Who Do YOU Say that I Am: “Preferred Personal Pronouns,” Ethics, Language, and the Gospel, by Jeffery J. Ventrella, J.D., Ph.D.
Posted on June 2, 2018
The pressure rises on campus, in the public square, and in the church: Use someone’s “gender affirming” pronoun or be deemed “offensive” at best or a bigot at worst. And, in the Christian milieu, this is often seen as providing “passport” to affirm the trans-challenged individual or else risk permanently severing a [hypothetical subsequent] “gospel conversation.”
It’s almost pitched as: “if you uptight Christians would only have the decency to use the preferred pronoun, then the gates of heaven would fly open without impediment.” How ought we to navigate this quite real and increasingly prominent situation? Is the issue of pronoun usage merely a matter of niceness and interpersonal courtesy?
Let’s begin with a thought experiment:
If one calls his car “water” that is one thing. However, if he puts his “water” in his garage and closes the door, secure in his own supposed noetic autonomy that his “water” is in the garage, what happens upon re-opening the door? Will he be greeted by a puddle?
Of course not; calling or labeling a car “water” does not mean that it becomes liquid. This is to confuse the language label with the actual thing. Labeling a car “water” will not convert it to being a puddle.The same way, there is in fact an underlying reality when it comes to sex and reproduction in humans—just as there is for all mammals and other higher species. Every cell in your body, every neuron in your brain, is either male in its genetic makeup (XY) or female (XX). Your body can produce eggs, or it can produce sperm. Neither words, hormones, nor scalpels can change these and many other objective and sex-linked facts about you that you did not choose, that were handed to you at the first instant that you became you—at the instant of conception.
Tom Wright explains the central theological flaw committed by confusing a chosen label with actual reality:
We are not, after all, defined by whatever longings and aspirations come out of our hearts, despite the remarkable rhetoric of our times. In the area of human well-being, that is the road to radical instability; the area of theological beliefs, it leads to Gnosticism (where you try to discern the hidden divine spark within yourself and then be true to it).Calling things whatever one desires is not a Christian exercise; it is rather a Gnostic and hence, pagan exercise leading to instability and stifling human flourishing. There’s more to personal pronoun usage than courtesy and niceness.
Let’s also consider language and its role and use in general. Language stems from the eternal Word who is Truth and cannot lie. Accordingly, language when used by humans, those created in the image and likeness of this God, should be used for conveying truth.
Yet, what about when engaging with unbelieving suffering souls struggling with (or embracing) “gender dysphoria”? Shouldn’t using their “preferred personal pronoun” be seen as a tangible act of loving one’s neighbor? Don’t we risk “offending” or shutting down the conversation by tying the pronoun to the person’s sex? How should we think about this at the retail level where real people matter?
Let’s first be clear about what loving one’s neighbor biblically entails. James K.A. Smith provides keen insight:
If we truly love our neighbors, we will bear witness to the fullnessto which they are called.If we truly desire their welfare, we should proclaim the thickness of moral obligations that God commands as the gifts to channel us into flourishing, and labor in hope that these might become the laws of the land, though with appropriate levels of expectation.”It is thus actually unloving to reinforce notions that detract from a person’s flourishing or compromise the moral duty to which God calls them. We do them no favors by mistakenly equating niceness for actual reality-based kindness and love.
And, let’s remember that “loving neighbor” is penultimate, not ultimate. It’s the second great commandment. The first also necessarily bears on this question and that commandment demands that we first love God with our entire being, including our mind. This means, among other things, that a God-defined thing must control a self-labeled thing. Humans, as creatures, receive, that is, discern, not determine, the Creator’s description/interpretation of reality, including ethical reality. Misnaming reality via personal preference or desire fails to justify that misnaming.How does all this relate to interacting with a “gender confused” neighbor who insists on your using a pronoun that defies the real reality of his or her sex? Here are a few thoughts.
First, personal pronouns refer to real persons and thus invoke and reference creational norms associated with those real persons, that is, the metaphysical reality of those persons. Names in contrast are labels applied to metaphysical reality, not at bottom or in essence, reflecting that reality itself: in other words, at bottom, there are men and women, but not necessarily Bob or Toby or Sam. A woman who assumes her husband’s surname as is customary in some cultures doesn’t cease to be a woman, nor does her metaphysical status change when her name changes.
