On The A-Team Blog, Timbo and I have had an ongoing conversation about gender and whether it is a cultural creation or if it is something deeper.
Timbo asked me this question:
I don’t think gender is inherently relational (though I do think that gender is inherently potentially relational). My thought-experiment was not intended to imply Adam, but was an attempt to look at the concept of gender without interference from anything non-essential to it. If there had only ever been one male, would he be gendered?
I would like to respond here on my blog.
Here is where Timbo and I are going to split as I do see being in relationship as essential to being a person and I will explain this point below. I’m comfortable saying that gender as an aspect of being human is relational. The question about someone being gendered apart from relationship is a hypothetical one that I cannot see happening. (That last sentence may come off as being dismissive of Timbo’s question, but please know that certainly is not my intention.) I suppose I have been influenced by what I understand of John Zizioulas’ theology that holds that communion is not an addition to being, but an ontological category in and of itself. Zizioulas has built off the Cappodocian fathers. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen summarizes Zizioulas’ theology in An Introduction to Ecclesiology (2002):
There is no true being without communion; nothing exists as an “individual” in itself. Communion is an ontological category; even God exists in communion….
Being in communion does not, however, mean downplaying the distinctive personhood of each individual. “The person cannot exist without communion; but every form of communion which denies or suppresses the person is inadmissable. (93-94)
My point in quoting the above is this: if personhood and being means being in communion (with God and with others), those aspects of our identities such as gender would be rooted in our being in communion and thus be relational categories. Just as Zizioulas would know of no person not in some form of communion, I know of no male or female not in relationship with others. Now I don’t know if Zizioulas would take the turn I have with regard to gender; I am merely using him as my starting point.
That is a long response as to why my understanding of personhood and gender cannot adequately answer the question Timbo posed above. Not only has the idea of an individual person existing completely in isolation never been an historical reality, it is in my understanding an impossibility philosophically since I hold that being a person means being in community. Community is not interference to the person, but the essence of being human. All aspects of being human will be grounded in the notion of being in communion. I may have taken us down another rabbit-trail with this post, but I hope it clarifies my position on how I view persons.