Friday, April 3, 2009

Theological re-interpretation in Queer Theology

Over lunch I ran across a quote from Gerard Loughlin's Queer Theology in the January issue of Theology Today. Quoted from Gavin Hyman's article "Postmodern Theology and Modern Liberalism" (468):
The Christian tradition has always imagined same-sex marriage- at least for men. Men have always been able- if not required- to play the bride to Christ's groom, for "all human beings- both women and men- are called through the Church to be the 'Bride' of Christ" (John Paul II). Why then should same-sex marriage be so troubling for the Christian churches, when it is what Christian men have been doing all along? The answer is contained in the latter clause of the question. It has to do with (men) falling for a male deity, and is in this sense a christological problem.

Recent work in queer theology and theology of sexuality is often characterized by this- in my mind very promising- attentiveness to traditional patterns of theological orthodoxy. You'll find a lot of it in Eugene Rogers too, particularly tying in to pneumatology. I think that if there is any hope for presenting a compelling theological defense of homosexuality as a graced relational situating, it will have to be along these sorts of lines. While the "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" argument of traditionalists is often ridiculed, it is really a very good theological case of complimentarity, and it is very much the same case that Loughlin presents above, or others present elsewhere. The point is the fittingness of God's creative goodness and how an attentiveness to such patterns, orders, or leitmotifs help us to better understand sexuality or any other topic of moral import. Explaining what an "ought" is requires an understanding of what "is" is, even if the complexity of moral reflection has moved us past any naive assumptions about the relationship between"is" and "ought". Here Loughlin attempts to explain a sexual ought by way of a christological is, and I think this is a rather productive route to take.

Doing so need not present us with a natural theology; indeed, Eugene Rogers has presented his case precisely as unnatural. What "is" doesn't underwrite the "ought" in the sense of "natural theology" or "orders of creation", then. But even in conceiving homosexual relation as "against nature," a redemptive pattern is being employed... a redemptive "is" is being used to make sense of sexual goodness.

I say that these theological attempts are good, but (unsurprisingly), I don't think that any such attempts have yet presented a compelling case for the goodness of homosexuality as relational identity. Loughlin's case made above seems especially shoddy, and it's a shame because the striving to reinterpret sexuality within the conditions of theological patterns of orthodoxy is so helpful as a methodological impulse.

Loughlin argues that "Men have always been able- if not required- to play the bride to Christ's groom, for "all human beings- both women and men- are called through the Church to be the 'Bride' of Christ" (John Paul II)." The inability to accept same-sex marriage in the church is thus "a christological problem."

The reference to John Paul II and 20th century Catholic nuptial theology is especially ironic (and yet rather pervasive amongst certain theologians... there's almost a sense that an imprimatur of some sort is being sought to anchor progressive reflection). But does John Paul II really talk about men "playing the bride"? Of course not! Loughlin himself has offered the reason why his interpretation is wrong: men and women both "are called through the Church to be the 'Bride'". It is not any particular Christian man or woman who is a bride, but rather the Church. Loughlin's re-interpretation of this christological marriage depends upon a deeply problematic individualism that atomizes salvation and leaves little room for ecclesiology to breathe.

Really, Loughlin is making the same argument commonly offered by traditionalists against women priests. Because the priest represents Christ to the congregation and especially in the administration of the sacraments, only males (it is argued) are able to accomplish the representation. Yet neither of these christological structures- the ecclesial Bride or the priestly "Christ"- depend upon the people who fill the office, but rather upon the identity of the office itself. Priesthood qua priesthood or Church qua Church are male and female structures set in christological relation, but they are the new identities of the Christian life. They inform human relation rather than vice versa. The Church is the bride of Christ as a community, and the priest as representative of Christ is husband of the Church (female) and also father of the individual congregants (both male and female). This is true of the office regardless of the office holder, of the body regardless of the sexual diversity of its members.

Interestingly, Gavin Hyman continues in his article to make much the same point that I've made here, though with quite different intention. The point of his article is to argue that "postmodern theology has something positive to learn from modern liberalism". Of Loughlin, he continues,
But what gives rise to this displacement of one [heteronormative] reading of orthodoxy for another [Loughlin's]? Is it plausible to see it as being generated purely from within? Could it be the case that secular liberalism, which has been in the vanguard of the affirmation of homosexuality, may have had a part to play in calling theological orthodoxy to a new self-understanding?

