Theology and the Body Outside Itself

the essay read aloud by myself—please forgive any editing blips as I… did not edit it

This essay stemmed from a course taught by Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman, inviting reflection on how we as students are being formed theologically within our department. It is the impetus for whatever work homodoxy becomes, so I wanted to share it. Thank you to Dr. Turman for the wonderful course.

i

One of the first texts I read related to queerness and the church after my introduction to gay literature and after putting aside the sort of apologetic texts that circulate in evangelical Christian circles was “Subjectivity and Belief,” an essay by Kathy Rudy in which she recounts the loss of her faith and her experience of being haunted by the church and by her former belief. In 1995, Rudy was beginning her second year as a professor in a dual appointment between Duke Divinity School and Duke’s Women’s Studies department. Although it wasn’t a secret that Rudy was a lesbian with a partner, she reports being outed by “several conservative Faculty members” and being “accused of theological heresy for my current work on homosexuality as well as for earlier publications on abortion.”[1] Her future at Duke Divinity was foreclosed upon, and the administration stepped in to transfer her into a fulltime position in Women’s Studies. For Rudy, the professional rejection led to her leaving the church and losing her faith.

Upon discovering the existence of a gay literature in my junior and senior years of college, I found that in many of the novels I was drawn to—E. M. Forster’s Maurice, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits, and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit—queerness functioned as something like a wedge or a yeast, opening up space between the church in which one was raised and the future one could imagine for oneself. The question that drove my initial foray into gay literature and Christian theology (and into my master’s degree) was, “Is there a trajectory in 20th-century and contemporary gay literature in which queer figures stop needing to leave the church?” I wanted the tension of the plot to lie elsewhere. Much of the literature I have found instead coheres with Richard Rambuss’s observation that in contemporary gay/queer discourse, “[l]ooking to religion has thus become a means of amplifying eroticism, of reinfusing it with an alluring transgressivity,” as opposed to Rambuss’s other corpus, the English devotional poetry of Traherne, Donne, and others, in which sexual language heightens religious feeling.[2] The trend is an exodus: the language of the church is carried beyond its walls by those who leave or are pushed out of it, those whose sexual excess becomes the church’s sexual excess, whose ecstasy (true to the word’s historical meaning of being mystically drawn out of oneself or besides oneself) draws them outside of the Body of Christ. Outside or beside the Body, it is sometimes used, as Rambuss describes, to name feelings of sexual ecstasy, but for Rudy, there is a remainder of religious experience and subjectivity. One’s old language does not all map onto new experience, does not all make sense of new things; conversely, neither does one’s new language make sense of one’s old experience in the church. Rudy writes, “The world you lived in before, where God operated as a force in your life, seems unrepresentable in the new language.”[3] The exodus is never total; the Body is never quite left behind; the once-churched secular is never truly disenchanted.

To find texts that mirror something of her own alienation, Rudy turns to memoirs. Of the few that resonate, she finds that they often posit too strong a distinction between the inside and outside of religion. “Religion demands of us an all-or-nothing attitude, we are either in or out. One person can only occupy one truth at any given time. Although people can change, they must change as a unified subject, they must say ‘I once believed and now I don’t.’”[4] Against this expectation of a coherent “either/or” identification, Rudy reports, drawing on the work of Avery Gordon, that she is haunted:

still today, several years after leaving, when I feel scared about something I (almost involuntarily) pray, when I am anxious I hear a voice that says God will provide, when I face something that seems insurmountable I remember (and I ask myself, is remembering the right verb?) that with God, all things are possible. The ghosts embedded in these thoughts and practices continue to circulate in my life, even though I would like them to be gone. . . . At an almost physical level of flesh and emotions, the church constitutes and constructs a part of who I am, and no amount of rejection or willful apostasy can ever alter that.[5]

Her state of God-haunting requires a new way to speak of her selfhood. “What I need is a theory of subjectivity that would allow me to be two contradictory things at the same time, that would allow me to say ‘I believe’ and ‘I don’t’ in a way that does not require coherent explanation. I need a theory that will allow me to be fragmented. . . . I need a model that does not obligate me to be only one, unified person.”[6] This is a theological desire.

why church?

“He’ll live on, half in, half out of the community, a familiar figure. . . . Everyone will know about his drinking; he’ll disappear for two or three days every month or so. . . . If he lives long enough, generations of missionaries in all kinds of remote places will think of him as a queer old character who was somehow part of the Hope of their student days. . . . he’ll be found in the chapel at odd times and missed when he’s expected. Then one morning, after one of his drinking bouts, he’ll be picked up at the gate dying, and show by a mere flicker of the eyelid that he is conscious when they give him the last sacraments. It’s not such a bad way of getting through one’s life.”[7]

“Elisha,” he said, “no matter what happens to me, where I go, what folks say about me, no matter what anybody says, you remember—please remember—I was saved. I was there.”[8]

