Symposium Introduction

Linn Marie Tonstad’s Queer Theology adroitly wrangles major figures and texts in queer theory and Christian theology into an accessible book. Her well-timed humor amidst rigorous analysis demonstrates an amalgamation of her research and teaching in queer theology. She concisely defines terms and constructs a useful shorthand for otherwise unwieldy theorists and theologians. As such, Queer Theology is an ideal text for undergraduate courses as well as graduate students or scholars unfamiliar with the terrain of queer theology.

Despite my ongoing reservation that acclaimed queer theologians are pressured to ascribe to respectability politics by reproducing conventional theological forms, I have found Tonstad’s corpus to be unmatched for thinking through innovative queer theology that has more to do with engaged politics than detailing sex practices. Queer Theology does much of the work that queer theologians might not want to take the time to cover during class but understand is necessary before delving into what it might mean for theology today. Unquestionably, it is an invaluable contribution to the field.

The panelists featured on this Syndicate symposium include Nikki Young, Kent Brintnall, Peter Mena, and Leonard Curry. Each offers a thoughtful response that readers are encouraged to engage in the comments section, where Tonstad will also be an active participant. That Syndicate offers academic symposia to the public in this manner is a gift that enriches public scholarship and lived theology. I encourage you, the reader, to be bold. You are invited to think with these outstanding scholars of queer theology. Take this opportunity to ask questions and engage in conversation.

First, we will hear from Nikki Young, who praises Tonstad for pushing the theological conversation beyond apologetics and into sociopolitical transformation, because linearity is a nonsensical orientation to divine providence and participation in the world. She is especially invested in Tonstad’s argument that queerness represents a destabilizing movement.

After underscoring Tonstad’s useful reorientation of queer theology, away from sexual ethics and towards social justice, Kent Brintnall queries: “What is the norm, what is the source of the norm, that helps us to define, describe, and demarcate oppression and exploitation?” He speculates that the answer might lie within our understanding of corporeality, and provocatively suggests that perhaps norms are necessary to the task of pursuing economic justice.

Peter Mena reminds readers that Tonstad’s call to dismantle multifarious oppressive techniques will never be complete. Importantly, he asks, “If finitude is inescapable and inevitable and indeed is affirmed by both queerness and Christianity (except for the certain types of Christians who see finitude as ‘something wrong’), what then do we make of the unevenness of death?”

Last, we will hear from Leonard Curry, one of Tonstad’s former students. Curry finds that Tonstad’s argument that God is the difference beyond difference with respect to creation helped him to further reconcile God’s relation to creation and expanded his understanding of the meaning of transcendence. He then invites Tonstad to reflect further on the racialization of reproduction, theological eccentricity, beyond apologetics, and the individual conscience.

With Curry, I wonder: “What does it mean to move beyond apologetics if we have to go through apologetics to get beyond?” Must queer theology regulate which voices are respected and valued within the discipline, or is that a reproduction of the very structures that it claims to rail against? Although Tonstad identifies the shortcomings of conventional theological forms, such as apologetics, and extolls Marcella Althaus-Reid’s ability to outperform theorists and theologians while undoing established methodologies, the structure of Tonstad’s work remains legible to convention rather than reimagining Althaus-Reid’s invitation to do our work differently. I cannot shake the feeling that too often queer theology reproduces conventional structures due to fear—fear that our work will not be recognized as rigorous—and not because something new would be ambitious. We are already doing difficult work.

Is our aim to make room for ourselves, or, more broadly, as Tonstad suggests, to pursue economic justice for all? If the latter, how might we heed Brintnall’s suggestion that adjudicating justice necessitates norms? The work of queer theology is vital and requires “indecent” voices and visions. Won’t you join us?


Kent Brintnall


Without a (Normative) Vision, the People Perish

The first and most important observation to make about Linn Marie Tonstad’s Queer Theology—a summative overview of what has named itself queer theology and a substantive argument about what queer theology could and should be—is that we are quite fortunate that it exists. Tonstad lucidly, judiciously, and incisively covers a great deal of terrain when explaining some key insights from queer theory, identifying the limitations of some oft-repeated strategies in queer theology, engaging the work of Marcella Althaus-Reid, and highlighting potential lodestars of future queer thought. That Tonstad is able to clear this much ground, clarify these many points, and construct this compelling an edifice in a slim volume evinces her passion for this mode of inquiry, her deep understanding of the materials that constitute the field, her formidable analytical acumen, and her inspired vision for the paths queer theologians should tread.

