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“THERE USED TO BE A WORD FOR THOSE PEOPLE”
“I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.” “Trans women are women.” “A woman is anyone who identifies as a woman.” Statements like these are now commonplace: they reveal that words, and the way we use them, change over time. That which used to go without saying is now being said in a way that implies its opposite. “Words strain,” T. S. Eliot wrote, “Crack and Sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip slide and perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, / Will not stay still.”1 The words “woman” and “man” and the categories they denote, which used to be intuitive and axiomatic, are beginning to crack under the pressure of a culture determined to do away with nature’s limits, and to elevate freedom (underwritten by technology) as the highest good. “To define is to limit,”2 Oscar Wilde wrote, and to limit is to exclude. Exclusion has become the root of all evils: this is why the definitions of man and woman are becoming, in queer theorist Judith Butler’s words, a “permanently available site of contested meanings.”3
On June 6, 2020, J. K. Rowling retweeted an op-ed piece whose title conspicuously replaced the word “woman” with a female bodily function. “‘People who menstruate,’” Rowling mused, “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” she wrote.4 Rowling is right: there used to be a word for those people, but it has been pressed into the service of a new purpose. Rowling’s tweet dropped like a hand grenade into Twitter, and the sheer volume of verbally profane pushback she received, loaded with sexually violent threats, is astounding.5 Many people, myself included, are concerned that the word “woman” is decaying with repeated twisting and misuse, and that natal females will suffer from the “slip slide and perish” of its broken meaning.
How did we get here, and what is a Christian to make of this strange story of the tortuous transformation of words?
“WE APPEAR TO HAVE THROWN OUT THE WHOLE UNIVERSE”
Every origin story has to start somewhere, and there’s an arbitrariness to choosing one’s beginning. I am trying to answer a question similar to Carl Trueman’s in his book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.6 How did we get to the point where someone could say, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body,” and that would sound plausible to many? Trueman began his critique with the Romantic poets and Rousseau, but this is too late in the game to grasp the stakes. Romanticism was, after all, a compensatory reaction to the “death of the cosmos” precipitated by the rise of science, the Reformation, and the philosophical transformations that made both movements possible.
The fact that we have been undergoing a process “that has led us from the living universe where man meets the gods to the final void where almost-nobody discovers his mistakes about almost-nothing,”7 as C. S. Lewis quipped, can hardly be the fault of poets. If anything, the Romantics were alerting us to our error of having thrown the baby out with the bathwater, of having accidentally killed the living universe in our efforts to scrub her of superstition. “We appear to have thrown out the whole universe, ourselves included,” Lewis wrote. “We must go back and begin over again.”8
In those tumultuous centuries that marked the end of the Medieval world and the birth of the Modern, multiple cultural phenomena contributed to this task of cleaning up and clearing out the messy “organism” of the teleological cosmos and replacing her with an inert, controllable “world machine” made of disconnected parts. Philosophical nominalism and voluntarism, Reformation iconoclasm and desacramentalization, and the rise of science and its claims of objectivity changed our view of the universe and the way we talk about it. Synergism gave way to monergism; participation was replaced with competition. The loser was the meaningfulness of the material world.
When philosophers like William of Occam and Gabriel Biel reframed God’s existence as being of the same sort as His creation (He’s just bigger and better — a difference of degree, not kind), God’s agency was pitted against creation’s agency, and of course God won. As Charles Taylor describes it,
Part of the impetus for the new science came from an anti-teleological morality. The source of this was theological: the nominalist revolt against Aristotelian realism, by figures like William of Occam, was motivated by a sense that propounding an ethic founded on the supposed bent of nature was attempting to set limits to the sovereignty of God. God must preserve the fullest freedom to establish good and bad by fiat. The further development of this Occamist line of thought played an important role in the scientific revolution of this century….In the end, a mechanistic universe was the only one compatible with a God whose sovereignty was defined in terms of the endless freedom of fiat.9
The endless freedom of fiat — this is the throughline that links nominalistic philosophy, Reformed theology, and the scientific endeavor with the linguistic absurdities of today. With all of the agency transferred to God’s side of the account, the human person (and nature as a whole) becomes a passive object of God’s will-acts, rather than a Bride whose free consent is valuable or a creation whose good consists in the fulfillment of its own nature. God’s will becomes unmoored from any “prior” cause, including the goodness of His nature. The natural law of the created order was now viewed as binding solely because God imposed it on humanity, not because there was any intrinsic correlation between the orders of the divine mind, nature, and the human mind. The severing of human reason’s participation in God’s mind made the activities of the human intellect an arbitrary affair. We no longer discovered universal forms amidst nature (patterned after ideas in God’s mind); we saw only the raw particulars of the world, and then, by fiat, imposed names and concepts upon unrelated things.
