Symposium Introduction

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” [10]). 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.


  1. Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 5.

  2. Ibid., 197.

  3. Tonstad, 1. Future citations from God and Difference will appear in-text.

Karen Kilby

Response

Tools in the Making

Queer Theory and Systematic Theology

This is a dense, intense, fierce, ambitious, tour de force of a book. It packs more into its 292 pages than I would have thought possible—by a factor of at least two. It’s not only that Linn Tonstad manages to cover a great deal of ground, in terms of thinkers and interwoven themes, though this is certainly true, but also that her insight and analysis comes so thick and fast. At times I found myself underlining a sentence in each paragraph, thinking every time “here’s the pivotal point, the absolutely decisive moment in the argument” or “here’s the key insight articulated so trenchantly that it has to be quoted in the review.” It’s a relief that the Syndicate protocol discourages any attempt to sum up and comment on a book as a whole.

I greatly enjoyed God and Difference: as an analysis of what has gone wrong in contemporary trinitarian theology (which is only part of Tonstad’s agenda) it is unparalleled. I found that the more I knew about the figure and theme under consideration, the more impressed I was. On the other hand, the dense intensity of the book means that if one doesn’t already know the material under consideration, it will be tough to follow. Tonstad doesn’t leave out any steps, but her thought moves so quickly that if the territory is not already well known it will not be easy to keep up.

As Tonstad herself realizes, in fact, the group of readers who will feel equally at home in all parts of her book is vanishingly small. Even had she confined herself to the relatively staid systematic side of her argument, it wouldn’t have been a large crowd—people who have come to terms with the whole oeuvre of Ward and Coakley, who know their way around Balthasar and are also at ease with Pannenberg, Moltmann and Tanner are not so thick on the ground. The fact that in addition Tonstad engages with queer theory, that she deliberately brings the two disciplines, with their two very different genres, together, means she has written a book which will likely prove baffling at one point or another to nearly all her readers.

Personally, after having read God and Difference, I find myself wrestling with two puzzles, one relating to the part of the book with which I am most at ease, where I know my way around, and the other relating to the elements of the book which, as one “accustomed to the sedate genre conventions of most dogmatic theology,” I am most out of my depth.

Part 1 deals with Hans Urs von Balthasar, Graham Ward and Sarah Coakley, all of whom have “intentionally connected gender, sexuality and desire to the trinity” (17). The treatments of Balthasar, Ward and Coakley are detailed, closely argued, and generally devastating. While acknowledging various strengths (especially in Ward and Coakley), and various kinds of good intentions (especially in Ward), Tonstad diagnoses a whole series of problems in the trinitarian proposals of these three. What puzzles me is not whether Tonstad is right or not—almost always I find myself agreeing, and admiring the clarity and force with which she identifies the problems. What puzzles me, rather, is the question of what lies at the heart of the various criticisms she makes—where the center of gravity lies.

The obvious answer would be that it is something to do with the way these thinkers weave together God and sexual difference. This is what the shape of the book as a whole seems to point to, and it is what bringing these three together in Part 1 more particularly seems to indicate. And yet it is not quite so clear as one might think. Let’s consider some of the criticisms Tonstad levels against Balthasar, Coakley and Ward.

A major issue is the tendency to import what properly belongs to a world of finitude and sin into the Trinity. This includes the intimation of competition between Trinitarian persons built into claims that they make space for one another, or give way to one another, or surrender or make something like sacrifices for one another. Tonstad cites a passage from the fifth volume of Balthasar’s Theodrama associating the Father’s self-giving in the immanent Trinity with a “super-death,” and comments, quite reasonably, “The shock of this passage is difficult to mute” (36).

There are also failures to distinguish between finitude and sin found in both Ward and Coakley, and an unfortunate tendency to confuse the nature of divine-creaturely relations with the nature of relations between one created being and another, so that, for example, dependence on God is supposed by both of them to entail vulnerability. All three figures want to ground the cross in the Trinity, and all of them in one way or another associate love and closeness with suffering and sacrifice. These problems are associated with an insufficient attention to the resurrection and the fact that Christian faith is all about the defeat of death.

A more general criticism, directed at least against Ward and Coakley, is of projection. Projectionism is by now a familiar critique of social trinitarianism, but Tonstad makes the case that the phenomenon is not limited to the social theorists, and that “corrective projectionism” (a useful coinage) is more widely practiced by contemporary theologians: I diagnose whatever I think is wrong in, say, contemporary capitalism’s way of understanding the self or persons or relations, and then I project the exact cure for this onto the trinity. So Tonstad argues that for Coakley, “finding the solution to a distinctly human problem of relationships in the constitution of the trinity remains at least as crucial” as it is for the social trinitarians she criticizes (104), and that “Ward’s trinity is a corrective projection based on what he believes is necessary to generate the ethically and imaginatively constituted human subjects he hopes to produce” (83). More generally still, lying behind the problem of corrective projectionism is what Tonstad argues is the misplaced impulse to make trinitarian theology practical.

The criticisms I have touched on in the last few paragraphs can all be articulated without reference, or at least without explicit, overt reference, to issues of sex or gender. Of course this is not all there is to Tonstad’s assessment of Balthasar, Ward and Coakley. There is also a vigorous and to my mind persuasive demonstration of a range of problems quite specifically related to their efforts to tie together trinity, sex and gender. But my puzzle is how to see the relationship of the two kinds of problems. Is the proposal that, in our thinking about contemporary trinitarianism, we should see issues around sex and gender as lying at the heart of all that is amiss? Or are these an added strand of problem, one which interacts in complex ways with other distortions? Or are they one expression among others, one inflection among others, of the fundamental problems (the practicality of the Trinity, corrective projectionism, forgetfulness of the difference between God and creation)? Or is there something wrong about the very way I am posing the question? I expect the answer is already present somewhere in the book, but in amongst the profusion of intensely woven analysis and critique, I find I can’t quite come to a settled reading of where Tonstad stands on this issue.

The second thing I find myself puzzling over is the combination of the two genres, systematic theology and queer theory, and the question of how well it succeeds. I’m not in a position to pronounce confidently on the matter, of course: I belong very much on one side of the genre divide, and Tonstad expects those like myself who are not literate in queer theory to be baffled, shocked, unsettled. Ultimately the judgment to be made about the success of this way of introducing queer theory and its conventions into systematic theology may rest more with theologians younger than Tonstad than it does with those older.

Still, I can perhaps say at least a couple of things: first, if one is going to take a stance against widespread current enthusiasm for “sexing the Trinity” (to borrow D’Costa’s phrase), it’s very useful to be proficient in queer theory. It helps in the detailed analysis—to be able to see exactly what’s off key in various thinkers’ attempts to ground gender fluidity in the Trinity, for instance. And it helps for the overall credibility of the position: neither Tonstad nor her readers need worry that she might be resisting the latest exciting trends in trinitarian theology because she’s just too narrowly conventional or theoretically unsophisticated to keep up with the proposals.

And even where one finds oneself left in the dust by the faster moving queer theoretical portions of this book, it’s still possible to sense, I think, tools in the making which in the end, once the rest of us catch up, may help give fresh purchase on some of the oddest and most frustrating features of theological language and argument. Tonstad goes most of the way towards persuading me that queer theory has something illuminating and analytically powerful to introduce into the theological conversation, even if there’s still quite a bit of work needed (another book, perhaps?) before I am likely to really understand what it is.

Consider, for instance, Marcella Althaus-Reid, an important figure for Tonstad. My (brief) encounters with Althaus-Reid’s work in the past never inclined me to turn towards her as a source, and I have to confess Tonstad’s book has not converted me. Even mediated by Tonstad, Althaus-Reid does not make things clearer to me. On the other hand, because often Tonstad herself does make things clearer to me—because at other points I find her analysis powerful and acute—her respect for Althaus-Reid is enough to give me pause, to make me wonder about what it is that I might be missing.

More generally, then, even if nearly no one understands this book as a whole, the strength of those parts readers can understand should dispose them to learn something—or at the very least to appreciate that there is something still to learn—from the parts where they find themselves at sea.

  • Linn Tonstad

    Linn Tonstad

    Reply

    Response to Karen Kilby

    Kilby’s generous response to God and Difference raises two sets of questions, one about the relationships between the different sorts of problems that worry me in the first part of the book, and the other about the maybe impossible intersection between the different genres—and, by implication, founding assumptions—of the two disciplines brought together in the book, systematic theology and queer theory.

    These are insightful questions that go to the heart of the matter of the book’s possibility, one might say. The answer to the first question entails a partial answer to the second, although I’m not sure either sort of answer will satisfy. Kilby is of course right that there’s a significant extent to which the problems of finitude, sin, excessive fixation on love/suffering/sacrifice/cross, and corrective projectionism can be treated without specific attention to sex, gender, and sexuality. Nevertheless, they do, I think, go together in significant ways.

    On one level, arguably, is the relation between different types of problems reflects the defensive posture from which much contemporary systematic theology at least implicitly proceeds. The ineluctability of finitude, incompletion, fragmentation, and self-dispossession is pressed on us theoretically from every adjacent discipline in the university, except as usual analytic philosophy of religion. Destroying the modern liberal-Enlightenment subject remains the project of much of the theoretical material I employ. That liberal-Enlightenment subject typically has its genesis, and thereby the genesis of the problems of (post)modernity (including racism, colonialism, capitalism and possessive individualism), assigned to Christianity. As I touch on in the introduction, Christianity is thus charged with the inability to think difference as well as with world-denying desires to eradicate human limitations rather than come to terms with them.

    To what extent is the fact that we live in the age of sexuality and sexual difference related to these concerns? Obviously, sexual difference is one way of thinking difference. The relation between sexual difference and human limitation (particularly the co-constitution of bodied being, biological reproduction, and death) gets taken up from heterosexist and misogynistic as well as from feminist directions. Sexual difference is by some taken to be a marker or essential component of finitude, one of the most fundamental aspects of bodied being itself (and the textual search for “the body” continues apace in some disciplinary spaces). Others, most famously Rosemary Hennessy, have argued that contemporary genders and sexualities, the production of new identities as well as fluid subjectivities, are at a minimum consonant with and perhaps even the effect of capitalism’s needs to reform subjectivity under a new layer of mystification, so that what seems to offer disruptive or nonnormative alternatives often doesn’t.

    At the same time, theologians recognize that capitalism distorts human selfhood and relations, just as many of those seeking every trace of the Enlightenment subject do so in part because of its essential role in the development and justification of racial capitalism (using Cedric Robinson’s term). Capitalism appears to produce a rapacious, selfish, possession-oriented subject. Is not then theologically the answer to produce a sacrificial, unselfish, self-dispossessive subject? Here’s where my slight modification of Kilby’s own discussion of projection in trinitarian discourse into corrective projectionism appears.