I focus my attention here on two key elements of Tonstad’s offering, confessing some confusion about how exactly they fit together. In the opening pages of Queer Theology, Tonstad notes that students who come to her queer theology course share an assumption with many Christians—namely, “that sexual ethics are fundamental to Christianity, and that figuring out what sexual acts are permitted (licit) is an important, indeed central task of living a Christian life” (4). This assumption, Tonstad rightly notes in the book’s second chapter, informs the desire to engage in apologetic battles. If sexual ethics are fundamental to Christian life, then it is a central task of living a Christian life to articulate an authentically Christian sexual morality. But Tonstad argues, appealing to passages from the New Testament about how to handle disagreements about food consumption in Christian communities, that Christians should not fight about sexual morality, but should suspend judgment about sex and be mindful of the weakness of others who may still be invested in the importance of such questions, thus not judging them (38, 46–47). In other words, those who denounce LGBTQ+ persons, same-sex sexual acts, and homophobic attitudes have all participated in un-Christian behavior. And in even more words, apologetics can never be the mission of queer theology.

As part of this discussion about fascination with sexual morality, Tonstad pauses over apologetic strategies that insist “gay is good” and that reject identification of gays as sinners. As Tonstad observes, “While there’s no reason to believe that queer people are more sinful than others, there are reasons to worry about this strategy as well. All persons are, I believe, sinners. Arguing that gays aren’t may participate in the production of hierarchies of sinners, where some people are only sort of sinners (but really good) and other are really sinners (so really bad)” (30). Making a similar point in her essay “Everything Queer, Nothing Radical?” Tonstad riffs on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s ruminations on queerness and writes, “Queering in the first person typically encodes a confessional impulse: I am gay, I am pansexual, I am genderqueer, and so on. But what if the first-person imperative toward queering were quite differently constructed? What if it said, for instance, ‘I am a sinner?’” (126). What if queer theology took as its foundation the notion that everyone—including queers—is a sinner, that all have fallen short of the glory of God?

There is, of course, a distinction here of which Tonstad is undoubtedly aware, but which she doesn’t explore on the page. When apologists make the claim that gays aren’t sinners, what they most likely mean is that gays aren’t sinners because they are gay, because they do gay stuff. In other words, “gay is good” challenges certain definitions and demarcations of sin, rather than renouncing a more general diagnosis of sinfulness. Given the way that sin-talk has been used against LGBTQ+ persons, however, Tonstad fairly and importantly reminds us that “most likely” is actually a question, and the practice of queer apologetics does a great deal to distance queer people from sin and to foster practices of judgment and critical assessment of others that Tonstad wants to forestall, consistent with key principles of Christian thought.

Tonstad’s insistence that queer people—as people—are sinners (a point she returns to near the end of the book) connects very nicely, even though Tonstad doesn’t make the link explicit, with queer theory’s suspicion of norms and normative conceptions of humanity. Engaging the work of Cathy Cohen and David Halperin, Tonstad underscores the familiar queer suspicion of norms, normativity, and normative conceptions of the human. In many ways, the reminder that we are all sinners, that our wills are distorted prior to any specific act of willing, that we are always already in structures that make not sinning impossible is another way of saying that a passionate attachment to norms is an attempt to draw distinctions that may not meaningfully capture the actual situation. Or, to take up Cohen’s insights, norms and normative visions of humanity are not best understood as evaluative criteria; they should be recognized as political tools for distributing goods, power, resources, and prestige. If we are all sinners, then none of us deserve any of the goods to be distributed, and we should recognize the violence at the heart of these normative conceptions.

The tension I noted above begins at this point, and it begins with Tonstad’s corrective to some of my own reflections on the unwillingness to grapple fully with human limitation, frailty, and vulnerability. My thinking about limitation is more indebted to psychoanalytic thought than to Christian theological sources. Tonstad notes that the Christian conception of sin includes an idea that things could or ought to be or will some day be different whereas psychoanalytic conceptions of structural limitation, while diagnosing negative consequences that make them look like indictments of lived experience, do not imagine another way of being: there may, undoubtedly, be better and worse ways of living (with) human frailties, but there is no escaping or overcoming them. On Christian understandings, however, as Tonstad points out, death—and all its analogues—will ultimately, one day be vanquished.

If conceptualizing the world as infected with sin necessarily includes an understanding that the world could be different (which is fully consistent with Tonstad’s insistence on the political importance of remembering that alternatives ways of being are possible), then it seems we can’t be suspicious of all norms and normative conceptions of humanity, but only of some of them. If there is another set of possibilities other than the ones we are living, then there is some critical—some evaluative—principle or vision that helps us to understand the limitations that constitute the current state of affairs and make judgments about what we should resist and what we should support.

