind of authority ownership yields. That’s the grammar—the lexicon and syntax—of Walden’s essay. He modifies that grammar mildly by allowing for the possibility that others might criticize the self discovered and shown, but he doesn’t call its fundamental assumptions into question.”
Griffiths rejects the notion that identity comes from introspection, favoring instead the idea that “My actions are me.” One’s gender is the performance of “the range of gender-signifying actions,” adding that “gender identities, especially introspectively garnered and owned ones, are very much beyond necessity.” He continues:
“Why does speaking about gender correctly matter, and by so doing avoid identitarianism, the thought of self-ownership, and the appeal to the authority of introspective and self-enclosed experience? Because, for all of us, but especially for Christians, speaking in those ways blinds us to what really matters about gender performance, which is that for human creatures—perhaps for other creatures, too, but certainly for us—it is one of the two most important ways we have of giving and receiving gifts. (The other is prayer.) To be given the gift of flesh we must caress and be caressed. We receive our gendered lives as gifts, and only as gendered persons, so gifted, can we give to others the gifts we’ve received.”
Griffiths concludes with the following, re-emphasizing that gender is performance and relationality, not inner identity:
“There’s nothing further to discover, nothing further to have authority over, nothing further to appeal to. So also for us and our genders. That’s gender freedom; it’s queering identities, improvising on scripts, lipsticking mustached lips, dissolving the rigidities of local gender orthodoxies, hard and ungiving and violent as they often are, into the blood of Christ. It is not, emphatically not, opposing one form of owned gender-identity (mine, the one I’ve discovered, who I really am) to another (the locally prescribed one to which conformity is required on pain of violence). Walden’s essay fights on a battlefield he should have turned his back on, and if he should win, the victory would be worse than pyrrhic because a Christian mode of thinking about this matter would be made still less visible by it.”
In the final part of this exchange, Walden issues a reply, “Understanding, Not Ultimatums,” to Griffiths in which he hopes to “reveal more agreement between us than might be expected.” At one point, Walden writes against Griffith’s proposed identification of gender as the performative acts a person does:
“Griffiths is correct that gender is constituted by acts, but he is wrong that a person’s performance of those acts is ‘exactly’ their gender. Our acts are human acts, which is another way of saying that they are communicative on the levels of both sensuous and reflective life. Precisely what makes talking about gender difficult is that some gender-acts are petitionary—asking that a person be treated a certain way, talked about in certain terms, grouped and categorized with others in a certain way—while others are purely expressive, and a great many are both at once. It’s this expressive dimension to our action that necessarily is related to our inner lives—it is, in part, an attempt to communicate some of this interior life to other people.”
Walden details more of his objections to Griffiths characterization of Walden’s position, but concludes with an appeal for common ground. The two “fundamentally agree about the real importance of gender acts, and he writes:
“I was particularly struck by the line he draws between gender and prayer, which I think is an illuminating one: prayer, more than anything, demonstrates that the very expression of our desires is itself good, for in honest prayer that asks for what we really want. . .It is a mighty work of God that transgender people offer the gift of their personhood in the face of terrible risks to life and health that our sin imposes on them, and the only Christian response to such a gift, as I think Griffiths would agree, is gratitude and praise to the Lord of Hosts and the gift of ourselves in return.”
Without adding to much comment to this dialogue, it is unfortunate that Commonweal for the second time opted not to include transgender voices, as well as those of cisgender women, all of whom could have greatly added to a conversation about gender that can only go so far when it is two men. What are your reactions to this exchange? Please leave your thoughts in the “Comments” section below.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 7, 2021