Marcella Althaus-Reid

Marcella Althaus-Reid

             “Her work was groundbreaking and controversial.”[1]  Perhaps no sentence better describes the theological undertakings of Marcella Althaus-Reid.  Through her work in a variety of theological fields, Althaus-Reid challenged the status quo of theology and railed against traditional assumptions of class, sexuality, gender, and much, much more.  Scholars of liberation theology, queer theology, feminist theology, and postcolonial theology laud the contributions she made during her life and vocation.  While such a stupendous life’s work cannot be condensed into the framework of a blog post, suffice it to say that Althaus-Reid made great strides in these fields, advocating for the marginalized in her scholarly work and everyday behavior.

Althaus-Reid was born and raised in Argentina, where she grew up seeing the horrors of political corruption and economic malpractice ravage the society around her.[2]  She studied theology in Scotland because at the time it was considered improper for a woman to study that subject in her native country.  Remaining in the United Kingdom for her professional career, she rose through the academic ranks, eventually being granted a Chair in constructive theology at the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh.  During her academic career, Althaus-Reid made great strides in doing theology from a queer perspective. She eventually put forth what she called an “indecent theology,” a form of liberation theology from a queer perspective.

Althaus-Reid’s indecent theology covered a lot of ground in terms of subject matter.  She worked at the intersection of a variety of fields, namely “liberation theology, including feminist, economic, political and queer theologies, queer theory, gender studies, politics and economics.”[3]  With such a wide swathe of academic thought at her fingertips, Althaus-Reid sought to make all these fields work toward a common goal. While she did not unify these fields, she cast a vision wherein all these engines could be used to drive society and the Church forward toward radical inclusion of the Other in all its forms.  This push toward inclusivity is key to Althaus-Reid’s work; she was not merely creating theoretical soliloquies.  The heart of her theological project was “her passion for including the excluded – the poor in South America, Latina women, indigenous peoples, queers, and leather/fetish folks.”[4] In calling for the inclusion of the Other, Althaus-Reid did not only hope for these marginalized people to be accepted as part of the community. Inclusion was certainly part of the reason behind her work, but she saw something bigger when it comes to inclusion. In discussing queer theology, Althaus-Reid argues that “to take on board Otherness means much more than to include the different into a familiar discourse, as in indigenization, which is a form of co-optation. To take on board Otherness implies taking on also the hermeneutical and ecclesiastical challenges presented by a previously silenced subject.”[5]  For Althaus-Reid, her project was not just about convincing the Church or the broader society to accept the marginalized on paternalistic terms. Instead, she wanted the voice of the Other to be heard in such a way that the paradigms of theology, Church practice, and societal norms shift in their entirety.  She desired a radical queering to come from her indecent theology!

In pursuit of her project, Althaus-Reid looked for ways in which the Other could become a part of the discussion in a radical way that altered the discourse moving forward.  Her chief area of focus for this radical inclusion was in the sexual realm.  For Althaus-Reid, “all theology is sexual theology,” so sexual norms and practices were primary targets in her queering work.[6]  This queering was meant to deconstruct oppressive sexual regimes that Althaus-Reid believed kept a great number of people isolated at the margins of the Church and society.  Her indecent theology was a counter voice to the voices of patriarchal theology and heterosexist theology.[7]  Althaus-Reid sought to tear down these structures of domination by bringing the voiceless into the spotlight.  She proposed to let the experiences of marginalized people enter into theological discourse in a new way.  Althaus-Reid stated that the Church could learn a great deal “from the presence of God amongst the poor, black women, and transvestites too.”[8]  Her indecent theology was about understanding how different people see the world and how that vision affects the lives we lead.  Indecent theology is not about giving lip service to queer thought, but it is “concerned with sexual modes of thinking, or sexual epistemologies and how they understand critical reality.”[9]  She wanted to highlight how an entirely different thought world might have important things to say about theology and social justice.  By lifting up the experiences of sexual minorities alongside those of economically and politically persons, Althaus-Reid queered liberation theology itself.  If theologians are going to earnestly call for the liberation of the poor, they must also strive for the liberation and inclusion of all oppressed peoples, even transvestites in Buenos Aires.  This call for a wide-ranging liberation still needs to be heard today. Too often academics and hands-on fighters for social justice become insular in their specialized field. But oppressive regimes cover a wide section of the world’s people. We must seek to liberate all of them.

