Public Square Magazine Primary White, Gold & Black Logo | PublicSquareMag | What is Public Square | Politics, Faith & Family | Home | Public Square Magazine
A woman contemplates her reflection in a mirror, symbolizing introspection on her own identity.

The Givenness of Divine Gender Identity

Is identity subjective or divine? Ancient philosophy and modern debates converge to redefine gender perceptions.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell, quoting Austin Farrer, used this quote in asserting the importance of intelligently defending the Restored Gospel,  

Though argument does not create conviction, lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.

These words have provided a foundation for the way in which we want to approach a Latter-day Saint understanding of gender identity and, ultimately, eternal identity. We feel a keen desire to provide ‘reasonable evidence’ for our perspective because, too often in contemporary society, gospel-informed views are dismissed as mystical, unscientific, and insensitive simply because they are also founded in religious teachings.

The very real, lived experience of gender dysphoria can be a challenging journey.

Therefore, to begin our article, we must first outline five simple propositions that will help guide us through a comprehensive investigation of gender identity.

1. When we engage in conversations about human experiences, we’re not merely listing objective observations; we’re also offering interpretations based on our implicit or unstated understanding of reality. Put simply, every observation of human life is intertwined with our beliefs about the nature of reality. 

2. Second, with this being the case, there are many ways in which one could explain various human experiences. Each explanation would be grounded in its own understanding of the nature of the universe and personhood. 

3. Third, because there are many different perspectives, they cannot all be true because many are antithetical to one another. For example, it cannot be true that people are both agentic and devoid of free will. Additionally, many of the esteemed and touted ideas of our society face overwhelming criticism based on scientific, historical, philosophical, phenomenological, and spiritual evidence. However, all people are susceptible to false ideas masquerading as truth, even ‘scientific’ ones. 

4. Fourth, all explanations carry assumptions that shape our understanding of personhood, with potential unintended consequences in how people see themselves and structure their lives. This is particularly worrisome for members of the Church of Jesus Christ, as divergent beliefs may steer them away from the teachings of the Restored Gospel. However, these negative outcomes are not always immediately evident, and seemingly innocuous ideas can subtly influence our identities, behaviors, and testimonies. implications for how other aspects of personhood are to be understood. 

5. Fifth, because of the worrisome possibility that divergent beliefs about personhood may steer people away from the gospel, particularly those masquerading as truth, it is of utmost importance that members of the Church can discern clearly between the philosophies of men and the doctrines found in scripture and those revealed through living prophets. That way, as Elder Bednar stated, they can learn to “press on [and] hold fast” to the doctrines of the Restored Gospel and “heed not” the philosophies of men.  

The topic of human identity, and by extension, gender identity, is no exception to these propositions. Many members of the Church struggle to understand their identity. Additionally, in trying to understand, question, or explore this identity, some have had negative experiences themselves or know those who have had negative experiences due to the insensitivity and misunderstandings of others within the Church. The personal wrestle to know of one’s individual place in God’s plan in the context of the very real, lived experience of gender dysphoria can be a challenging journey. The difficulty and heartache of this wrestle are not ones we wish to make light of. Our intention is not to dismiss the reality of individual experience with gender dysphoria and the pain a person can experience in trying to navigate and understand themselves. Leaders of the Church have often addressed these experiences as being real and in need of compassionate understanding; we echo those statements most ardently.

Feelings are taken to be the highest authority on an individual’s gender identity.

In line with the 5 propositions previously mentioned, our aim is to help people see that there are different ways that we can understand mortal experiences with sexuality, including feelings of attraction, dysphoria, or even the expression of one’s sexuality. We will address two salient ways of understanding our gender identities:

1. Contemporary gender identity (CGI): Gender identity is found within us; its reality is based upon our sense or feelings about ourselves and is not necessarily related to our physical body/presentation or our biological sex. This way of understanding human sexuality is far newer in the history of ideas.

2. Divine gender identity (DGI): Human sexuality goes beyond the modern conceptualization of ‘gender identity’ and presumes that moral sexual embodiment, in which gender and sex are unified, has a divine intent and purpose bound within eternal families and exaltation.