I remember church and praying. . . . I remember wondering what God looks like and I remember after a time stopping wondering what he looked like and wondering more who he was, thinking it was surely possible that he did not like some people so much, despite what my grandfather and the Bible said. I remember wondering what he would tell me if he ever did want to break his centuries of silence. I remember deciding that I would find out if I lived right and finally went home to heaven. Then I remember the day I realized that I was probably not going to go home to heaven, cause the rules were too hard for me to keep. That I was too weak.[9]

There are threads that help you find your way back, and there are threads that intend to bring you back. . . . People do go back, but they don’t survive, because two realities are claiming them at the same time. . . . It is not the one thing nor the other that leads to madness, but the space in between them.[10]

ii

Rudy’s essay distills the tensions present in the gay literature that drew me into theology.[11] But given the disciplinary norms of theology, particularly common claims regarding the relationship between theology and the church, it remains unclear to me to what task exactly I have been drawn. Theologians are (often) concerned with the formation of Christian subjects, whether their approach is liturgical, ethical, systematic, practical, or otherwise. This is a reason one might say, as it is often said, that theology is “for the church,” or as James H. Cone says (and complicates), “[t]heology functions within the church”; it serves ecclesial subjects and critiques ecclesial language.[12] If theology cares about formation within the church, it also ought to be the domain of those who, having been so formed, are expulsed from it. It ought to be the domain of suspended or bifurcated belief, of remembered prayers that slip from lips in the time of trial, of the God-haunted, of those who have learned the language of faith and carry it with them into new settings, of those who leave but nevertheless know something about God and God’s people, who indeed have learned something about the Body of Christ in being hewn from it or from hanging on to it by a thread. While for many, theology remains appropriate to those who participate regularly in the communal life of the church and its sacraments and for whom theology is “for the church,” it has remained a gut contention of mine that what it means to be “for” the church is not exhausted by the speech of those regularly in pulpits and pews and at potlucks following the service, or those clergy and academics whose concern it is to critique and guide the language used by everyday Christians.

In the place where such questions might most naturally be at home, queer theology, the most incisive work on the relationship between theology and the church is that of Linn Marie Tonstad. In articles—“The Limits of Inclusion: Queer Theology and its Others” (2015); “‘Everything Queer, Nothing Radical’” (2016)—and a book, Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics (2018), Tonstad takes to task those within queer theology who, through a variety of apologetic means and maneuvers, attempt to move “homosexual relationships from the category of the illicit to the category of the licit, leaving everything else unchanged.”[13] Apologetics is the genre of theology where much queer work has staked its claims in the service of more inclusive churches, but the problems that have arisen from such an approach are manifold: inclusive Christians often replicate the exclusions levied against them by denigrating the exclusive other, often through arguments with anti-Semitic undertones, or similarly, they claim to be sinless relative to less respectable queers or inhospitable Christians;[14] in attempts to deconstruct binaries, they appeal to fluidity in ways that simply reinforce the binaries;[15] for legitimization, they appeal to readings of the origins of Christianity in ways that risk reproducing normative visions of humanity and reducing the past to the needs of the present;[16] the arguments they put forward often “ignore the ambiguities of human existence, the ways in which our lives and their consequences are neither transparent to us nor fully within our power to determine”;[17] and, broadly, the desire to find the right argument for inclusion in the church and its sacraments (namely, marriage, but also ordination) has beaten out other avenues of queer theological inquiry. In Queer Theology, after surveying and critiquing the main modes of queer apologetics, she writes, “Many of the arguments depend on conditions that are peripheral to central Christian concerns, while others depend for their effectiveness primarily on gaining Christian sanction for same-sex relationships.”[18] Is that all queer Christian lives reveal? she asks. In taking queer theology beyond apologetics, Tonstad hopes to shift the discipline past the impasse of debating inclusion and exclusion. Although Tonstad’s writing against apologetics is not something like constructive ecclesiology (which she does offer in her first book),[19] her critiques of queer theology reveal that many queer theologians have been remarkably restricted in the forms of relationships they envision between queer people and the church. Desiring to be considered an unproblematic presence, to be normal, respectable, deserving even of rights.

