Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Biology Isn't Destiny But It Isn't Optional Either

A human being is not, as I said yesterday, a being-in-itself but rather a being-with-others, that is to say a social being.

The social nature of the human person is to say rather a bit more that the I simple fact that the human person is a member of something called the the human community in general sense. Bracketing for a moment ontological considerations, it is to say that our being arises not simply out out of a concrete sexual community constituted by a particular man and a particular woman, that is our mother and father.

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas reminds us with his usual poetry, that this community is primordially an ethical community. The fecundity of the human is not merely biological, he observes, but moral; a woman becomes a mother through an act of hospitality by which she welcomes into her the intimacy of her own body a stranger whose presence will necessarily reconstitute her life transforming her from a biological to a moral agent.

In most traditional societies, and especially within the Christian community, this biological fecundity is a natural symbol for humanity. To be human is to be a being whose existence transcends the brute givenness of biology and really that whole order described with such precision by the empirical natural sciences. Before all else, I am a being whose being comes to from outside and as a gift from a hospitable other. And I, in turn, become most full myself when (in imitation of my mother) I embody concretely my own willingness not to simply to welcome the stranger into my life, but to allow my life to be reformed and transformed by the presence of the stranger.

For both the pious Jew and the committed Christian, that stranger is not simply a human other but the divine Other. I become who I am by an act of hospitality and care not only for strangers, but the Stranger, Who is God. While I cannot explicate it fully here, it can be argued that the human community as a whole is fundamentally feminine and that while women are by nature maternal, men are only analogically paternal.

Certainly cultural factors play a large role in the development of gender, gender roles as social constructs are themselves grounded in the sexual differences of male and female. The gender roles of a given society may more or less accurately reflect these biological difference, even as they may revere they respect these differences. But it seems to me that we can neither deny the real biological difference between male and female nor can we rid ourselves of gender roles for men and women. The denial of these biological and social differences requires that an anthropological vision that is at odds with most traditional cultures and especially with the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Within the Christian tradition specifically, Levinas' analysis of human fecundity and the maternal hospitality of all human beings leads quickly and directly to a consideration of the incarnation of the Son of God in Jesus Christ. Human sexuality and reproduction point beyond themselves to a communion that is both ground in the Most Holy Trinity and which embraces the whole created order.

Even if other traditional societies are not themselves predicated on faith in Jesus Christ, there is (or so it seems to me) these societies share a “family” resemblance with the radically communalism that is at the anthropological heart of the Christian tradition. While not universal, nevertheless the communalism of traditional societies stands in stark contrast to the radical individualism and physical reductionism that has come to evermore characterize contemporary Western culture in both North America and Europe.

More tomorrow.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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