Queer Theology Revisited

Linn Tonstad responds to Paul Griffiths

Linn Marie Tonstad, Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics, Eugene, Oregon, Cascade Books, 2018, viii + 158 pp., $22.

First, I want to express my thanks to Paul Griffiths for his review—not just its generosity, but the degree of seriousness with which he has engaged a book that hoped to elicit just such a response, whether in further development, debate, or outright disagreement. He’s rightly picked up on the normative contours of the project: it is indeed intended as a corrective to certain tendencies in queer theology as it’s mainly developed so far, and contains strongly normative components of its own, theologically as well as sociopolitically. I’ve written elsewhere on the limitations of reflexive antinormativity for queer theology and queer theory (see Linn Tonstad, “Ambivalent Loves”) and, in any case, generally find debates over normativity relatively unilluminating—especially when they take a form like, “Oh, you don’t like norms? Well, that’s a norm!” The sense of “queer” that I’m invested in is indeed positional in a politically normative sense; that positionality would change if and as heternomativity changes, but (short of the eschaton) is unlikely to become unnecessary. The term trans*, which is a debated term among trans people, indicates mobility rather than positionality. In general, my interest in sex, gender, and sexuality is their incomprehensibility, how they touch the mysterious in human existence (though they do not exhaust it), how desire forms us, and is experienced, in ways that can’t easily be accounted for. I’m thus less eager to detail the range of meanings of terms like sex, sexuality, and gender, and much more eager for better engagement with human unknowability, including in its sexed and gendered forms. This means that my main interest in this instance is in failures in the order of knowing rather than in the relation between the order of knowing and the order of being, though presumably some failures of knowledge reflect a disjunction and others a point of disruptive contact between the two.

Some minor points: as Griffiths acknowledges though doesn’t pursue, I’ve raised my own concerns about tendencies toward an implicit antisemitism in queer theology, especially regarding the Jewishness of Jesus (see Linn Tonstad, “The Limits of Inclusion”), though I probably do not agree with Griffiths on some aspects of his solution to the problem. (Election is the prevalent solution in some theological circles, but it may not be a sufficient solution or the only possible one.) More detailed argument on both sides would be needed to determine the ultimate location of the disagreement. My advocacy of open communion, which Griffiths presumes denotes a rejection of baptism, is actually grounded in apocalyptic concerns about the church’s temptation to believe, or—maybe more importantly yet, act as if—it controls access to Christ’s ascended body, as I’ve argued in some detail in God and Difference (especially in chapters 6 and 7).

On the matter of abstraction and the flesh, Griffiths misreads me, though for understandable reasons. I do not, in any abstract sense, elevate flesh over intellect. I do, however, have concerns about tendencies toward reification and theological abstraction that produce “the body” as an object of theological analysis, but cannot speak of bodies and flesh in any way that touches (a loose designation) bodies and flesh. (I acknowledge here Griffiths’s distinction between them in Christian Flesh.) This is tricky terrain, as I’m not particularly satisfied with any of the conceptual schemata available to me, at least for use in a short response. What concerns me is a theological and theoretical tendency to speak of “the body” or to imagine a separation between analysis and experience. One of the things human flesh does is to produce abstraction, but not all forms of abstraction are helpful or illuminating, and theological attempts to think about sexuality and the body are notoriously unhelpful in this regard, most of the time. The case I make in Queer Theology is that theologians must do better, and that doing better includes reflecting on the material conditions within which bodies and flesh take form and in which flesh is regulated (we learn which body parts to cover, how loudly to speak in different environments, which kinds of touches belong where, and so on). It also means trying to write against our own tendencies toward “bad” reification. The material conditions of theological speech include economic conditions to which theologians mostly respond in inadequate ways, as if they could be ignored, or countered by a proper therapy of desire. I suspect that Griffiths and I agree that created human historicity is theologically deeply significant, but disagree on the implications of that claim, especially with respect to these matters.

I would be curious to hear more from Griffiths about how he combines his employment of Galatians 3:28 with his insistence that Jew, Christian, and pagan are natural kinds. I can imagine an argument, but not one that wouldn’t feel a bit trickstery, as in the claim that “neither Jew nor Greek” applies only to Christians of both kinds.

To end, and to return to gratitude: it’s satisfying, though not surprising, that so penetrating an interlocutor as Griffiths recognizes the promise of reflection on original sin for queer theology (see Linn Tonstad, “Everything Queer,” for a first attempt on my part). That recognition suggests that there are, indeed, further conversations to be had.

Linn Tonstad is a constructive theologian working at the intersection of systematic theology with feminist and queer theory. Her first book, God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude, was published by Routledge in 2016. She joined the Yale Divinity School faculty in 2012 after teaching for a year at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. From 2009 to 2011, she was a Lilly Fellow in the humanities and theology at Valparaiso University.