A notable herald of a queer theology that does not contort itself into something decent or easy to swallow is Marcella Althaus-Reid, who is the subject of Queer Theology’s fourth chapter. One fundamental thing Althaus-Reid has to teach about the relationship between bodies and theology—and by extension, the relationship between queer people and the church—is that theologies that systemize are theologies that idealize, distorting reality while hiding the odd sexual valences of the language it uses and stories it tells. She writes, “[t]heology is basically an incoherent act,” and therefore, “theology has its own deconstructive forces, its own instabilities and imprecisions which always create tensions and open new ways of understanding.”[20] Thinking with Althaus-Reid on the material effects of top-down systematic theology, or “T-Theology” (capital T, so theology proper), Tonstad writes, “It seeks to classify all of reality systematically. In other words, it tries to provide holiness scripts for people’s sexual and romantic lives, and by identifying what is decent and God-willed, it produces the indecent, that which (it pretends) is against God’s will.”[21] Here, we witness the production of insides and outsides, of that which is proper and that which is excessive, through the exhortation to decency. But Althaus-Reid argues that theology’s failure at its purported goal of coherence or systematicity is not a cause to reject the enterprise, rather, “This has made of theology something still worth the effort, a path of permanent revelation and rediscovery of the engagement between the sensual and the divine in our lives.”[22] The terrain on which theology’s coherence is found confounded is “people’s experiences and [] their sexual stories, because they reveal the falsity of the border limits between the material and divine dimension of our lives.”[23] There is a danger present in theology, perhaps systematics in particular. In explicating proper doctrine for the church, which requires channeling revelation into discrete but interconnected systematic loci, it is easy to forget that the people for whom the theologian writes are often subjects already formed by the church’s categories and stories—converts, “cradle” Christians, and exiles alike. They have been categorized and resisted categorization; they have found their place or places in the Bible’s stories; and they have also found themselves in positions the church never prepared them for, necessitating them to improvise and stretch their knowledge to meet unanticipated situations. Theologians must offer interpretations of God and reality that are as complicated as the experiences of people who encounter God within, without, and across the categories and systems that have been drawn for them. Mark D. Jordan writes, “If you cannot tell your own life, you certainly cannot tell divine action in it—or describe the divine image glimpsed through it. (The reverse is also true.) Yet so much of theology is written as if it were easier to describe God’s essence than to give an account of a single evening’s desires.”[24] All this to say, theology draws lines of distinction, and although it is often said that those best situated to engage in theology are those who participate in the life of a local church and, it is implied or stated, who are educated enough to know how to correct bad ways of speaking about God, we might expect that many of those who will have interesting things to say in the realm of queer theology and theology generally will be people for whom the church is a fraught attachment. Thus, my subject is the relationship between theology and the Body and bodies it speaks of and for, and how theology accounts for the complications and ambivalences of queer people’s relationships to the church.

why Church?

The expectation that the lost [ascended] body of Christ will return from heaven requires the church to take a dual stance of expectation and refusal inside this current order. Christ’s body went away; it never belonged to the church in the first place. The church lost the body of Christ or never had it for itself. . . . The church continues to anticipate the return of the body of Christ that went elsewhere. . . . Instead of having and being the body, the sign-symbolism of a nonreproductive ecclesiology points to the lost and ascended body of Christ, holding absence and expectation together as forms of relationship to the nonidentical body. . . . Instead of asserting that the body of Christ has been handed over to the church, it recognizes that the body of Christ, elsewhere and outside itself, is its only hope.[25]

iii

There are many ways to construe the purpose of theology, and there are many iterations of Christ’s body. As the Body/bodies to which theology is attached, the church is one place where the two meet. To speak of a body is to speak of boundaries and boundedness, inevitably, of insides and outsides, and the sort of model one chooses for the unity of believers determines what sort of relations can exist across the body’s limits. “Christian speech” is one sort of thing that flows in and out of the Body of Christ. So here, I turn to linguistic models of theology, an artificial category I am creating to draw together theology as God-talk and the cultural-linguistic model of George Lindbeck. They are not mutually exclusive, as they function in different semantic realms—the former a synonym for theology; the latter, a model for religion that has implications for theology. James Cone’s usage of “God-talk” demonstrates one way that speaking of theology cuts to theological delegitimization, particularly anti-Black delegitimization in academic institutional settings—a revelation of how theology creates barriers that can be refused. George Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic model for understanding religion and doctrine shores up homogenous cultures and communities of shared language by locating theological authority in a distinct but not necessarily apparent core of practitioners. Finally, Kathryn Tanner’s Theories of Culture punctures the neatness of postliberal accounts of culture like Lindbeck’s, offering a more complex model in which the boundary of Christian identity, which is itself not always clear, functions as a point of relation and negotiation between Christians and their surrounding culture rather than a line of clear differentiation. For Tanner, Christian identity is always already predicated on the borrowing of materials and paradigms. She is primarily attentive to the absorption of things from without within Christian identity, but she is also awake to instances of indeterminate influence across the boundaries of Christian identity. By the latter, I mean the significance of moving from within to without and the possibility of remaining ambivalently attached to the church. To speak of Christian speech, then, ought to draw attention to the people who speak it. It can be difficult to find ways of speaking meaningfully of how belief and theology emerge against the grain of the church’s complex boundaries. To do so, I believe, ultimately requires beginning not at the question of how to constitute the boundaries of the church or Christian identity but beginning with the people who know themselves to be unsettled by the church.

