Feminist Theology

http://fth.sagepub.com Theology as a Sexual Act?
Kwok Pui-lan Feminist Theology 2003; 11; 149 DOI: 10.1177/096673500301100204 The online version of this article can be found at: http://fth.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/11/2/149

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Althaus-Reid argues that theology is a sexual act. Marcella Althaus-Reid challenges all theo- hide behind Theologians the abstract discourses of God’s revelation. and Politics (New York and London: Routledge.Theology as a Sexual Act? Kwok Pui-lan ABSTRACT The article discusses the challenge of Indecent Theology to Latin American liberation theology and feminist theology in unmasking their implicit support for the binary.. heterosexual norms of society. _ 1. 2010 . 2001). Her work undresses conventional Christian symbols by queering the intersection of theology. Confucianism and Taoism? Can we say that they are sexual too? While I am not competent to comment on all these traditions. therefore. ’Theology is a sexual act. are nothing else but sexual performers who need to take many ethical and sometimes partisan sexual decisions when reflecting on God and humanity. Marcella Althaus-Reid. What are the reasons for such a claim? What is to be gained if we view theology in such a way? Coming from a Chinese background.com at City University Library on March 25. Gender. Marcella Althaus-Reid’ With such a bold assertion. or the kingdom of God as if they have nothing to do with sexuality. She undresses theology from heterosexuality and her targets include not only the dominant white male theologians.Theologians. IndecentTheology: Theological Perversions in Sex.. Islamic theology. Jesus’ humanity. because theology is never innocuous or sexually innocent or neutral’.sagepub. or the teachings of Buddhism. I want to reflect for a moment on the claim that all theology is sexual for it has far-reaching implications for the task of theology and the role of theologians. I submit that Marcella’s statement puts into sharp focus the deeply sexual can no more logians to come out of their closets. Downloaded from http://fth. and politics. sexuality. my first reaction to Marcella’s provocative statement was: Is there something inherent in Christianity that makes its systematic reflection sexual? What about Jewish theology. p. but also liberation theologians and feminist theologians from the North and the South. 87. and provides rich metaphors and language for a vibrant sexual political theology.

88. 2. Althaus-Reid. in Confucianism. Fourthly. Such a question is raised not out of erotophobia. 88.3 She aptly cites Paul Tillich’s sadomasochist practices as an example. p. bathrooms or sofas’. If we grant that Marcella’s observation of the development of Western Christian theology is convincing. Indecent Theology. Downloaded from http://fth.com at City University Library on March 25. 3. Islam. the five cardinal relationships include that between the husband and the wife. but for the sake of stretching our theological imagination. the sexual overtones in the doctrine of sin. 2010 . Buddhism views sexual desire as an obstacle to enlightenment and the lust of the flesh as a cause of suffering and a failure to recognize the impermanence of the true self. Taoism believes that the universe is governed by the interplay between the yin and the yang. the Holy Family. such as the father and the son. and the family is often taken as the root metaphor of society. Confucianism or Buddhism.150 nature of the religions. Indecent Theology.the preoccupation of human nature and destiny. the fundamental symbols of Christianity. Marcella has done her share world’s _ outing Christian theology. Much of Marcella’s critique is based on the overly anthropocentric nature of theology . theologians tend to remain deeply in their closet and their failure to confront the realities of their sexual life results in disembodied theo-ideological abstractions or in outright condemnation of sexuality. She gives several reasons why Christian theology is sexual. While scholars of comparative religions may want to consider queering Judaism. we may still want to ask whether theolin ogy should be sexual or whether we need some alternative visions of the discipline. and the belief of the incarnation of God in a sexed-body Jesus. For example. systematic theology has for a long time upheld an omnipresent heterosexual system supported by dogmas and religious teachings. the male Jesus and the Virgin Mary are inherently sexual. In sharp contrast. but I want to push us to think how a sexual theology will look if it is less anthropocentric. Althaus-Reid. and harnessing the energy of yin and yang through sexual activities has long been regarded as paramount in the pursuit of immortality and in replenishing the essence of the body. Ecological theology has pushed us to use new language and paradigms to speak about God and creation so that it will be more sensitive to environmental concerns and less anthropocentric. Secondly. First. p.2 Thirdly. she observes:’all the concepts of sin and grace seem to be unendingly tangled around the theologian’s gaze at other people’s beds.sagepub. I am not suggesting that a more cosmological-oriented Christianity will be asexual or antisexual.

