Erotic Inequality

Let's not confuse difference with inequality.
Appears in Summer 2015 Issue: Inequalities
June 1st, 2015

It is a truth universally acknowledged: 2 + 2 = 4. Any old 2 can sub in for either 2 in the equation, and the result will be the same. An addition problem represents absolute equality, equality as identity.

Outside the rarefied confines of mathematics, equality is never so simple. To say that 2 apples + 2 apples = 4 apples specifies an equality only in respect to the number of apples. The first two apples may be green Granny Smiths, the other two, Yellow Delicious. When you add them, you have four apples, but the assembly of four is sliced in two by colour, variety, and flavor. I have two ripe apples, you have two rotten apples. We can say that our total is four, but if we need them to feed hungry kindergarteners, the fact that we have four is moot. 2 + 2 still equals 4, but who cares? You only have two that are useful for the task at hand. As soon as you apple the math, equality becomes a limited, qualified, often uninteresting feature.

Difference is not the same as inequality, and differences are compatible with being equal in certain respects.

When you people the math, things get even more complicated. Every human being is complex, perhaps infinitely so. We resemble one another in some ways, but none is interchangeable with any other. No two humans are absolutely the same. Even "identical" features are inflected with difference. No two parts of any two humans are absolutely the same. Most humans have noses, but no two noses are perfectly equal in shape, size, or olfactory functionality. For most purposes, the fact that 2 humans + 2 humans = 4 humans is a thin fact, unless the humans possess other qualities than being human. 2 children + 2 children = 4 children, but that doesn't help much if you're choosing sides for basketball. Who has what skill or size? And in this context, 1 LeBron = an undetermined number of children.

Good Inequalities

For any group to function well, it must harmonize the equalities and inequalities of its members, their samenesses and differences. Each member of a basketball team is human (presumably), and they are identical in being basketball players, knowing the basic rules, cultivating certain skills, etc. But a basketball team of five identical players is not a good basketball team (excepting, always, the possibility of cloning LeBron or Michael). Five different players don't form an offense or defense by going to the same place at the same time. You make an offense by getting different players doing different things: spread the court, weave, pick and roll and pass. There have to be shooting specialists, passing specialists, rebounding specialists, defensive specialists. Great players combine several specialties, but no one player combines them all.

Thoughtful egalitarians acknowledge all this. They know that human beings are equal only in certain respects, and most will acknowledge that certain forms of inequality are necessary for societies to function well. Norberto Bobbio puts it with arresting simplicity in Left and Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction: Virtually everyone recognizes that people are both equal and unequal in different senses. They are equal in that they are all human, in their fundamental worth and dignity as humans; they are unequal in ability, training, physical features, family background, and connections. Egalitarians don't ignore the inequalities but "believe that what they have in common has greater value in the formation of a good community," while non-egalitarians believe that "diversity has greater value in the formation of a good community."

This is too simple. If egalitarianism amounted to no more than putting greater value on sameness, the debates about equality would not seem so intractable. More important than value is the egalitarians assumption that equality is a baseline condition. Equality is the original, natural condition of human beings. John Rawls, one of the leading political theorists of the past century, was an influential advocate for an egalitarian political order. In his updated social contract theory, Rawls imagines that human beings start out on equal terms and seek to form a fair society. Nobody knows where they will be in the social scale; they form their society behind a "veil of ignorance." Rawls thinks that this thought experiment helps to show what a just society should look like. For Rawls and for many political theorists, equality is also a baseline because it forms a touchstone for measuring social justice. Deviations from perfect equality occur, but to be just, every deviation has to be justified. Equalities don't have to be justified.

Equality is often thought to be natural while inequality is treated as an artificial product of social and economic conditions. We are equal in the fact that we are all born as human beings, with certain rights and a kind of dignity. The things that make us unequal are not natural, but artificial. I did not decide to become a medical doctor and a piano teacher, but I was, and that set me apart in important respects from other people. I'm not responsible for the advantages that came from my family, and so those advantages aren't given the same respect in the political sphere than the fact that I was born human.

