Book Review: “On Gender and the Soul”
If you’re anything like me, when you hear the word “soul,” your mind probably leaps immediately to something resembling the folk conception of a “ghost.” We live in a culture saturated with images of humanlike spirits being swept up to heaven or down to the abyss, from Dante’s luminous Paradiso to the stormy hellscapes of Supernatural and What Dreams May Come. This soul/ghost inside us is imagined as a kind of ethereal doppelganger, capable of seeing and hearing but maybe not touching in the proper sense. For all intents and purposes, this soul/ghost is recognizable as us, but just kind of “thinned out.”
Benjamin Cabe’s compelling and original study, On Gender and the Soul, challenges us to adjust those priors. In lieu of the popular ghost-in-a-machine conception, Cabe presents the classical Christian teaching on the soul as the animating principle of the human person—not something that subsists as a kind of spectral adjunct to the bodily flesh, but as something that bears a vital relation to the physical body. And it’s on the basis of this teaching that Cabe can inquire into a provocative question: is the human soul as such “sexed”? Are there “male souls” and “female souls”?
If you’d asked me this question before I’d read Cabe’s book, I probably would’ve answered with a relatively unreflective “yes”—on the basis of the traditional Thomistic claim that the soul is the form, or organizing principle, of the body. So, since bodies are sexed, aren’t souls? But Cabe brings to the surface a data point that I found genuinely astonishing: the virtual unanimity of the Christian patristic tradition on the matter of the soul’s sexlessness.
Now, Cabe is certainly no Origenist who would argue that the ideal condition of humanity is androgyny. Far from it: On Gender and the Soul is shot through with pastoral advice—from an Eastern Orthodox perspective—for those experiencing gender dysphoria, and Cabe has no interest in revising traditional teachings on the intrinsic sexual differentiation of human beings. Rather, Cabe’s emphasis on the soul’s sexlessness is a metaphysical rejoinder to claims of the structure, “I am an X trapped in a Y body” (note that this is the same kind of claim that’s analyzed in Carl Trueman’s book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, albeit from a different angle). On Cabe’s account, that claim is essentially unintelligible, because the soul is decidedly not some ghostlike “inner self”; it is something that exists in intimate relationship to the physical body, a spark rather than a shade.
And the consequences of denying this traditional view, Cabe stresses, are far-reaching. If “male souls” and “female souls” are radically different, what exactly was it that Christ redeemed when He took on human nature? To embrace a doctrine of sexually differentiated souls is to slip uneasily toward the Gnostic vision of the Gospel of Thomas, which features a Jesus exhorting Mary Magdalene to “make herself male” in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. As Cabe contends, it is the fact of the soul’s sexlessness that makes “human nature” something capable of being redeemed in and by the one person of Christ.
All of this is to say that On Gender and the Soul is one of the most thoughtful and stimulating studies I’ve come across in quite some time. Beyond its immediate pastoral purpose—the articulation of a traditionally Orthodox understanding of sexed humanity in a modern milieu—it has the great advantage of revealing just how deeply modern presuppositions (in this case, a sort of sloppy Cartesian dualism) have infiltrated our thinking. And that is a very valuable achievement.
The one question I’m left with—and it’s a perennial one that would take a treatise to properly examine—is whether taking Christian tradition seriously requires embracing all the underlying metaphysical presuppositions of a particular moment in philosophical history. For example, what is the theological warrant for claiming doctrinal continuity amidst the abandonment of a Ptolemaic world-picture in favor of a Copernican one? Or, phrased more broadly, how many of the church’s “para-biblical” teachings retain their normative force when the underlying world-picture that made them intelligible has transformed? (To be clear, I’m not saying those transformations must occur—I am holding in abeyance the question of whether the Church must necessarily find itself committed to a particular metaphysical system, such as Aristotelian Thomism—but I’m interested in thinking through whether they can occur without representing a total rupture.) I wasn’t particularly satisfied with David Bentley Hart’s response to this question in his recent Tradition and Apocalypse, and in fairness to Cabe it’s a question that ranges far beyond the scope of his volume, but it strikes me as one worth asking.
In any case, Cabe’s book is well worth reading, whether or not one shares all his Orthodox commitments. It’s rare that I come across a book that forces me to sharply reconsider some assumptions I’ve tacitly held, assumptions that have filtered down to me through cultural osmosis. And that alone means that it belongs on your bookshelf too.