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From the SelectedWorks of Sarah-Andrea A Morrigan

May 2012

Universality and Particularity: Development of Queer Theological Discourse and Construction of a Queer God

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Available at: http://works.bepress.com/sarah-andrea_morrigan/2

Universality and Particularity: Development of Queer Theological Discourse and Construction of a Queer God

Sarah-Andrea Morrigan

Abstract: This article attempts to make a cautious critique of the queer liberation theology as means to postulating an alternative vision of God for the LGBT people. While, like other types of liberation-oriented theological discourse, queer theology postulates a God that makes a preferential option for the oppressed, by claiming this God as part of the “queer community,” that is, a metaphorically gay God. This is contrasted with the historical development of Judeo-Christian monotheism from a tribal religion to a universal religion. It presents a dilemma when the theology of the oppressed is criticized by the predominantly white, Eurocentric, masculine and heteronormative theology as “making God in their own image” rather than allowing God to transform the oppressed into God’s own image.

In 1999, a series of events triggered by a short-lived romantic relationship abruptly moved me away from the mostly white, young and middle-class area of Portland, Oregon, to a slowly gentrifying yet still predominantly Black residential neighbourhood several miles away. This was my first time living in a Black neighbourhood, which, until a few years prior, was considered “too dangerous” to be “habitable” by the outsiders. The nearby commercial centre,

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the intersection of -- rather evocatively and somewhat ironically named -- Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Killingsworth Street was where bank branches, a post office, several dilapidated storefronts, a county health clinic, and a few restaurants concentrated. Amidst the “whitest major city” in America (HannahJones, 2010), the North-Northeast Portland was the historical “red-lined” area in which Blacks were permitted to live under segregation while potentially making the resulting devaluation of the lands to create future opportunities for redevelopment (Gibson, 2007) and thus constituted the sole small and dwindling enclave of African-American culture in the city.

I happened one day to have wandered into a small bookstore at this intersection. I came across a copy of something entitled The African-American Study Bible. I was shocked to find this Bible full of full-colour illustrations, in which all characters were not only Black but had the physique and facial characteristics of the typical American Black -- not those of people who reside in northern Africa or the Near East -- complete with the Black Jesus and his Black apostles. This part of Portland has a high concentration of historically AfricanAmerican churches (Scott 2012) including several Missionary Baptist churches, an African Methodist Episcopal-Zion (AME Zion) church, an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, and a few Church of God in Christ (COGIC) churches. In the African-American community the Black churches play the central importance, pervading themselves in every aspect of the social, economic and political Black life, as one of very few institutions that could be Black-controlled

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(Taylor, Thornton & Chatters 1987). Yet, I questioned whether it was necessary to construct a Black theology based on a vision of the Black God and the Black Christ, even if it were to counteract the white, blonde Jesuses on Sunday school flannelboards and ostensibly white God. After all, Christianity purports to worship a monotheistic and universal God, not a fragmented, nationalistic and tribal deity, and I felt that the Black God for Black Christians were about as racist as the imagery of a white, blonde God with blue eyes oft depicted by the predominant Christianity.

In discussing her thoughts on a queer theology, Grace M. Jantzen (2003) likens a queer theology to a “lesbian rule,” a mason’s tool made from flexible metal to measure curved objects. By “lesbian rule,” Jantzen implies that a queer theology as contrasted with the conventional “straight truth” of Christendom obsessed with “creeds, truth and orthodoxy,” rather looking at a theology as a flexible and adaptive measuring stick that moves with the diversity of the creation instead of “valorising uniformity.” Curiously, the 1894 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines “lesbian rule” also as a “post facto law; Making an act the precedent for a rule of conduct, instead of squaring conduct according to law.” The ramification of making a theology -- any theology -- a “lesbian rule” could be significant: would this lead to a theology of post facto justification for anything, making God conform to our actions and beliefs, instead of making us conform to what we think of as God’s will? Where would this “lesbian rule” end? Opponents of queer (or “pro-gay”) theology argue that proponents of pro-gay

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theology do exactly that, in order to produce “a seductive accommodation tailormade to suit the Christian who struggles against homosexual temptations” which they believe are unbiblical, sinful and utterly incompatible with traditional Christian creeds (Dallas, 2010).

