A Review of On Gender and the Soul by Benjamin Cabe - Some Extra Thoughts
Recently I was told of a book by Benjamin Cabe called On Gender and the Soul. As some of you know I have been doing what amounts to research on sex and gender topics. I had done this a bit before when I was a Protestant pastor and youth pastor as I often came across same-sex attracted teenagers and young adults who did still want to live the Christian lifestyle and would often come to me for counsel and support due to finding the Christian life hard to live since Christianity does affirm that while same-sex attraction in and of itself is not a sin - it is a sin to engage in an active homosexual relationship and lifestyle. This conflicts with desires, is often times painful, often times conflicting with the current culture.
It’s been a while since I pastored anybody as I joined the Orthodox Church years ago. However, I do feel I may be called to the priesthood one day, if God wills it. Because of that, I know that I will have to engage with the current culture and that will very likely mean that I will have to engage with difficult dialogues with people like I used to. Even if I'm never a priest or laity I have already engaged with this issue somewhat so it would not shock me When I was a Protestant still around 2015, I personally never had many transgender (I will refer to it interchangeably at times as gender dysphoria) youth or transgender adults to dialogue with or counsel. I honestly can’t think of a single one. I know there had to be some that existed but I just never came into any contact with one. Since 2015 however, I have found that the transgender community has grown along with the gay/lesbian community and so with the changing culture, I think it was time for me to update my understanding and try and learn and tackle this topic so that I can be better equipped as a Christian, pastorally or not, to follow Christ and also be able to engage with the culture and be a witness to those who may want to become a follower of Christ but do not feel comfortable because they are LGBT+. I may one day end up being a parent to a child who decides they are homosexual or experience gender dysphoria as well. I think it is wise for Christians to try to at the very least be aware and willing to learn about these topics. We don’t do ourselves any favors by pretending that these aren’t issues very real people are dealing with and struggling with, in and out of our churches. That said, this is why I have read Cabe’s book. Here are my thoughts on it.
His introduction is pretty good. Cabe talks about how today if you ask people you will get a lot of confusion over what sex and gender are and what we should define those two terms as. He also brings up a great point that many modern Christians today have turned the transgender or gender dysphoria issue into a disgusting and sickening culture war crusade against these people and I absolutely agree about this. We have people like Matt Walsh making “documentaries” like What Is A Woman who do this all just to scare ignorant people and try and demonize the LGBT+ community when the reality is that as Christians, even if we believe these people are living sinful lives, demonizing them the way he and others are doing does NOT lead them to Christ. It does not lead them to theosis. They are NOT our enemies. Our enemies are the spirits of this age. As Paul says in Ephesians 6: “we aren’t fighting against flesh and blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.”
Cabe has written this book so that we in the Orthodox Church can try to understand the topic of sex and gender biblically and pastorally so that we can offer up “a balm for the souls of those suffering from gender dysphoria”. How we act out are faith on this topic and what we believe is key for an Orthodox Christian is expected to rely on the Church, Scripture, and patristic witness to shape our worldview (and we must follow where that leads). It must be noted that many of those who we do now in the present and will interact in the future on this topic do not and will not have the Church as their foundation. We cannot and should not believe nor expect those who are outside the Church to hold to the same standards that we hold to inside the Church. Cabe points out that the fact is that it is an anatomical and biological fact that male and female bodies exist and that while sex and gender are distinct they are interconnected. He makes it clear that a lot of the terms like “biblical manhood”, “biblical womanhood” and “purity culture” are all just mostly cultural and patriarchal exploitation of the male-female distinction and are mostly artificial constructs of pop-theologies and I have to agree with that. He defines sex as referring to biology and the physical body and says gender is a social construct but also notes that it also includes both the reality of biological sex and how it’s manifested in theologically sound embodied action… and that “it seems undeniable to say that gender, as a social construct, specifically, does exist. It is deeply embedded in our culture and in our own unconscious perception. Phrases like ‘men don’t cry’ and ‘women need protection’ are two common stereotypes. Nonetheless, one’s performance of these roles, as expected within certain circles, can be psychologically (and even physically) damaging”. I find that important he said this. Too often, in our culture, we have a lot of toxic ways and behaviors when it comes to how we view gender roles and much of it is an absolute detriment and negative for American society and people in general in my opinion.