She reclaims the centrality of lust. even when it is not specifically addressing human sexuality. Marcella has rightly pointed out sexual theology is different from a theology of or about sex. street carnival and theatre. eschatology .as it is often assumed to be . Christ. the Phallic Word of God. atonement. Hence. the Bi/Christ. participate in. virginal liberationist. whether consciously or unconsciously. Mary the drag queen and the cross-dressed Jesus. such as doing theology without underwear. when people release their energy and become euphoric even in times of political control. and Jesus as the liberator into our theological vocabulary. Christ or the Spirit. Theology carries with it sexual assumptions whether we are talking about God. the poor as subject of history. gay.but a project that all theologians. as in the case of drag. locating the G(od) spot. metaphors.sagepub. lesbian. sexual theology is not just the specific concern of queer. She argues that much of liberation Downloaded from http://fth. sacrament. sexual theology will include new jargons when theology interfaces with sexual discourse.151 Let me now come back to Marcella’s charge that all theology is sexual and discuss what are its ramifications and what kind of paradigm shifts it would require. French kissing God. What would the traditional doctrines-creation. revelation. Church. Just as liberation theology has introduced the concept of the preferential option for the poor. risk and transgression. the hermeneutics of suspicion. Such powerful imagery subverts the traditional decent rhetoric of theology and may indeed be labeled as ’perverse’ in some conservative circles. and her book represents an attempt in bringing liberation theology into dialogue with queer theory. Liberation theology may have deviated from traditional theology in terms of its solidarity with the poor. sexual desire.look like if we were to incorporate Marcella’s insights? For example. Indecent Theology has done a fair share in introducing some of them. bisexual and transgendered theologians . images and symbols.com at City University Library on March 25. but it continues to perpetuate the same sexual hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality found in most theologies. She first cut her teeth in theology by studying liberation theology in Argentina. Marcella charges that liberation theology remains trapped in the binary and dualistic construction of gender and heterosexual norms. how shall we undress the heterosexual myth in the creation of Adam and Eve in the Genesis stories? What kind of eschatology would we envisage when the new heaven and new earth include also sexual liberation and erotic celebration of the communion of all beings? A sexual theology requires the use of new language. Since sex has the dimension of fun. fantasy and sexual experience in our conceptualization of the world and God. sexual theology pays attention to expressions and performances that subvert the status quo. vanilla Christianity. 2010 .

but it is still decent and acceptable to the theological establishment. Recovering the sexual pleasure of oppressed women is a transgressive act. we can see that they are mostly concerned about the cultural-religious marginalization and socio-economic oppression of women. Mother of the Poor (Maryknoll. Her other criticisms of male liberation theology includes the reliance on the grand narratives of liberation. 2010 .. Jesus can be seen as a social revolutionary. they are narrated to support the claim that women are victims of multiple oppressions. In this way. Although Third World feminist theologians have spoken about gender oppression.sagepub. and the oversight of other indigenous religious practices outside Christianity. That women are sexual beings is a taboo subject hidden in the closet. Mary: Mother of God. As for the Virgin Mary. See. widowhood and rituals of mourning. While the church and theologians may feel able to tackle issues relating to people who are poor. but they want pleasure too. For example. and do not disrupt conventional sexual norms. they are most reluctant to face the fact that the poor are also sexual beings. feminist liberation theologians have tried to affirm her motherhood and referred to her as the mother of the poor. 4. Thus.g. they are less prone to talk about sex and the sexuality of women. Asian feminist theologies have condemned sex tourism and the fact that Asia has become the ’brothel of the world’. without disrupting the accepted role of women as mothers. When women’s sexual stories have been used. 1987). Downloaded from http://fth. e.4 These writers also tend to be obsessed with discussions of Mary’s virginity.com at City University Library on March 25. sexual intercourse and sexual passion. liberation theologians portray images of Christ and Mary that are decent and safe. Ivone Gebara and Maria Clara Bingemer. For instance. NY: Orbis Books. however. recurring themes in African feminist theology include the issues of polygamy. She also observes that even feminist liberation theology tends to accept this codification when talking about human anthropology and sexuality. as if her virginity must be somehow maintained or rescued. the homogenization of the poor. Marcella’s book. When we survey Third World feminist theologians’ discourse about sex and sexuality. Marcella challenges her female liberationist colleagues to be more daring to talk about sex as in sexual acts. for it has the potential to expose both the sexual and political binary and hierarchal nature of the Church. but only as an asexual or celibate man. reclaims oppressed men and women as sexual beings: they want bread. the pollution of blood.152 theology is decent-meaning that it supports the sexual codification of society and heterosexual norms. liberation theology may be economically subversive.

