Queer Origins

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Having encountered the lives of queer Christians within and without the contemporary church, we now turn to consider the Western tradition, beginning with two of its "paradigm" texts: Plato and the Bible. For it is through the reading - interpreting - of these textual bodies that later Christians and Jews developed their theological understanding of the body and its desires. Not only these texts, of course. But these two are fundamental for thinking about eros, and then agape; for thinking about human and divine love - an erotic agape or agapeistic eros. The Bible is the word of God and so interpretative of all other words; but by that very movement, susceptible to their reverse elucidation. For the Jewish or Christian reader, Plato's truth (platonic and neoplatonic) will be found in the Bible, or, as we might say, in the movement between the texts. Today, nearly all serious thinking of eros will return to Plato, and not least to the Symposium and Diotima's encomium to eros; all Jewish and Christian debates about gender and sex will return to the Bible, to certain "proof" texts, and to what will turn out to be some very queer views about the bodies of men, women, and God.

Catherine Pickstock is well known for her part in "radical orthodoxy" (Milbank, Pickstock and Ward 1999), and more particularly for her reading of Plato against Derrida in After Writing (Pickstock 1998). Here she returns to Plato's wily, aporetic thought in the Meno, Ion and Symposium, in order to tease out his connections between knowledge, desire, and inspiration. She begins with Meno's puzzles about knowledge: how do we know that we are ignorant of that of which we are ignorant, and being ignorant, how will we know that we have found knowledge, if and when we find it? Socrates answers with "a mythical presentation of a doctrine of a priori understanding"; his story of a prior life and knowledge, now forgotten but waiting to be recalled. Augustine similarly worried about how he could seek the God he did not know unless God was already present to him, and so in some sense known? It is not inappropriate to link these aporias, Pickstock argues, because both philosopher and theologian appeal to a preceding knowledge - gained through recollection or illumination - which is at the same time elicited through interlocutors - through teaching or revelation. Moreover, Socrates performs his answer by claiming to have learned it from those who are wise in divine things, from the priests and priestesses recalled by the poets, from those who sought to give a "rational account" of the mysteries they practiced, mythos and logos combined. Both Socrates and Augustine appeal to a divine tradition. And for both, recollection/illumination is triggered through education.

But Socrates offers not only to show that the ignorant can recall what they have "forgotten," but that in so doing they learn their ignorance and come to desire its undoing. It is this "desiring ignorance," as Pickstock calls it, which both enacts and transmutes the aporia of knowledge, since it shows us that we learn through a desire for that which we do not know. The learning of his own ignorance - which incites the desire to know - is the one thing that Socrates claims to know with certainty; everything else is at best but true opinion, orthos doxa. This is why - Pickstock argues - Plato's philosophy needs mythology in order to show that we can never really know what it is to know and want to know, other than by thinking it a desire that comes from elsewhere, and that has to be triggered in us by the learning of our ignorance. And here we are not so far from Augustine's reflections on the God whose unknowability he has to learn.

We learn because we desire, and we learn desire through the attractions of beautiful others - most obviously for Plato the beauty of young men - which then leads us on to the beautiful itself. (But human beauty is not merely instrumental, since all loves are gathered into love.) For some, desire comes to an end when it is fulfilled, when it attains what it seeks. But this is not Plato's view, which imagines a desire into the unknown, in which "the vision of truth replenishes our desire." Desire (to know) emerges in our desiring (learning). We do not regain what we have lost but instead learn to repeat what is yet to come - and is coming ever more intensely in our wanting. The Symposium offers various eulogies on the nature of eros, and from and against which Socrates takes the view that love is not a goddess, but the daimon metaxu, the demonic "between," which binds the cosmos, and which we should follow, as it leads us from human to divine beauty. Socrates has learned of love from the prophetess and magician, Diotima, from whom he has also learned the magic of dialectics. From her Socrates has learned that eros is not a lack, but - as Pickstock has it - "a kind of pregnancy which brings to birth." Desire is a becoming or emerging, a wanting which leads us on, which leads itself on, "generating itself." And in generating itself, it comes as the third between lovers. "What any two desire in desiring a union is not merely this union, but always also the fruit of this union in whatever sense, something that is both them and neither of them: a baby, a work of practice or understanding, a new ethos that others may also inhabit." Thus sex is always a kind of birthing: an emergence of desire's fecundity.

