Waiting for Queer Theology
Illustration by Derek Abella
By Mark D. Jordan
When divinity students ask for “a survey of queer Christian theology,” as some do each semester, it is not clear what they want. The phrase still conceals so many hopes and anxieties. Some students seek reassurance that they can live faithfully as Christians while following the compass of their loves. (They are compelled to prove the theological legitimacy of created desires.) Other students want to test the credibility of all Christian teaching about human sex or gender in famously disputed cases. Still others want to see what becomes of basic doctrines or rituals once queer believers are allowed to tell their truths in church. Other motives lurk in the phrase, and most motives blend or fuse. If students agree on anything, it is the conviction that “queer theology” matters—for deciding our membership in religious communities but even more for making sense of our embodied lives.
Linn Tonstad’s lucid introduction to this cluster of theological projects presents the range of motives in high contrast. Indeed, she makes the range part of her structure. Tonstad’s longest chapter catalogues “apologetic strategies that queer theologians use to defend queer and trans* lives” (16). She names a dozen strategies, from revaluations of God’s masculinity to rereadings of Jesus’s preaching and example. Tonstad’s point in collecting the dozen is to argue that Queer theology “should not be about apologetics” (16). She summarizes: “Very few of the arguments we’ve looked at so far are theologically rich, insightful, illuminating. . . . Most fundamentally, many of these arguments ignore the ambiguities of human existence, the ways in which our lives and their consequences are neither transparent to us nor fully within our power to determine” (47).
In these few lines, Tonstad passes a strict judgment on the bulk of queer theology written so far. Is the judgment fair? As someone implicated by it, I would say that it is, for the most part. Up to now, much queer theology has indeed been defensively repetitious. (I once complained at a national meeting that we had written the same book dozens of times.) Theological effort has had to squeeze into rhetorical frames designed by its opponents. It has resorted to the tricks of campaigning or litigation. But that is not the whole story—even f0r the flattest queer theology. While I share Tonstad’s judgment that the future of queer theology must be richer than its past, I want to honor that past by picking up pieces of queer theology that were thrown overboard in the race for political victories.
The Past of Queer ‘Apologetics’
What Tonstad calls “apologetic strategies” have been neither always apologetic nor mere strategies. Queer theology as it has been written exceeds the rhetoric of apology (in the old sense of that word). What looks like defense is often consolation or catechesis. There were denominational votes or legal cases to be won, of course, but also lives to be solaced and saved from despair. When students arrive at my door requesting a course, I am sometimes sad that they haven’t yet taken in the well-established arguments against misuses of the Christian bible. Progressive scholars have been providing better readings of the “clobber passages” for 60 or 70 years. But I rebuke my sadness by recalling the overpowering forces that can propel hatred of sexual variation (as of women, of Blackness). There is more. Though a few divinity schools and congregations pay lip service to diversity in sex and gender, they rarely provide positive formation for nonheterosexual, nonbinary persons. Of course, the same might be said about any sexuality. In the aggregate, churches are still much better at hushing sex than nurturing it.
So, the “apologetic strategies” have not always been apologetic. They were also more than mere strategies or “arguments.” If earlier writers of queer theology fell into the bad habits of dogmatic politics (remember the manifestos!), they also returned to pastoral genres—to testimony and prophecy, to laments and litanies of holy predecessors. (There were also exorcisms of the evil spirits fanning homophobia. I wish that those rites had worked as advertised.) Whatever its repetitions and reductions, queer theology cannot be boiled down to argumentative strategies—any more than a eucharistic liturgy can be reduced to doctrinal theses. Of course, we frequently succumb to this fallacy. We pretend that our academic styles are perfectly transparent to every form of religious speech—that they offer a neutral medium in which to describe and judge everything. That is hardly true. A survey of queer theology may scout various sources and methods or boundaries and styles, but it tends to privilege just a few of them in the very way it proceeds. A survey inevitably performs what it believes theology should sound like. Tonstad quotes Kent Brintnall on the varieties of queer scripture, beginning with The Well of Loneliness and The Picture of Dorian Gray (126). She notices Marcella Althaus-Reid’s experiments with “literary form, inspired by authors like Kathy Acker” (126). But Tonstad herself speaks almost always in a recognizably academic voice. That voice can do many things; Tonstad deploys it superbly. Still, her version of that voice—with its echoes both of analytic philosophy and psychoanalysis—was deliberately rejected by many earlier writers in queer theology. They didn’t want theology to sound like that.