    I won’t rehearse the trinitarian aspects of this, as they are canvassed so exhaustively in the book, but the combination of these pressures requires, I think, that theologians’ defenses of Christianity’s capacity to think difference be routed through one or another specific form of contemporary cultural approaches to difference, typically represented under the signs of gender, sexuality, race, class, ethnicity, colonial/subaltern status, and so on. Gender and sexuality lend themselves well to theological use in these ways because they are already presumed to be there representationally or symbolically, gender can seemingly be marked both grammatically and via symbolic body parts, and, presuming certain types of coherence between gender and sexuality/sexual orientation, so can sexuality. (Thus calling God “she” might seem to some like a promising strategy for undoing divine masculinity, for instance.)

    I don’t think the former problems (finitude, sin, suffering, etc) have to be deeply associated with the latter problems (excessive focus on and misunderstanding of sex/gender/sexuality), but they often are so associated, because they are partly driven by the same concerns. Yet there are ways to show other kinds of connections between these issues: let’s say in the work of Levinas, or Sartre, or Judith Butler. Is the history of heteropatriarchy simply ineluctable on this level, so that associations between femininity and finitude, limitation, and otherness apparently can’t be avoided even though not conceptually “required”?

    I’m not sure what the answer is. There are attempts at approaching these relationships differently—right now, Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynter are providing resources for many seeking to get beyond what Wynter calls the coloniality of being/power/truth/freedom, and they and others have mapped the inadmissibility of black women to white womanhood and proper femininity. Yet feminization certainly plays a role in the production of race, precisely because of the associations between femininity, flesh, and otherness.

    In the book, I’ve sought to remap the conditions within which these contrasts and associative relationships appear, without remaining trapped within oppositions like active/passive, impenetrable/penetrated, or invulnerable/vulnerable—which aren’t exactly gendered even as they also are, and that’s the problem.

Gerard Loughlin

Response

Coming Alongside

At the end of God and Difference, Linn Marie Tonstad reminds us that theologians are nearly always successful in their searches, as when, searching for the historical Jesus, they find what they were hoping for all along. Similarly, with the trinity (lowercase throughout Tonstad’s book), they find it is about “sex, sexuality, or other differences” that have engaged their imagination (290). Moreover, in the case of the trinity it proves to be the key for the very differences they have sought to understand; now seen as only understandable through a “right trinitarianism.” But it is this very success that Tonstad wants to question. The trinity has been over-valued, over-used, made to perform tasks it cannot fulfil. It has become a “shibboleth for orthodoxy and theological seriousness,” and needs rescue. The trinity needs to “do much less theological work” (287).

Of course, the problem is the work that the trinity has been made to do, which in the modern period has been the establishment and maintenance of proper relations between people, and in particular between the sexes. The relationships within the trinity, as between its “persons,” have been made an exemplum for relationships in the world, as between men and women—even though, of course, it is various construals of the latter that inform the former. Indeed, the relationship between a differentiated divinity and the world—the differential relationship of creator from creation that is “beyond difference” (46)—has been made the measure of worldly relationships; the measure of man from woman. One need only think of Angelo Cardinal Scola, invoking an abyss—an “abysmal difference” (Scola 2005: 285)—between the sexes, as if it were Kierkegaard’s “infinite qualitative difference” of divine from human. The relationship of divine (intra-trinitarian) and sexual difference is perhaps the most egregious of analogies, since it aligns the man with divinity and materiality with the woman, and this distribution is not less toxic for being “analogous.”

Given that it is such trinitarian work at which Tonstad takes aim, it is not surprising to find her book opening with a taking down, a demolition, of Hans Urs von Balthasar and his trinitarian theology of the sexes (chapter 1). Indeed, one might think that Tonstad comes late to such work, with the likes of Tina Beattie (above all, Beattie), Corinne Crammer, Lucy Gardner and David Moss, Karen Kilby, Gerard Loughlin, Rachel Muers, and Graham Ward, preceding. But the critique of Balthasar is in some ways a feint, since what emerges through Tonstad’s reading of both Balthasar and his critics is the failure of the latter to remedy the failings of the former, for they are found too wedded to working with the trinity. They don’t see that it is less and not more trinitarian work that is needed.

Less is more for Tonstad. At one point, she notes how many “fulminate against the neglect of the Holy Spirit” in trinitarian theology. “S/he/it needs also to be seen as an actor in her/his/its own right and needs to be brought up to the level of significance that the Son and the Father already enjoy.” But rather refreshingly, Tonstad argues that matters are the other way around. She wants equality and not hierarchy in the trinity, but it is not that the Spirit needs more attention, but that the Father and Son will benefit from less, can be made to do less (damaging) work: “The way the Holy Spirit is often treated gives us a model for how the other two should be ‘neglected’ as well” (227). As we shall see below, Tonstad’s neglectful theology is in fact a spreading out of the Spirit, allowing the relationship that is the Spirit to inform how one might think the relationships of Father and Son, and the relationship of the trinity to that which the trinity creates.

If it was but Balthasar, and theologians like him, whom Tonstad was critiquing, her book would be interesting but not provoking. And it is, undoubtedly, provoking, for beyond the Balthasarians, Tonstad wants to show how even those who are in a sense her allies—other feminist and queer theologians—fail to outwit those elements of trinitarian thought that they do not think to question, that they think unquestionable. Thus, in the first part of her book, having critiqued Balthasar and his critics, she turns to the theologies of Graham Ward (chapter 2) and Sarah Coakley (chapter 3). Elsewhere, in an essay (Tonstad 2014) that serves as a companion to the present book, Tonstad considers the work of Elizabeth Stuart, Gavin D’Costa and Gerard Loughlin. As with Ward and Coakley, these authors valiantly attempt to save the Christian symbolic from its heterosexism, but can never undo the fundamental gendered binary of God to world. Movement of gendered bodies within the system—men taking on feminine roles, women (on rare occasions) masculine—does not so much frustrate as confirm the hierarchical binary. “To queer a hierarchical symbol system by permitting persons of all gender identifications to take up the higher positions does not undo the hierarchy, nor does it free the symbolic imagination from its commitment to reducing difference to hierarchical order” (Tonstad 2014: 10).

Both Ward and Coakley look to the trinity for a more equitable construal of sexual difference. But Ward’s trinitarian work, while “laudable,” ends by erecting “a cross in the very heart of God’s eternal being” (86). Something related happens in Coakley, but now the valorization of suffering becomes absolute for a theology that—on Tonstad’s devastating reading—leaves a possessive soul forever seeking its self-dispossession (121). “The whole cosmos is set up as a school for self-sacrifice so that all of creation may be divinized by participation in the crucifixion of the Son” (114). On Tonstad’s reading, Coakley’s creation becomes a joyless undertaking: “the utter absence of gratuity” (121). I will come back to some of the themes in these chapters, but their detailed reading is beyond the scope of this review. The point to take away is that Ward and Coakley are too enamored of suffering, too thoughtless (of the gospel) in making suffering the mark of difference.

But perhaps more important than the above assaults on the attempts of feminist, queer and queer-friendly theologians to rethink the Christian symbolic without undoing the symbolic itself—seeking to make it more inclusive by making it more fluid—is Tonstad’s aversion to origins, and above all to the relation of origin, which is the relation—within the symbolic—to the Father. Right at the heart of trinitarian thought—right at the heart of the trinity—is the Father, from whom all else flows, of whatever ontological status: the Son (begotten), the Spirit (processing), the world (emanated/created). The gendering of this origin is forever problematic, since even when given a womb (on this see Rogers 2005: 111–18), perhaps especially when given a womb, it establishes one sex above all others, and in that very establishment a trinity that is forever hierarchical, which is to say, forever subordinating, eternally. This then opens unto the valorization of subjection—subjectivity through subjection, of “persons” human and divine (46)—mentioned above in relation to Ward and Coakley. These theologians do their very best, but they only become more entangled the more they try to outwit a logic that cannot be undone. Instead, it must be refused.

The second half of Tonstad’s book (its part 3) is concerned to articulate an alternative to those forms of trinitarian theology that should be refused. There is a hinge between the first and second halves, a chapter (part 2, chapter 4) that attends to Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg and Kathryn Tanner, who, while not entirely beyond criticism, are read for what they contribute rather than for where they fall short. (It is a little curious—charitable—that Pannenberg is so warmly welcomed, given his antipathy to homosexuality, and his no doubt deprecation of queer theology, should it have come his way.) Building on these theologians, Tonstad develops a non-hierarchical, flattened-out trinity, so to speak—though not as flattened out as some (see Loughlin 1999: 193). In Tonstad’s trinity, all give and receive, differentiated only in what they give and receive. “The Father gives [the name of love] to the Son and the Spirit; the Son gives [glory] to the Father and the Spirit; and the Spirit gives [power] to the Father and the Son” (229). This is a trinity in which the “persons” come alongside one another, just as they come alongside the world in its creation. Their unity is not grounded in one person (Father), but shared between them (231): the field of light that is the divine life (227; the notion of the divine “field” is taken from Pannenberg).

Tonstad’s reading of her theologians is dauntingly close, attending sometimes to every permutation through which an essay has gone. The authors themselves could hardly know their work better than Tonstad. At times, her book can seem overly technical, its analyses so minutely detailed but swift that the reader is left breathless and dizzy. It is fearsomely rigorous, and this is so much the case that it comes almost as a surprise to find Tonstad—especially in chapter 6 (“The Lord of Glory”—a perhaps cheeky recollection of Balthasar’s Herrlichkeit / The Glory of the Lord)—sketching an alternative theology to those she has critiqued, in passages that, while never languorous, are more easeful, indeed seductive, that unexpectedly open onto a theological vision that is both attractive and comprehensive: an interlinked account of trinity, church and eucharist that manages to be both traditional and unusual.

The aim of the trinity’s action in the world is to give human beings a share in the life of God. What such a share in the life of God looks like is best seen in New Testament passages dealing with food and banqueting practices. . . . The transformation of human existence is not its translation into a world other than this one. It is, rather, the promise and reality of God’s coming close in love, so that the love of God for humans is made directly available in their sibling relation to Jesus, through which God comes to live among humans as an adoptive parent for the sake of new creation. God comes close in love to transform human difference from its seemingly inevitable, sinful tendency to turn into competition necessitating self-sacrifice into the possibility of table fellowship in friendship with each other and Jesus, as adoptive children of God all seated around the banquet table enjoying the overflow that characterizes the life given by God. (238)

This passage points both back to what Tonstad finds so distressing and even reprehensible in the theologies of Balthasar, Ward and Coakley, and behind them much of the Christian tradition—namely the valorization of scarcity and sacrifice—and forward to Tonstad’s theology of God’s ceaseless generosity, coming alongside us as sibling and parent, as friend. Another way to think the contrast is as between theologies of difference that stress the crucifixion of Jesus and those that focus on his resurrection. Tonstad is firmly in the latter camp. Theologians of crucifixion allow the church’s early interpretation of Jesus’ death as sacrifice to so infect their accounts of God’s life, that the trinity—the relation of Father and Son—becomes a story of “death, wounding, space-making, self-emptying, and eternal sacrifice” (147). And because it is this relation that is used to think the relationship of the sexes, the difference of sex becomes one of penetrator and penetrated, wounding and wounded; and woman—unlike the more mobile Son—never escapes the victim position.

