A guest post from Chris Greenough, author of the latest SCM Research title Undoing Theology
Decades ago, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) produced some pioneering work on the concept of gender which built on the work of postmodern thinkers and sexologists. She exposed how gender is a kind of performance. So, whereas gender had been previously considered as part of our essentialist nature, it was revealed as a construct. This construct was political, as gender was produced through power and social relations. So, Butler exposed how gender had no foundations but our understanding of gender had come about through ideals of male and female being constantly repeated. In one famous example, Butler exposes how a drag queen breaks the concept of gender in terms of performativity. In 2004, Butler authored Undoing Gender, a reconsideration of her earlier thoughts and principles in Gender Trouble, considering transgender, intersex bodies and queer theory. Queer theory serves to rupture the repetitions, and once gender is no longer repeated, it is undone.
Despite the enormous importance and influence of Butler’s work, it is highly theoretical. Viviane Namaste is critical of this, as she writes ‘Undoing Theory’ (2009), pointing to the fact that Butler’s work does not engage with real lives. Bringing Butler and Namaste together, I state that the challenge for Christianity in the 21st century is to become undone. To undo theology is an act of practical theology, which engages head on with issues of life stories, gender and sexuality.
Undoing Theology therefore moves away from what has been traditionally constructed in theology. The building blocks of theology are often referred to as scripture, tradition or reason, yet theology must engage in conversations about God rooted in real living experiences. The book undoes theology by looking at ‘non-normative’ lives. By ‘non-normative’ I refer to people whose self-identifications and/or sexualities rub against traditional Christian understandings of gender and sex. Traditional theological talk about non-normative gender and sexuality has often been damning to queer lives, resulting in negative positional statements from the churches and the use of the Bible to condemn LGBT lives, for example. Whereas some see non-normative sexuality and Christianity as irreconcilable, the process of undoing theology allows them to become bed friends. In the book, I focus on life stories from three non-normative Christians and on how non-normativity helps to articulate the protagonists’ expressions of faith.
The first life story comes from Alyce, an intersex identifying Catholic. Alyce and Jerry share the same physical body. For sixty years, Alyce has been a hidden part of Jerry’s gender presentation. Her narrative describes how the concepts of sin and shame have shaped her self-understanding in terms of her intersex body. She describes how she has felt ‘neither this nor that’ in terms of trying to fit in with the traditional models of gender: male or female. Reflecting on her own experiences and her strong faith, Alyce uses a metaphor of the Trinity to see how she understands herself as truly created in God’s image. The idea of being both, and neither/nor is reconciled in a third person which offers the opportunity for gender satisfaction. The importance of undoing theology for Alyce is that is allows her to reflect theologically on her own non-normative experiences. She sees herself as God’s creation.
An ex-gay minister provides the platform for the second story, from Caddyman. This life-story exposes the internal and emotional struggles from an individual whose life is spent wrestling with being gay and Christian. In spite of his own struggle, Caddyman reveals how he moved into a large US based gay conversion therapy group, and spent almost twenty years praying the gay away by offering the possibility of ‘conversion’ for other men struggling with their faith and sexuality, as a leader of the conversion therapy. His story ends in the present day where he accepts his own homosexuality and is in a relationship with another male. The change in viewpoint and story exposes how the stories we tell about our own lives and beliefs are temporal and can be constructed and reconstructed. In terms of theology, this points to the instability of theology which has been repeated, but which can be rewritten.
The final story offered in the book is from Cath, a Christian woman who engages in kink activities. Cath’s life story describes her youth as saturated in ideas of what a ‘good girl’ should be in Christian terms, an identity which she found difficult to maintain. As a heterosexual identifying female, Cath’s non-normativity lies in the BDSM practices she engages in, which are physically and spiritually transforming for her. The practices offer an emotional release, and for Cath, this is similar to prayer. Not only is theology undone in terms of the beliefs of Cath, but also in terms of her worship practices.
Undoing Theology breaks the repetitions of traditional theology, by offering a bottom-up approach to story-telling from messy lives. This is the plural opposite of traditional theology which offers a top down approach from scripture, tradition or reason. The story-telling approach shows how our understanding of ourselves as Christian or anything else is constructed and reconstructed, edited and amended, made and unmade, done and undone. Yet this extends to God too. Undoing Theology exposes how God has been constructed as a fixed identity by theology, whereas the very nature of God is unfixable, uncapturable and unpredictable. The point of engaging in sexual storytelling is to see the possibilities of imagining God alternatively on an individual and subjective level. Undoing Theology allows a space where the messiness of life and the divinity of God can merge. By undoing God, we free the divine from bondage which has been repeated through a rigid, traditional theological frame. Undoing Theology allows us to peek through the blinds and break the binds of Christian theology in order to offer a wider, more creative understanding of God in the lives of individual Christians.
Chris Greenough is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religion at Edge Hill University. His work explores the intersections of sexuality, gender, biography, living experiences and faith.