queer theology and sexchatology
Susannah Cornwall interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Susannah Cornwall is a theologian with philosophical thoughts about how religions needs to get to grips with sexuality, about why bodies matter,about why sexuality is so divisive in religion, about queer theologies, about their outsider status, about Frederick Roden’s linking of Christian queer theology to Jewish traditions, about queer Muslim theology, about links between queer theologies and liberation theologies, about the relationship between sexuality, incarnation and erotic love, about what contemporary theology can add to debates about sex, about sexchatology, about Jürgen Moltman, about the challenges intersexed bodies bring to theology, and about how her theological positions speak to the stigmatised and marginalised.Divine…
3:AM: What made you become a theologian – and are you working only with Christian theology?
Susannah Cornwall: I was fortunate to grow up going to a church which was “broad church” in the best sense, where there were women in leadership for as long as I can remember, and where I was encouraged to participate fully even as a child. But, as for many people, I suspect, the trajectory that brought me to where I am today looks much clearer in retrospect than it ever did at the time. At every stage, serendipity has taken me onward. When I was 13 and choosing GCSE options, there were three subjects I passionately wanted to take, and only one timetable slot available. I was tossing up Religious Studies, Italian and Drama as possibilities. If I hadn’t chosen Religious Studies, then I might not have plumped for Theology and Philosophy at A-Level (I very nearly did Psychology instead). And if I hadn’t done Theology A-Level, then when I arrived at university to start my English literature degree (I was always going to do English – and I was always going to be a journalist) and quickly realized that I wanted to do Theology instead, I might not have been allowed to transfer onto the course. But I knew in my very first undergraduate lecture that it had been the right decision, and I’m convinced now, as I was then, that all theology is love and justice.
Most of my work has been on the cusp of Christian constructive theology and theological ethics. In some areas, especially feminist and postcolonial interpretation, I’ve drawn quite a bit on the work of Jewish scholars – always, I hope, with an awareness that Jewish narratives and texts can’t be unproblematically hijacked by Christian thinkers. And I’m currently researching accounts of variant sex and gender and understandings of the human being across Islam, Judaism and Christianity.
3:AM: You’ve investigated the role of sexuality in religion and you say that theologians have to confront this dimension of being human because humans are inescapably embedded and for some this means inescapably sexualised too. Is that right?
SC: Yes, but I’ve wanted to work with a broad account of sexuality. So saying we all have a sexuality doesn’t mean we are all being sexual, in the way we usually use that shorthand, all the time. Sexuality is about our creativity, our generativity, the energy through which and in which we interact with the world – so a person who’s temporarily or permanently celibate doesn’t stop being sexual just because they’re not being genital with anyone else. Sexuality is about far more than orientation. I’d argue that even people who describe themselves as asexual – who experience no sexual attraction to other people or situations at all – are still sexual in the sense that they meet and encounter others as sexed persons.
3:AM: Some might wonder about the idea that humans are inescapably embodied and perhaps think that within a theological framework there might be ideas about what makes a human being that says we’re not so embodied. What do you think about this push-back?
SC: There are good reasons for being circumspect about embodiment. Our impulses for justice, for example, often make us rail against the idea that someone could be born into a situation where all they ever know is immense physical pain and suffering. We want to attest a sense of self that transcends that, to say there must be something about the person that exceeds it, and that people are more than their bodily circumstances.
But bodies matter. Our souls don’t exist apart from our bodies. I’ve been really interested by theologies of disability, many of which hold that limitation is as much structural as it is personal. In other words, it’s harder to be someone who uses a wheelchair in a context of stairs and platforms and narrow passages than it is in one set up to be accessible. That doesn’t diminish the real difference and specificity of the bodies of people with disabilities, but does hold that the specificities of different embodiment are part of the specificity of human personhood per se.
A commitment to incarnation, as in the Christian theological tradition, is a commitment to specificity, to local circumstances, to human-sized relationships, and to all the inescapable animal needs for food and water and sleep and the rest that we all have. Theology that wants to make assertions about what it means to be human without taking bodily specificities and needs into account is, I think, not really engaging with true humanity at all. One of the things people often find weirdest and most awkward about Christianity is its affirmation of a bodily resurrection, an afterlife in which people are not just disembodied souls or spirits but embodied persons. That commitment to incarnation is tricky, but irreducible – just like bodies themselves.