Setting aside the glaringly unjustified leap Hyman makes in assuming that a "reading" of theological orthodoxy is in fact necessarily theological orthodoxy's "self-understanding" (rather than simply an unorthodox reading of orthodoxy), I'd say yes. He's exactly right about Loughlin and modern liberalism. And while I would agree with him that we have a lot to learn from modern liberalism, I think in this particular example we are hindered rather than helped by its influence. Loughlin's commendable attempt to re-interpret structures of theological reasoning falters rather fatally on an extreme appeal to individualism, otherwise his idea that men "play the bride" to Christ remains nonsensical.*

Many "traditionalists" like myself are eager to listen and dialogue about issues of sexuality... we really are, and we really do seek to faithfully receive a true and good way forward on the question of homosexuality. There are obviously Christians who seek to be genuinely faithful within a homosexual lifestyle, and while I do not agree with this, it is still plain that they are not seeking to do violence to the faith but rather to simply understand it rightly. That said, it is not acceptable for them to do so in a way that offers a violent re-reading of the redemptive structures of the faith. This is what I think is presented by Loughlin, and I have not yet found a defense of the goodness of homosexual relational structures that avoids these problems (though I don't claim to be familiar with all of the pertinent theologies of sexuality).






*That may not be exactly true. I'm not well-read on Christian mysticism, but bridal mysticism may present a case where an individual is interpreted as "bride of Christ", short-circuiting the typical ecclesial matrix within which this relationship is understood. That said, the case of mysticism is exceptional, and so must be interpreted and re-applied with special care. There is often an attempt to use mysticism in theology more broadly, and I think that this can be dangerous precisely because the mystic as ascetic or hermit withdraws him or herself from the community. Presumably a faithful interpretation of mysticism should follow such a withdrawal and recognize its non-communicable nature. Also, mysticism as Christian practice is informed by the same christological structures that have been discussed above, and not vice versa. It is christology that makes sense of the mystical ascent, and not the mystical ascent that stands over christology as an interpretative framework.

6 comments:

  1. Hello -- I came across this post on Faith & Theology. While I apologize for intruding just to disagree, I had to respond to some of things you assert in your post.

    First of all, while it is true that the individual soul-as-bride metaphor has its longest pedigree in mysticism, it is not true that it was first articulated there. Methodius of Olympus, not a mystic but a church father, may have been the first Christian writer to use the bridal metaphor, and he was rather explicit in his use of it -- as Ralph Norman explains, "Intimate union with Christ is not the preserve of the whole Church as his spouse, but also, according to Methodius, of every soul which he has come into." Methodius himself writes, "God, taking from Christ’s side during his ecstasy, that is, after his incarnation and passion, prepares for him a helpmate, that is to say, all souls who are betrothed and wedded to him … receiving from him the pure and fertile seed of doctrine" (Methodius, The Symposium, ET, p 67; Sources chrétiennes 95, 3.8.72-73). Methodius goes on to give St. Paul as an example of a person who "had been made into a helpmate and bride of the Word."

    I'm most familiar with the case of Methodius, but there are many more examples among the church fathers. Origen was a major influence on this tradition (see “The Soul as the Bride of Christ" in Origen: The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies, ed. R.P. Lawson). It was a huge part of the thought of Bernard of Clairvaux (see sermons 7 and 86 in the Sermones super Cantica canticorum). And doing a quick search on Google comes up with tons of other examples. Ambrose would make major use of the notion, especially emphasizing its significance for individuals in an epistle to his sister -- "anyone, then, kisses Christ who confesses him ... We kiss Christ, then, with the kiss of communion" (Epis. 41.14-15, cited in Matthew Kuefler's The Manly Eunuch, p. 139). Augustine referred to Christ as "the bridegroom of my soul" in his Confessions (4.15). And Gregory the Great wrote, "As the bride of Christ the Christian should be clean and pure," an offhand reference that illustrates the commonplace nature of the metaphor (cited in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Vol. X, p. 12). Moreover, certain Christian traditions have always emphasized this metaphor, especially the Moravians.

    Ralph Norman also gives a list of recent studies that discuss the bridal metaphor -- D. Turner, Eros and Allegory: Medieval Exegesis of the Song of Songs (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1995); G. Jantzen, Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); A. Hollywood, The Soul as Virgin Wife (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001); A. Hollywood, Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

    All in all, this is no mere mystical flight of fancy, nor is it an accession to modern liberal individualism; it is rooted in the historical tradition of the church.