So for the introduction Cabe has shown us that sex is biological and refers to our chromosomal pairs and DNA that is biologically unchangeable regardless of hormone replacement and sex-reassignment surgery while gender is more than just biology and is social and cultural as well as we are culturally conditioned to think of certain jobs, clothes, colors, and even mannerisms as something that is masculine or feminine.
Theologically, Cabe defines gender as: the exercise of human agency in choosing – with all the innumerable choices in life – how to individuate manhood or womanhood in one’s own sexed existence in a way that is concert with the whole Christian faith and when he discusses the soul he is going to use the terms sex and gender interchangeably because as he will point out, when discussing the soul it is neither sexed or gendered. He adds that simply because a biological male acts in a culturally feminine way does not mean that they are really a female even if they feel like one and that it is irrelevant with regards to cultural iterations of gender if men are homemakers or wear dresses and makeup or if women hunt, support the family or go to the beach bare-chested because these are merely cultural stereotypes. I have to say that I do think a lot of times, but certainly not all, people are pressured to think they are gay or transgendered because of the way our society tries really hard to put people into boxes when it comes to masculine and feminine behaviors. I think in general Christians shouldn’t worry so much about things like the man being the homemaker or the woman being the one who hunts or makes the most money. Stuff like that just tends to feed into a negative and toxic way of thinking about sex and gender that doesn’t actually bring us closer to God or theosis. Cabe ends this introduction with a question that I love: How do we encourage human beings to thrive in every domain of life? That absolutely should be our goal when this discourse is brought up all the time.
Cabe begins chapter 1 with some questions. Is the soul gendered? Do men and women have different souls? Are they sexually differentiated? So that there is no confusion, the answer is no. I actually did not know this before I read this book and looked it up to verify for myself but Cabe points out rightly that theologically “human beings are sexed but the soul is sexless and genderless and anyone who proclaims humanity becomes androgynous in heaven is not Orthodox in their position on the resurrection of the flesh” I knew that there were going to be male and females in the resurrection of the dead but I never guess I thought about this in regard to the soul of the human being. He points out that it is in fact a heresy to believe that the soul is sexed or gendered and will lay out why.
In Chapter 2 he discusses the way people have viewed the soul throughout history. He talks of Homer, Plato, and Aristotle’s philosophical takes on the soul and, while interesting, I found it more interesting when he finally got around to talking about the Scripture and what it teaches on the soul. He says it has some complexity, historically speaking but that in general, the Old Testament distinguishes a human’s soul and an animal’s soul and declares that man’s soul is higher in status to God then an animal’s. In the N.T. Matthew 10:28 shows us that Christ Himself distinguishes the soul and body of man. “The body and soul are closely united, and created at the same time, but they aren’t the same”.
He shows the New Testament makes it clear through scripture that “the soul is capable of magnification and exaltation, can be deeply wounded or pierced by pain, and is capable of hopeful perseverance (Lk. 1:46, 2:35; Mt. 26:38 [cf. John 12:27]; Hebrews 6:19). It is also clear that though man dies biologically, their soul does not (Acts 2:27; Rev 20:4; Wisdom of Solomon 3:1). Biological death is a result of sin; hence the unnatural parting of the soul from the body. However, death is not the end for man (Heb. 9:27; John 11:25; Lk. 23:42-43). Neither is their temporary existence as a disembodied soul. This is because of the Resurrection of the dead. Even though the soul exists beyond the life of the body, there will come a time when everyone is returned with his body eternally”. I want you to remember that because it is important.
Chapter 3 begins and Cabe begins to discuss Apelles the Heretic AKA Marcion (85-160 AD), the 1st Gnostic heretic. Marcion he notes taught many Christological heresies like that creation is evil and that there was a good deity and the demiurge “who made his creations badly”. At the end of the day, Marcion taught heresy that Christ was not fully God and fully human and Cabe expertly points out that Marcion was the father of the idea of the gendered or sexed soul in the 2nd CE.
