Apocalyptic (in)difference

This post is Linn Tonstad’s response to the various contributors to the event on her book, God and Difference. The introduction to the book event and links to all the posts are available here.

I want to express my thanks to all the contributors and to Marika Rose for the careful and creative engagement that’s left me like a kid enjoying an Advent calendar: there’s a new one today! It’s an absolute delight to find my work engaged with in the ways that each of these contributions does. My primary response, then, combines gratitude and thoughtfulness: each of the responses gives me something further to think about, especially as I’m in the process of developing some of the promissory notes in the constructive portions of the book in my next project. I’m particularly glad to see that the apocalyptic material in the book found resonance in so many different directions, as it’s absolutely central to my theological project as a whole.

Reading Ashon Crawley’s response was very nearly the first time since finishing God and Difference that I thought: wow, I might have yet more to say about the trinity! The way he found trinitarian bodies not only in worship among the contestatorily different-together, but used to ratify “treaties between nations and … on the bill of sale for enslaved persons.” There are other incarnational, trinitarian stories that remain to be told. Like Crawley, though in different ways, my religious/political history traces back to people who were quite skeptical of the trinity. Early Seventh-day Adventists were often what trinitarian heresy-seekers like to designate as Arian. Although I registered for a course on the trinity in my first semester in graduate school, I came in thinking that no less significant a topic could likely be imagined: the course itself would prove, I thought, that my suspicions of theology’s Weltfremdlichkeit/Weltfeindlichkeit were indeed rightly founded. As my work became increasingly entangled with the trinity over the years that followed, my mother’s family—Iraqi Christians, once Jacobite, later Baptist, eventually Seventh-day Adventist—would nod approvingly as I explained the deleterious effects of fatherhood/sonship: entangled in an often contumacious Christian-Muslim lifeworld in which differences between Christians weigh nearly as heavily, one commonality to which they held was the inapplicability of language of begetting to God. It was reassuring to find that infidelity to the trinity was also faithfulness to a different transmission, the double difference of the Arab (hence polyfidelity). As one easily assimilable to US-American whiteness where I now live, notably less so to the Norwegianness in which I was raised—the boundaries of the latter are far less capacious—the differences of different forms of difference within racialization are always alive.

Beatrice Marovich beautifully lays out one of the issues around which much theological, philosophical, and theoretical disagreement currently takes place: what does the affirmation of finitude require? Is it possible to protest some aspects of finitude and its distortions without denying finitude (and so the created and birth-giving body) as such? I too am weary of death: death dealt, death glorified. Philosophers have far too often thought that hatred of death was a hatred of one’s own death, fear of one’s own limitations. But so often, hatred of death is hatred of the death of others: irreplaceable others whose disappearance unsubstitutably diminishes shared human lifeworlds. I do not, after all, really experience my own death. I do experience the deaths of others. Have philosophy and theology been able to get out of the obsession with chastising masculinist distaste for limits in order to see that hatred of death, weariness of death, may be as much if not more other-oriented than self-obsessive? Alexander Weheliye is among those turning to death as social rather than individual, a direction that I find promising for feminist thought as well.

What to say in response to Adam Kotsko? Yes, exactly. Differences are different! I deeply appreciate his appreciative representation of the stakes of what I do in God and Difference. I certainly hope that our shared suspicion of what dominant strands in contemporary academic theology are after turns out to be misplaced, but I’m not particularly sanguine. Academic theology too often functions as an attempt to cover over one’s own worst impulses. One instructs others to be humble and non-dominant as a way of asserting one’s dominance over them. I’d say more but it would only be a repetition of what I’ve already said; I do wish of course that I could retroactively add a blurb from Kotsko to the book!

