Abstract: Rather than delve into the potential theo-logic of a Butlerian “constructivist” account of gender, this blog post proposes that we pause, and instead question the discursive operations undergirding the very idea of “the future of systematic theology.” The effort to secure the existence of systematic theology, I suggest, is idolatrous—rather, systematic theology needs to lose its own life in order to potentially save it, and can begin to move in that direction by attending to the concrete, historic, material, discursive realities of people’s lives, especially those on the underside. This “losing” is both practical and apophatic, in that it acknowledges that the task demands constant attention to the material realities of people’s lives and the discursive regimes that produce those realities, and that we cannot seek to grasp or claim or secure a telos or overarching discourse. I end, then, by turning briefly to the potentialities within a constructivist frame, and offering some suggestions for possibilities for Christian feminist theologies.
§1: Forsaking Futurity: My Frustrations with the Discourse Thus Far
It’s ironic, to say the least. While, in many of the various facebook threads where conversation around these posts is now happening, I have repeatedly noted how I am very grateful for these exchanges, for the dialogue that has happened, I have to say, that during much of the conversation over the last day, I’ve felt the need to have my pink penis totem handy… considering that these conversations have been happening over a blog post about said totem, I find this a bit humorous…
I’ve struggled with where to go with this final blog post. Originally, I wanted to outline a bit of a Butlerian “constructivist” account of gender and examine the theological overlay/import, to lay out what I see as a potential alternative to a “Christianly gendered” theology… I may still do a little bit of that here, but a lot of that conversation has already happened, and more of it will probably have happened by the time I finish this post—I can’t really seem to keep up.[i] Moreover, I don’t think the conversation is “there yet,” so to speak—I don’t think we’re really to the point of doing “constructive theological work,” of “system building.” Rather, I think we need to pause quite a bit longer at the examination of material conditions, at the questions we’re asking, at exploring and interrogating our theological imaginations, our methodologies…. Rather, or at least first, I want to step even further back from the conversation for a little bit, and talk briefly about why this conversation is so important for me, about what I see being at stake.
At the risk of coming off as both rude/offensive[ii] and terribly trite, what I see at stake, what I really care about, isn’t the future of systematic theology, but people’s lives, people’s flourishing (and thus, the glory of God). Which, I think, is what systematic theology should be concerned with, not its own future. It’s kind of funny, I presented a paper at AAR on theological engagement with Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, and why the themes of that paper (ecclesiology and kinship) are different from what I am trying to address here, I think Edelman’s eschewal of futurity might actually come in handy.
Queers must respond to the violent force of such constant provocations[of their own lives via the ‘sake of the future] not only by insisting on our equal right to the social order’s prerogatives…but also by saying explicitly what Law and the Pope and the whole of the Symbolic order for which they stand hear anyway in each and every expression or manifestation of queer sexuality: Fuck the social order and the Child in whose name we’re collectively terrorized; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Mis; fuck the poor, innocent kid on the Net; fuck Laws both with capital ls and with small; fuck the whole network of Symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop.[iii]
Edelman is, to say the least, quite provocative. Some might say he’s a bit nihilistic or depressing. But I don’t think he is. Because this is not where he ends, and it is precisely because he sees the notion of the future—at least, the way it is deployed—as foreclosing possibilities, as foreclosing flourishing. “Such queerness,” he suggests, proposes, “ in place of the good, something I want to call ‘better,’ though it promises, in more than sense of the phrase, absolutely nothing.”[iv] Edelman, I think, grasps how the quest to future is problematic—this, perhaps, aligns with J. Kameron Carter’s point about Bonhoeffer (and Butler, for that matter), that “neither our origins nor our destiny are available to us as Creature and that this is part and parcel of the goodness the Creator declares over creation. To grasp after either our origins (the moment of “in the beginning…”) or our destiny (teleology?) is precisely to refuse existence from ‘the middle,’…”
So, I ask, what are our investments in “the future of systematic theology” doing to or for people’s lives? What are they not doing? How are they hurting people? In less than 48 hours, I’ve received emails from twenty-seven twenty-eight thirty-one women expressing thanks for my posts, noting how they wanted to comment, but didn’t feel comfortable or “safe.” This alone is, I think, indicative of a problem. A big problem. It’s also interesting to see how the conversation has played out differently on the theology studio site than it has in the “hush harbor” that is the private Women and Religion facebook group.[v] This was what I hoped to really press into in my second post: attention to the material and social realities surrounding these conversations, but it seems to not have really taken—that is, I think, as the need to rely again on the totemic powers of my pink penis indicate, my point has been missed entirely.
This IS NOT to say that people who are invested in this conversation who are arguing on behalf of the ‘tradition’ and ‘the future’ are inherently misogynist or racist, or “intentionally perpetuating white masculinity”—that is not what I am saying in the least. What I can’t help but wonder, though…are those among us who are arguing on behalf of these things doing anything to combat white (heterosexist, classist, ableist) masculinity? I guess I just don’t see much of that either.