While the postliberal grammatical approach is a fairly specific framework and approach to theology (Lindbeck’s championed model is the “cultural-linguistic”), speaking of theology as God-talk shifts attention to how people, not necessarily just academic theologians, talk about God. God-talk, a literal translation of “theology,” emerged in the 1960s, popularized by John MacQuarrie’s book, God-talk: An Examination of the Language and Logic of Theology, and became a common name for theology—adopted by prominent theologians and the academy generally.[26] The implications and possibilities that stem from reformulating theology as “God-talk” and the motivations and assumptions that lead one to use it deserve study, but an initial observation is that “God-talk” may be used to draw attention to shed the institutional and sometimes elitist associations of “theology,” tipping the scale toward everyday speech while blurring the divide between the words of laypeople and theologians. In A Black Theology of Liberation, James H. Cone uses the language of “God-talk” to speak of where theology aligns with the speech of Black people and where theology finds its authorization or validation as theology. Speaking of white seminaries, he writes,

With their intellectual expertise, it is inevitable that white scholars fall into the racist error of believing that they have the right to define what is and what is not orthodox religious talk. Because they have read so many of their own books and heard themselves talk so often, it is not surprising that they actually believe most of the garbage they spout out about God. They therefore think that all authentic God-talk must meet their approval before it can be called theology.[27]

Cone notes how white theologians differentiate between God-talk and theology, the distance between the two allowing room for the judgment of authenticity—“theology” becomes the stamp of imprimatur withheld from Black theology, the stamp which Cone rejects. When listing the sources of Black theology, Cone also situates God-talk in relation to Black experience: “There can be no black theology which does not take seriously the black experience—a life of humiliation and suffering. This must be the point of departure for all God-talk which seeks to be black-talk. This means that black theology realizes that it is human beings who speak of God, and when those human beings are black, they speak of God only in light of the black experience.”[28] Reversing the order of authorization, it is not “black-talk” that seeks to be recognized as God-talk, but God-talk that seeks to be recognized as “black-talk”. Cone draws attention to theology’s hierarchy of white legitimization and upends it. The structures of legitimization are not beyond reproach and may, in fact, demand reproach.

George Lindbeck’s “cultural-linguistic” framework for religion exemplifies the approach of theology as grammar: “a religion can be viewed as a kind of cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought. . . . it is similar to an idiom that makes possible the description of realities, the formulation of beliefs, and the experiencing of inner attitudes, feelings and sentiments. Like a culture or language, it is a communal phenomenon that shapes the subjectivities of individuals…”[29] For Lindbeck, language is thus the primary way of thinking the relationship between people and the church. People internalize Christian language through participation in the church. Interestingly, an account of religious experience emerges from within his cultural-linguistic model, against the foil of what he terms the “experiential-expressive model.” The experiential-expressive model posits that “[d]ifferent religions are diverse expressions or objectifications of a common core experience”—an experience that, “while conscious, may be unknown on the level of self-conscious reflection,” but nevertheless, it is “present in all human beings.”[30] Rather than religion as the expression of an internal pre-linguistic universal experience, the cultural-linguistic alternative says that in interiorizing religion to the point of fluency, “[o]ne learns how to feel, act, and think in conformity with a religious tradition that is, in its inner structure, far richer and more subtle than can be explicitly articulated.”[31] Lindbeck does not do away with experience as a category, but reconfigures it. Put briefly, some core experience does not work its way outward to the point of articulation; to the contrary, language structures experience.[32] This is a model he argues is fit to meet the challenge of mediating various ecumenical disputes.

Laying out his account of how his cultural-linguistic model would approach the doctrine of infallibility, he writes, “we shall ask who or what can be appealed to as most nearly infallible in grammatical and, by transference, doctrinal matters. The most obvious answer is what the theological tradition calls the consensus fidelium or consensus ecclesiae.”[33] This requires further definition: who is part of this consensus? Lindbeck’s answer is linguistic: those who are competent practitioners, those who speak rightly. “Competence in natural languages is easy to identify. It is possessed by native speakers and a few nonnative ones who can communicate effectively in a given tongue. The limits of the language are marked by the point at which variations in dialect become so great that communication is impossible apart from learning the idiom as foreign speech.”[34] However, participation in the life of the church does not guarantee that one is a competent speaker. He writes, “most Christians through most of Christian history have spoken their own official tongue very poorly. It has not become a native language, the primary medium in which they think, feel, act, and dream. Thus, lacking competence, they cannot, from the cultural-linguistic perspective, be part of that consensus fidelium against which doctrinal proposals are tested.” Doubling down, he continues, “The linguistically competent, to recapitulate, are to be sought in the mainstream, rather than in isolated backwaters or ingrown sects uninterested in communicating widely.”[35] Although it is important to keep in mind that his designation of “isolated backwaters” is not referring to geographically but linguistically isolated places and communities, the whole passage has a smell of something like theological elitism or clericalism, which he attempts to disavow by clarifying that the linguistically competent “may have no formal theological training” beyond being “saturated with the language of Scripture and/or liturgy.”[36] He terms such people “flexibly devout: they have so interiorized the grammar of their religion that they are reliable judges, not directly of the doctrinal formulations (for these may be too technical for them to understand), but of the acceptability or unacceptability of the consequences of these formulations in ordinary religious life and language.”[37] This is postliberal infallibility.