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza seeks non-teleological becoming along with an ethics of bottoming. I love the unapologetic denial of representationalism in their work, especially in connection with the logic of the market. As Henderson-Espinoza and I have both learned from Althaus-Reid, queerness requires consideration of economy. Their “affirmative kenosis that privileges the agency of the ‘bottom’” puts kenosis at the margins of the margins. I too seek to avoid a becoming that is oriented along a straight line in which all is determined in advance, in continuity with what has already been. But I’m still not clear why we should ‘rescue’ kenosis. It may be because of the T-theological literature that I spend part of my time engaging that I cannot see why I have to go to kenosis, ekstasis, and ascesis at all. I’m tired of the magical triad that gets us out of every theoretical difficulty. I think what Henderson-Espinoza is after in an affirmative kenosis is decidedly worth pursuing, but I don’t see why it needs to be framed in that particular language, which has (for me at least) become less than illuminating. The distaste for that language may, on my part, be similar to the exhaustion that I experience when opening yet another excitedly hyped new book (as I did just last week) that not only makes every move I map critically in chapter 5, but presents each one as though it’s a radical breakthrough that will finally get us through supposedly fundamental aporias that result from starting at the wrong place to begin with. To be clear, I don’t think Robyn starts at the wrong place at all; but I just can’t with kenosis anymore.

APS goes the furthest in experimenting with the experimental forms of writing found in the book. I am sadly making the decision not to respond in quite the same terms, temping though it is. White male self-examination is ably analyzed and performed (simultaneously, as it has to be) in his writing. For what it’s worth, I do believe that even cis-gender, white, straight men may in the end be saved from phallic logic and the womb-wound (although not as cis, white, straight, or male, any more than the rest of us may be saved by what in us is most distorted and distortive). What he sees as vacillation between academic style and honest impropriety, I wrote as honest speech in different voices. Or, maybe better, each is as honest as the other (and as dishonest too, for neither honesty nor authenticity is a value I claim or enforce, perhaps because purity, gnostic or otherwise, is not something I understand—the sort of Protestant that I am accepts that I’m liable to misuse the best in the worst manner). APS points out one of the decisions that I spent the most time second-guessing while writing the book: Should sonship be contrasted with slavery, or does such a move simply reinscribe and sacralize fundamental European-racial distinctions between persons who have property in themselves and their labor, and so have rights, and persons who are property, both worker and commodity, and so have no rights? How to consider images of slavery across the break/big bang of European colonial-capitalism/racial capitalism (for slavery in Rome is not the same as slavery in the USA)? There is much to say about this question. If I seek to defend my use of the distinction in the book, as I do, ambivalently, I’d say merely the following at this point: the point of the distinction is that adoptive sonship gives human beings, God’s slaves, the right to make demands of God, even though we have no such rights. It’s not clear to me that this usage necessarily repeats the fundamental exclusion-distinction between free rights-havers and property: here, property has rights. One might say, in one mood, that being God’s property is what gives us rights that don’t properly belong to us. Maybe I should have said that in the divine economy, only the slave has the rights of sonship, rather than suggesting that we are transformed from slaves to friends, although that has its own risks. God’s work in the world is (in this sense teleologically oriented) to end submission, sacrifice, and substitution; it’s hard (but perhaps not impossible) to make that point without picking up some biblical language around the nature of submission. Now, such language must be used with caution: as God and Difference argues perhaps to the point of tediousness, language works for God, in the God-world relation, and for human beings in slippery, interrelated, but different ways, and imagery that works in one way here might work quite differently when applied somewhere else. Theological proposals often mean against intent, and language of slave/free is no different (even as it is different) from gendered theological language in this regard. Hence the experimental character of my argument, and, I believe, of theology in general: a proposal is an exploratory topography. Such maps may merely redistribute colonial landmarks, as Marcella Althaus-Reid argues so effectively regarding kenotic proposals that share God the Father’s imperial power with Jesus (see Queer God), or they may decolonize. The test, as I’ve argued, is in use and effect. One can, of course, reject simply on the basis of association, but the relative tediousness of some of the technical details of God and Difference (its decency, that is) is not only a strategy for survival, but a claim for forms of rigorous experimental testing that start from association but do not remain there.

A final word? Beyond gratitude, I want more!