Althaus-Reid did not just write about liberation and radical inclusion, she lived it.  During her life in Scotland, she became a major advocate for the Metropolitan Community Church, an international denomination that ministers specifically to the world’s sexual minorities.[10]  She saw this denomination as a means by which the voices of the sexual Other could be brought into the ecclesial and theological conversation.  Her advocacy for the MCC speaks to her own history with the Church. From her days as a woman ostracized from the theological community of Latin America to her discomfort in traditional churches in Scotland that did not care for her theology, Althaus-Reid was only tenuously related to the life of the Church. It was the MCC that brought her back into the Christian communion.[11]  Althaus-Reid expressed not only dissatisfaction with traditional forms of church, but a full-on betrayal. In her mind, the Church set out on a bold journey when it embraced liberation theology, but it stopped short of seeking the liberation of all people, specifically sexual minorities.[12]  This betrayal is the furnace that empowered the engine of her indecent theology. She saw an injustice in the life of the Church and felt compelled to speak out against it, to call for the liberation of all people from the oppressive sexual regimes that dominate so many societies.

Marcella Althaus-Reid was a tireless fighter for the Other, for the poor, the sexual outcast, the oppressed. Her work saw the love of God shed over all the peoples of the earth, especially those beaten down by society. Her work was a highly influential part of the wider queer theological project, and through it she argued beautifully for the sacred worth of all people. True to queer theology, Althaus-Reid understood the imprecision of human identity, which she saw as a powerful tool not only in the deconstruction of societal and ecclesial oppression, but also of the ideological domestication of God.[13]  Through her work, Althaus-Reid maintained that God is not just a spokesperson for the religious conservatives of the world. Rather, God is a God of radical love and inclusion who yearns for all voices to be heard, who values all people in all their modes of being.  Althaus-Reid envisioned a world where all voices are heard, and where God’s love is not restricted in any way. May the legacy she has left continue to tear down walls and expose the indecent side of theology, God, and life.

 

An anonymous student

[1] Thia Cooper, “Remembering Marcella Althaus-Reid,” Political Theology 10, no. 4 (October 2009): 758.

[2] All biographical information in this post is taken from the Cooper retrospective.

[3] Cooper, “Remembering,” 758.

[4] Robert Shore-Goss, “So Get your High Heels on for Liberation, and Walk! Some Reflections in Memory of Marcella Althaus-Reid,” Theology & Sexuality 15, no. 2 (May 2009): 142.

[5] Marcella Althaus-Reid, “On Queer Theory and Liberation Theology: The Irruption of the Sexual Subject in Theology” in Homosexualities, edited by Marcella Althaus-Reid, Regina Ammicht Quinn, Erik Borgman, and Norbert Reck (London: SCM Press, 2008), 88.

[6] Shore-Goss, “High Heels,” 140.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Althaus-Reid, “On Queer Theory,” 94.

[9] Marcella Althaus-Reid, “From Liberation Theology to Indecent Theology: The Trouble with Normality in Theology,” in Latin American Liberation Theology: The Next Generation, ed. Ivan Petrella (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), 28.

[10] Shore-Goss, “High Heels,” 142.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Marcella Althaus-Reid, “Demythologizing Liberation Theology: Reflections on Power, Poverty and Sexuality,” in The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology 2nd edition, ed. Christopher Rowland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 133.

[13] Althaus-Reid, “On Queer Theology,” 94.