And, of course, Tonstad insists on this in certain ways. Although she is quite uninterested in (sexual) ethics in Queer Theology, she is deeply committed to notions of (economic) justice. It may not be a central task of Christian life to find licit forms of sexuality, but it is most certainly a central task of Christian life—Tonstad suggests performatively—to understand, identify, and resist material forms of oppression, marginalization, and stigmatization. Economic, imperial, and colonial exploitation are wrong—or, at least, unjust—and should be resisted, if not eradicated.

Let me be absolutely clear: I am not trying to play the all-too-familiar, and completely unhelpful, game of “spot the norm.” Since queer theory has been suspicious of norms and normative conceptions of the human, it has become a wildly popular parlor game to critique (and/or dismiss) the work of other queer theorists and theologians once one has exposed how they have touched the third rail of normativity. If this was my strategy, then I wouldn’t have confessed confusion above, I would have asserted clarity and would now be announcing that Tonstad has failed according to her own rules and principles (her own norms for queer theology!). Instead, I remain persuaded by her statement that sexual ethics should not be taken as a central task of Christian theology, that queer theology should insist that we are all sinners, that we should be suspicious of the ways that normative visions of the human justify inequitable distribution of social goods, and that we should be worried about oppressive and exploitative conditions. Here’s my confusion: what is the norm, what is the source of the norm, that helps us to define, describe, and demarcate oppression and exploitation? And how can we identify that source without engaging, in some way, sources and norms that have been relied on to make judgments about sexual morality?

If I had to sketch a Tonstadian answer, by perusing the pages of Queer Theology, I would have to say that it has something to do with the body, with the facticity of flesh—with a materiality that is prior to sexual or gender or racial inscription. At the beginning of her discussion of Marcella Althaus-Reid, during which Tonstad identifies queer theology as a theology that tells the truth, over against T-theology that trades in ideological fictions, Tonstad notes that “if theology told the truth, it would speak of bodies, of flesh” (78). Later she adds that “Christianity is a story about God’s incarnation, the making holy of the body, a story in which each person is the object of God’s care, attention, and love” (96). And she closes the chapter with the assertion that Christianity’s central claim “concerns God’s presence in Christ, God’s presence in the body” (103). Therefore, “queer theology . . . needs to stand against the distortive powers of capitalism and colonialism; it needs to express and honor human bodily being” (103).

Economic justice—and all of its analogues—is such an important queer theological issue because bodies literally cannot survive (let alone thrive) without certain resources and will undoubtedly perish under certain material conditions. Just as we are all sinners; we are all embodied creatures who require sustenance. The incarnation signals some minimal merit—some modicum of dignity?—to each human body (the language of “person” in the quotation above may introduce complications beyond the minimality of the body and flesh), and the theologian must work to insure that all bodies have what they need for some baseline notion of survival—if not some more expansive notion of living joyfully. Anxieties about the proper use of bodies in gendered and sexualized schemes are always superstructures (and the nod to Marxist terminology is intentional) built on top of this minimal foundation of enfleshment.

But how do we prevent sexual ethics from not reentering through the backdoor (except by fiat)? There are, of course, ways of being sexual, ways of acting sexually, ways of embodying gender, that harm the very flesh of other people. What are the kinds of harms that, if not immoral, are unjust? Similarly, if bodies deserve a certain minimum respect, how exactly do we go about the work of resisting unjust—oppressive, exploitative—distributions of goods? If some body or some collection of bodies have more than their fair share of resources, what is it we are allowed to do? Can we harm those bodies for the sake of other bodies? How would this not create a hierarchy of sinners? How can we begin to do this work of justice-making without wresting the prerogative of judgment away from God? How do we do this consistent with the recognition that all bodies have some basic dignity bestowed on them by God’s incarnational act? Agreeing wholeheartedly with Tonstad that we should be thinking much less about identity and the precision of language and the goodness of gayness and much more about the violences and horrors we inflict on each other ubiquitously and unthinkingly in great and small ways, I’m left wondering how we do this without—implicitly at least—important normative conceptions of the human, insistence on human dignity, critical judgment of persons and actions, and sorting and ranking competing claims to the resources that bodies need and that flesh desires. And I also wonder how we appeal to Christian sources that seem to care about the materiality of bodies while skirting around those Christian sources that seem to care about the gender and sexuality of bodies. (Because there are some folks—John Paul II comes to mind—who find an almost necessary relation between the two sets of issues.)