The point—which Tonstad develops across a complex array of theological arguments—can be illustrated by the figure of Mary, who Tonstad describes, in paraphrase of Luce Irigaray, as having no place; “she just is place—a reduction of woman to the womb-place that births the ultimate man through the transcendent power of paternal reproduction” (68; emphasis in original). The Son, who enters Mary’s womb and comes forth from it as Jesus, and is sometimes himself a womb—a “wound-womb” as Tonstad calls it (13)—birthing the church he dies for, is nevertheless also able to escape death, rising from the womb-tomb, recovering “the phallus,” taking “back control over his own body” (68). The critique is not just that agency is always and only masculine in this trinitarian imaginary, but that the synecdochic womb is associated with wounding and death; life through violence, eternally grounded in what one might think the sadomasochistic relation of Father and Son.

While Tonstad insists on the different difference that God is from the world, she yet allows for the analogical crossing of that difference, not least and most wonderfully when she describes participation (sharing) in the life of God as the non-identical repetition of God’s non-competiveness. Just as the divine three do not compete for the same “space,” and nor for the space that we occupy, so in sharing God’s life we learn that we do not need to compete with one another. “One need not move aside to make room for the other, for there is enough space for all. Connecting trinitarian relationality to materiality and the body, we discover the possibility of bodies that do not crowd each other out, make room for each other, or penetrate each other in order to be in relation and to be in the same place at the same time” (239). We do not need to make room for each other because God has made enough space for all.

Yet, despite “limit” being associated with sin, there are some limits of which Tonstad approves, limits that are not the result of sin, signs of a fallen world, but borders within a redeemed cosmos. These are the separate bodies that we are to one another, alongside one another; skins we may touch but should not penetrate. And here too is an analogy, for the relationship of touching bodies repeats the touching of the trinitarian persons, just as these relationships figure that of God alongside the world. Thus, in a curious way, the very analogies, comparisons, that seemed so decried when critiqued in other theologies, are now allowed, now that the differences are no longer ones of origin—of Son from Father, woman from man (Eve from Adam), world from God—but are instead the difference of, as it were, coming alongside, of being side by side: of Father, Son and Spirit (side by side by side); of one person with another person or persons, (side by side—by side); of creator and creation (side by side): the sensuous Spirit caressing the world, driving it wild (276). It is the Spirit’s manner of relating that now informs the picturing of the other trinitarian relationships, of Father and Son, and of Father and Son and Spirit. The trinity is no longer imagined as “the spatial interpenetration of persons,” but as an economy of translucent “touch,” inspired by the “Spirit’s breathy caresses” (227). (Though Tonstad briefly critiques Eugene Rogers’ trinitarian theology [in Rogers 1996], there is perhaps some kinship between his central motif of the Spirit “resting” on the Son, and on the Son’s siblings and friends [in Rogers 2005], and Tonstad’s touching pneumatology.)

There is, perhaps, a playfulness here, the play of the provocateur and the tactician, making a deliberate breach in a phallocentric theology, a deliberate replacement of a penetrative logic with a clitoral symbolic (after Irigaray 1985); or not a breach, but the placing of a new, different imaginary, alongside the old, the one that imagines one must give up, put aside, sacrifice and suffer, in order to receive. Of course, penetration can be thought less violently, less as rupture or shattering, and more as intimate touch, the coming alongside of an interior, softer surface, but a surface nonetheless: a changing but continuous “skin.” Penetration might be a form of being alongside and being alongside a form of penetration; and it might be that we can imagine a relation of difference in which limit/skin is both crossed and not crossed at the same time. Perhaps we might think this a placental relationship that both joins and separates; that must be crossed over (the mark of difference) even as it is already crossed because already the shared limit of each: mother and child (see Irigaray 1993: 39–41; Loughlin 1994: 27–29). However, this might seem too panentheistic for those who—like Tonstad—want to maintain the “difference beyond difference” (169), the relation of creator to an “out of nothing” creation. Yet, we might think that this shared, placental limit, is the internal limit of incarnation—two natures touching in one hypostasis—and so indeed the most intimate union and infinite difference: the other side of the skin.

It will take some time to think through what Tonstad has and has not achieved in God and Difference. It is an exhilarating read, not least for what it builds up as well as what it tears down. Tearing down and building up might not be the best way to describe Tonstad’s project, for indeed she aims to be as “orthodox” as the orthodoxy she so relentlessly critiques. It is then more a transfiguration of the Christian trinitarian symbolic. Though Ward and Coakley are taken to task for leaving too much in place, Tonstad herself—as I have tried to suggest—leaves much standing as well, and not least the trinitarian name: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Borders and limits are disparaged—the evils of division—and yet they return in the skins that touch, side by side, but never puncture or breach. And this touching is analogous across the divine and human divide, so that one teaches the other. So Tonstad’s trinitarian theology is both very close and very different from that which it contests; just the other side and yet far away. I might have liked it a little further off, a little more apophatic in the way that Karen Kilby has espoused (Kilby 2005 and 2010), and that Tonstad notes (225). And in that regard I cannot but think Tonstad right to argue for a less industrious trinity, working away—and worked over—to produce the orders of difference and relationship that we find in the world; that we wish to affirm in our world. So, at the end of this review I find myself returning to an author I invoked the last time I wrote for Syndicate (Loughlin 2014), namely Jacques Pohier (1985), who came to understand, with the help of Thomas Aquinas, that God does not want to be everything. Echoing Pohier, we can say the trinity does not want to be everything, and Linn Marie Tonstad shows us how this can be, in showing—as I read her (which may not be how she reads herself)—a God who comes alongside and changes everything.

Bibliography

Irigaray, Luce. 1985. This Sex Which Is Not One. Translated by Catherine Porter, with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.

———. 1993. Je, Tu, Nous: Toward a Culture of Difference. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Kilby, Karen. 2005. “Aquinas, The Trinity and the Limits of Understanding.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 7.4: 414–27.

———. 2010. “Is an Apophatic Trinitarianism Possible?” International Journal of Systematic Theology 12.1: 65–77

Loughlin, Gerard. 1994. “Other Discourses.” New Blackfriars 75/878 (January): 18–31.

———. 1999. Telling God’s Story: Bible, Church and Narrative Theology. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2014. “God Is Not Everything.” Syndicate 1.4 (November/December): 164–70.

Pohier, Jacques. 1985. God in Fragments. Translated by John Bowden. London: SCM Press.

Rogers, Eugene F., Jr. 1996. Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God. Oxford: Blackwell.

———. 2005. After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology from Resources Outside the Modern West. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Scola, Angelo. 2005. The Nuptial Mystery. Translated by Michelle K. Borras. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Tonstad, Linn Marie. 2015. “The Limits of Inclusion: Queer Theology and Its Others.” Theology and Sexuality 21.1: 1–19.

———. 2016. God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude. New York: Routledge.

  • Linn Tonstad

    Linn Tonstad

    Reply

    Response to Gerard Loughlin

    How apophatic ought an apophatic trinitarianism to be? Where, if anywhere, are analogies between God and creation allowed, where disallowed, and on what grounds? Loughlin’s—I was about to say penetrating, but that would give the wrong impression—incisive analysis of God and Difference turns on these crucial challenges, or decisions, that emerge in the course of developing a theology of God and world. He asks, as gently as can be, whether I in the end place strictures on other theologians that I do not hold to myself, particularly by denying analogies between inner-trinitarian relationships and sexual difference, while allowing some sort of analogy between the relationships between the divine persons and the transformative work of God’s rematerialization of resurrected human beings.

    That question allows me to rehearse the two types of principles that, I think, make the difference. The first is about what we might, under various forms of erasure, call inner-divine language (the temerity causes a shudder, yet: we are semiotic beings [like the rest of creation, following someone like Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think]). That is, one of the conditions under which theologians erase our own language is the recognition that God is not subject to the same antinomies as human beings (arguably) are. Thus, some contrastive pairs—or pairs that are contrastive for finite creation—may both apply to God. A typical example of such usage that I cite on page 29 is that between change and stasis, which appear oppositional in the created order. In God, however, neither of the terms of the contrasts strictly applies, yet using both can signal the simultaneity of liveliness and self-identity (in a non-static way!). Hans Urs von Balthasar uses this strategy with abandon, and he does it specifically for the relations between trinitarian persons, so that they can, in some meaningful sense, be imaged in terms of activity and passivity, or action and consent. (There are several levels of crossing out or twisting, so that, for instance, the passivity of sonship is an active passivity—but the basic contrast remains, for Balthasar, illuminating.) I restrict such usage in two ways. One, I argue (by showing the consequences) that a contrastive pair like activity and passivity does not apply to God at all. (I also believe, but do not argue, that that particular contrastive pair is not, in general, usefully illuminating for created relations either.) The point is that not all pairs that are contrastive in creation ought both to be radicalized onto God, and that, in particular, some contrastive pairs are not appropriate to inner-trinitarian distinctions—take change and stasis, again: while it might be right to radicalize both for God, assigning (say) change to the Son and stasis to the Father would not be legitimate. (This, by the way, is why Brandon Gallagher’s recent argument for the coincidence of freedom and necessity in the trinity goes so totally wrong.) The distinction, I believe, between my critique of Balthasar and the extant (and often excellent) critiques in the literature that Loughlin rehearses—including Tina Beattie’s, which I agree is unsurpassed and on which I heavily depend—is that most critiques either, like Beattie’s, focus on the aspect of sexual difference or, like that of Rowan Williams, argue that Balthasar’s trinity rescues or overcomes (hetero)sexism and hierarchy in his account of sexual difference, whereas I argue that (what I show to be) hierarchical trinitarian difference is more fundamental than sexual difference, just as Balthasar himself argues, and that’s the problem.

    In short, language works differently for God. Some terms, like intimacy, might usefully and illuminatingly be used for inner-trinitarian relations, for relations between God and creation, and for relations between created beings. Other terms, like distance, might usefully and illuminatingly be used for relations between created beings and for the alienation from God that sinful creation experiences, but would not, in my view, usefully be used for inner-trinitarian relations or for the relation between God and creation that runs from God’s “side,” so to speak, because there is nothing (contra Barth and Balthasar) in God that distance picks up that is not already carried by a term like difference.

    Why, then, do I work to move away from terms like penetration? It’s not necessarily the case that penetration is intrinsically forbidden; while I reinterpret perichoresis primarily in terms of inseparability, “inwardness” to each other is also appropriate for persons of the trinity. I show, however, that penetration used trinitarianly comes to be a way of imaging difference agonistically, where relation across difference has to be achieved by crossing borders in order to install relation (hence the relevance of the wound-womb). Here, I think, I read the skin differently than Loughlin does: not as a border or limit, merely as a visible marker of particularity. The skin is not a limit that needs to be crossed, nor must relation be installed in personhood. Persons are never before or without relation, any more than matter is ever atomistic. Touch can be violent but need not be; the clitoral symbolic that I develop points to relational touch with pleasure, without needing to cross a limit or border. It’s not that all clitoral touch is necessarily of that nature, of course. Loughlin is right to see playfulness there. Clitoral touch represents both the unrepresentability of many pleasures and genders in trinitarian theology and a type of relation that I struggled to find in the many theologies I examined, a nonhierarchical relation in which difference remains difference (yet is never without relation).

