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Althaus-Reid’s work asks whether Political Theology is capable of accounting for the power of sex, a power that comes to the fore if the theologian focuses on queer bodies.

Born in Argentina, Marcella Althaus-Reid (1952-2009) was a queer theologian and Professor of Contextual Theology at New College, University of Edinburgh. Althaus-Reid’s queer voice challenges political theology to examine the intertwining of theology and sexuality operative in the field. She forces us to acknowledge that all theology is sexual, and that includes political theology. Althaus-Reid’s work asks whether the field is capable of accounting for the power of sex, a power that comes to the fore if the theologian focuses on queer bodies.

Theology without Underwear

Published in 2000, Althaus-Reid’s Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender, and Politics is a key work in queer theology. It employs an expansive and intersectional understanding of queer bodies that includes anyone who is sexually, politically, or economically marginalized and who is thus pressed into poverty and powerlessness by a heterosexist capitalist system. The violent nature of this heterosexist moral order was obvious to her, given the “Latin American mixture of clericalism, militarism and the authoritarianism of decency” she knew so well (Indecent Theology, p.1).

Althaus-Reid’s texts are full of sensualities, smells, and touches. Indecent Theology begins by describing how the lemon vendors in a market in Buenos Aires are women who are sitting on the streets without underwear. The vendor “may be able to feel her sex” (Indecent Theology, p. 1) And not only may she feel it, but we may also smell her sex intermingling with the fragrance of the lemons she sells. Starting her book in this way, Althaus-Reid makes clear that theology is always a sexual and thus political embodied practice. Indeed, in her second main book, The Queer God, Althaus-Reid insists that theologizing itself is “a sexual act” and thus demands a reflection on the theologian’s own sexual practices. Like the lemon vendors, theologians must take off their underwear and let the smell of their own sex suffuse their work. In other words, the theologian must be aware of and interrogate their own sexual positions. Is the origin of their theology embedded in the dyadic character of the heterosexist structuring of prevalent oppressive theo-politics and economics, for example the dyads of “Father God and Son God; Creator and created” (Queer God, p. 11f)? Does their work reproduce those dyads or does it provide an alternative?

Critically interrogating this dyadic episteme and deconstructing it requires adopting a sexual orientation that takes the destabilizing nature of sex seriously. Althaus-Reid calls this the orientation of critical bisexuality or polyamory. It means practicing theology from the embodied position of the excluded, troubling, and destabilizing third. This is a position that marshals the power of a sexuality that is uncontained by heteropatriarchal capitalist theologies. It allows us to feel sex without underwear.

Adopting this sexual orientation leads to infinite creative permutations of theological practice because the critical bisexual or polyamorous desires energizing it “cannot be pinned down in a stable or fixed way. These desires embody the transgressive powers of the sexual, powers that queer bodies exemplify. Not only can they destabilize hegemonic sexual, theological, and political hierarchies but they are also capable of generating “genuine (and diverse) dialogues.” Hence Althaus-Reid is drawn to a methodology of profound intertextuality. She brings into conversation varieties of texts and peoples by engaging with communities that themselves reflect internal fluidity more than homogeneity, “for example leather S/M people with gay leather men who are not S/Mers” (Queer God, p.16f). Like Althusser’s “aleatory Marxism,“ Althaus-Reid’s theology emerges from “a materialism of encounters” and consists of bricolages that may change the arrangement of things and relationships, “but always in a space of contingency, of provisionality” (Queer God, p. 198). Althaus-Reid’s theology thus provokes the question, what theoretical apparatus does allow political theologians to cover over the unruly power of sex? What would it mean to uncover Carl Schmitt’s or Giorgio Agamben’s underwear and strip them of it? What kind of sex would we see?

Critique of Liberation Theologies

Althaus-Reid argues that the theologian must overcome her “horror of uncontrolled bodies and especially of the orgy made up of unrestricted bodies” (Queer God, p.47). Thus, for the queer theologian, the “way forward lies in her commitment to pervert Christian theology, by the disrobing of what underwear is left in the standing of the theologian” (Queer God, p.15). Like the lemon vendors, the theologians must feel their sexes in order for their works to be truly transformative and liberating. This point brings us to the core of Althaus-Reid’s critique of the Latin American liberation theologians that shaped her generation, primary among them Enrique Dussel. She charges that liberation theologians get the mutual liberation of God and God’s people wrong because they get sexuality wrong.