Sexuality as a Construct (Foucault)

Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction explains power and ultimately demonstrates that sexuality is a construct created by discourse.  To begin to understand Foucault’s argument, we must start by learning why he believed that our widely held theory on sexuality was erroneous.  The repressive hypothesis is a prevalent theory that analyzes how our current notions of sexuality developed.  This hypothesis assumes that during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance a free and easy attitude prevailed toward sexuality.[1]  Then, in the seventeenth century the bourgeoisie repressed sexuality.  The repressive hypothesis holds that the bourgeoisie was concerned with economic productivity and did not want energy wasted on sexual pursuits.[2]  Therefore, sex outside of procreative purposes was repressed.  Consequently, if we want to liberate ourselves, the theory maintains we need to become free and open about our sexuality.[3]

Foucault did not deny that with the rise of the bourgeoisie there was indeed an effort to control sexuality and how people talked about sexuality, but he also pointed out that since the seventeenth century discourse about sexuality has dramatically increased.[4]  In fact, discourse on sexuality began to change.  Instead of discourse being vulgar or centering on pleasure it turned into a new discourse that centered on science.[5]  This insight led Foucault to spend some time examining knowledge and power.  Foucault believed that there is an undeniable power dynamic related to knowledge and that people influencing the knowledge had a great deal of power.  Power dynamics for Foucault are not “juridicio-discursive”, as the repressive hypothesis assumed.  Or stated differently: power is not only present in the negative form in which someone in authority restricts behavior with laws.[6]  He also briefly discussed a psychoanalytical approach that states we only have desire once we are restricted from the object we crave.[7]  Once again, the psychoanalytical approach only regards power as “juridico- discursive” or as a force of repression.  Foucault, however, proposed that power in the form of repression and subjugation is only part of the story.  Instead of seeing power as only in the hands of people in authority, power exists in all relationships.[8]  Foucault emphasized that even the repressed exercise power, and this power shapes concepts.  Importantly, Foucault believed power does not always present itself in a negative, repressive way as the juridicio-discursive view holds.  Power is, in fact, often creative.  Foucault argued that knowledge and power dynamics in relationships have had great influence on sexuality.  He concluded that power is not what repressed sexuality but instead that it is ultimately power that has created the construct of sexuality.[9]

Foucault discussed four sources of knowledge and power that have greatly contributed to the construct of sexuality.[10]  One of these is the “hysterization of women’s bodies”.  It has led us to view women as being highly sexual and as a source for medical knowledge about human reproduction.[11]  The next source is the “pedagogization of children’s sex”, which sees children as highly sexual.[12]  The heightened sexuality of children is held as something dangerous that needs to be monitored and controlled.  Another source of knowledge and power is the “socialization of procreative behavior” which maintains reproduction as an important matter for society.[13]  As a result, non-procreative sex is conceptualized as negative and nonproductive.  The “psychiatrization of perverse pleasure” is a source of knowledge and power centering on identifying sexual illness.[14]  This psychiatrization was done with the stated intent of controlling perversions, but in the study of sexual perversions Foucault argued that the power and pleasure dynamic actually contributes to a higher desire for and higher frequency of sexual perversions.[15]  The results of “psychiatrization of perverse pleasure” also illustrate how the multiplicity of relationships contributes to the construct of sexuality.

After Foucault showed us how the conception of this construct was shaped, he also explained why this fabrication came to be.  There was a shift in focus to a “power-over-life” outlook.  The “power-over-life” focus is concerned with governments or ruling authorities preserving life, aiding in increasing population, and improving life for their people.[16]  The four areas of power and knowledge are directly related to this power-over-life focus.  The power-over-life outlook’s end ensures the flourishing of society and its rulers.  Tight regulations are enforced to foster the goal of power maintenance.[17]  As a result, the idea of a “healthy sexuality” manifests.  A “healthy” sexuality was originally propagated by the bourgeoisie.[18]  The idea of a “healthy” sexuality is ingrained in society and contributes to seeing sexuality as integral to a person’s identity.[19]  Sexual preferences once held little importance, but today a person’s sexual preference is believed to affect a person’s behavior.[20]  Foucault argued that buying into this construct makes people more easily controlled.[21]  To Foucault, sexuality must be understood as a bourgeoisie invention that ensures dominance.  Even today, its purpose is to maintain power.[22]  Indeed, hegemonic powers in our world produce immense pressure for individuals to display heteronormative behavior.  It results in widespread oppression of non-heteronormative preconstructions.

