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Center for Action and Contemplation

The Essential Self and the Passing Self

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Gender and Sexuality: Week 1

The Essential Self and the Passing Self
Wednesday, April 18, 2018

As I shared in my meditations on human bodies the last two weeks, Western Christianity owes our separation of body and spirit to Greek philosophy much more than to Scripture or Jesus. Social psychologist Diarmuid O’Murchu suggests that Plato and Aristotle are primarily responsible for our binary view of gender and the idea that gender and sexuality are “biologically ingrained, and determined by God, the creator of the natural order.” Over the next few days, I’ll summarize some of O’Murchu’s helpful insights from his recent book, Incarnation: A New Evolutionary Threshold.

O’Murchu outlines the “norms” with which we are all no doubt familiar:

Men are supposed to be rational, assertive, tough, and focused on material success; women are supposed to be more emotional, modest, tender, and concerned with a nurturing quality of life. According to that same philosophy, the male is superior in strength, wisdom and fertility; the woman provides the passive, receptive incubator to fertilize the male seed and assure the continuance of the human race. [1]

This was not always the case. Many ancient peoples treated men and women in a much more egalitarian way. Our current binary roles can be traced back to the Agricultural Revolution. These gender stereotypes are socially constructed behaviors and attributes that differ by culture, rather than absolute truths or tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition. [2] Many cultures identify a third or even fourth gender. The Bible often refers to “eunuchs” (see Isaiah 56:4-5 and Matthew 19:12, for instance) which may or may not have included people that today might identify as transgender, bisexual, intersex, gay, or lesbian.

Modern scholars tell us, O’Murchu writes, that “how we experience ourselves as male or female is largely the result of learned conditioning.” Our different biological features are “secondary to our identity.” Both sex and gender are “fluid concepts that exist along a spectrum, rather than as fixed binaries determined by biology or genetic imprinting.” [3] In spiritual terms, gender is an attribute of

the “false” or passing self, and is thus not one’s essential identity in God. The “True Self” or “Anchored Self” is beyond gender, which is probably the point Jesus is making when he says in heaven there is no marriage or giving in marriage (Luke 20:35).

Several weeks ago, in the Daily Meditations, I explored Evolution, a concept many Christians tend to dismiss or fight. [4] A view of Creation as static and unchanging has not served us well when it comes to our own bodies and the way we treat others. An evolving universe gives us the freedom to be surprised and change our minds when reality doesn’t match our preconceived notions. It allows growth and change.

Aristotle believed humans were superior to all other life forms because we are capable of rational—dualistic—thinking. And he thought that men had stronger rational abilities than women, thereby making men more important and powerful. Yet rational thinking is not the only or even best way of knowing! While it’s certainly helpful, the critical mind can’t fully comprehend the most meaningful issues in life like God, love, sexuality, grace, suffering, and death. For that we need contemplative, nondual consciousness, which is much more like intuitive knowing.

As we become more aware that arbitrary categories of male and female don’t fully describe human experience (for example, that of transgender people), we must look at reality with more compassionate eyes. The Gospel skips over gender and sexuality as arbitrary and passing. Gender is not the essential self, but merely a pathway to wholeness. The Gospel says I am a precious, beautiful being created in God’s image and likeness—and we all share this identity equally and in common. This totally levels the playing field of humanity. This is why I cannot give up on Christianity.

[1] Diarmuid O’Murchu, Incarnation: The New Evolutionary Threshold (Orbis Books: 2017), 126-127. O’Murchu references scientists and other scholars throughout; please see his book for a full exploration of this topic.

[2] See World Health Organization,

[3] O’Murchu, 128.

[4] See Richard Rohr, Evolution: Weekly Summary,

Image credit: Study for the Libyan Sibyl (detail), Michelangelo Buonarotti, ca. 1510-11. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The body is a sacrament . . . a visible sign of invisible grace. . . . All our inner life and intimacy of soul longs to find an outer mirror. It longs for a form in which it can be seen, felt, and touched. The body is the mirror where the secret world of the soul comes to expression. . . . The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. —John O’Donohue
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