In the closing pages of Queer Theology, Tonstad recognizes the tension between queer theory and queer theology. It is a tension that I think can be translated into her suspicion about ethics and her embrace of justice—and perhaps it’s in not understanding the precise distinction between them wherein my confusion lies. With her refreshing championing of sin-talk, I’m left wondering how to resolve—or at least map—the tensions she wittingly and unwittingly exposes.

  • Linn Tonstad

    Linn Tonstad


    Response to Brintnall

    Kent Brintnall’s thinking has been of the deepest importance to my work for almost a decade now, and I am enormously grateful to him for the thoughtfulness and characteristic care in reading that his response reflects. He touches on some of the central questions and tensions that structure debates in queer theory—questions and tensions that queer theology has more often than not avoided. Yet at a number of points, I found myself unable to follow the sequence that generated the questions Brintnall raises, or at least uncertain why such a sequence would necessarily obtain. In each case, I think there are potential alternatives to the consequences Brintnall thinks must follow. But one point is important to concede at the outset: the book Queer Theology is both, as he puts it, a “summative overview” and a “substantive argument.” This means that the book moves, as several of the responses implicitly recognize, between summarizing views with which I do not always agree and arguing for what I think are better approaches to certain central theological and theoretical questions. The distinction between summary and argument is not always explicit (though, I think, implicitly clear) on the level of the text in order to leave room for differing approaches while still marking certain helpful methodological principles.

    At the heart of Brintnall’s response stands the impasse with which the book ends. If Christianity claims that things can be different than they are, especially in saying that death is not the end (which means that loss and futility are not ineluctable), can Christianity actually be compatible with the strands in queer theory (especially its psychoanalytic variants) that insist on just the opposite? We could insert here an extended footnote on how there is no such thing as Christianity or queer theory (singular), and we could note the significant resources many queer Christian theologians have found in José Esteban Muñoz’s oft-quoted claim that queerness is what shows us that something is missing, that this world is not enough. We might acknowledge the spiritualizing or deliteralizing of the notion of resurrection common to many hugely influential Christian theologians, ranging from Karl Rahner and Karl Barth to those working in process theology and others. In other words, rather than juxtaposing what we might loosely call the most pessimistic strands of queer theory with the most optimistic strands of Christianity, we might do just the opposite. And there could be much to be learned from such a juxtaposition, about queer theory as about Christianity.

    But such a task is not mine, at least not in this venue. I am more interested in asking back some of the questions Brintnall raises, but with a caveat. Abstract questions about norms and normativity do not have much purchase on my imagination. I take it that one implication of the queer pessimisms that interest both Brintnall and myself is that subjects (using that term loosely) are caught in repetition compulsions that repeat rather than undo the structuring incoherence that forms us, even if and as we recognize that incoherence for what it is.

    Brintnall argues that if the Christian position is that things might some day or in some way be different than they are, this entails a norm or normative conception of humanity that would be inconsistent with psychoanalytic insights into the ineluctable nature of limitations. Yet, he acknowledges, those very psychoanalytic positions themselves do imagine that there might be better or worse ways of living with ineluctable limitations. As Lee Edelman puts it at the very start of No Future, “Queerness attains its ethical value precisely insofar as it . . . accept[s] its figural status as resistance to the viability of the social while insisting on the inextricability of such resistance from every social structure.”1 I take it that what Edelman has in mind here is a kind of negative ethics rather than a positive norm. If the possibility that things might be otherwise than they are is taken rather as a judgment than as a prescription, might not a similarly negative ethic follow? Here, I think, my views differ from those I would ascribe to Marcella Althaus-Reid, whose ethics are more optimistic or positive than any I might hold. Take, for example, her call for a “kenosis of heterosexual practices” that would be “within justice but outside the law.”2 While one might respond to Brintnall that this is an anti-ethical or at least anti-moral position (which opens up a discussion of the different meanings of ethics that is far beyond what this brief response permits), it also holds out hope for something like justice.

    There is one other issue that is worth noting, although I am not currently in a position to pronounce on it. The dominant position in Christian theology is that sin-language and injustice-language are not the same thing, because sin-language only makes sense in relation to God. While I do not follow all the assumptions around redistribution that Brintnall canvasses toward the end of his response, this would imply that redistribution for the sake of justice would not be equivalent to the construction of a hierarchy of sinners. Here again we confront the question—and I left it, with utter sincerity, as a question in Queer Theology—of the compatibility and translatability of the categories with which Christian theologians and queer theorists work.