    More significantly, perhaps, the reason I place the distinctions where I do is the resurrected body of Christ and the assumption that the rule for interpreting God’s work in the world is first and foremost the end toward which God works. The cross participates in the revelation of who God really is, but it is not the final word nor the culmination of what God wants for God’s creation. (“In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, for I have overcome the world.” “See, I am doing a new thing.”) I have tried to take with utmost seriousness that the resurrected Christ is the firstfruits of all creation, the true being of what we shall be. Mystery remains here, perhaps the deepest mystery of all.

    Loughlin asks for yet more apophaticism. Maybe even the rather spare account of immanent trinitarian distinctions I offer still does too much, although I’m not sure. In Kilby’s apophatic trinitarianism (which retains all the terms I cancel out—while I leave a place for Father/Son language, I don’t leave it untouched by any means, since I restrict its meaning to a particular economic signification), apophasis takes place by way of allowing language to move and signify in ways that baffle signification. My argument in God and Difference seeks to demonstrate that trinitarian language in use (where its meaning becomes visible) doesn’t baffle so much as all that, that its signs and bodies carry with them too many traces of their origins. And so, I’ve sought to baffle again.

Response

“Trouble Don’t Last Always”

A Black Womanist Appraisal of God, Difference, and Death

Linn Tonstad’s God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude generates “trinitarian trouble” that promisingly shakes the very foundations of systematic and constructive theological inquiry. The fundamental conviction of Trinitarian theology, namely, that God is self-revealed in the world through Jesus, drives her bold interrogation of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Sarah Coakley, and Graham Ward. The groundbreaking queer God-talk that emerges from Tonstad’s genealogical Trinitarian experiment is significant for black womanist praxis that is greatly 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.

In part 1 Tonstad initiates her laborious examination of contemporary trinitarian theologies and begins the work of uncovering what she provocatively asserts on the first page of the text as the “lost-ness” of Trinitarian theology. Positing anti-difference as the bedrock of the Christian theological imaginary, Tonstad thoroughly examines the problematic gendering of the God-world relation in her effort to destabilize the pathologics of heterosexism, heteronormativity, and the hierarchical inequality of sexual difference in the trinity. The book’s immediate focus on the inner-trinitarian relational function born from the drama, woundedness, and kenotic finitude that respectively drive Balthasar, Ward, and Coakley initially threatens to overwhelm the critical question at the heart of Tonstad’s project: “what does our understanding of the trinity mean for us?” Summarily casting the reader into the almost impenetrable world of “T-theology,” however, Tonstad’s project echoes the formidable remnant of Rahner’s stimulating axiom, “the ‘economic’ trinity is the ‘immanent’ trinity [and] . . . the ‘immanent’ trinity is the ‘economic’ trinity,” in ways that confirm the project’s weighty relevance to the contemporary context and its sinful fragmentation at the seams of social distinction. As the economic relevance of the project carefully unfolds in relationship to hierarchy in sexual difference, which is Tonstad’s primary emphasis, I was excited by the ways in which the argument also translates to hierarchical inequalities and inequities that manifest distinctly at the intersections of varied social locations; namely, race, gender, and class distinctions, toward which Tonstad subtly gestures throughout the book.

There is no doubt that the fracturing of many twenty-first-century churches proceeds on the basis of hierarchy in sexual difference that emerges from an understanding of the God-world relation that is grounded in heterosexism, heteronormativity, and homophobia. In light of this scathing reality, God and Difference disrupts the Trinitarian status quo and invaluably asserts that God matters for us, and that the performance of the inner-trinitarian relation provokes the “people of God” or the church (a category of dis/belonging that Tonstad ingeniously troubles in her concluding chapters) to perform justly or otherwise in the world. The critical intention of Tonstad’s argument, however—the assertion of banquets without borders that unambiguously establish the whosoever that get to fully share in the life of God—unfolds with clarity as she debunks the sexed and gendered aspects of “subordination and obedience; the tight connection between the cross, obedience, and revelation of the inner-trinitarian relations” and trinitarian theology’s “corrective projectionism . . . regarding personhood and subjectivity” (17).

Stimulated by Althaus-Reid’s liberationist vision, Tonstad identifies Balthasar, Coakley, and Ward as principal representatives of colonial theology and unflinchingly argues that, even as its progenitors have been heralded as the arbiters of Christian theology, such colonial trinitarian claims are not only wrong but have, in fact, gotten God dead wrong. Accordingly, Tonstad calls the leaders of the field to account for the discrepancy between their God of death and the God in Christ who, as gospeled, comes to give life.

While systematic theologian Delores S. Williams is offered only a cursory nod in the book, the significance of her prescient late twentieth-century black womanist christological challenge to dominant theological inquiry’s “glorification” of suffering and subordination in the Father-Son relation is overtly perceptible. Tonstad pushes further by rigorously challenging the respective particularities and de/merits of colonial theology while, as exposed in her “Interlude,” decisively problematizing that which apparently holds them all together: the import and significance of immanent trinitarian space-making that compels “making room for the other” as the requirement of difference in the immanent trinity. Moreover, Tonstad further contends that the act and/or urge to “make space” is an act of theological violence insofar as it “symbolically sexes the God-world relation”; an affiliation that is problematically predetermined by a Father-Son relation that is consistently constituted in T-theology by “death, wounding . . . self-emptying, and eternal sacrifice.” Such Trinitarian assessments produce a sexed economy of dispossession that secures woundedness and submission as obedience in a world of debt, sin, and “sonship” (147). For Tonstad, this economic exchange is consonant with the violence of phallic penetration insofar as it necessitates an eternal cross for the minoritized; that is in this case, permanent subordination and suffering as the inevitable consequence of sexual difference (136). Since death, however, cannot belong to God and thus “should not be made the translation of any aspect of inner-trinitarian relations,” Tonstad advances the bedrock of her queer constructive argument which also appears to capture the foremost intrigue of the project; namely, the significance of “clitoral pleasure” as the contrasting logic to the symbolic order of sexual difference (134). Dismantling the imagery of male climax and its erection of “space-making” which demands that the self “move aside to make room for the other, to be filled by the other, for self and other cannot be in the same place at the same time,” clitoral pleasure offers a “phenomenology of touch without violence” insofar as it does not require invasion for relational joy, or demand death as the wage of difference (136).

In part 2, Tonstad engages Moltmann, Pannenberg, and Tanner’s respective modifications of the logic of Trinitarian procession with stunning precision. While apparently still falling woefully short, Tonstad implicitly contends that their significant variations on relations of origin, most especially Kathryn Tanner’s assertion of “making room” as the co-presence of a “for us” God and humanity, rather than the compulsory death of penetration, provide promising trinitarian ground for Tonstad’s assertion of the pentecostal import of Spirit as God’s clitoris in the final section of the book. Her queer vision of the Spirit that dispossesses the viability of masculine generativity in the Trinity and models theological imagination beyond the phallus to redeem sexual difference and transform finitude echoes Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Kathryn Tanner, and reveals Tonstad’s central claim with indisputable clarity: there is nothing in the immanent life of God-for-us that even hints of subordination; thus, the cross, that is, suffering and death, have nothing to do with or reveal of God’s economic mission. It follows that the myriad exclusionary ways in which the Bible, the church, and God-talk have been deployed to wound and oppress queer and/or other minoritized communities are the antithesis [antichrist?] of Tonstad’s “Lord of Glory” who, as revealed in/by the touch of the Spirit, is concerned with transforming “us from slaves and servants to friends and children of God” (235). For Tonstad, such transformation is the expiration of finitude in the world; the coming resurrection, or as black womanist theology might accede, the certainty that “trouble don’t last always.”

Time and space do not allow me the privilege of saying more about the book’s deeply compelling ecclesiology—especially Tonstad’s idea of the church as the “non-possessible Body of Christ”—that supports my recent work on the theological, ethical, and ecclesial significance of the contemporary movement for Black lives that was first conceived in the practice and virtual imagination of three queer black women: Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi. In brief conclusion, however, my womanist sensibilities echo the authoritative work of systematic theologian Joanne Terrell and ground the question that my reading of Tonstad’s exceptional God and Difference amidst this new millennial season of black death at the hands of anti-black state-sanctioned violence leaves me with; that is, is there no power in the Blood?

I get it—and perhaps the answer is no for some of us and, frankly, is often the most comfortable answer for those who are constantly faced with the threat of non-being.

It seems, however, that there is room for womanist theology to approximate the question of subordination, woundedness, and death as an opening for the viability of Terrell’s “sacramental witness” as a faithful response to Tonstad’s claim. In fact, the inquiry proves to be a decisive que[e]rying of Hagar who, based on the triangulation/trinity of black women’s oppression—that is always concurrently raced, gendered, sexed, and classed vis-à-vis Abraham, Sarah, and Ishmael—lacks the privilege of difference, or as Tonstad proposes, the privilege of drawing a distinction between enslavement and “sonship.” Hagar is both slave and “son”; and such Hagaritic witness in concert with Tonstad’s book leaves me to wonder about what happens to death and finitude when one concurrently occupies space as both/and—both slave and “son,” both “wounded” and “touched?” This sort of theological intersectionality guides the work of the womanist liberationist project. It claims that God in Christ’s subordination with us, not merely for us authenticates God’s co-presence in us, which in the words of M. Shawn Copeland, wades “through many sorrows” that are both Cone’s cross and his lynching tree. What does an apocalyptic vision of life, resurrection that defies the eschatos, thus mean for black life, or more precisely, 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? As Sandra Bland’s driving while black, Alton Sterling and India Beaty’s standing while black, Tamir Rice’s playing in the park while black, and Korryn Gaines’ sitting at home while black suggest, death is constitutive of black life, oft performing as the end of always trouble for black lives. Perhaps it is even the driving force behind black postcolonial martyrdom that defies the phallic emissions of eternal suffering, as it sings in faith “O death, where is thy sting?” and as it is intoned in the Negro spiritual that claims, “before I be a slave, I be buried in my grave.” Yet if there is no death in God could it be that this death-denying, coming, and clitoral God is merely the drag of a white racist?

  • Linn Tonstad

    Linn Tonstad

    Reply

    Response to Eboni Marshall Turman

    With characteristic acuity, Turman hones in on the crucial question left unanswered in God and Difference: what about those of us who live between cross and resurrection, between gift and suffering, within the confounding of coerced and voluntary surrogacy, yet not without surrogacy, and who find God-with-us in the blood? It may be that the analytic distinction I draw between finitude and finitude marked by sin is simply too clear a distinction; it may be too that finitude transformed carries a promise that sounds hollow to those whose lived suffering is the result of others’ sin. Black lives matter.

    And Christ, as I emphasize in “The Lord of Glory,” awaits our arrival at the banquet set for us. Christ does not feast and celebrate while we here below suffer and die. God’s will for the creature is that the creature may live, in the fullest sense of the term. Here, beloved creatures of God have their breath (the living breath breathed into them, God’s own breath) stolen, choked out, by other creatures, they too God-breathed but their actions unwilled by God, in contradiction to God’s fundamental will for the world.

