I read C. S. Lewis’s science fiction novels, called The Space Trilogy, a couple of years before the current firestorm of awareness on gender issues. With the amount of attention paid to the #MeToo movement and the increasing conversation around “toxic masculinity,” I can’t help but think of how Lewis was ahead of his time, and how, through story, he shed light on this very topic.
Perelandra, the second novel in The Space Trilogy, is particularly relevant to our times. In it, Lewis retells the Eden story as occurring on the planet we call Venus. In this tale, the First Lady of that world is again the central character. But, unlike Eve, she resists the tempter, and she and her husband attain the lordship of their world along with open fellowship with the Oyarsa (angel-like beings who rule the planets).
During the triumphant coronation of Venus’ new king and queen, Lewis describes the two Oyarsa who are present as “free from any sexual characteristics,” yet one possesses traits that are “masculine” and the other traits that are “feminine.”
Both the bodies were naked, and both were free from any sexual characteristics, either primary or secondary . . . What Ransom saw at that moment was the real meaning of gender . . . Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex. Sex is, in fact, merely the adaptation to organic life of a fundamental polarity which divides all created beings. Female sex is simply one of the things that have feminine gender; there are many others, and Masculine and Feminine meet us on planes of reality where male and female would be simply meaningless. Masculine is not attenuated male, nor feminine attenuated female. On the contrary, the male and female of organic creatures are rather blurred reflections of masculine and feminine. Their reproductive functions, their differences in strength and size, partly exhibit, but partly also confuse and misrepresent, the real polarity. [Emphasis mine.]
Detaching Masculine and Feminine Traits from Biological Sex
We think of masculine traits as stemming from the quality of being male. Likewise, we think of feminine traits as stemming from the quality of being female. What if we’re wrong? What if there’s a deeper mystery for us to understand?
A few years ago, I had the privilege of studying New Testament Greek. One concept of the Greek language, like many other languages, is that nouns are gendered. For example, law is masculine, but life is feminine. Darkness is also feminine, but light is neutral. Lewis notes this strangeness also in his monologue on gender in Perelandra:
Everyone must sometimes have wondered why in nearly all tongues certain inanimate objects are masculine and others feminine. What is masculine about a mountain or feminine about certain trees?
Lewis’s novel argues that the naming of certain traits or qualities as masculine or feminine has nothing to do with biological sex. Rather, it lives within the “mystery” realm—the same realm to which the union of “Christ and the church” belong. In a 1948 article, Lewis wrote, “We are dealing with male and female not merely as facts of nature but as the live and awful shadows of realities utterly beyond our control and largely beyond our direct knowledge.”
Seeing Traits As “Blurred Reflections”
The various traits typically associated with the genders are usually stigmatized in some way. It is largely frowned upon when a person of one gender exhibits traits usually associated with the opposite gender. A woman who is assertive and direct is deemed “aggressive” or “bossy.” A man who easily empathizes with others emotionally is deemed “weak” or “soft.” Traits seen as feminine are more likely to have negative connotations regardless of the gender of the person who exhibits them, especially in public life.
But what if we are meant to understand that individual traits do not spring from gender at all? By elevating the traits from categories of masculine and feminine to the higher plane of “mystery” that Lewis suggests, we place them closer to the divine than even our physical forms which are made in the image of God.
God embodies every virtuous trait. Courage and compassion, aggression and empathy, boundless love and righteous anger are all his. When humans, male or female, express any of these traits, we are exhibiting a “blurred reflection” of the deepest, truest form of that virtue which can only be found in God.
If there is neither male nor female in Christ, it stands to reason that the association of traits with either gender is ultimately a misnomer. Humans no more exhibit the true nature of the virtuous traits than we exhibit, in the bodily form, the true nature of God in whose image we are made. We strive to be “holy” and “perfect” as God is holy and perfect, but we merely show a “blurred reflection” of the ultimate reality as it exists in God.
Imago Dei and the Virtuous Traits
When we understand the exhibiting of any of the virtuous traits as an extension of the imago Dei in all people, we will be less inclined to judge those who break out of what societal norms depict as appropriate for men and women. Compassion is merely another pane in the stained-glass window by which God’s light shines through his creation—as is courage, bravery, nurturing, leadership, and a willingness to serve. Our image-bearing family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and brothers and sisters in Christ should be encouraged in living out the virtuous traits—all of them.
But the enemy sows division between men and women just as he has sown division between races, nations, and neighbors.
Courtney Reissig, author of The Accidental Feminist, writes, “We weren’t stripped of our image bearing when sin entered the world, and Satan knows that. He will stop at nothing to distort the story our lives were meant to tell about God and his glory. When we face overwhelming sorrow and frustration over this battle of the sexes, we must remember that our fight isn’t with each other as much as it is with the evil that threatens to undo us all.”
The enemy seeks to divide anything good that God has made. And it is this spirit of division that has led to the idea that the virtuous traits come from men or women instead of from God.
Embracing the Whole Image of God in Every Person
How can we embrace the whole image of God, or various facets of that image, when presented to us in our neighbors?
In the church, it means that women and their perspectives are not overlooked and sequestered in the box labeled “Women’s Ministry.” It means that women are called on to help shape the direction of ministry and church communities.
In the family, it means that parents must rethink how they live out what it means to be a man or a woman. It does not necessarily mean that parents should force gender-neutral environments on their children or encourage boys to play with dolls or girls to play with trucks. What it does mean is that a boy who prefers art to sports is not told to be more “manly.” Or that a girl who has a “take charge” persona is not told to be more “ladylike.”
In schools, it means that children are not derided by classmates or adults when they exhibit virtuous traits typically associated with the opposite gender.
It means that men and women cease perpetuating the myth that women are “more difficult” to work with.
It means that young men learn from their elders that their masculinity is not tied to the number and frequency of their sexual encounters. It means that rape, sexual harassment, and aggressive sexual behavior is no longer excused as “boys being boys.”
In the workplace and government, an understanding of “blurred reflections” means that “boys’ club” mentalities are set aside and that women are invited into every space—not as objects, token leaders, or the butt of jokes, but as valued partners.
Humanity will be better and more beautiful if we embrace the living-out of virtuous traits exhibited in all people, whether male or female, as a divine gift not a gendered one.
Cover image by drmakete lab.