    1. Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 3.

    2. Marcella Althaus-Reid, The Queer God (London: Routledge, 2003), 46.

    • Kent Brintnall

      Kent Brintnall


      Clarifying Common Ground

      Near the end of Elaine Stritch’s one-woman show, At Liberty, she lists the people whose subtle inspiration helped her attain and sustain sobriety. Although I am fortunate enough not to have struggled with addiction, having been described by Linn Tonstad as someone whose reading of texts—including Tonstad’s texts, which are uniformly breath-taking in their laser-sharp insistence on precision and nuance—are characteristically thoughtful and careful helps me understand Stritch’s observation about the power of Stephen Sondheim’s approval, which “will keep you clean for a good two, three years.”
      Aside from its generosity and generativity, what is most notable—to me—about Tonstad’s response to my comments on Queer Theology is her identification of their heart with “the impasse with which the book ends.” I almost didn’t craft another set of comments because I think that Tonstad and I are—from slightly different directions, with slightly different bibliographies, asking slightly different questions, pursuing slightly different aims (and the emphasis here should be on slightly)—grappling with an impasse, with genuine questions, with a knot. We share enough ideas, and frameworks, and concerns that we can be productive conversations partners, but each of us approaches a wall and aren’t then quite sure how to get over, around or through. In the spirit of a negative ethics to which we both seem to be attracted, we know the kinds of sensibilities we want to eliminate and abandon: where that leaves in terms of how precisely we move forward seems to be a real site of struggle, in the best sense. In the spirit of conversation that Syndicate is valiantly and valuably seeking to foster, to bring the precise contours of the problem into focus, and to gain more insight from Tonstad’s keen analytical insight, I offer these additional observations.
      As she has so often done in the past—in her published work and in personal conversation—Tonstad offers distinctions and clarifications in her response that help me adjust and revise my own thinking and commitments. First, she notes that the Venn diagram of our shared interest in queer pessimisms is not a perfect overlap because we have competing investments in Christian theological understandings and psychoanalytic insights. (And adding to Tonstad’s important corrective that Christianity and queer theory should always be understood in the plural, I would note that psychoanalysis is also neither univocal nor monolithic, and my psychoanalytic commitments—grounded in the work of Laplanche—may differ from another critic’s.) As she notes in Queer Theology’s closing pages (130-31), Christianity proclaims an end to death, to finitude—a genuine transformation of our lived experience into something else, something unmarred by the distortions of sin. While psychoanalysis imagines a reconfiguration of how we negotiate the consequences of our finitude, its transformative vision is more limited. How we relate these respective visions to more damaging and dangerous attempts to escape or deny death will depend on careful engagement with specific examples, discourses, imaginaries. Given my psychoanalytic leanings, I may be more prone than Tonstad to identify the Christian view she summarizes as itself part of the malformation to be corrected; this may be a point of genuine disagreement that prevents us from ever getting on the same page. But, however competing viewpoints are ultimately reconciled—or not, Tonstad has mapped with far greater precision than any queer theologian before her the exact coordinates of the tensions as we think certain forms of queer theory in relation to certain Christian ideas; this is an immensely valuable contribution.
      Tonstad also expresses her disinterest in “abstract questions about norms and normativity,” and explains how even queer pessimisms appear to contain a negative ethics—i.e., a normative vision, even if it is an apophatic one. (Apophatic is my term.) I fully concur with this intervention and would add that the distinction between “negative ethics” and “positive norms” is probably not as sharp as most contenders would like it to be; each approach can be translated into the terms of the other fairly easily. This, of course, is why I characterized the “find the norm” game as silly and unhelpful. Perhaps another way of expressing the central concern of my original comments (and isn’t so much of the work we’re trying to do about crafting different pictures or images and then thinking about the kinds of consequences and effects they will produce?) is to ask how we are to think about world building. If we are concerned about finitude and vulnerability, about oppression and exploitation, about what is missing and malformed, it seems that we must about be concerned about making a better world—or, at the very least, about shoring up the least worst features of the current world and dismantling its most deleterious elements. But if this is part of the work of queer theology, then don’t we have to grapple with the fact that the creation of a new/modified world is also necessarily the destruction of some(one’s) existing world? Or do we press on the rhetoric of missing pieces and gaps and think about the praxis and practice of queerness as only ever additive? Or, is world building too close to an imagination of establishing a “state of affairs” and a “practical achievement” (Queer Theology, 129)? And if it is, then what is the operative image for queer theology’s responsibility to support some work of justice (103)?
      And this relates to the final distinction Tonstad articulates, but understandably is unable to develop in the detail it deserves. A distinction between sin-talk and justice-talk. Although Tonstad clarifies the former is about relation to God, I would note that the distinction between them is porous given the emphasis on caring for the vulnerable and marginalized in Christian texts and traditions. I wonder how exactly we pursue justice (or combat injustice) without succumbing to the temptations that queer theology so rightly decries. This loops back both to the genuine questions about finitude and about the relation between queer theory and Christianity. We may still be at something that feels like an impasse, but with each passage around its edges we get a keener sense of what is fixed, what is unstable, and where to place the fulcrum that will allow for a shift.
      In the litany of gratitude that concludes Stritch’s show, she also identifies as one of her “helping hands” theater producer Ruthie Mitchell. As the curtain rang down on one of Stritch’s performances, Mitchell reportedly said to her, “Extraordinary talent, Elaine; don’t fuck it up.” It is beyond question that Tonstad is among the most extraordinarily talented figures in contemporary systematic theology; I look forward to continued engagement with her work so that I will be less likely to fuck things up.

