Queering Tradition

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The first two chapters on queering the Western tradition are concerned with two sets of men - "fathers" - who have dominated later Western thought and practice, Jewish and Christian, and that more nebulous - doubtful - Western site, the Judeo-Christian. We may think we have got it straight about these fathers, but as so often, matters turn out to be queerer than at first appears.

Daniel Boyarin starts with a celebrated biblical text - Leviticus 18.22 - and asks what it prohibited and why. The first question is easily answered - male-male anal intercourse - but the second is more difficult and interesting. Boyarin is concerned with the meaning of this text (and others) for rabbinic interpreters in late antiquity, and while it cannot be certain that they reflect the readings of "biblical" people themselves, they may as likely as not do so, and either way no text has meaning except as it is read. So why - according to the rabbis - does Leviticus abhor male-male anal intercourse?

First, it was not because it abhorred homosexuality. The rabbis - as Boyarin argues -knew nothing of homosexuality, and had no concept of "sexual orientation" such as is now taken for granted. What concerned the framers of the levitical law, as understood in later rabbinical reading, was that a man should take the part of a woman and allow himself to be penetrated. As Boyarin shows, it was penetration rather than same-sex affections and other practices that Leviticus condemned. The rabbis classed other same-sex practices as masturbation, and treated them less seriously. Female same-sex practices were also discussed, but not treated as analogous to the activity proscribed in Leviticus. Leviticus is no more concerned with homosexuality than is the story of Sodom (Genesis 19.1-12), or its parallel, the story of the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19). Rather Leviticus is concerned with the violation of categories.

David Halperin and others have shown that in the Greco-Roman world, contemporaneous with the rabbis, male-male anal intercourse was considered reprehensible when the penetrated did not belong to the category of the penetrable, when he was not a woman, slave or boy, but a free man. Such intercourse was a violation of status, of proper social order. Boyarin argues for something similar but also significantly different in regard to Leviticus. A man lying with a man as with a woman violates not status but the proper distinction of kinds. It is condemned along with cross-dressing (and both are condemned in similar formulas) because both are mixings of kind, which is to say, abominations (from tebhel, a mixing or confusion). As Boyarin admits, this is at first perplexing, because two men are surely of the same kind. But when one man uses another man as a woman (and "uses" is used advisedly), he uses one kind (male) as if it was another kind (female), and so crosses the border between them. It is strictly analogous to transvestism - condemned as abhorrent in Deuteronomy (22.5) - when clothing is synecdochic and one kind (fe/male attire) is confused with another (fe/male body). As Boyarin puts it, Leviticus condemns male-male anal intercourse because it "is an instance of cross-dressing!" It is not condemned because it is an instance of homosexuality.

Boyarin concludes by noting that Jewish theology is narrative theology. It is the reading of biblical texts, and any Jewish discussion of "homosexuality" has to begin by recognizing that neither the Bible nor the rabbis have anything to say about it. Much the same could be said for Christian theology - or at least Christian narrative theology - and its reading of the Christian Bible, since the New Testament also fails to mention homosexuality, and discusses same-sex activity in terms broadly similar to those addressed by Boyarin (see further Loughlin 2007). It may seem a small point, but one of the achievements of queer theology is to have found the Bible - Jewish and Christian - empty of homosexuality, but full of queer intimacies.

A similar disregard for our modern sexual categories is evidenced by the Christian fathers, and not least in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330-c. 395). In a provocative reading of this Greek father, Virginia Burrus offers an essay in patristic thought that is both powerful and playful. Burrus finds David Halperin's definition of queerness as an "identity without an essence" useful for thinking about asceticism in Gregory, for so many of his terms - such as "virginity" - turn out to have a less than stable meaning. Even to describe Gregory as a father is querulous, because he may have been one of the "fathers" to have really been a father, or at least really married; or then again, perhaps not. Terms like "marriage" and "virginity" are often used metaphorically by Gregory, but it is not always clear when they are so used, which makes their nonmetaphorical meaning also shifty.