To apply to the real world, natural equality has to be narrowly construed, because no two human beings are naturally equal in every respect. Egalitarians often distinguish relevant and irrelevant inequalities with an appeal to merit and responsibility. Advantages that accrue to someone by virtue of birth or upbringing are morally and politically irrelevant, even suspect. By what right does the Marquis ride his splendid carriage through Paris or sip chocolate in the sumptuous safety of his palace? His only claim is ancestry, and that's not adequate justification for his superiority in wealth and power. If my parents can afford to send me to the best schools, and I prosper as a result, that is an unjust inequality. I didn't earn my place in the family, and, on egalitarian premises, something must be done to ameliorate the condition of those who don't have wealthy parents (or, perhaps, to minimize my advantage). If, by contrast, I devote my training and talents more energetically, cannily, and skillfully than another person, and end up better off as a result, I merit the unequal share of goods that I accumulate. My circumstances may be as unequal to another's as the Marquis' are to the circumstances of the boy his carriage crushes in the street, but it's a justifiable inequality because I earned it. These days, most egalitarian theories make space for meritocratic inequalities.

Even this concession leaves difficulties for egalitarianism. Accumulated wealth is artificial and non-merited, so inheritance of accumulated wealth would seem to be inherently unjust. But redistributing wealth at each generation would be practically difficult if not impossible, and would deprive society of the considerable benefits of accumulated wealth: Would there be a Rockefeller Foundation without generations of Rockefellers? Or the Smithsonian without wealthy Smithsons, or the Ford Foundation without Fords? John Rawls confronts the issue with his "difference principle," which demands that wealthy and talented people consider their wealth and talents as common goods, the property of society and properly used only for the betterment of society. Along these lines, Rawls says that individuals are only complete "in the social union," and that members of a society "participate in one another's nature" such that the "self is realized in the activities of many selves." Rawls is able to deal with the reality of capital only by shifting from his initial premise of autonomous individuality to a view of human nature that allows for the formation of a "we" that is not more than two "I"s side-by-side.

What Rawls calls his "difference principle" is revealing, mainly because it backhandedly suggests an alternative to egalitarian social theory, one that takes inequality not as a problem to be solved but as an illuminating starting point. Every human being is unequal in some respects from every other, but the inequalities between a male and a female are of a different order. My nose is different (slightly) from my brothers', but my wife has body parts that I don't possess at all, and vice versa. Our biochemistry is different, as are the rhythms of our body clocks. It is especially here, where natural difference is most obvious, that the tensions inherent in egalitarianism become acute. Feminist egalitarianism has faced political opposition, but not only that: There is the conceptual challenge of sifting through the differences of male and female to pare down to a baseline of equality.

Difference is not the same as inequality, and differences are compatible with being equal in certain respects. Male and female are different, but equally human, equally dignified, equally made in the image of God. But the fact that these equalities are crossed by sexual difference is a significant fact of human sociality, one obscured by certain forms of egalitarianism. One might insist that maleness and femaleness are social constructs all the way down, but then it's hard to make sense of the uterus or penis. One might ignore bodily difference and insist that the relevant equality is disembodied, but that would seem to be an insult to the uniqueness of the female body. One might take male or female as norm and regard the other a defective version, but that venerable Aristotelian tactic is far from egalitarian. On the other hand, once you count bodily differences as important, it becomes more difficult to sustain absolute egalitarianism.

Especially in its feminist forms, egalitarianism obscures a richer, more fruitful conception of human sociality, one that emerges in the opening chapters of Genesis. In the Bible, the baseline isn't individualist or egalitarian. It is erotic.

Desiring Difference

Genesis 1 establishes a complex rhythm. Day follows day, each repetitive, cyclical, somersaulting from one to the next like the terza rima of Dante's Divine Comedy. Repetitive as it is, the cycle moves ahead. The world at the end of the second day is not the world at the end of the third day, nor is the goodness of the third day identical to the goodness of the fourth. Days one through six are good, but not good enough. They become more than good only when the creation is finished. At the end of the week, and only at the end of the week, do we have a world that is very good.

To renew civil society, though, we must question the egalitarian premises of our culture.

The rhythm carries over into Genesis 2, a point unfortunately lost when criticism divides the first two chapters of the Bible into separate creation accounts. Adam is formed, a garden planted, Adam placed in the garden, but things are not yet good enough. For the first time, God judges something negatively: Adam alone is not good, and God's world isn't good until he rips out a rib from Adam and builds a woman. Adam is not fully himself, not fully good, until he has a suitable partner. Already we see how the erotic politics of Scripture diverge from modern theory, whether egalitarian (Rawls) or non-egalitarian (Robert Nozick and other libertarians). Far from being ideal, Adam the autonomous individual is an anomaly in God's good world, a standing not-good. Isolated autonomy is the starting position, but it is a not-good that must be repaired.