To accomplish our aim, we wish to provide a simple yet clear descriptive comparative analysis between these two understandings of gender identity in order to clarify their differences and alleviate some of the confusion people experience when trying to understand their experiences with gender. While many of the topics we discuss can apply to a broad application of human sexuality, this article seeks only to address gender identity. We explore the ideas behind gender identity by (1) naming the assumptions about personhood undergirding those ideas that are taken as fundamental realities, (2) linking some of the main claims of each understanding of gender identity to each assumption articulated, and (3) summarizing the assumptions of the two views to show their differences, and concluding with some remarks. 

Contemporary Gender Identity

Regarding sexuality and personhood, the contemporary approach to gender identity asserts at least three key claims wherein its fundamental assumptions are clearly established and through which a clear contrast between CGI and DGI can be demonstrated. Additionally, we feel it important to note that our understanding of CGI has been greatly influenced by the various works of Carl Trueman on the subject, who has provided an extensive analysis of the history of the ideas underlying CGI, pointing to the various philosophers and psychologists we will mention here.

Assumption #1: Cartesian Dualism

To begin to understand the basic concepts of ‘identity’ and ‘self,’ we must explore Cartesian dualism. To put it simply, Cartesian dualism is a philosophical position that maintains that the world, and more particularly, human nature, is fundamentally composed of two separate, distinct realities: an internal subjective reality and an external objective reality. 

Accordingly, persons are described as ‘subjective selves,’ whose essential characteristics are internal to them (i.e., their personality or identity) and, thus, distinct and separate from the external world of objects. In this framework, all thoughts, desires, and claims regarding what kind of person one is, or self-understandings, are necessary products of a person’s subjective reality. Thus, their “real self” is the inner self. A person’s body, on the other hand, is taken to be an object of the external world that is separate from (but can be manipulated by) a person’s subjective, inner mind. In other words, in Cartesian dualism, persons’ bodies are likened to a puppet (i.e., an external object) that is manipulated by a puppeteer (i.e., the inner, subjective, “real” person) exerting the force of its will upon the body.

In short, CGI, based on Cartesian dualism, asserts that gender identity and associated behaviors stem from the unique inner feelings and desires of individual persons. In other words, gender identity is a subjective reality and, therefore, the truth about who each person is will be found in reference to that inner reality, which is taken as being completely different than the external reality, not in reference to the physical body that houses that subjective reality (e.g., “I am a man trapped in a woman’s body” or “I feel like a woman”). Additionally, the concept of ‘authenticity’ comes from outwardly living one’s internal reality, or more simply, ‘being true to how we feel on the inside.’ We find the root claims of these statements and ideas not in the 21st century but in Cartesian dualism, an idea that came about hundreds of years ago in the philosophies of Rene Descartes.

Assumption #2: Radical Subjectivism

Understanding the concept of radical subjectivism, particularly illustrated in the ideas of Sigmund Freud, is crucial in understanding CGI. Essentially, radical subjectivism is the idea that the truth about the self is entirely constituted and determined by one’s individual, inner emotional experience, “feelings,” and thus can only truly be known to the individual themselves. As discussed in the previous point, because of the assumption of Cartesian dualism, CGI presumes that gender identity is inside each human being and is distinct from the body. When this is combined with the assumption of radical subjectivism wherein one’s internal emotional experience is the sole arbiter of truth, then there is no apparent or easily distinguishable external characteristic by which individuals or those around them can determine their gender. Accordingly, external genitalia or chromosomes are considered unimportant in determining gender identity because gender, like all other aspects of human identity, is ultimately manifested internally in one’s subjective feelings. Such feelings are taken to be the highest authority on an individual’s gender identity such that no one else is allowed to comment on the person’s lived experience. “My feelings are fact” is the heart of radical subjectivism. Therefore, within CGI, “my feelings about my gender are the facts about my gender” is the sentiment.