Our Hope Is Nothing

Content Notice: I use some sexually explicit language and sometimes use vulgar slang below. If you would prefer not to see such language then please skip this post. – APS

It is always awkward to give the (nearly) last word to one who rightly passes for a CIS-gender, straight man. It is perhaps even more awkward for the man who accepts the ontological shame of being such a man, rightly or wrongly. But it is a man’s world, as the song goes, even if all us such men know—and fear—that it would be nothing without a woman. James Brown’s lyric isn’t quite right. The truth is that we fear that we, our very selves, would be nothing without a woman. We would no longer be a he, but an unrecognized it. Without a woman defined in relation to a man this big, hard phallus that we fuck1 with is just a bit of insignificant and embarrassingly useless flesh.2 So as I have been given the truly terrible honor of providing the last of our responses to Linn Marie Tonstad’s provocative, challenging, clear-headed, and often beautiful God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude, I’m struck with the embarrassment of being caught with my dick out. I’m reminded of my own nothingness, the own abyss of my personhood, the lie I’ve been brought up believing regarding my own identity. Even though I am thankful for being invited to read and respond at all. Such things truly are a grace for me. 

That said, despite the confessional performances that often accompany those, like myself, who rightly pass as CIS-gender, straight men (and—my God—I’m white too!), such a nothingness bothers me very little. Though I speak with forked-tongue—or is it just pierced?—there is a freedom that comes from recognizing such a core of nothingness, a freedom that comes from giving up hope of finding anyway out of the phallic bind of being born this way (or rather, raised to believe I was born this way). When I read Tonstad exhort us to practice theology in a way that moves “from dick-sucking to clit-licking in touching God’s transcendence” I found myself thinking of the lyrics to Danny Brown’s “I Will”, a celebratory and graphic ode to clit-licking by someone whose body can’t be anything but queer in the world even as he too passes as a CIS-gender, straight man. There is a part of me that wants to read these lyrics as providing a kind of queering of theological practice for those born into these bodies and raised into these desires, but it is job season and I fear that already the honesty and impropriety required to speak of our sexuality and one’s hope or not in the Christian trinitarian God has me wanting to talk about this only behind closed doors, hidden deep in a valley, with one (or—hell—two or three or wherever the spirit leads) who share what can’t be shared with others. Continue reading “Our Hope Is Nothing”

A Becoming Transformation through Apocalypse

This is a guest post by Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, PhD . Robyn is Visiting Assistant Professor of Ethics at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA and Public Theologian in Residence at Faith Matters Network, Nashville, TN.  Their work has a primary interest in the ontology of becoming and the ethics of interrelatedness stemming from the intersections of continental philosophy, Gloria Anzaldúa, anti-normative queer theories and New Materialisms.  Robyn’s work exists in the in between spaces of  ontology, epistemology, and ethics.  Their interests, while wildly philosophical, are also at the intersection of addressing pressing social concerns of race, class, gender, and sexuality.  Using imagination in queer ways, Robyn’s scholarly work starts at the point of departure of ‘what is reality?’ to address existing disparities and pays careful attention to element of desire, imagination, possibility, potentiality, difference, and becoming to help an affirmative and non-teleological reality emerge.

One of the enduring orthodoxies for Christian Theology is that of the doctrine of the Trinity. I have been trained to be sympathetic to the Social Trinity and theologies that critique the androcentricity and patriarchal ideology of the Economic Trinity. At the end of the day, I think they both fail, and I value this failure with a particular gratitude in that the very norms that have structured Christian Theology have the potential for failure, which enlivens a new apocalyptic hope for me.

While centuries of debates and reformulations have ensued, the queer anti-normative turn seen in Tonstad’s text has the most promise. Yet, I am not certain that all differences are simply differences; I think there is a complexity to Tonstad’s work that has yet to be mined. I think important to Tonstad’s work is the constructive turn of ‘apocalyptic transformation’ over against ‘eschatological fulfillment.’ In an effort to disrupt and outright eschew the utopianism of queer theology that is rooted in LGBT studies, identity politics, and a culture of assimilation, Tonstad argues for a queer temporality that is rooted in the presence of multiplicity and the never-receding horizon of differences.