But more importantly for queer theology, Gregory makes desire central to his theology, so that when our desires are rightly ordered they come to participate in the desire of the Trinity, the longing of God for God. This is not desire as want, but as active pursuit of the good. It is desire as donation. Burrus pursues this and other themes through a consideration of "virginity" in Gregory, which for him is a practice for the weak, for those who are not strong enough to order their marital relations in pursuit of God, but fear the waywardness of bodily desires. Moreover, the virginal life seeks a return to the original - and final - sameness of a life without sexual difference, which is the life of the angels in heaven. At the same time this virginal life is marital, since the soul desires the embrace of the bridegroom, and yet this eschatological embrace passes beyond sexual difference, so that as the feminine disappears, homosexuality is established in heaven. But what is masculinity without femininity?

Burrus also pursues Gregory's Moses, who - as exemplary of the mystical man - pursued God on Mount Sinai, in the darkness of the cloud. And here again, words shift in meaning and significance, and Gregory proves to be a fascinating but perilous guide for queer theology. Fascinating in that he so resolutely unsettles any complacency regarding the primacy of the heterosexual. Gender is not a stable category for Gregory, and like Elizabeth Stuart after him, he holds that it is destined to pass away. But that passing is where peril lies, for on one reading it passes to leave a regnant masculinism: a genderless subject who is really a man; a man who has assumed the feminine. But nothing is ever certain when reading Gregory; or in reading Gregory's readers.

In recent years Gregory has become important for a number of prominent theologians, such as Sarah Coakley and John Milbank, and Burrus offers some thoughts on their appropriations of Gregory in relation to queer theory and subjectivity. In relation to Coakley, Burrus raises important questions about the appropriation of queer theory by theology, a supersessionist tendency - not entirely avoided in this introduction - to find theology in advance of a theory that only that theory has made possible. And in relation to Milbank, Burrus finds a certain drawing back from Gregory's "radical orthodoxy," which proves to be a bit too queer. There is a sense of grasping after a masculine essence. Burrus seems to suggest that if we really want to learn from Gregory, we really must learn how to let go.

Until the fourteenth century, theology and what we now refer to as mysticism were one; or at least sufficiently related for prayer to be the setting for intellectual inquiry, for theology to be itself spirituality: seeking to know the mind of God through living in God's Spirit, nourished by God's Word in word and sacrament. Up to the fourteenth century, mystical theology developed an approach to God that was both affective and apophatic, and queer: the "mystical queer." And this is nowhere more evident than in the tradition of the Rhineland mystics, which for many culminates in the writings of Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-1329). But his thought, as Amy Hollywood notes, grew out of the "highly experiential mysticism of women monastics, mendicants, and beguines . . . among whom he lived and worked" (Hollywood 2002: 320 n. 1). And it is with three such women - Mechthild of Magdeburg (1207-82), Hadewijch of Anvers (thirteenth century) and Marguerite Porete (d. 1310) - that Hollywood's chapter in Queer Theology is concerned.15 Many - but most notably Caroline Walker Bynum - have shown how these medieval women developed, out of the Song of Songs and other vernacular writings, a highly erotic language for the soul's journey into the divine; for the soul's union with Christ. Such sacred eroticism, however, remains resolutely "heterosexual," until one begins to notice how the medieval feminization of Christ queers the devotions of these female mystics. For Christ's body is not only maternal but erotic, and so a desired female flesh, eliciting "lesbian-like" devotions in those women who long for its embrace; to drink from the slit in Christ's side, the wound in his/her flesh (like Katharina Tucher mentioned above). But here Hollywood finds not only a female samesex eroticism to match that already available to men (in desiring the male Christ), but also the difficulties in reading any straight/queer, gay/lesbian dichotomy out of and into these medieval, mystical bodies.

