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?
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.