    • Linn Tonstad

      Linn Tonstad


      Common Ground Indeed

      The knot Brintnall identifies is exactly the right one, although I am less comfortable with identifying with one side of it or the other than I might once have been. Let’s just say this: I don’t know which answer to the impasse with which Queer Theology ends I prefer. It continues to feel to me like an impasse.
      But in the meantime (the time between the times?), Brintnall asks about the relationship between world building and destruction: “don’t we have to grapple with the fact that the creation of a new/modified world is also necessarily the destruction of some(one’s) existing world?” Brintnall’s insistence on accepting and reckoning with this reality is not the least of his contributions to conversations around Christianity, queerness, and justice. A few weeks ago, in a course on Finitude, Vulnerability, and Risk, I taught Simone de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity, which acknowledges that problem as well: that there are no pure means in situations of oppression, that liberation for some will also mean opposition and destruction for others. That reality is both difficult and essential to grapple with for justice-oriented discourses, and very painful for those committed to them. Many of the students in the course worried that the admission entails that the distinction between oppressed and oppressor will become blurred as the oppressed free themselves, which entails a necessary (at least partial) destruction of the world of the oppressor. Yet to imagine otherwise is to take refuge in an ethics of fantasy that both queer theory and Christian theology at least ought to resist. That doesn’t, to my mind—or, I imagine, Brintnall’s—mean that we abandon the work of seeking some more, yet still imperfect, justice, or of finding ways to mitigate the inevitability of conflict, a task that I conceptualize as seeking the better rather than the good. I think that’s where I may not have followed a crucial point in Brintnall’s original response, when he asked about harming some bodies for the sake of others as the creation of a hierarchy of sinners or wresting judgment away from God. There is, as Brintnall suggests, a definite relation between sin and injustice even if they are not precisely identical. Can one harm some bodies for the sake of others without conceptualizing those bodies as qualitatively or even quantitatively sinners in a way that others are not? It seems to me the answer has to be yes; otherwise we misunderstand what it means to benefit from positions of unearned privilege, to take just one example. Can we work for the better without imagining that we are good? My hopes for both queer theory and Christianity require a yes to that question.

Nikki Young


Response to Linn Marie Tonstad

Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics

“There are always only Christianities,” claims Tonstad in the first footnote of Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics. This nod to a plurality of Christian perspectives, foundations, and motivations drive the book and symbolize the non-singularity of discourses that underwrite Tonstad’s exploration of queer theology. And for her, queer theology is neither fully declarative nor is it directly imperative; it can’t be. Instead, queer theology is marked by interrogative troubling that opens up and tries to establish an investigatory posture of and orientation to theological pursuits. The initial claim about the multivalent quality of theological production, through its destabilizing of a normative and singular theological history, acts as one of Tonstad’s first queer moves in the book.

Tonstad’s queer orientation to a genealogy of theological production constitutes each chapter of the book. Offering a master class in how to develop an accessible, complex, and counter-normative theological historiography, she illustrates the utility in reviewing (1) theological and queer theoretical lexicography, (2) apologetic strategies and their provocations, (3) flesh-avoidant approaches for queer theological strategies, and (4) body- and flesh-focused discourses. In the first chapter, Tonstad deftly navigates various “problems” of language and vocabulary without attempting to fix them. Instead, she shows how the language has been used and whether or not those uses have been beneficial for the projects to which they speak. For example, Tonstad highlights the necessity of using “queer” in relation to theology by disentangling the term from its siloed connection with inclusion. She notes that queer theology is “about visions of sociopolitical transformation that alter practices of distinction harming gender and sexual minorities as well as many other minoritized persons” (3).

