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.