In the second part of her chapter, Pickstock seeks to understand emergence after Kierkegaard, as "forwards repetition." She finds it more fundamental than causation, since a cause "emerges" as such in the appearing of its effect. The emergent is aporetic because it "comes from" or "out of" and is yet a new thing; it is both connected and disconnected from what has gone before. Like presence, emergence is something we "live and inhabit," but cannot quite think. But then what we think also escapes our thinking, since thoughts also emerge from we know not where. "In all our activity, ethical and political, as well as artistic, we seem almost to be spectators of emergent processes." And yet we can recognize what emerges as such, and desire its emerging. For Pickstock, the phenomenology of emergence bespeaks an arrival that is neither from space nor time, past or future, but an elsewhere that theology names the eternal. In a move that will be familiar to anyone who has read in "radical orthodoxy" more generally, Pickstock suggests that only theology allows us to think the "new." Building on Thomas Aquinas's idea of God as "pure act," she is able to suggest that "God is the eternally emergent action which rescues finite emerging from arbitrariness or predictability, and therefore saves the phenomenology of the emergent." And this then leads to the Trinity.

For Christian theology, eros is not daimonic but divine, purely emergent in the mutualities of the divine perichoresis. What we know in time as successively want and fulfillment, anticipation and arrival, is eternally coincident in God; and thus what we know in time as desire and emergence is the divine movement in our lives, which we inhabit but can barely think, and which we know - desire to know - through the incitement of revelation. Moreover, this revelation was born from the unique coincidence of desire and emergence in Mary. She "desired the bridegroom, the Logos, and from this desire the Logos emerged from the enclosure of her womb." From Mary's desire to see the Father in her son, emerges the new Adam, who will also be her lover, as was Eve to Adam, born from his side. (These queer themes are further explored by Tina Beattie in chapter 20). And as in Mary, so in us, the Logos is born in our soul when we also participate in the eros that comes to us in the "between" of our desiring, opening for us the elsewhere of its movement and our journeying: the eternal in our loving.

Gerard Loughlin turns to the primary Christian site - after the Eucharist - for revelation's incitement of our desire to know the whence from which it arrives and to which it would return us. The telling of the Bible - Jewish and Christian, but here more particularly Christian - opens a space in which the God who came to Moses and Mary can come again, arriving for those who listen in holy anticipation. God always arrives in the distance between teller and listener, who are sometimes the same person. But Loughlin's chief concern is with the arrival of another, darker undertaking, an imaginary that has troubled Western thought and culture as much as the metaphysics of desire narrated in Pickstock's chapter. This is a concern with the Bible's bodies, with the flesh of its men and women, and of its God.

The Bible is like a body It is a whole composed of many parts, in the pages of which we find other bodies, identities that even now haunt the Western imagination. Pre-eminently these are the bodies of Adam and Eve, who have been read into all following bodies, as those bodies into them. But they are also the bodies of those ancient men who slept with men as if they were women (Leviticus 18.20), and the much later bodies of gay men who have been read back into those earlier practices. And then there is the strange, rarely glimpsed body of God and its sex, which is both seen and unseen; and the queer relationship that is set up between this terrifying body and the men of Israel (and later the church), who are made to play the woman to their oftentimes jealous husband-God. They are to be his glory, clinging to him like the cloth around his loins (Jeremiah 13.11).

It is sometimes said that God's sex is merely metaphorical. But if so, it is far from being a dead metaphor. God's sex still orders human lives. But it does so from behind a veil; from behind the homophobia and misogyny of Western culture and religion. Loughlin's chapter is concerned with the Bible's mythopoeic ordering of these cultural constructions, and the violence against queer people - which is finally against women - that is used to conceal the fact that in relation to God all men are queer. (Something of this will return in Rachel Muers' chapter on Hans Urs von Balthasar - see chapter 13.) There are several dismembered bodies in the Bible, but most especially God's, the parts of which are scattered throughout the pages of Scripture. Loughlin takes a similarly disjointed approach to his subject - discussing bones, mouths, and phalluses - but also finding the ligaments that bind them all back to the Bible's opening myth: the story of a man without a mother, who gives birth to his wife (as later, matrimonial readings would have it). It is this utterly queer body that disturbs all later attempts to find a stable, heterosexual flesh in the Bible.

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