In Chapter 4 we see him explain what the Church Fathers say/teach about sex/gender and the soul. We learn that ALL the Fathers but one agree that the soul is sexless and genderless. Besides Marcion, the only one was Tertullian who is not a saint and ultimately left the Church as he joined the Montantist cult. We get a quote by St. Athenagoras talking about the resurrection of the dead that I found very interesting: “Whether one loses a limb… or if one is born without parts – they will be made whole at the resurrection”. Cabe brings it up and adds that this would apply to those who have had a sex reconstruction surgery to remove certain organs.
We see that St. Jerome also basically argues this point that: if the woman shall not rise again as a woman nor the man a man, there will be no resurrection of the dead” so it is clear that for St. Jerome, denying the reality that there will be men and women in heaven is equivalent to denying the resurrection of the body entirely”. It is an undeniable fact that whatever you were assigned at birth by God, biblically speaking, theologically speaking, you will be raised male or female in the resurrection. Even if the male eunuch had his sexual organs removed, he was still a human being and still a male. We have two examples in the Bible that explicitly point this out to us: Daniel the prophet and the eunuch St. Simeon the Ethiopian who St. Phillip baptized in Acts 8.
Cabe brings up a tough thing for someone with gender dysphoria that wants to be a Christian to hear. He says a truth: “Christians must live eschatologically. We are called to live and participate in the resurrection today… [Also that] “all who come to the Lord in repentance are welcome at his table…”.
Cabe brings up theologically that “The cessation of the divisions caused by these realities in the fallen world, however, doesn’t necessarily mean the cessation of the realities themselves, but rather their fulfillment. From this we might draw a parallel to those who are suffering with divisions within themselves (namely, those who experience a conflict between their biological body and their inner self). In the eschaton, this division, together with the tears shed over it will be wiped away; the soul and the body will exist as distinct realities but will no longer be in conflict. Now in union, with themselves, the person is resurrected to wholeness of soul and body with their God-given sex, which will be neither the cause of anxiety nor the focus of identity. With respect to this, those who have already undergone gender reassignment surgery but come to the Lord in repentance can live out their Christian life eschatologically, as all Christians are called to do. But for them, it will have especial meaning: the hope of restoration to physical wholeness, prefigured in this life by their restoration to spiritual wholeness. Thus, whether married or chaste, whole or amputated, every living human being is able to progress toward God in theosis through repentance”. He also points out something very specific that needs to be said as well: the soul is sinless when it enters the world. Souls do not pre-exist.
Logically, Cabe must and does conclude that our “sex is fixed for eternity, as every human soul will be reunited with its body in the resurrection; these bodies will be made up of the same parts, including sex organs… Regardless of what a human being does to their body on earth, whether they castrate themselves [like a eunuch] or take hormone supplements, they will be resurrected with their original parts… Furthermore, what a person actually is will be revealed in heaven. This applies to men who believe themselves to be women and those who have had gender reassignment surgeries so they physically look like a woman and so on”.
He brings up “what a person actually is will be revealed” because, not just for gender reassignment surgeries but also that he will be bringing up people who are intersex later in chapter 5. We have to make note that Scripture says we do put off any corruptions that came as a result of the Fall (1 Cor. 15).
In Chapter 5 Cabe affirms with the Apostle [Paul] that there is ‘one kind of flesh’ that belongs to every human being and uses an example of a man born without legs or a child that did not fully develop inside the womb. These two he declares rightfully are both human beings and part of the human race. This is biblically accurate and agrees with the patristic consensus. They are both humans even though they will both never possess the physical attributes that are normal for the human body. I agree that they are human and they have a sexless and genderless soul. This must be so for the sake of Christology because Christ is male but cannot have a male soul, otherwise, one could argue that Christ only came to save males and didn’t come to save females. He then raises a point about people born intersex.
He says that usually, “there is one set of fully developed organs while the other is an addition, underdeveloped part; neither is it mentioned that when biologically tested, the results demonstrate a clear consensus of male or female (usually in concert with the developed organs)” and raises the fact that intersexuality is a biological irregularity and that there are many cases where a human being is born with hormonal and/or chromosomal variations. He is right that the Church in general does condemn unnecessary removal of body parts. However, he asks how we should view it when a child’s sex must be determined in intersex cases? He leaves this question open ended and leaves it up to parental and medical decisions - perhaps in addition to being under pastoral advice as well on what is best to do for said child. He even brings up a scenario where the intersex child may get parts removed and later develop gender dysphoria and brings up a case where this did in fact happen.