God created in my own image: Is theology a projection of one’s personal beliefs?

The conflict between queer theologians and anti-gay theological discourses mirrors the general tendency that the religious beliefs and views about God in Judaism and Christianity, in spite of their claim to universality, diverge widely depending on the personal values of a believer. A 2009 neurological study tested the brain activities of research subjects to find a correlation between one’s religious beliefs and personal values, concluding that often one’s religious beliefs may be egocentric and informed by the self and their personal outlook, and are in turn reified by seeking out religious communities and fellowship that match that self-beliefs (Epley et al, 2009). Therefore, it may be said that heterosexist theologians espousing anti-queer agenda construct their God reflecting their antigay bias, whereas a queer theologian may re-imagine God as having either a queer-inclusive bias or even outright queer-identified.

A brief history of the queer theology

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Struggles for gay and lesbian equality within Christian churches predate the Stonewall riot of 1969. In 1955, the Church of England published a report, “Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition,” which, for the first time in major Christian denominational history claimed that the Hebrew ritual code against homosexual behaviours is “not pertinent” to modern moral discussions. The Rev. Troy Perry founded what would later become the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in 1968, eight months before the Stonewall. (Jordan, 2007).

Initial battlefield in the gay and lesbian (at the time) hermeneutical struggle was to counter the mainstream Christian interpretations of the Bible that condemned gays and lesbians -- and therefore Christian faith and homosexual identity was morally and biblically incompatible. Perry focused his initial establishment of a new “hermeneutical community” by emphasizing that such condemnations of homosexuality did not exist in the Bible, according to his interpretation of the Scriptural texts (Stewart, 2008). Therefore, the initial impetus for the development of the queer theology was defensive -- that is, to defend gay and lesbian (and eventually to include bisexual, transgender, queer, gender-atypical, and other sexual minorities) Christians from those who wield religion and the Bible as weapons of choice to marginalize them.

Critics of such queer theology, not surprisingly, accuse MCC and other “progay” churches for prooftexting, that is, committing an eisegesis to justify

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homosexuality, instead of doing an exegesis. As a “former gay rights activist” who later founded a counselling service to “[work] with hundreds of men and women struggling with homosexuality,” Joe Dallas speaks of this form of theology:

It takes mental gymnastics to accept these inadequate arguments [supporting homosexuality using the Bible]; those not having a stake in accepting them are unlikely to do so. But those having a personal interest the pro-gay theology are another matter. Twist the Scriptures hard enough and you can make them appear to say anything you please. (Dallas, n.d., emphasis mine.)

This accusation of eisegesis, however, seems to go both ways. Critiquing sermons of the Rev. Dr. John MacArthur entitled “the Truth about Homosexuality,” K. Darnell Giles (2008) notes the same trend within the anti-gay Christian teachings:

[T]hey are indicative of a large majority of teaching that comes from the Christian church about homosexuality. Instead of interpreting scripture to see what it has to teach us, preconceived beliefs are superimposed upon it, to make it say what someone already believes. This practice is called eisegesis... 'reading into' the text what is already believed; or searching the Bible for scriptures that 'read' what is already believed, without a complete investigation of the text or context.

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Ultimately, then, the question is not really whether the Bible says this or that about anything, but rather, whether this ‘lesbian rule’ is applied to fit a preconceived anti-gay ideology, or a queer ideology. Either way, one projects one’s personal or communal beliefs upon the Bible and theology to draw a conclusion that benefits one’s own self, much like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether the ‘lesbian rule’ bends like homophobia, or it bends like an open and proud lesbian, it is a lesbian rule nonetheless. The main difference, however, is that Jantzen calls a spade a spade, naming it a ‘lesbian rule,’ whereas the anti-gay theologians deceive people into believing that their own ‘lesbian rule’ is straight and rigid truth and orthodoxy.

