When asked in an interview about the role of religion in their work, Lauren Berlant replied: “I have absolutely nothing to say about God, or gods, or love and spirituality. Zero.” As a theologian (read: as a scholar whose work is bound up with saying something, or trying to say something, about God, and gods, and love and spirituality) who engages with and draws on Berlant’s work, I think of their reply often. While Berlant expresses an avowed aversion towards engaging in any such God talk, what they say immediately thereafter is also significant. “I am a person of the world,” they continue. “I am interested in the flourishing of beings in the context of lives that they are hammering out in the present. I am interested in the ways people find sustenance and make survival happen in worlds that are not organized for them” (emphasis mine).
For many of us in theology and religious studies, particularly for those of us who do work in political theologies, and/or (especially and!) queer and trans studies in religion (the context of which inspired this symposium), these are precisely the interests we traffic in, the questions that shape and guide our own work—we just look to how religion and spirituality play a role in that flourishing: how religious rituals form and shape one’s context, how one’s religious experience and religious community nurtures or stifles one’s flourishing, how different God talk—different interpretations of tradition and doctrine—accounts for and speaks to those realities, not to mention how such God talk conditions and constructs presumptive conditions of possibility for “the good life.”
At the heart of Christian theology, to offer my Berlantian gloss on Athanasius, is the notion that God, in Jesus, became human and entered a world not organized for him and in doing so, opened up possibilities for flourishing. Liberation theologians like James Cone, Gustavo Gutierrez, Delores Williams, Ada María Isasi-Díaz, Marcella Althaus Reid, and others, have honed in on precisely what this might mean in and for the context of people’s lives as they are hammering them out in the present, how the person and work of Christ is very much bound up with those for whom the world is not organized, those who are trying to make survival happen. They ask us to take seriously how God has a preferential option for the poor, how we might better understand the cross if we look to the lynching tree, and even what it might mean to write theology without underwear.
Feminist theology, in particular, has been invested in the possibilities of such flourishing. The “task of theology,” Sarah Coakley writes in God, Sexuality, and the Self, “is always, if implicitly, a recommendation for life” (18). Putting it even more overtly in “Glorious Creation, Beautiful Law,” Serene Jones writes that “God wants women to flourish as creatures equal in beauty, stature, and power to men,” and asserts that “only a faith that actively encourages this flourishing is worthy of the God who gifts us with life, love, and hope” (22). Coakley and Jones, two contemporary feminist theologians whose work in the last two decades have been pivotal for the field, are especially invested in this flourishing. Their work has, largely, focused on how religious practices, and the work of theology itself, and the connections between the two, might play a role in that flourishing.
While Coakley and Jones’ respective projects are not only distinctive but diverge in some significant ways theologically, they share some key features—shared feature that, I would argue, have led to their prominence in feminist theology, and that, for me, are a cause of concern. It was Berlant’s work that served as a midwife for me in understanding and articulating what concerned me. But first, to briefly outline some of the shared features of Coakley and Jones’ projects.
First, both Coakley and Jones reject and actively challenge the presumed, and often actively operating, disjunction between feminist studies and systematic theology. During my M.Div. training, I often felt like I had to pick a side—either the serious and rigorous work of systematic theology that could and would not be distracted by the “fluffy” work of feminist studies, or the relevant and exciting work of feminist studies that had no tolerance for the ways in which theological studies served as a handmaiden for patriarchy and misogyny.
But via Jones and Coakley, I didn’t have to choose. The “false disjunction between systematic theology and gender studies needs not so much to be overcome, but rather to be approached from a different, and mind-changing, direction,” Coakley asserted in “Is There a Future for Gender and Theology?” (4). In her work, it was the Trinity, one of the most orthodox theological loci, that called for that direction change and served as its foundation. Jones, too, turned closely to classical doctrines and orthodox theological themes and thinkers in conversation with feminism—turning to the Trinity to give hope for women who suffered miscarriages, to Calvin and Luther’s writings on justification and sanctification to re-examine feminist theories of gender, and so on.
Moreover, in putting feminism and theology in conversation, both Coakley and Jones engage and draw on poststructuralist gender theory, especially the work of Judith Butler. Jones considers Butler alongside Calvin and Luther to rethink debates about women’s nature. In “The Eschatological Body,” Coakley juxtaposes Butler with Gregory of Nyssa. She shows that both operate with a notion of gender fluidity via performative practices, that “possibilities for labile, fluid transformation towards a goal of liberation and personal authenticity is what Butler’s vision has in common with this more ancient wisdom” (65).
It was actually through reading Coakley and Jones that I was first introduced to Judith Butler—to the idea of gender performativity, to recognizing (and interrogating) the connections between gender norms and heterosexism. I could imagine a feminism beyond, as Butler writes in Gender Trouble, an “insistence upon the coherence and unity of the category of women” (19). Though as I delved into Butler’s work, I found myself increasingly disaffected by Coakley and Jones’ takes. Whereas Butler’s feminism and account of gender aimed to, well, trouble, to subvert, Coakley and Jones seemed to aim to clarify and clean up. Coakley drew on Butler, but she also found them ultimately unsatisfying, due precisely to their lack of an (eschatological) end (67).