At first glance, Dussel seems to be ready to thematize sexuality. He sees that the political, theological, and economic violence Europeans wrought in Latin America has a sexual character. According to him, these “phallic, economic forms” of domination alienate men and women from their supposedly natural sexualities. He thus reads colonial sexuality as a practice that was misshapen by capital and should be recovered in its natural heterosexual, complementary order, an order that he derives from a metaphysics of sex. Dussel’s sexual theology aims to recreate this innocent natural heterosexual order so that heterosexual men and women can “complement each other in the factory and the home, where children are raised” (Indecent Theology, p.198).

By metaphysical fiat, Dussel rules out desires that exceed or fall between the “heterosexual construction of reality, which organizes not only categories of approved social and divine interactions but of economic ones too” (Indecent Theology, p.1). For example, Dussel considers homosexuality to be a horror, claiming that all homosexuals desire sameness and reject the Other. Lesbian desire is even worse for him because he supposes that lesbians deny motherhood. In this sense, homosexuality is autoerotic, says Dussel, supporting a subject that is centered on self-gratification and thus in the service of an “egoistic capitalist ethos” (Indecent Theology, p.198). Freed from capitalism, sexuality will regain its true metaphysical nature through its pre-colonial, other-centered heterosexual structure, minus its current heterosexist violence. Dussel clearly has not spent a lot of time with the lived reality of queer or even sexed people but rather replaces human encounters with metaphysical abstractions.

Recall Althaus-Reid’s methodological principle is that theology must stay close, in smelling distance, to queer sexual lives, i.e., close to the lived materiality of those who flourish and suffer at the interstices of the totalizing dyadic heterosexist capitalist world order. She contrasts Dussel’s project with the experience of Guto, a teenage boy who lives in Managua, Nicaragua, during the Contra wars of the 1980s. Guto relishes the soft and expensive fabric of a U.S.-made blouse. His sister had just brought home “the Blouse,” an object imbued with economic and racial power and longing. Encouraged by his family, Guto decided to wear it performing a “coquettish routine,” complete with make-up, purse, and necklace. In his performance, Guto demonstrates queerness’s capacity to reorganize the materiality of femininity, desire, and economy. Guto’s “drag” confronts us with the “fact of sexual ambivalence and political disorder” by “journeying between race, class, and sexuality” (Indecent Theology, p. 196). By paying attention to the material conditions of the lives of those whom she calls sodomites and transvestites, Althaus-Reid foregrounds the liquifying potential of queer bodies. It is precisely this potential for disorder and ambivalence that the sexual metaphysicians fear, be they church hierarchs or liberation theologians like Dussel. But chaos is required for the overcoming of totalizing systems. “When people come out as people […] someone, like Guto, can do it with his fishnet tights, too.” The acts of rebellion and resistance are themselves queer. “Rebellion is integral to rebellion” (Indecent Theology, p.198). It requires the people to come out as sexual people. The queerness of sex is the engine of change. The pay-off of Althaus-Reid’s theological method is that she can mine sexual power for a theology of true liberation. Surely Dussel is not the only theorist or activist whose underwear hides that a metaphysics of normative heterosexism organizes their respective emancipatory projects. Could we make similar arguments about theorists beyond the purview of Christian liberation theology? Whose queer lived experiences and stories would we need to center in order to find counterpoints to, say, the works of Walter Benjamin, Louis Althusser, or Alain Badiou?

The Queer God and the Political

Here we return to The Queer God and the Christian God’s trinitarian sexual nature. “We may ask if there are more than three in this triad because as in real life and relationships many other friends and lovers may be hidden in the closets of each person of the Trinity. To presume otherwise would force us to fall into gender (and sexual) divine stability.” Add to this idea that Jesus’s incarnation brings into this trinitarian play a host of other relations, Eucharistic and otherwise. “We could […] say that the son lies beside his Magdalene and his Lazarus,” and we should wonder how the father, son, and Jesus’s lovers “exchange affection with each other” (Queer God, p. 58).

This is not a theology that aims to sustain empires, “T-theology” as Althaus-Reid calls that type of traditional Western theology. Empires require stability and clear lines of order. However, a “truly Trinitarian sexual identity […] is basically bisexual in the sense of disjunctive, unstable and engaged in a process of permanent creation and self-destruction […] reminding us also that men and women are not dyadic sexual identities: they are multitudes” (Queer God, p.59). Althaus-Reid’s theology is profoundly relational, embodied, and provisional in her insistence on freeing the excessive powers of queer sexualities. She thus challenges any theologian to assume a sexual position that can sustain rebellion by being grounded in the materiality of queer lives. At the same time, the field of political theology contains a challenge for her work: if we conceive of the political as the ordering of relationships in stable institutions, how can her divine orgy sustain it? Are the political and the sexual compatible?

