Binary Opposition

One of the terms that the transgender movement has popularized in contemporary speech is “binary” or more often, “non-binary.” The computer savvy may point out that the term had already infiltrated the vocabulary with the proliferation of computer jargon in the modern world. In computer terms, binary usually refers to the computer code made up of only two digits: 1 and 0. It is “bi-nary”, because there are only two (bi-) options. In the broader cultural discussion about sexuality, “non-binary” was first used to refer to people who did not identify exclusively with either of the two sexual behavior choices before them: heterosexual and homosexual. They rejected the tidy division of humanity into these two categories. Now the term is more frequently applied in talk of sexual identity and gender to refer to people rejecting the simplistic categorization of humanity into male and female. To be “non-binary” is to reject being simply labeled as male or female.

Much could be said about this state of affairs, but for now let us make an observation and a diagnosis. First, we should observe that these are not the first binaries to come under assault in our world. The spread of the theory of evolution broke down the binary between animal and human. There is no longer any hard break between animals and humans; we are merely the next link on a chain. Postmodern philosophical thinking has undone the strict binary of truth and falsehood and even between reality and irreality, suggesting that everything is a human construct. Society has similarly dismantled the binary of single and married. Of course, many still identify themselves as one or the other but the prevalence of premarital cohabitation, the practice of “serial monogamy”, and the general disconnection of love, sex, and child-bearing from marriage have all contributed to the creation of a range of relational categories. Other examples could probably be adduced.

How might we explain this rejection of binary thinking? I believe these high-profile rejections of either/or options exemplify deep dissatisfaction with other binaries over which we are powerless. Human existence, never mind Scripture, present us with key binaries that fundamentally label us as humans. There is the Creator-creature binary. There is the God-not god or Divine-human binary. There is the alive-dead binary. And we might add the spiritual alive/dead binary we call saved-not saved.

Sinful humanity is absolutely powerless to undo these binaries and so, is diametrically opposed to them. However, since we are totally powerless over them (despite our best efforts), we exert energy in either establishing our own binaries not underwritten by divine authority (e.g. master/slave, racial distinctions, and social classes) or, more commonly, seek to control or undo the binaries that God has ordained.

Humanity is desperate to control the terms of its own identity and, as the transgender movement reveals, is willing to head into absurdity to do so. By contrast, Scripture invites us to have our identity defined on God’s terms. That he will “make our name great” like he did for Abraham. That we can find our identity in Christ by sharing in his sufferings. That he will call us by his name. What he asks in return is that we embrace the ultimate binary—He is God and we are not—and live it out in daily worship.