Ok, sure, so there is engagement with the questions, which assuredly indicates concern for these things. But concern is easy to accomplish—it is, shall we say, quite “passive.” But I have to be honest, I’m a bit disheartened—I’m disheartened at the tone of the conversations; at what I perceive as a desire to secure identity, to secure the future, to secure God; at the defensiveness and lack of self-reflexivity.
And for me, the method is indicative of the message. Which is why I’m angry. And hurt. And scared. Because this is not the Good News to me. The Good News is not about seeking to justify or defend a tradition that has hurt so, so many people. And please, please here mean—I do not mean, conversely, that we “throw out” tradition. Not in the least. But there is a difference between acknowledging and engaging with tradition, and defending it—how are we engaging with and relying on tradition, and, as was noted a few times in the facebook discussion by both J. Kameron Carter and Tim McGee, we need to examine what we are asking tradition to do, what investments we have in tradition.
Also, I mean, if we really do believe that the Spirit is present within the tradition, within the history of the ‘church’ and its creeds, then do we really need to be so quick to defend it? Don’t we know the presence of the Spirit by the fruits that She produces in Her people? And when I get so many emails from women and men echoing my concerns, I have to wonder about the fruit we’re producing… When I think about the myriad of people who’ve left theology—who’ve left Christianity altogether—because they’ve been burned by folks wanting to defend something that has hurt them so deeply… So many stories come to mind here, that I don’t even know where to begin—so many women I know who have not had the energy or hope to fight for their voices to be heard or their questions to be valued, so many “blue collar” folks who feel like Christianity has nothing to offer to their situations, so many people of color who are so damn tired of the lack of attention to the racism (both subtle and overt) that they face in churches and in the academy, and, oh, the queer folk….I have so many stories here, so much pain that I’ve heard and that I’ve experienced, but the story that is seared into my memory and into my soul is that of my friend Brian…
“It’s easier to leave than to stay. I can’t handle seminary anymore. It’s not worth it.” Those were Brian’s last words, the end of a short note scribbled on a yellow legal pad for his friends and family, right before he hung himself from the bar of his bedroom closet on December 23, 2008. Brian was one of my closest friends; not only did he understand what it meant to be queer and Christian, he knew what it was like to be a seminarian as well. He was the only other person I knew who shared that experience. We would talk regularly, chronicling our moments of joy, lamenting the pain, and dreaming about things getting better. Yet, in the midst of Advent, a time of celebration and hopeful anticipation, Brian found neither. Precisely in the moment where salvation and hope were to be most salient, Brian ended his life—his physical death a mimesis of the social and emotional death he experienced at the hand of fellow Christians.
How do I make sense of Brian’s story, of all these stories? I really can’t… But, this I think is a far more urgent and significant matter than the “ideological” debates around gender essentialism vs. constructivism… In fact, I don’t think they are different questions, which is one of the points I have been trying to make in all of this. In closing, then, I want to turn, briefly, to some of the more “substantive” claims I’m wanting to hint towards or begin to think through as we wrestle together with questions about gender and tradition and the theological academy… [vi]
§2: A Call For Feminist Theologies: Some Inchoate Suggestions
Part of my confusion in this conversation has been around the claim towards wanting to move “beyond” the essentialist/constructivist binary, and especially with trying to grasp what is so problematic about constructivism. Eric Daryl Meyer said it well in a comment on the TS facebook group. He writes:
It feels to me like “gender constructivism” is a boogey-man in this conversation. I’m wondering if Tony might give some examples. Judith Butler has been mentioned, but she certainly doesn’t argue that people just get to make up whatever they want and “perform” it as their gender. She is very, very attentive to cultural and biological constraints.
Simply put—yep. In Giving an Account of Oneself, Butler is quite clear that the socially-constructed self does not eliminate agency or norms, or even the need for norms. The “problem is not with universality,” she explains, “but with an operation of universality that fails to be responsive to cultural particularity and fails to undergo a reformulation of itself in response to the social and cultural conditions it includes within its scope of applicability” (6). The task, rather, is to acknowledge and interrogate norms, to recognize the ways norms function to constitute oneself in relation with the other. This is what seems to be eschewed in many conversations that assume essentialist gender claims—i.e. the assumed connection between feminism and receptivity.
As I say in an earlier footnote, for a critique of gender—and sexual—essentialism—I highly recommend Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. What Butler does is this text is demonstrate how discourse shapes reality in terms of producing (gendered) subjectivities, and that this has oppressive and violent consequences. As she notes in the preface:
The point of this text is… to show that the naturalized knowledge of gender operates as a preemptive and violent circumscription of reality. To the extent the gender norms…establish what will and will not be intelligently human, what will and will not be considered to be ‘real,’ they establish the ontological field in which bodies may be give legitimate expression (xxiii).
