MOURNING MARCELLA AND MISSING THE POINT
When the self-professed doyenne of “indecent”, no knickers theology, the Argentinean bisexual, Marcella Althaus-Reid (1952-2009) died in February, flags were lowered at Edinburgh university where she was its first female professor in theology. There was a major thanksgiving service for her life, obituaries, encomiums described her as a woman of “deep Christian convictions”, a “mystic”, “a star” of modern theology whose disruptive insights and vital influence could well impact for centuries. Certainly she had become something of a bestselling celebrity on the theological circuit of the West and these days there are studies expounding her theories along with those of the new school of “body” theologians like Lisa Isherwood and J. Carrette
Althaus-Reid’s early demise (from apparently cancer at the Marie Curie hospice) is obviously tragic and one dislikes to speak ill of the dead. In the interests of truth I nonetheless feel obliged to raise a dissenting voice in what is effectively less a Blog entry than a full essay of assessment that needs to be written but would be unlikely at this time to be easily accepted anywhere. Almost more a quirky philosopher than a theologian I will propose that Marcella’s very distinctive combination of feminist theory with a Queer theology, strongly coloured by what’s called postcolonial theory, is the purest modern instance of the emperor’s clothes principle played out upon academe and society whether gay or straight.
In reality, Marcella Althaus-Reid constitutes one of the strangest phenomena in the long and diverse history of Christian thought. To judge from her published works this lecturer in “Christian ethics” who dismissed the Ten Commandments as “a consensus” reflecting “elite perspectives” (2003:163) was less a spokesperson for the “indecent” or disruptive she is supposed to represent and that might have had it uses, than an unusual kind of atheist and blasphemer whose written wit and reportedly frequent laughter in person barely disguised the extent of the game she must have known she was playing. Within the increasingly effete, too often irrelevant world of theological and Queer studies she found opportunity. Her admirers, and in her last years she had them on an international scale, have been deceived or perhaps never really understood what she wrote - whole chunks of it admitted to be dense, difficult, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary based. Those who truly understood might have to be considered infidels towards the religion they profess.
MARCELLA ALTHAUS-REID WAS MORE THAN “INDECENT”
For those who know nothing about Marcella Althaus-Reid and to whom my claims could sound merely extreme and insensitive I will start with a few examples of Marcella-speak. Some of her titles for the divine include “God the Whore”, “God the Sodomite” “God the Drag Queen” and “God the Lobster” (the latter in imitation of theories of the atheist, Gilles Deleuze, for whom the lobster was like an event horizon where meanings coalesced – Deleuze was influenced by Spinoza’s conception of the wholly impersonal God of natural laws).
Marcella, who maintained theology in South America was “an overvalued penis” (2000: 173) wrote of the need for “the indecent exposure” of God, to speak of “God in the name of Vulgarity, Impurity and Horror” (2003:36) (basically because she was interested in a Queer “holiness” imagined in the style of the Marquis de Sade). She thinks of Trinitarian doctrines as “God the Orgy” (2003:143). Referring to any notion of God the Father as a form of “oppression” she proposes we should “undress the father of power and glory and leave God sitting in the cold while the Queer community occupies the Trinity” (2003: 62). God meanwhile could however usefully be given fishnet stockings and boots as Marcella wants God kinky and theology “incoherent” with the incoherency of sex rather than the imperialistic coherence of traditional Systematic Theology.
It’s however specifically the Holy Spirit within the Trinity whom Althaus-Reid suggests should be made Queer and ambivalent; she says we could think of him as akin to “the hidden third man in many heterosexual marriages where the husband practices rough trade or the lesbian lover of the wife” (2003:.58). This is supposedly fitting for God’s many forbidden desires and she thinks “our beloveds (lovers) are like holy ghosts” (2003:58). One could put the Antichrist inside the Trinity because he’s a true Trinitarian identity, namely a real sexual identity, in fact he’s like a tell-tale blouse stuck in the theology closet (2000:59).
All this barbed and bitter jesting around the God of traditional theology’s “imperial sex act” along with suggestions like the smell of bodies and sex could well accompany our prayers is made possible and quasi-acceptable in especially academic circles via a type of postmodern philosophical jargon laid on like too much lippy and face paint. Plus the fact, I believe, Marcella never really believed in God anyway. But I justify that idea presently. First, a little background, and a least a few positive words because, sadly, Marcella could have more usefully explored and developed ideas and life experiences that in her hands finish becoming merely part of a trendy intellectual box of tricks and a pyrotechnical display of sensations.
