Trinitarian theology has lost its way. It has become – as I demonstrate in this book – a way to enjoin practices of sacrifice and submission under the banner of countering the rapaciousness of modern subjectivity.
The problem with Christian theological accounts of the Trinity is not, Tonstad argues, that they have become infected by the fallen or secular logics of gender inequality and hierarchy. The logics of heterosexism and heteronormativity are, in fact, deeply theological, and cannot be unsettled simply by the demand that they be made flexible enough to welcome queer people in. What is necessary instead is a radical remaking of the logic of trinitarian procession, moving away from the heterosexual logic of penetration, according to which relationships move according to the thrusting logics of space-making, activity and receptivity, towards the clitoral logic of surface touch, intensification, and non-sacrificial encounter.The centre of the problem is Karl Rahner’s basic axiom of trinitarian theology: that the immanent Trinity (what God is in Godself) is identical with the economic Trinity (how God shows Godself in the world). This is not to say that God is identical with God’s self-revelation in the world, or that what we see of God in the world is not shaped by sin and finitude, but that if Christian theology is to make any sense at all, we must assume that there is a fundamental continuity between the way God reveals Godself and the way God actually is. Contemporary trinitarian theology reads this axiom wrongly for three reasons, according to Tonstad. First, because by saying that the Son comes forth from the Father and the Spirit is sent by the Father, theology entangles itself in a set of images that ineluctably lead it to read subordination into the Trinity. We simply cannot imagine the Son as coming forth and the Spirit as sent without also, sooner or later, consciously or unconsciously, inferring that the Son and the Spirit are inferior to the Father. Second, Jesus’ suffering death on the cross (which ought, for Tonstad, to be understood not as a revelation of what God is in Godself but as a revelation of what it looks like for God to reveal Godself in a world characterised by sin and finitude) is repeatedly read back into the Godhead, so that the relationships between the three persons of the Trinity are understood in terms of penetration, receptivity, sacrifice and submission. Third is the problem of what Tonstad names ‘corrective projectionism’ – assuming that the function of the doctrine of the Trinity ought to be to correct (what theologians perceive to be) the dangers of modern understandings of the self, so that the persons of the trinity are thought of in terms of rupturing or overcoming the Cartesian notion of the self-possessed self. This third problem results in the heterosexist logic of the ‘wound-womb’ whereby persons, both human and divine, are understood to relate well to one another by opening up space for one another, by allowing themselves to be penetrated by one another.
The first part of the book explores the way that these three errors play out in trinitarian theologies of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Graham Ward and Sarah Coakley. Balthasar’s work relies on connecting the hierarchical ordering of relationships between men and women with the hierarchical ordering of the relationships between Father, Son and Spirit in the Trinity, and understands relationship as a handing-over of oneself to another, accepting the ever-present threat of death. Ward seeks to untie sexual difference from particular bodies but cannot escape the heterosexist logic of penetration and receptivity and the logic of the wound-womb – his Christ is made feminine by the wound in his side, out of which he gives birth to the church (not so much becoming androgynous as taking femininity into his masculine self and subordinating it), and his human embodiment is exemplified by his circumcision. Sarah Coakley understands relation to God as the pursuit of ever greater kenotic dependence on God, a constant pursuit of ever greater withdrawal of the self to make room for God so as to pay the infinite debt we owe to the God who gave us the unrepayable gift of life: ‘no delighted presence to and with the other is permitted in this life.’
An interlude considers the consequence of tying sexual difference to the differences which distinguish the three trinitarian persons, and of thinking relationality according to the phallic logic of making space. How might a trinitarian theology be re-imagined according to Althaus-Reidian logic of God the orgy, if ‘we move from dick-sucking to clit-licking in touching God’s transcendence’?
Tonstad turns first to Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg and Katherine Tanner’s attempts to remake the logic of trinitarian space-making. Moltmann aims for a greater mutuality in the relations between Father, Son and Spirit, but ends by so emphasising selflessness that the persons are left no self at all, like ‘the last cookie in a circle of very polite people’ where ‘as each person defers to the next, no one ends up with the cookie.’ Pannenberg likewise seeks after a greater mutuality in the persons’ distinction from one another, yet can only imagine the persons escaping competition by the Son and the Spirit’s submission and obedience to the rule of the Father. For Tanner, it is crucial to emphasise the disanalogy between God and humankind such that the relations of the trinitarian persons cannot straightforwardly be taken as models for the relations among human persons; yet she too cannot escape a sense that the Sonship of the Son implies subordination and obedience.
After considering the curiously Lacanian logic of the trinitarian theology which can claim, as Paul Molnar does, that ‘Neither in scripture nor the history of dogma has God, as Father and Son, been understood to be male – not even subliminally’, Tonstad argues that Christian theologians should, for now at least, abandon the imagery of relations of origin – the Father as the one who generates, the Son as the one who is begotten, the Spirit as the one who is sent – for understanding the Trinity. In a cultural moment such as ours, in which gender and sexual difference are central, the language of procession cannot escape the heterosexist logic of subordination, of violence, of hierarchy and the wound-womb. Instead, she suggests, we might turn to the biblical and patristic imagery of light and take the persistent theological neglect of the Holy Spirit not as an opportunity to emphasise the Spirit as we do the Father and the Son, but to de-emphasise both the Father and the Son as we do the Holy Spirit. What links the economic and the immanent trinities is not the processions of the Son and Spirit from the Father or the establishment of the Father’s lordship over earth, as it is in heaven, but the establishment of communion, an invitation to partake of the ‘banquets without borders’ celebrated by Jesus throughout his ministry on earth.
Against theologies of queer inclusion, which aim to hold in place an ecclesial continuity with the church as it is now, ensuring the selfsame reproduction of the church into the future, Tonstad turns to Lee Edelman to imagine an ‘apocalyptic ecclesiology’ which seeks not reproduction of the world as it is now, but abortion. The disappeared body of Christ should be taken not as a sign that the church is the faithful incarnation of that body on earth, which requires an ecclesiology of reproduction, purity and fidelity, but as a community which ‘knows it does not possess the body of Christ and so distributes its sign freely, for the church stands in need of that body as much if not more than others do, those who at least are not tempted to believe they have it.’ This church is to be a clitoral rather than a phallic body because its borders are uncertain, its sexuality nonreproductive, and its relationships not those of penetration and sacrifice but those of intensification and copresence.
In Tonstad’s book, the dry rigour of systematic theological accounts of the doctrine of the trinity rubs up against the slippery fluidities of queer theory; whether this encounter is productive or (apocalyptically, abortively) unproductive is perhaps for this event’s contributors and you, our commenters to discuss; but it is unquestionably, and perhaps more importantly, intensely and polymorphously pleasureable.
I’m looking forward to discussing the book more with you all. Contributors’ posts will go up over the next couple of weeks, and this page will stay updated with links to new posts:
Monday, October 24 – Ashon Crawley, “What is a Person?”
Wednesday, October 26 – Beatrice Marovich, “God, Death and the Abortion of Time”
Friday, October 28 – Adam Kotsko, “The Differences between Differences”
Monday, October 31 – Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, “A Becoming Transformation through Apocalypse”
Wednesday, November 2 – Anthony Paul Smith, “Our Hope is Nothing”
Friday, November 4 – Response by Linn Tonstad