Personally, around the end due to his discussion about intersex I have to raise a question here because while he says gender dysphoria should not be treated with surgeries, he does raise that it is okay for someone born intersex to do so. My question that I raise internally is that if we can do that with someone born intersex, why could someone not be experiencing gender dysphoria for a biologically abnormal reason? And what if we find in some cases that this is the only real way to help treat this person and help them find theosis and heal? Cabe says rightfully that we should seek to help these people find theosis and heal but if I am brutally honest, from what little I have spoken with people with gender dysphoria, (and I admittedly have not had a lot of those conversations), I do not think it is at all that simple nor black and white.
I would completely agree that in general, a Christian with gender dysphoria does have to ultimately affirm there is a distinction between the body and soul, lest we become materialists and in heresy. We also must affirm properly the unity of the soul and body lest we become Neo-Platonists and be in heresy. I also agree with Cabe when he says that we must crucify our minds and confess and live the Christian way as it is the path to healing: to deny oneself.
I think in general it is true that we cannot and should not always do what we want or desire in this life. Sometimes what we desire or want is a path that will not help us in our goal as Christians to follow God and theosis. I completely empathize with the entire LGBT+ community but to live a Christian life requires us all to make a sacrifice. For them, the sacrifice is going to be a heavy burden and they should never walk that path alone. We as a community, we the Church, should walk with them and try to help them continue the path towards theosis. No choice is neutral.
Cabe’s last chapter is about pastoral care for people with gender dysphoria. Personally, I think this is the best part of the book. He says “it is important for us to acknowledge gender dysphoria exists and it can be confusing and painful for those who suffer from it. The best thing he says pastors can do for the person is to “listen and acknowledge their struggle and pain” and calls out some of the hateful rhetoric that is preached today by the culture about gender dysphoric people. Personally, as I said before about people like Matt Walsh… I have to say that outlets like Daily Wire, Fox News, and other right-wing news outlets’ pundits like him and Tucker Carlson’s hatred of LGBT+ people absolutely disgusts me. I think these people are made in the image of God and should not be hated and demonized for feeling the way they do. Cabe brings up a quote by St. Isaac the Solitary that “in storms and squalls we need a pilot and in this present life we need prayer; for we’re susceptible to the provocations of our thoughts, both good and bad… be attentive to your heart” and rightfully points out that it is not a sin to have evil thoughts. It is a sin to act out on those evil thoughts and give consent to the thoughts that is the issue for we are not our thoughts or desires; many times these are suggested to us from outside influences. Furthermore, we do not have to act on our thoughts or our desires in order to be ‘true to ourselves’.
I do agree that we find our true identity in Christ and do our best to submit all our thoughts and desires to Him. Cabe suggests a transgender person (for his example he lists a man named John with gender dysphoria) should try not to focus his thoughts or feelings that he is actually is a woman. Nor should he worry about his desire to be a woman and should instead focus on Christ. I agree that taking our thoughts captive to Christ is what the goal should be pastorally (2 Cor. 10:5). I’m also positive that Cabe has all the best intentions in this attempt for pastoral care for one with gender dysphoria.
My Concluding Thoughts
I’m open to correction from priests if I am wrong here. However, my concluding thoughts are that this book is theologically correct and does try to be pastoral with regards to gender dysphoria. I agree with Cabe completely about the soul and the resurrection of the dead. Theologically speaking, I find him correct for the most part on this topic. I also agree that we should live eschatologically as if we are already in the resurrection. However, I am not sure that I fully agree with his premise about the body though and I say that because of the intersexuality issue and chromosomal and hormonal issues that he himself brought up. There is a definite right way to think on it all and I agree that we should hold our thoughts captive but I do have to wonder what happens if we do one day find out that male and female brains are different and I wonder what happens if we do learn that we can born biologically male or female but be born with a brain that is more male or female (to clarify: a male being born with a female brain and vice versa). I believe in general we should avoid surgery whenever possible but I do not know that it is always possible to do that for some individuals. I also do not know that, theosis-wise, we do some people any favors by asking them to not transition sometimes. Sometimes it seems for these people it is so psychologically frustrating and traumatizing that I think an economia may actually be completely necessary so that they have a chance at living a Christian life.
