As much as Hauerwas and MacIntyre’s proposal has to commend it (and I believe it to be a very strong conception of conversion and formation), the entrance of the LGBT community into the church presents a significant challenge, especially for those pastors who now seek to provide spiritual care for their community’s LGBTQIA members. To put it briefly: formation as apprenticeship requires a community/tradition in possession of knowledge, or “skill,” at determining what is good and training its members into recognizing and performing that good. But the very presence of LGBT persons raises a severe question: how can we ask LGBT persons to submit to apprenticeship under a community that has, until very recently, seen those same persons as morally deficient and/or malformed? Here I am asking a different question than, how can churches be safe for those LGBT persons who have been hurt by rejection from conservative churches? That is a significant question, but my inquiry is more far-reaching: is the concept of apprenticeship within a tradition viable, when we have significant evidence that the tradition has been unable to discern the good for LGBT persons, to their harm? And related, should we ask LGBT persons to submit to an “master” for formation at all?
To draw out this tension, I want to introduce queer theory into our conversation, beginning with one of its foundational voices, Michel Foucault. In his work, Discipline & Punish, Foucault argues that “power forms and shapes its subjects, not merely by means of overt violence, but also through more subtle technologies of domination.” Foucault explores the advancing “technologies” seen in the development of a disciplinary society, which operate not only in penal systems but in the creation of the individual: “power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production.” That is to say, in the operations of power of any institution or state, there is not only external domination meant to organize people into coherent systems; there is also internal formation: “the individual is carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies” in order to produce citizens congenial and useful to the institution. On Foucault’s critique, “discipline” and “formation” — both terms central to virtue theory — are seen as technologies of power, shaping people not toward “truth” or “excellence” but toward docility to systems of power.
This critique becomes the starting point for queer theory, which interrogates norms, especially sexual and gender norms, as imposed by heteronormative systems rather than reflecting deep truths or excellences. The term “queer” refers not to a stable identity (as in “gay,” “lesbian,” “transgender,” or “intersex”) but rather “seeks to outwit identity… It marks not by defining, but by taking up a distance from what is perceived as the normative.” The field of queer theory, drawing on the work of Foucault and Judith Butler, begins with the experience of non-heteronormative sexualities, and from there moves to “a position that places the speaker in opposition to the normal, whatever the normal is in a given instance.” For Butler, queer theory draws out the ways in which “gender proves to be performative — that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing.” Queer theory looks to “bring these issues of fluidity and instability to the fore” in terms of sexual identity and expression by highlighting the experiences of sexual minorities and “troubling” or “queering” the assumed stabilities of norms. This theory has moved into theology and biblical studies as “queer theology,” which Patrick Cheng defines as “a theological method that is self-consciously transgressive, especially by challenging societal norms about sexuality and gender.” This approach looks “to complicate, to disrupt, to disturb all kinds of orthodoxies, including, at least, these two… those that take our current sex/gender regime as natural and God-given and those that posit ‘the Bible’ as a flat, transparent window into the divine mind.” Queer theologies make much of glitches, tensions, and slips in the text that heteronormative readings gloss over, and highlight these to make space for queer lives in the Scriptures and in the church.
We are now in a place to make explicit a set of tensions raised by the collision of queer theology and spiritual formation:
1. Are LGBTQIA persons truly “welcomed and affirmed” in a church which remains unaffectedly hetero-normative — even when allowing queer people full access?
2. To what extent does the language of “spiritual formation” mean, to LGBTQ persons, the erasure of their difference into docile conformity?
3. How can the church ask for “apprenticeship” without acknowledging that its proposed “roles” and “norms” for gender/sexual identity have turned out to be misguided — and calling into question its own moral vision?
I raise these tensions to point out that, for the church, to pursue the spiritual formation of LGBTQ persons will require more than simply adjusting our pronouns in marriage liturgies or including “gay-friendly” topics in formation curriculum. Rather, there needs to be deep consideration of how the presence of queer persons reconfigure our understanding of formation and apprenticeship, systems of power and tradition. It is to this task that I now wish to turn.
Daniel M. Bell Jr., The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), Kindle Location 1048.
Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995),194.
Gerard Loughlin, ed., Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 9.
Andy Buechel, That We Might Become God: The Queerness of Creedal Christianity (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), 3.
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble(New York: Routledge, 1990), 24–25.
Patrick Cheng, Radical Love(New York: Seabury Books, 2011), 9.
Ellen T. Armour, “Queer Bibles, Queer Scripture?” in Bible Trouble, ed. Teresa J. Hornsby and Ken Stone (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011), 2.