Queer Theology

Theology is a queer thing. It is has always been a queer thing. It is a very strange thing indeed, especially for anyone living in the modern West of the twenty-first century. For theology runs counter to a world given over to material consumption, that understands itself as "accidental," without any meaning other than that which it gives to itself, and so without any fundamental meaning at all. Against this, theology relativizes all earthly projects, insisting that to understand ourselves we must understand our orientation to the unknown from which all things come and to which they return, that which - as Christian theology ventures - is known and received in the life of Jesus. But even when theology was culturally dominant it was strange, for it sought the strange; it sought to know the unknowable in Christ, the mystery it was called to seek through following Jesus. And of course it has always been in danger of losing this strangeness by pretending that it has comprehended the mystery, that it can name that which is beyond all names. Indeed - and despite its own best schooling - it has often succumbed to this danger, which it names "idolatry"

To name theology as queer in this sense is to invoke "queer" as the strange or odd, the thing that doesn't fit in. Theology doesn't fit into the modern world; and if it did fit in too snugly it would be forgetting the strangeness of its undertaking: to think "existence" in relation to the story of a first century rabbi. But "queer" has other meanings, other uses. As well as strange, it is also insult; hurled at the one who doesn't fit in. "The insult lets me know that I am not like others, not normal. I am queer: strange, bizarre, sick, abnormal" (Eribon 2004: 16). And "queer" is the insult thrown at gay men and lesbian women, the sign of their "social and psychological vulnerability" (Eribon 2004: 15).

All of the studies done in homosexual populations (of either sex) show that the experience of insult (not to mention of physical violence) is one of the most widely shared elements of their existence - to different degrees, of course, according to which country, and, within any country, according to where they live and in what environment they grow up. But it is a reality experienced by almost everyone. . . . It is not hard to understand why one of the structuring principles of gay and lesbian subjectivities consists in seeking out means to flee insult and violence, whether it be by way of dissimulation or by way of emigration to more hospitable locations. (Eribon 2004: 18-19)

Given this use of "queer" it is perhaps perverse to describe theology as queer, for theology serves the very churches where such insults are thrown, where those who love their own sex were once named as "sodomites" (to be burned) and are now described as "objectively disordered" (to be reordered). The churches are places where queers are harassed. But language, like life, is never tidy. "Queer" can have more than one use, and the churches are ambivalent places, as much harbingers (hosts) as harassers of gay people (see Jordan 2000). And then there is another, more recent use of "queer" - one that we have already been using and from which this book takes its title.

Queer is also the insult turned. No longer a mark of shame it becomes a sign for pride, like "gay" But unlike gay, it names more than erotic interests - a sexual orientation - and it names more than marginal, minority interests. It finds itself curiously central to culture at large, disavowed but necessary for a heterosexual normalcy that defines itself in terms of what it rejects. This is already to speak in terms of the "queer theory" first propounded by Teresa de Lauretis (1991), who argued for queer as the name of an emergent force within the cultural field.

[R]ather than marking the limits of the social space by designating a place at the edge of culture, gay sexuality in its specific female and male cultural (or subcul-tural) forms acts as an agency of social process whose mode of functioning is both interactive and yet resistant, both participatory and yet distinct, claiming at once equality and difference, demanding political representation while insisting on its material and historical specificity. (Lauretis 1991: iii)

And later queer studies have gone on to find queer interests to have been always already at play in the dominant, supposedly straight culture. As Henry Abelove's queer students say: "[d]on't focus on histories that require the trope of marginalization for their telling. . . . Focus on the musical comedies of the 1950s. What could be queerer?... Or go back some years further and focus on the songs of Cole Porter. All these cultural productions were central rather than marginal. By ignoring or neglecting them, we misconceive the past and unwillingly reduce our presence in and claim to the present, they say" (Abelove 2003: 47). Queer studies will take us back to some of the most established authorships in Anglo-American literature, which also turn out to be some of the queerest; to the likes of Henry James (Sedgwick 1990; Moon 1998) and Henry David Thoreau (Abelove 2003: 29-41). "'I am that queer monster the artist, an obstinate finality, an inexhaustible sensibility,' James famously wrote in a late manifesto-letter to Henry Adams (March 21, 1914), and if we give that word 'queer' any less force and range than he does, it is our failure of nerve and imagination, not his" (Moon 1998: 4).

Queer theology aspires to just such "nerve and imagination" in its reading of the past and its address to the present. It is queer because - like all theology - it answers to the queer-ness of God, who is not other than strange and at odds with our "fallen" world. God's "kingdom" is not ours. When God appeared amongst us he was marginalized and destroyed; and yet he was the one who let his killers be. They would have had no power - no life - if it had not been given to them. It is only natural to love one's friends and family; to love one's enemies is perverse.

