I met Margaret this past year at the American Academy of Religion in Montréal, Quebec, Canada. We attended many of the same panels and struck up conversation about all things related to theology, ethics, sexuality, religion, and the like. We exchanged information and have corresponded with one another since meeting last November 2009.
Margaret is a recent graduate of the University of St. Michaels College at the University of Toronto and holds a Ph.D. in Theology. Margaret is a feminist scholar and bisexual activist based in Toronto. Her research interests include sexual ethics (her area of specialization), religious prejudice, sexual identity development and queer theologies. She has published on theological representations of gender in film, same-sex marriage, sexuality in new religious movements, and religion-based homophobia. She is co-director of the Toronto Bisexuality Education Project.
Margaret’s research interests include: Christian sexual ethics; religion and politics; feminist theology; gender and sexuality; GLBTQ issues in religion; GLBTQ activism and community formation; religious-based prejudice (esp. anti-Judaism and homophobia); queer studies; gender and film; and identity politics.
Margaret’s story is an important one. She is a First Nations Person. She was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1973 and was raised in Sheet Harbour, a small village (pop. 820) on the coast, 120km east of Halifax. For many of those years we lived without running water or plumbing. Her parents were writers who encouraged reading and creativity.
She says: I am a member of Generation X, and a third wave feminist. The year I turned sixteen also saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, the crash of the Exxon Valdez, tanks rolling over students in Tienanmen Square, and the Montreal Massacre. My first sexual education class included a discussion about AIDS. The year I came out as bisexual the World Health Organization removed “homosexual” from their list of diseases, Nelson Mandela was freed from prison, and the world wide web was invented. I can’t take credit for any of that.
She currently lives in Toronto, at the corner of Chinatown and Kensington Market, with her partner. They have two cats named Archie and Nero. In her spare time she writes, paints, sews her own clothes, and tries to change the world.
Who is God and how do we know?
I should begin with a warning. Although I hold a doctoral degree in theology, I am a heretic. Almost every time religious authorities have drawn lines in the sand, I find myself on the wrong side of the issue. I would have voted against extending the Jesus community to the Gentiles. I agree with Novatian’s point about readmitting the lapsed too easily. I think the Arians were correct that “there was when he was not.” I agree with Pelagius and not Augustine on original sin. The list goes on an on, with the latest horror being that I am an out bisexual who disagrees with almost everything Christian Churches have asserted about sex. It is for this reason that I see myself as a queer theologian in the tradition of Marcella Althaus-Reid, who pioneered heresy as a theological methodology. So when I approach the question “Who is God and how do we know?” I do so as someone who embraces the scandalous nature of my genuine convictions.
AIDS activist Larry Kramer (2005) asks, “How do we claim the God that they have gobbled up for their own private reserve?” (p. 83). This is a question I think about often. In many ways, it is the essence of queer theology. More specifically, how do we claim God as one of our own in the way that previous generations of men have claimed God as a Father?
The source most people turn to first in their attempt to know God –the Bible—is problematic for queers. Certainly, gay and lesbian exegesis has revealed much of the queer content of the Bible. They have also done a good job of contextualizing the sections that some read as condemning homosexuality. Despite this work, there’s just too much sexism, racism, homophobia, and violence for me to see it as the revelation of a deity I’d want to know. And the parts that aren’t offensive are often boring. The simple fact is, I don’t trust that the Bible is an adequate expression of God’s will. I don’t trust that the direct revelations recorded within it aren’t the product of mental illness, delusion, bad food or a calculating desire for political power. If they can be so wrong about the nature of queer sexuality and of female identity, then what else might they be wrong about? I don’t trust the messenger and therefore don’t trust the message.
A God that is accessible only through the Bible is not of much use as deities go. Harry Potter seems more immanent; at least he’s also available in DVD. If God is truly present now then the attachment of so much importance to the Bible seems unnecessary. After all, why should a collection of reflections on dead people’s relationships with God be more authoritative than the one you’re having with God now? That is how I view the Bible – as a collection of blogs and tweets about someone we both claim we know.
