Questions on Sexuality? Complementarity is the Answer!

Note: This is an adapted portion of a conference session I am presenting this weekend. The session, in its entire context, will be up in the near future.

In the beginning, we were created for love, by love, and in love. How do we know this? It says so, right in the beginning of Genesis!

 …then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed…The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it…Then the Lord God said, “it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

Linger for a few moments on the last verse: “…this at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

Consider first Adam’s words “at last.” If you read the verse correctly, the emphasis is put squarely on these two words: “this AT LAST is bone of my bones…” Up until that moment, as we read, Adam was living in Eden, alone. God knew that this was not good. But God chose to let Adam discover a few things gradually. So first, he gave Adam all of the animals as helpers. Adam came to understand each one—their nature, their strengths, and their weaknesses, and so on—and from that knowledge gave them a name. By naming each creature Adam created a relationship, a way to call on this “other” and interact. Imagine the time and care it took for him to complete this task with every single creature!

Yet as he builds this knowledge of, and relationship with, all creatures, he realizes two important things. For one, he has built up knowledge of himself by the process of knowing and naming other creatures. He knows that, unlike the elephant, he walks on two legs. He knows that, unlike the hawk, he has hands without talons. He has hair, like the gorilla and unlike the rabbit—but not as much hair as the gorilla! Secondly, he realizes that, in some way, he is still alone. He remains separated from all other creation by an unknown quality. He has no helper fit for him. This mysterious being, yet to be found, is meant to help Adam discover the unique quality within himself that he is unable to encounter alone.

Knowing this, the emphasis on Adam’s “at last” makes sense. He is overcome by a profound sense of joy and relief because, finally, there is a creature that truly fits him. AT LAST, he has a being that gives him a sense of completeness. AT LAST, he can be at peace because he is no longer alone.

The last verse also affirms that there are two sides to the human story, with both being necessary for the story to be told in its full beauty and grandeur. This is called the “complementarity” of man as male and female.

Complementarity means forming a balanced whole. Everything in the world functions on this principle. Nature is complementary: land and sea, earth and sky, animals and plants. Our bodies are complementary: ears, eyes, nose, lungs, heart, hands, feet, legs, stomach, liver, nerves, and brain all working together. Even math contains the principle of complementarity in its logic: it means mutually exclusive and exhaustive. Generally, complements are meant to be functional: land is dry and barren without bodies of water feeding it, and when a body part fails, the whole body suffers and cannot function.

The creation story in Genesis recounts the gradual buildup of complementarity in the natural world. Man, who is the last and highest of God’s creation, marks a shift in the dynamics of complementarity. Before man, all of creation had equal dignity. The land was not lord of the sea, the sky was not lord of the earth, and animals were not lords of the plants. But man? Man was created with a unique dignity, designed to govern and care for the earth, the sea, the sky, and every thing in between. And while man is a perfect complement to nature, nature is an imperfect complement to man. This is expressed in Adam’s ability to name every creature, and his simultaneous realization that he is alone in the world. His unique dignity—being made in the image and likeness of God—requires a unique complement.

What do I mean by “man is a perfect complement to nature, but nature is an imperfect complement to man?” In Adam, we see a creature that shares the same functional characteristics as other creatures: working physical parts, a need to feed and hydrate, the ability to reproduce, and a basic, sensory awareness of “others.” Everything that the created world has, Adam also has. This makes him a perfect complement to nature, because Adam’s characteristics bring balance to the whole of creation. On the other hand, nature cannot bring balance to the whole of Adam’s being.

We understand that man is created in God’s image and likeness, and has the purpose of reflecting and imitating the mysterious communion of Persons in the Holy Trinity, but what is it specifically about man that uniquely expresses this reality?

It is in the ability to reason. No other created thing can reason as we do. And reason, used rightly, elevates every aspect of our person. With reason we don’t merely function—we live. We are the only creatures that walk with a spring in our step when we are happy, as if joy could make us fly. We are the only creatures who make sense of the world, and who can give names and meanings to the things we see and feel.

No thing in nature can match man’s ability to reason. This is why woman became the perfect complement to Adam, as his “AT LAST” testifies. Adam wasn’t looking for someone to simply work with, and have sex with, and to eat with. He wanted an “other” who would join him hand-in-hand to transform the ordinary into something extraordinary. Beginning with his self.

But—why female? Why not another male? From what we read in Genesis, Eve seems almost exactly the same as Adam. And the modern world has made great strides in testifying to the fact that there is much more commonality between the sexes than not. Misguided gender stereotypes are rightly being shown false. For example, men aren’t supposed to show emotion. Or girls can’t be good at math. Or that grace and meekness are “feminine” qualities and strength and intelligence are “masculine.” These are human qualities. Everyone, male and female, has the ability to do these things, and be these things.

So what is left to “being female” that complements Adam’s “being male?” The obvious answer is sex; the ability to unite and reproduce. But this answer is reductionist. This answer says that we are God’s creature, not God’s created image and likeness. It explains the way to make humans, but not the ways to be human. It does not tell us how we make the ordinary, extraordinary.

To do that, we need to look again at the impact that the ability to reason has on human nature. Our intellect gives us our less obvious, but more accurate answer to the complementarity of male and female. Earlier, I briefly pointed out that the first two chapters of Genesis present the same creation story using different narrative styles. I made the suggestion that this was done to exemplify the complementarity of man as male and female. Let’s dig into this, and see what we find.

Genesis 1 is very structured. The story follows a chronological pattern: “in the beginning…on the first day…on the second day…” and so forth. We find many sentences are repeated, over and over: God said something, God did something or God “called” something, God found something good, “and there was evening and there was morning, the Nth day.” The descriptions of creation are also noticeably…functional. This thing goes here so it can do that; that thing goes there so it can do that thing.

Genesis 2 takes the very last part of Genesis 1 and gives it context, character, and color. Here’s a perfect example: in Chapter 1 it says, “plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it.” In Chapter 2, it says, “God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” Each version (and the chapters they represent) has a commonality: both explain what is happening. Each also brings a unique quality to the story: one explains how what is happening, is happening, and the other explains why what is happening matters. If you notice, neither version suffers because it doesn’t have one of the unique qualities. Chapter 1 is not lacking as a story because it doesn’t tell us why creation matters. Neither is Chapter 2 lacking because it skimps on the details of how creation progressed. The chapters do not complement each other to correct a deficiency. Each takes the entirety of the other, and elevates it.

We see this same complementarity in Adam and woman. In his solitude Adam names all the creatures, based on his knowledge of them and how they work. The creation of woman completes Adam’s knowledge of his self, and gives it purpose. Both have a commonality (being human), and each brings the unique quality of how and why to the meaning of being human.

Human complementarity means forming a balanced, whole picture of man: what we are, how we are the way we are, and why we matter. And as creatures created in the image and likeness of God, that whole picture includes a semblance of our creator. Male and female, given in the reciprocal gift of self, allows us to imitate and glimpse the most intimate aspect of God: the Father who eternally gives Love, the Son who eternally receives Love, and the Spirit, who is Love itself—that which is given and received forever. This is the front line of evangelization, the first encounter with who God is and who he will be to us, possibly for the rest of our lives.


3 thoughts on “Questions on Sexuality? Complementarity is the Answer!

  1. I started to read this intending to inform about the evangelical deformation of complementarity. Then I read it and realized that no second story on the genesis of the concept of complementarity was available nor needed. Your presentation is whole and wholly catholic, thoroughly universal. If only more could write on this matter with such clarity there would be no room where syndromes with gender identity at the core may be found.
    May God bless you with this clarity in truth for many years and speaking engagements to come.


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