Synchroblog: The Queer God

is god gay?

Image by Paul G, CC license
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Trigger warning: Christian cissexism, transphobia, and misogyny.

Today is the queer theology synchroblog organized by Anarchist Reverend. You can find the roundup of posts at his site.

The prompt:

The theme is “The Queer God”. What does that phrase mean to you? How is your God queer? How does the queerness of God inspire, impact, etc.? If you want to you could also write about the queer Christ.

In a way, the process of pushing back on the image of God I grew up with has been one of learning to imagine a queer God. This is a broader notion of queerness than just sexuality:

[Another] meaning of “queer” is a self-conscious embrace of all that is transgressive of societal norms, particularly in the context of sexuality and gender identity. In fact, this term is best understood as a verb or an action. That is, to “queer” something is to engage with a methodology that challenges and disrupts the status quoseeing things in a different light and reclaiming voices and sources that previously had been ignored, silenced, or discarded.” – Patrick Cheng, Radical Love [emphasis mine. Thanks to Anarchist Rev for directing me to this quote.]

In rethinking complementarian theology, I’ve realized that it’s much more than a teaching about male authority over women. It’s a theology of human bodies, sexualities, and gender, based in a theology of God’s body, God’s gender, and how that’s expressed. Teachings about what “male” and “female” mean, and what roles are appropriate to each, come out of assumptions about what it means for God to be male. For me, the main impact of queering God is that it allows us to rethink how we understand ourselves and relate to each other in ways that are potentially liberating.

One example: The complementarian God is not simply “male.” He takes a “masculine” role in relation to individual Christians and the church as a whole, and is embodied in ways that conform to normative expectations of “male” bodies.

In other words, it’s really important to complementarians that Jesus had a penis.

Though you’ll never hear them admit it in so many words because then they’d a) have to talk about penises and b) have to talk about Jesus’s penis and (more importantly) what it means, which would be awkward.

Nevertheless, the idea that Jesus had a penis is crucial to establishing God’s identity as male, the reasoning being that God wouldn’t have incarnated in a “male” body unless God were male.

Truth be told, I never quite understood this, even when immersed in complementarianism. God is spirit; how can a spirit have a gender? And if it can, what does it mean for a spirit to be of “male” gender, and what does that mean for actual men? Does it mean that humans have male spirits and female spirits? Wouldn’t that mean that male spirits are more like God than female ones? (As it turns out, this is exactly what some complementarians believe.) I never found that idea compatible with Christian teaching that male and female are made equally in God’s image.

And of course, all of this is extrapolating from the fallacy that having a penis is same thing as being male, which it isn’t.

The notion that we are all made in a divine image still means a lot to me today. If there is a God – one who isn’t terrible, at least – I imagine it’s one who transcends gender, whose image exists fully and equally in people of all genders, and whose character reflects the full spectrum of gender identities and expressions. So for me, one meaning of a queer God is a deity who is “masculine” and “feminine,” and everything that’s both, neither, or in-between (and indeed, there are a number of scriptural passages that describe God in feminine terms).

A queer God also challenges our notions of what masculinity and femininity can include. In complementarianism, God’s maleness is linked to power – having power, and exercising it in a hierarchical and authoritarian fashion over others. This is mirrored in what complementarians think male leadership in marriage and the church should look like. And leaders like Mark Driscoll have pushed an image of God – and of Jesus in particular – that fits with this image of masculine authority. They worship a Jesus who knocks heads, a tattooed prizefighter, a Jesus without the long hair and soft features of so many contemporary images – a Jesus, in short, who isn’t a “sissy.”

But Jesus main acts in the Gospels involved laying aside his power, not lording it over others. A God of spirit incarnates in mortal, vulnerable flesh. A God who chooses to forgive as he is wounded and tortured. A God who is both a gentle lamb and a loving shepherd.

I don’t mean to romanticize the Gospels’ depiction of Jesus. There are real problems, e.g., with the idea of Jesus as self-sacrificial to the point of death, especially when people who are being harmed or abused are taught to identify too closely with that image. Still, it’s an image that doesn’t line up with the claims complementarians make about essential masculinity – nor with general assumptions about masculinity that complementarianism is just an extreme example of. Vulnerability, nurturing, sacrifice, all characteristics we associate with femininity, are also attributes of the biblical Jesus.

And of course the heteronormative image of Christ as the Bridegroom and the Church as his spotless (read: virgin) Bride can also be queered, as can the idea of Christ as lover of the individual Christian’s soul. There’s historical precedent for some measure of gender fluidity in how Christians have thought about Christ and the relationship between Christ and the believer. Puritan men, for example, imagined Christ as a spiritual Bridegroom who ravished their souls in rather explicit fashion. Puritans also held that both men and women should allow themselves to be “penetrated and fertilized” by Christ, and should “lead a life of heavenly ejaculations.” [See Richard Godbeer, Sexual Revolution in Early America, Ch. 2.]

These metaphors about God apply to how Christians think about interpersonal relationships as well as their relationship with God. When I can imagine a God who looks just as much like me as anyone else, I can imagine a marriage or relationships where one partner isn’t more “godlike” than the other. When I can imagine a God who can relate to me or to the Church as masculine, feminine, and everything else, I can imagine a range of gender expressions for myself and others, ones that aren’t based in externally imposed gender roles. A queer God potentially offers a model of relationship and communion that’s based in mutuality and equality, not hierarchy and authorianism.

Being able to imagine and even worship a queer God can free us to better love each other as full reflections of the image of God. Complementarianism and other Christian traditions have made a God in the image of white, cis, straight, privileged men. That is the God they imagine and worship, and the harm they’ve done to people who don’t fall into this narrow demographic is directly tied to this notion that whiteness, straightness, cisness, etc. are more godlike than other identities. One example of the implications of this:

Intersex persons challenge a binary construction of gender, which has dominated Christian theology for centuries. The acceptance of a non-pathological understanding of the intersexed necessitates the re-examination of some of the Christian images and teachings, such as the church as a feminine bride to a masculine god, the maleness of Christ, body and perfection, and marriage based on complementarities of the male and the female sexes. (Kwok Pui Lan, Intersex and Transgender Theology)

A queer God can mean a church that no longer talks about “including” queer, trans, and/or intersex people, as though the church belongs to people who are straight, cis, dyadic (not intersex), theirs to welcome people into. If God can be queer, or trans, intersex – then queer, trans, intersex people can be godlike.