Raising these questions around Tonstad’s judgment on apologetic strategies, I don’t mean either to reject it or to deny her book’s many subsequent accomplishments. Drafting a book requires a series of decisions. That is doubly true for a short introduction to complicated controversies. Tonstad’s decisions are always plausible and often ingenious. I admire the integral place she opens for trans topics, her unusually helpful introduction to the enigmas of queer theory, and her unpretentious fluency in a library of texts. Tonstad’s Queer Theology achieves a new sophistication in framing and addressing standard questions. Then the little book confronts, in structure and argument, two of queer theology’s longstanding troubles.
I borrow the word from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. If Butler began by noticing that “feminist debates over the meanings of gender [led] time and again to a certain sense of trouble,” we must say the same about the meanings of queer. (That was one of Butler’s points, of course.) Then, to reach queer theology, we have to go further than Butler usually does into religious matters. Gender trouble returns with camp vengeance in queer theology. It does so in the present through the notions of sex and gender identity. It does so for the future through the commitment to revolutionary change.
The Present of Queer Identities
When students ask for a survey of queer theology, they expect to get on quickly to whatever solutions are on offer. But that kind of “surveying” isn’t possible in theological courses. Theology—like its cousin, philosophy—is more process than product. To learn philosophy is to winnow your thinking. Many traditional theologies announce themselves as more severe—and more fruitful—than any philosophy. The most a student (or ordination board) should expect from a survey of theology is a stripping away of complacencies on the way to (frustrating) exercises in new uses of mind.
A survey is even less possible for any queer theology worthy of the name, not least because of that tricky adjective. The word “queer” was rehabilitated by activists, theorists, and then theologians because it was defiantly indefinable. It was chosen to detonate settled assumptions about words. As Tonstad explains, queer theologians borrowed from queer theory the techniques (but also the limits) of “denaturalization” and “anti-essentialism” (56, compare 74). The first technique wobbles and then pushes over familiar categories for sex and gender. The second blocks attempts to raise up new category-idols. Queer is—Tonstad quotes David Halperin—“an identity without an essence,” defined only by the pressure it exerts on sex/gender norms (64). These original claims for the queer’s elusiveness are beautifully complicated in trans discourses. The rapidly evolving languages of trans groups encourage new imaginings of gender through dazzling blurs, ironic negations, or wild escapes into brave new worlds (as Shakespeare’s Miranda glimpses them, not Aldous Huxley).
I join Tonstad in celebrating the bold poetics of gender, but I keep noticing how it slides past most of our daily talk, whether “straight” or “queer.” Both of those sexualities are defined by the relation between the gender of the desiring self and the gender of its object of attraction. Trans accounts teach us to ask (as queer theory did), What exactly do you desire when you desire a woman, a man? (Is the object of your desire a genital anatomy, secondary sexual characteristics, culturally determined roles or feelings, current styles of presentation, recycled memories of Mom or Dad?) And what exactly do you mean when you declare yourself to be a man, a woman? (Is the subject of your desire a genital anatomy . . . ?)
It is hard to follow these perplexities into their depths. It is much easier to fall back into old habits of talking—or flirting. Like traditional forms of apophatic or “mystical” teaching, queer theology demands a remaking of language that threatens to plunge us into silence. To keep talking or writing, especially in academic settings, we often resort to substitution. Notably problematic terms are replaced with others that seem less so—though they quickly enough slip into place within established sentences. They become the new table of indispensable categories. Perhaps you noticed such a slip in Tonstad’s quotation from Halperin: queer is “an identity without an essence.” (That brief quotation hardly encapsulates Halperin’s sharp thinking or sharper writing. I use it only as a familiar linguistic sample.) Identity is now the category we must use for discussing sex/gender, whether in classrooms or chatrooms. More: we are all expected to possess identities for sex and gender, whether we want them or not. (Terms like “asexual” and “agender” function as identity-labels for those who might otherwise refuse to participate in the game of classification.) We have trouble remembering that most human beings haven’t known they had sex and gender identities. The terms are surprisingly recent coinages, passing into wide use only after 1970. But since then, English sex-talk within the United States has substituted identities wholesale for what used to be natures, types, physiognomies, or pathologies.