BUENOS AIRES BACKGROUND: THE FAILURES OF LIBERATION THEOLOGY
Whether by accident or Queer design (as per a stated aim to be “nomadic”, fluid, changing and a theologian “with many passports”) little is known of Marcella’s background - I gather there were problems even establishing her birth year. Her various religious/ideological affiliations remain to considerable extent a mystery. Marcella Althaus (the hyphen Reid got added, Spanish style, at marriage so that the paternal Althaus line probably represents German immigrant descent) was born in Argentina in Rosario, or, was it, Che Guevara? (Marcella perhaps wanted to re-christen the city because one of her heroes also saw the light of day there). Apparently raised Catholic in Rosario Marcella appears to have lived many years in Buenos Aires. Later, when training to be a teacher she was, or had become a Methodist - perhaps in the hope as a woman of arriving at something nearer the priestly career she’d wanted since childhood - and she obtained a theology BA at Argentina’s ISEDET Protestant university. Later she became, either in Argentina or Europe, a Quaker, and then or simultaneously, a member of the gay MCC (Metropolitan Community Church) though when living and working in Scotland she attended the Anglican church. She disliked to take communion anywhere though MCC sometimes persuaded her - she dismisses Mass similarly to eschatology as akin to masturbation (2003:137) and/or the “supplément” that masturbation represents according to the anti-philosopher, Derrida, whom later in life she was uncharacteristically embarrassed to meet.
Marcella trained in especially (Catholic) Liberation Theology working with the famous Basic Ecclesial Communities for the poor that some liberationists formed (and others disapproved) within South America. After leaving Argentina she pursued feminist and philosophical studies in Scandinavia, Germany and Scotland where she lived during her last and successful years. Her life was nonetheless indelibly marked by her supposedly slum poor origins in Argentina (where she claims to have been once hospitalized for malnutrition), by life under the often nightmarish oppressions of the Generals and by the postcolonial legacy of South America more generally as this still makes for exploitation and cultural confusion - Marcella has much to say, postmodern style, about breakdown of “Grand Narratives” in Latin America – and the various moral/spiritual accommodations unimaginable to most Europeans.
Sometimes one wonders how much the Buenos Aires of Marcella’s memory was real or imagined like the Santiago of Isabel Allende’s youth which the latter admits to have blurred sometimes in her autobiography, My Invented Country. Was it true young women needed to avoid men masturbating and ejaculating over them in Buenos Aires public transport (2000:75) or that Marcella suffered the reported confessional problems related to whether she knelt in the sight line of where a priest’s penis would be, an issue on which several paragraphs of The Queer God seem unnecessarily wasted? (2003:13,14)
Fortified by the controversial claim of Aquinas that God is indescribable, the Marxism of Latin American Liberation Theology is intensely materialistic, often assuming that God, like some Hegelian Geist, cannot be known outside of historical happenings or, as theologian, Luis Segundo had it, God is simply “society”. This was Marcella’s radical and religiously sceptical starting point, leaving her lifelong interested in mainly praxis, not metaphysics or mysticism. Christian doctrine was, or had become, a mere species of evil capital that rich, privileged nations and people could use to exploit lesser nations. So, among the liberationists Marcella realized churches must address the poor and be dissociated from capitalism and colonialism completely if possible - she will tend always to critique Christianity and any kind of mission on its part as nothing but colonialism. But she also realized liberationists need to engage, as she complained Liberation Theology signally failed to do, with the urban poor (rather than just rural communities) and with the sexually marginalized. The latter represented the new theology’s conservative blind spot. Even radical liberationists addressed nothing but idealized Catholic wives and mothers, not girls raped by fathers and brothers in the slums or forced into prostitution by poverty or gays and drag queens bashed in the streets. But to achieve greater charity and relevance Marcella believed theology must become “bisexual” in style and feeling, and like bisexuality itself, be hard to pin down.
Althaus-Reid was herself bisexual with a yen like that of theologian, Paul Tillich - but a yen rather more indulged - for S/M (sadomasochism). She even seemed to fantasize leading God by a dog collar (2003:46). Evidently she had a history of odd affairs with clergy and, in what may be the tragic clue to her entire psychology and theology, (namely that God got early confused in her mind with an absent father and abuse by men on the prowl) she admits: “..I am not keen on elderly divine figures looking for sex (such as God the Father) due to some bad experiences I had with men in my life including such as bishops” (2000:48).
It had been part of Marcella’s rebellion against life under the generals that she chose “indecency” in Argentinean terms refusing marriage to instead set up home with a gay man. Theologically, however, “bisexual” for Marcella means a thinker who leaves behind the “dyadic” thinking of heterosexuality and Christianity which last has even arrived at a Trinity of two (Father and Son), for a more fluid, dialectical or both/and Trinitarian thought mode. Undoubtedly something of the kind has long been needed and the challenge of a statement like “the problem is that universal contractarian ethics cannot deal with sexual differences” (2003:21) should be accepted. Yet one surely wouldn’t need “to lead God astray” to remedy the lack, nor in order to improve things do theologians need to be “voyaging vaginas seeking to kiss God’s lips and bite her nipples” (2003: 49) – the kind of definition to which one imagines theologian, Karl Barth (and his allegedly long term live-in mistress) would doubtless have shouted a resounding Nein. But Marcella was decidedly radical and considered doing the real, fluid, Queer style type of theology as “baring behinds” (2003: 149) .