Like the animals, Adam is made from the ground. He is adam because he is taken from the adamah. Despite his common origin with other land creatures, Adam doesn't find a suitable partner among the earthlings. His partner doesn't come from the ground but from him. Here is a first non-identity between the original humans. Adam the living soul (Genesis 2:7) is the product of heaven and earth, the earthy dust and the heavenly life breathed into his nostrils. Eve, though, emerges from the heaven-earth combination; she doesn't become a living soul, but is built from the body of an already living soul. We see a foreshadowing of a Christological climax, when the new Eve of the church is also born from the torn side of a heavenly-earthly Last Adam. More practically, more sociologically, Paul emphasizes how the creation of Eve from Adam points to the mutual dependence of male and female. The first woman came from the first man, but every man since has been born of woman. Therefore, "neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man." They are mutually dependent, and both dependent on the Creator (1 Corinthians 11:8-12). An erotic sociality is a sociality not only of difference, but of mutual dependence.

Let's suppose that Yahweh had taken a rib from Adam and constructed a second being, suitable to Adam, who was identical to him in all respects. We can imagine that Adam and his male partner would become fast friends, perhaps lovers. They would be united spiritually, emotionally, physically in all the ways that two males might be united. Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Achilles and Patroclus, Adam and Steve. But that's not what Yahweh actually did. And the fact that he did not, indicates not only a fundamental point of biblical sexual ethics, but points to a fundamental ontology and anthropology. Made as male and female, with all the nonidentity, with all their sameness and difference, with all their complex patterns of equalities and inequalities, Adam and Eve can form a unity greater than Adam had by himself. Adam by himself is a not-good, even though his body has integrity—all his bones in place, and his flesh intact. That not-good becomes good when he is torn apart and reunited in a new way. Together, Adam and Eve form a unity greater than the unity of Adam-withall- his-ribs. As John Paul II put it, men and women are created with "spousal bodies," their bodily differences oriented to union in one flesh. They can form a unique sort of communion precisely because they are not equal in every respect. Once again, equality isn't the baseline; the baseline is a complex of equality and inequality, a Mobius strip of sameness and difference.

Because of the non-identity between male and female, they can unite fruitfully in a way that a male cannot unite with a male. Let's stick to crudely biological reality: A man and a woman can share their chromosomes and create a new human being that unites them. Cain isn't Adam, and he isn't Eve, and he isn't merely the sum of the two. Yet Cain unites Adam and Eve as a non-identical third that could not exist without the reality of sexual non-identity, sexual inequality. Not only the sheer existence of Cain, but the intergenerational relation of parents and children reflect and depend on the original erotic sociality of Adam and Eve.

The fruitfulness of erotic sociality isn't merely procreative. Before Adam knows his wife and she conceives Cain, her very presence transforms him. Adam, I have said, is from adamah, the ground, and until the woman is made he remains adam. The woman, though, is not taken from dust, but from the living flesh of Adam. When Yahweh brings her to the man, he is transformed. A shift in Hebrew vocabulary marks the change. Throughout Genesis 2, the man is adam, not "human one" but "earth-being." Yahweh makes an ishshah (a woman, female, wife) from his rib appear, and when Yahweh brings her to Adam, he is no longer adam, but an ish (a man): "She shall be called ishshah because she was taken from ish" (2:23). Both ish and ishshah pun on the Hebrew word esh, the word for fire. Formed from the ground, Adam is an earthy altar, unlit, not-good. When the woman arrives he becomes the flame on the altar. He is of the earth, earthy; when Eve arrives, he is lit up like the fiery stars of heaven, like a heavenly man. In the presence of an other, Adam becomes more than Adam; he becomes Adamwith- desire, Adam-on-fire.

Adam becomes more than he had been when Eve arrives, and from that time an erotics of inequality becomes the biblical baseline of all human sociality. Sexual analogies for the covenant relationship between Israel and Yahweh are common. Yahweh brings Israel out of Egypt to Sinai, and there enters into covenant with them, a covenant later described in terms of marriage. Through Hosea, Yahweh promises to allure Israel back into the wilderness as he did in the days of the exodus. And in that day "you will call Me ‘My Husband'" and "in that day I will make a covenant for them" and "will betroth you to Me forever; yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in lovingkindness and mercy; I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord" (Hosea 2:14-20).