Playing a devil’s advocate: Possible cases against the construction of queer theology

As noted earlier, if a queer theology is nothing more than a projection of queer self-beliefs, one may anticipate certain problems with this construction of queer theology. If creeds, truth and orthodoxy are no longer the absolute standards of faith, then not only that God can be Black, Latino, gay, Chinese, Palestinian, communist, an alcoholic, a factory worker, a soldier, a baseball player, or just about anyone else, but also God can be different for everyone, undermining the foundation of a universal monotheism that postulates a singular God for all, whose universal law is binding upon all regardless of nationality, gender or any other characteristics. Relativism and splintering of

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Christianity into tribalism based on sexual orientation, ethnicities, and various other groupings, instead of aspiring for a church that is “one in Christ” in which there is “no male or female” and “no Greeks or gentiles.” It is said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in the U.S. (Obama, 2008). While a queer theology and queer-inclusive churches such as the Metropolitan Community Church may be a solution to manage or integrate the conflicting, dissonant identities between that of a Christian and that of a homosexual person (Gross, 2008) a queer theology as a mere “lesbian rule” to provide for a gay-friendly alternative to the spiritual and social needs met by church membership and attendance would, I argue, only produce a very shallow theology that might accept everyone as they are but not necessarily challenge them to mature spiritually and reach out beyond their parochial (no pun intended) interests and the comfort of cliquishness. Regardless of one’s position on homosexuality, the primary aim of spiritual formation and maturity is not only to remember “who we really are,” but also to “allow [God] God and us ‘not God’” -- or, in the words of Thomas Merton, surrender to God’s will (Moon, 2002).

The pertinent question then is how a queer theology (and other liberationoriented theologies including feminist theology and ethnic theologies) can reconcile the particularity and contextualization of their God-talk with the traditional Christian doctrines of universality of God and oneness (or catholicity) of the Church, and ultimately transcend their needs for a theology that works primarily to reconcile the queer identity with their Christian faith, and mature

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into the place of a deeper spiritual growth.

Alleged universality is defined often by the privileged

In examining the conventional Christian beliefs in the universality of God -generally postulated as transcendent yet often depicted in European religious art as white and masculine -- it is important to consider who gets to define what is universal, and conversely, who are the most vocal critics of queer theology, feminist theology, or Black theology.

Paul Tillich (1972) explains that the New Testament was written within the context of the emergent universalism of the Roman Empire (which in turn was a universal transnational monarchy), which came as a result of the collapse of an older national religions and cultures, but also allowed the concept of the humanity as a whole, not just in terms of different cultures and nationalities. This historical context, according to Tillich, meets the earlier development of the idea of God during the inter-testamental period uniting Jewish universalists and Greek philosophers together.

The downside of this universalization of God-idea, Tillich (ibid.) argues, is how God became too abstract, and therefore people required “mediating beings” for “practical piety” as it was not entirely possible to hypostasize all of God’s qualities. Thus, Tillich writes, “deteriorized gods and goddesses” of paganism

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became angels, a transcendend messiah as “king of Paradise” came into being, and different names of God began to proliferate.

Therefore, in spite of theoretical universality and transcendence, for the purpose of practical piety, the presence of God remained close to the pious and their cultures. This phenomenon is also seen in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy through their veneration of saints, often closely related to the national history and cultural heritage of the faithful -- and by extension, even in forms of syncretism such as the Irish cultus of St. Brigid and the Caribbean practice of Santeria.

A God who looks like us: contextualization, indigenization and sense of solidarity as tools of liberation and theological self-determination

As noted, the development of Christian theology took what was originally a religion of the western Asia into an Eurocentric faith shaped by the Greco-Roman, German, and Anglo-American influences. The history of what is considered normative Christian theology, then, was already an act of contextualizing and indigenizing the previously Near Eastern faith tradition into the white European cultures. The depictions of God -- such as those found in the Cistine Chapel - as an old, white man, were not necessarily deliberate attempt to privilege the white Europeans against the people of other ethnicities, but rather a product of assimilation of Christianity into cultures in which one would rarely if at all see

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any non-white people in his or her whole life. They, living in a midst of an allwhite world of medieval Europe, probably could not imagine an olive-skinned Jesus of the Middle East, which would be too foreign for them to relate to. Thus the development of a theology that seems to create a God in one’s own image, however theoretically may be problematic, is not by any means unusual or historically unprecedented -- and perhaps even necessary for the sake of what Tillich calls “practical piety.”