It is not only that the mystics did not think in our terms, but that they sought to move beyond their own gender categories, making fluid what was otherwise stable. Their Christ is both male and female; their soul both female and male; and their self seeks dissolution through union with that which is both utterly far and near.16 This condition of the between subverts any attempt to retrieve stable identities, whether of desire or practice. Nevertheless, Hollywood argues that we can look for past experiences in the medieval texts when we take them as the discourses in which their authors sought to think - and so experience - their lives in relation to Christ and church. If we resist the temptation to reduce the erotic to the religious - for which Hollywood chides Bynum - and the corresponding temptation to reduce the religious to the erotic (as in a crude Freudianism), then we can find an erotic-mystical language which challenges both theological and gender categories, of both the thirteenth and twenty-first centuries. In subverting - as in Hadewijch (according to Hollywood) - any simple association of divinity with masculinity and femininity with humanity, the mystics recall Gregory of Nyssa's fluid bodies and pose an ongoing challenge to heterosexual stabilizations of divine and human genders, as in Hans Urs von Balthasar. And this is what Karma Lochrie calls the "mystical queer."

We might hesitate to describe Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) in similar terms, but he also stands in the Christian mystical tradition, being deeply informed by the neoplatonism of Augustine and the Pseudo-Dionysius. Indeed - as Eugene F. Rogers Jr shows - Thomas's undertaking of the via negativa after Denys, led him closer to queer theory than away from it, because - as already indicated - he sought an identity whose essence cannot be known, but only undertaken. Rogers' own way into this unknowing is to consider the relationship between body and discourse (already broached by Kathy Rudy and James Alison in relation to queer experience) through an examination of Thomas's approach to the "natural law," with which he is often associated, but of which he has remarkably little to say (only one question - I-II.94 - in the Summa Theologiae).

For Thomas, the natural law allows us to participate by reason in the eternal law, which is the "prudence" of God. Thus Thomas's natural law has very little to do with the natural laws of modern science. It does not govern the behavior of animals, which have no prudential reasoning, and above all it does not offer a universally available, non-religious guide to the good life. Rather it is known under guidance from Scripture. (Thomas learns that homosexual behavior is unnatural from Paul, not nature - which of course now tells the opposite, see Bagemihl 1999.) In itself, natural law tells us little beyond the injunction to do good and avoid evil (I-II.94.2 responsio). Thomas's account of the good life is relentlessly pursued through his account of the virtues and their corresponding vices. But there are two occasions when Thomas does appeal to "nature" for substantive ethical content, and these concern the vices of "lying and lying with a member of the same sex." It is this little noted conjunction of vices to which Rogers attends.

Rogers suggests that homosexuality and lying may have come together for Thomas because of his reading of Romans 1, in which - for Thomas - same-sex practices are presented as God's punishment for Gentile idolatry, and idolatry is a form of injustice; and where there is no justice there is no true understanding of nature. Lying goes against the truth and also against nature, because it goes against the nature of mind, which naturally wants to express itself truthfully "For since spoken words are naturally signs of things understood, it is unnatural and undue that someone signify by voice that which she does not have in mind" (ST II-II.110.3 responsio). In this way lying parallels homosexuality, which goes against the truth of the body As Rogers puts it, "actions of tongue or genitals can both make the whole person a liar." (But note that the vice of the genitals is against our nature as animals, while the vice of the tongue is against our nature as humans - since animals cannot lie.)

Thomas thought that humans should tell the truth of their bodies as well as their minds, and so avoid homosexual behavior, which is a lie of the body, as Thomas believed. But it is the demand that bodies tell their truth that leads Rogers to connect Thomas's apparent "essentialism" with Judith Butler's apparent "anti-essentialism." For when Butler offers something like a definition of the body, she describes it as that which demands to come into language, and that - Rogers argues - is remarkably like Thomas's Aristotelian idea that "form gives existence to matter" (forma dat esse materiae). By "form" Thomas understands that principle of change that is known through the performance of the body to which it gives existence. Thus Thomas's essentialism is rather constructivist, for like Butler he holds that "words bring bodies into the street, and bodies in the street call for new words." And that leads Rogers to offer his Thomistic argument for "coming out."