5 Such behaviors were considered evidences of the debasement of these cultures. Susanne Zantop. The colonial legacy took an interesting twist in 1998 during the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion when some conservative African and Asian bishops decried homosexuality as abominable and a sign of the moral degeneration of Western Churches. p. The most common means of spreading HIV/AIDS in subSaharan Africa is through heterosexual intercourse and women account for 53 per cent of the cases. which desperately needed the tutelage of the West. NC: Duke University Press. Family. In the encounter between Christian and non-Western traditions. Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1-2. lesbians. which often did not possess a legal discourse on sexual matters.153 Marcella’s work offers new insights to my own work in the postcolonial critique of Christianity. The homophobia of Third World churches has led to drastic consequences. and Nation in Precolonial Germany. pp. Havelock Ellis and John Addington Arno. such as Native American cultures and Chinese culture. the relation of homophobia and colonization is seldom fully explored. They have exerted pressure to drive queer people deeper into their 5. bisexual and queer people exist in their midst and even push the government to legislate to discriminate against them. 1975 [1896]). The English law that criminalized male homosexual behavior was then superimposed in the former British colonies. 6. When the term ’homosexuality’ was coined during the latter half of the nineteenth century. 4. 1997). AIDS was initially misconstrued as a gay men’s disease. Colonial Fantasies: Conquest. Bret Hinsch. 52. If postcolonial theory is concerned about the misrepresentation of indigenous cultures and the imposition of the ’civilized mission’ of the West. She points out the crying need for queering postcolonial theories and criticism. Sexual Inversion (New York: Downloaded from http://fth. Some of the Third World churches refuse to admit that gay men. Symonds.sagepub. religious discourse and the colonial machine should be taken seriously.6 These missionaries and medical experts then hailed Victorian sexual repression as normal behavior and a true mark of the superiority of Christian culture. p. 1770-1870 (Durham. 1990). travelers and missionaries often observed what they described as abominable homoerotic behaviors and practices that they argued were condoned by the culture as a whole. the relationship between homophobia.com at City University Library on March 25. 2010 . Because of the heterosexist and patriarchal biases of some of the postcolonial theorists. sexologist Havelock Ellis regarded male homosexual relationships as a widespread natural instinct among what he called the ’lower races’. and the churches did not pay sufficient attention to the rapid increase in HIV infection rates.

com at City University Library on March 25. submissive and self-sacrificing Jesus. however. a revolutionary. 7. Marcella goes one step further than those white feminist theologians who are troubled by Althaus-Reid. depriving them of the male status of their own patriarchal societies and therefore produced in them a reinforcement of heterosexual stereotypes. 8. Indecent Theology . would surely be seen as perverse and outrageous. Marcella observes that a Christ dressed as a Peruvian peasant can still be understood by and may even court the empathy of the theological establishment. The image of the Black Christ proposed by black liberation theologians demystifies the power behind the symbol of the white Christ while celebrating the beauty and dignity of the Black man. and the patriarchal and heterosexual assumptions of Christianity. 172. Marcella Althaus-Reid. During the struggle against colonialism and white hegemony in the 1960s and 1970s. The liberator can be imagined to be a masculinist fighter . European Christianity for its complicity in racial oppression and colonialism. Another hidden issue on which the churches have been silent is the number of young boys and street children in poorer countries serving as prostitutes to satisfy the sexual craving of tourists from richer countries. 2010 . As part of the colonial Christian mytho-poetics. The image of Christ the liberator dispels the myth of a gentle. patriarchalism has reinforced chains of oppression when the male colonial subjects felt that their maleness was diminished by the colonial masters.8 By questioning the binary construction of gender. But gay and queer people have begun to organize in Argentina.154 closets. are the concomitant critiques of male dominance in society. Marcella’s work will also open new avenues for analyzing the relation between Christ’s gender and sexuality and colonialism. India. or a political dissenter. male liberation theologians began to attack racism and poverty and to criticize white. because it subscribes to the same binary gender system.7 The liberation theologians have interpolated in the Christ figure the beauty and the strength of manhood that they feel have been threatened.in the person of a guerrilla. Hong Kong... out of the Downloaded from http://fth. the male colonisers genderised their subjects as women. But Christ portrayed as the lesbian Xena. and imagines Jesus as someone who brings hope and emancipation to his people. Feminist Theology 27 (2001). pp. Marcella’s analysis of the contest of manhood in the colonial setting helps to explain why Jesus assumes a masculinist image. 58-59. Taiwan and other places and demand that their voices be heard. the warrior princess of the popular comic strip. She writes: In colonial processes.sagepub. ’Outing Theology: Thinking Christianity Church-Closet’. What are missing. p.

