Issue 14.2 | 2017 / Guest edited by Elizabeth A. Castelli

Religion’s Queer Comeback?: Some Preliminary Questions

Some preliminary musings on queer theory and religion:

I am thinking about the relationships that queer theories have to religious studies and to theological studies. While queer theoretical approaches have been exceedingly productive in historical and textual pursuits across many disciplines—including historical readings and textual analyses in religion (Mark Jordan’s work stands out here, among others)—the purchase that queer thinking has on the contested concept of religion itself and on religious practices, including theology, seems less evident to me. Queer-as-theory-with-affect seems to have less traction in the temple, the sanctuary, the grove, the mosque, the circle. And I wonder why that might be. And I wonder if I am right.

There are several questions implied in this. One has to do with the status of queer theory as a mode of analysis in religion in relation to what queer theory has been and done in the realm of gender. Another is how queer theory/theories affect the possibility of religion (and so also the possibility of theology). Must/can the religions go the way of gender in order to be queer/ed? In other words, as gender tends to dissolve in the acid bath of queer theory will religions do the same? Have they already? Would queering religion/s thus spell their end (already achieved)? I wonder, in other words, if the difficulties queer theory may encounter in the practices of religion beyond exegesis, hermeneutics, and historical analyses have to do with the question of religion itself. No small question indeed.

To get at what I think I might mean, let me start with queer theory and gender. I think it is safe to say that queer theory has disrupted the binary terms of gender almost entirely—in theory at least—just as it has virtually eliminated the possibility of thinking gender in ahistorical or essentialist terms. In this sense we can say that, again theoretically speaking, gender has lost all ontological footing, though it retains social historical currency in the form of sedimented and communal habit. Having succeeded intellectually in largely unseating gender however, queer theory has not altered the lived gender landscape much, even in ultra lefty, largely queer friendly places (most people still identify as male or female), nor has it altered much about how most people see themselves regarding gendered patterns and identities. Trans experience has probably done the most to bring queer theory to ground, so to speak, at least in terms of instantiating the impossibility of essentializing gender. But in general, knowing queer theory does not seem to have done much (yet?) to change gendered social configurations even among the minority genderqueer intelligentsia. Of course, this knowledge has given many of us more room in which to comfortably wiggle, together and apart. That is not nothing.

But regardless of the social career of binary genders, queer theory helpfully interrogates their participation in and production of erotic structures of power, structures that sort and bestow lasting deleterious and lasting salubrious effects on persons. And queer theory helps unmask racialized and colonized genders, gives a method for tracing the multiple ways that oppression not only follows the lines of flight of identity but survives by a kind of viral morphology, feasting especially on identities forged in pain and rebellion. In this view, oppression works by becoming the same as identity—becoming the identity of the Other—particularly as that identity solidifies into seamless wholes. Queer theory, perhaps only by the simple accident of starting out being about contradiction in gender has opened up ways of tracing this vast continuum of contradiction and co-construction in gender, race, and coloniality. Queer theory can (or should, I have argued many times) follow the truly slippery capacity of, for example, “woman” to disappear when analyzed and criticized, only to show up in drag on the other side of the room as race, or as class, and so forth. Queer theory can do this because it plays every confession backwards and locates in every assertion a submersion that drives it. Queer theory exposes the chameleon character of oppression by undoing gender, race, and the colony to the extent that any of them aspires to an assertion of fact, a harmony of whole notes, an innocence. Queer theory of this sort attends to seams and fissures, asserts that bricolage or assemblage is a better way for us to think about the inherent mobility of identities, especially their capacity to turncoat, or cannibalize, or simply morph without ever breaking the domination dynamic.

