In the previous section of this continuing reflection, I examined the biblical concept of “one flesh” using the biblical text itself in an effort to unpack the meaning of this phrase. From that effort, I conclude that fleshly unity is not to be seen as good in and of itself, but only within the context of a loving relationship, including union of heart and mind as well as of flesh.
As few (I hope) doubt that persons of the same sex can enjoy unity of heart and mind in companionship with each other, the question remains as to whether a same-sex couple can experience a form of bodily union. Some of those opposed to any recognition of same-sex relationships argue against this possibility, largely on the grounds of what they usually refer to as the “complementarity of the sexes.” I now turn to begin to examine this assertion.
As I noted in my critique of Some Issues in Human Sexuality, the definition of complementary and complementarity often shifts in the course of these discussion. In normal English usage, however, “complementary” applied to two things means that one makes up what is lacking in the other, or that both together make up what is lacking in each. In mathematics we say that a 60-degree angle is complementary to a 30-degree angle, because together they make up a right angle.
There are, from my perspective, two faults with applying this concept to human beings and their relationships. First, it requires that the individual human being be seen as lacking something — as essentially incomplete or defective; secondly, it implies an essential difference between men and women, whereby only a man and a woman can compensate for what the other is lacking, or (as I think is more commonly held) one of them (the man) makes up for what the other (the woman) lacks.
As in Adam
It is sometimes asserted that one is not a complete human being unless coupled.
But human beings are not complementary in this sense; and to assert so is a defective anthropology and a misreading of Genesis. It also flies in the face of the doctrine of the Incarnation.
Philosophy ratifies the concept of the dignity of the human person in acknowledging that an individual human being is a complete human being. Individual human beings may suffer from loneliness, however, and human society provides a number of compensations for that human need. But loneliness is an emotional state, not a defect of personhood or humanity, or the lack of an essential attribute of the human person. Solitude, and the loneliness to which it gives rise, are situational and circumstantial, not essential.
This does not mean that solitude is not a real problem for human beings. The second creation account in Genesis 2 assures of that Adam’s solitude was the only thing “not good” in creation. The intent of Genesis 2 is to tell us why it is that “a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife” — a recognition that this is a primary way in which human beings overcome the pang of solitude. But if marriage were the only way to counter solitude, then celibacy would have to be ruled out as an approved state of life.
As I pointed out earlier in this series of reflections, such was a predominant view in rabbinic Judaism, in which celibacy was held to be gravely defective, not only because it failed to implement the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, but because an unmarried man is“incomplete.” It is thus fair to acknowledge that this passage presents us with the only text that might be conceived to speak of “complementarity” of the sexes. Rabbinic tradition holds that Adam’s incompleteness is only healed by marriage, based on Eve being created by a partial removal from Adam.
There are, I think, a few points to challenge that point of view, even within rabbinic Judaism, and also the degree to which we should receive this interpretation of the Genesis 2 account. First of all, this view shares some features with Aristophanes’ account of the origin of the sexes and sexual desire — although Aristophanes includes the origin of homosexual desire as well — in Plato’s Symposium. It is important to note that this “completion” of the man by the woman is not understood, even in rabbinic Judaism, along the lines of Aristophanes, or the Taoist concepts of yin and yang — it is not about a synthesis of opposites, nor even simply the restoration of something previously divided — for Adam and Eve remain themselves even after they have joined. Above all, it cannot be understood as a marker of an essential, as opposed to a situational, defect in the human person.
For along with this reading of Genesis 2, there are other rabbinic interpretations. The Rabbis used Genesis 2 as the source for the full and complete dignity of the individual human being, “A single man was created in the world to teach ... that whoever saves a single life it is as if he saved the entire world. ” (mSanhedrin 4:5)
A return to the original text is also helpful: God created Adam as a solitary gardener, and first tried to assuage his loneliness by making animal companions for him. Only after Adam rejected the animals did God take something from him later to restore it in“built up” form as the Woman he could receive as flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, as someone like him (as opposed to the animals, who were unlike him). This is not about complementarity, or the union of opposites, but of similarity or identity. Eve is a human being; as a later church synod (Douzy, 860) would say, Eva ipse est Adam. Eve is herself Adam.
Finally, we have to note that the church later corrected a narrow reading of Genesis 1 as well, where the rabbinic interpretation required procreation in order to give due honor to celibacy. “The single state” — an “estate” like matrimony, is honorable, though having no more ontological significance than marriage has. As Aquinas pointed out (contrary to the Rabbis), the commandment to be fruitful and multiply was addressed to the whole species, not to individuals (Summa Theologica II.2.Q152.2).
Moreover, the Church affirmed that the New Adam, Jesus Christ, is also fully and completely human, and that this full humanity derives entirely from the Virgin Mary. She could not bestow upon him that which she did not possess, so it is clear on this basis that maleness or femaleness is merely accidental to human nature, and not essential to it. The doctrine of the Incarnation makes clear that the humanum is complete in the individual person. Human nature is something each human possesses. There is no “complementarity” at the level of human nature.
In addition, human society (even apart from sexuality) does not necessitate complementarity. To assert its necessity not only effectively denies the possibility of same-sex partnerships, but of periods of chastity between married couples, the goodness of friendship, and the fellowship of celibate partnership in community evinced in the cenobitic life.
Thus I am forced to reject the notion that individual human beings are only completed or constituted into human or social reality by sexual relationship with a person of the opposite sex, and to reject interpretations of Genesis 2 along those lines.
This brings me to the second assertion, that there is some complementarity of male and female which renders such pairs uniquely capable of pairing. In the next section of this reflection I will respond to two questions: Are men and women actually complementary on a physical basis? (we have already seen that they are not complementary on a human or social basis) and Is complementarity a necessary component of a committed sexual relationship?
Tobias Haller BSG
Further Update: This post and those that follow, expanded and supplemented with much additional material, form part of Reasonable and Holy, published by Seabury Books and available on order from Church Publishing Incorporated.