111. While I greatly appreciate Marcella’s work. stripped of all the Jewish particularities. Such an abstract Christ. Althaus-Reid. ses as their sentation of Third World women as victims. 175. I have some reservation about her use of the work of theologians in the North. See Kwok Pui-lan. The sexuality of Christ. ’Unbinding Our Feet: Saving Brown Women and Feminist Religious Discourse’. 11.l° If these images are shocking to some of us. Althaus-Reid. But Marcella turns the argument upside-down by arguing that sexual ideology pervades economic and political theories and undergirds the epistemological foundations of theology. pp. Postcolonialism. She has repeatedly cited the works of Mary Daly. 114. 2010 . Marcella’s work on the intersection between sex. 62-81.). 146. Indecent Theology. in Laura E. Her suggestions of the Bi/ Christ. Althaus-Reid. which Leo Steinberg says is the greatest taboo of Christianity. 1996). while treating the issues of gender and as sexuality something private or affecting women only. a butch lesbian.155 and yet obsessed with the maleness of Christ. defined as dis-covering of grace and per/ version. If Christ is a subversive figure. 2002). a social analysis that understands poverty only in economic terms and ignores genderized and sexual terms is not only incomplete. celibate and without sexual desire and passion separates Christ from the rest of humanity and from materiality and physicality. and Religious Discourse (New York: Routledge. Indecent Theology. Therefore. Leo Steinberg. a transvestite. a gay man9 lead us into theological obscenity. 10.sagepub. pp. Indecent Theology . this only reveals the degree to which we have been indoctrinated by the patriarchal and heterosexual myth-making of the Church. It is hypocritical and ironic that colonial Christianity preached about such an asexual Christ. must be demythologized and exposed. Feminism. The Sexuality of Christin Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p.com at City University Library on March 25. 2nd edn. can be easily universalized and packaged as the savior of all the world. The image of Christ as asexual. Donaldson and Kwok Pui-lan (eds. Downloaded from http://fth. p. politics and theology is significant because she takes into serious consideration the integral relationship between the sex/ gender system and economic and political Many male theologians have regarded socio-economic analyprimary concerns.13 While she uses the works 9. Christ must transgress and disrupt the gender and sexual boundaries that dominant ideology has comfortably constructed. 219. p. 12. but mystifies the complex web of human relations that both constitute and sustain the social conditions that effectively keep people poor. for example Daly’s Gyn/Ecologyl2 without being aware of some of Daly’s colonialist tendency in her represtructures. including liberation theology. 13. while at the same time condoned sexual violence and rape during colonial conquest.

her work differs from theirs in that she consciously relates sexuality to political economy and to the suffering of the South. which she claims as both a continuation of liberation theology and a disruption of it. Marcella has written a wild and courageous book. While she criticizes her male colleagues in Latin America for writing for the consumption of the white academy. Having been put on the pedestal for too long. Jesus and Mary perhaps want to have some fun too. such as Judith Butler. The topic she treats is very serious and her analysis sophisticated. As she rightly points out.156 of queer theologians in the North. My favorite example is of her lifting up the skirt of the Virgin Mary and finding with bewilderment a phallus beneath it. 14. As someone who has grown up in an Asian culture which constructs sexuality and gender in different way. but her book is also hilarious and fun to read. I also hope that Marcella will enter into deeper dialogue with other Third World feminist theologians. Some will want to dismiss or ghettoize her work by saying it is another outrageous text from a queer theologian. Her project is a sexual political theology. her work transgresses the customary boundaries of theological genre. I cannot help but think that some of the queer theorists.sagepub. 5. political terror and violence. Indecent Theology. Except for her critique of Ivone Gebara and Maria Clara Bingemer’s book on Mariology. 2010 . p. Marcella can call those gay and queer theologians into accountability when they perpetuate a vanilla sexual theology by separating sex from economic oppression and political dictatorship. 62. she restores the humanity to these religious figures and her playful irreverence exposes the fact that symbols are human-made constructions and must be constantly demystified. A theological text that cannot be easily classified. her heavy reliance on white queer theory and theology and continental philosophy may also be open to similar criticism. p.14 No one who has read her book closely will ever say again that sexuality is an issue for white. as well as colonial and imperial interests. 15. Althaus-Reid. while others may appropriate her per/versions of theology while leaving behind her liberationist concerns. middle-class privileged theologians in the North. I do not subscribe to the nativistic position that one should not use Western theories. Indecent Theology. sexuality has much to do with the globalized economic structures. but I think one should be constantly vigilant of their racial and even colonial biases. she has seldom discussed feminist theological texts both from Latin America and other contexts. Downloaded from http://fth. Althaus-Reid.15 By poking fun at the sacred and treasured religious symbols of Mary and Jesus. By placing sexuality in the political and theological contexts of liberation. are Eurocentric.com at City University Library on March 25. which does not concern the emancipation of the majority of the people in the world.