The bloating of one agency at the expense of the other also happened in the Scientific Revolution. The world was recast as inanimate and manipulable material for our study, possession, and use. Only if our “little, dancing sister” (as Chesterton called Nature) was reframed as a corpse, could we turn our tools upon her and get to work dissecting her innards. As humans mastered the physical world, we ceased to perceive it as a sacred arena of relationships. As Lewis posits in the preface to The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth:
At the outset the universe appears packed with will, intelligence, life and positive qualities; every tree is a nymph and every planet a god. Man himself is akin to the gods. The advance of knowledge gradually empties this rich and genial universe: first of its gods, then of its colors, smells, sounds and tastes, finally of solidity itself as solidity was originally imagined. As these items are taken from the world, they are transferred to the subjective side of the account: classified as our sensations, thoughts, images or emotions. The Subject becomes gorged, inflated, at the expense of the Object.10
The inflation of the Subject at the expense of the Object played out in many of the Reformers’ privileging of the incorporeal (spiritual) over the corporeal (sacramental) aspects of the faith. Spirit and matter, knit together by incarnational theology, had a falling out: icons, saints, and sacraments were now perceived as idolatrous competitors for God’s glory. “The reformed tendency to expel the sacred from particular spaces and times and to relocate it in states of consciousness”11 elevated the “invisible church” over against the visible church. Calvin locked the church doors during the week to prevent congregants from using the sanctuary for prayer, fearful they would attach too much significance to the place. He stripped the church bare of its religious objects and art, declaring such material things “subterfuges,” leaving only the pulpit and the table. In Calvin’s liturgical schema, matter (other than Christ) couldn’t participate incarnationally in God: it would only distract from Him. “Since Jesus Christ has been manifested in the flesh, doctrine having been much more clearly delivered, ceremonies have diminished.”12 While Calvin himself was not a nominalist, his attitude towards materiality showed similarities (matter matters less), as did his emphasis on God’s sovereign will and his downplaying of nature’s participation in the divine.
WE ARE THE GODS
These transformations within philosophy, religion, and science were intertwined with linguistic ones. The problem of universals — how it is that we can recognize categories like Woman, Tree, or Cat — has been a source of philosophical debate since Plato and Aristotle, through Boethius and Augustine, to Thomas Aquinas and William of Occam. The question was answered decisively against the medieval schema of a Great Chain of Being with relational hierarchies of participation in the Divine Mind, and decisively for the modern schema of a world in which everything is ultimately individual and particular, in which physicality is evacuated of inherent meaning, and the will (whether divine or human) externally imposes meaning upon meaningless material. Without intending it, Occam set the stage for the Western presumptions that form the bedrock of the modern liberal order. Our love affair with “the endless freedom of fiat” wouldn’t have been possible without a radical disconnect of creation from participation in divine reason, along with a rejection of universal, teleological natures.
The rise of the psychological self that Trueman documents, and which sets the stage for the plausibility of the statement, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body,” is another name for this process of gutting the cosmos of its “superstitious agency” and gorging ourselves on the contents. What began as an effort to empty out the dryads and the pagan gods (a reasonable task) continued with emptying the Eucharist of the Real Presence and sacking the entire heavenly hierarchy of saints, angels, and devils. That middling place between the errors of pagan animism and the cult of the bloated psychological self is incarnational Christianity, which sees nature as an icon of heaven. But nature bereft of teleology is putty in our hands, as is our own flesh. We are a plastic people serving a sovereign Self through “meat Lego gnosticism,”13 and our language reflects and facilitates this brave new world. We no longer fear the gods; we are the gods.
