Our gendered bodies are always reminding us who we are. We are men or women because of what our bodies will and will not do. The body keeps us rooted in the material world. But modern science, with its insistent prodding, testing, and analysis, has taught us that the body needs to be controlled and often gets in the way of our desires. This modern assault on the body is evident by the growing popularity of cosmetic surgery and the fascination with sexual reassignment surgery.
Meanwhile, cybersex is luring us to think that true intimacy can be had with no physical presence. We would rather not deal with the body. It's too messy. This leads to our talking about gender and sexuality in strangely disembodied ways. How often have you heard "I love who you are inside?" We talk about desire, feelings, and needs all in a framework that largely truncates the body's significance.
I am, however, more than my brain, my mind. I am also a flesh-and-blood woman.
Contemporary ideas reflect this severing of the body from identity. Now we talk about bio-sex instead of gender. The oh-so-hip magazine Utne Reader ran a headline on its cover recently: "It's 2 a.m.--do you know what sex you are? Does anybody?"
My body has become a biological accident with no connection to how I live as a woman. The hard-to-watch movie "Boys Don't Cry" points to this tension between body and identity. The main character, Brandon--a female transsexual--straps down her breasts, feels pain over her periods, and is unable to recognize her own rape. Her physical vulnerability, as she attempts to compete with males, betrays her longing for a male identity. For us, Brandon's identity is up for grabs: Her body tells us nothing about her.
What we need is a more holistic view of ourselves. The stories of the Bible assume that our true selves include our bodies. There is a great deal of physicality in the Bible. In the Genesis story, the Creator speaks everything into being except humanity. Adam and Eve are formed by God's hand and filled with the breath of life. This intimate design of humanity is a prelude to our sexuality. The sexual act is said to be the act of "knowing" another; Adam knew his wife Eve. The psalmist David is said to weep, groan, laugh, and dance before God. His spiritual relationship is expressed physically.
The incarnation of God elevates the human body as an instrument for God's glory.
This puts the body at the center of any discussion about humanity, sex and gender. It can't be insignificant that I was born female, have borne children, and nursed them. It demands something of me. It screams out something about who I am. The Prophet Isaiah expresses it this way: "Can a woman forget her nursing child and not have compassion on the child of her womb?" Because our bodies tell us something about who we are, we should pay attention to them for cues about how to live.
On some level, we already know this. Consider the smashing success of the award-winning play, "The Vagina Monologues." This theater performance could easily be considered raunchy. Instead, it is a brilliant exploration of how women experience the world through their bodies. It is a series of monologues that, taken together, reflect the bodily connections of our relationships, failures, fears, pains, and joys. No matter how much we seek to deny this connection, reality continues to demand its due.
Yet we are also more than our bodies. We are a unity of body and soul--and it's the soul that allows us to relate to God. It is the soul that allows us to become more than mere bodies; with a soul we move from biological accident to intentional being.
Here is where we should seek to live--at the place of integration between our bodies and our souls, never severing one from the other. This informs how, why and with whom we have sex and how we connect sex with love. Sex, then, is no longer merely "hooking up," but a real knowing of another person. Uncommitted sexuality is a violation of our wholeness.
A holistic view of ourselves affects our decisions about childbearing and how we honor our physical connection to our children. Abortion and same-sex unions are not spiritually insignificant choices, because they deal with the whole nature of who we are. To talk about sex and gender requires that we talk honestly about the meaning of our bodies and their power to define our lives.