While reading Butler helped me begin to discern, and later to address, my concerns, it was Berlant, and particularly The Female Complaint, that helped me probe deeper to figure out how to name and better understand those concerns. In The Female Complaint, Berlant conceptualizes, and articulates the fabric of, what they call “female complaining,” a mode of self-expression that simultaneously protests patriarchal expression and concedes its inevitability. “What’s interesting,” Berlant notes, “is that from its origins women’s culture has a big critique of male dominance, both in the political sphere and at home, but it also wants something like the good version of that normativity to be the condition of happiness.”
The Female Complaint traces and critically interrogates this paradox as it is developed through and sustained by popular texts produced, consumed, and coded by women—texts that create (and reflect) “an intimate public…a porous, affective scene of identification among strangers that promises a certain experience of belonging and provides a complex of consolation, confirmation, discipline, and discussion about how to live as an x” (vii) (in this instance, a woman).
With each chapter exploring a different set of texts from various adaptions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin ranging from Beloved to The Bridges of Madison County, to popular novels of the early twentieth century, to citizenship training manuals, Berlant deftly demonstrates how “The gender-marked texts of women’s popular culture cultivate fantasies of vague belonging as an alleviation of what is hard to manage in the lived real—social antagonisms, exploitation, compromised intimacies, the attrition of life.” “Utopianism is in the air,” she explains, “but one of the main utopias is normativity itself, here a felt condition of general belonging and an aspirational site of rest and recognition in and by a social world” (5, emphasis mine).
It was in reading The Female Complaint that I began to frame my critique of the visions of the good life in feminist theologies, to see the ways in which critiques of patriarchy in Christian texts and practices was at the same time accompanied by visions of the feminine subject that is nevertheless marked by submission. In Powers and Submissions, Coakley calls it “fundamental and practiced dependency on God” (xx). These particular feminist theologies that I felt conflicted by were, it seemed to me, in some ways, in their own theological form and register, operating with, and within, this same paradox as the texts Berlant was exploring.
My current book project—How (Not) to be Christian? Identity, Formation, and the Future in Feminist Theologies—now considers, in effect, the intimate theological spheres constructed by feminist theologians. Berlant argues that the intimate public sphere works through a fantasy that one can change the political by transcending politics—what might it mean to explore how this applies to feminist theology?
For instance, let me return to Coakley’s essay “The Eschatological Body.” Coakley argues that Nyssa offers what Butler lacks—an eschatological end towards and by which our gender is transformed. Within this account, gender difference is tethered to and oriented by a particular Christian telos as well as by particular spiritual Christian practices. It is through the practice of contemplative prayer that gender is rendered labile, by and towards God. It is “prayer in the Spirit,” Coakley writes in God, Sexuality, and the Self, that “both takes up and transforms the usual societal implications of gender, and renders them both labile and cosmic” (115). Shared religious identification via shared practices offers a sense of belonging that itself provides space for “redeeming” how we think and do gender. But it is unclear, within Coakley’s vision, precisely what that gender redemption means or looks like.
As Linn Tonstad critiques Coakley’s theology of the Trinity in God and Difference, “Eschatological gender fluidity promises redemption of gender, but Coakley’s insistence on the importance of gender and sexuality now is matched only by her reticence about what such gendered redemption means” (104). Coakley embraces a gender fluidity, but it merely serves as a pathway to this undefined redeemed version of gender, as “the ‘fixed’ fallen differences of worldly gender are transfigured precisely by the interruptive activity of the Holy Spirit” (God, Sexuality, and the Self, 58). Unspecified, redeemed, possibly fluid, gender is in the future.
To offer a Berlantian reading, Coakley’s account of gender here perpetuates a fantasy that one can change gender by transcending gender, “redeeming gender” via sublimating it to one’s religious identity and practices. Christian identity serves as a kind of alternate citizenship, offering a kind of gender(-free?) utopianism that bypasses the fraught power dynamics through which we negotiate and manage our gendered existences. This is a compelling fantasy, perhaps, particularly for those of us who do not conform to or are illegible to society’s binarized gender norms.
But, as Berlant says about intimate publics, such a fantasy does not actually disrupt the power relations that subtend gender normativity. What might it mean to take Berlant seriously? Instead of a feminist theology that seeks to transcend gender via an eschatological future, we might consider how feminist theology, how political theology, might address and grapple with oppressive gender structures in the political here and now.
The Female Complaint is part of Berlant’s trilogy on national sentimentality, their exploration of how affective forms of attachment are entangled with the American dream and conceptualizations of citizenship. The critical, charitable, and constructive examination and analysis that Berlant offers on citizenship—on the entanglements therein that work to “obscure basic differences among modes of identity, hierarchy, and violence,” and the harms that ensue—are not only poignant in their particularity (2). Their work also offers analytical frameworks for interrogating other forms of belonging and identity—such as, for instance, religious identity, or imagined eschatological citizenship (not to mention the various ways different forms of belonging converge and intersect).
Finally, Berlant’s work points us to other possibilities that avoid, that resist, the fantasy of redeemed gender—calling for us instead to reside in the messiness of our attachments and providing space and ways for us to negotiate them, rather than seeking to transcend them. Whereas the efforts to transcend gender seem to, paradoxically, deepen our attachments to gender norms, it is also the case then that in negotiating the messiness of those attachments, one finds space for other ways of doing gender that perhaps subvert or move us beyond its constraining norms. While Berlant may have nothing to say about God and religion, the analyses they offer have much to say to and for those who traffic in such worlds.