    There is power in the blood. But the blood does not stream forever. God is with those who are sacrificed, and promises the end of sacrifice. While God and Difference does not develop a soteriology and thus doesn’t address the cross’s salvific function directly, I take it that the cross is part of God’s salvific act, part of God’s becoming present to us and with us in the most intimate manner possible, as a human being for whom suffering and death were part of his life, as they are to different degrees for each and every one of us. Hagar is slave and “son,” and is given the privilege belonging to sonship: to make claims of God, to make demands of God, to name God. But it is to the slave that privilege is given. God and Difference did not make that point sufficiently clearly; the emphasis was on the from slaves to sons (“so that we may be transformed into heirs rather than slaves,” God and Difference, 235) rather than on the point that it is slaves who are given the privilege of sonship. But that, I think, is the case.

    The contrast, then, is not between those who have rights and those who don’t, as in the history by which citizens with rights (propertied white men, “active” vs. “passive” citizens, and so on) are distinguished from non-citizens and those without rights. I tried to use terms like claim, demand, and gift-giving, rather than the language of rights, as an indirect way to avoid sanctifying such distinctions theologically, but were I rewriting this section, I might make the claim differently.

    I sought, therefore, in discussing the different temporalities of the banquet, to avoid any suggestion that the transformed life God offers us is made available to us in any final, unambiguous way in our interhuman relationships now. Even the bread that we eat and wine that we drink at the eucharist, the experience in which we know something like matter transformed, uniting us into the (deeply conflictual) body of Christ, emerges from relations of injustice and exploitation. If we forget that, we eat and drink our own damnation.

    I am not sure that I am convinced that a God who wills that the creature may live, a God for whom unjust death is not God’s will (leaving aside the question of whether biological death as such is or is not the result of sin), would be a white racist, as argued in William R. Jones’s classic book, but I do not directly take on the question of unjust suffering in God and Difference. It still seems to me that it is just that God, whose resistance to death is strong enough that God Godself underwent death and by his death destroyed death, who is on the side of those who have their breath and their God-breathed lives stolen from them.

Sarah Coakley

Response

Voices in ‘God and Difference’

Linn Tonstad’s intriguing new book is, as she herself owns, written in two voices.1 It is crucial to acknowledge this at the outset, since—as this review will discuss—the fundamental presumptions, theological or otherwise, to which the two voices are attuned are by no means easily harmonized. And this makes the volume all the more challenging to assess. This reviewer has had to read the book several times to be sure of representing its contents as fairly and sympathetically as possible: what follows is my best attempt so to do, for there is indeed a great deal to be learned from its contents, not least in the way it deliberately provokes and disturbs.

Tonstad self-identifies at the outset as “a queer and feminist theologian who is interested in dogmatics” (3, my emphasis). As it turns out, this way of putting things is going to be important, although it is not immediately apparent at the beginning of the book what it will mean. From here, a significant portion of the book (Voice 1, as I shall term it) is written in a genre instantly recognizable as standard academic “dogmatic” or “systematic” theology,2 worthy of anyone rigorously trained in the “Yale school,” as Tonstad has been. In this strand of the book, Tonstad delivers, with considerable acuity and insight, a critical overview of recent trends in the renewal of trinitarian theology in the West: its rejection of a disjunction between “economic” and “immanent” Trinities; its notable (and in Tonstad’s mind, highly regrettable) seduction towards “social trinitarianism”; its tendency to fail to plumb the significance of the absolute ontological difference between the divine and the human; its unfortunate attempt thereby to deal with contemporary problems of “sexuality” and “gender” by recourse to supposed parallelisms between human and intra-divine “relations”; and its various assaults on the problem of a remaining (albeit covert) subordination of the Spirit. No one who reads this survey can fail to be instructed by Tonstad’s succinct and canny review of the relevant trinitarian literature: it is contentious to be sure, but thought-provoking in a sharp and instructive way. Yet the rather surprising final hero of the analysis is, as it turns out, Friedrich Schleiermacher, who is recovered at the end of the book as a supposedly fine example of a theologian resistant to tangling gender projection and theology together,3 indeed averse to saying anything whatever about God in se. The lessons of the “systematic” story (Voice 1), therefore, are what we might call purgative: speculation about an “immanent” Trinity is otiose, since “the work the doctrine of the trinity is being asked to do in contemporary theology is work that the doctrine simply cannot do” (290). What Tonstad wants, in contrast, is a christologically construed account of the “glory of God in the body” (291), a matter on which she thinks theologians can appropriately reflect without improper speculations about the inner nature of God.

The other voice in the book (call it Voice 2) is devoted to working towards this implicit Christology/theological anthropology by progressively subversive means. This second, “queer,” voice officially announces itself as a sort of interruption between the first and second sections of the book, and here Tonstad’s new methodological presumptions begin to emerge with force. Since the entire late-modern project of social trinitarianism, she believes (and especially that concerned with gender and difference), has been shot through with heterosexist propulsions, there is no room here, alas, for the desired “aegis of the clitoris” (sic), for the “enjoyment of relation” between women’s bodies; there has only been the “violence” of the phallus, and the “breaking” of the self in a false rendition of kenosis which competitively vies for space with the “other” and justifies its received cruelty under the sign of the cross. All of this latter package (cross, suffering, self-emptying, and so on) must be rejected insofar as it merely reinscribes unacceptable heterosexist norms. Inspired by the work of the late Marcella Althaus-Reid, Tonstad now delights, in Voice 2, to offend: “If we move from dick-sucking to clit-licking in touching God’s transcendence . . . we will no longer gag on God’s fullness nor be forced to swallow an eternal emission” (141). Anything smacking of “heterosexual” symbolics must be obliterated, therefore, including the very notion of trinitarian “procession” (with its overtones of begetting and dependence); indeed, “infidelity” itself must become the essential mode of resistance, and an escape thereby from any mandated appeal to “sacrifice” and “obedience”: it is the “non-ordered logics of difference, grounded in resurrection as transformative nonrepetition” that are to be sought instead (138, my emphasis).

From here, Tonstad moves in chs. 6 and 7 to indicate what her alternative trinitarianism and (“apocalyptic”) Christology would look like. There is a puzzling moment in ch. 6 as Tonstad reverts to Voice 1 and does after all enunciate an ontological view of trinitarian “relations,” starting with the Spirit and focusing on “gift-circulation” rather than “personhood” (225–238). It is unclear why “gift” does not itself always already imply some sort of origin and reception; but Tonstad seeks here again to avoid any reprehensible (i.e., covertly gendered) speculation about the immanence of God, and to focus instead on “the nature of the unrestricted community that God establishes . . . with humans” (238, my emphasis). The end of ch. 6 and all of ch. 7 then climax with the promised vision of humanity as transformed by the resurrection into “rematerialization.” Needless to say, this state (whatever it connotes, exactly: it is by definition “apocalyptic”) must be devoid of all “heterosexist” taint; and we might also expect from earlier polemics in the book that it would be cleansed too from any associations of “suffering” or “vulnerability.” Rather late in the day, however, Tonstad ruefully acknowledged that “brokenness is part of the human condition” (245), and that it is the role of the eucharist to show Christ’s participation in this brokenness. In the eucharist too we find that “Christ’s body moves past even sexual difference and joins itself to the materiality of the whole world” (246).4 However there is to be no stabilizing thereby of ecclesial life, but rather an “abortion of the church . . . a fundamental refusal of the logic of reproduction in both its biological and socio-symbolic senses” (273, my emphasis). In short, the “fulfilment of gender is in its overcoming,” which simultaneously of course means “the end of marriage” (275). The clitoris however triumphantly survives this obliteration of gender in a way that the (heterosexist) “phallic logic” or “womb-wound” do not, since it represents a “non-bounded self” that resurrection “promises to transform.” Voice 2 thus triumphs at the end, despite the strange Schleiermacherian postlude in which Voice 1 suddenly makes its last appearance: now we are back to a rather anodyne “absolute dependence of all that exists on God,” and a Nestorian-sounding final announcement that “the glory of God takes up residence . . . in a specific, historical human being” (289, 291). It seems that, after all, speculation about the divine is not altogether off-limits, any more than claims about the importance of the (gendered?) incarnate specificity of the God/man.

The two Voices in God and Difference are hard to hear harmoniously, then, not least because they seem to be operating with different and fundamentally incompatible presumptions.5 Voice 1, for instance, appears to be committed to assessments of other theologians according to established scholarly conventions of clarity, accuracy, and self-consistency, and via specifically theological criteria such as respect for the authority of Scripture, ecumenical tradition as conveyed through the Church, and reason (however construed). Indeed it is striking that the authority of the councils on the doctrines of Trinity and Christology is simply taken for granted throughout the book. Voice 2, in contrast, represents the “queer” revolt against any of these settled presumptions: hermeneutics becomes mandatory “suspicion”; the church and any “inclusion” into it something to be “aborted”; “stability,” “faithfulness,” “reproduction” and (of course) marriage rejected; “clitoral theology,” in all its necessary vagueness, elevated; and “submission,” “penetration” and “self-shattering” negatively hypostasized as the essential “heterosexist” plot of most contemporary trinitarian theology. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that “heterosexuality,” tout court, is the ultimate enemy for Tonstad—though whether any “heterosexual” woman (with a clitoris), or any man (without one) is finally capable of the redemption promised through a “non-bounded [resurrection] self” remains somewhat uncertain. Voice 2, by definition, does not seek to “include” but to enact its own prophetic shattering of the ecclesiastical and dogmatic status quo.

What can we say, then, of Tonstad’s remarkable claim, at the very start of the book, that these two Voices (two “genres”), actually announce the “same argument” (3, my emphasis)? It will already be clear that, in both method and fundamental theological presumptions, this cannot be true overall; and it must therefore be the playful intention of the book (successful, to be sure!) to leave one guessing about its final methodological coherence. But there is of course one sense in which unity may be claimed, and that is that the two voices identify the same projective target, viz., the particular form of modern trinitarian reflection in which “heterosexist” presumptions about gender, suffering and relationality are read back into the divine life itself. And for that reason Tonstad needs the authors she treats in the (springboard) first part of the book (Balthasar, Ward, Coakley) to make the same mistakes. But this is where her exegesis goes badly awry.6

I have been invited specifically to respond to Tonstad’s extensive account of my own work in ch. 3; but I shall do so only briefly here in closing, and with a certain diffidence and restraint. What one can perhaps say, however, after detailed inspection of the argument, is that the problem of the two Voices has already here become anticipatorily paroxysmic: the notable animus of Voice 2, departing from the normal scholarly academic requirements and courtesies of Voice 1, progressively inserts itself through the chapter. And this results in some significant misreadings. Let me attempt only three general points.