But queer theology is also queer because it finds - like queer theory - that gay sexuality is not marginal to Christian thought and culture, but oddly central. It finds it to be the disavowed but necessary condition for the Christian symbolic; and not simply as that which is rejected in order to sustain its opposite, but upfront on the surface of that opposite, playing in the movement of stories and images that constitutes the Christian imaginary. The most orthodox turns out to be the queerest of all. Moreover, queer theology - like queer theory - reprises the tradition of the church in order to discover the queer interests that were always already at play in the Spirit's movement, in the lives and devotions of saints and sinners, theologians and ecclesiastics. What could be queerer than the thought of Gregory of Nyssa, St John of the Cross or Hans Urs von Balthasar? (See chapters 9, 12 and 13 below)

Finally, there is another and more important sense in which queer is more than a name for "gay" or "lesbian" interests. Those latter terms betoken identities built around erotic interests, and liberatory movements that sought to form new social spaces. They turned the pathological homosexual into the political gay The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) is still battling on this front within the churches (see further Gill 1998b). But "queer" betokens something other than political and sexual identity, it includes more than just gay or lesbian identified people. As David Halperin puts it, queer is "an identity without an essence. . . . [I]t describes a horizon of possibility whose precise extent and heterogeneous scope cannot in principle be delimited in advance" (Halperin 1995: 62).

Queer seeks to outwit identity. It serves those who find themselves and others to be other than the characters prescribed by an identity. It marks not by defining, but by taking up a distance from what is perceived as the normative. The term is deployed in order to mark, and to make, a difference, a divergence.

"Queer," then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative - a positionality that is not restricted to lesbians and gay men but is in fact available to anyone who is or who feels marginalized because of his or her sexual practices: it could include some married couples without children, for example, or even (who knows?) some married couples with children - with, perhaps, very naughty children. (Halperin 1995: 62)

Halperin might also have mentioned the sexual practice of celibacy, which was once and is now again a strange deviancy. But queer is used in this book with the kind of inclusive-ness that Halperin suggests. And yet at the same time we must acknowledge the dangers of this inclusivity. It can, as Halperin notes, occlude the differences between queers, the tensions of taste and politics that drive them apart, while also admitting those who have not experienced the insult or fear of insult that marks out the deviant. It lets in "the trendy and glamorously unspecified sexual outlaws who . . . [don't have] to do anything icky with their bodies in order to earn" the name of queer (Halperin 1995: 65). And it can turn all too quickly from a positionality into another positivity, another identity It was for this reason that Teresa de Lauretis, having coined the term "queer theory," abandoned it within a few years. For her it had become a commonplace of the trendy and glamorous, with no power to subvert the dominant codes of heteronormativity. But the term - and its deployment -is less well known in theology, and so it is still possible that this positionality, this distancing or divergence from what is held as normative, will serve to destabilize and undo that normativity: the surety of heteropatriarchal Christianity. But in the case of theology there is something more.

Halperin describes the aim in deploying queer as ultimately to open a "social space for the construction of different identities [from the heteronormative], for the elaboration of various types of relationships, for the development of new cultural forms" (Halperin 1995: 67). But this might be as well said of the church, which is called in and by Christ to open up ways of living that will enable us to live in the "Kingdom of God" when it arrives in its fullness. With the Kingdom arriving already in Christ, but not yet fully with the return of Christ, Christians are called to live - like Christ - as the sign of the Kingdom's arrival. That heteropatriarchy is not such a sign is affirmed by queer theology on the basis of that "identity without an essence" which it sees in the radical practices of Jesus, in the new social spaces that Christ opens up through his self-gift at the altar, and in the "nerve and imagination" with which queer Christians persist in their loving of God and neighbor. Thus queer theology is a call to return to a more fully realized anticipation of the Kingdom, which is not a return to the previous or the same, but to the new and the future, since the church is to be the sign of what is to come. In this way queer is also an undertaking. As with becoming Christian or woman, one is not born but becomes queer; one learns to live as a promise of the future.

There is one other congruity between queer theory and theology that should be noted. As an "identity without an essence," queer might be offered as a name for God. For God's being is indubitable but radically unknowable, and any theology that forgets this is undeniably straight, not queer.12 One of the first things that Thomas Aquinas tells us about God -about our speaking about God - is that we do not know what God is, only what God is not (Summa Theologiae [ST] I.3). Instead of a definition we have to make do with God's effects -i.e. everything (ST I.1.7 ad 1). God in Godself is an identity without an essence, or, as Thomas puts it, God's essence - which is identical with God (ST I.3.3) - is God's existence (ST I.3.4). This makes God pure actuality (without potentiality). The most that we can say about God is that God is, which is not a description but a point of theological grammar. In an analogous way we can say that queer is, even if we cannot say in what queer consists other than by pointing to the effects of its deployment.

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