A "Queer God"? Really? Remembering Marcella Althaus-Reid
Hardly anyone has a neutral reaction to the word “queer.” People either love it or
hate it. I used to belong to that latter camp until a wiry, effervescent, brilliant Latin
American liberation theologian converted me. That theologian’s name was Marcella
Althaus-Reid, who passed away on February 20 – far too young and with many
more theological and spiritual insights left to offer to a world that desperately needs
“Queer theology” has been bubbling up in some quarters for a while now, but not
quite as long as “queer theory.” Both spark considerable controversy, and sometimes for
similar reasons. Usually the word “queer” is enough to send an otherwise congenial
dinner party of LGBT people rocking with impassioned disclaimers, hurled history
lessons, and proffered pleas for tolerance.
In religious circles, gay and lesbian people have been working for decades to
carve out a “place at the table” in faith communities that they so rightly deserve. The
work can be slow and arduous, which the word “queer” – some strenuously insist – can
derail. A few years ago I attended a national gathering of LGBT-affirming ministries
where a well-known gay Christian author practically begged his audience of several
hundred to refrain from using “that word” in their advocacy work. It simply perpetuates
the assumption that we’re different, he explained.
That’s exactly the point, as Marcella Althaus-Reid would have chimed in had she
been there. We are different. And the only way to do Christian theology is from that place
of difference. The “we” for Althaus-Reid didn’t mean only lesbian and gay people, nor
the ones so quickly added on later, like bisexuals and transgender folks. “We” are all
those who don’t fit the regulatory regimes of both state and church marked by gender,
sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, and economics. For her, “queer” maps out a space of
resistance to those regimes, not just to oppose but creatively to construct, re-imagine, and
envision a different kind of world.
Marcella Althaus-Reid was born in Rosario, Argentina and received her first
degree through a world-renowned center in Buenos Aires for the study of liberation
theology in Latin America. She earned her PhD in 1994 from the University of St.
Andrews in Scotland and eventually became professor of contextual theology at the
Divinity School of the University of Edinburgh. (I'm told that she was the first woman in 150 years to hold that post.)
Prior to that academic position, Professor Althaus-Reid trained for the ministry of the
Methodist Church of Argentina, where she also developed expertise in the method of
“conscientization,” pioneered by the Brazilian educator and activist Paulo Freire. She put
that training to use in social and community projects supported by the church in
particularly poverty-stricken areas of Buenos Aires. She later established similar projects
in Dundee and Perth (Scotland).
Her first book, Indecent Theology (2000), quickly raised her profile throughout
the theological world, and with the publication of Queer God (2004), she was on the
forefront of a brand new, exciting, as well as controversial field in the academic study of
Yet academic study was not her only or even primary passion. She always
remained firmly rooted in feminist and liberation concerns, returning again and again to
the “preferential option for the poor” – which of course she insisted needs to be
thoroughly sexualized. She begins Indecent Theology, for example, by taking us on a
sensory excursion through the barrios of Buenos Aires, encouraging us “to go and see the
women lemon vendors who sit in the streets of some neighborhoods” (p. 2). What is
theology to them? Where do they belong (if at all) in the realms of theological discourse?
What might theology look like if done by them and instead of just for them?
Professor Althaus-Reid in many ways pioneered using “queer theory” for
theology and set the bar quite high indeed for all of us with similar aspirations. Yet she
never treated queer theory – or any form of theorizing for that matter – as her foundation.
Her work was always rooted in people – how we live, what and who we love, our hopes, fears,
triumphs, and the ever varying relational networks we find ourselves in.
Her words say it best: “Indecent Sexual Theologies…may be effective as long as
they represent the resurrection of the excessive in our contexts, and a passion for
organizing the lusty transgressions of theological and political thought. The
excessiveness of our hungry lives: our hunger for food, hunger for the touch of other
bodies, for love and for God… [O]nly in the longing for a world of economic and sexual
justice together, and not subordinated to one another, can the encounter with the divine
take place. But this is an encounter to be found at the crossroads of desire, when one
dares to leave the ideological order of the heterosexual pervasive normative. This is an
encounter with indecency, and with the indecency of God and Christianity” (Indecent
Theology, p. 200).
I had the privilege of meeting Professor Althaus-Reid three years ago, at the
Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion. This was after I had read her
books and, well, become a fan. No, that’s not quite right. I was more than a fan. Her work
had re-animated and energized both my professional theological life and my own
personal appropriation of Christian faith in some profound ways. Meeting her only
confirmed my admiration. She was disarmingly charming, remarkably adept at fielding
the most obtuse theological questions, and nearly always right on the verge of riotous
Her theological work is clearly not for everyone, at least not yet. It will take time
for her disruptive insights to filter into most faith communities, where they will likely
emerge under something other than the banner of “queer.” Besides, as she herself argued,
queer theology erupts from the margins – and that’s where it belongs and needs to stay.
I agree, but with a caveat. I’m convinced that many years from now the queer
theological trail she blazed will have transformed what most people now know as
Christianity, even if they have forgotten the trail-blazer. I suspect she would approve of
that. After all, she never wrote for herself but for the church she loved, a church that
hasn’t appeared yet. For even just a glimpse of that church, I am profoundly grateful to
Al paraiso te conduzcan los angeles, Marcella.
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