A single name, because it is a label, not a metaphysical reality, can refer to both sexes, whether male or female and a person can possess multiple ones. Names are thus assigned; sex simply is. No one is born with a name; they are born, however with a determined and immutable sex. Personal pronouns necessarily refer to sex, unlike names, which may or may not do so.
Second, and expanding on this reality, God created mankind with a set metaphysical, binary complementarity called “male and female.” This is what mankind is in real reality, and no existential desire, personal preference, cosmetic camouflage, hormonal infusion, or tissue-destroying surgery alters – or can alter — that reality – these techniques can only distort it. On the surface, sex can be superficially obfuscated; it cannot be obliterated.
Third, Jesus teaches that to become holy – sanctified – flows from applying a word-based truth. If one instead employs a realtiy-denying pronoun—calling a male “her” or “she” — one is thereby withholding, obscuring, or obstructing the means by which a confused and hurting person can become holy. One is in effect withholding medicine from a needful patient fearing that the stick of the needle might be deemed “not nice” or “offensive.”
Fourth, the 9th commandment bans bearing false witness, which as a rubric proscribes a variety of linguistic and behavioral abuses, all rooted in protecting real reality, or truth telling. One tradition put it this way in relevant part:
The sins forbidden in the ninth commandment are, all prejudicing the truth, and the good name of our neighbours, . . . outfacing and overbearing the truth; . . . concealing the truth, . . . perverting [the truth] to a wrong meaning, . . . to the prejudice of truth or justice;speaking untruth,lying, . . .The law of God forbids speaking untruth or occluding the truth in all its forms, including calling a man a woman. As Paul said,
“Let God be true, though every one a liar. As it is written, That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.”Fifth, though the confused person often claims unfairness or offense, note the manipulative asymmetry of their objection. They seek to impose upon and overbear the conscience of all others. The confused person is insisting that others pretend he or she is a different sex and that they thereby participate in or become complicit in this person’s confusion. The people refusing to employ the wrong pronoun in constrast however are not similarly insisting that the confused person use the proper reality-based pronoun. Rather, those people are simply standing on reality and conscience and aligning their vocabulary with those choices, a position perfectly consistent with human flourishing and liberty—and a Christian ethic.
Sixth, note that proper sexuality always relates to marriage, as composed of one man and one woman. This frames and informs the entire biblical narrative: It is the creational norm; it marks Jesus’ first public miracle; and it is the consummational norm. Marriage by creational norm and divine declaration is inherently and indispensably sexually binary. A misused pronoun in principle undermines this foundational pre-political society by rendering both history and metaphysics as mere accidents – biology becomes bigotry.And, seventh, proper pronoun usage is necessarily a “gospel issue.” Paul teaches that human marriage is an analogue to the THE marriage of Christ, the [male] Bridegroom to the [female] Bride—for this analogy to work, “male” and “female” must be immutable metaphysical realities, not merely social constructs as demanded by gender ideology or personal preference. The pronouns “his” and “her” and “he” and “she” thus attach to real reality; they link and refer to the immutable creational norms of “male” and “female.” This is why gender ideology undermines reality and attacks the foundations of the Christian faith; it is a gospel issue as Archbishop Chaput explains:
In decoupling gender from biology and denying any given or “natural” meaning to male and female sexuality, gender ideology directly repudiates reality. People don’t need to be “religious” to notice that men and women are different. The evidence is obvious. And, the only way to ignore it is through a kind of intellectual self-hypnosis. Gender ideology rejects any human experience of knowledge that conflicts with its own flawed premises; it’s the imperialism of bad science on steroids. For Christians, it also attacks the heart of our faith: the Creation (“male and female he created them”); the Incarnation – God taking the flesh of a man; and the Redemption – God dying on the cross and then rising in glorified bodily form.
Who do we say people are? They are who God, the Creator and Redeemer says that they are: fearfully and wonderfully made, dignified and worthy, reflecting His very likeness and image as male and female – he and she; him and her; Bride and Groom – all to God’s glory.