Did God or Man Create Gender? -- Understanding Queer Theology
The opinions reflected in this OpEd are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of staff, faculty and students of The King's College.
God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. -Genesis 1:27
In light of the sexual revolution, the debate over homosexuality has shifted from Levitical and Pauline prohibitions to the very foundations of the universe. Orthodox Theologians hail Adam and Eve as the true image of marriage and gender norms. Unorthodox, “Queer” Theologians are echoing the voice of God in Genesis 1:27 to bolster support for the LGBTQ movement.
If there is any substantial Christian argument concerning the morality of homosexuality and gender fluidity, it is not in Paul, the Law, or the prophets, but in Genesis 1–3. The Prophets and their arguments are historically bound and can be explained away through historical circumstance.
Leviticus, Israel’s ritual purity guidelines, stands in stark contrast to the neighboring Egyptian and Canaanite culture. Even Paul’s claim that homosexuality is a form of male softness is only tangentially and apophatically (through negation) related to human sexuality and gender. Each of these can be interpreted as being merely reactionary. Genesis, on the other hand, makes positive ontological claims on human nature that transcend circumstance. Where Leviticus 18 might not apply to modern practices of homosexuality, Genesis 1-3 still makes powerful claims over our existence.
Queer Theology’s basic premise is that gender nonconformity is intrinsic to prelapsarian human nature. Thus, rather than “queerness” and gender nonconformity being products of the fall, they are part of our divinely ordained human experience. In the most radical forms of this claim, gender nonconformity is projected as one of God’s divine attributes handed down to humanity as part of our imago dei.
Queer Theologians ally themselves with Feminist Theologians on the radical reversal of the traditional understanding of gender and sexuality: the very desire to enforce gender norms and conformity is a consequence of the fall. To this end, the two occupy the same normative space—when the one critiques heteronormativity and the other critiques patriarchalism, both are critiquing the same exegesis of Genesis 1-3 that has been used to oppress entire social classes according to their sexuality and gender.
Both Queer and Feminist Theologians are often accused of the same exegetical fallacy: are they interpreting the text or reinterpreting it? That is, are they taking what the text actually says and trying to find meaningful ways to apply it to their situation or are they taking their situation and trying to find meaningful ways to apply it to the text? To answer this question, let’s consider the following examples of how Queer Theologians are adapting their liturgies to be more accepting of Homosexual lifestyles and how one Queer Theologian proposes to shed light on a perplexing aspect of Jesus’ life.
Some American churches have begun adding glitter to the ashes on Ash Wednesday as a display of acceptance, which, as a note, is different than tolerance—acceptance implying positive inclusion and praise, tolerance implying neither overt condemnation or praise, but simple neutrality. To some degree, this reconfigures the meaning of repentance and the season of Lent. Where ashes are meant to signify that we are but humble dirtlings in the face of God’s judgment, the glitter is meant to demonstrate that LGBTQ members are also heirs of mercy and members of the Body of Christ. It is a positive statement of inclusion and acceptance.
The glitter is also considered a demonstration of Paul’s teaching on the church: “and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor” (1 Cor. 12:33, NASB). This is not a denial of the original meaning of ashes (or not inherently, at least) but instead, it extends the original meaning by giving it new dimensions.
Hugh William Montefiore, Anglican Bishop of Kensington and accomplished Queer Theologian, wrote a paper titled “Jesus, the Revelation of God” in which he proposes an answer to the question of Jesus’ celibacy. Understanding that marriage is such a key aspect of Jewish culture and religion, it seems odd for a Jewish Rabbi such as Jesus not to have married. Montefiore, seeking to fill the gaps, proposes that Jesus was homosexual—a sexual orientation which was completely unacceptable within Jewish communities at the time. Remember, according to the basic premise of Queer Theology, it is completely uncontroversial that Jesus could be a homosexual since homosexuality and gender nonconformity are part of human nature.
But Montefiore does not end his analysis here. After proposing a noncontroversial interpretation of Jesus’ life, Montefiore extends his analysis, using it to explain the scope of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has a heart for the poor and oppressed because He identifies with them as a social outcast.
Speaking now within the scope of the broader Theological community: at its best, Montefiore's first claim is ungrounded and unnecessarily controversial; at its worst, it is completely false and unnecessary, period. At its best, the extension of this claim is irrelevant for describing why Jesus cared for the poor. At its worst, it is heresy.
Montefiore’s claim and its extension are not bad theology or heresy simply because they are a stretch, but because, to some degree, they make claims about the nature of God that are unsupported by scripture.
According to Dr. Ben White, Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at The King’s College, “heresy should only be invoked when a claim threatens directly or indirectly the understanding of God that is revealed in scripture and verified by church history and tradition.”
To say that Jesus had empathy for the poor and oppressed because he was a social outcast denies what Jesus’s life and ministry are meant to teach us: Jesus values the poor and oppressed, the humble and meek, because He is God.
Affirming Jesus’ homosexuality rather than His Divinity as the source of His empathy undercuts a rich theological narrative following from the exodus to the gospels in which God is constantly placing his favor with the oppressed, the slave, and unfaithful Israel. If anything, this is the narrative that Queer Theologians ought to adopt as their central paradigm—though I suspect they might run into many of the same problems that mainstream Liberation Theologians have already run into.
Moreover, such an affirmation as Montefiore’s places Jesus’ humanity as the guiding moral force in his life, rather than his Divinity. To some degree, Montefiore’s claims break the hypostatic union between Jesus’ humanity and divinity, subverting his divinity under his humanity.
To critique Montefiore on this matter is to critique any theologian who makes poor exegetical moves—it is not an outright denial of Queer Theology. If anything, such an exegetical critique both affirms a perceived relevance of such a theological discipline on the part of the person critiquing as well as encourages Queer Theologians to continue in their endeavors toward understanding God.
The biggest drawback to Queer Theology is that its theology about God is built from humanity up, rather than from the heavens down. While most of the central Christian ethics do not change when one adopts a Queer Theological method (you do not suddenly lose the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount) the approach of theology itself changes. It is a “queer” method, in the archaic sense of the term; it does not follow all of the tested patterns that Christian theologians have critiqued and developed over the centuries.
If Queer Theology is to influence the broader theological community, it would be wise for Queer Theologians to adopt the mainstream, accepted practices or methods of ordinary theology, and apply these methods in ways that expand the richness and variety of the scholarly, Biblical anthropology while still affirming, maybe even solidifying, the central beliefs about God. Arguably, according to these standards, the innovations of Ash Wednesday are an example of success, while Montefiore’s proposal is an example of failure.
Whether or not we ourselves choose to adopt this framework, it is good to be conversationally acquainted with Queer Theology's principles and doctrines so as to promote useful discourse with the Queer Theological community. Moreover, it is useful in itself, not merely as a framework for understanding other people's experiences and views, but potentially as an alternative way of considering history, theology, and the modern church.
We need only be careful that our controversial claims about issues such as human sexuality do not become heretical claims—ones that threaten the nature of God as understood according to scripture and church history.