For if bodies demand to be spoken truthfully, then gay bodies should be spoken as such, and not described, say, as "objectively disordered" heterosexual bodies. It is the failure to speak the truth of such bodies that leads to a state of injustice in which it is not possible to know the truth of nature. Thus in a rather surprising way, Eugene Rogers not only finds that Thomas's understanding of natural law has rather little to tell us about the good life, and that what it now has to say about the "vice against nature" (ST II-II.154.11) is almost the exact opposite of what it has been taken to say, for that vice turns out to be a virtue now that we know that gay bodies are not lying when they want to lie with bodies of the same sex. Thomas teaches that gay bodies must not lie but tell their truth.

Christopher Hinkle traces the queer erotics of the Christian mystical tradition into the early modern period with a consideration of St John of the Cross (1542-91). John's reworking of the Song of Songs in his poetry and commentaries is an example of how the language of carnal desire provides a language for spiritual ascent. But at the same time Hinkle is also concerned with the dangers in eliding the erotic with the spiritual. For while queer theology is always more celebratory than condemnatory of sexual desire, one cannot ignore the cunning of the latter to disorder spiritual longing. Jacobus de Voragine witnesses to the intimacy of these desires since in the stories he rejects that name Mary Magdalene as the betrothed of John the Beloved, she is said to have turned to "voluptuousness" when John ran off with Jesus, and when she repented of that and "had to forgo the heights of carnal enjoyment", Jesus filled her with the "most intense spiritual delight, which consists in the love of God" (Jacobus de Voragine 1993: I, 382). John also is given "special evidences" of Jesus' affection, because he had to forgo the "aforesaid pleasures" with Mary. It may be that Jacobus objected to these stories because they offer "spiritual delight" as a compensation for "carnal enjoyment," but the link between the two is clear: union with the divine is presented as a more intense form - a transfiguration - of sexual pleasure. And it is thus always possible that the would-be ascetic will mistake the latter for the former, pursuing the flesh rather than God.

To find St John of the Cross teaching the due ordering of sexual to spiritual desire, and not least for gay men, is not to find John a gay saint, even if there are aspects of his life and character that tempt this identification. But such naming would be anachronistic, and our concern has to be with the queerness of his writings, with John's written desire for the embrace of his divine lover, though of course - and most obviously in the original Spanish

- he adopts the persona of the feminine soul. Nevertheless, Hinkle does borrow a number of historical queer identities - the effeminate man, the pederastic sodomite, the intimate friend and the sexual invert - in order to analyze John's account of the spiritual ascent. John's biography suggests the "effeminate man," but in his texts Hinkle finds John adopting a ped-erastic passivity in relation to God, deriving from an "appropriate submission and humility, as well as hope concerning whatever benefits may follow the divine pleasure." And this ancient model of sexual relationships between men answers well to the traditional Christian view of humanity married to God; of a soul that wants to submit. The soul does not merely permit penetration, but desires it; the soul burns with want of God's love. Hinkle reads this as a shift from "pederasty" to "inversion," and then, as the ascent proceeds, the difference between the lovers seems to disappear, the soul growing ever closer to God, until "the soul appears to be God more than a soul" (John of the Cross 1991: 165). Needless to say, the homoeroticism of John's mystical ascent is "shaped by a picture of God as male."

But while John enables us to affirm the appropriateness of male homosexual desire for articulating, and indeed experiencing, spiritual growth, he also - Hinkle argues - cautions against any easy identification of sexual and spiritual experience, for John, like his great friend Teresa of Avila, feared the misdirection of desire and the experiences to which it gives rise. Sexual experience can distract from the spiritual, while seeming its instantiation, just as spiritual experience can distract from true knowledge of the unknowable God. The danger is that one becomes fixated "on some particular pleasure, image of the divine, or means of religious sensation, and thus loss of God."

