What kind of book do you choose to read on a flight? For my midnight, 10 hour flight from Paris to Johannesburg this week, I settled on Marcella Althaus-Reid, “The Queer God”.
Crazy? Stupid? Misguided arrogance? Or not? For a long time I have been aware of Althaus –Reid’s work in the canon of “Queer Theology”, of her roots in South American liberation theology and in queer theory, and of her academic credentials as lecturer at Edinburgh University in Christian Ethics and Practical Theology, so her books have been established on my wish-list for months. Still, an initial browse through a selection of pages was not encouraging. This is not an ostentatiously academic book as Boswell and Brooten are: there are no footnotes at all, and the few notes it has are discreetly tucked away at the back, out of sight. But appearances can be deceiving. There may not be footnotes or quotations in Greek and Latin, but she nevertheless freely tosses around academic terms and concepts, and with words and quotations in Spanish, that could easily have intimidated me on another day. Besides, it is not just the words that are unfamiliar, but also the very concepts.
Consider a sample of the chapter and section headings:
- Theology in Other Contexts: on gay bars and a Queer God
- Salsa and Theology
- Kneeling: Deviant theologians.
- Every theologian is bisexual
- Docility: images of hetero-hell
- Contextual Sadean theology (“Sadean” as in Marquis de Sade- you know the one)
- Find God in dark alleys
- (God) in the name of vulgarity, horror and impurity
- Trinitarians and God the Orgy
- Leading God by a dog-callar
- The closeted Trinity
- The Gospel and inculturation: God the Sodomite
- Sharing the theologian’s wife
- Premature ejaculations: God in transit
- Metrosex: Trinitarian under-groundings
- Transcendence in brothels
- Bodies in love in theology: where have all the queers gone?
- Holy Spirits: on seduction
- Polyfidelity: building community solidarity
- Queer sainthood: paths to beatification for sexual dissidents
God the orgy? Transcendence in brothels? Sadean theology? God in dark alleys?
These alone are enough to shock the wits out of a conservative, good Catholic boy like me. (She also resolutely insists on referring to God as “She/Her/ and Godself”, and similarly seems to assume, by choice of pronouns, that theologians too are female.)
So this is not exactly the obvious choice for easy in-flight entertainment, and who knows quite why I selected it? As it happens, though, the choice was inspired. It was exactly I needed, then and now. This is a radical, startlingly original book, which left absolutely no room for boredom. It seemed that every few paragraphs I was putting the book down, to gasp and reflect on a completely new way to look at familiar themes of passages from Scripture or from Church practice. This prevented me trying to read it too quickly. The conditions also prevented me reading too late, also forcing some time out to digest. Since landing, I have also had my hands full with grandchildren. These enforced small doses are probably an excellent way to take this text, in small bites, followed by extensive chewing of the cud.
Here are just three examples from early in the book, combining Althaus-Reid’s thought, and my reflections:
The gay Garden of Eden.
Genesis I is one of the passages frequently quoted to “prove” that God made men and women for each other to procreate. But having made them, the emotional relationship between them pales in significance and drama before two other relationships, both of a same-gender variety. God in Hebrew Scripture is ostentatiously male: his love relationship with Adam, the first man, precedes the existence of woman. When Eve does make an appearance, her far more interesting relationship is with the serpent. Yes, I know the obvious symbolism of the snake elsewhere is assumed to be as the male phallus, but come on – when was a snake ever erect, or a limp and flaccid penis erotic? No, the essential image of the serpent is sensuous, sensual. This temptress serpent is clearly female, and so of the three relationships in Genesis I, the two most strongly drawn, the two emotional relationships, are homoerotic.
Is it any wonder I had to put the book down and recover my balance before going on?
Kneeling in confession
Telling a story from her childhood, we are told that in Argentina, children made their confessions not in a confessional, but in open view, with different arrangements for boys and girls. While the priest sat in his chair, girls took their places kneeling beside him. Boys, on the other hand, knelt at his feet in front, facing him: mouths directly facing the priestly genitals.
Confessors and Confessants, Consensual Sadomasochism – and the other kind
The image of kneeling ties in well with that leather porn standby, tales of domination and submission: and role reversal.
It is even superficially clear that the relationship of hierarchy to laity clearly resembles that between the dom and submissive in a s/M relationship: with one vital, all important distinction. Any SM or s/M practitioner will insist that a healthy relationship has three key ingredients: it should always be safe, sane and consensual. I don’t believe that the church relationship is any of those. Instead, we in the laity too frequently slip into a battered wife pattern, lamenting the abuse, but denying or excusing it to outsiders, and unable without help, to bring to a close either the abuse or the relationship.
Fortunately, as leather porn often reminds us, roles can be reversed, the location of power in these relationships does reside as simply in the “master”, or dominatrix as one would think. As queer theologians, we too inhabit an ambiguous world in the context of the confessional: are we the confessants, as the hierarchy assumes, or the confessors?
Years ago, the sacrament of “confession” changed its name, and its focus, from the confession of sins, to the idea of reconciliation with the church. I suspect though, that for many of us, the essential practice has not changed dramatically (unlike the rate of attendance, which has shown a precipitous decline.) It also remains a one-way street: the confessants (i.e. you and I), meet with the confessor (a priest), to achieve reconciliation with the church after our supposed failings and transgressions.
But this is not what true reconciliation is about. A one way process is also one sided, and nothing to end the abusiveness of the relationship. Consider how inadequate is a marital relationship in which the abused partner seeks “reconciliation” by apologising for his transgression, thus achieving forgiveness and (temporary) reprieve from the beatings.
No, for the sacrament of reconciliation to truly deserve its name, it needs to become at least a two way process: why should the confessional not become a place for role reversal, a place where we can not only discuss our own transgressions and failings, but also make known to the priest, representing the hierarchy, our delights (including transgressive sexual joys), and report our hurts and sufferings at the hands of the church – a place where we too, can hear the sorrow of the church for their own culpability, and be asked for our forgiveness.
Is it too much to ask?
I have barely scratched the surface of this fascinating, provocative book. I look forward to digesting, and sharing, more of it over the next few weeks.