against?

from the Oxford English Dictionary

Theology is frequently defined in relation to the church—it is a practice of the church, reflection on the practice of the church, for the church, from within the church. When lgbtq people are spoken of by Christians or when we speak of ourselves in the context of Christian community and theology, the conversation has typically been about whether or not sex, marriage, and ordination is allowable for us. As Linn Tonstad has argued in Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics, queer theology is limited when its sole task is the inclusion of gays into the church: the arguments for inclusion often have unintended and unreflected upon consequences, and there are other things that don’t get talked about when all energy is put into inclusion.

But also, there are more kinds of relationships to the church than included or excluded, in or out. Maybe for some it is that cut and dry, but I think that relationships, identification, and belief tend to be more complicated, fraught, or ambivalent than binary. Read a book by a gay writer or talk to some queer people, and you find that there are many sorts of spiritually significant or meaningful (even faithful) relationships to the church, to God, to Christianity. There are more ways of being attached to the church, more approaches and feelings, irreducible to or slipping between included/excluded, baptized/unbaptized, holy/sinful, participation/absence, belief/disbelief. Against helps me think of these varieties of relationships.

The OED’s definition of against as a preposition begins with the umbrella category of “expressing motion towards,” which, in Old English, included senses of reception or welcome, and up through today can mean “in a direction facing; towards, forward to, so as to meet.” The second cluster of definitions provided by the OED is likely the most common today: “expressing motion or action in opposition to someone or something.” This can include active hostility and violence, or perhaps a certain adverse feeling or intention. It can mean “not in conformity with.” Thirdly, in can mean “expressing mutual opposition or relation,” the mutuality distinguishing these definitions from the second cluster. The fourth group relates to time, including the now obsolete “Drawing towards, near the beginning of, close to.” Fifth: relating to position (opposite, facing, in view of, over against). Sixth: “expressing contact with, pressure on, or contiguity with someone or something.” Here, we find relationships between hard things, egg breaking on the floor; or relationships of support and immediate proximity, leaning against an oak tree; or one thing standing in front of another, e.g., something brought into relief against a backdrop.

It’s likely that “against the church” most readily brings to mind a relationship of simple opposition. Many lgbtq people, raised in the church or not, are indeed opposed to it—it is at least in opposition to them. That’s one kind of relationship. Another might be the person who leaves the church or is forced out of it but finds themself haunted by the languages, liturgies, and relationships that constitute a Christian life. One might miss parts of it or still believe parts of it, or not. One might still identify as a Christian but find a home in a different denomination than that in which one was raised. One might feel comfortably included in one’s local congregation but excluded from Christian history and theology; or to the contrary, one might more easily build a home for oneself theologically and feel able to account for oneself as part of Christianity’s history but nonetheless find no local community to call home. One’s relationship to the church may be a source of much work and strain (against it or within it, both or otherwise), or it may be a more or less settled, stable thing. It might be a relationship one is glad for or one that is merely tolerated. It might be a relationship that defines who one is, or it might seem accidental. All of these entail varieties of proximity, intimacy, identity, investment, even belief. Many of these relationships that wouldn’t meet the criteria of Christian theologians for what facilitates knowledge of God and the authority necessary for speaking theologically nevertheless produce people with insight into who God is as well as how the church treats others, what it means to believe, what it means to call oneself a Christian or not, what it means to be a sinner, what a graced life might be, etc.

Leaning on, touching, rubbing, facing, in front of, pressure on, moving towards, moving away from, not in conformity with, in conformity with but outside of, within but constantly forced outward, outside but constantly drawn to, maybe best, against the grain of—theology against the church.

Theology against the church may well ultimately be beneficial for the church for any number of reasons, but I see my work as being primarily for those who are not easily included within the church and those with tangled relationships with the church. “For” is often taken for granted, obscuring more than it reveals, at least for my own interests in the sorts of texts and lives I study. One thing I want to avoid is doing gay/queer theology as a response to the ubiquitous calls from church authorities for lgbtq people to speak their experience so that their experience may be processed on their behalf by those with authority and then given back to them dissected and neatly packaged as theology or sexual ethics. In my own position as a doctoral student in theology at a major university and a beneficiary of its ridiculous privileges (underwritten by a corrupt history and ongoing unjust financial practices), as I look for things to study and write about, I cannot entirely avoid this dynamic. But I refuse to make lgbtq lives and literature palatable or decent in order for them to be deemed worthy of theological reflection, something that happens frequently even amongst practitioners of queer theology. In The Queer God, Marcella Althaus-Reid calls this work of the queer theologian or queer confessor “listening without consolidating.” There may be tension here with the theologian’s work of seeking conformity with Christ, but what conformity with Christ means in any given situation is not always obvious and can thus be a tool for predetermining what holiness looks like, shoring up the power of the theologian over the people for whom they do their work. I’m drawn to the people and texts I study not because of where I want to bring them or what I want to make them do, but because of what they have already found.

This thought has emerged from two papers I wrote in the spring semester of 2020. One was intended to be a manifesto but turned into a jeremiad, taking up some of Tonstad’s critiques of queer theology into my own delirious register. The other is an essay that focuses more constructively on the vision of theology and method described here, in conversation with Kathryn Tanner’s development and critique of George Lindbeck. It also tells of how I came to find myself drawn into the work of theology. Both papers stem from reflection on my theological education thus far. Finding a home for these two papers, or publishing them here, might be my first task. I don’t know what comes next, but this is a start.

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