3:AM: Of course sexuality has been at the heart of disputes within the Church. Why is sexuality such a divisive topic for religion?
SC: There are so many possible answers to that. At least one of my answers is that it’s not really to do with sexuality as such at all, but about sexed and gendered power – which is, in turn, really about demarcation of the universe. As human beings we tend to like certainty and clear boundaries. One of the significant associations we have with sexuality is, of course, biological reproduction. Reproduction is, in part, to do with the transmission of power, authority and culture; bodies that seem to exist “outside” typical structures of reproductive governance are often understood, implicitly or explicitly, as challenging that power. So the Church’s loss of power over sexual behaviour and attitudes points to a dilution of its cultural power more broadly.
Another part of the answer is that, although orthodox Christianity has this strong stream which endorses embodiment and materiality, it also carries a legacy of some of the pre-Christian philosophies which influenced it in its early days, and which were far more suspicious about embodiment – philosophies such as Gnosticism and Manichaeism. In these philosophies, bodies and materiality belonged to the realm of darkness, and were things which higher, enlighted souls were struggling to escape. All sex really did, in these accounts, was to make beautiful rational souls capitulate to base animal desires – often leading to the conception of children, which tied even greater numbers of transcendent souls into the messy business of bleeding, shitting, birthing, suffering and dying.
Orthodox Christianity, by contrast, has wanted to say that the embodied, material realm is not something entirely alien to the divine, but something suffused with the divine and into which the divine enters. But despite this, affirming the beauty and holiness of sex is something Christianity has often found difficult to do. There’s a real tension: the endorsement of virginity and celibacy at an earlier stage of Christian history meant there was a space where women, in particular, could exist on their own terms without having to go down the path of marriage and motherhood if they didn’t want to; but an endorsement of virginity can quickly (and especially to those with short memories) look like a wholesale rejection of sex as impure.
Sex is also often connected with animality, and I think we don’t always like to admit that we’re animals, because something true of all animals is that they’re physically vulnerable and they die.
3:AM: One of the areas of dispute and an area that you’ve worked in is queer theology. The sub-title of your book on this is ‘ controversies in contextual theology.’ So first can you say something about what we’re to understand by the idea of ‘contextual theology’ – and how queer theology fits into it?
SC: In simple terms, contextual theology is theology that takes account of context. It acknowledges that specificities such as sex, gender, ethnicity, class, nationality, ability or disability and so on influence our outlooks and speaking positions. The way I explain this to students is to say that all theology is “marked”, all theology has a prefix – but sometimes that prefix has been silent. Since the 1960s and 1970s theologians and others have used labels such as feminist, liberationist, postcolonial, Asian, Black, and lesbian and gay to make clear that one’s situation and political identity influence one’s theology. That’s been really positive, and has been a way to point out whose voices have often been missing or silenced.
But the thing is, there is no such thing as theology with no prefix, no context. It might be more accurate to say that, actually, a lot of the theology which has been taught in the past as “unmarked”, just plain old theology, should have had a prefix of its own: usually white, male, European, heterosexual theology. That kind of theology – which has sometimes been presented as the only or most legitimate “real”, serious theology – had a context just as much as more explicitly contextual theologies, but it wasn’t always acknowledged.
SCM Press’s Controversies in Contextual Theology series has tried to give dedicated space to exploring theology in a range of applied contexts: queer theology, interreligious dialogue, political theology, and so on. Part of queer theology’s genealogy is in lesbian and gay theology – but, in common with queer critical theory, its project is broader than questioning heteronormativity, and it seeks to highlight and interrogate oppressive normativities of all kinds.
3:AM: You suggest that it an outsider discourse and I think this isn’t hard to get – I wonder whether since the eighties it’s becoming less of an outsider thing than before?
SC: Sure, and there’s a set of questions in currency about the virtues of that. If queer criticism and methodology are now absolutely mainstream in many university curriculums, is that something to celebrate, or might it mean that queer theory’s capacity to critique and resist normativity is compromised? There are advantages to outsiderhood: it means you can sometimes fly under the radar; not be tied into someone else’s rules; and critique the compromised nature of those more firmly rooted in the status quo.
From a theological perspective, one element of queer theology has been about how outsiders become insiders: about how communities, including religious communities, which have been guilty of rejecting and harming queer people, can come to be communities of healing. Perhaps because of its Christian affirmation of tropes such as belonging and memorialization, queer theology has been less sceptical – less “paranoid” – about the goods of inclusion, redemption and futurity than much other contemporary queer critical theory has been.