It is important to keep in mind that Lindbeck’s aim here is to find a broader concept of infallibility—broader than the Roman Catholic understanding—toward the goal of ecumenical conversation and cooperation, all in order to argue for the efficacy of his proposed model. Nevertheless, along the way, he restricts the category of those who may speak with theological legitimacy to an unknowable but small amount of the faithful—only the most adept of the mainstream. The few, the proud, the flexibly devout, who bear an “interiorized skill, the skill of the saint.”[38] To prevent the conclusion that only the theologically literate are proper Christian speakers, he maintains that the skill of the saint—the knowledge of the liturgically and Biblically saturated flexibly devout—“is quite different from the reflective and theoretical knowledge of the trained theologian, who employs publicly assessable rules and procedures in seeking to distinguish between the good and the bad, the true and the false.”[39] The distinction intended to safeguard the integrity of non-specialist Christian speech reifies the necessity for the theologian to decide what is true. There is of course a need to determine the bad God-talk from the good, the worse from the better, the false from the true. But a more nuanced understanding of the work of theology and a less regulatory understanding of the role of the theologian is needed to attend to those who may bear the skill of the saint and even the training of the theologian but nevertheless also bear a relationship to the church that is unlikely to meet Lindbeck’s criteria for legitimate linguistic competence, unlikely to earn his imprimatur. Thus the exclusivity of Lindbeck’s model limits the usefulness of his cultural-linguistic approach in broaching theologies against the church—against meaning not only in direct antagonism to but also in the sense of bearing the physical contact of support or collision, or the sense of being brought into distinct relief through separation and juxtaposition, like a silhouette.[40]

In the multiple valences of the word, the early work of Kathryn Tanner could be said to be against the postliberal, cultural-linguistic framework of George Lindbeck and other practitioners of what has become known as the Yale School, her teachers, in part due to the expressly methodological focus of scholarship like The Nature of Doctrine. As Tanner recounts in an essay that was first a reflective piece for the Christian Century, “The hopes of my teachers for their own work came to fruition in the next generation of theologians, of which I count myself a member. Typical of this new generation… is a willingness to make constructive claims of a substantive sort through the critical reworking of Christian ideas and symbols to address the challenges of today’s world,” a shift Tanner credits largely to the influence of liberation theologies.[41] Questions of method cannot be left behind; rather, there must be a new method, modeled more on sociopolitical theory than philosophy. She writes, 

the theologian… now asks about the various ways Christian beliefs and symbols can function in the particulars of people’s lives so as to direct and provide support for the shape of social life and the course of social action. The theologian needs a thorough knowledge of the way these intersections of cultural meanings and sociopolitical formations have panned out across differences of time and place—a thorough knowledge of the various permutations of the Christian symbol system in all its complicated alignments with social forces, for good or ill.[42]

Tanner is offering a different vision of theology, one less determined to prove its own coherence than undergird social action. As is hinted at here, when Tanner is speaking of Christians, she has in mind Christians generally—not a subclass of particularly adept Christian speakers. Tanner’s Christians are people who do not always know how to act or how to speak, not because they are unintelligent or not practiced enough, but because how to act and how to speak are not always obvious: Christians constantly find themselves in new situations that call for new thought. The theologian does help with this, but not, as for Lindbeck, by maintaining a pure Christianity minimally influenced by the outside world through the maintenance of firm boundaries between Christians and culture. Tanner writes, “Theologians need to be honest about the complexities of Christian lives and the way Christian beliefs and symbols figure there.”[43] Even in speaking, as she does in Theories of Culture, of something called “Christian identity,” Tanner acknowledges that there are boundaries to Christianity. But for Tanner, the boundary is a place of meeting and cross-fertilization, rather than simple separation. A place where languages, texts, and bodies variously come against one another. To draw Tanner’s trajectory into conversation with the theological needs identified in parts i and ii above, I will focus on a few nodes in Theories of Culture: the relationship between academic and everyday theologies, the kind of society and boundaries proper to Christian practices and identity, and finally, Christian identity as being characterized as a certain kind of willingness.