Annotated Bibliography:

Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender, and Politics, (Routledge, London & New York, 2000). Based in analyses of the material living conditions of queers in Latin America, the book analyzes the theo-sexual-politics inherent in Christian sexual, political, and systematic theological practices.

The Queer God, (Routledge, London & New York, 2003) develops her liberating queer promiscuous theology from the economic and sexual margins.

From Feminist Theology to Indecent Theology: Readings on Poverty, Sexual Identity and God (London, SCM Canterbury Press, 2004) develops a vision for how to do theology in a globalized world by analyzing Liberation and Feminist Theologies through the lens of queer and postcolonial theories.

Kojin Karatani

A short overview of Kojin Karatani’s Marxist influenced focus on modes of exchange as revealing the Borromean ring of Capital-Nation-State, and the import of this ring for religion.

Silvia Federici

Federici provides a model for political theologians engaging with race, gender, and sexuality through the lens of capitalist oppression

Luce Irigaray

“Perhaps it is in precisely this ambivalent way that air (and Irigaray) reminds us of just how much we belong—to the air itself, to this emptiness that hovers and sings in lifedeath. We might forget air, we might forget that we breathe, or how to breathe. But air does not forget us. And air will never cease to carry us, to lift us up, to set us into flight, even when we no longer live in a body that tried (if unsuccessfully) to fly.”

Niklas Luhmann

David Kline introduces the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann for political theology and reflects on how it might think about its own limits of observation.

N. Katherine Hayles

A reflection on the political implications of N. Katherine Hayles’ critical aesthetic inquiry into the ecological relationships between the human and the technological, thought and cognition, and information and materiality.

Isabelle Stengers

Isabelle Stengers, continental philosopher of science, offers pragmatic resources for animating thinking with interest and passion, affirming heresy over conformity and undercutting the all-too-common binaries of religion/science and science/fiction.

François Laruelle

“[For] quantum gnostics, there has never been a creation of the world or in the world—it is the world that is ‘wicked’ or ‘evil’, and consequently also the God who claimed to have created it and yet hesitates to assume it.”

Enrique Dussel

Rafael Vizcaíno offers a biographical introduction to the philosophical work of Enrique Dussel, a major figure of the decolonial turn. Separate from his theology, Dussel’s philosophy of liberation offers crucial reflections for contemporary political theology.

Claude Lefort

It is as productive to think with as it is to think against Claude Lefort, a revolutionary-turned-philosopher who analyzed power and the political regimes to which it gives rise.

Fred Moten

Moten’s prophecy bespeaks aesthetic registers in ordinary (Black) life, but he denies that the aesthetic is redemptive.

Saba Mahmood

Saba Mahmood (1962-2018) was a pioneering anthropologist of Islam and secularism, a feminist theorist of gender and religion, and a critic of liberal certainties.

Paul Virilio

Paul Virilio, one of France’s foremost theorists of speed and technology, is a deep well for doing political theology in an apocalyptic time.

Stuart Hall

The late public intellectual Stuart Hall, with his concept of the conjuncture, assists political theology in analyzing our current moment and potential interventions.

Talal Asad

Rather than establishing structural analogies or historical filiations between “religion” and “politics” (terms he opens to question), Talal Asad urges attention to shifts in the grammar of concepts across different situations.

Quentin Meillassoux

Meillassoux’s thinking of post-Copernican cosmic immanence and cosmic delegitimation constitutes a challenge to political theology as still predominantly Ptolemaic in its assumptions and focus

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt argued that interreligious difference and Christian theology are steady influences on political movements, action, and thought.

Catherine Malabou

To read Catherine Malabou is to embark upon an adventure of thought. Her writing demands change from her readers if they are to follow her on that adventure. It is a process of change that is sometimes joyful, sometimes painful.

Jean-François Lyotard

Lyotard’s thought as it appears in Le Différend describes a linguistic state that evades speech, and the ways in which justice could be done to it, or not. Bearing witness to unpronounceable utterances brings about the idea of faith.

Aime Césaire

This essay will uplift Césaire’s anticolonial consciousness, in hopes that new directions in political theology might emerge/surface

Jacob Taubes

Taubes’s thought revolves around two poles, philosophy of history and political theology, with the aim of inverting the Schmittian position and thinking a new form of community by means of an innovative return to Paul of Tarsus and Walter Benjamin.

Gloria Anzaldúa

Anzaldúa develops a theory of this borderlands consciousness through the experiential and embodied knowledges of Chicanx (and women of color) feminisms; or what she calls a ‘mestiza consciousness’.