3:AM: In the book you draw on Frederick Roden’s scholarship linking Christian queer theology with Jewish traditions. Can you say something about Roden’s ideas and how you use them in your own work?
SC: Well, Roden wants to say that, wherever Christianity is taken to be religiously, culturally and conceptually normative, Judaism is already marked as other and strange – just as queer is marked as other and strange where heterosexuality is taken as normative. Just as queer people have reclaimed the otherness and “strangeness” of queer as a good thing, a means by which to resist and move beyond apotheosized patterns of “normality” and “healthiness”, so the otherness of Jewish identity can be refigured as a positive rejection of Christian hegemony, and a reminder to Christianity of its own provisionality. Roden’s identifying the multiplicity of ways there are to be a boundary-crosser – and highlighting the fact that, of course, whether one’s read as a boundary-crosser or not depends on where the observer is standing. Roden also wants to say that Christianity can’t and shouldn’t understand or construct itself without acknowledging its historical and ongoing interactions with, and influence by, the Jewish tradition – just as queerness is not antithetical to the “mainstream” theological tradition but, per Gerard Loughlin, always there inside it, sometimes hidden, sometimes more visible.
What sorts of prompts do I identify in that kind of account? Well – important reminders about humility, historicity, and not colonizing narratives which are not mine, to begin with.
3:AM: You also look at queer Muslim theology – can you tell us a little about this – and how I think you suggest such theology is moving away from apologetics to proactive queer readings?
SC: Well, this is an area in which I’m far from expert. Scholars like Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle are at the forefront of it. Queer Muslim theologies have quite a bit in common with queer Christian and Jewish theologies, in that they have sought to reframe and re-examine their tradition in light of the experience of queer people. One strategy, for example, has been to do textual analysis and to ask whether sacred texts – passages from the Qur’an and the Bible – which seem to outlaw same-sex sexual activity are really outlawing homosexual activity at all, or whether they’re actually opposing other sins such as inhospitality.
What I think is happening increasingly in Islamic scholarship in these areas, as it has in Christian and Jewish scholarship, is that queer Muslims are claiming their own body-stories as sites of divine revelation. The assumption is no longer that querying heteronormativity or experiencing non-heterosexual eroticism is inherently antithetical to one’s relationship with the divine. Of course, there’s plenty at stake here, given that there are still gatekeepers who want to affirm that Islam is and means only one set of beliefs and practices, and that it’s not possible to be queer and Muslim.
3:AM: Is there a link between queer theologies and liberation theologies?
SC: There definitely is. Some significant queer theologians, such as the late Marcella Althaus-Reid, an Argentinian theologian who spent much of her career in Edinburgh, have very much seen queer theologies as being in the liberationist tradition. However, Althaus-Reid also pointed out that there were some things about the classic Latin American liberation theologies of the 1960s and 70s that were problematic: for example, they were good at identifying economic poverty as a factor in exclusion, and at identifying the ways that the Church had colluded with capitalist and politically dubious powers; but they were less good at sexuality and gender justice, and at acknowledging the ways that women, children, transgender people, and non-heterosexual people were often even more marginalized than others, and that the Church repeated sexual and gender inequalities of its own.
Furthermore, liberation theologies have often considered the Bible a set of texts which are unproblematically on the side of poor and marginalized people, and which testify to what Gustavo Gutiérrez calls God’s “preferential option for the poor”. Queer theologians and biblical interpreters have tended to be more circumspect about the Bible’s liberating potential. They are well aware that the Bible contains texts which have been used to oppress and marginalize queer people, as well as texts affirming love and justice. In common with postcolonial theologians and biblical scholars, they’re more likely to characterize the Bible as mixed, ambiguous, and culpable. That doesn’t (usually) mean they throw it out as beyond redemption – but they want to suggest that the Bible itself also needs to be liberated from some of the ways it has been used to oppress people and to repeat narratives of hatred.
3:AM: Going back to issue of sexuality generally how are contemporary theologies understanding the relationship between sexuality, incarnation and erotic love?
SC: In the Greek language contemporaneous with the New Testament texts, there were a variety of terms for love. You could distinguish between sexual love, the love between a parent and child, and love between friends, for example. Some Christian theologians have asserted that agape – selfless, unconditional love – is always “higher” than eros, sexual love which tends to selfishness and the consuming of the other. But in recent years there’s been a reclaiming and rehabilitation of eros, with many theologians showing that the sexual and the erotic are part of what turn us outward from ourselves to embrace others, and that we meet God in our eroticism too.