THE SEMANTIC TRIANGLE: VOX, CONCEPTUS, RES
And how do today’s gods talk about the world and themselves? The age-old framework of the Semantic Triangle is a useful shorthand to describe the shift in our language over time. There is a relationship between the thoughts in our heads, the words in our mouths, and the world those words and thoughts relate to. The corners of the triangle are Vox (a sign that points; written/spoken language), Conceptus (what exists subjectively in the mind of the thinker/speaker and mediates between word and world), and Res (the extra-linguistic objective reality that words refer to).
From the perspective of the pre-Occam world, external reality (Res) implants a seed of itself in my mind, and that seed grows into an idea (Conceptus) of the way the world is. My concepts are “offspring” of myself and of my openness to all that is not myself. I express my ideas using the words available to me (Vox), which will be culturally-specific and conventional. Whether I say woman, femme, frau, žena, or gynaíka is arbitrary, but they all refer to the same universal concept, which is not arbitrary. This traditional view assumes an attitude of hospitality to the nature of things — a desire to conceive, articulate, and conform to “what is the case.”
But what if the fruitful interplay of Vox, Conceptus, and Res is severed? The Scientific Revolution endeavored to cut out subjectivity from the process, framing personal involvement in the formulation of ideas as a contamination. What is meant by the term “neutral” (as in having a “neutral perspective” on “objective facts”) other than the rejection of one’s own participation in the knowledge process, a metaphorical “neutering” of one’s ineradicable subjectivity?
In the postmodern subjectivist approach our words don’t describe the world — they constitute it. Postmodernism refuses to allow the objectively real to impart life, content, and meaning into one’s perspective from the outside. This underlies Queer Theory and its radical skepticism that universal categories (especially those of sex and gender) are based in any kind of biological reality. Categories are a form of oppression perpetrated and perpetuated through language. Whoever we deem “right” about reality is simply the more powerful party: speech isn’t communication but rhetorical gamesmanship.
Both the modern and postmodern approaches to language and epistemology are flawed. Modernism claims to give us “bare facts” with no interpretive meaning attached (neglecting Conceptus), and postmodernism claims that there is no such thing as a fact: all we have are the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we impose on other people (neglecting Res). Is “woman” a story we can change at will? An oppressive construct imposed by society’s verbal norms? A feeling anyone can identify with? An adult human female with large gametes? Or is “woman” a universal form within the mind of God that we are equipped (through reason) to recognize, and that includes yet transcends biology? Is sex a social construct, or does it speak for itself?
REDISCOVERING THE AGENTIC UNIVERSE
Science is finally beginning to give back a little of what it has taken away: the world as an agentic organism with its own intelligible Vox. Charles Peirce, who devoted himself to the philosophical study of signs (semiotics), wrote that whenever he studied anything at all — be it math or metaphysics, anatomy or astronomy, psychology or chemistry, even men and women — he couldn’t help but see everything as semiotic, as replete with meaning-making and communication.14 Peircean semiotics is the foundation for the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of “biosemiotics,” which sees the biological world as a field of signs and relationships.15 Biosemiotics is “the study of representation, meaning, sense, and the biological significance of sign processes — from intracellular signaling processes to animal display behavior to human…artifacts such as language and abstract symbolic thought.”16 Communication exists outside the realm of the human and predates the emergence of human language. The biological world “speaks” without words, and is rich with meaning, agency, call-and-response, and the dance of mutual fittedness.