    Also, mysticism as "non-communicable"? This seems a terrible cop out, and the weight of the bridal tradition in the history of Christian mysticism -- Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and many more -- seems to suggest just the opposite. The conceptualization of the individual soul as Christ's bride is perfectly communicable, a major touchstone in the history of the lived experience of Christianity. Yes, it must be interpreted christologically, but did it ever occur to you that there might seem to be a contradiction between the mystics and christology because of the gender essentialism of your christology, as opposed to all these saints of the church being isolated hermits who can teach us nothing?


    Nicholas Laccetti

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  2. Nicholas, thanks for your response... I am a big fan of bibliographies and voices of dissent on blogs (the lack of either means we don't get very far in thinking about things), and you've provided both. So no need to apologize for "intruding just to disagree."

    To begin, I wouldn't deny for a moment your comment that "All in all, this is no mere mystical flight of fancy... my point about mysticism wasn't meant to demean the tradition, but rather to describe it appropriately. I don't think it's insignificant that individual bridal structures are employed, I just don't know how far it can take us in situations concerning social institutions like marriage. For this reason I don't think my comment on non-communicability is a cop out either. I didn't say that mystics are "isolated hermits who can teach us nothing", nor that their use of bridal language has no application to christology. But I don't think it's inappropriate to prioritize the marriage between Christ and His church... I would venture to say that the Church makes the mystic and that any mystical theology which sets itself before (in the sense of a prolegomena to) the redemptive work of the Gospel and the community of salvation created by that work has gotten off track. And on that we may honestly disagree- I'm as willing to say that a mystical theologian is wrong as you are to say that a magisterial theologian is wrong, and sometimes we just need to draw those lines for clarity's sake. Which brings me to the second half of that sentence that I quoted up above...

    "...nor is it an accession to modern liberal individualism; it is rooted in the historical tradition of the church." Well, the fact that Loughlin brings his point to same-sex marriage and intends to apply it to our understanding of marriage today means quite simply that there is some interaction with modern liberal individualism-- and as Hyman says and I concur, there are good and bad things about such interaction. But insofar as it is rooted in the historical tradition of the church, very well! So long as we recognize that "the historical tradition" is better rendered in the plural... that is, the historical tradition of the Church is no more Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, or John of the Cross than it is John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Luther, Calvin, Lombard, Aquinas, etc. I don't doubt that there are numerous traditional strands that could be employed in a defense of same-sex marital structures of theological truth. In fact I'd take that as a given. But what I'm trying to do here is move past the bare realization that lots of Christians have said lots of different things, and try to arbitrate amongst contradictory assertions in a way that is true to the Gospel. I've done that by prioritizing a particular relationship that I think is biblical- the marriage relationship as it is employed to explain the salvific relationship between Christ and His Church- and I've used that standard to read various Christian attempts to make sense of marriage within the parameters of salvation. That I find some of these attempts lacking doesn't mean that I've ignored them. Thus, I don't see how you can simply point out their existence as a way of disagreeing with my point. You're providing more fodder for reflection, to be sure, but you offer no reason for me to read your texts the way you read your texts. All you really offer on that count, it seems to me, is your closing sentence:

    "... did it ever occur to you that there might seem to be a contradiction between the mystics and christology because of the gender essentialism of your christology, as opposed to all these saints of the church being isolated hermits who can teach us nothing?"

    Short answer: yes. I've tried to couch my thoughts in qualifications of the limitations of my knowledge and possible mistakes that I might be making. If it wasn't clear already, then I'll say it now. I come from a certain position, I privilege certain ways of thinking, and I haven't read all of the sources, just like you or Loughlin or anyone else who might come to the table. Longer answer: that's quite an assertion to make, but does it get us very far? I've already said that I do think the mystical tradition can teach us something. As far as the "gender essentialism" of my christology goes, I don't know quite how to respond to that. Forgive me if I botch this- I'm not overly familiar with the canons of gender studies, queer studies, feminism, etc.- but I don't see how my points are especially essentialist. Surely my conclusions are to a certain extent, but only insofar as I rule out a particular sort of sexual relationality as theologically appropriate. I don't say at all what masculinity or femininity are in themselves; quite the opposite! I think where I may read like an essentialist is exactly where I break that mold- Christ as bridegroom and Church as bride may sound iconic, but they don't inform our notions of the content of sexuality, that's exactly my point. That's why a man as member of the bride of Christ is not thus prepared on a theological level for "playing the bride" to another man. In fact, I think the same would hold even given a situation of mystical union... even an individual man "playing the bride" with Christ is still a "play"... this is where my point on women's ordination comes in- a woman as priest "playing" Christ as husband and father does not mean that the woman is a husband or a father; she takes upon herself an office, and in the same sort of way we take upon ourselves an office (either corporately, or in the case of mysticism, individually) as the bride of Christ.

