Loughlin, Gerard, ed. Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007, 351 pages.
Reviewed by Scott Bergen
It is a word that my grandparents throw around nonchalantly to describe events in their daily lives, a word that makes my parents squirm with uneasiness, and a word that I use positively as a marker of sexual preference. My grandparents describe an odd experiences as making them feel “queer,” my parents hear the word “queer” as a derogatory slur against gays, and I use the term “queer” to refer to those, including myself, who do not feel as if they fit into heterosexual hegemony.
It is this plethora of meanings that help to truly give queer its meaning – that is, insofar as queer can be defined. Queer is the odd, the other, as well as an insult to those who are sexually other than heterosexual. Yet in the past few decades, queer has also been reclaimed by those against whom the term is used pejoratively. In this sense, queer connotes not just certain sexual desires, practices, or identities (usually those outside of heterosexuality, but it can include heterosexuals who feel sexually marginalized for any number of reasons), but rather, exists at the heart of the dominant culture, defining itself over against what is “normal.” Influenced heavily by the writings of Michael Foucault, queer theory as a philosophical discipline within critical theory began to emerge as a field in its own right, running parallel to, and often interacting heavily with, other disciplines such as post colonialism and feminism, and given its current name by Teresa de Lauretis in 1991.
Yet as soon as queer, or queer theory, is understood as an identity instead of a living, evolving personality, it ceases to become queer, and loses its power to speak a subversive truth to the power of sexual hegemonies. Queer has no static definition or form, other than that of existing in opposition to the oppressive powers of dominant culture. Paradoxically, queer is also central to culture, and often, a re-reading of history reveals places in which queer is central to the cultural narrative – something explored by many of the authors in this collection. Queer exists beyond identity, and there are no fixed characteristics that make queer what it is – insofar as queer may be an identity, it is an identity outside of an essence.
In his introduction to the collection of essays entitled, Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, Gerald Loughlin confesses the potential absurdity of applying the term “queer” to theology, when the Christian body has, and continues to, attack those who define themselves as sexually queer. Yet he also defends it, claiming that theology is, or ought to be, a critic of dominant culture which places its entire existence in a trinitarian mystery whose full knowledge can never be known, appearing even stranger – or queerer – by claiming any sort of knowledge in this deep mystery. Loughlin proposes that, just as queer is an identity outside of an essence, God may be named, “queer,” “[f]or God’s being is indubitable but radically unknowable, and any theology that forgets this is undeniably straight, not queer.1”
This far-reaching collection of essays seeks to prove that queer experiences and ideas, while often appearing to exist on the fringes of ecclesial life, are, oddly enough, foundational to the thought, study, and practice of the church throughout its history, and that the Christian body is, and has been, much queerer than it has often been given credit for.
Loughlin has done well to begin this collection with a section entitled, “Queer Lives,” where queer moments in the church’s history, and other times when the church ought to have been queerer, are explored through personal reflection. Kathy Rudy presents a heartfelt lament of the rigid boundaries of the western white church in her essay, “Subjectivity and Belief.” She yearns for a church with queerer boundaries, where one may be fully and authentically in the seemingly mutually exclusive realms of faith and disbelief at once. She cites black church culture in the United States as a prime example of how faith may be fully present in someone, even as other indicators, such as church attendance, are not. In arguing her case that rigid boundaries do not reflect the human experience, and therefore ought not to be a defining feature of the church, Rudy cites Avery Gordon’s belief that one does not move neatly from one category to the next, but rather, is always “haunted” by their past, with ideas and beliefs once thought to be dead within oneself often reemerging as ghosts,
Elizabeth Stuart does a good job of exploring the correlation between queer theory and Christianity in her article, “Sacramental Flesh.” Stuart raises two questions from the writings of Judith Butler: firstly, is there a place to be queer and authentically perform gender while simultaneously exposing it as performance; and secondly, is there a way in which one may permanently avoid melancholia? Stuart argues that within Butler’s reading of gender and queer studies, the answers to both questions are, “no,” but suggests that Christianity offers to both of these a “yes.” Stuart weaves a very compelling argument that the church is a community (Stewart writes that it is the only community) whose mission is to be queer. She uses the writings of Rowan Williams to argue that baptism is one of the queerest rites in which one may participate, as it cuts across all other lines of identity to form a new identity, yet this new identity is not restrictive, nor merely performative as other forms of identity are to Butler, as baptism is not a human construct, but rather, divine gift. Christianity also offers the only way out of melancholia because it is an identity based on grace.