Many Christians claim to know God through their personal relationship with Jesus. I simply don’t relate to this experience. I identify with Jesus as a fellow activist, but I don’t agree with everything he said or did. In some cases, he comes across as a bit of an asshole. But Jesus doesn’t need to be perfect. My Christology is an adoptionist one, and extremely low. Adoptionists know that the people God selects are often flawed, to put it kindly. A classmate once proffered that Jesus could have lectured on nuclear fission if he had wanted to do so. This is ridiculous. That’s not a human being; it’s a god in a man suit. Being fully human doesn’t include having super-powers or omniscience. I find Carter Heyward’s concept of Christ as a verb more useful than a magical Jesus. Christ means anointed. I agree with Heyward that there can be many Christs. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela—all these people seem to have an anointed quality. In my own time I’ve met people who certainly had anointed moments. Heyward suggests that we can all be Christic, and ought to try.
When it comes to Jesus, I feel that Christian theology has gone horribly wrong. Sacrificial theology undercuts the significance of Jesus’ execution. The resurrection is a forced happy ending akin to those tacked onto Hollywood movies in response to test screenings. My Gospel of Mark would end as it originally did, with the women finding the empty tomb. That preserves the reality of Jesus’ death—which should be horrible because being executed for challenging an occupying force is horrible. When the queer community valorizes the Matthew Shepherds, we must never allow this “happy ending” dynamic to obscure the horror of torture and the permanence of death.
So if we eliminate the Bible and Jesus from the equation, how do we know God? My answer is that we know God in community, and in those moments when we are alone with ourselves. One element that distinguishes us from the sex-phobic theology of mainstream Christianity is that queers also come to know God in the I-Thou relationships they have with their partners. Access to God infuses queers with our own authority to assess religious experience, discern the just and the liberating, and weigh the good and the evil. Fundamentalists do not trust queer individuals in their claims about divine experience, nor do they trust the queer community’s ability to assess such claims. I, on the other hand, am part of the queer community. For all its various shortcomings, I trust my community. I certainly trust it more than I trust the reportage of men from a time and place far removed from my own, especially when interpreted and preached by men who have proven themselves to place a low value on queer lives. As their own book says in Matthew 7:16, “By their fruits ye shall know them,” and the fruits of conservative Christianity have often been deadly for queers, particularly for queer women.
Because theology and Scripture has not included queer experience (especially that of queer women) I feel strongly that we need to begin the Scriptural process again, among ourselves. We need to foster an oral tradition, write about our experiences, and test their worth through community use and ongoing assessment. This undercuts the power of the “texts of terror,” and eliminates the need for torturous apologetics. It also opens the possibility for the development of new Scriptures.
The god that will emerge from this process of reflection and discussion may look very different from that of heterosexist theology. I am drawn to Marcella Althaus-Reid’s idea of the Queer God, whose face has been suppressed by heterosexual theology. This God is not a reformer of the current Church but is an alternative to fixed structures of any kind. The Queer God is a diverse, and dynamic deity whose presence is felt among the marginalized and outcast, and within intimate human relationships. Althaus-Reid (2003) argues that the Queer God is able to be moved, and far from being absolutely independent and transcendent, “depends heavily on our intimate relationships to configure Godself” (p. 53). In short, the Queer God needs us, and thus sacralizes the extent to which we need each other. Some will object that this Queer God is simply an invention; a projection of our own queer image. But the truth is, everyone, even those within Christian denominations, picks the parts of God that fit their experience and ignores the parts that don’t fit. That’s what being unknowable is about; surpassing our ability to comprehend. While queering is a critical theological step, we mustn’t forget that none of us have the complete picture.
Kramer, L. (2005). The Tragedy of Today’s Gays. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.
Althaus-Reid, M. (2003). The Queer God. London: Routledge.
Heyward, C. (2004). Chapter 2: Christ. In Miguel A De La Torre (Ed.), Handbook of U.S. Theologies of Liberation(pp. 16-30). St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press.