Tracing The Pattern Of Erotic Inequalities

King and nation also form a quasi-marriage, in an erotic political theology that comes to expression in the Song of Songs. Leadership is not only about exercising authority or sheer power, but about desiring and evoking desire. Great leaders passionately love their people, and their people will cling to them ‘til death do them part. Luther argued that the Song was about Solomon's relation to Israel, his "bride," and the Song's descriptions of the lover and beloved refer to places, flora and fauna, and geographic features of the land.

He is like "henna blossoms in the vineyards of Engedi" (1:14). Her hair is like a flock of goats "that have descended from Mount Gilead" (4:1). He looks like "Lebanon, choice as the cedars" (5:15), and her eyes are like the pools of Heshbon and her hair crowns her like the orchards of Carmel (7:4). The king delights in his bride as he delights in his land; she delights in her lover as she delights in the land. Like Adam, Solomon is fired by his people; his desire for their good makes him a shining star in the firmament. Luther's reading highlights the erotic dimension of political life.

The register is different, but the New Testament descriptions of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12) are rooted in this fundamentally erotic sociality. Each member of the body is unique, different from the others. Some are ears, some eyes, some feet, some hands. Each contributes his or her particular gifts to the whole: Eyes see for the whole body, hands serve the ears and feet, feet carry the eyes, hands, ears, head wherever they go. None of the body parts are identical to one another, and Paul points out the absurdity of a body with identical, interchangeable body parts: "If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?" (1 Corinthians 12:17). Not even the honour they receive is equal. Some members of the body receive more abundant honour than others (1 Corinthians 12:24). The church exists as the community that it is insofar as the interactions of the members are modeled on the erotic relations of man and woman. The church is a communion formed not by interchangeable parts but by members who are equipped differently, each fired by the presence of the other, each becoming fully himself by cultivating the Spirit's gifts for the common good.

For Paul, there is an equality, a "sameness," to the body. Various gifts come from the same (auto) Spirit; various forms of service come from the same (auto) Lord Jesus; different energies of the members come from the same (auto) God who energizes all things in all things (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). The identity of the members of the church doesn't lie within the members of the church. Paul doesn't root their equality in any quality located within. Nothing that they possess makes them equal contributors to the life of the body. What binds them, equalizes them, makes them the same, is not something in them, but something in the Spirit, Son, and God who forms and enlivens the body. Their equality is ecstatic, rooted in God and not in themselves.

The church is the model society, but that order can be mirrored, however opaquely, in civil society. Neighbourhoods exhibit erotic inequality when neighbours use their talents and wealth to benefit neighbours. Business takes on an erotic dimension as producer, seller, and consumer each sees his labour fulfilled in the mutually beneficial exchanges of the market. Intellectual culture thrives when every participant recognizes, as Augustine said, that intellectual goods are possessed only by dispossession, only by being shared.

To renew civil society, though, we must question the egalitarian premises of our culture. When political theory begins with autonomous, equal individuals, when law and institutions are premised on this view of human nature, when equality is conceived as the baseline of human society, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to add the erotic sociality that the Bible treats as fundamental. Equal human beings are likely to be rivalrous, envious human beings, inclined to seek their own interests rather than the common good. French Revolutionaries to the contrary, equality is not necessarily a friend of fraternity, and the drive for equality may become an enemy of community. Equality can erode the erotics of community, which thrives by erotic inequality, when erotic sociality serves as baseline and measure of community.


Peter J. Leithart is President of the Theopolis Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, and an adjunct senior fellow of theology at New St Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho. An ordained minister, he serves as Teacher at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Birmingham. He is the author of Traces of the Trinity (Brazos, 2015), Delivered from the Elements of the World (IVP, 2016), and The End of Protestantism (Baker, 2016).


Ready to Subscribe to Comment?

Maecenas et rhoncus ante. Phasellus tempus ullamcorper aliquam. Nulla facilisi. Maecenas sapien est, tempus ut mollis suscipit, sodales non nisl. Curabitur vel sagittis lectus.

Subscribe Today Only $30 per year, including tax & shipping (US & Canada)

RSS Feeds

Please choose from one of the following:

Please be patient while we complete the request. This request typically takes a few seconds.


Welcome to the new Comment site!

We’re building the ship as we’re sailing it. We welcome any and all feedback — please contact managing editor Dan Postma at