But to do this critical work of unmasking (or, should we say, of mask production?) queer theory needs its own material upon which to feed, and that material is history and the complex social production of identities and powers. I’m all for this work, and it is the bread and butter of queer theoretical work. This is the joyous finding of the queer “other” embedded in (and so undoing) the pretentious norm. It is telling the story again, queerly. Reading the text again, with a delicious and naughty twist that changes it forever and opens up new possibilities now and then. Religious traditions offer up a wealth of food for queer theory when it comes to confessions that can be played backward (and some so evidently perverse they only have to be played forward) and no end of histories, texts, and tales that are ripe for queer plucking. It is a bit surprising in fact that there isn’t more queer work in religious studies, come to think of it. But maybe the difficulty comes elsewhere than in the wealth of material religions have on offer. I have noticed the queer difficulty queer theory has with religion at the point of its own aporetic moments (of mystery, spirit, noumenal power, etc.). Queer theory has much to work with so long as religions remain social artifacts among other social artifacts (like gender). But what has queer theory to say about religion’s own extra-rational claims and practices?

In other words, is the only religion that can be queered the unreligious religion, by which I mean (for the sake of this reflection) the Barthian unreligion, namely the religion of history and culture, the accumulation of habituated and institutionalized creeds, practices and structures? If there is no “more-than” to religion than that (as Feuerbach would have it, for example), well yes, any “religion” or religious tradition can be undone by queer theory just like any other cultural artifact. And in that case, queer theory inevitably undoes religion like it undoes gender (and race). At least in the case of gender and race it leaves wonderfully ambiguous creatures. What does it leave after feasting on religion? Or is that the wrong question?

Let me be clear here, I am not talking about LGBTIQ liberation within an otherwise functional sacred reality. I am talking about queer theory as a tool of analysis that illuminates, unmasks, produces and traces the eroticized power matrices that the queered object—in this case religion—obscures. And in so doing queer theory undoes the thing it queers. Religion cannot—no social artifact can—withstand such scrutiny. Yes, gender persists after queer theory by habit and sedimented convenience (right?) Religion presumably does the same, but what then? I am not interested in saving religion. I am tired enough of its excesses in Christian form to—some days—long for its total demise under a queer glare (indeed, it has already crumbled under mine). But more than the satisfying, even prurient “gotcha” that may/does come of queering religions gorged on the blood and agonies of their own children, I am also interested in not getting lost in my own carnival of revenge and missing something even more interesting—namely (maybe) queer religion. Or maybe better, queer theology. Or maybe better, queer spirits. Or maybe, a more-than to queer theory’s theory that is a more-than to unreligious religion.
Maybe, just maybe, religion has the potential to offer a queer exterior that also queers everything (including queer theory) but that isn’t exterior to religion. Maybe.

I suggest this possibility because I am willing to be open to thinking about religion as something that is more than its social artifactories. We could say the same things about gender and race, but for this purpose I want to propose a difference. Religions understood thus have embedded within them strong aporetic aspects that the social categories of gender or race simply cannot achieve. Call these aspects transcendence, or other-than-human persons, call them spirit or God or Allah or cosmos… Unless we cynically dismiss these various apophatic and kataphatic claims as delusion or alienated ideology (thoroughly rational options to be sure, but they tend toward the defensive and doctrinaire) we are faced with an aspect of religion that establishes a limit for the kind of queer theory that unmasks, and a limit for queer theories that require totalizing human (or animal) agency at play in the structures of power and desire. In other words, religion understood queerly may limit queer theory much in the way that religions have always done to theory. But this time, religion (maybe) does so by being more queer than theory. And queer theory has to figure out how to say this, to explain it, to work it. Because that is theory’s job.

So I close with the question of whether there is a queerness already present in “the religious” by virtue of its religiosity? I think of Otto’s notion (ok, admittedly problematic and universalistic, but I am indulging in that very fancy myself here for the moment) of religion’s character of mysterium fascinans and mysterium tremendum. (Two highly erotic notions, to be sure.) What might the implications of something like this character be, if we can think it in less totalizing ways? Could it be a queerness that productively undoes, or changes, the course of queer theory?