Increasingly, there’s pushback against the idea that the way we conduct ourselves sexually is morally meaningless, or can be divorced from the kinds of people we are in the rest of our lives. If we exploit people sexually, we will tend to exploit people in other areas of life too. Particularly because in the West we’re used to, and largely comfortable with, seeing sex as a private matter, we’ve perhaps been less good at reflecting on how it suffuses a whole range of interactions – and how it’s also always already a political, economic matter. Since the 1980s a range of theologians (James B. Nelson, Adrian Thatcher, and Carter Heyward among them) have explored eroticism from a theological perspective, with body theology an important theme. But it’s not a new innovation: I love the work of Gerard Loughlin, who holds that the theological tradition always has been about embodiment, the fuzzy boundaries between humanity and divinity, and the “queer” work of existing counter to hegemony. There are a range of theologians who’ve sought to show that there are subversive and resisting strands in Christian theology from the outset, and that there are declarations and affirmations even in the earliest Christian theologians which read as decidedly queer (or proto-queer) to contemporary interpreters.
3:AM: Contemporary society seems very concerned and aware of sexuality – as a good thing and a bad thing – and so traditional ideas about marriage and sex outside of marriage, celibacy and virginity are having their values shifted around- what does theology bring to this ?
SC: One of the things I’m working on with a group of colleagues at the moment is what a positive theological account of marriage might look like: not one which starts from what marriage is not, but one which looks to the theological tradition for positive resources. We’re suggesting, for example, that marriage might be understood as one sexual vocation among others. The discussion over same-sex marriage in Britain over the last couple of years has prompted lots of really useful reminders about how various even Christian accounts of marriage and covenanted relationship have been: historians such as Timothy Willem Jones and sociologists of religion such as Linda Woodhead are great on this, and actually it’s historians and sociologists who have often had to remind theologians and churchpeople that accounts of sex and marriage aren’t univocal, and that the Church has certainly shifted its position on questions of sex and marriage before.
A lot of the goods that Christian theology wants to affirm are not ones on which Christians or other people of faith have a monopoly: faithfulness, flourishing, justice, non-instrumentalism, mutuality, commitment and so on arise as goods across cultures. But something I think theology has the potential to do well – even if it doesn’t always manage it – is to affirm that humans are unities of bodies, minds and spirits. Sexual and other bodily desires aren’t things to be escaped or transcended; however, nor are they so ultimate or absolute that they can be indulged with no thought for what the implications are for ourselves and others.
Christian theology also wants to affirm the dialogic, conversational and unfolding character of revelation. So theologians today speak with and think with not just their contemporaries or the moderns, but also those from across the tradition. There’s a whole crowd of voices present. I’ve argued that doing justice to our theological forebears (who are also in some sense still present to us, still part of the discussion) means taking them seriously, and, at times, holding them accountable for the ways in which their assertions have diminished flourishing and led to oppression. And Christian theology holds that God is also part of the conversation: the tradition is dynamic, in process, prompted by and journeying with a Holy Spirit which goes wherever it wants to and is responsive to human beings.
3:AM: I guess specific to a theological view is the discussion of sexchatology – ie sex in the light of last things. Can you say what the issues are here and why there are tensions?
SC: Sexchatology is a term I used in my most recent book, Theology and Sexuality – I think it’s original to me – and I’m yet to know whether it will catch on! It’s really a play on words: sex plus eschatology. Eschatology is the area of Christian doctrine which deals with what are often called the “last things”: questions about death and the afterlife, for example.
I’ve been greatly influenced by the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann, who began to write in the middle of the twentieth century in response to the horrors he’d witnessed in Nazi Germany. He’s still writing today, and is nearly 90. Moltmann argues that all theology is set in the key of eschatology: in other words, all Christian theology exists in a context of hope. Importantly, Moltmann holds that deferring justice until the end of the world is not good enough. If a more just future is possible, then we have a responsibility to begin building it here and now; and this is possible because of what God has already done in Jesus Christ. He characterizes eschatology as already inaugurated: it hasn’t yet fully come about, as we can see all around us when we witness the pain, suffering, violence, oppression and injustice in the world; but, because God has already done the work of making Godself present in the world, reconciliation can begin. Eschatology isn’t an exclusively Christian concept, but, for Christian theologians like Moltmann, the key is the narrative of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus: this story and history attests that the powers of death and alienation are not ultimate, and that change is always possible.