Michel Foucault uncovered sexuality as a construct.  His analysis helps us to reflect on our own experiences of sexuality and to question our beliefs about sexuality.  The constant inundation of what both religion and secular society holds as truth bombards our minds and puts many of us through numerous sleepless nights.  Foucault’s work has encouraged me to ask honest questions and to trust my judgment about the construction of sexuality.  The question is how we use our new-found knowledge to influence others and bring clarity to so many confused minds.

Anonymous Student

 [1]Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 3.

[2]Ibid., 6.

[3]Ibid., 5.

[4]Ibid., 12, 17.

[5]Ibid., 53, 58.

[6]Ibid., 82-91.

[7]Ibid., 81-82.

[8]Ibid., 92-95.

[9]Ibid., 105.

[10]Ibid., 103.

[11]Ibid., 104.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Ibid.

[14]Ibid., 105.

[15]Ibid., 44-45.

[16]Ibid., 135-140.

[17]Ibid., 139.

[18]Ibid., 124-127.

[19] Ibid., 69, 78.

[20]Ibid., 43, 69, 78, 126.

[21]Ibid., 126.

[22]Ibid., 120-127.

Bibliography

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Judith Butler

I wailed as tears cascaded down my cheeks!  It just couldn’t be true.  I sat on his lap a week ago and stroked his big, fluffy beard.  I saw the empty plate where I left cookies.  My whole childhood world was rocked!  If the Santa example does not hold any significance for you, take a second and think of how you felt when the Great and Powerful Oz was reduced to a mere unimpressive mortal.  Things are not always what they seem!  Our minds have been influenced to conceive many ideas that indeed may not be true.  We are constantly molded and formed by many forces including social norms and our social locations; we are repeatedly inundated with input from a variety of media.  Judith Butler [1] impacted the world by arguing that we have been deceived in regards to sex and gender.  She offers a new understanding of these concepts and urges us to trouble the oppressive, commonly held norms of sex and gender.

Butler maintains that one of the foundational assumptions of feminist theory is erroneous.  She challenges the understanding of the category of women, asserting that there is much more intricacy to the category women than is commonly represented by the term.[2]  People, categorized as women, have varying experiences and face different degrees of oppression based on their contexts.  Butler argues, “If one is ‘woman’ that is surely not all one is; the term fails to be exhaustive, not because a pregendered “person” transcends the paraphernalia of its gender, but because gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts, and because gender intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual, and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities”.[3]  Consequently, the term women, as used by feminist theory, is inadequate because it essentializes a gender binary.  Not only is the term deficient, but Butler further suggests that sex and gender are social constructs[4].  She disputes the popular argument that sex is biological.[5]  To her, sex is a construct which is attributable to the creative power of scientific discourse.  As humans, we frequently put our trust in the orthodoxy of science, but this orthodoxy is deceptive.  For example, David Page of MIT and his colleagues influentially claim to have found the “master gene” that determines sex. They labeled it “TDF” (testis determining factor);[6] in contrast, Butler asserts that it is “precisely the designation of male and female that is under question and that it is implicitly already decided by the recourse to external genitalia”.[7]  Page and his colleagues affirm the oppressive, heteronormative assumption that genitalia determine male and female.  Butler emphasizes the illogicality of the “master gene” study because she posits: “If external genitalia were sufficient as a criterion by which to determine or assign sex, then the experimental research into the master gene would hardly be necessary at all”.[8]