First, it is strange indeed that Tonstad accuses me of various positions she has already detected in Balthasar and Ward (and others), but which I myself explicitly reject and critique in my own God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity.”7 In short, I have already made these points of criticism a central part of my own systematic position, and Tonstad seems to be merely repeating them. This is a heavy irony. Amongst these misreadings are my supposed projection of human gender identities into the persons of the Trinity; my purported failure to distinguish human and divine ontologies; and the charge of an unthinking elision of destructive suffering, supine passivity and prayer. None of these claims hit the mark; and indeed I explicitly argue against them at many points in my work. The core theme of GSS, in fact, is that the trinitarian God is beyond gender in any human sense, and precisely “interrupts” and transforms any attempts to fix a gender “binary” or to mandate “heteronormativity.” Likewise, in my earlier Powers and Submissions8, I explicitly disjoined abusive human suffering and the empowering act of prayer, and argued that the latter gives the resources to resist the former. The further charge that I have confused “finitude” and “sin” is simply puzzling and unsubstantiated, and appears to be another projection.

But secondly, there are of course themes on which Tonstad and I do indeed actually disagree, or rather on which I systematically disagree with the underlying presumptions of Voice 2. In particular, for Tonstad, contemplation is an act that seemingly can only be read as heterosexist false consciousness; indeed, there is a failure of comprehension in Tonstad for the whole life of prayer which may be immediately evident to the reader: any such act of willed “vulnerability” to God repels her. Likewise, it is true that I do recuperate and re-assimilate biblical traditions of “erotic” connection to the divine (in particular, the extraordinary tradition of the Song of Songs), and that is at least in part because I have a deep respect for biblical and patristic authority that Tonstad (in Voice 2 mode, at least) does not share. But I do not leave this material as it is: I extend and transform it into a contemporary mode, fully cognizant of Freudian, Foucaultian and postmodern gender theory.9 More importantly, I argue that this form of “eroticism” is empoweringly sui generis and profoundly personally transformative too in gender terms (as contemplation progressively reveals). It is no mere accession to worldly “heterosexual” norms: quite the opposite. However, for Tonstad, any metaphorical allusion to “heterosexual” attraction is seemingly so repulsive as to be instantly dismissed as either phallic “violence” or feminized “self-shattering.” Similarly, the arguments I have put forward for the value of ascetic faithfulness are dismissed a priori given Tonstad’s wholesale rejection of marriage and the stability of sexual relationships. On these matters, then, we must simply beg to differ. Voice 2 has a sociopolitical agenda which brooks no rivals, and it can only hear accounts of spiritual transformation as manoeuvres of worldly power or “self-policing.”

Thirdly, however, there is a random jumble of accusations against me which build up towards the end of ch. 3 (of racism, of mandated violence, of distorted fieldwork, of incoherent evolutionary theory, of “missing” the “fundamental nature of Christ,” of “obsession,” of “self-policing,” etc.), which come so thick and fast and are so poorly evidenced by the sources cited (many of which are not even yet published) that one can only conclude that something emotive is at stake: Voice 2 has at this point descended into a rant. Here I can only plead that Voice 1 could well do with a polite reappearance, if only for the sake of scholarly rectitude and the ordinary courtesies of a careful reading.

Let me conclude, however, with a final note of appreciation. God and Difference is a brilliant, angry, and iconoclastic book, written, as we noted at the outset, by “a queer . . . theologian . . . with an interest in dogmatics.” As such, it is bound to be a point of creative discussion for some time to come, not least amongst those circles of Christian dogmaticians who may now have “a [new] interest in queer theory” as a result of engaging with it. It will certainly leave its mark; and perhaps Voices 1 and 2 will in due course find their harmonious resolution, although I have some reasons to doubt this. It seems to me that Voice 2 is the real Tonstad.


  1. See, e.g., p. 17: on the one hand, says Tonstad, there is that way of writing which “proceed[s] in the standard idiom and conventions of . . . systematic theology”; on the other, there are the “genre conventions of queer theology.” Tonstad herself acknowledges that the reader may find this combination disconcerting or confusing (see p. 3).

  2. Voice 1 is to be found predominantly in chs. 1–3, 4, 6 (see p. 17)

  3. I say “supposedly fine” example, because Tonstad completely passes over the romantic (“complementary”) gender presumptions that Schleiermacher himself makes throughout his work, epitomized by his famous remark in a letter to his sister Charlotte that the intense nature of his spirituality made him much more attuned to women than to men. See Patricia E. Guenther-Gleason, On Schleiermacher and Gender Politics (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 1997), 57n216. Likewise, it is striking that Tonstad does not criticize Schleiermacher for his insistence on the importance of “utter dependence,” tout court, given her thoroughgoing suspicion of cognate themes of “vulnerability” or “submission” in more contemporary theologies such as my own.

  4. Presumably this is what prevents Christ from being damned by the very possession of an earthly male member?

  5. It is not clear to the reader in what order the sections of the book were originally composed, but it seems likely that in the process Voice 2 progressively ramped up its ire. In her prelude Tonstad tries briefly to address this problem of coherence, and to make a virtue of it. Her claim is that she wants to disturb the “sedate genre conventions” of dogmatic theology via queer theory, and thus create a new and exciting dialectical “method” (3).

  6. It is particularly surprising to this reader that Tonstad does not make Moltmann one of her targets in this first part of her book, and instead rather quickly passes over his intra-trinitarian gender projections in a later chapter. Instead, she focuses on Coakley, who has herself criticized in print both Balthasar and Moltmann for precisely the same problems that Tonstad also raises (Tonstad even references these articles in her bibliography for ch. 3).

  7. (Cambridge: CUP, 2013), hereafter GSS. The relevant material is mainly in the prelude and chs. 1, 2, 6, 7.

  8. Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), esp. prologue and ch. 1.

  9. In addition to GSS, see the essays in my more recent The New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender and the Quest for God (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), esp. introduction and chs. 1, 4.

  • Linn Tonstad

    Linn Tonstad

    Reply

    Response to Sarah Coakley

    An interest in dogmatics might mean several things: it might mean that one dabbles in dogmatics occasionally, as a kind of side gig (a hobby, perhaps), or it might mean that one is interested in dogmatics: that one is engaged, involved, committed; that one tarries with the detailed distinctions that are the material with which systematic theology works; that one writes a three hundred–page book on a specific issue in dogmatics that seeks to solve a particular issue of technical trinitarian theology while also making the case that the usual ways of writing dogmatics aren’t always the best tools for achieving desired ends. An interest in dogmatics might make one a systematic theologian.

    Such a systematic theologian might, then, offer a constructive account of immanent trinitarian distinction—offered, admittedly, as an experimental proposal—that avoids the problems of typical accounts of distinction by means of origin. Those problems might be identified by—some might say patient, others might say interminable or obsessive—detailed examination of just the strategies by which the dangers that most theologians agree are present in trinitarian discourse are to be avoided. Like all discourse about God, speaking trinity is intrinsically a process of unsaying as well as saying. Strategies of unsaying while saying are complicated in specific ways for trinitarian discourse. It’s less difficult to say that God is truly and properly good and all else is good only in analogy to God, than it is to say that God is truly and properly Father and all fathers are father only in analogy to God—especially since that analogy may not hold. As Karen Kilby has pointed out, language isn’t primarily used in trinitarian theology to illuminate, at least not in any straightforward way. The argument of God and Difference is an argument for unsaying in different ways, but also for not saying some things that are often said. As I argue in the beginning of the book, trinitarian theology has said and tried to say far too much; its certainties have been too certain; its claims (purportedly claims about God, but often claims for the power of theology and the piety of the theologian) have been too grandiose, too invested in a discourse of self-protection by way of self-sacrifice.

    The account of immanent trinitarian distinctions developed in chapter 6 of God and Difference tries, instead, for a kind of minimalism: not minimalism about the whether of immanent distinctions, but of their form. The form of the argument is determined by the what-for of God’s engagement with the world (what I call the for-us in the book), as achieved and evinced in the resurrection of Christ from the dead and the transformation of his resurrected body (told of in biblical narratives, including the delay of the heavenly banquet of which Christ speaks, and experienced by us now in eucharist). My thinking on that transformation was actually sparked many years ago by a lecture of Coakley’s on the epistemology of perceiving Christ’s resurrected body that I heard her deliver at a conference in Claremont when I was an undergraduate. (I still have a typescript of the lecture in my files.) Admittedly, the conclusions I draw from the complications of recognizing the risen Christ differ from Coakley’s. She focuses on the epistemological aspects of recognition, while it is the material and materiality that interest me, since if Christ (and we) are not raised in the body (no matter how glorified and transformed), then resurrection is nothing.

    The generosity that Sarah Coakley demonstrates in engaging a book in which her work is both an inspiration and the object of critique is breathtaking. When I suggested that she be asked to participate in this Syndicate event, it was with the hope that a conversation would ensue in which the differences in our projects might be the subject of a discussion that is often difficult to generate in the world of academic theology in which our books and articles arrive belatedly on the scene, and in which we seldom are given the opportunity to engage with each other in a more direct way.

    Let me, then, briefly follow Coakley’s lead in identifying where some of those disagreements lie. I won’t rehearse the exhaustively detailed engagement with her work found in God and Difference—that detail reflects both the closeness of our projects to each other and the fact that my assessment of her work ends up being critical. I wanted the reader to be very clear about the evidence by which I came to the conclusions that I did—that way, the reader can assess those conclusions herself, without having to rely on my assertions. Coakley disagrees with my claim that vulnerability and dependence can be distinguished before God. In the book, I argue that dependence on God is not usefully understood as vulnerability because it’s a different kind of relation from any other. Coakley worries that I obsessively search out heterosexual presumptions in theology, but as shown in the analyses of Balthasar, her own work, and chapter 5, among much other material, those heterosexual presumptions are in the material I analyze. I’m not the one finding penetration tipping over into womb-like receptivity, to recall language she uses in discussing Gregory of Nyssa. The clitoral language is a way to speak differently of distinctions among human beings (without installing borders and limits that then have to be overcome by shattering and sacrifice). It identifies what all the trinitarian imaginaries I rehearse at such detail in the book miss: the trinitarian imaginary has found symbolic wombs, breasts, phalluses, and birth canals everywhere in God, Christ, and Mary, yet it has seldom if ever found a symbolic clitoris. This is not a question of representation, for as Althaus-Reid reminds us, representation is the order of reification and repetition. I’ve tried to show what it is that gets missed when there is no symbolic clitoris or, put differently, I’ve used the clitoris as a symbol for the unimaginable yet real transformation of materiality that ensues from the union of God with bodied creation in the incarnation and the transformation of bodied being in the resurrection. Coakley’s worry that heterosexual women and men tout court are left out in my theology because of the invocation of a clitoral symbolic leaves out that not only women have clitorides (reader, I googled it), but it also misses the point of the imaginary altogether. That is more likely to be my fault than hers, of course.

    Coakley worries that I’m not as hard on the ridiculous and (hetero)sexist elements found in Schleiermacher and Moltmann, and that I elide the problems of her theology with those of Balthasar (contra my statement on p. 98, that “the problems I uncover in Coakley are in some ways quite different from those of Ward and Balthasar”). In the former case, I tried to be clear about what, specifically, Schleiermacher inspired in this project: his critique of the ways in which immanent trinitarian distinctions are upheld by way of origin (but not, obviously, his solution, since the constructive heart of the project is my account of immanent trinitarian distinctions), and his insistence on the difference our absolute dependence on God has from our experiences of relative dependence and freedom in relation to the network of created causes. (Moltmann I said little about because as Coakley herself points out, she’d already said all that had to be said in that regard.) As I discuss throughout the pertinent chapter, Coakley of course wants to avoid many of the problems that I argue her theology has—my argument is not that her intentions are bad (as, for example, in the expansive, transformed, empowered self that she argues results from willed vulnerability to God) but that her theology doesn’t finally support her intentions.

