the life of the speaker: pastoral theology

I wrote the following a few years ago for the survey course I took on early Christian theology. It was in part responding to a wave of revelations regarding abuse in the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention. I’ve been fascinated by first-person speech and what people think it accomplishes, and this was one effort in working some of that out.

Narrating a life—as in, say, biography or hagiography—can involve a struggle of interpretive authority with one’s subject, the stakes of which are high, particularly for those marked deviant—David Halperin refers to the “perennial threat of discreditation through biographical description” that “becomes painfully acute… when the biographical subject is gay.”[1] After all, “it does not require any very strenuous effort to discredit the views of an ideological adversary when that adversary has already been branded… as a madman or pervert.”[2] Questions of perversion and authority are very much alive now, whenever, for example, the Gays are scapegoated for priestly sexual abuse. In Telling Truths in Church, a book that remains relevant since its publication in 2003, Jordan writes, “sex has seemed to threaten the authority of Christian speaking. Trying to speak truth about a churchly sex scandal—or trying to speak the truth about sex in church—or trying to speak what churches might be after some honesty about what sex is . . . these efforts lead us right to the most awkward tasks of the speech called theology.”[3]

While fear of delegitimization may cause some to seek firmer boundaries between life and work, a different strategy has emerged in queer theory and theology. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes, “there are important senses in which ‘queer’ can signify only when attached to the first person.”[4] Marcella Althaus-Reid has adapted Sedgwick’s claim into her own practice of theology: “Queer Theology is, then, a first person theology: diasporic, self-disclosing, autobiographical and responsible for its own words.”[5] Instead of obscuring the relationship between one’s life and theology to minimize the risk of delegitimization through the revelation of a life understood by many as perverse, Althaus-Reid maintains that the first person is precisely the location from which queer theology is written. “Therefore, to reflect on issues of the theologian’s identity and ways of doing a Queer Theology, we need to begin a reflection intimately linked to a God-talk on living and pleasurable relationships.”[6] The forbidden fruit becomes the very seed and root of theology.

Queer theology has occasionally interacted with patristic sources, including Augustine,[7] but it has yet, to my knowledge, to tap the work on Christian speech by pastoral theologians like Augustine in On Christian Teaching and Gregory the Great in The Book of Pastoral Rule. Both focus on the role of the Christian pastor and the various other roles with which it overlaps—such as preacher, teacher, shepherd, spiritual director, and cure of souls. For such figures, one’s character, Augustine and Gregory agree, is of the highest consequence. The relevant passage of the fourth book of On Christian Teaching catalogues styles of preaching before pivoting to the life of the preacher, arguing the preacher’s life is of more importance to preaching than the preacher’s style. Gregory’s Book of Pastoral Rule postulates that a spiritual leader “must… be the model for everyone,” “must be devoted entirely to the example of good living,” “must be dead to the passions of the flesh and live a spiritual life,” and “must desire the internal life only.”[8] For both Augustine and Gregory, the authority to speak Christianly stems from the speaker’s personal holiness, and a failure of holiness threatens to delegitimize the speaker’s authority.

The position from which Althaus-Reid suggests queer theologies begin is the very position in which a preacher’s authority to speak would be called into question under Augustine and Gregory; Althaus-Reid’s “lived and pleasurable relationships” would easily qualify as the relationships that concern either Augustine in his defense of the polygamy of the patriarchs—which is procreative and, he argues, without lust—elsewhere in On Christian Teaching[9] and Gregory in his allegorical reading of God’s prohibitions against those with physical ailments being leaders in Leviticus 21:17–21 (the bleary eyed person is carnal; one with a persistent rash is “dominated by the depravity of the flesh”) or in his admonition that sex in marriage should not be merely pleasurable.[10] In juxtaposing Augustine and Gregory with Althaus-Reid, I’m not trying to queer the former by reinterpreting or destabilizing their sexual ethics, or to straighten the latter by dressing her sexually deviant positions in hetero/orthodox drag.[11] My goals are comparatively modest: to demonstrate resonance between patristic and queer theologies in their recognition that one’s life and embodiment legitimizes one’s speech and, within the framework of Augustine and Gregory’s pastoral theologies, to argue that sin is for everyone and authority belongs to the Lord, that is, regardless of how eloquently one preaches and teaches Christian morality, reflection on one’s own sin of any kind ought to safeguard the Christian from believing that their holiness and authority are complete and rightfully their own.[12]