I come to this work as a Trans Queer Latinx who is devoted to a particular reading of Gilles Deleuze with regard to difference. The philosophical concept of difference, according to Deleuze, is that which is without a norm that materializes through the never-repeating repetition of difference. We cannot talk about the corporeality of difference, insofar as difference is not necessarily embodied, though the world for Deleuze is a body that is becoming, and all things are a worlding. This complicates the thinking about the God-world relation, though might provide some helpful context when thinking about this particularity relative to the doctrine of the Trinity. With regard to difference relative to Triune God and in conversation with Tonstad’s book, the hetero-patriarchal dyad illustrates the eternal submission of the heterosexual dyadic in the Father-Son pair, also eclipses the apparent misogyny of the bottom figure that is the Holy Spirit. While Tonstad’s suspicious and outright critique of kenosis is necessary for a liberative and queer move seen in the temporality of apocalypse, I wonder about the presence of kenosis as the agentic force of the margins and the place of that particularity as difference that begins as the margins of the margins. I do not argue for an emptying seen in the traditional kenotic discourse but in an affirmative kenosis that privileges the agency of the ‘bottom.’ How might begging from the bottom, or the margins of the margins (in Althaus-Reid’s language), subvert the differences that exist in the hetero-patriarchal dyadic relationship of Father-Son? How might affirmative kenotic agency initiate a new contour in thinking about difference reshape our Trinitarian thinking? Does this get us any closer to an apocalyptic transformation, or is it a different iteration of eschatological fulfillment from the bottom up? Is that particular linearity even helpful? I think not! I think that thinking about this thru the lens of affirmative kenosis might generate a new agentic possibility for the margins of the margins that might be in line with a cataphatic approach to thinking apophatically with the margins of the margins.

The binary of top and bottom or presence/absence or margin and center complicates our thinking about difference, but difference is that with no norm, and each of these binaries enflesh an opposition of one over and against the other. Yet, because of power, imperialism, colonialism, and structures that perpetuate such binaries, we must think through the lenses of radical queer politics to reframe our thinking about the Trinity.

While the inscribed heteronormativity in normative theologies of the Trinity has perpetuated theologies and social practices, best illustrated by Tonstad’s recap of the marriage equality movement and the welcoming church movement, along with Believe Out Loud’s ad on inclusion, we must take both heteronormativity and Jasbir Puar’s rightly informed critique of homonationalism to task. Neither of these options allow for differences to take shape; they are both rooted in the politics of assimilation that is supported by the politics of representationalism. The Trinity, thus, conforms to these politics and therefore shapes our theological imagination of belonging. This normative theological imagination does not create an opening for difference to materialize and eclipse any notions of becoming. So, to think about God and difference, we must think thru a queer lens that does not enflesh a standard teleological approach nor advocate for assimilationalist politics. This is where I think Tonstad’s brilliant move against eschatological fulfillment, often seen in utopian frameworks, such as the ‘reign of God’ or the ‘kingdom of God,’ and toward apocalyptic transformation seems not only plausible, but quite possible in a world where the logic of dominance has shaped our theologies in unproductive ways and produced a neoliberal market imagination that is rooted in the logic of reproduction that is best seen in marriage equality and other market-driven logic-realities. We need to rethink transformation thru the framework of apocalypse to better be able to hold the complexities of difference (and becoming), though in non-teleological ways. In order to think about difference and becoming in non-teleological ways, we must dismantle the logic of dominance that is seen in the logic of faith.

Using the eucharist as an example, as Tonstad does, we can begin to re-imagine transformation at the place of difference and becoming, but we must unhinge from the politics of representationalism that is expressed through submission of the priest or pastor that shapes our eucharistic theologies. Unhinging from the logic of reproduction that is central to the eucharist, in reproducing the presence of the absence of Christ’s body, helps further untangle assimilationist politics that point toward an eschatological horizon of fulfillment, opposed to an apocalyptic transformation. In order to do this, we need Deleuze’s politics of becoming in addition to a theology of difference.

