Queering Modernity

Hans Urs von Balthasar can be placed as easily under the heading of modernity as that of tradition. For while he stands in a line of queer Christian thinkers - of those who thought within the queer symbolics of Christianity - he is also exemplary of modernity's straightening of that tradition: of its heterosexualization. Jane Shaw's chapter on the Reformed and Enlightened Church, on the effects of Reformation and Enlightenment on Christian thinking about the sexes and their relationships, ably shows how new concerns with marriage and sexual difference (and complementarity) broke with earlier tradition and led to a peculiarly modern obsession with heterosexual monogamy.

Both Margery Kempe, in the fourteenth century, and Mary Astell, in the seventeenth century, argued for the right of women to reject marriage and embrace celibacy. But for Astell this set her at odds with the Christian Church as she knew it, the Reformed - though not entirely Protestant - Church of England. Whereas for Kempe it merely set her at odds with her husband; celibacy being an entirely acceptable, indeed laudable, undertaking within the Catholic Church (of England) of her day. In between these two lives came the Protestant Reformation, and, in particular, Martin Luther's championing of marriage over celibacy. As Shaw shows, the impact of the latter was to lead the Protestant traditions - and later the Catholic - away from Paul's preference for celibacy in favor of his allowing marriage for the sake of decency (1 Corinthians 7). As a result, woman's identity - and worth - was increasingly seen in relation to the husband she did or did not have.

A different revolution was to occur in the eighteenth century and then, more fully, in the nineteenth. This revolution was as much social as scientific, but passed itself off as the latter. It was the (scientific) discovery of sexual difference, of an apparently absolute dichotomy between the sexes, such that woman was no longer viewed as an imperfect version of man, but as a body in her own right, though still - of course - weaker than the male. Shaw rehearses this discovery after Thomas Laqueur (1990), who has described it as a transition from a "one-sex" to a "two-sex" model of the human body. This changed understanding of the nature and relationship of the sexes came most fully into its own at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries - even as developments in embryology were beginning to show the almost genetic indifference of male to female, and the priority of the latter over the former (the fantasy that women depend upon and are entirely different from men is everywhere in modern culture, including Balthasar).18

If nothing else, Shaw's history of the church in the modern period shows that the so-called "traditional" values of heterosexual complementarity and marriage are modern aberrations when viewed against earlier Christian traditions. And these ideas were being developed at the same time as ideas about homosexuality and heterosexuality were also being constructed, and with them an understanding of sexuality as determined solely by the sex of a desired person. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick remarks, "[i]t is a rather amazing fact that, of the very many dimensions along which the genital activity of one person can be differentiated from that of another. . . precisely one, the gender of object choice, emerged from the turn of the [nineteenth into the twentieth] century, and has remained, as the dimension denoted by the now ubiquitous category of 'sexual orientation'" (Sedgwick 1990: 8). The Christian churches have too easily bought into this modern heterosexualizing of the body and its desires, and so not only opened themselves to acrimonious and seemingly endless debates about who can sleep with whom, but more grievously led them to lose sight of the learning of God that sexual desire can open for us.

As Shaw notes, the church's privileging of heterosexual marriage in modernity, along with the strange idea of complementarity - which imagines an equality-in-difference between the sexes which is actually an inequality, since the difference is "woman as complement to man" - constitutes a history of "female sexuality" as narrated by men. For it is not only that "woman" as symbol has remained mobile in Christian thought - so that men can be womanly in a way that women cannot be manly - but that actual women have been fantasized in differing ways, first as "cooler," weaker versions of men, and then as men's opposites and complements. And these changing identities have been biological and social and thus political. But modern men have paid so much attention to what makes for a woman, that what makes for a man has become increasingly doubtful. This is evident in theologians like Balthasar, but also more generally in Western culture. It has led to a so-called "crisis of masculinity," or series of such, the retorts to which are ever more absurd displays of hypermasculinity - by both straight and gay men, and some women (see chapter 19 by Mark Jordan for more on the problem of securing Jesus' masculinity).

Linda Woodhead also argues that the history of sex and the modern church is ultimately a history of women and their changing desires. Though she sees less of a break between the pre-Reformation and modern church than Shaw - arguing that the church has always promoted some form of family values, even when idealizing celibacy - she nevertheless agrees with Shaw that the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century saw the rise of a new concern with the family as the only legitimate place for women. And this was only intensified in the nineteenth century, when the church, increasingly without influence in the political sphere, focused its power on the domestic, becoming in turn an increasingly feminized institution. Woodhead argues that at first this served the church well, aligning it with a newly dominant middle class, which used sexual sobriety to differentiate itself from both aristocratic debauchery and proletarian incontinence. But it did not fit the church well for the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s, and the emancipation of women from the thrall of domesticity. The church's identification with the "angel in the home" could not survive her flight into a new world of personal autonomy and self-realization.