In The Book of Pastoral Rule, first shared by Gregory in 590 CE, Gregory posits that it is because pastors are to be examples to others that their actions bear such an important role in legitimizing their vocation. The spiritual leader must be “the model for everyone,” which implies that the life of the pastor itself is a pedagogical instrument for teaching Christian living and doctrine.[13] Humans are prone to sin already, as is evidence in their need for a model of right living in the first place, but sin can also be taught. Gregory writes, “No one does more harm in the Church than he who has the title or rank of holiness and acts perversely.” Citing Matthew 18:6, he says that it is better for one who “gives off the appearance of sanctity but destroys another by his words or example” to be bound to death by “his earthly acts, demonstrated by worldly habits… than for his sacred office to be a source for the imitation of vice in another.”[14] Due to this danger, the one seeking a position of spiritual leadership must be cleansed prior to attaining such a position. Gregory writes, “no one who has not been cleansed should dare to approach the sacred ministries,” and “because it is very difficult for anyone to know if he has been cleansed, it is best for him to decline the office of preaching.”[15] Even once one is cleansed and in a position of leadership, Gregory maintains that the pastor must still be vigilant, lest their own “personal afflictions… get in the way of zealous corrections” that their flock will require.[16] A life lived rightly is not only a prerequisite for Christian speech; it also makes such speech effective. Gregory writes, “the flock (which follows the voice and behavior of its shepherd) may advance all the better by his example than by his words alone…. For his voice more easily penetrates his listeners’ hearts when his way of life commends what he says.”[17] At the end of the Rule, Gregory pushes the importance of one’s actions ever further, saying, “every preacher should be ‘heard’ more by his deeds than by his words.”[18] For Gregory, the life and speech of a spiritual leader are not intended to be separate concerns; they are of the same calling and are dynamically related to each other, one’s life authorizing and amplifying one’s speech.

Similar concerns are found in On Christian Teaching, albeit in fewer words. Augustine writes, “there are plenty of people who look for a justification of their own evil lives from those in authority who teach them,” which makes it all the more necessary for leaders to “practise[] what they preach[].”[19]Augustine provides qualifications for preaching, the first being that “the person required for the task under consideration is someone who can argue or speak wisely, if not eloquently”—and wisdom requires familiarity with scripture.[20] And a preacher must understand what the audience needs to hear and how they need to hear it and then deliver such teaching intelligibly and eloquently.[21] Augustine then shifts his emphasis to the life of the preacher, saying, “More important than any amount of grandeur of style to those of us who seek to be listened to with obedience is the life of the speaker. A wise and eloquent speaker who lives a wicked life certainly educates many who are eager to learn, although he is useless to his own soul.”[22] Recognizing that eloquence of speech and even wisdom are not available to all who speak, the pastor’s life is not only a model but also a kind of surrogate eloquence. If a speaker lacks wisdom and eloquence, Augustine writes, “he should seek to live in such a way that he not only gains a reward for himself but also gives an example to others, so that his way of life becomes, in a sense, an abundant source of eloquence.”[23] Like Gregory, Augustine sees one’s actions not simply as the ground of Christian speech but as a form of Christian speech itself.

Augustine provides a further extension of the relationship between life and speech: one who speaks truth eloquently but lives an evil life has no proper claim to the truth they preach. Because “the good things they say seem to be the product of their own brains, but are at odds with their behavior,” they “speak something that is not their own.” Violation of the right ordering of life and speech confuses the speaker’s relationship to their words to the point at which their words belong to someone else. “But,” Augustine writes, “it is not they themselves that speak the good things they say…. when they say good things it is not they themselves who say them.”[24] Such a statement could be construed as God using a broken vessel or speaking through Balaam’s ass, but Augustine’s emphasis here is not on the gracious inclusion of sinners into the work of God but on the way one’s sin negates one’s agency as the sinner, to borrow a phrase from City of God, “veers toward nothingness.”[25] Truth can only be ventriloquized through evil lives. Someone who lives well, however, can preach the true words of one who is “eloquent but evil” and speak them as their own: “when this happens, one person transfers from himself what is not his own, and one receives from the other what is his own.”[26] This sounds similar to the “perennial threat” Halperin describes “of discreditation through biographical description,” but it makes a different claim, i.e., that an evil person does not have genuine credibility in the first place. This is not merely an issue of public perception but of truth, albeit truth that migrates from one body to another. However, outing someone as gay or queer can be experienced by the one outed as social delegitimization while others understand it as a revelation of evil from an outside vantage point. The disjuncture between these two interpretations is where queer theology labors.[27]

