I enter the delivery room, not knowing the sex of the one I have carried in my womb for nine months of hope and fear, joy and pain, preparation and trepidation. Upon the last push, “It’s a boy!” rings out in the room, but as he lies on my chest, his sex doesn’t matter; it matters that he is a healthy baby.
We bring him home in greens and yellows, and when I gaze at his sleeping face, I know he is a boy, but his sex doesn’t matter. I would take care of him in the same way; he plays with the same toys, eats the same food, wears the same diapers. At eight months, a green or yellow outfit still elicits strangers’ comments about “her,” and when a friend recently called him beautiful, she said that when he gets older she will change it to “handsome.”
He’s in the stroller, my husband I show him the trees and sky, and I ask him, “Do you know that you’re a boy like papa and not a girl like mama?” His happy squeals give me no answer.
Is there a masculine essence already in him but currently invisible? Will it come out of the inside as he grows, or will he become like papa because we teach him to? It seems that there is no scientifically proven answer.
I’ve been fascinated with rites of passage for years now, and research shows sex-specific rites in many cultures. Boys become men and girls become women with rites that give them the skills and status to fulfill a cultural role.
The current cultural confusion regarding what it means to be a man or a woman and when or how one passes into adulthood invites the church to create rites of passage that disciple our youth. My dissertation research into Christian rites of passage for women has enabled me to do just that, based on undergirding principles of Christian maturity that are the same for both female and male.
In studying rites for both sexes, I found that all the rites defined maturity in terms of relationship, primarily relationship with God and with others. Genesis 1 reveals relationship at the core of being human, since we bear the image and likeness of the Trinitarian, eternally relational God. Genesis 2 reveals relationship with God as well as relationship with others, whose essential similarity runs deep into the bone.
Genesis 1 also references another essential relationship—with creation. Male and female are created in God’s image, and then God gives them all of creation to steward. Caring for other living things and thus also caring for fellow humans is stamped into humanity at its core.
The final relationship that defines humanity is relationship with oneself. Though not in Genesis, knowing and caring for oneself becomes clear in the biblical injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself. This injunction shows interdependence between the relationship with oneself and that with others. In fact, all four relationships are not completely separate categories or compartments. The dividing lines are more like buoys on a rope in a swimming pool than like thick walls; each is mixed with the others. Humans are unified beings who cannot separate body and soul/spirit; humans are also complex beings; we are physical, social, sexual, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and more. These aspects of our being also flow into one another like water flows beneath the buoys on the rope.
Though churches may nurture one’s relationship with God and with others, it is often in a generic human sense rather than in a gender-related sense. Christian women relate to God, self, others, and creation in ways that are often similar to other women and different at times from the way men do. Woman, a year-long rite of passage at Nyack College, where I teach, creates space where participants are not simply taught to be a Christian, but to be a Christian woman.
“Woman finds her identity in relationship with God, self, others, and creation,” states the trademark of the rite of passage. The role of the rite of passage into womanhood is to create opportunities for girls to gain knowledge, skills, and a disposition that seeks maturity and development in these relationships. Woman has just “crossed over” its fifth class of Nyack College seniors. Many alumnae have stated that Woman helped them become truly themselves. They received a relational framework for womanhood, reached into their core, and were freed to fully express their true identity, through actions and in a confident voice, even if culture deemed it more “masculine.”
Woman participants work through my soon-to-be published Book of Womanhood, which begins where the Bible does: with the shared image of God, who is neither masculine nor feminine, but as Creator, contains and encompasses both. God displays traits that culture defines as feminine; God also displays traits that culture defines as masculine.
Both Woman and my book are targeted at women, since sin has affected them in particular ways and they thus commonly share several tendencies. Culture (the broader culture, the church subculture, and more) has also shaped and defined them in ways specific to their sex. Furthermore, a woman’s relationship with others is nuanced because she can bear children, giving life in a distinctive manner. All of this is addressed in order to redeem and call forth healthy relationships with God, self, others, and creation.
Nyack has no corollary program for men, though many have expressed interest. Because of the distinctions alluded to above, sex-specific books and rites are appropriate as women call girls into womanhood and men call boys into manhood. If a rite of passage for men is invented in the future, I hope that it would be based on the shared essential relationships with God, self, others, and creation.
And as my boy grows and develops, I hope we all give him room for his individual expression of these relationships. Maybe he’ll be more like me, or maybe more like his dad. Perhaps his sex won’t matter too much, because he will always simply be my child.