Woman in God's Image

What does the celebration of Jesus’ birth and the Christian doctrine of the incarnation have to do with modern notions of femininity and womanhood? At first glance, almost nothing. Some readers, including those who celebrated Christmas not so long ago, might see deep tensions between the Christian view of womanhood, and modern feminism. 

But for Abigail Favale, professor in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation is inextricably linked with her understanding of sex, womanhood, and femininity.

The Two Paradigms

In The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory, Favale criticizes the modern feminist movement’s “gender paradigm,” and offers an alternative.

Using her compelling personal story about leaving postmodern feminist academia, Favale details how the current feminist ideology leaves women at war with their female identities and bodies. Now a Roman Catholic, her beliefs about sex and gender are traditional, but her arguments are fresh and captivating.

After guiding the reader through the work of feminist thinkers, such as Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, and Judith Butler, Favale shows how the gender paradigm divides the woman’s personhood from her body such that she is left with no option but to hate her own body and its biological realities.

Favale describes the gender paradigm as a constructivist lens through which reality is viewed—a lens without a creator, and without intrinsic meaning for our bodies. Concepts of man and woman are merely the product of self-imposed linguistic identities. Further, there is no connection between biology and personhood, hence the modern separation of “sex” and “gender.” Womanhood, then, is defined by whoever identifies as a woman. Beauvoir represented the gender paradigm well when she asserted in The Second Sex, “One is not born a woman, but becomes a woman.” 

Consequently, the gender paradigm traps women in an “open-ended process of self-definition whose only limit is death.” Bodies and identities are not integrated, but fragmented, and women become nothing more than dehumanized functional units. Here, readers will recount the emerging progressive lexicon of “birthing persons” and “chest feeders.”

While Favale opposes invidious and unjust discrimination of any person, she also notes the Equality Act’s “attempts to hold together two things that are in direct contradiction: the view that gender is based in sex and the view that gender is not based in sex.”

In contrast, Favale’s Genesis paradigm views women and men as created, whole beings who incarnate the spiritual and material and embody the visible and invisible, in something like the way that Christ miraculously incarnates the human and divine. Derived from the Genesis account of creation, the Genesis paradigm asserts that women and men are undivided beings composed of body and soul, whose bodies are loving gifts from our Creator. Our personhood, which is both material and spiritual, can only be seen through embodiment, or incarnation. As Favale writes, “Bodies are persons made manifest.”

The Genesis paradigm further contends that a loving Creator made both men and women to reflect the Creator’s character. Men and women, in their complementarity, cultivate human life together. Our bodily communion mirrors our designed purpose to be in communion with our Creator. As we give and receive love, we reflect the Creator’s desire to have communion and harmony with all of humanity. Favale writes:

We are unities of body and spirit; our bodies are an integral part of our identity that connect us to the created order and serve as a bridge between our inmost being and the other world. Both men and women are made in God’s image, and our sexual difference is part of the goodness of the created order, signaling that we are made for reciprocal love.

Implications for Policy

There’s much to say about Favale’s contribution, but it’s worth focusing on the book’s connection to modern policy debates. 

While guiding the reader through the existentialist thinking of Beauvoir, Favale shows how the gender paradigm treats a woman’s biology as a hurdle to the more ideal and masculine state of working and producing. Instead of embracing the female body as a good gift, Beauvoir views the body as a condemnation to a lifeless existence of child-rearing. To escape, women must become like men, who realize their potential through conquering and creation. Here, Favale quotes Beauvoir: “work alone can guarantee [women’s] concrete freedom.”

Those working in labor policy will notice how this mindset informs proposals for universal daycare. It also explains why, in the name of “economic equality,” some want to eliminate the Hyde Amendment to require American taxpayers to fund abortions. When work is the means by which a woman can achieve true freedom, progressive and egalitarian societies must remove every hurdle to professional advancement, even if it means pitting the female identity against the female body.

As Favale leads the reader through Judith Butler’s writing, readers learn how the gender paradigm leads to government support for the transgender movement. Butler rejects any notion of “natural” womanhood and argues that “scripts” of gender imposed on women by the patriarchy must be thrown off. There is no “natural” woman, and any conception of “woman” is a result of social norms imposed by the ruling majority. Progressive societies seeking to advance the sexual revolution, therefore, must punish those who assert that there are objective truths about sex and biology.

