Trinitarian Theology, Theological Method, and Sexual Difference
“The symbol of God functions.”1 Feminist Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson asserted this seemingly commonsense claim over twenty-five years ago now in She Who Is, a text that also interestingly dealt with Trinitarian theology, feminism, and theological method. In her turn to how the symbol of God functions in Trinitarian thought, Johnson presses against the “basic metaphors being used [that] necessarily signify an order of precedence” as processions “imply rank.”2 Pointing out how the classical tradition is in many ways at odds with itself, as it introduces subordination in a subtle way while also insisting on equality of persons, Johnson argues that “different metaphor systems are needed to show the equality, mutuality, and reciprocal dynamisms of trinitarian relations.” While Tonstad’s theology diverges from Johnson’s in many respects, one could (or, at least I did) read God and Difference as (1) a reminder of Johnson’s simple assertion and its import still today; (2) an extension, or perhaps a deepening, of her critical analysis, excavating the heteronormativity that is embedded in trinitarian logics; and finally, (3) an offer of a different metaphor system that Johnson calls for.
In the prelude of God and Difference, Tonstad recounts how, being drawn to trinitarian theology because of its potential for valuing difference, she became increasingly skeptical of this possibility. She explains:
The trinitarian value of difference has in recent years been worked out in terms of sexual difference, yet even queer-friendly and feminist theologians who attempt this often repeat and sometimes heighten the historical proclivity of Christianity to encode masculinism and (symbolic) heterosexuality within a trinitarian logic.3
This, along with the failure among these theologians to “avoid the importation into God of what trinitarian predication commonly rules out: for instance, the lesser status of a son in relation to a father” shape the text’s argument.
At the heart of Tonstad’s argument is Karl Rahner’s famous axiom, that “the trinity ad extra acts as the trinity is ad intra,” or, in more common parlance, that the economic trinity (how God reveals Godself in and to the world) is the immanent trinity (who God is in Godself) (8). Highlighting the theological stakes in distinguishing the two—notably, “protecting the freedom of God and absolute dependence of creation on God”—and raising questions about how theologians have sought to fill in or cover up the “crater” marking the disjunction between God and creation, using trinitarian theology as their primary building material, Tonstad argues that “the basic theological axiom of God’s self-revelation has been misused and mistakenly interpreted in recent trinitarian theology” (9).
More specifically, Tonstad identifies four key (interrelated) problems of trinitarian theology that stem from this collapse and that thus animate her argument. First is the problem of subordination, which Tonstad explains as the even though problem (“even though Jesus is subordinate or obedient to the Father in certain ways, even though the Son comes forth from the Father . . . this is not true subordination” ). The second problem Tonstad names is how “torture and death [are read] as the defining event of Jesus’ life” in trinitarian theology, the implication being that “the cross is the revelation of the Son’s intra-trinitarian obedience and the appropriateness of suffering and death to his divine person,” rather than how God has revealed Godself in and to a world marked by finitude and sin (10). The third problem Tonstad takes aim at is what she calls “corrective projectionism,” where particular problems of human existence (i.e., selfishness, consumerism, individualism) become the sites from which trinitarian theologies are generated and quickly proffered as answers to said problems (13). Tonstad points out how, while this move has typically been associated with the social trinitarians, that this “assumption that a major practical function of trinitarian theology is the critique of modern, Cartesian, or capitalist notions of selfhood and personhood,” has become pervasive in contemporary trinitarian thought even amongst non-social trinitarian theologians (12). Tonstad argues that this corrective projectionism results in a “wound-womb” posture, a heterosexual relational imaginary wherein good relations require making room for another, through sacrificial forms of suffering (13). The first three problems Tonstad identifies lead and relate to the fourth and final problem that animates God and Difference. These problems, she explains, not only “reduce trinitarian relations to ways of motivating proper human action and social order by writing such socialities into God,” distorting both human and divine personhood, but they do so in ways that are problematically (and complexly) gendered and sexed (14).