Feelings are taken to be the highest authority on an individual’s gender identity.[/perfectpullquote]Radical subjectivism, then, is the very reason why ardent proponents of contemporary notions of gender and sexuality encourage, even insist, that people be allowed to listen to and explore any and every gender-related feeling or activity until it “resonates” with them. The feelings that “resonate” are interpreted as being in line with the person’s inner gender identity. The emphasis on subjective feelings as indicators of identity is a critical point of difference between how CGI and DGI state persons should understand their gender identity; CGI assumes the superiority of subjective feelings in determining gender, while DGI does not. Many of us have been exposed to the radical subjectivism of CGI as we’ve encountered advertisements like the following that clearly presume that one’s sexuality isn’t obvious.

Contemporary notions of gender identity exploration

Assumption #3: Sexual Moral Relativism

Building upon the idea of radical subjectivism, moral relativism is the notion that moral claims can only be determined true or false depending on an individual’s viewpoint or preference. In other words, moral relativism claims that morality ultimately depends on the perspective of the individual. Given the claim that gender is a fundamentally subjective and internal reality, known only to the individual person through their individual feelings, CGI makes a third moral claim about gender identity: there is no right or wrong way to identify, so all persons should pursue any desires, labels, and expressions as they personally see fit to do so in accordance with their subjective sense of their sexuality. In fact, to do so is the ultimately moral thing to do, the highest form of human living. This is what is typically referred to as “living authentically,” as mentioned previously.

Gender identity is considered an eternal and essential part of a person’s identity.

Ultimately, again, the source for any valid moral claims about one’s gender identity is the individual themselves. Therefore, any moral claims made about a person’s gender that come from another source (e.g., social mores, God, church leaders, parents, etc.) are taken to be invalid at best and harmful at worst. It is apparent, then, that the CGI entails sexual moral relativism because it is assumed that all questions of what is moral (e.g., what is bad, good, better, or best) when it comes to human sexuality and its expression, including gender identity, depends entirely upon the preferences of the individual. Similar to the first two assumptions of CGI, these ideas also have historical roots in the philosophies of particular men such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the contemporary psychology of authenticity and unconditional positive regard advocated by Carl Rogers.

Summary of CGI

In summary, CGI asserts a conception of personhood in which gender is taken to be subjective and separate from the body (i.e., Cartesian dualism). The truth about gender identity is known only to individuals through their inner subjective emotional experiences (i.e., radical subjectivism), and individuals are morally accountable only to themselves such that they are and must be free to pursue whatever gender identity they wish (i.e., sexual moral relativism). CGI is not some idea that is without consequence—It is founded upon philosophical principles that were thought of long before our time and implicate a great many things, things that we might not want to believe, about who we are as human beings. 

Divine Gender Identity

President Nelson articulated that there are three identities that we should put before all other identities: (1) children of God, (2) children of the covenant, and (3) disciples of Christ. All the principles of divine gender identity (DGI) ultimately point to and support these essential identities. We will discuss at least three key claims wherein DGI supports a gospel understanding of who we are as human beings and what our ultimate purpose is here on Earth. 

Assumption #1: Moral Gendered Embodiment

 DGI starts from the simple and fundamental claim made in the Family Proclamation that gender identity is considered an eternal and essential part of a person’s identity. Leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ further clarify that gender refers to a person’s biological sex and biological sex is patterned relationally (i.e., male bodies in complement to female bodies). In other words, according to DGI, gender is (1) inseparable from how a person’s body is sexed (i.e., gender is embodied; sex and gender cannot be fully separated), a claim that is a clear contrast to the Cartesian dualism of DGI, and (2), with very rare and notable exceptions (which the Church has provided counsel on) bodies are sexed in two complementary ways. Therefore, moral gendered embodiment is the assumption that the truth about a person’s gender is, in part, to be found in reference to a person’s sexed body and how its complementarity relates to the opposite sex. That is, the truth about one’s gender is inseparable from one’s sex, and that fact is evidenced in that (1) male bodies differ from female bodies and (2) both are essential in order to bring to pass the unity of husbands and wives required for God’s eternal purposes for the family—”Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.” While it may be beyond the scope of this article, we wanted to provide another resource that discusses eternal identity in the context of human sexuality beyond the discussion of gender (you can find it here).

