Queering Theology: The Emperor Has No Clothes

[This is part three of an ongoing series on the project of queering theology.]

I have a local coffee shop that I frequent nearly every day. It’s gotten to the point where I walk in and they start making my drink because it never changes (medium iced Americano in a to-go cup). Many of the baristas go to my alma mater here in town, and so we have a lot of things to talk about. The other day, I sat at the bar and the barista Jonah came over and asked me what I was working on.

I held up my book: “I’m doing a series on queer theology.”

“On what theology?!” Breanne, the other barista, looked up from the coffee grinder and gave me a puzzled look.

“Queer. It’s like queer theory.” I happen to know Breanne has a degree in English, so I figured she’d understand. But, having gone to the same school, I knew that her background in it probably wasn’t too extensive. And my suspicions were confirmed when she told me that she’d never realized it was something that could be applied to theology.

Part of the reason most people aren’t familiar with queer theology but are familiar with queer theory is this idea of orthodoxy that exists within faith that doesn’t exist within literary criticism. In literary criticism, you definitely have people who are set in particular ways and refuse to move beyond traditions for no other reason than that’s how they learned to do it and therefore they think it’s the best. But you’ll find thriving criticism that pushes boundaries, looks at texts in new ways, and develops new ways of looking at old ideas.

Similarly, the Christian faith in particular contains these same groups – the orthodox people who consider themselves beholden to tradition and history and how things have always been done. And you have the groups on the margins working to push the envelope and develop new ways of looking at old ideas. But the stakes in a faith tradition are much higher. The punishment for being unorthodox is not so much losing respect of colleagues but risking the wrath of God and Jonathan Edwards’ hell.

But, hell becomes less of a threat when you stop believing it’s a real fiery place and start instead emphasizing God’s love and God’s ability to cross the divide. This, then, is the very real threat that the institutional church faces from queer theologians (and liberation theologians). Much of the rule over the last few centuries – particularly in a neo-Calvinist America – has been through the ongoing threat of hell and eternal damnation. Indeed, much of evangelism is focused on the need to convince people that they need to be saved from something – it’s inarguable that hell takes a place of precedence in American neo-Calvinist thought. God’s mercy cannot exist without Satan’s hell.

This is the context in which queer theology, preaching a radical, binary-breaking love, enters into the picture. As I said on Wednesday, queer theology is a relatively new category of theology, which isn’t necessarily a knock against it. Our current understandings of gender and sexuality are less than a century old, and therefore our queer theologies surrounding gender are going up against centuries of accepted (and narrow) teachings.

It’s very hard when you are in a position of challenging the accepted tradition, much of which has the weight of “this is how we have always talked about this issue” against it. But the challenge itself is not problematic, despite the traditionalists’ desire to paint it as such. The newness, too, is not necessarily a problem, especially if one subscribes to a progressive theology of humanity – which is that we are progressing away from oppression and into an eschatological glory God created for us.

Even so, traditionalist conservative theologians attempt to use the threat of hell and the specter of sin to explain away queer issues. If transgender identity extends from a warped sexual idolatry, as Al Mohler argued yesterday, then there’s no need to actually confront the complexities of gendered identity. If homosexuality is merely the result of the fall of Adam and Eve, then there’s no need to actually treat people who identify that way as anything more than sinners in need of a savior. This is the fundamental divide when it comes to understanding queer theology.

Mohler’s argument yesterday makes a case for the traditionalist understanding of gender by pointing to an ongoing redemptive narrative throughout the Bible. But Mohler’s understanding is built on several assumptions about gender and sexuality that are not necessarily reflected in the Biblical text. But that wasn’t Mohler’s argument anyway – his point is that one must accept certain assumptions about the narrative God is telling in order to approach issues such as “transgenderism” (not actually a word) with a “Biblical” view.

Queer theology, in the same way, approaches theology with explicit assumptions about what God’s love means for God’s individual creations, and uses established theory of gender and sexuality to interpret and understand God’s creation. The difference is that queer theology tends to acknowledge that we are using modern lenses to understand and articulate understandings of Scripture for our modern context, rather than claiming to have some kind of monopoly on the overarching eschatology of God’s plan thanks to a “plain” reading of Scripture.

Both the "traditional view" and the queer theology view function from a modern perspective of what gender and sexuality mean - queer theology is just more honest about it.

The unfortunate result of conservative theologians’ claims to having a plain reading of Scripture is that once you begin to challenge the arbitrary structures they have set up for themselves, the entire house of cards begins to fall apart. For example, Mohler, throughout his article, conflates gender and sexuality. In the conservative mind, the two are utterly inseparable. Your gender determines your sexuality which determines your role in God’s plan. If you acknowledge that gender can be separate from sexuality and that one’s body doesn’t have to dictate who ones loves, the entire theology of gender roles, purity culture, and control falls to pieces. Gender has to be an innate, unchangeable, biological reality because if it is not, then the teachings about heterosexuality, submission, and headship begin to lose the force of their meanings.

This is queer theology - it dismantles and erases those arbitrary boundaries. It points out that not only does the emperor have no clothes, but that his entire throne is built on lies. At the same time, it uses what we know of God’s love to reconstruct an image of God that is not tied into gender essentialist roles but rather respects the body as an individual creation with meaning in itself. We are not meatsuits ontologically determined, but rather our bodies are our selves that experience the world in multifarious and multifaceted ways.