LA CONSCIENCE DANS LE MAL OR JUST ETHICAL ANARCHY ?
Though it’s hard to imagine how the exploited, marginalized souls Alhaus-Reid highlighted and defended could be helped by her often remarkably convoluted, dense writings, (a sort of Queer “speaking in tongues” that owes a lot to the also recently deceased Eve Sedgwick and her impossible 1990 classic, Epistemology of the Closet) undoubtedly many of Marcella’s themes were deeply meaningful. Before the “Christian” and theoretically monogamous conquistadores arrived, raped and enslaved the local women and threw homosexuals to wild dogs, South America was mainly polygamous. It is a fact, not just in South America but in Africa, that the ruthless imposition of monogamy by missionaries upon non or newly Christian societies would often make not for virtue and justice but corruption and injustice – in Africa it’s notorious the determination to dismiss polygamous wives wrecked families and swelled the numbers of prostitutes as women were left abandoned and homeless. And this occurred at the behest of the religion, whose OT at least, has stories of heroes like Gideon who had seventy wives or Solomon his thousand.
A likewise disastrous scandal for Christianity that Marcella, whose frame of reference is obsessively Latin American, didn’t consider is how Christian missions in Japan were wrecked by “saints” like Francis Xavier who called Japanese nobles lower than animals, inhabitants of Sodom because of existing warrior attachments that David and Jonathan might have understood. This and more does make a case for the evil of what Marcella calls “T-theology” (Totalitarian theology and ethics) and a need for the more flexible and eros-friendly treatment long called for. It’s also true as Marcella affirms, that sexually marginal people can be strongly spiritual and have their own stories to tell that shouldn’t be excluded, a principle akin (though she doesn’t mention it) to Baudelaire’s “la conscience dans le mal” and more recognized in Catholic countries where casuistry is not automatically a bad word. Though she never proposes as much (in line with the fact the Bible figures minimally in her considerations) no doubt this hidden spirituality of the marginal would be relevant even as regards some of the prostitutes with whom we are told Jesus associated. Even if classically repentant it’s unlikely in the context of their times most would have been able to re-enter society and abandon the lifestyle many would have entered through poverty in the first place. So, as they plied their trade, would we say if we met them that their faith and experiences meant nothing? Then, what about the divorced and remarried? Is one to propose they cannot pray, or can pray but never be really heard or experience God, something the church may not say but perhaps implies? (Divorced remarried Catholics are refused communion lifelong).
The list of the marginal could be extended and can include gays. But however long the list it’s still a big step to pass beyond suggesting life and religion have grey areas that require more grace and possess more meaning than normally accorded to proposing a) that “God” exists, or can be actively sought, within the experiences themselves that compose the grey areas so that we could even have “a theology of mistresses” (2003:133) and deem adultery “biblical and godly” really (2000: 140) or b) that popular cults and religions arisen often from sheer ignorance of Christianity, lack of pastoral care from or instruction in the faith by the religion’s leaders, should enjoy equal validity. As regards a) we even find Marcella taking the side of the pornographic philosopher, Georges Bataille, endorsing the notion that, like a character in one of his stories, we could indeed find “God” in a hag prostitute’s revelation of her pubis in a brothel – Marcella then offers a section headed “Pubis Liberation Theology” (2003:97,98)! As regards, b) we find Marcella endorsing a variety of quasi Christian cults like the Santa Librada (a crucified virgin type favoured by transvestites and various marginal peoples in South America). It’s the kind of endorsement which begs the question would Marcella approve the perverse death cult of Santa Muerta in Mexico? This oddly demonic saint takes the side of thieves and drug pushers that the church understandably doesn’t and can’t acknowledge. But perhaps she would. Certainly she feels adultery has spiritual insights to offer and we know that drug pushers of the Camorra clans (see Roberto Saviano’s Gemorrah p. 226) believe they can perform rites to honour Mary and appease Christ as they make and store their drugs.