In the second part of Theories of Culture, Tanner offers her own constructive approach to theology and culture, following the first part’s history of “culture,” in frequent dialogue with postliberal and correlationist theologies. She situates theology as a function of culture with regards to practices: “theology is something shaped by concrete social practices, and those social practices must be at least, and in their most important respects for these purposes, Christian ones.”[44] With regards to the relationship between everyday and academic theologies, what postliberals speak of as primary and secondary theologies, she critiques postliberals for not taking into account the material aspects of academic theology. Academic theologians do not only describe “the internal logic of Christian practice,” they also generate normative accounts, each making choices about apparent inconsistencies in Christian commitments.[45] When theologies advocate for a certain appropriate behavior or way of speaking in a new context, they are not just repeating what has already been said by the tradition (as Lindbeck would seem to believe), because new uses of the tradition are not self-evident—they are the results of difficult processes of appropriation, testing, and communal determination.[46] Due to the material nature of academic theology, its reality as a certain kind of social practice with specific conditions of possibility, Tanner maintains a distinction between the academic theology and the “theological investigation in everyday life.”[47] Everyday theology often responds to specific situations, rather than the sort of sustained reflection aimed at its own “self-continuance” practiced by specialist theologians.[48] But Tanner spends more time reflecting on the similarities between the two: both are forms of social action; both respond to specific occasions; and both are implicated in the work of the other in some form and level of reciprocated interest, despite inevitable points of competition.[49] Further, academic and everyday theologies share the same basic operations: “First, theologians show an artisanlike inventiveness in the way they work on a variety of materials that do not dictate of themselves what theologians should do with them. Second, theologians exhibit a tactical cleverness with respect to other interpretations and organizations of such materials that are already on the ground.”[50] Where one begins in these processes is “literally a matter of where one is concretely—socially, politically, practically. It is a matter of one’s very particular historical and social locations.”[51] Academic theologians will likely have more specialized tools for these tasks than does the everyday theologian, but the former should follow the latter in using anything one can to meet their needs: “anything that might work is at least considered.”[52] Theology for Tanner is thus an inherently inventive process that should not seek to isolate itself from its surroundings or from material concerns. Theologians work with a wide variety of texts and concepts, many of which do not anticipate their own usefulness to theologians, and a wide variety of potentially conflicting structures of meaning that those texts and concepts are already situated in. Such materials must then be “disarticulated” to fit their new context.[53] And theologians are attentive to their own history and how and where it draws them into the process of theology.

Inherent in the task of theology then, is a distinction between what is readily identifiable as Christian, perhaps self-identified as Christian, and what is not—the theologian is, but their materials may not be. Here boundaries emerge. Again against the postliberal fetishization of the uniqueness or purity of Christian methods,[54] Tanner construes the boundaries of Christian identity in a way that significantly complicates easy identifications of what is properly Christian and what is not. Her objections to firm boundaries are as follows:

  1. “it is never clear how to push some practice onto the other side of the boundary, how to exclude it”
  2. “it is rarely clear on what side of the boundary something falls”
  3. “where boundaries are drawn is never fixed”; they are “too fluid to establish the identity of Christian practices”
  4. “a practice’s importance as a boundary marker does not necessarily reflect its importance for a Christian way of life”
  5. “there is no reason to think that sharp cultural boundaries are necessary to establish the distinctiveness of a way of life”[55]

For all of these reasons, Tanner opts for boundaries that are defined by relation, not negation. Rather than preserving a core of what is inherently Christian, boundaries are the places where Christians repurpose what is beyond for what is within, a process that “should be as much about self-criticism as it is about criticism of other ways of life.”[56] This is a fundamental departure from Lindbeck, and one that opens up theological reflection to be less anxious and more curious regarding its relationship to other people and disciplines. Such openness is, finally, fundamental to Tanner’s notion of Christian identity.

Rather than define Christian identity primarily as, say, the identity of one who is baptized or who participates in the life of the church, Tanner writes, “Christian identity hinges on remaining open to direction from the free grace of God in Christ; that is the organizing principle for its use of borrowed materials and what centers the arrangement of the theological claims that arise in that way.”[57] Christian identity’s openness to the Word requires those things that the Christian takes up from outside to be tested to determine if they distort the Word, to be bent into the service of the Word, but also to be permitted to challenge Christian claims.[58] Openness to the Word is precisely what allows Christians to confidently engage across the boundaries of Christian identity, Christian and non-Christian materials considered together. She writes, “what is knitting the two together for the Christian might just be confidence in that Word.”[59] Christian identity does not only involve openness to those beyond its porous borders; it is also what allows relations between Christians to cohere. Internal disagreements are always subordinate to “a willingness, displayed across differences of time and space, to admonish, learn from, and be corrected by all persons similarly concerned about the true meaning of Christian discipleship.” In such willingness, “each Christian who struggles with what it means to be a Christian takes up [their] place within the historical body of Christians similarly concerned.”[60] Boldly, she claims, “In the end, then, how the identity of Christianity should be summed up is an unanswerable question in that Christianity has its identity as a task; it has its identity in the form of a task of looking for one.”[61]

The sort of collective Tanner here describes is left purposefully not entirely clear; she offers something like an ecclesiology that takes into account the complexities of identity and culture, as opposed to framing the Christian collective as primarily constituted sacramentally, by baptism and the Eucharist. This leaves questions open regarding the forms Christian practice takes within the church in concert with the forms it takes at the church’s boundaries—is there even such a distinction to be made?—as it foregrounds identity as the rubric of Christian living. Nevertheless, Tanner’s understanding of theology as necessarily drawing on non-Christian and Christian materials alike, her capacious boundaries, and her sense of Christian identity as defined by openness to the Word and to one another may provide something like what is needed to speak of the fraught ecclesial attachments held by many queer people as something other than sad signs of their inability to move on from their wounded past into a future liberated from religion or their failure to fully integrate themselves, to fight for their full inclusion into the church. It is necessary to remember that to speak of Christian identity’s boundaries as Tanner does is to speak of the people who navigate such boundaries, whose relationships to the church are not static but play out across time and space and change in relation to their specific circumstances and the particular churches and Christians present in their lives. To return to the church as the Body of Christ, the constructive claims of Theories of Culture suggest that figuring out who is in or who is out of the Body is neither the purpose of theology nor something that we can hope to truly know. So to speak of theology as being for those considered to be the church is less helpful than it may be intended. We do not know where or who the Body is. We cannot pretend to know its boundaries.

why church?

