Isaac Simmons made headlines in April when he became the first openly gay man to receive approval as a certified candidate for ordained ministry in his United Methodist (Illinois Great Rivers) annual conference. So far as anyone knows, he is also the first drag queen thus certified.
More recently, the Rev. Craig Duke, also a United Methodist, performed in drag on the HBO Special, “We’re Here.” One man is gay. The other is in a long-term heterosexual marriage. One man considers his drag queen persona – “Penny Cost” – a key part of his identity and calling. The other, it appears, sought to understand through participation, so that he could provide radical welcome to all who might come to the church he serves as pastor. Both together represent the leading edge of determined activism.
This advocacy for social change has explicit theological underpinnings. To understand how requires delving into Queer theology, a categorical term for a set of critical responses and correctives to traditional views. Queer theology is a relatively new and developing field that relies on schools of thought associated with critical theory. Queer theology “theologizes” these critical perspectives to transform and mobilize the church for the transformation of society.
First, Queer theology views reality as radically contingent, a view that has strong implications for a Christian view of human nature. We construct our sense of reality through language. We likewise construct our views of what is real and good for human nature, also through language. The problem, Queer theorists and theologians say, is that taken-for-granted terms, like “male” and “female,” and the state- or church-approved sexual relations between only male and female, have power implications that marginalize and make odious all who don’t fit the norm. Queer theology therefore repudiates any assertion that God created only male and female or that these features of creation are fixed in their expression.
One could fairly characterize Queer theology’s doctrine of human nature, therefore, as a radically inductive search for a person’s self-knowledge in the creation of an identity, an identity that remains fluid and changeable. The “made this way” claims of some lgbtquia+ advocates therefore smacks too much of essentialism and determinism for Queer theologians. Even homosexual monogamous marriage (ironically) serves to buttress heteronormative social relations. “Heteronormative” refers to the maintenance of social relations that privilege the status (I’m choosing words carefully) of identifiers like “male” and “female” in support of traditional views of marriage. Consequently, argue Queer theologians, the traditional but false narratives of human sexuality and gender identity must be overturned, which requires the enactment of transgressive behavior. Hence not only the legitimacy of drag queen art, to go back to our beginning example, but its moral imperative.
A second point, which might surprise some, is Queer theology’s emphasis on incarnation, understood Christologically in (almost) in traditional terms, whereby God assumes human nature in Jesus of Nazareth. But then, once that point is made, the thinking turns back to anthropology – human nature. Rather than exploring how God became human in Christ to save us from our sins and bring about the new creation, Queer theology emphasizes that, in the incarnation, God demonstrates God’s affirmation of human embodiment. The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology illustrates this turn. It describes Queer theology as taking “as its starting point the radical, and as yet unexplored, nature of the doctrine of the incarnation.” The word “unexplored” in that description carries much weight. How does “incarnation” almost as a metaphor help explore the fullness of human nature? We are a far cry from traditional Christian thinking on the nature and work of Christ.
Backing up further to the basic topic of divine revelation (how God speaks and reveals his will for creation), Queer theologies tend to subsume divine speech under the category of human experience. Theology becomes anthropology once again. We are back to the radical contingency of human language, with all its power implications. Queer theologians therefore demonstrate a wholesale suspicion toward traditional convictions about divine revelation. Linn Tonstad’s very enlightening book, Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics, gives us an example. Tonstad quotes Marcella Althaus-Reid (a ground-breaking Queer theologian), on the matter: “God speaks through the ‘complexity of the unruly sexualities and relationships of people’” (p. 93, italics added).
Gathering up the bits of this brief sketch, we see (1) that the radical contingency of human nature, coupled with how critical theorists analyze power relations in language, leads to the in-principle rejection of the givenness of sexual boundaries. (2) Christology in Queer theology effectively de-centers the Incarnation of Christ – or treats it as little more than a point of departure – for exploring the implications of human “embodied-ness.” I suggest that, from a theological point of view, then, we have anthropology masquerading as Christology. Again from the Cambridge Dictionary article: “Within Queer theology…fall stories tell us of the incarnation all human beings share and the redemptive space we strive for.” Not the assumption of human nature by God, but the enfleshment of all humans. (3) Finally, we also saw how Queer theologians think of divine revelation. Again, the human dimension is emphasized to the virtual exclusion of real divine speech, discernible, as it were, on God’s terms. Theologically orthodox theologians recognize that divine speech is mediated through human speech but hold the two domains in tension. Queer theology collapses them and we wind up effectively with nothing but human speech.
Perhaps this little essay has helped to show some of the intellectual moorings that purport to justify drag queen art, but the more fundamental concern, in my view, is what Queer theology does with the Christian faith at a deeper level. Since arguments about sexuality and gender identity are so constantly front-and-center in American society, we need to understand the criticisms of traditional views as best we can, but we also need to stay alert and hold fast to our confession. We have good reasons. God grant us courage and grace to stand firm.
The Rev. Stephen W. Rankin, PhD, is an ordained elder in the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church.