I mean, if we are going to talk about a telos, about eschatology, perhaps we can discuss this Christologically, examining how, as Baker suggests, there ought now be neither male nor female… I love how Serene Jones discusses this in Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace, when she writes, “Feminist theological discussions of women’s nature are rooted decisively in a theological vision of an already/not-yet future—a vision of God’s will for a redeemed humanity where all persons live in right relation to God and one another.” This is where I want to turn to Barth, to how grace disrupts “nature”… how might we think about how nature itself is not exactly natural, and how we might live into our identities grace-fully, eschatologically, performatively, Christologically…. Which, as Butler points out, as folks in the facebook discussion have pointed out, as I have been trying to point out, means attending to power—because, as Butler says, it is power that “operate[s] in the production of that very binary frame for thinking about gender” (xxvii). The question Butler then asks is the question I think is so important, and the question I constantly ask, and that I immediately thought of when I read the blog post on Gender and the Studio, and that prompted this series of responses. Butler asks:
What happens to the subject and to the stability of gender categories when the epistemic regime of presumptive heterosexuality is unmasked as that which produces and reifies these ostensible categories of ontology?….But how can an epistemic/ontological regime be brought into question? What best way to trouble the gender categories that support gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality (xxx, emphasis mine)?
Moreover, it seems as Baker himself is somewhat unclear on this point (of where to land in regards to essentialism/constructivism). While, on the one hand, he clearly wants to affirm the feminine, and whatever archetypal/ontological/epistemological traits he believes are concomitant with it, on the other hand, he himself points to something beyond fixed notions of gender, asking if (and thus presumably hoping that) the work the theology studio does “transcends the ancient and modern bifurcation of gender archetypes that Christ came to heal,” and earlier, noting quite clearly that “Paul suggests, and Coakley reminded us, that there ought now be neither male nor female” (emphasis mine). (note: Baker has clarified this a bit for me in the TS facebook group, though it still, to some degree, remains unclear to me what is meant by “the divinely given human essence.”)
Perhaps the problematic material realities of this world, alongside the fact that there ought now be neither male nor female, demands not a “Christianly gendered” theology, but a pleathora of Christian feminist theologies?
So, how might we think and live into the notion that there ought now be neither male nor female? Which is to ask, of course, what I think it means, in light of my aforementioned critiques and claims. In conclusion/to summarize, I humbly offer some of my own suggestions—not of what “Christianly-gendered” theological work can do, as I don’t desire nor ascribe to the idea that that is what we should be seeking; rather I offer reflections on how folks like those involved with the theology studio, amongst others, can foster feminist theological work (and space for such work). Some very brief, very, very undeveloped/inchoate thoughts (most, if not all, of which I’ve already mentioned in some way, shape, or form, but offer here for the sake of having a concise summary):
- We need to attend critically to methodology—what questions are we asking? What questions are we not asking that we need to be asking? What are our investments in tradition, in the future, and why? What sources are we engaging? What even counts as “theology” for us?
- Relatedly, we need to attend more to power, to how power undergirds so much of this conversation—how power shapes the very categories and classifications we employ and assume without question.
- As Mandy draws attention to in her blog post, we need to listen. To really listen. And to be self-reflective, or, as Baker says in a comment, to “be willing to do a little self-inquiry.” Here, I think James McCarty sums it up quite, quite well. So, I’m just going to end by re-posting his wise advice:
So, here’s my suggestion to my fellow male bloggers:
1. Be quiet. Seriously, stop talking long enough to listen. And then …
2. Listen to women. And listen in a way in which you can learn from them. Seriously. Read Women in Theology and Profligate Grace and Per Caritatem and Feminism and Religion and former AAR president Kwok Pui Lan. And don’t argue with them right away (as many did with Ms. Daniel’s post and Jones and commenters did with his critics). Listen deeply. Meditate upon those things that don’t resonate with your experience and give them a charitable interpretation. Think about the questions that women ask which you never think to ask. Take those questions seriously and recognize your need to learn from women to answer them.
3. Collaborate. Seriously. First, learn from women by studying under them. Then teach WITH women. Write WITH women (when you do they won’t let you get away with some of the ridiculousness that sometimes gets published by us). Think WITH women.
And then more women may begin to think, write, and agree with you. Or at least you might be able to have fruitful rather than dismissive online conversations with women when you do, and will, disagree.
(And then – MAYBE – we can address the lack of engagement with non-white persons in these online conversations!)
For the sake of , and love for, the church; for the sake of, and love for, the world and the full-flourishing of all humanity; for the glory of God.
[i] If you want to read a critique of gender essentialism, just check out Butler’s groundbreaking book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.
[ii] I’m going to take the risk and just be honest and a bit vulnerable in this post, hoping that y’all—in light of my earlier engagements—know where my heart is at, and that my boldness will not cause some of you to put up walls and disengage.
[iii] Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, 29.
[iv] Ibid., 5.
[v] See Karen Baker Fletcher, “The Erotic in Contemporary Black Women’s Writing,” in Anthony B. Pinn & Dwight N. Hopkin, eds. Loving the Body: Black Religious Studies and the Erotic, 199-213.
[vi] I must admit, I am worried that, given the “angry” and sermony nature of this post, it may be ignored or dismissed as not substantive. But maybe, perhaps, it might get attention as a “feminine form”?