It’s hard to say when queer theology as we know it today began--maybe because differing opinions have always existed in the church, or maybe becuase a fear of human sexuality is always bubbling underneath the surface of church politics. In addition, queer theology was never a linear movement; rather, it began before anyone had a notion of what queerness was or that it could be applied to theology. The groundwork for queer theology was laid by critical theorists who studied language, power and truth, which was later adopted by feminists. Moreover, queer theory gained traction in different denominations in different countries at different times, only to explode in America in the mid-twentieth century in an accelerated flurry of social criticism.
As daunting as feminist and queer criticism is to Christians, it’s essential that we queer our theology. Spending time studying various forms of queer theology can help the church better welcome and communicate with LGBTQ+ people. Currently, most of the American LGBTQ+ population considers religious institutions unfriendly and they are less likely to value religion. This feeling of rejection continues beyond church walls because, despite the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights, queer people still feel that America misses the mark when addressing LGBTQ+ issues and most report that they feel there is little acceptance of queer identities in America. If we, as Christians, want to truly love, serve, and welcome our queer neighbors, we must dive into queer theology.
Where Did Queer Theology Come From?
The only root of queer theology that I could point to with some certainty is the Enlightenment, which exploded in Europe with the growth of scientific study. This led many to question the validity and authority of religion because, with the popularization of Darwinism, the Scientific Method, and reason, it suddenly became hard to accept ancient texts at face value.
The Age of Reason then naturally led to many waves of critical theory. A central figure in this progression is Foucault: he critiqued post-Enlightenment theory and laid the foundation for Judith Butler in their studies of gender and sexuality in the late 20th-century. As critical theorists continued in the spirit of reason that characterized the Enlightenment, theologians had to consequently defend themselves against doubts and criticism from many directions.
At first glance, it seems odd that most queer theology developed in the 20th-century, as if there were no queerness before this point in history. This is not true; instead, historians attribute this development to new concepts of gender and sexuality that did not exist before this point in history. With waves of feminism dissecting Western concepts of gender and sexuality, the revolutionary idea of orientation appeared. The concept of sexual orientation is new because, prior to this last century, it appears that Western culture did not consider sexual desire to have direction. Rather, Matthew Vines explains in his book God and the Gay Christian that Western Christianity treated sexuality as something to be restrained in general. Sexual expression was permitted within the confines of monogamous, heterosexual marriage, and desires outside of that context were treated as excessive. So in a similar way that lust was considered an overflow of desire outside the permitted confines of sexuality, homosexuality was also considered an overflow of desire. This concept really put pressure on the church because people were now asserting that sexuality was not a matter of sin but of science.
Pushing for Change
Some theologians pushed against traditional readings of the Bible and argued for a broader, more holistic understanding of social dynamics within theology. One influential proponent of this was Marcella Althaus-Reid, a liberationist theologian born in Argentina in the 1950’s. She argued for “conscientization,” or a change in consciousness, which informed her Indecent Theology: a theology that undresses and exposes the social regulation and oppression of the body. She saw freedom from oppression as crucial to Jesus’ gospel and fought for such freedom in the queer Christian community. Her cutting-edge theology brought her to the forefront of Christian thought as she lectured throughout Latin America, Europe, and the U.S. She proclaimed herself an “indecent, Latina, bisexual theologian” and lived up to that title.
Another man who dedicated his life to queer theology was John J. McNeill, a Jesuit priest and psychotherapist. McNeill, a World War II veteran and impressive scholar, was known for challenging the Catholic church on it’s homosexual stance starting in the 1970’s--relatively early in the development of queer theology. The Vatican ordered him to stop speaking out on LGBTQ+ matters, but he refused. Eventually, he was expelled from his position because he continued his ministry and psychotherapy practice for queer Christians. Thankfully, his influential work outlives him and continues to inform queer Catholic theology.
Pushing for Tradition
Other theologians maintained a traditional view of sexuality, following in the footsteps of celibate clergy who have led the church for hundreds of years. Well-known scholars following this tradition today include Wesley Hill, who speaks openly on his sexuality and balances the tension between acknowledging his queerness and honoring his convictions. Hill does this in his writings on spiritual friendship--a common conversation among theologians throughout history, often spurred by commitments to celibacy. The ultimate questions of spiritual friendship are: What does intimacy look like outside of sex? and, What is God’s design for non-sexual intimacy?
Hill invokes many theologians in his writing, but his reference to Bonhoeffer particularly caught my attention. Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on spiritual friendship center on the significance of “otherness”--a common concept among feminist and queer writers of the 20th-century--which emphasizes the fruitful tension that comes from acknowledging the differences between oneself and another. The “other” challenges our knowledge of the world in the same way God’s “otherness” challenges our knowledge of the universe. It is this concept of “othering” that feminists use to convey the harm of exclusion and instead the value of femininity; it is this concept that LGBTQ+ activists use to convey the harm of isolation and instead the value of sexual diversity; and it is this concept that theologians, conservative and liberal alike, use to convey the harm of rejection toward anyone interested in entering the church, and instead the value of seeking to know the “other” as we seek out intimacy with God.
The Good of Queer Theology
Though there are many paths of queer Christian thought, they all serve to increase Christian awareness of those different than us. Queer theology ultimately helps us to honor the image of God in all people. Thanks to queer theologians throughout church history, we now know that the body of Christ would not be complete without us and it is essential that we keep inviting the outcast into the Kingdom.