When we unhinge from the politics of representationalism (state-sponsored marriage is one of those politics), we can begin to re-imagine transformation on the basis of non-teleological belonging and non-reproductive communities (family, church, etc). Dismounting from the theologies and politics of representationalism helps further unhinge from an ecclesiology of reproduction that perpetuates logics of faith that are rooted in the (hetero-homo)norm.

The apocalyptic transformation materializes when material bodies engage with the anti-social and compulsory intelligibility that, for example, the LGBT movement demands. When one is able to hold the memory of time with the complexity of the unintelligibly of the non-reproductive future, we might begin to reshape our social practices into an ethics not of intelligibility and hope for recognition but an anti-social ethics that refuses reproductive and representational politics. Herein lies the politics of radical difference where becoming is the centralizing force in holding the complexity of difference. Using the metaphor of the bridge, as Gloria Anzaldúa did, we can see that ‘bridging with difference’ is not the same as ‘bridging across difference.’ ‘Across’ assumes some sort of assimilation and recognition, wheres bridging ‘with’ difference demands attention to the unrecognizability of becoming and the materiality of politics that are rooted in difference. In order for an apocalyptic transformation to materialize, I argue Tonstad needs the politics of a non-teleological becoming that further materializes the ability to unhinge from the politics of representationalism and identiarian politics that reinforce assimilationist ideologies.

The Differences Between Differences

My first introduction to serious theology was a graduate seminar on the Trinity with Craig Keen. In retrospect, it was a turning point in my life. Previously I had assumed that I would be heading to graduate school in literature, but I found that academic theology grabbed me in a way that no other discipline could. Up to that point, I was likely on a trajectory that would lead me away from Christianity altogether. That engagement with the Trinity — which included Barth, LaCugna, Tanner, and Jenson, among others — set my life durably off course.

As with so many things, my interest was piqued by a certain irritation. I didn’t have a positive alternative, but I couldn’t help but think that everyone was somehow missing the point. They reached for mystery too early, they equivocated about the relationship between God-as-revealed and God-in-Godself, and — the issue that motivates Tonstad’s book — they jumped to strange conclusions about the implications of the Trinity for human community.

I found the possibility of reaching those latter kinds of conclusions appealing for the same reason many people do: it’s great to have a transcendent ground for your normative claims. Tonstad’s great service in God and Difference is to have subtly, gently, but definitively demolished that characteristic gesture of 20th-century trinitarian theology. That she has done so from a perspective that is in so many ways deeply traditional — embracing divine transcendence and the reality of the resurrection — renders it all the more powerful. If subsequent trinitarian theology does not start out in the ground that Tonstad has cleared, then we will have no choice but to conclude what we already suspect (and more than suspect): that mainstream academic theology prefers sentimental moralism to genuine theological rigor. A field that cannot recognize that this is quite simply the best book on the Trinity to be written since Barth revived this theological locus in Church Dogmatics I.1 deserves to be ignored.

Continue reading “The Differences Between Differences”

God, Death & the Abortion of Time

Some of us are born with morbid imaginations. My mom tells a story about me, at the age of three: I wanted to know where we go when we die. The question consumed me, and she let me wonder. I apparently asked every adult I met and was unsatisfied with all of the answers I heard (heaven, six feet under; the great standards) Then she read me Oscar Wilde’s story “The Selfish Giant” which ends (spoiler alert) when the selfish giant is spirited away [by a christlike child] to the garden of paradise. “That’s it,” I told her. “That’s where we go. Paradise.” Perhaps all I needed was some vegetation: the vision of a garden. Or perhaps all I needed was a poetic term: something that felt like candy, or fresh fruit, on the tongue.