It is not the same as gender dysphoria obviously but I think on my own experiences being a person born with a severe leg disability where I was born with pieces of kidney that were not in the right places and a leg that was 3 inches shorter and a hip and knee that were deformed. I was able to get surgeries as a baby to have those pieces of kidney removed and throughout my life have had multiple surgeries to correct my leg and “fix” what is wrong with my body. When I had my leg drastically changed due to surgeries to correct my leg, I, at first felt like my leg was completely wrong and still sometimes feel that way. I have had a friend who has talked to me before at length about their struggle with being a Christian with gender dysphoria and their desire as a male to want to be a woman and often wonder to myself if that is not, in some small way what gender dysphoria feels like to some degree (I definitely know that what I’ve experienced is a small taste of body dysmorphia).
The Resurrection affirms for us that the body is a good thing to God. We don’t bless elective sterilizations and that certainly means that a gender reassignment surgery is not going to be considered worthy to bless by the Orthodox Church but we know that if the woman is at risk of death or has cancer that she is allowed to get surgical procedures like a mastectomy and a hysterectomy. The same is true if a guy has cancers where he is allowed to get an orchiectomy.
If a person with gender dysphoria is suicidal and therapy does not help them find relief, I have a huge difficulty in believing that a gender reassignment surgery would be a mortal sin in that case. I think it would be the lesser evil than the person taking their own life. I will also note that suicide is not always going to happen and is often largely a generalization that people and news media outlets make about people with gender dysphoria that they are all in general suicidal. This is not to diminish the fact that people with gender dysphoria do have a higher rate of suicides but it is often used to make an excuse to reject any critique or criticisms of transgenderism or to entertain thoughts and ideologies about transgenderism that might go against the current “mainstream” narrative.
Thoughts on Pronoun Hospitality
I have seen it argued that we should affirm pronouns that reflect the expressed gender identity of transgender peoples regardless of our views about gender identity ethics. Another side will say we shouldn't respect this because they will say God intended gender and biological sex to be inextricable and that Christians can only speak truthfully if they use pronouns which match a person's birth sex.
My thought is honestly that things are so politicized and divisive that most people are going to, from the onset, have their opinions and be hostile to the latter so the fact is we're likely as Christians not going to be able to reach someone and evangelize to them without respecting their preferred pronouns and should just aim for the same hospitality that we would be called to do for someone who's a pagan for example because at the end of the day God does love them and He did create them in His image.
I’d say that in general that if you know this is a person with gender dysphoria and is not open to Christianity, you should just show respect and be hospitable. I don’t think this is concession of your beliefs to do so. I think that having respect and hospitality towards someone like that does not always equal agreement with that person. I'm willing to be corrected on this issue if I can be given a decent argument on this but I am in favor of pronoun hospitality for transgender people who are outside of the Church. If they are inside of the Church and agree with the Church, I will try and call that person to the Christian life and standard by their biological sex that they were born as. If they are open to Christianity I would give them the basic facts and share with them that God created them in His image and that whatever sex God gave them at birth is what they will be at the Resurrection. They are a biological male or female and regardless of their gender dysphoria, they are still a biological male or female. I would only do this if they were willing and open to becoming a Christian.
I think also that, with regards to those outside of the Church, because of the way some have done the culture war like Matt Walsh and other disgusting people in the right wing side of politics like Marjorie Taylor Greene or Tucker Carlson who demonize people with gender dysphoria that I think it can and does actually, to our detriment, ruin and hurt our Christian witness and cause more harm in many cases than it helps by not being hospitable with regards to the person’s preferred pronouns. We have a position on sex, gender, and sexual ethics in Christianity. However, the Church has always been taught to be respectful and hospitable to the world because that's how we draw them to Christ. We can also not hold those outside the Church to the same standard that we hold those inside the Church. I also think someone dealing with gender dysphoria that doesn't know Jesus will be led and drawn to the Lord by our respect for them and our hospitality. I think of Acts 17 among other passages and the way Paul interacted with the Gentile world.