If the scientific consensus on evolutionary anthropology is correct — that our sub-articulate, implicit, unconscious mode of being is older than our conscious thought and verbal articulation — then the postmodern claim that human language “socially constructs” reality, and that there are no material facts and meanings before language,17 is demonstrably false. Language isn’t solely a product of human convention but is rooted in our pre-linguistic embodiment. Our sexed bodies have been communicating important meanings for millions of years before anything like language or culture developed to manage and shape them.18
As psychiatrist and Oxford scholar Iain McGilchrist explains in his book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, our embodied cognition is well-equipped to perceive and make sense of the world, and to communicate meaning, without recourse to words.19 The insistence that anything people can meaningfully think about is socially constructed through language “all the way down” is actually a symptom of our modern culture’s left-brain dominance — the left being the hemisphere that deals with language and is prone to see the world in an oversimplified, manipulable form. But language only shapes, rather than grounds, our thinking and perception. It does not construct the landscape of the world for us by pure convention and power; rather it “shape[s] that landscape by fixing the counties’ into which we divide it, defining which categories or types of entities we see there.”20
The kind of attention we pay to the world, and the way we choose to articulate how that world appears to us, is a moral act. For the world is neither neutral and “obvious,” nor a matter of arbitrary cultural convention. According to McGilchrist, “we neither discover an objective reality nor invent a subjective reality”; rather, “there is a process of responsive evocation, the world ‘calling forth’ something in me that in turn calls forth something in the world….as music arises from neither the piano nor the pianist’s hands, the sculpture neither from hand nor stone, but from their coming together.”21 In other words, subject and object participate together in a reciprocal dialogue, making us partners in creation. Human participation in this “responsive evocation” is poetically described in Genesis, as God brings the animals He has created to Adam: “He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name” (Gen. 2:19 NIV).
There’s a reality out there, but we shouldn’t presume that we are fully equipped to “see and say it” apart from training within a wisdom tradition. Knowledge — contact with reality that results in conformity to it — requires virtue. Lewis, in his book The Abolition of Man, explained our need to orient ourselves to “what is the case” with humility, wonder, responsibility, and love. What Lewis called “the Tao” or “Natural Law” is the doctrine of objective value, “the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”22
This subjective response to objective value, this necessary interpretation of The Real and our verbal articulation of it, is unavoidable. The process can go awry in any number of ways, but we do ourselves no favors as Christians by pretending that this interpretation, this morally-saturated “responsive evocation,” isn’t required of us when it comes to speaking about sex and gender. We cannot simply “look between our legs” and call it a day. Such objectivism is naive, casting language as a simple memory-matching card game in which Word = Object in a straightforward, unequivocal way. It’s understandable that conservative evangelicals would err on the side of modernism: we are accustomed to using the historical-critical method of exegesis to interpret God’s Word (against relativistic eisegesis) undergirded by a commitment to Scripture’s perspicuity. It makes sense we would “exegete God’s world” similarly.
And yet we often don’t quite grasp the depth of the problem of interpretation — that we can never fully cut ourselves out of the process and achieve a God’s Eye “view from nowhere.” We need to take postmodernism’s critique seriously: we are selfish, biased, motivated reasoners, and our sense of what is “obvious” can be corrupted. There is a real world out there with limits and contours, but we must interpret this world. We are mediators whether we like it or not.23
The only thing that I see that can properly reconnect the Vox, Conceptus, and Res is poetry: the form of language that predates the false dichotomy of subject and object, that lives in the juicy ambiguity of the in-between, that places human meaning-making and its moral responsibility solidly between our words and the world.
While the truth about Woman and Man can be approached through science, only the kind of science that recognizes the meaning-saturated agency of an “organismic cosmos” is capable of doing justice to the truth. The Res of sex, the Conceptus of gender, and the Vox of “woman” and “man” are best approached not through science, but through symbol and poetry, which is how God (in His kindness) gave them to us:
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them….
And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
(Gen. 1:27, 2:22–23 ESV).
I AM THE WORD THAT SPEAKS THE MAN
According to poet and Oxford Inkling Owen Barfield, the earliest form of human language was
a kind of participation between perceiver and perceived, between man and nature. That is something we no longer experience, only get an occasional glimpse of its quality through the creative imagination of a modern painter or poet. If you can grant this, you see language as originating in that participation, so that in the earliest stages of all it would have to be described as nature speaking through man, rather than man speaking about nature.24
We lost that original participation through that Cartesian sword thrust between spirit and matter, which we all suffer from — the illusion of perception without imagination. We are often stuck in a kind of literalness that is by no means the norm in human history, nor is it a “natural” way of thought and speech, but is rather a late stage in a long-drawn-out historical process. Barfield pointed out that imagination — attending to the world with a symbolic and poetic frame of mind — is the only thing that can lead us out of the desert of nonparticipation. Christians need to find their way out of this wilderness and back into the rich, fruitful, and poetic relationship with The Real that the early church enjoyed, a participation reflected in their symbolic and allegorical readings of the Scriptures, a participation experienced in the beauty of their liturgies, ceremonies, icons, and sacraments.