Tonstad illuminates the ways that a review—and perhaps and analysis—of apologetic strategies for justifying the existence and inclusion of queer folks within the divine kingdom and/or within a shared sociopolitical context actually denotes the import of sexual ethics. This denotation is why Tonstad, and many of us, remain confused by theologies that do their best to avoid issues related to the body and to human flesh. Leaning heavily on Marcella Althaus-Reid, Tonstad rejects such an avoidance and regales readers with one reason after another for why an irreverential posture is liberative, queer theological work at its best. Inasmuch as such a posture creates the space for us to think about theologies outside of inhibiting notions of propriety and limiting frames of right-vs.-wrong schema, queer irreverence allows us to conceive of the inconceivable and even deal with the “mess” of incarnational realities.

I want to note that Tonstad does indeed suggest that the apologetics themselves are useless. And she trusts that her readers know—at least on some level—that apologetics for sanctioning the livability of some persons within our sociopolitical context seems silly to have to make explicit. Still, Tonstad offers a theological reasoning for why such apologetics are useless. The basic ideas are that (a) there are simply too many apologetic strategies to attend to and fully engage, and (b) those strategies defend a certain type of expression of sexuality. Those defenses are, by Tonstad’s estimation, not particularly theologically rich; nor do they actually speak to the sort of fundamental qualities of complexity and instability that human existence encompasses. We ought to attend to such complexities in theological ways and with theological praxis rather than simply work to sanction same-sex relationships and support the identity of “homosexuality.” We need the work of queer Christian theology to trouble the idea of linearity and Christian limit embedded in apologetic strategies.

With her cut-to-the-chase writing approach, Tonstad leads us toward subjects that anyone interested in (queer) theology would be remiss to avoid and lands, oddly enough, in a bit of a binary polarized by “truths” and the necessary disturbances to those truths. She deftly moves through several of these framings, and I find myself particularly drawn to her discussions of linearity and binaries, and the potential queerness of Christianity.

In theological discourse (and elsewhere), queer and otherwise minoritized bodies and subjects find ourselves constituted by the heteronormative linearity that underwrites sex and sexuality. This is why, for all of us, dismantling heteronormative framings is the ethical part of queer analysis. In such analysis, we do the work of dislodging and disassociating narratives of linearity and rightness from the ways that we can conceive of and relate to those of us who intentionally or unintentionally escape the hold of normalcy and normativity. In response to the complexity of human existence and in relation to divine creation and revelation, such escape and the strategies or pitfalls therein actually illustrate the ways that linearity is a nonsensical orientation to divine providence and participation in the world. Tonstad’s retelling of the narratives of Christian theological history generates a troublesome genealogy. Such a genealogy rightly illuminates the effects of linear and binaristic framing on “ the problem” of the body and the ways that we manifest that problem in sociopolitical contexts.

One of the binaries that Tonstad highlights is the common apologetic strategy in which Jesus is framed as good and Paul as bad. In such a framing, Paul is associated with misogyny, heteronormativity, and the hatred and denigration of flesh and the body while Jesus is connected with loving the whole self, body, and relations. The problem that she rightly notes is that Paul is a foundational part of Christianity, and an overly simplistic reading of Paul as anti-material ignores the complexity and the situatedness of his writings. She turns to Jesus’ complicated ministry, including the story about the nasty language he used when speaking with the Syrophoenician woman. Jesus’ response to her is so ugly that people often ignore it, yet, as Tonstad reminds readers, this version of Jesus isn’t the one who typically uses language that represents radical hospitality or radical acceptance and equality. Through her attention to and interrogation of Jesus’ and Paul’s complex humanity, Tonstad is doing the queer work of troubling the boundary that exist between the two of them. Her exploration shows how the “problem” of the body and the humanity for which the body acts as metonym results in the (hetero)sexual underpinnings of discourse within various theologies.