A number of authors contribute re-readings of contemporary and medieval Christian writers with an eye to queer themes. Rachel Muers does one such reading of the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Balthasar subscribed to a very gendered understanding of God and of human nature, viewing God as a de facto male, necessitating that all who approach him in prayer do so with the submissive nature of a woman, for to approach the male God with the aggressive nature of another man is abhorrent and offensive, just as Sodom and Gomorrah is offensive. Yet Muers finds Balthasar to be a queer theologian, and argues such by examining his identity politics within his writings on personal mission. Balthasar writes that each person is to fulfill their mission by conforming their will to Christ, a view that may very authentically be understood as queer, as it compels us to critically re-examine the way in which we understand the essence of our own beings, while changing our identity by molding it to Christ. Muers believes that Balthasar’s logic opens up the way for same-sex relationships in theology, even though much of his writing seems to suggest a rejection of such relationships.
Gavin D’Costa also examines Balthasar, focusing on his very gendered writings on the trinity, and argues that Balthasar’s trinity points to, but yet stops short of, being fully queer even as his writings suggest that he may envision an ecclesiology outside of patriarchy and heteronormativity. In her article on Gregory of Nyssa, Virginia Burrus reads Gregory through a queer lens by equating Gregory’s aestheticism with queerness. Amy Hollywood draws some fascinating queer themes from the writings of the beguine communities of medieval northern Europe. She points out texts of various members of the beguine who, through their writings, made the boundaries of gender and sexuality so fluid so as to be practically non existent, feminized Jesus’ body, and explicitly eroticized the spiritual concept of union with Christ.
Mark Jordan contributes another very thought-provoking meditation on the nature of Jesus’ body. Jordan questions the strange Christian idea that Jesus’ sex is unquestionably male, while upholding the belief that it is abhorrent to question or think about his physical sex and genitalia. He gently argues that this theological castration of Jesus is problematic in a quest to know who he is, especially as we continue to avoid challenging the church’s many improperly founded assumptions about, and projections of, the nature of Jesus’ gender and sexuality – that “there is no way into a full language of agape except through the language of eros.2”
There were two highly notable articles on the way in which the church draws boundaries: Linda Woodhead’s, “Sex and Secularization” and James Alison’s, “The Gay Thing: Following the Still Small Voice” are both articulate essays detailing the ways in which the church has dealt with sexuality in its history. Woodhead writes of how the early church had practically no political power, and so stressed the control of sexual and socio-economic life, dictating a sense of moral order on the domestic life, and growing the church’s membership through procreation within heterosexual marriage. The early church idea that heterosexual family life as secondary only to the patriarchal (with a male God as head) spiritual family life was revived in the Reformation, where the reinforcing of such male-dominated family structures aided the development of capitalism, and the ensuing division of sexes and their respective labours created the portrait of Christian women as passive and submissive. Woodhead ends with an historically informed hypothesis that the divisions within the contemporary global church will continue to intensify along sexual ethical lines.
Alison proposes that even though the Roman Catholic church is one of the loudest contemporary voices against homosexuality, it is in fact, from both a practical as well as a theological perspective, a very welcoming institution. From a practical standpoint, Alison theorizes that over half of urban clergy are gay, promoting a quiet understanding within the Catholic church that while while gay relationships are condemned on an institutional level, gay people are known and are an intrinsic part of the ecclesial community at a local level. From a theological standpoint, Alison writes that, unlike churches that emerged from the Reformation who believe in the inherent fallenness of desire and the subsequent necessity to live against desire through grace, Catholicism teaches that desire is not necessarily bad, insofar as it may come under the control of grace.