I suspect that part of the flattening of queer theology described by Tonstad results from our quick adoption of identity-language. Identities don’t do nuance. They also settle by stipulation many issues of ethical shaping. In fact, I would apply to identity-languages what Tonstad says of apologetic strategies: they “ignore the ambiguities of human existence, the ways in which our lives and their consequences are neither transparent to us nor fully within our power to determine” (47). I underline “transparent to us” and “within our power to determine.” One striking feature of current schemes for sex/gender identities is their emphasis on personal declaration. In this respect, our talk about sex/gender has come to resemble our religious speech, with its unexamined emphasis on individual testimony.
I tread carefully here. Just over my shoulder hover whole histories of violent naming. In English, as in most European languages, many sex and gender names were coined in religious condemnation, moved to criminal accusation, and then translated into medical or psychiatric diagnosis. The linguistic history is a sequence of coercions and punishments—which are, of course, often declared to be (spiritual or physical) cures: “We stigmatize you for your own good.” Who can blame the bearers of such blood-soaked names for rising up to demand the right to rename themselves? To generalize Tonstad, most of us who enter queer theology classrooms “[take] for granted that people should be referred to in whatever way they prefer, using whatever terms make sense for them” (2).
Still, as one of Oscar Wilde’s characters remarks, “the truth is rarely pure and never simple.”1 When inquisitors or conversion therapists force labels on you as an excuse to harm you, self-defense may dictate that you resist their names by assuming others—or reversing the aura around the imposed name from shame to pride. But the urgencies of self-defense are not the last word about our genders and sexes. They are certainly not the end of queer theology’s critical reflection.
“People should be referred to in whatever way they prefer” sounds like an ethical admonition. Is it an admonition of courtesy or of accuracy? Does it urge us to affirm self-naming as an act of kindness or as a warrant of truth? I am not about to argue that designated theological experts dictate what people truly are in their sexes and genders. That arrogance has dangerous consequences—as church history shows too plainly. Of course, some of the same dangers lurk in claims of expertise about one’s own truth. Do we presume that people have infallible knowledge about their own sexuality and gender? Can’t we suspect other motivations behind certain demands to be addressed in a particular way? Imagine, for example, someone who wants to be called “a real man” to insult sissies or a “true woman” to exclude lesbians and trans-folk. Larger questions follow. How far does self-knowledge about one’s own sexual identity depend on sexual experience? How might it accord or not with changes in self-naming? If I once described myself as “straight” but now call myself “gay,” must I have been “in the closet” before? Am I not allowed to tell a story in which I mistook my sexuality or it really changed?
Tonstad writes, “Some people absolutely experience themselves as having fixed sexual and gender identities, and queer theology is not about knowing ‘better’ about identity” (90). Her point is important. I hardly want to go back to the terminology of “choosing” a “lifestyle” (which sounded like selecting a lava lamp for that night’s fondue party). But may a queer theologian still ask what it means to “experience having an identity”? May a theologian suggest other ways to speak the persistence of one’s sense of self? Languages are collaborative artworks. Writers we would now call queer have been prodigal in language-making, but they have rarely created alone. Their most remarkable creations rose from engagements with communities and traditions. Even the great queer manifestos (I apologize to that genre) qualified their calls to self-interpretation by emphasizing community practices of historical discernment. The proud declaration of a nonnormative identity brought you into a shared effort to fashion other shapes of life for an uncontainable future.
The Future of Christian Sexes and Genders
When students ask for a survey of queer theology, they often speak of it as a finished body of knowledge, like a hefty monograph among others up there on the bolted metal shelving. This assumption ignores both that theology’s allergy to academic production and the paradoxes of its relation to history. “What we will be has not yet appeared.” That is a phrase from the New Testament (1 John 3:2), but it also describes revolutionary convictions about social transformation, including queer theology.