I’ve heard it said that it feels like the transgender person is lying and trying to trick someone but I think my response to that is that someone with gender dysphoria should always be open and honest about that with anyone that they trust and know that they’re going to have a friendship or relationship with. That’s important. That’s good advice in general for everyone.
I think not being hospitable can do way more damage to our witness. I get it. We want to defend God. But I don’t think God needs defending in all situations. That all said, it’s a discernment call and you have to go with what you feel led with.
I will also say that I have noticed in some cases that with transgender people that at least with some cases it can be coming because kids and teens are having a mental health crisis. Sometimes it can also stem from some abuse taking place (not from their parents necessarily) and can also be stemming from the social pressure from society and, specifically for females, some are transgender socially because of a response from the deep rooted misogyny in our culture that is happening. Some recent studies have shown that this may be somewhat the case as females are coming out transgender more than men. That all said, none of what I’ve said here is set in stone and all people are different and there are multiple various reasons one may be transgender.
Thoughts on Culture War against Transgender People
As I said before a few times, I find the culture war ideas being paraded around by many like Matt Walsh extremely stupid. Christians should not be demonizing transgender people. It is evil, stupid, and wrong. I also find the idea that unless Christian conservatives pass righteous laws that the Church will be corrupted is insanely stupid to me. The gates of Hell shall not prevail. What part of that did these people not comprehend? As far as hormones being given to transgender youths, I think that is definitely a discussion and debate worth having as there are a lot of reasons religiously and non-religiously to keep kids off them who are experiencing gender dysphoria. I think all other things such as therapy must and should be exhausted first before that is put for consideration as an option. There’s a lot to unpack with that decision for a child and I think if that can be avoided it should be as it is a very life-changing thing to do.
The Early Church dealt with polygamy from most Jewish communities (polygamy was the norm for Judaism until around the 10th CE) and the pagans allowed just about everything from pedophilia, polygamy, polyamory, homosexuality too... I find it funny how the Church still managed to have people become saints and maintain a Christian sexual ethic but now in modern day American Christians think they have to isolate and insulate their children from everything because they are too scared and absolutely terrified to even acknowledge these people exist and that their kid might actually grow up different from them and become someone in the LGBT community. I don’t know all the answers to everything but some stuff needs to be worked out and changed. Paul says to equip yourself and he means to be able to tackle the cultural issues while also still living the Christian life. We need to aim for that goal of theosis and many are.
The goal is always theosis. Like I’ve told many LGBT youth and young adults when I was a Protestant pastor and still do as an Orthodox Christian, it is a hard word that to follow Christ may end up with you not being able to do what you want and desire. We’re moving toward a time in history where it will be increasingly hard to commit yourself to a certain sexual ethic and for so many who want to follow Christ it already is. But the answer is not your opinion or feelings. It’s God’s opinion and His design. His purpose. We don’t accomplish anything by trying to change what God founded in the Orthodox Church (2000+ years of church history on marriage) but by redeeming and renovating our hearts so that He may dwell within us and guide us.
I’ll close this with saying that we must also try to put ourselves in the shoes of parents with transgender kids. Often they are dealing with many issues going on with their child and are often terrified that their child is going to kill themselves. The culture war that our politicians and namely conservatives and op-ed columnist do is not a game. It is children’s lives at stake here. I’ve seen a lot of posts aiming to demonize LGBT and transgender people. If these people were really Christian and educated, they wouldn’t be demonizing these people… yes we can talk theologically about how they’re made in the image of God and should strive to love themselves the way God created them… however, the Fall also happened and that’s undeniable… we don’t even talk about intersex issues in the discourse most of the time! Uneducated Christians on this issue who may mean well also don’t realize the suicide rate and that these people need a support system instead of the demonization. We are called as Christians to tell truths God has given us but as St. Paisios once said, you can have a large nugget of gold to give someone but it is useless if you chunk it at their head and give them a concussion. I hope some who’ve shared those posts will consider this stuff I’m saying and try to be more charitable to anyone who is transgender or having struggles with gender dysmorphia issues. May God be as charitable to us on the Last Day and may we all find and achieve theosis.