Building on a concept on which Woodhead briefly touched, David McCarthy explores and decries late capitalistic sexual desire in his well written essay, “Fecundity: Sex and Social Reproduction.” He draws out the insatiable desire of late capitalism and draws connections between the desire of capitalism and sexual desire, and proposes a sexual solution of monogamy through the establishment of the household. This proposition may seem out of place in a book whose premise is the destruction of hegemony, but McCarthy’s argument that an anti-capitalistic, non-egalitarian economy that transcends linear chronology, in which balance is found over generations and between households as opposed to a stagnant, self-serving desire-based economy, is not exclusive to non-heterosexual nuclear familial households. McCarthy leaves the concept of “household” open enough to include communities such as those of gay, same-sex friends about which Elizabeth Stuart writes in her contribution.
The large breadth of the writings in this collection reflect how extensive the discipline of queer theory really is, and from how many standpoints it may be approached. This book’s broad thesis – that is, that the western church is queerer, and has always been queerer, than may be popularly believed – is argued from many varied views, including historically, philosophically, and through personal testimony. However, the wide angle lens through which this collection views queer theory makes it sprawling and unwieldy at times, and the differences between the ways in which each author approaches the discipline mean that there is often not enough thematic continuity between chapters.
This collection claims to represent the western church, and is written primarily from the perspective of the Catholic tradition. Insofar as the post-Reformation traditions were mentioned, it was despairingly, or as a negative foil to the theological tradition of the Catholic tradition. A few of the authors hold up the Catholic church as more theologically queer than post-Reformation traditions in spite of the fact that there is often more open inclusion of those who are sexually queer within post-Reformation church traditions than in Catholic ones, making the portrayal of post-Reformation traditions in this book questionable.
There were times at which this book was simply not semantically queer enough. Many authors were very clear about the words they used when it came to talking about various sexes, genders, and sexualities, but there were a number of authors who, through their discussion of heterosexuality and homosexuality to the exclusion of all other sexualities, imparted a homosexual/heterosexual binary, which is not a queer idea, but a powerfully hegemonic one – albeit one with two loci of power instead of one. Similarly, there was a male/female gender binary prevent throughout the entire book, without much room left for those who find themselves beyond or between or altogether other from these two genders. Others wrote almost exclusively about the homosexual experience, as if that is, of itself, sufficiently queer, when in reality, it is simply another sexuality. To be truly sexually queer, space has to be allowed for the full scope of sexes, genders, sexualities, and human experiences, not simply one or two commonly recognized categories within them. This is not to say that each and every sex and gender and sexuality must be named – for indeed, it is not possible to have an exhaustive list of these things, and often, these forms of categorization are beyond names – but there must be room for these things to exist through the use of inclusive language. The reason that exclusive language is especially troubling within a collection of queer writings is that queer theory puts great emphasis on semantics, as one of its tenets is that language holds a great deal of power in influencing reality.
That being said, this book also avoids one of the cheap pitfalls that other works that masquerade as queer theory, but in actuality are more influenced by a corrupt gay liberationist model, succumb: to project and suggest non-hetero sexualities upon the subjects about which are being written. This volume does a fantastic and authentic job of analyzing queer tendencies within historic writings without making unfounded and irrelevant claims on the sexualities of the writers themselves.
In the post-christian western world, the need for a work such as this one is unprecedented. Where increasing numbers of people are leaving Christianity because they themselves feel queer, out of place, misunderstood, and oppressed by the ecclesial body, and more and more stories are coming to light around the world that show ways in which the church has, and often continues to, use its power to cause great harm in the lives of people, it is imperative that the church remind itself not only of its mandate to be a queer body, but to remember those times in its history when it has served especially well in this capacity – and also to remember the times when it has failed. The church must remember its mission so it may move forward as the queer body it is called to be.
Scott Bergen recently completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in music and theology at Canadian Mennonite University. He spent a year in Paraguay in 2008 where he fostered an interest in the intersections of religion, race, culture, and power.
1 Gerard Loughlin, “Introduction: The End of Sex,” in Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, ed. Gerard Loughlin (Malden: Blackwell, 2007), 1-34.
2 Mark D. Jordan, “God’s Body,” in Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, ed. Gerard Loughlin (Malden: Blackwell, 2007), 281-292.