To what extent are the differences between man and woman rooted in the soul, rather than just the body? If the soul is the “form” of the body, one might assume that masculinity and femininity are characteristics of the soul before they are of the body. Yet the tradition of patristic and medieval commentary on Scripture suggests otherwise. The difficulty was partly how to reconcile the teaching of Genesis that man and woman together were made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and that of St Paul that man is the “image and glory of God”, whereas woman is (only?) “the glory of man” (1 Cor. 11:7), having been made from man. Most agreed that woman, being taken from the side of man rather than his foot or his head, was intended to be his equal and rather than his slave or his master. Furthermore it was accepted that women were at least as capable as men of receiving grace and becoming saints. But some concluded that “woman” and “man” are sometimes used in Scripture as symbolic terms representing the lower and higher intellect respectively–woman being the lower, more engaged with the physical world. Man, however, has a certain superiority in ruling, according to these writers. To a modern person, such arguments are less than persuasive.
It seems to me that not enough attention was given to the fact that in Genesis 3:16 man’s ruling over woman is identified as a consequence of the Fall, rather than as part of the original order of things. As for the allegorical identification with the higher and lower intellect, this is interesting in that it suggests a complexity within the soul itself, but a more sophisticated interpretation is called for. The soul clearly has different levels and faculties, including the spirit (where we come most closely into contact with God), the will, mind, memory, imagination, and so forth. The soul is capable of receiving input from the senses, and thus being extremely closely involved with the body. But it also seems able to be absorbed entirely into contemplation, and through ecstasy to transcend its physical limitations. Woman may indeed be more, rather than less, susceptible to these “higher” activities of the soul/spirit.
Medieval writers tended to say that the part of man that images God is not the body, nor the lower parts of the soul, but the higher part–the spirit or higher intellect. This is because God is not a body, of course, but purely spiritual. This too needs some re-examination. Perhaps even gender is part of the image of God. That certainly is the implication of John Paul II’s theology of the body. When Genesis talks of man (male and female) being made in the image of God it does not refer merely to the most spiritual part of man. It is easy enough to abstract “feminine” and “masculine” qualities that could applied analogously at the spiritual level, and even to God (to whom Scripture certainly attributes maternal qualities at times). These abstractions should not be applied crudely, but handled with care I think they reveal something interesting.
Thus Pope John Paul II writes,
man became the ‘image and likeness’ of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons which man and woman form right from the beginning. The function of the image is to reflect the one who is the model, to reproduce its own prototype. Man becomes the image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion. Right ‘from the beginning,’ he is not only an image in which the solitude of a person who rules the world is reflected, but also, and essentially, an image of an inscrutable divine communion of persons.
It is not that God the Father is “masculine”, while the Son or Spirit is “feminine”. Rather one would say that the relationship of giving and receiving between the divine persons, and the delight they take in each other, are the archetype or model of the communion that exists between human beings, and in a particular way between man and woman, whose very biology indicates that they are made for fruitful union with each other. If God is love, and to love is to give and receive one’s very being, images of this relationship must abound throughout the cosmos, and in man especially, both in his body and in his soul, both in the psychological and in the more spiritual realm. Thus to be man or woman–a fact that marks our bodies right down to the cellular level–is no mere accidental property. Of course, to be human, to be an animal, to be alive, and even in a sense to be an image of God, pertains more to our “substance” than to be a man or woman. Nevertheless, gender is almost as deeply rooted in what we are, and if we follow Gregory of Nyssa and others in interpreting the “coats of skins” with which God clothes fallen mankind as representing the fleshy bodies we now possess, this may even be an implication of the Genesis account itself, for man at that point has already been divided into the two sexes. It is as men and woman, made for each other, but made first of all for God, that we are called to minister to the cosmos.