MARCELLA ALTHAUS-REID’S NEW SEX(Y) GOD
If it isn’t to be described as a savvy career decision, it’s almost a mystery that Marcella believed in “God” at all - or did she really ever? No trace of a notion of Creator crosses her work and she sneers at belief in any unique personal deity asking would such an entity (imaged as She) want to lick her fingers? And she protests “what love and friendship can be had with masters?” (2003:143). I suggest the reason Marcella doesn’t dismiss God entirely is because she could reduce deity to the idea “God is always potential” (2000: 109), a human potential, and because (unlike various feminist influences like, Mary Daly and Daphne Hampson with which last she had falling out in Scotland), the emotional force of what she calls “disaffiliation”, got directed and exhausted elsewhere. It was with Latin America’s Virgin Mary rather than Mary Daly’s God the Father or Daphne Hampson’s Christ that Marcella broke most violently “blaspheming” her with talk about wanting to put hands up Mary’s skirts to see what wasn’t there and much more like it…..in page after page. If it all sounds obscene that’s intended since obscenity will keep us from the evils of “unnecessary transcendence” and is grace invoking (2000:110) and Marcella, dismissing the Virgin, goes in quest of the Obscene Bi/Christ.
I have so far quoted almost solely from The Queer God rather than the earlier Indecent Theology (see below) which is largely a tirade against the historically oppressive role the Virgin has allegedly had for Latin American politics generally and women in particular whom Mary “disembodies”. And, since Marcella’s position is Marxist/materialist and she wants to change less distribution than production, her aim is to remake deity itself. Since however she considers the Bible “fiction” and theology a form of (perhaps necessary) lies anyway (2003:130) the labour of correction and re-creation should be made rather through recourse to literary and philosophical than scriptural sources. (If Althaus-Reid was made professor of “contextual” theology this was almost necessary given the lack of scripture and theology employed in her arguments!).
For philosophy and literature beyond Bible and Marx Marcella’s materialism has recourse to the Transcendental Materialism of the suicidal Deleuze and the Queer theory of the atheist, Foucault, beloved of academic cliques within the gay world. In literature she favours especially the mystical atheists, Klossowski and Bataille (a theorist of the erotic and the significance of orgasm) and the Marquis de Sade. Armed with insights from these sources Marcella’s Edinburgh style “contextual theology” can take flight and does so with weird, anti-credal suggestions like: “The Son gives birth to the Father and both of them originally come from the Spirit” (2003:75). More theologically, Marcella appropriates the biblical doctrine of kenosis (the self emptying of God in incarnation) to assist God to come “out of the closet” to realize himself and let we ourselves find him cruising around “in dark alleys”. We, it seems, can and will find salvation with “the Voyeur God” (2003:39).
Whatever, Marcella is explicit as regards deity that: “This is a God who depends on our experiences of pleasure and despair in intimacy to manifest Godself” (2003:108). This Godself, it seems, is the only true God, one “displaced, theologically speaking, by a God of grand heterosexual illusions….”. Any belief in the incarnation of God is not or should not be about the historical Jesus but rather a belief that God is present in our historical struggles. It’s a liberationist idea, one akin to a line among radical feminist theologians who believe Christ is what continually incarnates in the religious community. However, ever different and dissenting, Marcella speaks less of incarnating the Christ than incarnating and queering the Holy Spirit (2003:127).
That this humanly dependent, community incarnated “God” is more or less just sex is certified by the untranslated dedication of The Queer God to the author’s friends and lovers who, she says, like herself are buscando a Dios en medio de amores (seeking God amid love affairs) an idea further suggested by the book’s affirmation, “bodies speak and God speaks through them (2003:34). When God isn’t sex it’s a case simply of God as concept only, the reason Marcella explicitly states she should be able to say whatever she likes about God uncensored, a claim she stakes when talking about preventing “Premature Ejaculations – God in Transit”(2003:67). It may be only “metaphor” and “concept” but it demands of Christians levels of tolerance way beyond anything Islam and most faiths could begin to imagine and which certainly denies all accepted notions of the sacred.
DOING THEOLOGY IN THE BEDROOM WITH DE SADE
Amazingly, since Marcella considers teaching the Bible in Sunday School is more guilty of promoting sex crimes in the world than all the modern writings on sex (2003:35) she proposes, since truth and justice necessarily go beyond any laws, we should establish our epistemologies like de Sade . We should do our theology in the bedroom and reflect upon the ways of libertinism along with the “no limits” Marquis. Christ and de Sade were beyond limits type people - Jesus died as a “dissolute Messiah” (whatever that means). Love and justice only begin beyond any laws, a god of law cannot even hope to deal justice (2003: 34). The jealous God the Father is an anachronism who doesn’t fit with the actually or potentially “polyamorous” loves of the Trinity (2003:.37) and all he could ever do was sexually harass Mary and torture his son (2000: 109) – Marcella assumes with Mary Daly of Beyond God the Father an identity of Yahweh with God the Father. It’s a point that in my Cosmic Father, along with some other theologians, I seriously contest.