Holiness in Gregory and Augustine functions similarly to queerness in Sedgwick: one’s actions perform one’s identity and beliefs and authorize a particular variety of speech. While Althaus-Reid’s emphasis on first-person theology is not shared in Augustine’s writing on preaching in On Christian Teaching per se, he does say that each preacher has “their own particular style, and it would be inappropriate for them to have used any other style or for others to have used theirs.”[28] And he does offer up as an example of wisdom and eloquence a passage from 2 Corinthians 11 in which Paul, “obliged to blow his own trumpet, and at the same time present[] this as foolishness,” identifies and disidentifies with the Hebrews, Israelites, seed of Abraham, and servants of Christ, saying of each, “I am too.”[29] In these texts, Gregory and Augustine speak sparingly of their own experience except to illustrate an occasional point.[30] The first person does appear in a confessional register, however, in the short final paragraphs that end both books.

The final part of Gregory’s Pastoral Rule is titled “That the Preacher, After He Has Done Everything That Is Required, Should Return to Himself So That He Does Not Take Pride in His Life or Preaching.” Borrowing an observation from Kate Brackney, a teaching fellow for the early Christian theology course I took at Yale Divinity,[31] this final passage is performative: having said his piece about the qualifications and obligations of a spiritual leader, Gregory steps away from his project, writing,

“Behold, good man, being compelled by the necessity of your request, I have tried to show what the qualities of a spiritual director ought to be. Alas, I am like a poor painter who tries to paint the ideal man. [Again], I am trying to point others to the shore of perfection, as I am tossed back and forth by the waves of sin. But in the shipwreck of this life, I beg you to sustain me with the plank of your prayer, so that your merit-filled hands might lift me up, since my own weight causes me to sink.”[32]

The “good man” being addressed is John, the newly appointed archbishop of Ravenna. Gregory had been pope for five years and ordained for eleven when he sent the text to his fledgling friend.[33] The text’s subsequent proliferation into the hands of a larger readership broadens this ultimate deference to the holiness of his reader and request for prayer. Gregory’s humility is stretched to cover you and me in the elasticity of first-person speech. Critically, he acknowledges that the pastor he has attempted to describe is an ideal and that his own sin prevents him from attaining it. Augustine does something similar. He concludes,

“I thank God that in these four books I have been able to discuss, with such ability as I have, not the sort of person that I am—for I have many failings—but the sort of person that those who apply themselves to sound teaching [Titus 1:9], in other words Christian teaching, on behalf of others as well as themselves, ought to be.”[34]

Like Gregory, Augustine creates space between himself and the type of spiritual leader he has described. While these statements function as a formal attribute of this type of pastoral theology, that does not preclude their authors’ earnestness.

Neither of the bishops are confessing to having lived lives of utter evil, but they do confess their sinfulness, and Augustine does so immediately following his description of how one’s sinfulness throws into question one’s claim on the truth one teaches and preaches. This confession also opens up questions regarding whether or not truth relayed through first person speech—theology beginning in the “I”—can belong to someone else if the speaker is a sinner. Is Augustine’s sin grievous enough to qualify him as one who speaks the truth of another? While there is a marked difference between having “many failings” and living an “evil life,” that he has had many failings is the only positive claim Augustine makes regarding himself in this final section. It is a crack that opens the possibility that even a bishop who speaks with the authority of decades of experience and prayer does not hold a death grip on any truth he teaches; truth is ultimately of God, which is not to delegitimize the inflection, the style, with which it is spoken and lived out in the strangeness of human particularity.

It is often in the throwaway, the formally perfunctory, the negligible nooks and crannies, the personal by-the-ways where a text gestures toward its own undoing. Confession of sin prevents the authors of our texts from confusing themselves with the idealized portraits they offer. In their closing salutations, Augustine and Gregory confess their sinfulness in a way that acknowledges the holiness of their audience in contrast to the sinfulness of the author (Gregory) and suggests that the wisdom they impart does not originate in or belong to themselves (Augustine). Even as these public confessions attempt to undercut the elevation of their authors, they also complete the pedagogical portraits they paint of pastoral ministry—a good priest confesses that they aren’t good—so whether or not holiness can be taught without drawing attention to one’s own perceived holiness remains a question.