As Tonstad notes, queer theology can seem by now a promissory note past its due date. We have been waiting during several decades for its fulfillment—for works that will rival in conceptual power the best of recent queer theory or Christian theology on other topics. Tonstad introduces Marcella Althaus-Reid as “the theologian without whom the term ‘queer theology’ would have little content or meaning” (73). Althaus-Reid’s groundbreaking book Indecent Theology was published 20 years ago. Her untimely illness and death, still a fresh grief for friends, prevented her from writing the sequel she could have written. There have been other losses in the small number of writers on queer theology. More: their project(s) were never well established in U.S. graduate programs, despite student demand. The work was typically done as a second specialty, alongside and after scholarship that could earn tenure. Without tenure, it was risky work. In short, there are many biographical reasons for the delay in fulfilling the earliest hopes of queer theology.
Other reasons may be more important. In History of Sexuality 1, Michel Foucault likens the expectations of the sexual revolution or sexual liberation to Christian eschatology, that expectation of a Judgment that will close history. Foucault is amplifying a commonplace. The “sexual revolution,” as much as the uprising of the proletariat, calls for a future beyond ordinary history—a utopia that can only be glimpsed by jumping times. Revolutionary language is eschatological; it tells stories about the coming of a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1). But the eschatology of the sexual revolution ties a more unusual knot in time. It recalls another eschatological delay: the millennium-spanning wait for the return of Jesus of Nazareth. Many of the quandaries of Western sexual ethics arise from Christian efforts to translate Jesus’s ascetical proclamation of the kingdom into a household code for communities with marriages and children. No wonder that revolutionary, queer, Christian theology struggles to appear on time.
A reader can feel this in the more thoughtful and inventive works already written. In my favorite part of her book, Tonstad approaches the future of queer theology by juxtaposing well-chosen examples of recent work in many directions. The works range across ecotheology (as a divine carnival of creation), atheology (as Black Pentecostal spirations), theological “anthropology” of unrepudiated vulnerability, Christology, sin, and ecclesiology. A string of technical terms cannot capture the ingenuity of Tonstad’s choices or the interesting formal prospects that she discovers in them. But I am most interested in what happens next. Under the section heading “Theologies beyond Theology,” Tonstad calls up a series of queer artworks that pursue human relations to the invisible powers. She ends the section with this: “I’m tempted to say that this section is so short because there’s so much to say and so much to recommend! I have students working on poetry, preaching, pornography—to name just a few—for queer theological purposes” (128). Yes and amen. But I suspect that she also cuts the section short because it points to a next book, a work for and of the future.
Many masterpieces of queer letters engage Christian theologies to reweave them: Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, the science-fiction novels of Samuel Delany or Octavia Butler, the concluding pages of Marilyn Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, the nativity of Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts. With my students, I am more often moved by the queer theology in works like these than in academic monographs. We should all be more candid about the actual sources of our theologies. So I would say that what Tonstad describes in this section is not “theology beyond theology” but just theology. Any understanding of theology that draws a bright line between it and the arts or literature is a profound misunderstanding.
When I examine my own waiting for queer theology, I see that I do not expect revolutionary social transformation achieved by movement politics. I certainly don’t look forward to the final table of sexual identities or comprehensive criteria for which acts can count as truly queer. (As long as there is human history, our eros will change.) No, I await the moment when genders and sexes beyond norms are accepted as sites of divine revelation. That will also be a moment in which Christian theology escapes the dangerous compromises that reserved its place within the Enlightenment university, with its heirs and assigns. As payment for being allowed to stay in universities, divinity schools had to pretend that theology could fit somewhere on the approved Table of Knowledge. Of course, none of the approved kinds of knowledge was much like Christian theology in its wholeness. So, a distressing number of theology’s members had to be cut off. Then the remaining torso (or was it the left foot?) was wedged into available corners.
The students are right: queer theology matters. It matters because it helps us to discern where we do and don’t belong in churches. It corrects expert excesses in a dozen fields. It helps us to shape our lives for a strangely hopeful future. But queer theology also matters because it is a stubborn, cantankerous reminder that theology can still speak otherwise than in boring imitation of more respectable disciplines. With Linn Tonstad, I eagerly await theology that moves mostly beyond the narrow genres allotted to it.
Mark D. Jordan is the Richard Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. He is a scholar of Christian theology, European philosophy, and gender studies, and has written extensively on sexual ethics. His latest book, Transforming Fire: Imagining Christian Teaching (Eerdmans, 2021), tells a brief history of the imagined scenes of theological education.