In his final public appearance before debuting Caitlyn into society, Bruce Jenner shared his experience as a transgender with the world in an exclusive interview with Diane Sawyer.
“Who is Bruce Jenner?” Sawyers asked. Jenner took a deep breath and said:
I’ve tried to explain it this way: God is looking down making little Bruce…And then at the end, when he is just finishing, he says, “Wait a second; we’ve got to give him something. Everyone has stuff in their life they have to deal with. What are we going to give him?…Let’s give him the soul of a female, and lets see how he deals with that.” So here I am: stuck.
“Stuck” is the word Jenner repeatedly used throughout the interview to describe his personal identity in relation to his physical body.
Upon hearing these statements, psychologists would immediately identify an obvious case of gender dysphoria. Philosophers, however, would recognize the basic tenants of Substance Dualism.
Substance Dualists distinguish between the body (which is material) and soul (which is immaterial), and they assert that personal identity rests exclusively in the immaterial soul. Since body and soul are radically separated within this view, it is at least possible that a soul could be misembodied.
For those who experience the trauma of feeling trapped in the wrong body, substance dualism offers two options: either conform the body to harmonize with the soul, or live in a psychologically torturous misembodied state.
If the tenets of Substance Dualism don’t seem that strange to you, you’re not alone. In fact, many Christians assume that our body and soul are separate things and that identity lies in the immaterial soul. This body/soul binary has been so thoroughly woven into the fibers of Western thought that it has crept into many Christians’ worldviews.
The roots of Substance Dualism date back to Plato. He believed we do not have souls but we are souls. John Calvin carried on the body/soul binary; he said that the immortal soul “lies hidden in man separate from body” (Institutes, Ch 15). Descartes later reinforced the gulf between the immaterial and the material. He writes,
This self — that is, the soul by which I am what I am — is completely distinct from the body and is even easier to know that it, and even if the body did not exist the soul would still be everything that it is. (emphasis added)
Here’s why this matters: When it comes to gender dysphoria, many Christians have an undetected contradiction between what they believe about personhood (substance dualism) and their ethical conclusions about gender dysphoria.
And those ethical conclusions generally veer in one of two directions:
- Some Christians deny that the person with gender dysphoria is actually experiencing a problem, identifying the issue as willful defiance or a political agenda. This conclusion causes many Christians to abandon the discussion and consequently marginalize those seeking to navigate this issue.
- Other Christians encourage those struggling with gender dysphoria to align themselves with their biological sex. In so doing, they contradict their own view of personal identity by privileging the body and conforming the soul to it.
The problem lies not in the belief that God made male and female as a reflection of the imago Dei and thus is the one who gets to define who we are and how we best honor him as gendered beings. Rather, the problem is with our loyalty to the body/soul binary, which requires the radical suppression of either the body or the soul when there is a sense of deep incongruence.
Rather than altering our ethical practice, we should examine our beliefs about the relationship between the body and personal identity in order to engage those facing the issue of gender dysphoria in a way that is helpful and truly redemptive.
What Gender Dysphoria Is Not
First, gender dysphoria is not centered on the issue of sexual orientation (contrary to popular belief) but has more to do with self-identity. Although three quarters of those with gender dysphoria realize a homosexual orientation by late adolescence, they consider that orientation to be heterosexual based on their perceived gender identity. Sexual orientation does play a role, but it is not the main issue.
Second, gender dysphoria is not primarily a political movement designed to deconstruct the categories of male and female in favor of a fluid gender identity. While there certainly is a political and philosophical ideology that favors a concept of gender fluidity, those who experience gender incongruence do not tend to articulate their experience or desires in those terms. Mark Yarhouse writes,
[Most] transgender people I have known are not in favor of a genderless society. Quite the opposite: they favor a gendered society, but they long for a sense of congruence in which their body and their mind align…Most are not meaning to participate in a culture war; most are casualties of the culture war.
The deepest desire of those who struggle with gender dysphoria is no longer to feel like a prisoner in their own skin. In fact, they believe sexual reassignment surgery to be the most ethical course of action, allowing them to put that which is disordered back in order. If SRS is not possible, a startling number turn to suicide as the only other means of liberating their misembodied souls.
The deepest desire of those who struggle with gender dysphoria is to no longer feel like a prisoner in their own skin.
Moving Past the Binary
Surprisingly enough, the feminist scholars present the strongest critique of Jenner’s substance dualist paradigm of personal identity. Feminist journalist and author Elinor Burkett published an article entitle “What makes a Woman” in response to Caitlyn’s debut in Vanity Fair. She writes:
I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes. Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side — people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination — are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us. That’s the kind of nonsense that was used to repress women for centuries. But the desire to support people like Ms. Jenner and their journey toward their truest selves has strangely and unwittingly brought it back.
Burkett suggests that identity it is not a fixed, immaterial substance but one that is formed and developed through lived experience as a biologically sexed female in society. She sees past the body/soul binary and holds to a more holistic view of personal identity that includes the biological body as well as the experience of what it means to be a woman in society.
If Christians do not want to abandon the discussion about gender dysphoria, they must do one of two things:
- Hold fast to substance dualism and abandon their ethical convictions.
- Hold fast to their ethical convictions and rethink their anthropology.
I believe the latter is the more appropriate response.
Throughout the Christian tradition, many theologians and philosophers have criticized the substance dualist approach to human nature and supported more holistic approaches. Some of the frontrunners, such as hylomorphism and the Constitution View, are worth considering.
As we reexamine our beliefs on personal identity and consider alternative views to substance dualism, here are some principles to keep in mind:
- Avoid a view that would privilege the immaterial over the material.
Many Christian philosophers and theologians have criticized the preference for the spiritual over the material. They argue that it denies the goodness of creation and its role in the divine narrative.While the scriptures do use the words “body” and “soul” to describe human nature, they do not teach that these are two distinct and unrelated substances set in opposition to each other. Neither do they teach that the bedrock of personal identity is found exclusively in an immaterial soul. In fact, scholars such as Kevin Corcoran and Joel Green argue that the whole narrative of God’s word, from creation to new creation, emphasizes embodiment and materiality, especially when it comes to image bearers.
- Avoid a view that explains personal identity in a reductive way.
Substance dualism reduces personal identity to the immaterial soul. On the other hand, reductive physicalism does the same thing by saying we are nothing more than physical beings. In general, attempts to explain human nature by reduction are left wanting and create more problems than they solve.
The issue of gender dysphoria challenges us to reexamine our understanding of the nature of personal identity and gender. We can’t claim the bedrock of identity lies in the soul but then base our ethical practice as though we root it in the body.
We can’t claim identity lies in the soul but base our ethical practice as though we root it in the body.
Perhaps a better approach is to break down the walls we’ve built between body and soul — and rebuild a holistic understanding of gendered personhood. In order to do this, we should listen to voices that see past the binaries, even those from unexpected places, and consider other biblically sound approaches to philosophical anthropology.
Only then can we have a helpful and reconciliatory voice in the discussion of the question on the table: Who is Bruce Jenner?
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 René Descartes, Discourse on Method, trans. Desmond M. Clarke (Penguin, 1999), 25.
 Mark Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015), 74.
 Paula Jean Manners, “Gender Identity Disorder in Adolescence,” Child and Adolescent Mental Health 14, no. 2 (2009): 63.
 Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria, 42.
 Kevin Corcoran, Rethinking Human Nature, 138.