Furthermore, Butler also states that our ideas of gender are culturally influenced.  As a result, there is no true understanding of man or woman.[9]  Feminist theory often strives to reclaim what it means to be a woman.  Butler addresses Julia Kristeva’s theory that claims maternity is how women subversively rediscover themselves and understand themselves in a patriarchal world.  Butler draws on Michel Foucault who maintains that Kristeva’s theory is a product of discourse.  Butler explains: “Insofar as Kristeva conceptualizes this maternal instinct as having an ontological status prior to the paternal law, she fails to consider the way in which the very law might well be the cause of the very desire it is said to repress”.[10]  In short, to Butler, patriarchy heavily bombards our assumptions of gender.

Another concept characterizes Butler’s views on Gender; she defines gender as performance, maintaining: “My argument is that there need not be a ‘doer behind the deed,’ but that the ‘doer’ is variably constructed in and through the deed”.[11]  Performance determines gender and not biology or imposed social guidelines.  Butler argues: “The subject is not determined by the rules through which it is generated because signification is not a founding act, but rather a regulated process of repetition that both conceals itself and enforces its rules precisely through the production of substantializing effects”.[12]  An individual’s repetitive performance ultimately impacts and determines their gender; regularly performing as a male, female, or both determines gender. Biology fails to determine gender and gender does not have to follow the assigned heteronormative roles of our hegemonic world.

Butler calls for the ignition of trouble!  She asserts we “should think through the possibility of subverting and displacing those naturalized and reified notions of gender that support masculine hegemony and heterosexist power, to make gender trouble”.[13]  She calls for the achievement of this goal through the “mobilization, subversive confusion, and proliferation of precisely those constitutive categories that seek to keep gender in its place”.[14]  The oppressive, phallogocentric categories of our world need to be taken to the curb with the rest of our garbage.  Though the task of deconstructing hegemonic gender norms appears impossible, Butler maintains its attainability. Through the process of the “repetitive signifying”, a “subversion of identity becomes possible” that can “contest the rigid codes of hierarchical binarisms”.[15]  Butler explains, “loss of gender norms would have the effect of proliferating gender configurations, destabilizing substantive identity, and depriving the naturalizing narratives of compulsory heterosexuality of their central protagonists: ‘man’ and ‘woman’”.[16]  Hegemonic gender roles are an overwhelming source of oppression; we have a duty to deconstruct them to eliminate gender troubles.  Deconstruction of heteronormative gender roles is an important task because these categories “seek to keep gender in its place by posturing as the foundational illusions of identity”.[17]  This deconstructive concept is poignant because people focus on fulfilling prescribed gender roles.  Hegemonic gender roles are fallacious, serving to impede growth and happiness as they limit human possibility.

It is baffling to think of how many people experience enforced limited potential or suffer mental health devastation as a consequence of contemporary gender illusions.  We are indoctrinated in our gender experiences and often hold on to them as truth.  A substantive portion of humanity may never question the gender norms that a phallogocentric world imposes on them.  Santa is not coming down your chimney, so light a fire under the mantle of your soul that burns consistently for the betterment of humankind through debunking the oppressive gender myths of the world.

Anonymous Student

[1]Author of Gender Trouble (1990); Bodies that Matter (1993); Undoing Gender (2004)

[2]Judith Butler. Gender Trouble (New York and London: Routledge, 2007), 2.

[3]Ibid., 3.

[4]Ibid., 7-8.

[5]Ibid., 8-10.

[6]Ibid., 145.

[7]Ibid., 147.

[8]Ibid.

[9]Ibid., 5-6.

[10]Ibid., 122.

[11]Ibid., 195.

[12]Ibid., 198.

[13]Ibid., 46.

[14]Ibid.

[15]Ibid., 198-199.

[16]Ibid., 200.

[17]Ibid., 46.

Bibliography

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York and London: Routledge, 2007.