Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Fall 2020 issue of Eikon.
In his book Begotten or Made?, Oliver O’Donovan sets about excavating the epistemological foundations that undergird the modern conscience. Originally delivered as part of the London Lectures in Contemporary Christianity in 1983, O’Donovan’s book is a response to a government-sponsored inquiry into the social, ethical, and legal questions surrounding the then-burgeoning field of assisted reproductive technology in the United Kingdom.
O’Donovan’s response, however, is more than a theological roadmap through the Wild West of medical bioethics. O’Donovan takes his reader underneath the ethics of reproductive technology and plumbs the depths of the human psyche, pinpointing a structural defect pervasive throughout contemporary ethical reasoning.
For O’Donovan, what underwrites the modern approach to these questions reveals a much wider ethical error: the relatively new penchant for viewing humanity as artificial instead of natural, as man-made instead of begotten or created. In the biblical account, God makes man, but man begets man. These terms are foundational: what is made is wholly unlike its maker and remains under the maker’s authority; but what is begotten is of the same substance and relates as an equal. Once man begins to think of himself as made by other men and himself a maker of men, he considers mankind to be a product.
O’Donovan devotes one whole chapter in his book on the ethics of reproductive technology to the issue of transsexualism, which seems out of place until one reckons with the totality of his diagnosis.
For O’Donovan, modern man’s root error is his failure to accept his God-given nature, which comes with designed limitations. Augustine writes in his Exposition of the Psalms on how the given-ness of our nature is connected to God’s goodness toward us: “From God we have our being and also our well-being.” But in a world full of man-made inventions and technological advancements, we have mistaken ourselves for one more manufactured thing, an artifact of the human will to manipulate. In a perverse corollary to Augustine, if we have our being from ourselves, then so also our well-being.
No longer does man appreciate the natural world for its natural-ness; he instead sees it as a series of frontiers to be conquered or manipulated. According to O’Donovan, this mindset sets up a confrontation with the self:
The relation of human beings to their own bodies, we might say, is the last frontier of nature. However much we may surround ourselves with our artifacts, banish every bird from the sky and every fish from the river, tidy every blade of grass into a park with concrete paths and iron railings, however blind we may become to the givenness of the natural order on which our culture is erected, nevertheless, when we take off our clothes to have a bath, we confront something as natural, as given, as completely non-artifactual as anything in this universe: we confront our own bodily existence.
In a bygone era, such a confrontation would serve to temper man’s ambitions. But today, the basic structures of nature itself, including man himself, present an insatiable challenge. And appetites are not immune to self-harm or self-destruction.
In modern man’s current mode, his confrontation with his own bodily existence — which puts him face-to-face with the image that is meant to turn him to the One he images — has prompted a number of mistaken responses: the narcissist worships his own reflection like Eve at the pool in Paradise Lost; the gnostic recoils in horror and attempts an escape from bodily reality; but the transhumanist pines for a bodily existence altogether different from the one he confronts. Transsexualism, or what is more commonly known today as transgenderism, combines these final two responses, and the more extreme forms turn to the scalpel for resolution. The name for the purveyors of such operations, plastic surgeons, betrays the whole project: the body as mere construction material to be re-fashioned, re-modeled, re-formed to satisfy the human will.
The Pot’s Attempt at Pottery
The book of Isaiah offers a fascinating angle on the ethical dimensions of transgenderism.
“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’?” Isaiah 45:9
A dissatisfied pot is ridiculous enough that Isaiah’s question can be left unanswered. But in O’Donovan’s accounting, the metaphor needs updating. The modern pot would be unaware of the potter, ruling out the kind of allegorical conversation Isaiah rehearses. Instead, we would have to envision a pot at work at the wheel, or perhaps attempting to shape itself. Of course, to do so is to border on the absurd; but such is man’s attempt to escape nature and given-ness.
Isaiah’s question is rhetorical for a reason. The scenario highlights the irrationality of a created thing offering any kind of creative input back to its creator. Everything it is, it owes to its creator, including its form and function. To wish for anything different is to call into question the creator’s competence, or his goodness.
Signposts on the Ancient Paths
It seems to me that the Christian church’s response to transgenderism should be the same to modern man writ large. We must recover signposts to the ancient paths. Those looking for a “thou shalt not transgender” prooftext in the Bible might find an assist from Deuteronomy 22:5, but there is a reason the biblical world did not confront cross-sex hormone treatments or sex-reassignment surgeries. And herein lies part of the solution. We need to reframe the issues altogether to think more like the ancients, more like those in the biblical world: we are not self-made automatons, but God-made creatures. As God-made creatures, we participate in human nature as male or female — one nature, two sexes — and this nature given for our well-being, as Augustine reminds us.
In other words, the transgender question isn’t fundamentally a question about physical possibility, but metaphysical reality. When we reframe it so, the question Who am I? is addressed only in conversation with the question, Who made me?
Colin J. Smothers is executive director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and pastor of First Baptist Church of Maize, Kansas.
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