We do not choose our attachments with total freedom; we cannot always choose to be free from their hold on us or from the pain they bring. Whether or not one chooses to seek inclusion in the church through marriage and ordination (rather than, say, baptism), whether or not one does seek these rites but not through the sort of apologetic work that threatens to reify boundaries of inclusion and exclusion; whether or not one wishes to move on from the church entirely, its effects on those who have participated in its life linger—to some providing comfort, to some taking the form of a haunting violation of an intimacy turned wrong.

It feels backwards to be excluded by the church, especially when one doesn’t strictly need to be—there are now options for LGBTQ people. In conversations about my own general sense of disenfranchisement, some have asked why I don’t just join a mainline denomination that is better with gays, and I did—I’ve been a confirmed Episcopalian for more than five years now. The first Episcopal church I attended felt like home, but the place I feel most at home now is the distance between me and the church I was raised in, the Evangelical Covenant Church, a nineteenth-century pietist breakoff from the Swedish Lutherans. The person the church made me is a Covenanter, and the language of my faith has not translated into gay Anglican without remainder—I’ve lost my felt bodily knowledge of the Lord who is a comforter and friend. “The church” is and isn’t the local parish one attends or doesn’t attend every Sunday that houses the community that is or isn’t there: the local mediates the universal, so feeling disaffected from a particular congregation or denomination can make one feel disaffected from the church as the Body of Christ, and the gap can be a real one sacramentally. While I believe that I am part of the Body, I feel pushed outward but not out, toward Christ’s phantom limbs, toward the Body in excess, in ecstasy. And my instinct remains to return.

The theologian may remain at the boundary of the church, pulling together strange assortments of things that seem to speak of the mercies of God, or the theologian may follow those who have left the church or been pushed out of it, whose minds and words remain unmistakably marked by it. Like Rudy, some of them still desire a framework for thinking about their continued dependence on God despite antagonism from God’s Body. Why not try to help?—without needing to claim or reclaim people for Christ who don’t want to be claimed or reclaimed. Difficult questions emerge about how and to what extent the Body of Christ is co-constitutive of the church.

What Tonstad says of the ascended body of Jesus is also helpful here. “Christ’s body went away; it never belonged to the church in the first place. The church lost the body of Christ or never had it for itself; and the church exists in anticipation of a redirection of its own action as its primary mode of being. The church continues to anticipate the return of the body of Christ that went elsewhere.”[62] The church does not own the Body. The Body of Christ is outside of itself, which is what I mean when I saw the Body in excess or in ecstasy. Boundaries remain, marking something of an identifiable church, but to be open to the Word is to be open to encountering the Body in other bodies.

Lest it sound like desire across the Body’s boundaries is one-way, those within longing for those without, Andrew Hahn’s poem “when a faggot speaks up in church” offers the contrary.[63]

when a faggot speaks up in church

he knows what he’s talking about

the preacher raises a hand to God
points to christ on the cross
says     he didn’t die so you could live this way

the congregation claps but they won’t dance
jesus didn’t dance    but he didn’t clap either

i want to tell them i can reach into the sky
& read the stars    like jesus in the lost
gospel of judas    & i can show them what love is
on the red constellations of my body

the preacher tells me i am going to Hell
& that he is sorry    but i know he is satisfied
i will never call church home    again
i will never call christians brothers & sisters    again
i will never sing another song of praise    again
i will never worship God in a way that reminds me of them
again

but i want to show them how to dance
i will grab jesus from the wall
& hold him in a tango
i will stick my finger into the red star on his hand

he will show me the red star dying in the sky
the rainbow dust cloud reaching the boundaries
of the burst in a halo spanning light years
& he will say    you have made my heart explode

It is surprising that the speaker wants to return in any way to the body that threw him out. His relationship with it has fundamentally changed—no longer home, no longer kin, no longer able to worship with them. Nonetheless, the speaker knows something they don’t know. He knows that his body can teach something they have refused to know—the red constellations of love that mark him. He knows how to dance, how to dance with Jesus. The dance is one form of boundary where the boundary signifies union, one form of bodies against one another where the against is something beyond opposition.

The speaker calls for something of the church that they could not call from him. His freedom from them and from their condemnation allows his body a grace and gracefulness, a freedom to dance with the one they ultimately kept him from. His freedom is that of the Body in ecstasy, the Body outside itself. He has been drawn out into the cosmos. And he intends to take the church with him. This is where theology must go.


Andrew Hahn’s collection God’s Boy may be found here.


[1] Kathy Rudy, “Subjectivity and Belief,” in Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, ed. Gerard Loughlin (Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 37.

[2] Richard Rambuss, Closet Devotions (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), 99.

