Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Queer God

The Queer God

By Marcella Althaus-Reid
Routledge, London and New York, 2003

I have been having some discussions recently with one or two people in the South African ecclesiastical scene, who are wanting to take forward the issue of equality for Gay and Lesbian priests in this corner of the world. I am constantly struck, however, by the way in which Gay and Lesbian people, inside the church, are often considered beggars at the table. They are treated fairly nicely. There is some measure of respect (certainly in the South African context - I am not talking of elsewhere in Africa). But there is no thought that actually we could ADD something to the rather sterile world of hetero-normative theology. That is taken as the given. So my thoughts turned again to a book I read some years ago, which changed absolutely the way I thought of theology. That doesn't happen often.

On the cover of this book, is a picture of Jesus. Nothing unfamiliar, particularly if you are Roman or Anglo-catholic. But under the title, the picture takes on a bit of a different meaning. Because, Jesus is, frankly, as camp as a row of pink tents! Clearly effeminate, limp-wristed, positively trans-sexual and probably transvestite as well.

The cover of the book is powerfully descriptive of what is the major concern of the book – a relentless exploration of the somewhat contradictory hegemony which patriarchal, heterosexual theology has on the way in which the Bible (and God) is perceived and read.

Some years ago I wrote an article on the tension between “gay” and “straight” perceptions of God. I gave an abridged version of it to my priest to read. His comment at the end of it was that there were one or two things with which he radically disagreed. One was the matter of multiple sexual partnerships, which I had raised as a feature of gay sexuality. He said that was an absolute non-negotiable for a Christian.

I thought of this incident when I watched the shenanigans following the so-called Windsor Report, where Queer priests and bishops in the Anglican Communion were firmly put in their places in 2004. I wondered what possible credibility, for instance, a political settlement would have had in South Africa, if a solution had been drafted by only one side of the conflict – and then imposed summarily and vigorously on the other. None! is the answer. And I would venture to suggest that the same is true on the question of homosexuality.

Marcella Althaus-Reid describes the Queer person as “the stranger at the gate”, the “exile”. The Queer Theologian is confined to the attic or the dungeon.(p.88). We are expected to behave in a “neutral” way, which has the same effect as putting our heads through one of those funfare cut-out figures, being forced to adopt a variety of cross-dressing identities, all of the time (p.90)

We are only allowed to speak, if it is in the language and grammar of the hegemonic power. We are not allowed to explore our own language, our own culture, our own norms, our own reality. That is the dungeon to which we are confined, within the church and the dominant theology.

But she explores a range of oddities within that dominant theology, utilizing symbols and images from queer expression and experience, together with the extreme sexual subversiveness of the Marquis De Sade. It is sometimes bewildering and certainly makes for extremely difficult reading. But it is also, I found, exhilarating. This is not, I want to warn, a book for the faint-hearted!

Her view is that Queer Theology is not, as are many liberation theologies, a theology from the margins. Rather, it is a theology from the other side completely! God is seen not in the familiar, but in the completely strange. The theological project is one then, of “queering” divine relationships and ensuring that the heterosexual obsession with binary relationships is challenged and reformulated. The Trinity, after all, is anything but binary, and the relationship between genders within it, deeply suspect from a heterosexual point of view. The queer theological project consequently sets God free from the dyadic/procreative formulations of origins. The queer project points to a world where reproduction is neither a necessity, nor a requirement of the evolutionary trajectory. In other words, human evolution needs to be more than the endless succession of what happens between sperm and ovum. She calls this “sodomising hermaneutics”, which involves processes of subversion, submission and deconstructionism which cannot be found in heterosexual presentations of God. This is the true “emptying” or kenotic process of the divine.

I have always found the story in Genesis chapter 19, of Lot and the two “angels” who came to visit Sodom, a very peculiar one. Besides anything else, why on earth does Lot offer his daughters to the “men of Sodom”? I mean, where is the morality in that, for heaven’s sake? And why is this seen, by hetero-normative readings of the text, to be the preferable, or even moral option? But one thing which I had not noticed before, which Althaus-Reid drives home so forcefully, is the essential over-riding violence pervading the text. A violence, from which not even God is exempt. The men from Sodom have violent intent against the visitors. The father has violent intent against his own daughters. God has a violent intent against everyone and everything, threatening to destroy both people and the environment alike. However, underlying this violence in the text, there is another discussion. In Sodom, the issue (and the warfare) is about sameness and difference. In Sodom, otherness was the norm. That was unacceptable to the monochrome God of same-ness. Difference – otherness, needs to be systematically uprooted and destroyed. It is a warfare between two projects: the dominant and the subversive. “The Sodomites must be resurrected one day …(and) by them, sexual justice will become a key hermeneutical clue for any reading on the sacred and people’s lives”. (p.93)

This is, as I have said, an extremely difficult book, not only because of the ingenuity of the approach, but also because of the sometimes opaque language which is used. But it is quite brilliant in its approach and its uncompromising , scandalous utilization of symbol to confront symbol. I give you the following: The bisexual nature of the theologian; Finding God in dark alleys; The Voyeur God; Leading God by a dog –collar; The closeted Trinity; God the Sodomite; Premature ejaculations – God in transit; Sade and holiness – and you will get a feeling for the approach. It is bold, original, perhaps disturbing but also extremely enlightening. I doubt many will read it. What I do not doubt however, is that it will set a direction for Queer Theology in a way which has not been done so far.

Because, in the end, in the fullness of time, we Queers will make ourselves heard. And not in a way which accepts that the dominant heterosexual project is the right one and that we somehow fit in with that. Queer Theologians are saying, you have got it thumpingly wrong! If we are excluded, if we are kept at the gate, if our voices are silent and if our culture and practice is condemned and excluded, you are wrong! Do not think for a moment that we will give up the struggle, or that we will be marginalized or silenced. Because the God is not a heterosexual God. In fact, that God is a blasphemy, an abhorrence and a sham

1 comment:

  1. I love this part: "Her view is that Queer Theology is not, as are many liberation theologies, a theology from the margins. Rather, it is a theology from the other side completely!"

    I do work on the queer Christ in art and literature, and I often find others think it is too "far out." One gay man who couldn't relate to it kept telling me it was "too advanced."

    But Althaus-Reid's book on the queer God isn't hot off the presses. It was published six years ago. After reading this post, I tried to find it on Amazon and saw that it no longer has this provocative cover. It has a plain black cover and costs $130 (that’s six times the usual price).