Sexchatology, then, is a term I use to suggest that theologies of sexuality also have to be eschatological: they are set in the context of future as well as present goods, and have to be about building that more just world. The way we understand our own sexualities and genders, and the way we operate in our sexual relationships, has to take account of, and be coloured by, the possibility of a more just future marked by harmony (between humans and humans, between humans and other creatures, between humans and God) rather than alienation. But, because eschatology is inaugurated, it’s not just a future thing, it’s also here and now, unfolding and in process: and acting justly sexually is part of living it into existence.
Why are there tensions? Well, eschatology is marked by tension right across Christianity. If our hope is postponed too far into the future, it leads to quietism and can seem to justify injustice here and now; but if hope is reduced to being only about the present and not the future, we lose any sense of interaction with something beyond ourselves. As we all know, human technologies and creativity can be used to kill, torture and maim, not just to build better futures – so, for Moltmann and many others, there’s affirmation of an intervention from the divine. There’s a hope that this world is not all there is. Newness, transformation is a real possibility. There’s both continuity and discontinuity between how things are now and the hope for how they will be.
3:AM: You’ve also thought about intersexed bodies – what challenges do they bring to theology?
SC: I think that many intersex people (whose bodies can’t be categorized as either male or female) are, understandably, tired of being characterized as a “challenge” or a “problem”. Intersex people have often been used to further and bolster various agendas which are not their own.
That said, the existence of intersex does raise questions for theologies of sex, gender, sexuality and theological anthropology. Intersex means we have to acknowledge that human sex isn’t simple or binary even at a biological level. Theologies of sex, gender and sexuality have often operated with the assumption that everyone is either male or female. And there are two concomitants to this in much theological talk about sex: first, it’s an imperative, not an indicative. Binary maleness and femaleness describes not just the way things are but the way they ought to be – the way God “intended” them to be. So intersex can be dismissed as an example of biology gone wrong: it’s not intersex people’s fault that their sex isn’t clearly and unambiguously male or female, but, nonetheless, it’s not what God built into the original creation. Second, in this account, gender identity ought to supervene on biology: if you’re male, you need to have an “appropriate” masculine gender identity and heterosexual eroticism, because biology “trumps” gender identity.
Now, I’ve wanted to argue that those arguments are inadequate. Plenty of intersex people don’t understand their biology as a “mistake”, but simply as a variation – or, in some cases, as an explicit gift from God. Given that definitions of and criteria for defining maleness and femaleness have shifted over time and will likely continue to do so, they are simply not very stable categories. Variation does not automatically equal pathology or problem.
In the second case, theologians who want to claim that biology is irreducible (and who would say, for example, that a transgender person who seeks surgery to reinforce their gender transition is rejecting the body God gave them) often stumble a bit when it comes to intersex. On the one hand, they claim biology is irreducible and shouldn’t be changed; on the other, they say that, in the case of intersex, bodies should be changed, to bring them more into line with what God “intended”. It seems to me that there’s an important inconsistency there.
For me one of the key issues is that intersex is a reminder about the unreflective account of human sex in much theological anthropology. I’ve also argued that there are ethical issues raised by the medical and social treatment of intersex about which people of faith ought to be informed and to take a position.
3:AM: How does your theological view speak to stigmatised and marginal bodies and how hopeful are you that this approach is one that can be taken out of the margins of religious belief?
SC: In many ways, it already is out of the margins. Christians and other people of faith do so much quiet, quotidian, behind-the-scenes work to feed and clothe and care and advocate for people who need it. The fact that there seems to be such a disjunction between the Church’s steady work of care and reconciliation, and what often seems to be vitriolic in-fighting characterized by a particular obsession with and suspicion of sex and sexuality, is what I think so many people outside (and, for that matter, inside) the conversation find so baffling.
3:AM: And for those here at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend that would take us further into your theological world?