There truly is something outrageous in Marcella’s association of theological schemas with those of de Sade with its talk of Sadean “holiness” and Queer saintliness and you wouldn’t need to be Christian to think so. Quite simply there have been clear links of the Sadean heritage to serious crime (such as Britain’s celebrated Moors murders of tortured children for which de Sade was an inspiration) and a few years ago I recall reading in one of Colin Wilson’s many tomes how this expert on the esoteric came to realize you can’t play around with the Marquis. He set out to read him as an intellectual exercise and found he was struck by horrifying nightmares. The devils came out to play. Clearly S/M practitioner Marcella (she liked to turn up at the all-inclusive MCC in leather) had a strong stomach and expected her readers to have the same.
I have never read The Hundred Days of Sodom, only a few excerpts from a condensed version with commentary. I fell over it one evening while ransacking in his absence the bookshelves of my Sorbonne roommate today one of the West’s leading authorities on Islamic affairs ), shelves which at the time seemed more dedicated to just the sort of lit crit and post structuralist writings that would influence Althaus-Reid than Islamic affairs. I seem to recall somewhere near the conclusion the inmates of Castle Silling get to have some demon linked orgy and are horrifically slaughtering one another. I didn’t later suffer the nightmares Wilson and others record but I did recoil, nauseated, and almost as though I'd received a sudden blast of something like heat on my face. While details of the text escape me I’ve never quite forgotten that odd impression. Whatever, I felt I’d brushed against something intrinsically evil not for contemplation and meddling. But (perhaps in imitation of precisely de Sade’s classic) the brazen Marcella supplies a suitably extreme finale to The Queer God. She wants to appropriate the hell spaces (2003:167) and the demon role, reject “salvation” as capitulation to capitalism and colonialism and generally make queer saintliness into “the ultimate trespass”, a protesting form which disrupts all existing belief and practice. Moreover, “Queer trespass” also has a body somewhere because there are no bodies in heaven but there are some in hell (2003:168) - truly a new doctrine if she doesn’t mean to hint, as her intellectual vanity actually might that there are only nobodies in heaven but there are real somebodies in hell?!
REFUSING SALVATION QUEER STYLE AND WHY GAY SPIRITUALITY MATTERS
In opposing “salvation” Marcella rejects the related repentance including for the interesting and significant idea it would rob us of our past knowledge and sexual attachments - “the solidarity of ex-lovers” (2003:164). To grasp truth between the intellectual games here (I don’t think they’re much else) it’s important to be aware Queer theory and theology are ever “in process” always marginal, changing, disruptive, transgressive, materialistic and so, explicitly or implicitly, follows the atheist, quasi- Buddhist line of Michel Foucault’s ideas influencing contemporary Queer theory that self and soul are as good as illusory. Accordingly, for Marcella at least, it seems one’s only solid grounding would be the memory of what one has thought and done, been and loved (which, however, a Buddhist would say should not be clung to). If follows that to regret or repent past errors, finishes a loss of whoever one imagines oneself to be. Clearly Marcella would make a poor Buddhist, though interestingly her most vocal admirer, ex Jesuit, and MCC pastor, Robert Goss, author of The Queer Christ, happens to be an expert in precisely Buddhist studies. (His understanding of Christianity I’ll pass over!).
Queer theory highlights awareness of a borderline, marginal consciousness that gays may find meaningful as one aspect of being gay. Gay consciousness and identity theory, less academically trendy than Queer, is more essentialist. Essentialism is becoming a verboten concept among some feminists and academics but, practically, it makes for more solidly grounded ideas and is closer to what the gay community actually thinks. Most gays considered themselves “born that way” and hence that orientation and identity, though they may be historically and socially influenced to a degree, are not the choices Queer theory makes them (a belief vulnerable besides to fundamentalist type charges gays are totally morally responsible for being gay). Since among its choices Queer classically won’t admit moral purpose unless in terms of economic policy or activities of the group (Foucault had problems even condemning child sex) and denies spiritual in addition to bodily being, plainly it's easier to incorporate gay theology into Christian thought than Queer theory. This is so including because the individual needn’t get traumatized losing bearings or identity if admitting, as might be necessary, that they had got involved in reckless relationships or inappropriate sexual experiments. One remains gay no matter what one has done and one is freer to come to come to terms with the purely scriptural and even somewhat with the “transgressive” impulse Queer emphasizes, as being something itself spiritual in the way I demonstrate in Cosmic Father when writing on “perversion and the prophets”. It’s the sort of theme Queer would tend to appropriate materialistically to oppose rather than illuminate faith.