Many years later I was passed through the mills of deconstruction, postmodern thought, continental philosophy, feminist critique. Paradise became – to me – a power play: the gleaming veneer over transcendence, just another evisceration of finitude. Philosophers hate death, Simone de Beauvoir argued, because it carries a kind of placental stench. To think death, to really think death, is to take in the stink, the funk, of mortality. Philosophers prefer the clean purity of the immortal, the infinite. And women, said Beauvoir, are blamed for death because it’s birth that gave us death, in the first place. Beauvoir’s words always felt very true to me, and and there was feminist inspiration in the long sojourn I made into creaturely life. In creatureliness I wanted to embrace a kind of pure mortality; to make peace with the body’s limits, to illuminate its vulnerabilities, to be in its suffering. Contemporary theory is a rich vineyard to pull from, if this is what you thirst for. But, lately, I’ve grown weary of death.

This is the fifth semester in a row that I’ve been teaching a class on death. Right now I call it “Being Mortal.” In five terms, the syllabus has undergone a significant shift. Once it was heavy with texts that encourage a focus on raw mortality, with subtle critiques of immortality (both the biological and the supernatural varieties). But increasingly it becomes riddled with visions of the sweet hereafter, in various flavors. I once believed that the most difficult intellectual task would be to challenge students to question a pious valorization of the afterlife, and to rend a new form of openness to the limits of mortality. But this, I discovered, was actually the easiest thing to do. It was also, quite frankly, the most boring. It slowly began to dawn on me that my students believed, deeply, in mortal decay. But their speculative imaginations were, more often than not, deadened by it. At most, they would weakly (albeit dogmatically) offer the vision of a soul that would somehow outlast this decay. But our conversations about strange places like heaven and hell get their fictive impulses churning. Death can really be a dead end.

Tonstad’s book is not only a book about the trinity but is also, as the title promises, a book about the transformation of finitude. It is a vision that refuses to subordinate us to the reality of death. Unlike the philosophers who (as Beauvoir believed) hate death, Tonstad doesn’t deal with death misogynistically . Instead, death (like other elements of the book) is inspected using the diagnostic tools of queer theory and radical feminism. Continue reading “God, Death & the Abortion of Time”

What is a Person?

This is a guest post by Ashon Crawley. Ashon is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at University of California, Riverside. His research and teaching experiences are in the areas of Black Studies, Performance Theory and Sound Studies, Philosophy and Theology, Black Feminist and Queer theories. His book, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (Fordham University Press), is an investigation of aesthetics and performance as modes of collective, social imaginings otherwise. Find him on twitter at @ashoncrawley or at ashoncrawley.com 

Walking through the streets of Philadelphia – or taking a trolley, the El or a cab – was for me always an exercise in intense emotion and feeling. There is so much that happens on the streets: the smells of food or the steam from sewers in the winter, the sounds of music playing in cars, from stores or churches. And it was there on those streets – mostly West Philly, Center City, Southwest and sometimes a bus to North Philly – where I first tried my hand at clandestine dating or at least late night trips to try to figure out my erotic life with young guys who were, like me, likely on their way to church on Sunday morning. I’d call the Party Line and talk until I found someone to take to the streets to my apartment, or me to the streets for theirs. It was all about feeling something deep and intense and varied and warm. I felt a kinda freedom in fugitivity, a freedom in clandestine hookups for kissing and hugging and sex. I wanted to feel something.

And so it was in Philadelphia that I first felt something along the line of the uncertainty that feeling could produce, the unstable ground that feeling could be. Reading Linn Marie Tonstad’s God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude transported me backwards, from 1998 until 2005, my time living in Philadelphia. And this because her scrutinizing attention to debates about the concept of the trinity, my reading of it, has been the first occasion in such a very long time for me to think my own relation to the concept of the character of godhead. In Philadelphia, I was quite acquainted with debates about the concept because it is one that animates lots of Blackpentecostal inquiry and dissent.

Continue reading “What is a Person?”

Introduction: God and Difference Book Event

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. Continue reading “Introduction: God and Difference Book Event”