    Clearly, Coakley, other readers, and I will continue to disagree about the success of my argument—again, this is why the chapter is so exhaustively detailed and footnoted. It may be that it will take further writing on my part to make the case for the value of the different genres of systematic theology and feminist and queer theory (oddly personalized by Coakley in her conclusion) for theological writing. It is important, I think, that the most critical sections of the book are all written in just the usual style and language of systematic theological writing—with the exception of chapter 5, targeted not at any specific theologian but at the imaginary that, I hoped, would be recognizable to the reader at that point in the book. That exhaustiveness reflected my commitment to make my work publicly accessible, while recognizing the love that theologians have for using any minor slip in fluency in trinitarian speech as a strategy for dismissal. In other words, I rest my case in its current form.

Paul DeHart

Response

Involved Surfaces

I.

To speak frankly, Linn Tonstad’s remarkably arousing new book got me all hot and bothered. That is, excited, and occasionally annoyed as well. Yet titillation, intellectual and otherwise, is usually more than worth the accompanying irritation, and so before the imminent squabble I must emphasize the sense of grateful pleasure suffusing all that follows. There is so much to enjoy and learn from in this book for those of us who want to think through the doctrine of the Trinity with as much care as possible. She offers a constructive rethinking of Trinitarian theology by examining a number of influential contemporary proposals and subjecting them to a unified critique from two different angles: on the one hand, the hidden sexist and heterosexist assumptions that she argues are built into many of the reigning models; on the other hand, the dubious importation into these models, for epistemological reasons, of relational dynamics exclusively characteristic of finitude and/or fallenness and hence totally unsuited for theorizing Trinitarian relationality (a good Thomist point well made by Herbert McCabe among others, but always salutary to hear anew). For her, both lines of critique actually converge, together suggesting the shape of her preferred alternative. With regard to her second line, the one that engages most directly with my particular interests, I found myself, in spite of some serious demurrals, responding time and again to her broader insights with deep sympathy. I believe Tonstad is completely justified in some of her most central charges against contemporary Trinity-talk: that the human history of Jesus has been directly read back into the inner-Trinitarian relations in a disastrously unmediated way; that this has resulted in the conversion of a classically spare and rigorous Trinitarian discourse into a field for exuberant mythopoeisis (including the rendering of cruciform obedience as an essential divine ingredient); that this procedure ends up subjecting the Trinitarian persons to those patterns of competitive relation that define the interplay of finite things; and finally that the impetus for these maneuvers is at least partly due to the epistemic rather than soteriological orientation that has framed the discussion since the early twentieth century. Though I am less directly invested in her first line, I must applaud how Tonstad skillfully tracks the entanglements of God-talk with uninterrogated sexual and gender assumptions, often offering salutary but bitter medicine (the exercises in theological “mansplaining” she adduces on p. 193 are especially cringe-inducing).

II.

Pardon me while I have a strange interlude. — Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx) in Animal Crackers

But, to begin on a methodological note, I will suggest that her two dual critical procedures are uneasily yoked. That is, a certain style of persuasion absorbed from some of her theoretical exemplars in sexuality theory (the first line of analysis) seem to have unhappily affected her reading of Trinitarian intra-relationality (the second line), with a corresponding weakening of her counterproposal. (Reader beware: what follows is a formal point that in no way questions Tonstad’s bringing together queer theory and classical Trinitarian discourse, in itself a most welcome development as long as critique runs both ways; any hesitations or disagreements which finally arise in this field, and I have several, must be earned through following her suggestions attentively and sympathetically, especially by those tempted to dismiss them.) I speak of a dubious style of persuasion, since it does not for me qualify as argument. Now, many of her substantive critical points in the first half of the book I find effective, particularly against Balthasar and Moltmann. Her detailed grasp of so many complex positions is enviable, her avoidance of caricature refreshing. True, the surface restraint of her rhetoric when dealing with positions she dislikes is belied by her liberal use of scare quotes and other ironic distancing mechanisms, along with the adoption of a dryly pedagogical tone that continually threatens to tip over into condescension (and on occasion does: the final section of her chapter on Coakley, for example, might just as well have been suppressed). But this is not the issue of concern. I speak rather of her assumption that cultural complexes (images, words, concepts) can be fruitfully understood in the first instance as typically exemplifying unambiguously discernible patterns of interconnection and functioning. The idea is that such a pattern, usually denoted as a “logic” or an “imaginary,” is a kind of master cultural determinant, operating “behind” linguistic users to replicate itself through them and, especially, to generate specific social effects, usually damaging ones. Whatever the theoretical utility of this widespread notion (which surely requires scrutiny), it is its role as a mode of persuasion that I question here. In other words, I worry that what are really rhetorical and emotional appeals (themselves often justified) to the damage caused by symbolic markers of prejudice are, as in a lot of critical theory, given a kind of pseudo-rigor by maintaining that the markers fall collectively into fixed “logics” that “work” in more or less predictable ways and that therefore can only be unmasked and rejected wholesale. Ideas and images are far more malleable, multivalent and hermeneutically ambiguous than implied by this picture; the interaction of language, language users, and psychic or social events is more complex and contingent. In sum, there should be more attention to the interplay always at work in cultural production: the strange joints or articulations that continually undermine fixed patterns and inevitably mediate between meanings and human acts and organizations. The “logic” style of thinking pervades stretches of Tonstad’s engagement with Trinitarian theology. It fuels her suspicion of ameliorative “stipulations” around gender roles, for example, for what a person merely “says” can be simply dismissed if his or her position has already been diagnosed as captive to an evil “logic,” forced to do its work. One result is that Ward and Coakley, for example, are reduced to versions of Balthasar, only more dangerous due to their futile (and unconscious) attempts at disguise. But the real problem is that it injects into her discussion a series of exaggerated dualisms, instances where an either/or choice is apparently forced on the reader: clitoral or penetrative? Side by side or making room? Gift or sacrifice? Reciprocity or origination?

III.

For by the hands of the Father, that is by the Son and the Holy Spirit, human being . . . was made in the likeness of God. — Irenaeus, Against Heresies

We [women], too, have thrusting, probing sexual organs. We call them hands. — From a magazine column offering “lesbian sex tips for men”

It is that last dualism, of course, that provides the key to her insistence that the traditional scheme of inner-Trinitarian relations of origin will not do, and must be replaced. This is the point where my broad sympathy, outlined above, for her motive and intent falters. Her alignment of any use of origination language in the Trinity with an oppressive sexist/heterosexist cultural logic, and her construction of an alternative pattern of relations between the Trinitarian persons that avoids it at all costs, strikes me as an overreaction driven by a questionable dualism. In the rest of this section I will suggest (far too briefly) that her new scheme, thoughtful and suggestive as it is, [1] rests on shaky appeals to scripture, [2] is inadequate to secure divine unity, and [3] is at any rate unnecessary. [1] Tonstad’s constant and deft employment of scriptural motifs is yet another reason to recommend her book. However, her search for support in the New Testament for her new reading of the persons is too selective and tendentious to withstand scrutiny. Some examples. The son is glorifier, from whom glory moves out into God, who indeed is the glory of God (229); but this must ignore that throughout the NT “glory” is primarily located in the recipient of glorification, the Father, not in the giver of it. The Son is not that glory itself, but its “sheen” (Heb 1:3), its reflection. Or: the Father’s role is to “name” the Son (230); this belies the obvious lexical intent of Son language: the Father names because he originates, generates, begets. (As with Word: the Father is its utterer.) And where in scripture does the Spirit “give power” to the Father? (230). How can the notions of loss or self-emptying be simply rejected as readings of kenōsis? (233). And how can the central force of “adoption” language be missed as on p. 235, namely, its implied contrast with the “natural” Sonship of Jesus? [2] Beyond the exegetical contortions forced on Tonstad by her scheme, I have questions as to whether it is inherently workable. She claims (231) to build on Tanner by correcting her; but I think she rather vitiates the power of Tanner’s naming, throwing it off balance by abandoning its more traditional elements. The idea is that each Trinitarian person must be identified only in virtue of the entire reciprocal circle of differentiated relation. But the insistence that each person must always already “possess” its “own” divinity questionably prioritizes the threefold; Tonstad must reject the point of classical origination language, that of essential donation, the relational sharing of a common unity and identity. The result looks like a deadlock, encapsulated in her language on p. 229: the persons give “the same thing” to each other, and yet cannot do so, since they “already” possess it. One disruptive result is a strange “homelessness” of the very title “Son”: such language seemingly can have no place immanent to God since her understanding denies origination within the Godhead; yet it fails as an economic identifier since the terms in which she explains its use (intimacy, contrast with slavery, p. 235) would hold for the Spirit as well. [3] Finally, the drastic nature of her maneuver seems needless. Her properly intense awareness of gender- and heteronormativity prompts perhaps too delicate a sense of when origination and reception imply subordination. This, read through a putative juxtaposition of logics, triggers an overreaction: it is not enough to neutralize the threat, she must go on to annihilate its very possibility. To insist, as she does (235) that there must be simply nothing in the immanent Son that could even analogically correspond to his incarnate inferiority is too stringent a criterion. And the broad stigmatization of action and consent, determination and reception, initiation and derivation as definitive of heterosexuality (44) means that evading this syndrome exacts a terribly high price: a huge field of interpersonal dynamics that is needed to make analogical sense of the Trinity is swept up into a bad “logic” and rendered unusable. This accounts for the circularity of her key programmatic statement on p. 224: the “related problems” to which she offers her solution are only problems once origination is already defined in such a way that it effectively demands subordination. The duality of rivalrous logics of sexuality that skews the discussion invites an attempt to evade the opposition. Space-making and surface-to-surface (136) are not opposable, as the topology of sex always combines pressure and resistance, concavity and convexity. For sexual animals the womb is no wound but a receptacle, a fold rather than a tear that ruptures bodily integrity. Such a more reciprocal view might come into play once we abandon the essentially modern talk of an “economic Trinity” and return to the classic economic ground of the triune conception: the creator and the two missions into creation. Contrary to her account (236), the import of the sendings is that Son and Spirit are “given” to (into) the world in a way the Father is not. Tonstad having invoked upon our proceedings the spirit of the late Marcella Althaus-Reid, let me even in disagreement make an indecent (theological) proposal. Is not more involved in the missions than can be imaged as the fricative, clitoral stroke of the Spirit, hovering alongside creation? Have not the “two hands” of God, with almost suppliant delicacy, slipped fingers into the flesh of the world?