Queer can be hopeless to the point of blind relative to spirituality and scripture as parts of the innovative Queer Bible Commentary (2007) to which Marcella contributed make clear. I need mention only its commentaries on Matthew and Mark, the latter commented by Althaus-Reid who believes all Queer commentary must be transgressive so offers no biblical exegesis at all. Basics of gay concern are ignored by her and some other contributors for intellectual “queering” exercises. She merely observes that Mark is the most “economic” gospel and that Jesus’ cry of desolation from the cross (traditionally understood to repeat words of a prophetic psalm) was about “God” in Christ suffering identity crisis and becoming redundant (2007: 523) something which Jesus, forgetting himself, calls for along with oblivion (2007:525)! Mark is thus reduced to the merest pretext to wander on about “faggots” killed in life and literature along with “clever” remarks about ‘cruci-fictions”. There is no exploration of even the Markan mystery of the naked youth in the garden of Gethsemane, which has made for gay controversies since the philosopher, Bentham, problematized it. Thomas Bohache’s commentary on Matthew ignores all the arguably gay positive references as on those born eunuchs, the Roman centurion’s boy, the Sermon on the Mount’s implicit cancellation of the same sex law of Leviticus at the Racah section on anger. It ignores speculations of American theologian, Tom Hanks (resident in Marcella’s Argentina), that Matthew might have been gay. Instead it wanders off on Queer paths about kingdom as a “kindom” and how we might perceive ourselves. In short, the Queer hermeneutics Marcella promoted is a mostly blind alley failing to confront scriptures on their own terms or mainstream Christian issues that need confronting. It concedes to academic trends at the expense of pastoral need or grassroots feeling. Having discussed or read parts of Marcella’s work with persons gay and straight I know it tends to evoke incredulity or even horror.
INTELLECTUAL QUEERDOM: J’ACCUSE
Queer theory’s net extends beyond gays to all marginal people but it’s hard see where it has meaningful impact, spiritual or any other, beyond shocking but impractical discourse and essay in academe. There is thus no record of which I’m aware of Marcella and followers in Scotland, whether with knickers, pants or kilts on or off, taking up the cause of Steve Gough, imprisoned so near them in Edinburgh. No matter how eccentric (queer/marginal?) one considers it and him, the heterosexual Gough has pressed a human right to circulate everywhere nude. If one cares to be theological he’s at least nearer to Isaiah, Micah, and prophets of Israel in the times of Samuel, than queers doing theology in Sadean bedrooms where they ignore the symbolism of nudity and its implications for transparency in social relations. Gough walked all England uncharged but ran into trouble in “Scotland the Brave” where a postman, “frightened” to see him, informed police. In a travesty of justice Gough has subsequently languished 3 years or more in Scotland for the individualism local queers haven’t protested against remnants of oppressive Calvinism.
I can speak against academic queerdom with some justifiable anger as an author on gay spiritualities in A Special Illumination. There were reasons, given its originality and controversies around it, that my doctorate was ever published, but the silence from queerdom with its body theologies and queer “spaces” a la Marcella was deafening. I was never approached, nor was I answered if I wrote, by what is fast becoming a tyranny of exclusive, queer leaning academics and clergy whose sources of inspiration are mainly atheistic even if they themselves pass as Christian. Due to lack of support my spiritualities theme is not one from which I have been able to progress to useful and needed research, post-doc or any other, on such vital and, relevant subjects as gay ethics. Nor will I be writing on this to be ignored by ivory tower queer scholars who set up such as Marcella as experts on “Christian” ethics, or rejected by publishers publishing Marcella’s style of theo-porn and profanities for profit. I know from sufficient experience how secular academe and publishing are organized to waste my energies.
I have so far cited almost exclusively from The Queer God. Before concluding I had better say something about the book that in 2000 truly launched Althaus-Reid and gives the name to her theology, that is Indecent Theology: Theological perversions in sex, gender and politics. The concept of “Indecent” theology is based on a natural enough revolt against absurd, often trivial distinctions, which could be based on even just hair styles, that the dictatorship of the Generals made between “decent” and “indecent” women. But beyond this Marcella’s Marxist materialist “indecenting” seeks to restore a unity to body and mind, or rather reject any body/spirit split. What is called her “hermeneutics of suspicion” suspects (exaggeratedly but sometimes correctly) that traditional theological/philosophical Idealism prevents sex from being properly studied or seen while even our notions of deity may be sex and sexuality coloured mental constructions.
In solidarity with some of the Buenos Aires poor, like the lemon sellers and South America’s tribal women who don’t wear knickers, Marcella’s symbol of indecent revolt, and body/mind resolution will be theology written and experienced sans knickers. She will also go in pursuit of the so called “obscene” which could be just the bodily, repressed and ignored. Much of Indecent Theology is taken up with very technical considerations about the construction of symbol and narrative. Even so, for sheer sensation the overall result is like some theological equivalent unique within Christian writing - albeit the post Christian Mary Daly with her talk about Mary’s “rape” by God probably influences it - of Pasolini’s film, Salo, based on the writings of de Sade.
