Intersections

Friendship with the Body and Gender Dysphoria

by: 
Fellipe do Vale, PhD

Take away death, and the body is good. Let death, the last enemy, be removed, and my flesh will be for ever my friend.

St. Augustine, Sermon 155.15[1]

 

The body as we know it exists in a remarkable tension. On the one hand, Christians confess that the body is unquestionably good; the incarnation of Christ tolerates no lesser opinion, signaling God’s intent to redeem these very bodies. Nevertheless, the Apostle Paul also indicated that these same bodies possess an acutely felt awareness that such goodness is not an obvious feature of our ordinary lives. We still await “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23), that ultimate transformation when the “Lord Jesus Christ…will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21).  This, then, is the tension: we possess bodies that are good and divinely-affirmed, and yet these are also bodies that groan, feel burdensome, and are not quite the way they were meant to be.

According to Christian doctrine, the source of this tension is death. Though it includes the end of life, death is understood theologically as a malady that encompasses the full range of corruption introduced to humanity as a consequence of sin. This is the “body of death” (Rom. 7:24) from which we need redemption, and it serves as the focus of Augustine’s homily above. Augustine recognizes that our bodies experience varying amounts of discomfort, pain, and sorrow because we are not yet free from the corruption of sin—they feel like burdens when they were meant to be delights. Most intriguing, however, is Augustine’s choice of terms for describing these conditions: a lack of friendship.

To say that in sin we lack friendship with the body is to say something more specific than that it experiences corruption, for friendship is, amongst many other things, a particular kind of relation of love. As Augustine relates in the Confessions, “There is no true friendship unless you establish it as a bond between hearts glued to one another through love.”[2] Cultivating friendship with the body therefore requires love for it; yet, as a result of death, loving our bodies feels less like loving a friend and often more like loving an enemy. But when death is removed in glory, our bodies will be “for ever our friends.”

Such a framework, I want to suggest, is helpful for understanding gender dysphoria. That complex set of feelings and thoughts that result in one not feeling at home in one’s body can be understood theologically as a kind of break-down in bodily friendship. Let me be clear: my claim is not that individuals with dysphoria have a special lack of friendship with the body the rest of us do not. I am claiming that sin has introduced a variegated breakdown of bodily friendship into all of our lives, and understanding dysphoria as one instance of such enables Christian churches to adopt a more compassionate, understanding, and ultimately faithful posture to those whose bodies and genders are sources of difficulty and complexity.

Debates about trans* tend to revolve around whether we ought to prioritize the body or whether we ought to prioritize psychology when it comes to gender; the framework I am proposing resists this bifurcation. Consider two friends in a quarrel, Jerome and Paula. On the one hand, it would be selfish for Jerome to require Paula to change her particularity completely as an attempt to rectify the quarrel. On the other hand, it would be inappropriately selfless for Jerome to abandon his own particularity in order to rectify the quarrel. In the same way, the model of friendship resists attempts either to prioritize bodies or psychology unilaterally; though genuine conflict exists, they are meant to be objects of one another’s love.

Considering dysphoria within the framework of friendship resists quick “fixes,” perhaps any solutions at all until the return of Christ (where a solution is an establishment of friendship within this life). Recall that the source of the lack of friendship is death, a force external to ourselves resolved only by resurrection. So long as there is death there will be difficulty with our bodies, and we cannot remove it ourselves. This means that the Christian task is not necessarily for dysphoria to be eliminated. Rather, the Christian task is to help those who experience their bodies as difficulties cultivate friendship in the midst of those difficulties. As Oliver O’Donovan puts it, our relationship with our bodies

is a moral task, and not merely an event which may or may not transpire…[it] involves accepting this gift and learning to love it, even though we may have to acknowledge that it does not come to us without problems. Our task is to discern the possibilities for personal relationship which are given to us with this biological sex, and to seek to develop them in accordance with our individual vocations. Those for whom this task has been comparatively unproblematic…are in no position to pronounce any judgment on those for whom accepting their sex has a been a task so difficult that they have fled from it into denial. No one can say with any confidence what factors have made these pressures so severe.[3]

Friendship with the body is resistance to death, a declaration that there will soon be a day when the broken body of Christ will heal our broken bodies. We cannot overcome this death ourselves, and to an extent, ascesis must always accompany attempts at friendship, a posture of patience and resistance to hasty judgmentalism that churches will do well to encourage. Understanding dysphoria as an aspect of this moral task resists any simple route, and recognizes the complexities of awaiting the redemption of our bodies. But such an understanding should, by the Spirit’s help, generate compassion, understanding, and churches that help all of us become better friends.



[1] Augustine, Sermons 151–183, trans. Edmund Hill, vol. III/5, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1992), 93.

[2] Augustine, Confessions, IV.4.7. Translation modified from Joseph T. Lienhard, “Friendship, Friends,” in Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 372.

[3] Oliver O’Donovan, Begotten or Made? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 28–29.

 

About the Author:

Fellipe do Vale is a Systematic Theologian teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL. He was born in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil, and has lived throughout the U.S. with his wife and daughter. His work focuses on the juncture between theological anthropology and moral theology, what it means to be human and how to navigate the complexities of being human well. He has expertise in theology and gender and has published several articles on the subject.