At a recent speaking event, while I held forth about how our gender is defined in relationship, a young husband asked, “But aren’t men and women different?” He agreed with what I was saying but was still uncomfortable with my emphasis. I sympathize with his concern. He is wondering if something is lost in not speaking about an essential difference of men and women. As I wrote in the recent post on Justice Jackson’s confirmation, we may want to preserve women’s distinctiveness from men against the cultural tide of gender obliteration. As the movies and the government yell at us to call women men and men women, don’t we want to keep men and women’s essential differences front and center?
The question is, are women different from men? The problem is that there are three different answers to that question.
First answer: Yes. There are primary sexual differences, of course. Nature comes in binary. There is also statistical difference in a multitude of secondary sexual characteristics that are well-documented. Steven E. Rhoads, for example, wrote a big elegant book about this in 2004, which surely could be updated in light of relevant journal articles from neurology and physiology.
Second answer: Sort of. All of secondary sexual characteristics, from thickness of skin to thickness of the corpus callosum in the brain that results in different propensities of mind, remain statistical distributions that overlap. So, though men are better at math than women, you can always produce a particular woman who is better at math than a particular man. You are left with proclivities, but not absolute differences. Just physiological specialties. And when you generalize, you alienate the outlier.
Third answer: No. The Bible has stubbornly insisted, over and over against the current cultural climates in which it was written, that women are made equally in the image of God. This means that, in what really matters, women are not different than men. There is a huge difference between people (women, men) and southern cassowaries, chimpanzees, and everything else in the universe. That which sets men and women apart from all other life and non-life is much bigger than the difference between them. This vast human vs. all-else chasm is mirrored in human biology as well, though not stressed these days. It doesn’t serve evolution to bring it up. From this perspective, the correct answer is, no, there is not much difference between men and women.
Therefore, the best way to try to answer the question is to start out admitting that all three answers are true: Yes and no and sort of.
Why did God make the situation so complex? Because the point of gender is to come to understand the Other in relationship. If there were no overlap, no equality, that goal would be immediately frustrated. Much more than the mystification we endure every day in all marriages everywhere, Coming to know each other would be hopeless. We would be dead in the water.
But even more important, gender mirrors God’s plural Subsistencies. The One-in-Relationship of the Trinity determined this three-fold answer of yes-no-sort of to allow us to know God. God made it so from the beginning when He splayed Themself out, in His image, in space and time. So we could look through gender and see something of the Unknown Who dwells in unapproachable light.
Rather than essential qualities, the Bible focuses on how we are to use particular differences to love each other differently. Yes, certainly, our bodies, as well as our overlapping secondary sexual characteristics, are essential tools to show us difference and equality. They point the way to the mystery of humanity, the mystery of God.
This is the kind of answer I wish we could have gotten from our new Supreme Court Justice. But we did not. Alas. At least we can get it from the Bible.