God and Difference seeks to respond to these problems that Tonstad identifies at the outset—or, as she puts it, “to unlearn every one of the lessons the practicality of trinitarian doctrine teaches” (17). The book unfolds in three parts. Part 1 traces how these problems manifest in the trinitarian theologies of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Graham Ward, and Sarah Coakley, “the kenoticists, who find the love of God in self-emptying,” and have also “intentionally connected gender, sexuality, and desire to the trinity” (17, 17–18). While expressing “deep sympathy with much of their work,” demonstrated through exceptionally close, detailed readings of their respective works (a point all of the respondents in this symposium pointed out), Tonstad argues that their various construals of the relationship between the trinity, sexual difference, and the God-creation relationship “exacerbates the theological translation mechanism by which difference entails competition (requiring kenosis as a corrective) and death” (18). Part 2 occupies the liminal space between critique and constructive turn. Turning to three “theological allies”—Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Kathryn Tanner—who share the worries about subordinationism that Tonstad does and respond to that concern by rethinking the nature of personal trinitarian constitution, Tonstad outlines how each of these approaches to rethinking trinitarian difference ultimately falls prey to some form of logic of subordination.
In the third and final part of God and Difference, Tonstad makes her constructive turn, “mak[ing] trinitarian trouble using queer reading strategies . . . interpreting the trinitarian imaginary through the negations on which it depends” (19). In this section, Tonstad proposes “a new account of trinitarian constitution without relations of origin” (19). Summarizing for the reader how suffering, subordination, and distance in God continues to appear in trinitarian theologies despite attempts otherwise, with the relations of origin serving as the source of said appearances, Tonstad points out that this “does not entail that relations of origins necessarily lead to such deleterious consequences, but it does suggest how liable they are to be used and interpreted in that way,” a liability exacerbated by our existence under the regime of sexuality where the language and imagery of procession is bound up in a heterosexist logic and wound-womb imaginary of hierarchy, subordination, and violence (224, cf. n16). Counter to this imaginary, Tonstad proposes an alternative; noting the pervasive neglect of the Holy Spirit in trinitarian theology, Tonstad argues that rather than elevate attention to the Spirit, we should de-emphasize the Father and the Son—as she puts it, the “Father and Son need less vigorous personhoods, as it were, rather than giving more vigor to the Spirit—particularly with respect to the practical theological implications of fatherhood, sonship, and origin” (227). The Spirit in this reframing does not castrate the Father and Son (which “would render the Spirit a vagina dentata”) but rather “the Spirit’s breathy caresses give Father and Son a share in the economy of the surface touch represented by the Spirit’s translucency rather than by the spatial interpenetration of persons” (227).
Given this basic outline of trinitarian relations Tonstad proposes, what then links the economic and immanent trinity? Rather than something like the processions extended outwards as missions or the other options Tonstad surveys and critiques, in God and Difference she proposes that this link between the immanent and economic trinity is “the establishment of communion” (232). Again deftly navigating the trinitarian implications and nuances at hand, Tonstad leads her readers through a discussion of some relevant distinctions that need to be addressed—between what is said of Jesus according to humanity or divinity, between the economic and immanent trinity, and between sin and finitude—Tonstad argues, contra to a “suggestion” of subordination and via a focus on the aim of God’s work in the world, a shift from a relational framework of subordination and sacrificial servanthood to one of adoption and friendship, one of “banquets without borders” (238). The eucharistic banquet, particularly in light of the resurrection, Tonstad argues, signals a transformation of materiality—“the transformation of bodied materiality that the union of finite matter with infinite divinity brings about permits bodied humans to be in the same place at the same time without penetration or shattering” (233). Within this “alternate reading of the biblical economy . . . the trinity acts in the world to reconfigure human community and so transform, without abolishing, human finitude” (256).
Given, though, that “the kingdom has not yet been realized in its fullness,” Tonstad cautions against the easy optimism associated with a eucharist relational reconfiguration, challenging how such positive trajectories towards community risk “expand[ing] the normative order without shifting its registers of value” (257). Given the disappeared body of Christ via the ascension, Tonstad challenges an ecclesiology marked by reproduction—by a logic of possession and purity. Instead, drawing on the queer theoretical work of Lee Edelman and Kent Brintnall and the queer theology of Marcella Althaus-Reid, she proposes an apocalyptic ecclesiology, one that recognizes the vulnerability of human finitude and which “figures forth the abortion of the current order of continuity and repetition, and ultimately the abortion of the church,” as “the church knows it does not possess the body of Christ and so distributes its sign freely” (273, 274–75). Circling finally back to gender and sexual difference,” Tonstad argues that the “redemption of sexual difference must then be its end in the form that we know it,” and within this frame, “clitoral pleasure becomes a sign of resurrection” (275). The “figure of the clitoris represents the nonbounded self that resurrection promises the transform without destroying,” given the clitoris is neither exactly “inside” nor “outside” the body, and the “uselessness of the clitoris in reproduction . . . signals . . . the possibility of nonreproductive sexuality beyond the pleasures of submission, penetration, and (self-) shattering” (275–76). The church, we see, marks yet “another place in which gender and sexuality appear in unexpected form”—and a reframed trinitarian imaginary offers us a different social and ecclesial imagination.
