The Queering Spirit, part 2
The use of the word “queer” to describe a theology can be jarring at first glance. This word has an ambivalent history, with resonances of disgust, fear, and violence. But as gay theologian Gerard Loughlin points out, appropriating this word is “the insult turned. No longer a mark of shame, it becomes a sign for pride.” In this sense, “queer” is a term that 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.” Queerness is not identity but a “positionality,” one that “places the speaker in opposition to the normal, whatever the normal is in a given instance.” Thus while queer theology gives central consideration to the experience of LGBT persons, it is not limited to these categories, and in fact purposely “enables the continual deconstruction of identity,” even LGBT identities. This is a theology meant “for anyone who finds themselves off-kilter from societal norms.”
This being said, queer theology is deeply shaped by the experience familiar to LGBTQ persons of disgust directed toward themselves. In many Christian settings, any sexual or gender identity outside of the heterosexual and cisgender “norm” has been regarded as a kind of ultimate “otherness,” so that “the sodomite was the one who could threaten the social order by his/her ‘otherness,’ that is his/her inability to conform to the norm.” Because of the shaming, rejection, and hiddenness so long central to the queer experience, queer theology examines the way God and his reign, too, are transgressive, “other” and beyond boundaries.
Along these lines, queer theologian Patrick Cheng offers three primary meanings of queer theology. First, queer theology is “LGBT people talking about God.” Previously marginalized experiences are given central consideration and weight. Second, queer theology is “a theological method that is self-consciously transgressive… a way of doing theology that, in the words of the Magnificat, brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly.” By examining the transgressive, queer theology seeks to deconstruct “idols” of normality, and exposes the ways our social constructions marginalize and divide. Finally, queer theology seeks to “erase boundaries” by critiquing binary categories. Queer theology has a general suspicion that binaries are suppressive of diversity and multiplicity. In the practice of queer theology, we can speak of the activity of “queering” — that is, making the normal appear strange, and bringing forward the everyday experiences that transgress the rigid molds constituted by ideology. “Queering” is by its nature meant to be a public act, as a “communal display of resistance. An alternate community needs to be witnessed as having shape or actions that cannot be dismissed as those of crazy individuals.” Thus queer theology has largely to do with bodies, and what is done with bodies as performative acts.
This concept of queer as performance comes out of queer theory, a major source of queer theology (alongside apologetic for gay lives, liberation theology, and relation theology.) Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, queer theology seeks to “uncover subjugated knowledge” to “reveal the role of the heterosexist power system.” This system obscures what Judith Butler brought to the fore in her writing: “Gender is not a noun…. gender proves to be performative… always a doing.” If gender is performative, then alternate performances — queer performances, like LGBT sexuality, drag, living one’s gender identity, LGBT families — serve to “queer” the normal and reveal it as a construction. This is why queer theology is not an abstract body of knowledge, but an explication of what we know of God by what queer bodies do, and a theological endorsement for the inclusion of queer lives in the Church.
Gerard Loughlin, ed., Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing,
Claudio Bardella, “Queer Spirituality,” Social Compass48, no. 1 (2011), 119.
Lisa Isherwood, “Queering Christ: Outrageous Acts and Theological Rebellions,” Literature & Theology, 15, no. 3 (September 2001), 249.
Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter(New York: Routledge, 1993), 24–25.