We must have Christ-like patience, long-suffering, and compassion for those navigating such an experience.

Assumption #2: Revelation and Faith

Revelation is a long-established order by which the Lord helps us to know and understand both temporal and eternal truths. As such, this is the method for obtaining knowledge assumed by DGI. In other words, revelation is the way by which we ought to seek to know and understand our divine identity and purpose, especially in terms of our moral sexual embodiment. For DGI, then, the words of prophets, seers, and revelators, both ancient and modern, teach individuals the divine truths about their identity. Through divine revelation, we have been taught that we are eternally sexed (gendered) as men and women, that sexuality is meant to be expressed in marriage between a man and a woman, and that flourishing eternal gender identity is fully realized in the new and everlasting covenant of marriage found only in temples. 

A compassionate individual comforts a distressed friend in a serene garden, embodying the act of mourning with those who mourn.
We can be compassionate to those who experience identity questions.

DGI further acknowledges that we will often have experiences that seem to pull us in directions that oppose divine revelation. There are all kinds of ideas and feelings related to moral gender embodiment, many of which are confusing and difficult to understand in light of revealed doctrines about sexuality. For example, the idea of discouraging affirmative care seems cruel if we assume a contemporary understanding of identity. Some may argue that the gospel teaches us to be kind, not cruel, so it would seem the gospel would support the idea of affirmative care/practices. However, we would identify these ideas as mingling scripture and incompatible philosophies. We must exercise caution and be sure that we are starting on the proper premises taught by the gospel in order to find genuine, consistent, and sensical answers. Additionally, given the way that DGI understands gender identity, we must have Christ-like patience, long-suffering, and compassion for those navigating such an experience. However, love and compassion do not necessitate assuming a CGI perspective wherein feelings alone are taken as the authority on one’s identity and destiny, especially when they have clear ties to worldly philosophies that have become mingled with scripture. We are meant to overcome the world through Christ, not capitulate to it. As President Nelson conveyed to us in a recent conference address

What does it mean to overcome the world? It means overcoming the temptation to care more about the things of this world than the things of God. It means trusting the doctrine of Christ more than the philosophies of men. 

Revealed doctrines, scriptures, covenants, and the ongoing revelation of prophets, seers, and revelators are the source of knowledge for who we are, including our gender identity. This goes beyond the radical subjectivism of CGI. Perhaps this is why church leaders continually point people to the Family Proclamation and why President Nelson encouraged members to put their identity as children of God, disciples of Christ, and children of the covenant before all other identities. 

 Assumption #3: Covenant Purpose & Divine Destiny

Furthermore, in DGI, moral gender embodiment is taken as a gift from God, a gift given for a divine purpose. Accordingly, gender plays a critical and eternal part in that divine purpose. DGI asserts that sexual powers are complimentary sexed (gendered), given for the purpose of creating families and unifying men and women as husbands and wives in the new and everlasting covenant of marriage. Accordingly, the law of chastity is the higher moral standard which represents that divine purpose. In other words, God has revealed clear moral standards concerning moral-gendered embodiment.

Moral gender embodiment is taken as a gift from God.

Often, in dialogue about gender and sexual identity, we hear phrases like “God would never expect me to be anything other than what I am,” “God made me this way,” or  “God would never expect me to give up my gender identity.” Coming to know who we really are as children of God is, of course, an essential component of the gospel. However, in order to truly fulfill the measure of our creation, we must strive to emulate Christ. In order to become the best of who we were created to be, we must undergo significant change. Or, put another way, it is in turning to Christ and aiming to become like Him that we, in essence, put off the natural man and return to who we have always been, to our true divine nature, such that we can grow to fulfill our ultimate eternal potential. This implies that there are going to be mortal experiences and temptations on many fronts, some directly related to gender, that try to steer us away from that divine destiny and God’s moral standards for gendered embodiment. Indeed, we make covenants in the temple in order to set ourselves apart from worldly understandings about our identity and to pursue becoming who we are meant to become. As Mosiah succinctly puts it:

Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters. And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God. [emphasis added]