But to warn against the delusions of spiritual experiences - as did both John and Teresa

- is not to deny their joy and significance, and the same is true for sexual experiences. But both need to be ordered, disciplined, stripped of their distractions and practiced within a prayerful ascesis that teaches discernment and self-dispossession. As Hinkle notes, this stripping of desire is not unlike its deconstruction, when queer theory dissects its social affiliations and constructions. But Hinkle - after John and against much secular queer theory

- insists that these constructions belie a more primordial desire, the origin of which is that which gives all to be. One might say - with Thomas Aquinas - that insofar as we desire we desire the good (no matter how mistaken we may be in identifying the good), and the desired good is that by which we desire, for to desire is to participate in the desiring of the Good. And it is for this reason - that our desires are participative in God's desire - that the discernment and ordering of our desires is such a necessary and perilous undertaking, and we need the guidance of the saints, like St John.

The last chapter on queer/ing tradition takes us from the sixteenth to the twentieth century and to the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88), whose theology brings the fourth part of the book to an appropriate close. Balthasar's work not only seeks to encompass the entire Western tradition - and not least the via negativa of the mystics - but it also stands at the beginning of the twenty-first century as an invitation and warning to the project of thinking a radically queer orthodoxy Near the end of her chapter, Rachel Muers quotes a simple but immensely profound sentence from the final pages of Balthasar's Herrlichkeit, The Glory of the Lord:

The Trinitarian love is the only ultimate form of love - both the love between God and men, and that between human persons. (Balthasar 1982-91: VII, 484)

Balthasar's theology stands as a challenge to think queer love in relation to love of the Trinity; to think our human loves in relation to our love for God and God's love for God, which is also God's love for us, whom God makes for/to love. But Balthasar's work also stands as a warning on how not to queer these relationships, for his own reflections on the Trinity reveal an undoubtedly queer but baleful reading of the trinitarian relationships (on which Gavin D'Costa also comments in his chapter). Balthasar makes sexual difference central to his thinking of God and humanity - with God's "supramasculinity" and "suprafemininity" analogous to human femininity and masculinity - and it is this privileging of sexuality which makes his work so important and stimulating for any sexual, let alone queer theology. But what turns out to be most stimulating about Balthasar's work is the way in which it identifies "masculinity" and "femininity" in terms drawn from a certain ecclesial culture, that then cause Balthasar to get into endless tangles as he tries to hang onto his misogynistic sentiments within a symbolic system that has become too labile to serve his regressive interests.

Muers takes us into Balthasar's thinking of sexual difference by way of one of the rare passages in which he directly mentions homosexuality - a brief reference to the men of Sodom, whom he likens to those (in non-Christian religions) who pray in a masculine fashion, seeking to take rather than be taken by God. Such prayer is a kind of "religious homosexuality" (Balthasar 1986a: 188), an attempt to be male with a male God. One might say - going a little further than Muers herself - that on the part of men such prayer is insufficiently perverse; it is not queer enough. The men of Sodom should have waited on God's messengers - and so on God - as women, in a posture of feminine passivity, waiting to be "taken" (i.e. raped), as Balthasar has it.

As Muers pursues Balthasar's masculinity and femininity, she discovers how he identifies femininity with Mary's mission, which is not so much a mission as the condition of any and all mission, the condition of waiting; and how - strangely - Balthasar's masculinity begins to disappear, since in the church all men are to become women in relation to the male God, who, while he contains suprafemininity, is always pre-eminently supramasculine: always first and last Father. (Beattie 2006 identifies the disappearance of masculinity in Balthasar - its near sole identification with the divine - as the cause of his theological angst; and D'Costa's chapter in this volume questions the privileging of the supramasculine over the suprafeminine in God).17 And yet, despite the dark and vertiginous places into which Balthasar has led Christian thought, Muers finds that at the last, Balthasar - like Elizabeth Stuart - envisions an eschatological state in which it is not our sexual identities, however these are constructed and deconstructed, but our creatureliness which determines our joy and freedom.

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