By guest contributor Timothy Wright
From the perspective of contemporary feminism, Christianity has a decidedly mixed record on gender. On the one hand, many modern scholars, such as Mary Wiesner-Hank, cite Christian culture as leading to an “erosion of gender variation” as the patriarchal hierarchy implicit in Christian scripture demanded a binary model of gender identity (Wiesner-Hank, Mapping Gendered Routes and Spaces, 72). On the other hand, scholars of early modernity have increasingly pointed to the egalitarian and subversive potential of the doctrine and practices of radical Christian sects such as the Quakers, whose doctrine of the ‘universal light’ legitimized such practices as female prophesy and female traveling ministers, leading the historian Mack Phyllis to label Quakerism the “cradle of modern feminism” (Phyllis, Visionary Women, 349).
A particularly outlandish example of experimenting with gender roles in early modern radical religion is found in the practice of Christian rebirth in the ascetic radical Protestant network led by Johann Gichtel (1638-1710), named the “Brethren of the Angelic Life”. Far from being understood as a purely symbolic allusion to a change in one’s inward ‘spiritual’ attitude or disposition, Christ’s reference to rebirth in John 3:5 evoked widespread early modern mystical, alchemical, and Rosicrucian speculation on how the soul and body could be transformed by faith (Dohm, Alchemische Poesie, 15). Gichtel and his circle followed in this tradition, but with a twist: his concept of rebirth aimed to erase all traces of gender from the human body, thus precipitating an androgynous transformation rendering us as the angels, or as Adam before the Fall, a doctrine Gichtel took from the highly heterodox and speculative musings of the German mystic Jakob Boehme (1575-1624). Gichtel, following Boehme, taught the great ‘mystery’ that mankind must reclaim in its own body the image of God as found in the first creation before the Fall. Gichtel argued that “the first man Adam was neither man nor woman” (Gichtel, Theosophische Send-Schreiben, 276) and this androgynous Adam, incredibly, had the ability to
impregnate himself through paradisaical means through the power of imagination like Mary and multiply without tearing [Zerreissung]. But because he did not desire this, so did God create him for this earthly life and split him in two [my italics], in which he now must spend his life with fear and pain in great sorrow. He should have had no need for his beastly genitalia [thierische Glieder] which were first given to him when he slept, of which afterwards he was ashamed and of which we still today are ashamed. The circumcision of children also shows that the phallus does not belong in the kingdom of God… (Gichtel, Theosophische Send-Schreiben, 271-2) (all translations are mine)
That the Brethren of the Angelic Life sought to realize this androgynous rebirth in mortality is illustrated by the case of one Sister Beatrix, with whom Gichtel and his companion Johann Überfeld (1659-1732) practiced celibacy, poverty, and intensive meditative prayer in a house community in Amsterdam from 1695 to 1705. In a letter from 21 March, 1710, Überfeld claimed that Beatrix had achieved such a “high and deep degree of purification” that she had “overcome her gender” (Überfeld Briefe, Theil IV, 120). In another letter, Überfeld explained that Beatrix “had died to the world to such a degree that she had almost completely lost her nature, and one could not tell in the last five years she lived, that there was a woman in the house” (Briefe, Theil IV, 128).
Unfortunately, Überfeld does not go into precise detail about the changes to Beatrix’s body, but elsewhere, including in descriptions of Gichtel’s own rebirth, we learn that the Angel-Brothers believed that sexual abstinence and other ascetic practices could induce a purifying mutation of the very substance of the human body. In a biography of Gichtel published in 1722, Überfeld claimed that Gichtel as early as the 1680s “already carried the body of the first Adam in his soul” (Lebens-Lauf, 150) which manifested itself in an outward manner: “his spirit was thereby transformed in a wholly new form, such that he appeared to be a completely new man. His soul beamed through his eyes.” (Lebens-Lauf, 84). Gichtel himself had earlier described how reborn bodies change into a ‘transparent, crystalline’ substance like Adam’s body and shed the “earthy, hard, and dark” fallen flesh (Theosophische Send-Schreiben, 217).
Much of the activity of Gichtel and his network of Protestant ascetics was geared toward propagating through correspondence and publications the precise means by which such a transformation could occur. Gichtel even published a guide in 1697 to this system, or ‘theosophia practica’, of ascetic rebirth replete with anatomical diagrams illustrating the spiritually significant parts of the body (see image) such as the ‘dark world’ of the genitalia and the seat of sexual desire in the kidneys.
A spiritual transformation understood as the loss of the male-female sexual binary is nothing new to those familiar with the Christian ascetic tradition. Peter Brown indicates that Origen’s castration was not so much about ensuring chastity but rather an attempt to eliminate his maleness (Brown, The Body and Society, 169). Early Christian ascetic practice aimed not to escape the body, but rather to reclaim the original pre-lapsarian Adamic body (Body and Society, 222) that, according to Valentinian Gnostics, was characterized by a platonic unity which knew no diversity or separation into gender, as could be seen in the homogeneity of the angels. The polarity between male and female would disappear as the confusion of spiritual forces occasioned by the fall were overcome through the individual’s battle with his/her fallen flesh. Thus, the overcoming of gender was “the surest sign that the redemption offered by Christ had come to the believer.” (Body and Society, 115).
We should not assume, of course, that Gichtel’s early modern reiteration of early Christian androgynous spiritual rebirth is equivalent to an emancipatory post-modern play with the contingency of gender. Enough misogyny lay hidden in Gichtel’s hatred of sex to fill volumes. Nevertheless, Gichtel does treat sexual identity as a secondary, temporary aspect of human nature. Earthly androgyny becomes, therefore, a way to escape the straightjacket of earthly sexuality, and takes us one step closer to a form of divine ontology not expressed in gender binaries. If nothing else, Beatrix’s androgynous transformation is a colorful example of the manner in which theological heterodoxy and divergent ideas of the body and sexuality were often two sides of the same coin.
Timothy Wright is a fourth-year PhD student studying Early Modern History at UC Berkeley. His interests include religious heterodoxy and separatism in the Protestant Reformation as well as the relationship between theology, scholarship, and religious praxis in the early Enlightenment.