God and Difference is remarkable in (amongst many other reasons!) that it is both deep—offering close technical readings and analyses of the metaphysical, at times almost mathematical, complexities of trinitarian theologies—and wide, engaging with a wide range of trinitarian theologies and doing so in conversation with queer theories. The essays that follow all make some kind of note about this simultaneous depth and expansiveness of Tonstad’s work, and elaborate on and engage theologically with various aspects of this rich work.
The depth and breadth of God and Difference serves as the impetus for the guiding theme of Karen Kilby’s essay. Emphasizing the “dense intensity” of God and Difference, Kilby raises two questions—as she puts it, two puzzles—brought on by the depth, diversity, and pace of the text: first, where does the center of gravity lie in Tonstad’s critique. Given how she focuses on the trinity and sexual difference, Kilby seeks to better understand how that key theme not so much relates to, but rather is bolstered by, her critique of the importation of what belongs to a world of finitude and sin into the trinity. The second puzzle Kilby wrestles with is how and why systematic theology and queer theory are combined. Kilby’s questions—and Tonstad’s responses to them—serve as a useful kind of on ramp for this symposium, raising key framing questions that help situate and contextualize the text for (and?) questions its readers might first have.
Gerard Loughlin’s essay, which similarly highlights the rigor and speed of the text—Loughlin remarks on how, at “times, her book can seem overtly technical, its analyses so minutely detailed but swift that the reader is left breathless and dizzy”—offers a helpful and laudatory narration of the arguments of God and Difference that, in my own reading, provides some resources for the puzzles Kilby wrestles with. Loughlin hones in on Tonstad’s constructive proposal, raising a question as to whether there is room in a trinitarian imaginary for a less violent kind of penetration, where it too can be seen as a kind of intimate touch, “the coming alongside of an interior, softer surface, but a surface nonetheless.” Loughlin offers the imagery of a kind of placental relation for consideration.
Eboni Marshall Turman offers a black womanist appraisal of Tonstad’s work, arguing that the “groundbreaking queer God-talk” that emerges from God and Difference “is significant for black womanist praxis that is concerned with the contemporary scourge of anti-black violences and the development of theological mechanisms of resistance that nurture apocalyptic vision and life-affirming practice in church and society.” At the same time, she pushes Tonstad’s eschewal of a Christological focus on subordination and death, asking, “Is there no power in the blood?” Drawing particularly on the work of theologian Joanne Terrell, and pointing to the ways in which death is constitutive of black life in contemporary society, Marshall Turman raises questions about what might be lost in an apocalyptic vision of life for “black queer life that proclaims ‘black lives matter’ even as materiality suggests that there are no banquets that make room for black (queer) co-presence in church, academy, and/or society?”
Like Kilby, Sarah Coakley asks about the relation between systematic theology and queer theory in God and Difference. Reading these two disciplinary engagements as two distinctive voices Tonstad performs in the text, Coakley wonders if a harmony is possible as “they seem to be operating with different and fundamentally incompatible presumptions.” It’s from this reading of the two voices animating Tonstad’s text that Coakley offers three general points in response to Tonstad’s extensive account of and engagement with Coakley’s own trinitarian theology.
Finally, in his engagement, Paul DeHart reflects on how Tonstad’s work got him “all hot and bothered. That is, excited, and occasionally annoyed as well,” and he identifies two key sites of that titillation. First, like Kilby and Coakley, DeHart raises some questions about the relationship between trinitarian theology and queer theory in Tonstad’s texts. Yet whereas Kilby and Coakley’s questions center around whether and how the two discourses intersect, DeHart sees the bringing together of queer theory and Trinitarian theology as “a most welcome development.” His concern, instead, is around the directionality of their relationship, as he expresses some methodological concern that the critique does not run both ways. Beyond this methodological concern, which also brings with it some questions/cautions about Tonstad’s turn to undergirding trinitarian logics or imaginaries, DeHart also raises some theological questions about Tonstad’s constructive proposal, particularly about its appeals to scripture, its adequacy in securing divine unity, and its necessity.
Together, these essays demonstrate how rich God and Difference is, the contributions it offers to trinitarian theology and to (queer) ecclesiologies found amidst its deep rigor, its broad interdisciplinary engagement, and its both pressing and playful provocations. These engagements, as well as Tonstad’s responses to them, mine some of those riches and evaluate what they might offer.