    I've avoided your bibliographical sources, but 1)I think my point above stands that I never denied there are sources to the contrary, so I didn't see that as the heart of your argument, and 2)I heartily appreciate learning about what's out there, and I'll be sure to check into it. Thanks for the detailed response, and please do stop by again!

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  3. ...it may also be added, Loughlin's argument here did not even bring up the mystical element- I did as a sort of assist, as an attempt to make the argument with which I was disagreeing as strong as it possibly could be. I'm trying to be as fair as I can here, and upon reviewing your comment, I'd say that this is why I made the argument that Loughlin is employing a modern individualist understanding... because he doesn't speak of the union of the mystic, but rather of the Church.

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  4. I suppose I should clarify why I felt the need to include such an extensive bibliography -- it was my impression (really, it still is) that the main argument against Loughlin in your original post was that he has offered a faulty interpretation of the bridal metaphor, rooted in modern individualism rather than the traditions of the church. And that this trope might appear in mysticism, but not in the church's mainstream theology. For example, you wrote: "It is not any particular Christian man or woman who is a bride, but rather the Church. Loughlin's re-interpretation of this christological marriage depends upon a deeply problematic individualism that atomizes salvation and leaves little room for ecclesiology to breathe." And: "Loughlin's commendable attempt to re-interpret structures of theological reasoning falters rather fatally on an extreme appeal to individualism, otherwise his idea that men "play the bride" to Christ remains nonsensical."

    So when you say, "you offer no reason for me to read your texts the way you read your texts," I don't think that was ever the point. What I was trying to do was respond to your claim that Loughlin's notion of the individual male "playing the bride" was only a modern innovation or an aspect of mysticism, and thus unconvincing as a basis for theological reflection. The very fact that my texts exist is reason to rethink your claim that Loughlin is offering some sort of radical "re-interpretation" of christological marriage, because he isn't -- he is drawing upon Origen, Methodius, Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory, Bernard, not to mention the mystics. Likewise, the purpose of queer theology (beyond offering arguments for gay marriage) is to point out the inherent "queerness" (both in the sense of "strange" and of "sexually fluid") of the historical traditions of the church.

    Really, I was more concerned with your understanding of the history of the bridal metaphor than with starting a debate over gender and same-sex marriage, but since I did start it . . .

    You suggest that "Christ as bridegroom and Church as bride may sound iconic, but they don't inform our notions of the content of sexuality," but I don't think this is particularly clear in your original post. When you write in that post that "Priesthood qua priesthood or Church qua Church are male and female structures set in christological relation, but they are the new identities of the Christian life. They inform human relation rather than vice versa," it is hard not to read it as an argument that the male and female complementarianism of priesthood-church (or Christ-church) should inform human relations. So I think the point about the gender essentialism of your christology still stands -- your point in the original post does suggest that the male Christ-female church complimentary relationship should inform human marriage, and therefore same-sex marriage is rendered a theologically unacceptable option. If this is the case, Loughlin's point still stands.

    Meanwhile, you seem to run in circles when you mention your attempt "to arbitrate amongst contradictory assertions in a way that is true to the Gospel" by "prioritizing a particular relationship that I think is biblical- the marriage relationship as it is employed to explain the salvific relationship between Christ and His Church." This seems to be the very opposite of your point about the Christ/church relationship informing human relation "rather than vice versa" -- the human marriage relationship you "think is biblical" "is employed to explain the salvific relationship between Christ and His Church." In other words, a normative relationship you see in the bible (Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve) is employed to conceptualize the salvific relationship between Christ and the church. Well, fine -- a queer theologian would probably argue that the normativity of the biblical relationship is less clear than you might think -- but I'm not sure where you really stand.