While it remains the case that many of the most vigorous and voluble Christian churches are those which maintain an allegiance to "family values" and "conservative" sexual mores, Christianity has declined throughout most Western societies - including the United States of America - just insofar as women no longer find their lives recognized, valued, and enhanced through its ministries, which are often closed to them. As Woodhead notes, more women than men have always participated in church life, but since the late 1960s, women have been leaving the churches at the same rate as men, which - if nothing else - is proving disastrous for the transmission of faithful practices from one generation to the next. And this despite the feminization of the churches, for this gendering only celebrates "woman" and her supposed qualities at a symbolic level, while occluding real women from the life of the church. As with Balthasar, the church in general forgets women when it fantasizes "woman." But it is not only the church which does this; even (male) queer theorists can forget that human being is not only one.

Michel Foucault would be prominent in any genealogy of "queer theory," for his own practice of genealogy is exemplary for the interrogation of those discourses which serve to establish and maintain an essentialized view of sex and gender, of body and sexuality. But like any great master, Foucault must be subject to his own insights and interrogations, and it is just such a questioning that Grace M. Jantzen undertakes with regard to Foucault's own gender blindness - the moments when he lost sight of the fact that human being is not one but at least two. Jantzen acknowledges her own debt to Foucault's work, his disinterring of various medical, legal, and ecclesiastical discourses, of madness and sexuality, of crime and punishment. But she cannot let pass Foucault's (sometime) denial of women's subjectivity, nor his association of their degradation with death, both human and divine. On Jantzen's reading, Foucault queers the (male) subject - unsettles its givenness - at the expense of woman, whose subjectivity goes unrecognized, let alone undone, for she is always already undone by the ministrations of a (masculine) power that looks for death, forgetting birth. For Jantzen, Foucault too easily succumbs to what she sees as the West's fascination with death, a beguilement that runs from Plato to Heidegger, and from which Christianity, despite its discourses on new life, also suffers. For the trope of second birth - being "born again" of the Spirit - only occludes our first birth or natality.

Not everyone will agree that Jantzen has the full measure of the Christian tradition in this regard, but it cannot be denied that Christians have done as much to serve cultures of death as resist them. Reflection on human mortality - on the mortality of all life - need not, and should not, lead us to forget our natality, our coming to be from another. That after all is the Christian doctrine of creation: that we are "born" in every moment of our lives. Thus even as Jantzen finds Foucault too enamored of death, insufficiently queering its gender and dominion, she yet learns from him how to listen to the silences in his own texts as well as those of others, and hear there the voices of the silenced. It is because she is such a faithful disciple that she can so question the master, and find in his work - in his practice of genealogy - "promising ashes" that may be made to glow and burn again with new life. In one way or another all the chapters in this volume query past discourses. They practice Foucauldian genealogy, seeking to disinter forgotten possibilities and unsettle present complacencies.

Anyone who reads the Christian Scriptures and the church "fathers" cannot but be struck by the difference between their views of marriage and that of the Christian churches today For the latter find marriage and the family to which it gives rise to be the key building blocks - the bulwarks - of society, while the former find them to be at best but passing practices, distractions from Christian discipleship. Needless to say, the practices of marriage and family extolled by the churches are rather modern, bourgeois productions, developments of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century romanticism. They are units of consumption that do indeed sustain modern, consumer capitalism; the very modernity that the churches elsewhere seek to resist. It is this irony that occasions Paul Fletcher's trenchant critique of marriage and his advocacy of divine eros over against the micro-fascism of the churches.

In a startling analysis, Fletcher argues that the church's advocacy of sexual moralism against the commodification of sex merely repeats, if in a different mode, the extreme experience (of violence) offered by the fight clubs of David Fincher's 1999 film, Fight Club. Whereas the fight clubs of the film offer (men) an escape from the stasis of a life of interminable consumption through the experience of controlled brutality, the church offers an equally deathly discipline - "a modern sarcophagus" - of exclusive and exclusively heterosexual eros. It is deathly not only because it denies rather than transforms desire, but the very command to desist from pleasure "engenders the desire to transgress and so constitutes the ground of capitalistic enjoyment." At the very point where the church seeks to challenge contemporary society it merely colludes with its economy, since it has forgotten that God's desire is not capitalistic but utterly unconstrained and plenitudinous.

In Paul, Fletcher finds an entirely different economy - a noneconomy - from that of either capitalism or the modern church. Paul's orientation to the future of the resurrected Christ leads him to suspect all civil and religious institutions, including marriage. Paul lives in and for - waits upon - the return of the Messiah, and so refuses anything like the realized escha-tology embraced by modernity and the church in modernity. Capitalism - which oscillates between desire's fulfillment (immediate gratification) and its infinite delay - knows nothing of an eros that exceeds death, that wants more than life's interminable extension, that looks for genuine joy in the passing moment. It is this desire which the church must want, a delec-tatio that - like pleasure - comes in the moments of present life, as the ground of their gratuity; drawing bodies together, and together to God.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment