This post is part of a series on Trans*Catholic Theology.
What are Aristotle’s four causes?
Much of modern Catholic philosophy and theology finds its grounding in St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century theologian who took the Greek philosophy of Aristotle and combined it with a Biblical worldview to create the body of what we might consider ‘mainstream’ Catholic thought.
One of the things that distinguishes Catholic thinking from the rest of the modern world is its appeal to Aristotle’s four causes, which are various ways of answering the question why. The word ‘cause’ isn’t really a good translation of what we’re talking about with the Four Causes – a better word might be ‘explanation.’ These are the four basic explanations for why something is what it is.
Aristotle’s four causes are, briefly:
- The material cause – the “what” – The matter or substance of which something is comprised.
- The efficient cause – the “how” – The main source of the thing’s change or rest.
- The formal cause – the “what-it-is-to-be” – The form of the thing.
- The final cause – the “why” – The ‘end’ or reason for which something is done or exists.
The theoretical definitions can be confusing, so let’s look at an example. The causes of a chair would be:
- The material cause – The wood of the chair
- The efficient cause – The carpenter who constructed the chair
- The formal cause – The shape of the chair
- The final cause – The chair exists to be sat in, and the carpenter caused the matter (wood) to have its form (chair) in order for it to be a piece of furniture that can be sat in
Human beings are more complicated because we are rational living creatures. What are the four causes of you? If we ask modern science and psychology, the answer is sort of unclear:
- The material cause – The human body
- The efficient cause – Parents, evolution
- The formal cause – Consciousness?
- The final cause – Survival? Life is whatever you make it to be?
Modern culture only focuses on the scientific answers for what we can know (the material & efficient). When it comes to the deep life questions (final & formal), it refuses to give a definitive answer.
If we consult Aristotle and Aquinas, the Christian answer to these questions is:
- The material cause – The human body
- The efficient cause – God
- The formal cause – The human soul
- The final cause – To know, love, and serve God
Obviously the scientific accounts like evolution contribute to our “explanation” of what it means to be human, but for a Christian it’s these spiritual answers to the question that determine how we live our life.
The Transgender Four Causes
Many transphobic Christians believe that transgender people go against God and contradict Christian thinking. Funnily enough, most of them unwittingly make their arguments against transgenderism from a very modern, pagan, un-Christian position.
One of the hallmarks of the modern age is its intense focus on science. Science is by nature the study of only the material and efficient causes of things (physics without metaphysics). If science talks about the formal or final causes of things, it ceases to be good science. It’s totally fine to let science focus on what is observable since that’s what science is, but many modern people rule out talking about the unobservable side of reality even outside the context of science.
As Catholics, we are a spiritual people. We believe there is more to Creation than mere matter. When many Catholics talk about transgender people, they only talk about the efficient cause of “how we got so screwed up” and material cause of “what’s between our legs”, ignoring the other two which are actually the more important questions.
The material cause
The material cause is the one that transgender politics really latches onto. Science has shown that transgenderism is probably a physiological reality, which is very reassuring for us since it shows we’re not delusional. However, biology can’t answer the deeper questions of identity.
On the other side of the fence, anti-trans politics and pseudo-psychology have one of two responses to the physiological (material) side of transgenderism. They either say “yeah, transgenderism is what happens when an otherwise normal child’s brain gets messed up in the womb,” OR they pretend that the evidence for a material cause to transgenderism doesn’t even exist. I’ve seen this in a lot of Catholic psychological literature, where they dismissively say “there’s no evidence that transgenderism is biological” when that’s simply not the case.
The efficient cause
The people who ignore the material cause of transgenderism tend to focus only on the efficient cause. Many reactionary Catholics cling to bad pseudopsychology in order to explain away transgenderism.
Most of the ‘efficient causes’ they propose for gender dysphoria are pretty pathetic and don’t hold up to scrutiny. These people try to explain a very complex and multi-faceted reality with very weak efficient causes. They make strange causal connections like: a person has gender dysphoria because their father was emotionally distant from them. TRANSLATION: A person has a persistent, unshakeable existential and spiritual knowledge of themselves as being of a particular gender despite any accidents of gender norms because they, like almost everyone else on the face of the Earth, have daddy issues.
TRANSLATION: A strong reality that is very rare is being explained by a weak reality that is very common.
The causes that really matter
All criticisms of these crappy theories aside, do these material and efficient causes really matter? Let’s say I find out tomorrow that it’s 100% certain transgenderism is caused by hormones in the womb. This is very interesting scientifically, but what does it really say about who I am or how I should live my life?
As Christians it’s important to consider the deeper reality of what we look at. Consider evolution. So on an ‘efficient’ level humanity is the result of a process of biological elimination and mutation. Now someone looking at the evolutionary theory superficially might think that evolution leaves God out of the picture. Certainly evolution informs our anthropology and our understanding of humanity’s creaturely reality, but a truly Christian anthropology focuses primarily on the who and why. That is, as interesting as it is to know the process by which God made us as we are, it is far more interesting (and important) to know why he did so and who we are in his eyes.
However I came to be me, now I’m me and there’s not much I can do about it. Maybe I’m a product of chemicals, maybe of socialization, maybe of trauma – WHO KNOWS!? None of these explanations tell me who I am. None of them tell me who God made me to be. None of them tell me why God allowed these forces outside my control to form me into a complicated, atypical person.
Why did God allow me to have a female spirituality and existence despite being male bodied? What does he want to do with this? What facet of His nature and personality do I express by being transgender?
This series of articles will consider the deeper explanations of transgenderism: the formal and final causes. I want us to look at things more profoundly, with a mind toward our heavenly journey and eternal destiny. So much superficial anti-trans theology skims the surface and avoids the real issues by reducing trans people to one or two arbitrary facts about our material existence. Let’s take a step into deeper waters and sound the depths of real thinking.
This post is in part inspired by a talk by Aaron Harburgh called “A Christian Response to Homosexuality.” The full talk can be viewed here.