    And it becomes even more confusing with your second post, which now seems to suggest that the metaphorical relationship between Christ and church shouldn't at all inform human gender relations, which didn't seem like your position in most of the original post. You make this argument by suggesting that we take on an office when acting as the bride of Christ (or as priest) and thus are simply "playing" at that role, rather than actually becoming that role. True, but one of the insights of queer theology is that gender is always a "play" -- one of the movement's main touchstones when it examines the complex fluidity of gender throughout the history of Christianity (of which bridal mysticism is a part). So, yes, a man only "plays the bride" as a member of the bridal church or as the individual bride of Christ, and a woman priest only "plays the man" when acting as Christ in the Mass -- but queer theology would respond that the man is "playing the man" and the woman is "playing the woman" all the time. Thus, notions of marriage based on essential gender complementarianism, or biblical notions of natural and unnatural gender behavior, are terribly problematic. Graham Ward makes this argument at length in his contribution to Queer Theology, "There is No Sexual Difference."

    It thus must be remembered that Christ as the man and the church as the woman are also roles being played, not essential categories, and we reify them in these roles at our own risk (or to further our own ideologies) -- hence my comment about gender essential christology. Indeed, much work has been done in the past decade on Christ's role as mother of the church in medieval theology (see the work of Caroline Walker Bynum and others) -- a role that problematizes the notion of a rigidly masculine Christ marrying a rigidly feminine church. Loughlin's argument just feeds into this insight, that Christianity has always been "queerer" than people might think.

    Finally, I'm not convinced that Loughlin misreads the quote from John Paul II. When JPII writes that "all human beings- both women and men- are called through the Church to be the 'Bride' of Christ," I think taking this to mean that individual men and women become individual brides of Christ is not an exaggeration. It is simple (especially with the weight of the tradition I cite in my first post) to interpret this quote as individuals becoming brides of Christ "through the Church" in a way analogous to individuals becoming spouses to other humans "through the Church."

    In the end, you might be better served by just reading a copy of Queer Theology, or perhaps Toward a Theology of Eros, another collection published by Fordham University. And I do apologize for the hyperbole about your view of mysticism -- it was late, I got carried away!

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  5. Nicholas... a few points, not meant to be an exhaustive response.

    -Affirming a robust complementarian (not in the John Piper sense, but rather the John Paul II sense) relationship between male and female is a sort of role essentialism; in that sense, yes, I'll own the essentialism that you accuse me of. I would say, however, that "essentialism" can't be taken simply as a blanket stance... there's quite a bit to work out between saying that we're always "playing" bride or groom (the idea that there is no difference) and saying that there is a concrete, absolute, and completely separate difference. As I understand the situation, you or Loughlin would affirm the first, but I just want to be clear that I affirm neither one, whether or not I recognize some sort of difference. That may be damning enough a position for me to take in your mind, but I would want to distinguish it from a harder essentialism.

    -On the biblical standard I employ to arbitrate here, I'd want to clarify that it wasn't anything about marriage as a human relationship, but marriage as it is employed to explain a salvific relationship. I don't assume "Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve" as the moral standard and then apply it to christology, that is, I simply point it out as a textual fact and apply it to christology as such; only at this point does it become interpretive on a moral level. The biblical marriage relationship just is- I'm not making any value judgment on it- it's simply there and employed of Christ and His Church, and that's the point at which I take it.

    -Your point on JPII, that "through the Church" does not negate the individual aspect of the bride, is a good one. It certainly dismantles my argument against Loughlin a bit, as far as I can see. Now, there's always more to talk about in moving on to gay marriage or whatever (which I won't bother doing here), because Even acknowledging the mystical bridal union I've explained why I don't think that it implies anything for gay marriage (because of bullet one above... I do think there is some level of difference). But, as you point out at the end, there's no point in getting deep into a conversation with queer theology without reading more of it. That's the limitation of commenting on a soundbyte, I suppose. I like to think that commenting on a soundbyte offers more in terms of discussion than not commenting at all, so long as my thoughts are qualified by where my knowledge ends... and we did reach some understanding on where exactly our difference sits, so that seems to have been worthwhile.

    Thanks again for posting.

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  6. ...excuse the rambling nature of that last bullet. I should have read it over and smoothed it out a bit.

    e.

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