Martin Buber

Meeting Martin Buber, in other words, means meeting the voice behind the words, a man who did not always know how to “recover from institutions.”

Han Byung-Chul

Psychopolitics is Han’s main contribution to political theory. It reflects Han’s rethinking of Bentham’s panopticon and Foucault’s biopower as disciplinary society transitioned into a digital achievement society that defines our contemporary neoliberal globalized world.

Jean-Luc Marion

[Marion’s] central concepts and phenomenological method offer an ambiguous resource for political theology: on the one hand, he articulates a rigorous method of doing phenomenology which is trained to remain open to phenomena historically ignored and marginalized, and on the other hand, his own conclusions can veer towards a Christian triumphalism which is in danger of betraying the primary aim of his philosophical project.

Kuan-Hsing Chen

Chen suggests that Western political theologians should incorporate more resources from local knowledge—such as popular culture, literature, films, and music—in order to notice resistance in daily life.

Judith Butler

Judith Butler’s work has altered the trajectories of multiple disciplines in the last thirty years; what can they teach scholars of political theology?

Anibal Quijano

Quijano reimagines the long-lasting and contemporary status of colonialism seen through the lenses of race, modernity/rationality, and economic exploitation, encouraging us to produce theological and political critiques from the ever-enduring nature of coloniality.

Michel Henry

What [Henry’s] oeuvre offers political theology is a reimagining of what constitutes life together—an attention to Life and thereby, spirituality.

Cedric Robinson

Vega focuses on three Robinsonian concepts that are useful for political theology: racial capitalism, Black radical tradition, and African metaphysics.

Marcella Althaus-Reid

Althaus-Reid’s work asks whether Political Theology is capable of accounting for the power of sex, a power that comes to the fore if the theologian focuses on queer bodies.

Julia Kristeva

Kristeva’s psychoanalytic approach and practice shed light on the unconscious, affective, and bodily formation(s) of religious and political discourses and systems.

Achille Mbembe

Achille Mbembe’s work excavates the legacies of colonial reason and violence shaping the powers of death in the world today.

Frank Wilderson III

Wilderson doesn’t use the term “zombies” in his work. But his afropessimist stance includes a set of concepts—social death, gratuitous violence, sentient (but not living) existence—that could be easily applied to any episode of The Walking Dead.

Adriana Cavarero

Cavarero’s feminist theory of nonviolence takes the biblical commandment of “Thou Shall Not Kill” as its starting point. This commandment is ethical (it is about one’s relationships with others) and religious (it is about one’s relationship with God), but it is also political (without it, political communities cannot exist).

Jean-Luc Nancy

The subtlety and poetry of Nancy’s language can mask the rigor and the urgency of his thinking. I hope to share that rigor and urgency here, particularly as it relates to global capitalism, Christianity, and ontology.

Roberto Esposito

In Esposito’s most explicit political theology work, he is concerned with re-working, or rather destabilizing, the essence of political theology.

Ernst Bloch

In many ways, Bloch’s work inverts the classic dictum of political theology advanced by Carl Schmitt, that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” For Bloch, theological concepts are intimations of the freedom of the secular and revolutionary socialist society.

The Invisible Committee

The Invisible Committee may be productively, albeit counterintuitively, understood as Gnostic, a perspective that will put into question some of the assumptions behind the way the political and the theological are demarcated from and related to each other in contemporary debates.

Gil Anidjar

While Carl Schmitt claims that the enemy constitutes “the political,” his various writings largely ignore the historical and discursive evolution of the enemy. Anidjar’s major contribution to modern political theology lies in responding to this lacuna.

Sara Ahmed

Scholars and activists cannot rely on fact-checking or dry reason in this political climate. We have to feel our way toward change.

Hortense Spillers

What would it mean for scholarship in political theology to claim monstrosity? Perhaps it would mean focusing on underappreciated aspects of the Christian tradition, and other religious traditions, particularly those developed by women’s intellectual labor.

Lauren Berlant

Berlant is our preeminent contemporary theorist of how intimate practices bleed into and with national formations, and condition specific and powerful fantasies for what a good life or functional society would involve. To read their work is to become attuned to a set of dynamics that can be excavated in any given scene: the attachments being made and unmade, the forms of belonging that flash up and dissolve, the feeling-worlds that mediate everyday life, what remains unfinished.

Critical Theory for Political Theology: From Theorists to Keywords

We launched this series to make available theoretical resources that keep pace with the concerns raised by those working with political theology today, whose interests are increasingly tied not only to questions of genealogy, speculation, and political modernity, but also to questions of race, colonialism, gender, sexuality, disability, ecology, labor, finance capitalism, and economies of affect. 

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