Such a reading does not inherently challenge the structures of power and authority that allow for abuse and can in fact be leveraged as an apologetic for those structures and the logics of deferral that maintain them, in which, to borrow language from Linn Tonstad, “deferral (yielding, obedience, fidelity) is the only way to receive a full share in the authority of God.”[35] Left unexplored in this essay is the relationship between sin and the institutional forms of power wielded by priests and pastors that are bound up with their authority to preach the truth of the Gospel. Is there a point at which the abuse perpetrated by priests and pastors, covered up by the church, negates the authority of the church, period? Answers will range widely across Christian traditions, while some who have left the church precisely for these reasons can point to the moment at which church authority stopped making sense. And it is unlikely that queer and hetero/orthodox theologies will agree on how to respond to abuse of authority, be it committed by Catholic priests or Baptist ministers or evangelical megachurch pastors, because church authority has provided the abusive norms by which some Christians are queered and denied authority. Whatever practical and theological work in ecclesiology remains to be done in response, spiritual leaders and those who lay claim to truth must be cautioned to remember, as Althaus-Reid has written, “that holiness is always the holiness of the Other,” or risk confusing themselves with God.”[36]

A bouquet of questions arises here specifically for the queer priest and the queer theologian, who are at risk of delegitimization and, for the former, defrocking. If queer theology’s relation to the first person means that one must speak one’s loves and experiences come what may, that is dangerous, and not only because it risks construing our selves as fundamentally knowable and disclosable. Queer people should not be forced to bear the burden of compulsory personal truth-telling, as theologians have often asked of us. Yet I see the desire of ordained friends to live out their priesthood in forms fitting to their particularity, the particularity of their own iterations of sex and gender nonnormativity, their queerness, and I feel it myself with regards to whatever work I can do in the capacity of a theologian. How can this be possible without making queerness legible for the sake of ecclesial regulation? There must be a difference between freedom and surveillance. The church must have the capacity to recognize the empowerment of the Spirit, which will mean recognizing the necessity of that which cannot be assimilated. Not to capture it and force what it deems to be holy upon it, as misperception of holiness and unholiness can become and historically have become rationale for varieties of abuses, but to pray and provide for its increase. Queerness isn’t holiness, and its excess is not the same as the excess that is grace; but some queers do move gracefully. 


[1] Halperin, 135, 136.

[2] Halperin, 133.

[3] Jordan, Telling Truths in Church, 9.

[4] Sedgwick, Tendencies, 9. Emphasis original.

[5] Althaus-Reid, The Queer God, 8.

[6] Althaus-Reid, 8.        

[7] See, for example, Rees, Romance of Innocent Sexuality; Burrus, Jordan, and MacKendrick, Seducing Augustine; Pettinger, “Double Love: Rediscovering the Queerness of Sin and Grace.”

[8] Gregory, The Book of Pastoral Rule, 43.

[9] Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 78–82. Augustine makes similar arguments regarding polygamy and custom in Augustine, Confessions, 43–48, and Augustine, The City of God: XI–XXII, 162–64.

[10] Gregory, The Book of Pastoral Rule, 46–47, 171.

[11] For salient queer theological critiques that highlight the exclusivist underbelly of arguments for LGBTQ inclusion, see Tonstad, “The Limits of Inclusion”; Brintnall, “Who Weeps for the Sodomite?”

[12] Due to spatial and temporal restraints and the context for which this is being written, I will focus in this paper on the early Christian writers. A further project could treat more fully the queer sources I engage and their relationship with early Christian writers.

[13] Gregory, The Book of Pastoral Rule, 43.

[14] Gregory, 32.                                                                                                            

[15] Gregory, The Book of Pastoral Rule, 39.

[16] Gregory, 51.

[17] Gregory, 51.

[18] Gregory, 207.

[19] Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 143.

[20] Augustine, 104.

[21] Augustine, 115–16.

[22] Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 142.

[23] Augustine, 144.

[24] Augustine, 145.

[25] Augustine, The City of God: XI–XXII, 119.

[26] Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 145.

[27] In the context of the construction of sodomy and dialogue between priest and penitent in the confessional Mark Jordan writes, “Here we see the disparity between the faithful self-description of the penitent and the unfaithful description of the confessor.” Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy, 165.

[28] Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 106.

[29] Augustine, 108.

[30] See, for example, Augustine’s story in which he demonstrates the power of the grand style to change lives by relating how a sermon of his ended a yearly period of civil strife in Caesarea. Augustine, 139.

[31] Brackney, “Pastoral Ministry and Church Leadership in Early and Medieval Christianity.”

[32] Gregory, The Book of Pastoral Rule, 212.

[33] Demacopoulos, “Introduction,” 9–10, 13; in Gregory.

[34] Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 146.

[35] Tonstad, God and Difference, 260.

[36] Althaus-Reid, The Queer God, 154.

Published by Samuel Ernest

I am a doctoral student in theology at Yale.

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