James D. Whitehead: Encountering the transgender person means embracing bewilderment

Views James D. Whitehead / May 15, 2023 Print this:
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The first time my wife Evelyn and I met a transgender person, we experienced a confusing set of emotions: an initial unease, some perplexity, something I might call bewilderment. Happily, these feelings melted away under the glow of a growing friendship. At the time, Evelyn and I were teaching a course on healing painful emotions—anger, fear, guilt, shame. 

Naturally in our course, we also strayed into less obvious feelings, like resentment. But what about bewilderment? Where did it arise and what was it about?

If bewilderment is an unpleasant feeling, it is also a salutary emotion, as it helps correct what the Christian scholar Lee Yearley terms “the inclination to unwarranted certainty.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “confusion arising from losing one’s way; a confusion from the inability to grasp or see one’s way through a maze or tangle of impressions or ideas.”  

The self-righteous and “the saved” will likely see this emotion as moral weakness and lack of faith. If we never experience this feeling it may be that we have lingered too close to home. There is today a great deal of “unwarranted certainty” in the commentary of some about transgender lives. Such spokespersons comment with a serene confidence about the wondrous complexity of hormones in human lives. It would appear that they know the workings of the Most High.

Bewilderment disarms us of long-cherished convictions and biases. We become less self-assured. 

Bewilderment disarms us of long-cherished convictions and biases. We become less self-assured. A clue to bewilderment may lie in the place of wilderness in our Scriptures. Our ancient ancestors, set free from slavery, found themselves in an unforgiving desert.

Their complaint, whether to Moses or to God: Did you lead us out here to die? (Ex. 4:11) Mark begins his Gospel with the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness (Mk. 1:12) Why? There seems to be an unchosen but purifying quality to the wilderness, hard for us urbanites to savor. But it does seem to be part of the plot.

Bewilderment arises when this wilderness comes indoors, invading the precinct of our heart. It is still part of the plot. We might ask where this perplexing emotion leads, after it unfastens us from our certitude. It may open a path to a new appreciation of God’s extravagance.

The signature of creation itself is extravagance, God’s over-the-top performance. In time, it might edge out fairness as the central attribute of God. We had learned that we get what we deserve. But this is not so. (Thanks be to God.)

We had been taught that we reap what we sow. We reap what our ancestors have sown, with or without gratefulness. We inherit what we have no right to. Nor do we earn our own salvation.

We have seen this extravagance on cosmic display. Certainly one galaxy or maybe two should be enough. But not for our “overdoing God.” Our comprehension stumbles at the number of species of ants and spiders. Why so many? This divine extravagance explodes our nicely organized binary world.

The bewilderment we experience when confronted with the extravagant love of God for our transgender siblings does not distress us, but bedazzles us.

We had been warned. There was talk that the essential binaries of Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female somehow collapsed in the new creation that is Christ (Gal. 3:28). Certainly, God did not mean here, not now. Our people had even crafted a theory of natural law that insists we can see God’s design laid bare in creation itself. This being the law of God, the Creator has to follow it.  

So the binary that rules in a literal reading of “Male and Female God Created Them” dissolves in the face of the extravagance of a creation of male and female and everything in between. 

The spiritual journey, then, often moves from bewilderment to God’s extravagance. Sometimes, this generosity is itself more than we can fathom. At other times we like to think, we know what God is about. 

The bewilderment we experience when confronted with the extravagant love of God for our transgender siblings does not distress us, but bedazzles us. We do not search for a safe exit from our confusion, but a place to kneel. Extravagance is just another name for Grace.

James D. Whitehead

Mr. Whitehead received his Ph.D from Harvard University, and is a theologian and historian of religion. Together with his wife, Evelyn Eaton Whitehead, Ph.D, a development psychologist, he has lectured internationally and co-authored more than a dozen books, including "Fruitful Embraces: Sexuality, Love and Justice."

All articles by James D. Whitehead

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  1. The teachings of Jesus of Nazareth were lessons filled with bewilderment. His life began in a virgin womb; his death was followed by a bodily resurrection. He was a mystic, who encouraged his followers to go deeply, in search of truth beyond comprehension. This way of love is not for the timid. It requires letting go of the comfortable, being open to mystery, sitting in bewilderment.

  2. Many years ago, I was faced with being a gay Catholic man and was shamed. I read an article by James and his wife which was very helpful to me in seeing my homosexuality in a more positive life. After 8 years of failed conversion therapy, I thought there may be a chance to be gay and Catholic. In time I also met some transgendered person and thought to myself, ‘if my journey as a gay man was difficult, persons who are trans have it much more. Their day is coming. May God bless them all.

  3. I often hear Catholics chastise coordinators of Catholic LGBTQ ministries for “confusing” people by creating safe opportunities for spiritual growth, community and worship for LGBTQ Catholics, their families and allies without first reading Catechism passages about homosexual relationships to them. I cannot imagine who, if anyone, would show up for a church that met them outside with a rule book. And it’s so clear that this rule book contains only a few of our vast array of teachings.

    Have you ever heard a church leader ask people who vote for pro death penalty politicians to abstain from receiving Jesus? “Sorry, we love you but it would cause a scandal if we let you participate with people who might believe that church teaching allows the death penalty if they see you go to communion. Here’s what the Catechism says about it”. I haven’t.

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