This is not to say, however, that every mortal experience with gender identity, or even every feeling associated with moral gendered embodiment, can and should be categorized as a temptation or as being depraved. We do not wish readers to come away from this using other persons’ emotional experiences related to gender as weapons against them. That being said, neither is every experience and feeling associated with moral gendered embodiment an unequivocally pure indicator that one’s gender is in opposition to one’s divine destiny to be sealed in the new and everlasting covenant of marriage. It is because it takes time to understand such a divine destiny that we are repeatedly invited to pray, study scripture, and participate in ordinances that remind us of our covenants on a regular basis that remind us that men and women are meant to be sealed together for time and eternity. 

Ty Mansfield, a well-known scholar who has done a lot of work on the intersection of faith and LGBT+ issues, has said this concerning how such a process takes time in order to realize the truth about gender and sexuality: 

… this journey demands greater patience, time, and a readiness to place our trust in God and the expansive cosmic design—requirements that often exceed the patience of prevailing cultural narratives about gender and sexuality.

As we attempt to make sense of the idea of gender as faithful latter-day saints, we ought to exercise our embodied gender in accordance with God’s divine purposes. Indeed, we will be held morally accountable for how we teach and live these divine laws. Ultimately, DGI asserts a conception of personhood in which all persons are relationally gendered, can know that truth through faith and revelation, and whose sexual behavior and identity are morally dependent upon God and others as taught and ensured in divine covenants.

Conclusion

Put side by side, we can see a clear difference between the assumptions of a contemporary understanding of gender identity and a divine understanding of gender identity. It is important that we are not deceived by the compelling narratives solely based on the feelings of the individual. Just as our religious ideas are grounded in a specific worldview, so too are those secular perspectives. Simply put, the assumptions of Cartesian dualism, radical subjectivism, and sexual moral relativism are not the same as the assumptions underlying the doctrines of the gospel. Therefore, we must be careful not to adopt these worldly perspectives on ‘identity’ because they contain falsities about who we are, why we are here, and how we should live our lives.

The voices of CGI convey that the gospel is too hard, too unloving, and too intolerant to remain committed to the gospel. Covenants, from this perspective, are a burden that makes life harder. However, as President Nelson has conveyed, “making and keeping covenants actually makes life easier!” While life may be easier on the covenant path, that does not mean that life will be easy.

President Nelson promises us that “As we strive to live the higher laws of Jesus Christ, our hearts and our very natures begin to change. The Savior lifts us above the pull of this fallen world by blessing us with greater charity, humility, generosity, kindness, self-discipline, peace, and rest.” Life is going to be hard, none of us are exempt from that reality. But, life on the covenant path, consistent with our moral gendered embodiment, is better and entails more blessings and peace than we can imagine.

About the authors

Brianna Holmes

Brianna Holmes graduated with a degree in Marriage, Couples, and Family Counseling and is currently a practicing counselor in Utah. Her area of interest is how professionals can focus on the agentic nature of human beings in therapeutic practices. She and her husband are parents to four beautiful children.

Samuel Major

Sam Major received his PhD in Applied Social Psychology from BYU. His research and publications focus on the topics of virtue ethics in psychology, alternative explanations of compulsive pornography use, and theoretical issues in psychology and therapy.
On Key

You Might Also Like

It’s Okay to Turn It Off

As valuable as it can be to stay updated on world affairs, the intimate and incessant witnessing of human heartache in the digital age can be overwhelming and distract from other important things. Don’t be afraid to set some boundaries.

books

Bites of the Best Books: December 2020

This month, passages on the dangers of political power for the religious, the problem of idealizing the
past, the need for deep souls, and the instructive power of pain.

Jacob Adriaensz. Backer Painting of David & Bathsheba | Bathsheba Draping over David | David’s Other Sin with Bathsheba | Public Square Magazine | David & Bathsheba Story

David’s Other Sin with Bathsheba

In addition to the clear violations against chastity, David’s behavior towards Uriah and Bathsheba reflects an ancient warning against the very exploitation of the powerless we continue to see around us today.

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter

Stay up to date on the intersection of faith in the public square.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This