Queer Lives

Much early feminist theology made its way by appealing to the experience of women; an "experience" that - previously excluded by male hegemony - now spoke with an undeniable power of lives lived (by women) rather than projected or theorized (by men). But with time this category of critique and reproach was weakened by its fragmentation into multiple experiences and by the rise of discourse as the productive - constructive - context for any and all experience. Experience is no longer an innocent, prelapsarian value. And yet an appeal to experience remains important for any queer theory or theology, since it is precisely an experience of dissonance between desire and discourse which for many gives rise to the realization that socially entrenched discourses of desire are not truthful but ideological; normalizing the particular as universal. The queer body answers to different discourses. It is for this reason, if no other, that Queer Theology begins with two chapters on experienced dissonance between desire and discourse, life and ecclesial community. In a sense they are essays of "coming out."

In a deeply personal, pain-filled essay, Kathy Rudy relates how she came out - was turned out - of the Methodist Church where she worshipped, and the Methodist divinity school where she taught, and all because she had come out as who she was and was becoming. All this happened before she published her profoundly humane and lucid study of Sex and the Church (1997), a work of queer theology that would grace any school of divinity. Rudy's experience of finding herself estranged through speaking her life is repeated in any number of other lives that bear witness to the loves by which they have been rejected and encountered, changed and made to grow. It is a venerable Christian motif and experience. But Rudy's conversion is a story of falling out of love, and what it is to remember the love that has now passed but still haunts new relationships. This leads Rudy to reflect on the difficulty of understanding belief from inside and outside the believing community; understanding from outside the inside that was once herself, inside herself. Rudy finds guidance in memoirs and subaltern studies, but they fail to adequately measure her own experience of living in or between worlds, of having different worlds within. It is as if Rudy still lives within the faith she has "lost," and out of this she looks for an account of subjectivity that will express her fragmentation, her sense of a self that is moving, becoming.

Rudy draws on the work of Elspeth Probyn and Vivian Gornick in order to offer an account of the self - herself - as one who is haunted by "ghosts," by multiple, often contradictory affiliations and relationships, by hurts and happinesses that together make for what many will recognize as a postmodern self; the condition of living between. This will resonate with the experience of many queer Christians, who have both lost and not lost their faith, finding themselves in Christ but rejected by his church. When they find themselves talked at, but never with - made the subjects of confused and incoherent condemnations - many queer Christians give up on the practices of the church; for who wants to remain in an abusive relationship? But where should they go? Rudy seeks a place where such people can live with their ghosts, somewhere like the culture of black African-Americans, who, she believes, have an ability to live between worlds. But she is not sanguine that this is a real possibility for white queers, let alone Christian ones. For the most part, the other contributors to Queer Theology are more hopeful than this; hopeful of finding in the church not ghostly affections, but the presage of a future wanting to be born. But queer theology cannot be written except out of something like the experience Rudy describes with such clarity and wisdom, for it grows from the experience of dissonance; from learning that bodies are not as they are said to be - as the church has taught them to be - but that they are something more.

James Alison also knows about dissonance and inhospitality. But in his chapter - which Alison first gave as a lecture by a Catholic to Catholics - he points to what he sees as the recent experience of many if not all Catholics in Western societies, the experience of finding a more or less general acceptance of gay people and their relationships. Alison argues that Catholics as a whole now more or less accept what the wider society accepts, that there are such people, and good luck to them - for finding love and nurturing relationships is difficult for everyone. This is the "gay thing" which has befallen the Catholic Church, that is befalling the church and making its official teaching on "homosexual persons" increasingly incomprehensible, as somehow not quite Catholic. Thus the experience of dissonance which interests Alison is that between the acceptance of gay people in the church and Vatican teaching against them; and it leads him to find a much more serious disjunction between that teaching and the Catholic doctrines of creation and original sin.

Vatican teaching on homosexuality is notoriously incoherent, so much so that it is most plausibly read as an attempt to foil thinking about homosexuality and so silence its discussion in the church (see Jordan 2000). So it is a measure of the clarity and charity of Alison's thought that he is able to offer an irenic reading of that teaching, and of its yet fatal flaws: the abandonment of a properly Catholic view of desire as always perfectible through grace, and the refusal to wait upon the experience of lesbian and gay Catholics - the testimony of grace in their lives. The latter is where ordinary Catholics - following the church's ordinary teaching about grace and sin - will start their thinking about human loving. They will start by following the "still small voice." For queer bodies answer to more traditional, orthodox discourses than those proffered by ecclesial authorities at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

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