Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics
Linn Marie Tonstad
Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers/Cascade Books, 2018
Increasingly, Orthodox Christians—whether clergy, theologians, or ordinary faithful—are finding it necessary to engage in conversations about gender and sexuality. However, many of these conversations often seem distinctly lacking in depth. On the one hand, “traditionalists” will cite proof texts from the Scriptures or the Tradition without recognising the historical gap between contemporary relations and identities and those referred to in our historical texts. On the other hand, those critical of the existing status of LGBT+ people within the Church often have little more to say on the question than an affirmation of God’s loving embrace of all people, perhaps with scriptural or patristic proof texts of their own. Between either camp, there is often little attention paid to the distinct spiritual needs and contributions of sexual minorities in the Church.
In Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics, Linn Marie Tonstad suggests that this failure of Christianity to really respond to LGBT+ people, both within and without the bounds of Christianity, may be a result of too great a focus on “apologetics,” that is, a narrow focus on justifying this or that stance on marriage or ordination (or occasionally, gender transition), rather than on what questions surrounding gender and sexuality might contribute to theology more broadly conceived. Tonstad runs quickly through a number of popular apologetic strategies in contemporary “queer theology,” including, for example, arguments from God as genderless, the potential corruption of Jesus’ message by the bigoted Paul, and idea of God’s love as intrinsically “transgressive.” Ultimately, Tonstad finds most of these arguments dissatisfactory, or at least uninspiring, but some—Tonstad especially notes “the nexus of arguments from food, circumcision, and judgement” (p. 47) in Paul—are worth spending more time with.
But instead of giving us a developed account of the relevance of circumcision and table fellowship to sexuality and gender, Tonstad takes a diversion into an outline of the field of queer studies as it currently stands, focusing in on the “nature or nurture” debate (which she ultimately concludes is an unhelpful question) and “the question of queer.” This primer on queer studies is salutary, and should be paid special attention by Orthodox readers; one often finds that even among serious academics, including those sympathetic to LGBT+ inclusion in the Church, there doesn’t seem to be much of an awareness of secular conversations about gender and sexuality, and hence they often make mistakes that could’ve been easily corrected by greater acquaintance with existing material. Tonstad not only summarises and explains difficult ideas and debates with ease, but she also provides guides for further reading. One might hope that even if Tonstad’s overall argument is not widely accepted in Orthodoxy, Queer Theology might become a helpful source for further study and discussion.
Much of this discussion is not directly theological. However, it acts as a heuristic for understanding Tonstad’s critique of much of existing “queer theology.” On the one side you have what might be categorised as “liberal” approaches to LGBT+ identity, grounded in an account of an essential “inmost” self that is—as essential—worthy of dignity, and therefore of certain official rights and recognitions, such as marriage. On the other, there are those who see “queerness” as a potential site for “the transformation of the very social, political, and economic structures within which state distribution of rights and recognition appear to be the goal of political action” (p. 68, emphasis Tonstad’s).
Whilst much of the existing literature on “queer theology,” both popular and academic, assumes the former approach, and thus tends towards apologetics on specific issues such as same-sex marriage and gender transition, Tonstad wants to ask the following: If queerness potentially offers a transformation of the very conditions of our personal and social lives (whether we are LGBT+ or cishet*), then how might this be related to the transformation that Christianity purports to offer? Certain aspects of Tonstad’s project may trouble some readers: her direct appeal to Marxist arguments, for example, or attempts to highlight the sexual implications of theology that might be taken as blasphemous. Yet given the common refusal of Orthodox theologians to separate theologoumena for “individual” treatment outside of the entirety of Christian doctrine, and the insistence on Christianity as a total transformation of life, there are good reasons for Orthodox thinkers to pay attention to her proposals.
Indeed, there are significant parallels between aspects of Tonstad’s argument(s) and common tropes of modern Orthodox theology. For instance, the sense of oneself as the “first among sinners” is widely regarded as central to the Orthodox spiritual life, even so far as saying “attend only to your own sins, and hundreds around you will be saved.” One might relate this to Tonstad’s arguments that no form of sexual expression or identification is outside of the rule of sin, a refusal of both the unique sinfulness of LGBT+ people, but also of liberal attempts to posit the essential(ised) “goodness” of certain forms of expression and identification outside of the total transformation of all things. Similarly, there may be value in exploring the relationship between the primacy of apophaticism that has been crucial to many Orthodox arguments and Tonstad’s rejection of arguments that marginalised people need to be “represented” in their images of God, on the grounds that this would blur the line between the eternal and the contingent.
In both of these examples, the fundamental question is the ambivalence between finitude and contingency, and its potential transformation (what we Orthodox would call “deification”). The question of finitude frames the book from beginning to end, from the Hellenistic incredulity at a crucified God that sparks the impulse towards apologetics in Christian theology, to the controversies that emerge during the AIDS crisis over the relationship between death, selfhood, and sexuality.
Here we run into an irresolvable dilemma, a question about how to understand the orientation of a life lived under the shadow of death. That is the question of Christianity, and the question of queerness too. (P. 131)
If we believe that Orthodoxy is no stranger to such questions, Tonstad may provide a guide as to how better to ask and answer them.
*Cishet is an abbreviation for “cisgender heterosexual.” Cisgender refers to those people who are the same gender as they were assigned at birth, as opposed to transgender people. Tonstad explains these terms and others in the book.
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Jonathan Murden is an Orthodox Christian and an undergraduate student in Theology and Religion at Durham University, England.
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