Sign of the Times

Michael Metzger

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.


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  1. The rainbow used to be a sign and symbol of God’s promise to Noah. What does it point to now? The early Church taught (and still teaches) that in “human life, signs and symbols occupy an important place. As a being at once body and spirit, man expresses and perceives spiritual realities through physical signs and symbols-“(CCC 1146). It goes on to explain the importance of symbolism in Liturgy and icons and statues within the Church that direct our hearts and minds to Christ.
    The study of Nominalism (the relation between universals and particulars) exploded in the 14th and 15th centuries, and heavily influenced the early reformers (look at Luther’s Doctrine of Divine Will). Though he appears to reject Ockham’s influence on Nominalism, in Theologia Crucis he states “one does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have happened.” He goes on to confirm the belief, commonly understood by Nomilists, that universal signs and symbols are regarded as having no objective weight or intrinsic correspondence to the individual.
    It’s just interesting to note, since many of my brothers and sisters in Christ find it hard to understand why we Catholics put our whole bodies into worship and liturgy, and reflect on statues, icons and symbols. Trust me, I would venture to say a good 90% of the Catholic Church misses this – but, as stated above, it is a sign of the times that many believers are ignorant to the Gospel told in our bodies. How we perceive things that we take in (art, words, sign language, etc.) can greatly (yet subtly) influence the narrative. Great post, Mike.

  2. Thank you for your kind comments, Jay. Let me return the compliment. Wonderful insights on your part. Very helpful. Thank you.

  3. Very sad to read of ‘enslavement’ rhethoric denying JFP as a person the dignity of expression.
    Noting her thoughts
    “I have seen people open their hearts when some otherized soul is revealed to be a member of their own family, or a friend. Our culture is making progress as a result. But too many people are still met with hatred because whoever and whatever they are is something others have never been compelled to imagine.”
    That clearly express a ‘transition’ that ‘church’ chooses to ignore. A clear example IMO of a woman left at a well because she doesn’t communicate the right signals.A heart of compassion would IMO attempt to understand the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and volitional battle involved in ‘transition’ rather than demand a symbolism of rejection, focused on physicality. Spiritual ‘deafness’ is a likely fault on both sides of a binary dichotomy that fails to give refuge to a spectrum of lived experience. The ‘romanising’ of a ‘celtic’ spirit.

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