Tonstad ends the book by asking a question that readers likely bring with them to the text: Can Christianity be queer? Through her attention to the grammars of the question, Tonstad points out the obvious impossibility. While there is a real and necessary relationship between queerness and Christianity, and while we all might hope that such a relationship has some reciprocal qualities, Tonstad’s brief explication reminds us that nothing can actually be queer. Queerness does not represent a kind of being; it represents movement, possibilities, transgressive action, and more. I agree with Tonstad, too, because if a thing can be queer, with all the stability that static ontology suggests, then that thing is released from the responsibility of doing the work of queerness. Its being and position is stagnant, even if falsely so. The position is itself fantasy, Tonstad asserts, but beyond that, such a position points to a type of invulnerability. The value of queerness exists in its troublemaking, world-shifting agitations as well as its capacity to render all “stable” identities and positions vulnerable, precarious, and in need of destabilizing interrogation. To do queer and to perform queerness is to disturb identities, she suggests, not to stabilize them.

To mark Christianity as queer is to participate in the type of inventive framing that heteronormativity underwrites. She argues, “Heterosexuality as a system doesn’t deal with the truth” (76). With this argument, Tonstad teaches us that the system of heterosexuality cultivates and venerates the normative subject which is, in turn, fiction. Her idea (and she’s right about this!) is that the normative frame of theological heterosexuality deals with fictional ideas of what human beings ought to be. This subjunctive formulation of the human is destructive because it establishes a sense of unattainable (for most) human perfection, dehumanizing and erasing most of us in the process (63–64). I am thankful that “the imaginary vision of the truly free subject” is not, in fact, accessible only as a commoditized product for and by white propertied men (63). Instead, as Tonstad assures readers, that freedom comes with our willingness and dedication to notice and subvert the fallacy of a singular “truth.” Queer theology exposes the types of fictions that persist in normative theological production, and holds us accountable to the sociopolitical and spiritual detriments that they effect.

  • Linn Tonstad

    Linn Tonstad


    Response to Young

    In Young’s (rather more gorgeous than the original) reflection on the central issues raised in Queer Theology, she plays with some of the elements I was most hoping readers would engage in the book: the trouble, the non-finality, staying with the questions—and the non-linearity of queer lives, indeed of lives, which means also of theologies, Christianities, and most of all queerness. Queerness is work and struggle, not being—or it is also being, because being is never truly be-ing, in a sense much richer but not unrelated to the inexistence of the fictional normative subject. What is is not what was or will be, and there is both loss and possibility therein.

    At a central point, Young highlights what she rightly terms “a bit of a binary polarized by ‘truths’ and the necessary disturbances to those truths.” I want to sit with that possible binary, or at least distinction, for a moment. Truth, and truths, shift around. Their significance reflects also their orientation. For and about what is this truth? Or what truths disturb each other?

    I came into work on gender and sexuality from a feminist perspective that taught me the value of a very specific combination of contradictions. Truth the first: there is no such thing as a woman. Truth the second: feminism is oriented toward women. These are not exhaustive specifications of what feminism is or is not, but they—always together—indicate something about how binary sexual differentiation works. Binary sexual differentiation says women are virgins and whores, too timid and too aggressive, arrogant but not assertive enough, and so many et ceteras. There is no such thing as “a” woman. Feminism, in my understanding, refuses to define what a woman is or should be (a central reason why there is no transphobia that ought to be recognized as feminist). But it also stands against the definition of woman offered by binary sexual differentiation, and gender remains a differentiating factor that names or points toward many, often contradictory, systems of privilege and disprivilege, violence and discrimination: narrowed life chances or always getting a second chance.

    In Queer Theology, I say at one point that “contradiction, incoherence, and inconsistency are the means by which contemporary ideological/sexual/social formations stay in place” (72). The implication is that contradictions must be met with contradictions: the contradiction that is “woman” with a denial of “woman” plus a commitment to “her.” The feminist example suggests something that is an ongoing issue in liberatory struggles: opposing inaccurate or prejudicial representations directly is seldom enough to disarm them, and may indeed reinforce the dynamics of discrimination (as for instance in the argument that queers aren’t really promiscuous, which confirms that promiscuous would be a bad thing to be). But there might also be a theological value to contradiction, not just simul justus et peccator but as an excavation of the condition of possibility for the illuminating capacity of theology as such. A fully closed theological system might not be able to say anything worth hearing to an unenclosed, unfinished life.

    Telling the truth, or telling truths, is not then a straightforward process of telling the Truth. Truths might need to stand against each other, interrupting each other, moving us around so that our dis-orientation will disorient us indeed. And that disorientation might let us see what we had not yet seen, might be, indeed, revelation.

Peter Mena


October 21, 2019, 12:00 am

Leonard Curry


October 28, 2019, 1:00 am