[3] Rudy, “Queer Theology,” 42.

[4] Rudy, 42.

[5] Rudy, 45.

[6] Rudy, 43.

[7] Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (New York, NY: Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company, 1999), 308–309.

[8] James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain (New York: Vintage International, 2013), 225. Emphasis original.

[9] Randall Kenan, A Visitation of Spirits (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1989), 251.

[10] Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (London: Vintage Books, 2001), 204, 207.

[11] My first attempt at these questions was my university honors thesis, a study of the three novels quoted above. Samuel Ernest, “Where Do They Go: Christian Faith and Belonging in Gay Literature” (Seattle, WA, Seattle Pacific University, 2015), https://digitalcommons.spu.edu/honorsprojects/27.

[12] James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), 83–84.

[13] Linn Marie Tonstad, “Everything Queer, Nothing Radical?,” Svensk Teologisk Wvartalskrift, no. 92 (2016): 125.

[14] Kent Brintnall makes a similar point. Linn Marie Tonstad, “The Limits of Inclusion: Queer Theology and Its Others,” Theology & Sexuality 21, no. 1 (January 2, 2015): 3–5; Tonstad, “Everything Queer, Nothing Radical?,” 125; Kent L. Brintnall, “Who Weeps for the Sodomite?,” in Sexual Disorientations: Queer Temporalities, Affects, Theologies, ed. Kent L. Brintnall, Joseph A. Marchal, and Stephen D. Moore (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018), 145–60.

[15] Tonstad, “The Limits of Inclusion,” 5–11.

[16] Tonstad, 11–14.

[17] Linn Marie Tonstad, Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics, Cascade Companions 40 (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018), 47.

[18] Tonstad, 47.

[19] Linn Marie Tonstad, God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude, Gender, Theology and Spirituality (New York: Routledge, 2016), 254–86.

[20] Marcella Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics (London: Routledge, 2000), 23, 148.

[21] Tonstad, Queer Theology, 85.

[22] Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology, 148–49.

[23] Althaus-Reid, 148.

[24] Mark D. Jordan, “In Search of Queer Theology Lost,” in Sexual Disorientations: Queer Temporalities, Affects, Theologies, ed. Kent L. Brintnall, Joseph A. Marchal, and Stephen D. Moore (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2018), 303.

[25] Tonstad, God and Difference, 272–73.

[26] For example, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (1983); Gustavo Guitérrez, On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of the Innocent (1987); Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-talk (1993). In “Part 1: Defining Theology” of the recent Syndicate Forum on the State of Theology, Sean Larsen, the convener, summarized the responses from a wide-ranging group of theologians beginning with the statement, “Theology is about God. Theologians in a variety of self-defined subdisciplines analyze God-talk; they take intellectual responsibility for how their communities talk about divinity.” Shawn Larsen, “Syndicate Project on the State of Theology,” Syndicate, April 20, 2020, https://syndicate.network/symposia/theology/syndicate-project-on-the-state-of-theology/.

[27] James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 40th Anniversary ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 65–66.

[28] Cone, 24. It is important to note that Cone differentiates black experience from how experience functions in white theology. It is not Schleiermacher’s feeling of absolute dependence but “the atmosphere in which blacks live. It is the totality of black existence in a white world where babies are tortured, women are raped, and men are shot.” Cone, 25.

[29] George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, 1st ed (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), 33.

[30] This is a condensation of the first three of six theses he lays out on the model. Lindbeck, 31.

[31] Lindbeck, 35.

[32] Lindbeck, 37.

[33] Lindbeck, 99.

[34] Lindbeck, 99.

[35] Lindbeck, 100.

[36] Lindbeck, 100.

[37] Lindbeck, 100.

[38] Lindbeck, 36.

[39] Lindbeck, 36.

[40] I describe in more detail what I mean by “against the church” at Samuel Ernest, “Against?,” Homodoxy (blog), June 19, 2020, https://homodoxy.com/against/.

[41] Kathryn Tanner, “Christian Claims,” in Theologians in Their Own Words, ed. Derek R. Nelson, Joshua M. Moritz, and Ted Peters (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 269–70.

[42] Tanner, 271.

[43] Tanner, 277.

[44] Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology, Guides to Theological Inquiry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 67.

[45] Tanner, 73.

[46] Tanner, 78–79.

[47] Tanner, 80.

[48] Tanner, 81.

[49] Tanner, 82–86.

[50] Tanner, 87.

[51] Tanner, 88.

[52] Tanner, 89.

[53] Tanner, 118, 145–46.

[54] Tanner, 104–107.

[55] Tanner, 108–109.

[56] Tanner, 114.

[57] Tanner, 150.

[58] Tanner, 150.

[59] Tanner, 151.

[60] Tanner, 155.

[61] Tanner, 155.

[62] Tonstad, God and Difference, 272.

[63] Andrew Hahn, God’s Boy (Little Rock, AR: Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019), 11.

Published by Samuel Ernest

I am a doctoral student in theology at Yale.

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