In its intention to be indecent the book wonderfully succeeds though it would more directly offend Catholics than Protestants. It launches full scale attacks upon “Mary Queer of Heaven, Mother of Faggots”, whom Marcella regards as the horror mother of all political oppression (which, though the oppressive Pinochet was a Marian visionary, isn’t how, especially as Virgin of Guadalupe, Mary is seen in Latin America). Marcella does this at the same time as she maintains Mary probably never existed and it wouldn’t matter theologically if she didn’t (2000:72). A few quotes from the “indecenting” rant dismissing all virginal icons and imagery will give sufficient impression of the whole. As it’s distasteful I choose from what at least doesn’t like some passages refer to God amid four letter words. “Therefore let us consider that Mary is not the woman who conceived by inhaling the smell of Fatherly Semen. Let us think that she is the woman who has had “seven times seven” clitoral pleasure. Let us say she may have conceived by pleasure in her clitoris; by self-given pleasure perhaps…….Was Mary’s sexual encounter with God committed love or a one night stand with the unknown….Did she give God a blow job?” (2000:73) (Copying these words I recall the devotees who describe the plainly presumptuous Marcella as “a woman of deep Christian convictions”).
Though Mary takes the main force of Marcella’s “critique” Christ doesn’t miss out. She isn’t sure whether he was gay, transvestite or just butch lesbian and again it doesn’t matter what he was or if he existed so long as he was revolutionary. However, he wasn’t much of that either, but failed really to attack Jewish Law and was if anything “lacking in historical consciousness” failing in action against Israel’s oppressors (2000:87) (One wonders how, if Jesus wasn’t a historical figure, he should even be criticized for lack of historical consciousness!) For Marcella what’s certain is that if Jesus existed he had something of the sinner and prostitute in him or else what was he doing with such people? Moreover, “we all learn in community, even god/men. It is a historical law” (2000:113). And people like those in Argentina (herself?) “could have taught him a thing or two” (2000:113). Including about resurrection, apparently. Marcella decides, helped by someone in a bible study circle down in sexy Buenos Aires, that “the episode of Lazarus is nothing else but a scene of a physical resurrection in lust”(2000:122). Apparently Jesus “resurrected Lazarus because with Lazarus’ death Jesus himself died of abandoned love and terminal anguish”. This is an example of “resurrection from below”, the resurrection of lust. Marcella admits that among the liberationists resurrection wasn’t a subject. They were more interested in los desaparecidos (those disappeared under the generals) and “not illusory tales of leaving graves”. With these kind of beliefs or unbelief affecting her view of Jesus, whom she decides she will think of as bisexual, “the bi-Christ”, it’s hardly surprising that in wandering and wondering round the dynamics of symbolism Marcella asks could we talk about “Jesus the Moon”? (2000:107). Given a mind and imagination like Marcella’s I imagine one could.
QUEER AND PERSONAL
I’ll conclude my assessments on the personal note that the Queer theory I mostly reject favours and Marcella insisted theology should always include. When I first read the news of this theologian’s death, like everyone I was shocked. I didn’t know she’d been ill – I’d been intending, but put off emailing her a query – and though I could never have warmed to someone of her opinions I was saddened in a general way. Early deaths are always sad and Marcella had had tough beginnings and a hard end and she was perhaps a victim of sexual abuse. Which would explain and excuse much, though not everything. (Others similarly hurt have resolved their problems and helped others victims more). But even if Marcella hadn’t returned right answers she had raised pertinent questions based on experiences not to be ignored. One hoped she might provide better answers over time. The time she would now never have.
But there was something disturbing I couldn’t quite put my finger on, an impression that increased as, when re-reading her - I’d half forgotten and never quite absorbed her ideas - and, trying to obtain biographical facts, I came across the exaggerated, off-target praise surrounding her. I wanted to express a contrary viewpoint but began fretting whether I should so near to her decease, or at all. It was troubling to realize any criticism made would at least implicitly embrace all those who had praised, promoted, published and, employed Marcella. So this was alienating but re-reading Marcella I was confirmed in the view I could never approve her opus. And now, though there was no sensation similar to the one at reading de Sade long ago, I felt I was touching something hugely negative. And if even atheist philosopher, Iris Murdoch, can refer to Nietzsche and theologian, Don Cupitt, as “demonic” writers I won’t deny myself the usage. (I haven’t consulted charismatics about unusual impressions here but suspect they would propose that, assisted by a history of the odder sexual experiences which allegedly attract spirits, Marcella-speak could well have finished channeling everything up to and including St Paul’s “doctrines of demons”).
APPLYING “CONTEXTUAL THEOLOGY” TO ALTHAUS-REID
Subjective impressions apart, there are a few purely scriptural references that could be relevant to my or anyone’s negative assessments of Althaus-Reid.