So much more is at stake than a mere word. The concept of “gender identity” and the linguistic practices surrounding belief in it is the culmination of centuries of “the endless freedom of fiat” by which we ignored Nature’s voice and bullied her into submission. Tuning ourselves to the Vox of our embodiment, relearning how to speak about Woman and Man symbolically, and gaining confidence that nature as God created her can indeed speak through us when we do so, will be a long and humbling process. God is Himself the Logos, the Word who speaks us into being. He has given every creature its own inner logos — its nature — that images forth some aspect of Him. We do not simply speak: we are spoken.25
Alisa Ruddell is a staff writer and associate editor for Christ and Pop Culture and has previously published at Salt and Iron.
- T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets (London: Harcourt Brace, 1988), 19.
- Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (n.p.: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1908), 251.
- Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis, 2011), 21.
- J. K. Rowling (@jk_rowling), Twitter, June 6, 2020, https://Twitter.com/Jk_rowling/Status/1269382518362509313.
- Megan Phelps-Roper, “The Tweets,” The Witch Trials of J. K. Rowling, March 14, 2023, 59:00, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-witch-trials-of-j-k-rowling/id1671691064?i=1000604068146.
- Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).
- C. S. Lewis, preface to The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth, by D. E. Harding (London: The Shollond Trust, 2011), 11.
- Lewis, preface to The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth, 12.
- Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 161.
- Lewis, preface to The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth, 9.
- Robin Mark Phillips, “Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 3: Voluntarism, Nominalism and the Theology of Calvin,” accessed March 20, 2023, https://robinmarkphillips.com/calvin-nominalist-three/.
- John Calvin, Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin, vol. 1 (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002), 192.
- Mary Harrington, Feminism against Progress (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2023).
- Ed Charles Hardwick, Semiotics and Significs (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1977), 85–6.
- Liz Else, “A Meadowful of Meaning — Semiotics.” New Scientist, August 21, 2010. https://www.biosemiotics.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/else2010.pdf.
- Else, “A Meadowful of Meaning.”
- Kathleen Stock, Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism (London: Fleet, 2021).
- Editors’ note: The Christian Research Institute rejects evolutionary anthropology, which denies a historical Adam and Eve. For an articulation of a more plausible explanation of human origins and the significance of a historical Adam, see Hank Hanegraaff, “Adamic Denial and Distortion,” Christian Research Journal 45, no. 01 (2022): 4–5; Casey Luskin, “Lessons Learned (and Not Learned) from the Evangelical Debate over Adam and Eve,” Christian Research Journal 45, no. 01 (2022): 8–15; Fazale “Fuz” Rana, “Who Was Adam? Summary Critique of William Lane Craig’s In Quest of the Historical Adam,” Christian Research Journal 44, no. 04 (2021): 32–39; and the relevant essays in Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, ed. J. P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, Christopher Shaw, et al. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017). Of course, the point of Alisa Ruddell’s particular argument here holds whether one embraces the so-called “scientific consensus on evolutionary anthropology” or the historical Christian view that Adam and Eve were special creations of God — material facts and meaning precede human language.
- Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 108.
- McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary, 110.
- McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary, 133–4.
- C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (1944), Internet Archive, accessed March 14, 2023, https://archive.org/details/TheAbolitionOfMan_229/page/n5/mode/2up?q=%22the+kind+of+things+we+are%22.
- Alisa Ruddell, “Why Truth-Loving Christians Still Have a B.S. Problem (and What We Can Do About It),” Christ and Pop Culture, March 5, 2020, https://christandpopculture.com/why-truth-loving-christians-still-have-a-b-s-problem-and-what-we-can-do-about-it/.
- Owen Barfield, “Owen Barfield and the Origin of Language,” The Owen Barfield Literary Estate, accessed March 20, 2023, https://www.owenbarfield.org/read-online/essays/owen-barfield-and-the-origin-of-language/.
- See the powerful poem by Charles Causley, “I Am the Song That Sings the Bird” (1986), Collected Poems (1951–2000) (London: Picador, 1992), Poetry by Heart, https://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/i-am-the-song.