IV.

ratio filii ex ratione patris consideratur. Unde restat considerandum de verbo . . . — Aquinas, Summa Theologiae

Loquere obscene mihi — (“Talk dirty to me”)

If these sketchy critical reactions of mine are apt, the irony of Tonstad’s adventurous proposal is that her recoil from origination as subordinationist leads to a model in which God cannot share herself, her single divinity, with herself. Son and Spirit must have, must possess, their “own” divinity—a surprisingly “competitive” picture of Trinitarian relations for an admirer of Tanner. This leads me to a final, brief point in conclusion. Another reason for me to celebrate Tonstad’s book is her recalling Trinitarian theorists to a reconsideration of Schleiermacher. For like Tonstad herself, and perhaps unsuspectingly, Schleiermacher reminds us of certain more classical Trinitarian emphases, prior to the modern epistemologization of the doctrine. But unlike Tonstad, I do not accept Schleiermacher’s insistence that intra-divine origination cannot avoid positing a relation of dependence proper to creaturehood. Here I would recall, against Schleiermacher but with Aquinas, the possibilities of the psychological analogy, and particularly that equally primordial name of the second person: Word. For Aquinas, achieved understanding was the site where both utter unity and the perfection of difference reign equally as knower with known. Not only does this prompt our imagination to undermine the dualism that opposes reciprocity to origination. It also calls into question the (for me) much more problematic retrieval of Schleiermacher by Tonstad, namely her insistence (again, ultimately dualistic) that the gracious elevation of humanity by God can only be “unnatural.” The Son as the divine intelligence embodied in speech is the analogical locus of a sur-natural (not unnatural) liaison between God and the finally graced human creature in its intellectuality. For, contrary to Tonstad’s usage (289), a creature’s “unnatural end” could not meaningfully be called its “consummation.” The seed of grace planted in the world is, not by accident, the Word uttered into the world, an intelligible (because intelligent) sign. In saving the world, God does more than move against it, even does more than permeate it: in gracing the intelligent animal, she talks dirty to the world. The beasts may have their selected reproductive parts; only humans are endowed with the mind, the only truly erotic organ because it semiotically positions all bodily parts as fleshly media of sexual union. Let me repeat: Tonstad’s salutary and important book is to be highly recommended, not least because she exposes theological language as a hidden reservoir of unexamined sexual norming. For just that reason, why be so ready to label God’s saving intimacy with the world as “unnatural”? After all, that’s just not sexy.

  • Linn Tonstad

    Linn Tonstad

    Reply

    Response to Paul DeHart

    It was a warm August evening in Nashville. Paul DeHart and I were among friends and colleagues celebrating a milestone birthday. Expressing (much-appreciated!) interest in my forthcoming book, DeHart said to me that it was too bad that I had decided to “self-ghettoize” in my work through my engagement with gender and sexuality, since otherwise I’d likely have much more of an impact in the field of systematic theology. These are the difficulties with which, as DeHart so clearly recognizes, we continue to struggle: systematic theology desperately wants to hold onto its self-perceived universality and neutrality and it refuses to allow any of its canons of rigor to be put to the question even by rigorous argument. Is God and Difference, as suggested by some participants in this Syndicate event, closely, even densely argued? Or is it made up of “a dubious style of persuasion” that, for DeHart, does not even “qualify as argument” but instead proceeds by way of “rhetorical and emotional appeals” that offer no more than “pseudo-rigor”? (Can I resist commenting here on the predictability of designating feminist criticism as overly rhetorical and emotional?)

    It’s not surprising, of course, that those accustomed only to a particular style of rigor would find rigor difficult to recognize when the canons of rigor themselves vary by field. I worked hard, however, to show both that my account took account of the multivalence of symbolism and that nevertheless, and in surprising ways, similar results emerged even in places that one might not have expected them, by way of strategies intended to counter just those results. That DeHart finds these appeals on my part to an “‘evil’ logic” that refuses to pay attention to what “a person merely ‘says’” in the chapters on Ward and Coakley is astonishing. What systematic theologians do is to think about the consequences of certain positions as they ramify across an entire theological field. What I have done is subject Ward and Coakley to such examination—precisely because of their differences from someone like Balthasar (Balthasar is sexist and homophobic; Ward and Coakley are feminist and antihomophobic in their approaches). They are, however, similar in the centrality that gender and sexuality have as symbolism, imagery, and interpretive matrix for their trinitarian theology. That is not something I’ve projected; it is shown in detail and argued, in those chapters, using nothing but the standard interpretive techniques of systematic theology. The “logic” that I describe in chapter 5 is even there supported by specific examples for every case that I describe—until the final section, in which each example reflects a move cited earlier in the chapter or elsewhere in the book.

    DeHart worries about a selective reading of scripture on my part. I’ll say no more than what I say in the book: as those glorious forebears who developed the language of trinitarian theology recognized, subordination is a far more plausible interpretation of scripture’s discussion of the relation between God and Christ on its face than is equality in divinity. Much work had to be done to overcome that plausibility; I think my uses of scripture build on that work but also make sense of some important insights from the theology of the cross (for instance, not to look behind the cross, or behind Christ, for God). DeHart also disagrees with my suggestion that denying essential communication might be desirable, but the relation between origin (in terms of essence) and origin (in terms of person) is not predetermined by orthodoxy or otherwise, and the frequent patristic assertions that the “second” and “third” persons are not given what they did not have before may easily be read to deny essential communication. DeHart thinks “action and consent, determination and reception, initiation and derivation” are “interpersonal dynamics . . . needed to make analogical sense of the Trinity.” Here we simply disagree—indeed, I would contest every part of that, including the idea that these are useful ways of speaking about interpersonal dynamics to begin with, much less that they are usefully illuminating for the trinity.

    DeHart’s idea that my proposal makes it impossible for God to share God’s divinity (I have much to say, although I won’t say it here, about the practice of non-feminist theologians using feminine language for God) is not one I understand. In the simplest terms, the classical picture says what I say there, although I deny personal distinction by way of origin. The persons are subsistent relations (but not distinct by origin in my account); the persons are distinct from each other but identical with the divine essence. It’s not surprising that a Catholic theologian and a really, really Protestant theologian might have different views about the relation between grace and nature. That said, I’m more than willing to grant to DeHart that my use of language of unnature was playful in significant ways. God forbid that I will ever find myself forced to take on the nature-grace debate wholesale! Far more gifted theologians than I have said what needs to be said about that discussion.

    The latter half of DeHart’s response delights me in its identification of points of disagreement that can then be discussed. The first half? Let me put it polemically, since there is no avoiding the polemical intent of God and Difference. If theologians like DeHart want to see the discipline of systematic theology survive as anything more than a graveyard for white straight male self-assertion—and I know DeHart wants systematic theology to be so much more than that—they will need to learn what actual rigor looks like, and avoid the dismissal allowed them by the ease by which anyone but themselves may be designated as “emotional” and “self-ghettoizing.”

    • Paul DeHart

      Paul DeHart

      Reply

      Brief Rejoinder

      Linn Tonstad’s response to my review was not only formidably intelligent but (in refreshing contrast to my ramblings) incisive and to the point. Nothing unexpected about any of that, but there were two moments of genuine surprise. Each calls for brief comment, since they seem to me to represent misunderstandings on her part. First, she recalls a phrase I used in conversation with her some time ago, but her memory of how I used it does not match mine. I do not believe I could have accused her of “self-ghettoizing” her theological work by using critical discourses of gender and sexuality. As my review hopefully makes clear, it is just the skill with which she brings those discourses into connection with a serious and informed analysis of more traditional doctrinal material that I find uniquely valuable about her work. I am fairly certain, in other words, that I did not accuse her of self-ghettoizing because that sentiment is precisely the opposite of my actual estimation, not just now but also two years ago, based on what I already knew of her work at the time. The second surprising claim was that my concerns about the compartmentalizing discourse of quasi-Foucauldian “logics” often found in critical theorizing amounted to a dismissal of her own arguments. “Dismissive” is a strong word, implying a judgment that one’s claims are unworthy of consideration. When at one point I register my suspicion of the way critical theorizing sometimes gains traction by cloaking moral emotion in technical jargon, Tonstad manages to construe this as an ad hominem remark, and sexist to boot. That is far-fetched. Overall I have offered some criticisms of the dangers inherent in the argumentative strategy Tonstad occasionally adopts. My criticisms may well be misplaced or incorrect but they raise substantive points and engage her thinking explicitly, so I do not believe the accusation of dismissiveness is based on a fair reading of what I actually said, in the context of my reply as a whole. But on this point readers can judge for themselves, since the exchange is public and available, thanks to Syndicate Theology. Again I want to thank the Syndicate team, and Linn Tonstad herself, for the opportunity to engage her adventurous and insightful book (and thanks, too, to Brandy Daniels for her introduction). Though I think I have to stand by my critical remarks, it gives me greater pleasure to stand as well behind the many favorable things I said: God and Difference is a remarkable and important achievement, so please, read it!

    • Linn Tonstad

      Linn Tonstad

      Reply

      A Response to DeHart’s Reply

      DeHart contests, not surprisingly, that he could have said what he did. Recollections of conversations had long ago are often imprecise; memory becomes distorted. DeHart’s comment about “self-ghettoizing” was so shocking to me at the time that I mentioned it to several other people the same evening and during the next few days. I myself don’t use the term “ghetto” except to refer to forced housing segregation of medieval Jews, so its use in any transferred sense is always bothersome to me—not to mention that it was a worrisome preview of some of the reactions my book might evoke. Perhaps he meant something else by the term, but it’s hard to see what that could have been.

      Similarly, DeHart wants there to be a way in which the following claims are not dismissive, sexist, or ad hominem: “a certain style of persuasion absorbed from some of her theoretical exemplars in sexuality theory … a dubious style of persuasion, since it does not for me qualify as argument.” “I worry that what are really rhetorical and emotional appeals (themselves often justified) to the damage caused by symbolic markers of prejudice are … given a kind of pseudo-rigor by maintaining that the markers fall collectively into fixed ‘logics’ that ‘work’ in more or less predictable ways. … The ‘logic’ style of thinking pervades stretches of Tonstad’s engagement with Trinitarian theology,” which is where he accuses me of “simply dismissing” what Ward and Coakley say, having “diagnosed [their positions] as captive to an evil ‘logic,’ forced to do its work.”

      He may disagree with my readings of Ward and Coakley. But here, DeHart reveals rather his own investment in assumptions about gender and sexuality studies. My chapters on Ward and Coakley are extensively documented, to the point of what many readers have experienced as tedium. (What DeHart calls “scare quotes” are in almost every instance simply quotation marks, used to remind the reader that I’m staying within the vocabulary of the authors I examine.) So yes, it is sexist to say that I proceed by way of “rhetorical and emotional” appeals rather than argument.
      DeHart worries that the idea of a cultural logic or imaginary amounts to something like a conspiracy theory. (I got my use of the term imaginary from Charles Taylor, not Lacan, by the way, so hopefully DeHart has also taken Taylor to task on this somewhere.) I don’t, of course, either suggest or think that there’s a master “logic” “operating ‘behind’ linguistic users to replicate itself through them and, especially, to generate specific social effects, usually damaging ones.” I make the argument in God and Difference on the basis of theological consequences, not social effects, precisely because I reject the automatic social effects of doctrine presumed by those who seek to fix human social relations by way of trinitarian constitution—that is, I reject corrective projectionism.

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