God is not mocked….. (Gal 6:7)
There’s constant unabashed mockery of God in Marcella’s writings. The apostle’s often cited statement accompanies a warning about people sowing to corruption “in the field of their unspiritual nature” (REB translation).
Every thoughtless word you speak you will have to account for on the day of judgement. For out of your own mouth you will be acquitted; out of your mouth you will be condemned. (Matt. 12:30)
The foregoing has relevance for Marcella’s bold claim Queer theology is a first person theology that takes complete responsibility for its/her words (2003:8).
Whoever slanders the Holy Spirit (REB translation) can never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin (Mk 3:28)
Talk that compares the Spirit to the husband who wants rough trade (male prostitutes) on the side strikes one as….well… just slanderous. It may not constitute some unforgiveable sin - something apparently involved with calling good evil and evil good – but it takes disrespect towards the divine to unprecedented levels. And it is unacceptable from those who pass for Christians as opposed to just post-Christian radical feminist God blasphemers like Mary Daly whose recommendation is “Sin Big” and who variously demeans the Holy Spirit.
I will throw her on a bed of pain (Rev 2:21) (REB translation)
I won’t cite the whole passage which is Revelation’s warning to the prophetess, Jezebel, and those at Thyatira supporting her. The text is not one I read, nor need anyone, as fundamentalists on sex might (God like an Irish priest beating lovers out of the bushes). The essential point is Jezebel encourages believers to “fornication” (general sexual immorality) under the umbrella of things divine. Althaus-Reid teaching believers they can discover God, an orgiastic one, amid all and any sexual encounters they might have seems uncomfortably like duplicating the situation referred to or symbolized through the Jezebel name. The more so as Jezebel encourages partaking of food offered to idols and Marcella was willing to defend any spirit cult if it served her sexual messages always opposing any kind of Christian mission/conversion ideals. So was it morbid to note Marcella died “unexpectedly” following a long illness? In the context of her special professions, it’s uncannily like being refused the chance to be shriven after having had sufficient opportunity to attend to those matters of soul Marcella so breezily dismissed along with all beliefs like resurrection.
VALE MARCELLA ALTHAUS-REID
These texts were only potentially relevant. I’m not suggesting God drew my attention to them. At this point however I approach areas like those sometimes broached in my Cosmic Father which includes reflections on what constitutes the forth-telling of “prophecy”. I choose to believe God did put another verse into my mind, one I now consider the answer to the question I wouldn’t have asked, nor expected to have answered if I’d asked it. Driving through open country meditating should I even write this article, almost like a hammer to the head I registered with great force a very different text whose words I hadn’t recently heard or read. I wasn’t so familiar with them that I immediately knew their source. I thought perhaps Deuteronomy but found they conclude Psalm 95. They ran: “to whom I swore in my wrath they would not enter into my rest”. I looked at the immediately preceding words. ”They are a people whose hearts are astray, who do not discern my ways”. This seemed relevant enough to Marcella and those engaging her path of “Sadean holiness”.
Finally I knew why I’d been disturbed about the death of Althaus-Reid. It wasn’t your average death if there’s such a thing, more like the death of a Sartre which makes to ponder. What do such people really represent? I don’t believe in any conventional sense that God has “wrath”, a point considered in some detail in Cosmic Father. Yet in a moment I knew, as certainly one can ever know anything, that this person who took full responsibility for her words, will be taken at her word. She will not have the salvation she declared against…..And with that there’s nothing else to say unless that, just as there is a warning that the supporters of Thyatira’s Jezebel should dissociate from her, those who have aided, abetted and laughed along with Marcella should awaken to the illusion – the emperor’s clothes effect represented. Nor should they disregard such warning because the Jezebel reference is “only” from Revelation. In effect the condemnation “only” agrees with the gospels which declare, what might almost be an epitaph for errant theologians:
Alas for you when all speak well of you
That is how their fathers treated the false prophets
words preceded by “Alas for you who laugh now…”
There’s no accounting for tastes or beliefs, but we should recognize doctrines of theo-porn guru, Marcella Althaus-Reid, were very wrong. Marcella suggested we might need to be forgiven for loving God (2003:1). I suggest people need to be forgiven for loving Marcella in her role of blasphemer.
Marcella Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology, London and New York: Routledge, 2000
Marcella Althaus-Reid, The Queer God, London and New York, Routledge, 2003
Thomas Bohache (ed) The Queer Bible Commentary, London: SCM Press, 2007
Rollan McCleary, A Special Illumination: Authority, Inspiration and Heresy in Gay Spirituality, London: Equinox Press, 2005
Rollan McCleary, Cosmic Father: Spirituality as Relationship, Amazon, 2009