Keeping it inclusive: the tension between universality and particularity

One of potential concerns about any kind of minority-driven churches voiced by mostly white or assimilated Christians is how any church that is united not just by faith but rather by ethnic or cultural (in this case, queerness) affinities may lead the churches to become Balkanized. Such critiques denounce minorityliberation theology for replicating the exclusivist agenda and attempting to monopolized the status of themselves as “the oppressed” and “elected poor,” and therefore exclusively favoured by God (Ellis, 2011). I have heard this argument, and indeed once espoused this position in favour of a “multicultural and multiethnic” church. Yet, in reality, such “multiethnic” churches tend to be largely white in membership in a mostly white city such as Portland, and often oppositions to such minority churches therefore come from a position of white privilege -- and in this case, heterosexual privilege.

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Queer theology and churches such as MCC by necessity live with this tension between universality and particularity -- and between affinity and inclusivity. The question is whether a queer theology moves past the walls of the MCC congregations and “Open and Affirming”, “Reconciling in Christ”, and other variously designated mainline Protestant churches and liberate not just LGBTQidentified Christians but also transforming the larger theological discourse to form a new theological norm, just as originally minority Christians of European descent eventually combined their cultural and intellectual heritage to establish the basis of what is known today as Christianity as the primary Western religion.

Bohache (2003) notes that the main task of a queer theology is to overcome what he terms “christophobia” -- or revulsion towards Christianity among the queer people as a response to the expressions of anti-gay theology. Bohache seeks to accomplish this through an establishment not only of a queer theology that involves the re-exegesis of gay-bashing Bible verses but also through of a queer christology, that is, “looking for clues to the Queer Christ who empowers queer consciousness.” This theology based on incarnation, much like that of the Eastern Orthodox incarnational theology, which aims to “develop the Likeness of God in our lives [through] gracious assistance of God... God becoming like us so that we might become like God.” (Maddox, 1990.) Maddox further points out a crucial difference between the Western and Eastern theology: in Eastern Christianity, the incarnation was not a response to the Fall, but rather so that God can fully identify with the humanity -- and thereby recapitulate the humans for

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deification.

Does God, then, choose to identify only with a certain element of the humanity? The Gospel narratives rather demonstrate that God, as expressed in Jesus Christ, somehow decided to identify with the outcasts, marginalized, and those the religious folks of the day called “sinners and tax collectors” (Matthew 9:10).

Emergence of a literalist, fundamentalist form of Christianity went hand-in-hand with the development of an industrialized society in Europe and North America. The Bible became less of a mythological and liturgical text and became more of what Evangelicals like to call “the instruction manual.” Methodist movement attracted working-class people, because of its methodical approach to faith, much like a factory manufacturing process. Like an assembly line operation, this type of Christianity focused on manufacturing Christians through a more or less uniform discipleship program and through wide spread of publications and broadcasts across the world. In this context, modern Christianity may be the inventor of a “straight edge” God that is product of its own ideology and cultural norms. Much good can be done in liberating all people when queer theologians shape new narratives of God as a “lesbian rule,” much like how the Gospel of John speaks of the Holy Spirit, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes

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from or where it goes.” (John 3:8, English Standard Version.) The metaphor of the “lesbian rule God” is not that queer theologians are inventing a God in their own image, but rather that God is able to meet everyone at where they are, appropriate to their lives’ circumstances and cultural and social contexts, recognizing that God can be and is present in their lives -- and thereby placing upon the shoulders of all queer people a responsibility, as well as empowerment, of living out an incarnational life.

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(2002), 264-275. Obama, B (2008). A more perfect union. The Black Scholar 38:1 (2008, Spring), 17-23. Petrella, I (2006.) Queer eye for the straight guy: the making over of liberation theology, a queer discursive approach. Liberation Theology And Sexuality. 33-36. Scott A (2012). By the Grace of God. Portland Monthly (2012, March). Retrieved May 21, 2012 from http://www.portlandmonthlymag.com/issues/ archives/articles/african-american-churches-north-portland-march-2012/ Stewart, MD (2008). Metropolitan Community Church: a perfectly queer reading of the Bible. University of South Florida Scholar Commons. Taylor RJ, Thornton MC & Chatters LM (1987.) Black Americans' perceptions of the sociohistorical role of the church. Journal of Black Studies 18:2 (1987, Dec), 123-138 Tillich, P (1972). The history of Christian thought. New York, Simon & Schuster. 10-12.

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