SC: Well, I guess this is a chance to recommend a few of my favourites! I’ve already mentioned Jürgen Moltmann, and, whilst really all his many books use eschatology as a lens, the ones where he explores it most explicitly include his 1994 book The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press). One of the things he tackles there is the question of death as alienation, and I’m very drawn to his account of the possibility of a space after death during which unfinished business can be finished, relationships which remained broken in this life can be given space to heal, and people whose time on earth was marked by overwhelming pain and suffering can be given space to flourish. Note that Moltmann absolutely isn’t a political quietist, and in no way does he think that this “space” means that we shouldn’t strive for justice here and now, or that whatever happens in and to bodies now isn’t significant. Moltmann wants to make the point that, because the power of the gospel stretches backwards as well as forwards in time, and because death is no longer the ultimate end, we who are living now are actually in community with the dead. Moltmann wants to say because of Jesus’ death on the cross, we are not divided forever from those who have been silenced. Christian theology is about the hope that injustice will not be the last word.
Mark D. Jordan’s The Ethics of Sex (Blackwell, 2002) is the theology of sexuality to end all theologies of sexuality. In a way the title is misleading: it’s not about ethical dilemmas, or what people should and should not do. He argues, rather, that what people of faith claim the Bible says about sex and sexuality tells us far more about the people than about the text itself. Theologians who make pronouncements about sexuality often claim they’re simply being faithful to the tradition: “Don’t blame me! That’s just what the Bible says!” But Jordan says that the tradition isn’t univocal, and that which parts of it and which interpretations of it people tend to appeal to as irreducible or more authoritative depends a lot on their own historical, denominational and cultural context. In fact, he claims, “There has never been a monolithic Christian tradition from which dissidents or decadents have departed. There has only and always been a contradictory set of discourses accumulated over time in response to complex and perhaps contradictory authorities”. He suggests that Christianity’s frequent anxiety about sex is actually a cipher for its anxiety about lots of other things.
During my postgraduate studies I was very influenced by Marcella Althaus-Reid’s work, especially her 2000 book Indecent Theology (Routledge). This is where she sets out her thesis that much mainstream Christian theology has had at its centre not God, but a fetishized version of God that has more to do with legitimizing capitalist and heterosexual norms than with love and justice. Too often, she holds, the Church has been so obsessed with “decency” that it has forgotten about compassion. Althaus-Reid’s work weaves together queer and postcolonial theory with politics and economics, and insists that God is also queer. God, in fact, she argues, has been exiled from the churches, and exists with people on the margins, especially political, sexual and gender dissidents: what Althaus-Reid refers to as the “hearts at the bottom of the heap”.
Now, for a more remote voice from the tradition: Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (also called Pseudo-Denys). The first thing to say about this person is that we really don’t know who they were. They wrote under the name Dionysius (or Denys) the Areopagite, a figure mentioned in the first-century book of Acts; but for the last five hundred years or so, scholars have believed (based on implicit references to later events and ideas) that Pseudo-Dionysius was actually probably active in the fifth or sixth century. What we do know is that Pseudo-Dionysius is a mystic, and has been influential on the development of apophatic or “negative” theology, which claims that we can’t know what God is, but only what God is not. There are Pseudo-Dionysian echoes in lots and lots of the medieval Christian mystics: people like Dame Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing. The mystics have often affirmed the possibility of direct consciousness of the divine, unmediated by religious authorities. Pseudo-Dionysius’ Mystical Theology is a reminder that no human authority can have the last word on God, because no human metaphor (even those so naturalized we forget they’re metaphors at all) can adequately communicate what God is: Pseudo-Dionysius says the Divine is “neither soul, nor mind, nor has imagination, or opinion, or reason, or conception … Neither it Its touch intelligible, neither is It science, nor truth; nor kingdom, nor wisdom; … nor is it Spirit according to our understanding; nor Sonship, nor Paternity; nor any other thing of those known to us, or to any other existing being … The all-perfect and uniform Cause of all is … above every definition”.
And finally, I often go back to Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (Crossroad, 1992). Like many theologians of the last half-century, Johnson re-reads the doctrine of the Trinity as communicating something about God’s irreducible relationality. Johnson traces a God of the Christian tradition who is relational, a fellow-sufferer with those who suffer (also an important theme in Moltmann’s The Crucified God, incidentally); a God who promotes flourishing, equality and fullness of being; a God whose strength, wisdom, sustenance, friendship and abiding presence may be characterized as in solidarity with human experience including that of women – even if the theological tradition has too often ignored the subjecthood of at least half the human species.
But this was by far the hardest question to answer! There are so many others whose work I admire!
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 8th, 2014.