In American Sign Language, the sign for “transgender” was changed recently. It’s a sign of the times, but not one that you might imagine.
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet founded the first school for the deaf in America in 1817. As additional schools opened, American Sign Language was created. Words were continually added. More recently, this included the sign for “transgender.” It originally suggested a “reversal of sex.” Signers took the sign for “sex”—a curved finger drawn down across the cheek—and rotated it 180 degrees. This signified a cultural norm. Transgender was contrary to the design of sex.
This sign was recently changed. The fingers of the hand now face downward over the heart like a closed rose, then rotate upward like opening petals until the fingers are placed back over the heart. The “flower” is now facing “the right direction,” writes Jennifer Finney Boylan in her article calling for a renewal of our moral imagination.
“Moral imagination” originated with Edmund Burke. In 1790, the Irish statesman gave an address, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke described the French Revolution as having “rudely torn off” all “the decent drapery of life” originally “furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination.” This wardrobe came from the “spirit of religion”—the Christian faith. French revolutionaries had shredded it, reducing virtue to individual preference. Burke felt this cast the world of order into confusion.
It’s a sign of the times that Boylan fails to include religion in her article. Here’s why. Boylan is a professor of English at Barnard College. Barnard is high on the ladder of colleges. “The higher you go on the social and educational ladder,” wrote Philip Rieff, “the greater the resistance to” religious points of view.¹ America’s elite colleges and universities teach what he called “the higher illiteracy.” Boylan might be bright, but she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. It’s a sign of the times.
But that’s not all.
Burke felt that this “moral imagination” was best expressed in poetry and art. The arts are most effective in helping us rightly order our souls as well as the commonwealth. But “the history of the conservative faith traditions over the last 175 years has been one of declining influence, especially in the realm of ideas and imagination.”² Why blame Boylan when believers have largely vacated the arts?
It’s also a sign of the times that few believers understand the biblical image of a rose. It’s found in the Song of Songs. It depicts the sensual love between a husband and a wife. But it’s also an allegory of the love between God and his people (as well as Christ the groom and the church, his bride). In every case, the bride is a “rose amid thorns” (2:2). The blossoming rose is the symbol of the creature open to the mystery of the Creator so that we can be “filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19). In similar fashion, a bride’s love for her groom blossoms as she opens her body to enter into nuptial union.
We can still observe this in gothic cathedrals and their rose windows. These circular stained-glass windows feature the incarnate Christ at the center. In latter representations, we also see Mary and the child Jesus. These images reflect how “the human body is meant to reveal and participate in the spiritual mystery of divine love,” writes Christopher West.³ Rose windows shape the moral imagination, reminding us that the gospel is best told in our bodies—male and female—and most profoundly in our sexuality. This is the sort of rightly ordered moral imagination that helps us rightly order our souls, including our sex lives.
It’s a sign of the times that so many believers are ignorant of the gospel told in our bodies. If you’re one of those folks, consider reading Christopher West’s “Fill These Hearts”. It will likely renew your moral imagination, beginning with the book’s cover. It features a red rose blossoming. It’s a sign of what used to be the times.
¹Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), p. 10.
²James Davison Hunter, To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, (Oxford, 2010).
³Christopher West, Theology of the Body for Beginners (West Chester: Ascension Press, 2004), p. 24.