Enter the Equality Act, which has twice passed the US House of Representatives. This legislation, which Favale calls a “linguistic reshaping of reality,” would amend the Civil Rights Act and redefine sex to include “sexual orientation and gender identity” while operatively banning sex-segregated spaces, including locker rooms, and putting women’s sports at existential risk. While Favale opposes invidious and unjust discrimination of any person, she also notes the Equality Act’s “attempts to hold together two things that are in direct contradiction: the view that gender is based in sex and the view that gender is not based in sex.”

At a moment when those in the West are engaged in ideological warfare over the definitions of manhood and womanhood, Favale’s humility, tenderness, and clarity are refreshing and persuasive.

Regarding the Equality Act, Favale pleads with readers to appreciate the beauty of female-only spaces. As one who wrestled with her own body image as a teenager, Favale reminds the reader of the sacredness of these sex-specific spaces which allow women to “witness the diversity of the female form” that “contradict[s] the harmful fictions” of photo-shopped female bodies which are on social media and television. 

Regarding labor policy, Favale’s argument that “the body is a gift” should lead policymakers to avoid punishing mothers who want to stay home with their child. Instead of calling for universal state-run daycare, Patrick Brown has proposed an alternative that aligns with the Genesis paradigm’s idea of the gift-nature of the body: a kind of universal benefit, which would support lower-income and single mothers who need to work and don’t have outside support, while also “creatively broadening the choices available to parents, be it home, relative, or center-based care.”

Pastoral Implications

Outside of Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, the majority of evangelical and Protestant books confronting modern feminist thought have only come in the past five years. But for pastors who are trying to teach their congregants to see the beauty of God’s creative design, and the pitfalls of the gender paradigm, more work is needed.

Favale’s work on embodiment exposes this reality. Carl Trueman’s Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self helped many Christian readers dissect the intellectual maladies surrounding conceptions of identity. Favale, in effect, narrows Trueman’s focus to post-modern, existential, and critical feminist thought and will equip every reader to promote a positive vision of God’s creation order. Fellow Protestants will be greatly helped by dipping their toe in the Tiber and purchasing her book.

Protestants and evangelicals may also be dissatisfied, however, with Favale’s approach to Biblical interpretation. She takes issue with the inspiration of Genesis, asserting recent, non-Mosaic authorship and referring to Genesis as “true myth.” As Denny Burk has argued elsewhere, Favale’s assertions about Genesis contradict Jesus’ own teaching about marriage and references to a literal Genesis account (Matt 19:4-6), thereby undermining the distinctly Christian theory she hopes to propose. Similarly, one might think a Christian theory would have numerous references to Scripture, and quotations from Christian thinkers from various denominational backgrounds. This book has neither. There were less than a handful of scripture of references, and other than Wendell Berry, Favale cites no non-Roman Catholic Christian in support of her position. Perhaps the subtitle should have been “A Catholic Theory.”

Despite these differences, Protestants will benefit from the rich tradition of the Roman Catholic teaching about humanity on display throughout Favale’s book. They’ll find the contributions beautiful and comprehensive, and may even be surprised on the level of agreement the two camps have on this issue. The profound imagery and theology of creation in the second and final chapters are enough to make the book a worthwhile read for those from all traditions.

Beyond the theological arguments, there is a lot to love about The Genesis of Gender. Favale’s treatment of those suffering from gender dysphoria is sensitive, humble, and clear. One of the most interesting sections of the book is an interview Favale recounts with a trans-woman who identifies as a devout Christian and is working to harmonize Christian anthropology with trans anthropology. 

Favale is also brutally honest about her own struggle with Christian femininity and is vivid in her description of the difficulties of the female body. At a moment when those in the West are engaged in ideological warfare over the definitions of manhood and womanhood, Favale’s humility, tenderness, and clarity are refreshing and persuasive. Following the reflections of Christ’s incarnation at Christmastime, and in a new year when we’re striving to love one another better, The Genesis of Gender will remind readers that humans are not fragmented pieces, but purposefully-made whole beings who incarnate God’s love for humanity.