Recent years have brought a resurgence of interest or, in the very least, a new visibility of religion and its continued importance for understanding our present social reality and global political order. It has cast significant doubts on the predictive accuracy of the secularization thesis, but also reintroduces foundational questions about the modern political imaginary, especially given the political – and at times quite violent – forms that religion has taken in these post-secular times. And yet, where some see danger, others find opportunity, and so many have welcomed the return of political theology to critical theory, social philosophy, and indeed, even in religious studies.
The so-called ‘return of political theology’ presents both challenges and opportunities for Latin American liberation theology. In some ways, it outlines once again the strong contrasts between Liberation theology and other forms of thought, highlighting the fact that Liberation theology is not merely a theology of context and social location, but as Gustavo Gutierrez has said, it is “a new way of doing theology” that reimagines what theology is and who theologians are. And yet, the relationship between liberation theology and political theology is complicated, in large part, by the present cacophony surrounding political theology, especially in terms of what is meant by it and whether it is a welcome mark for the liberative theological project. The re-emergence of political theology, while it intersects in very interesting ways with themes and trajectories in Latin American liberation theologies, has primarily been a discourse in the European left – a development that Creston Davis has called the “Continental shift.” This Eurocentricity presents a problem for Latin American liberation theologies that are eager to escape the colonial clutches of the continent, that are looking for ways to recapture their indigenous vitality.
Yet, the term “political theology” is deeply contested, and insofar as its theoretical and historical roots seem grounded mostly in a post-war European context, it may be fair for liberation theologies to disparage the label, preferring either localist or contextualist understandings for its work. In this, they see much closer resemblances and common cause with postcolonial and indigenous methodologies than with the Western Marxist background that political theology shares with the contemporary European Left. This is increasingly the case with the second generation of Liberation theologians, who unlike their clerical male forerunners, who resonate less with the events and documents of the Second Vatican Council, and more with postmodern and postcolonial theory. And yet, the return of political theology is also shaped, if not followed by, the rebirth of Marxism and the rising interest in Marx’s writings themselves. The apparent correlation between these trajectories – “political theology” and the “rehabilitation of Marx and Marxisms” –may not sit well with a generation of liberation theologians who have taken their theoretical cues from elsewhere. The relationship between Marxism and Liberation theology has been a sore spot of controversy for many years, stemming at least in part by the accusations set forth in the Vatican “Instructions” from 1984 and 1986 from the then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Defense of the Faith (CDF).
There is a history here that is important to understand. U.S. and European theologians in the decades after the Second World War found themselves engaged in a number of important theological and political dialogues with Marx’s writing and Marxism/s themselves, a consequence of the relative success of left-wing politics in the Caribbean, and South and Central America. Latin American liberation theology was often recommended as a ready candidate for the rapprochement that integrated Marxist social analysis and theory into theological and spiritual concerns, illustrating the apparent compatibility – or in the very least the lack of antagonism – between Marx/Marxism and the liberative concerns of Christian theology.
By this reading, Latin American Liberation theology, in turning to Marx’s critique of capitalism, attempted to develop a theopolitical position of social criticism by holding a critical distance between theology’s liberative roots in its biblical faith and its complicity with oppressive and exploitative economic and political systems. In so doing, it positioned Christianity in a critical relation to material conditions, so that its ideas were governed by liberating praxis, rather than classical wisdom or orthodox knowledges. This was recognizably Marxist in that Latin American liberation theologians mostly followed Marx’s critique of capitalism based on theories of class struggle and surplus value, but it did not accept Marx’s critique of ideology as applied to religion. As a result of this resistance to Marx’s critique of religion, Liberation theology has struggled to integrate and constructively use the critique of ideology in their theologies in a sustained and material way. Instead, liberation theologies have responded to the Marxist critique of religion by admitting to the complicity of religion with the dominant social order, and so reconstruct theologies that offer alternatives forms of belief and practice.
The responses to this challenge were often broad-based attempts to reform and reinterpret theology according to broadly Marxian standards, whether it meant critiquing Christianity’s alignment with capitalism, acknowledging the centrality of class struggle for Christian politics ethics, or implementing various versions of materialism (most of which rarely were truly Marxist forms). It acknowledged that if theology were to respond to Marx’s critique of ideology, it would have to do so by securing its “oppositional status” in relation to its determining pressures and material locations, rather than mooring itself as a “countering” discourse that seeks to intervene into social reality as a ready alternative.
The reception of Marx and Marxism into Latin American liberation theology was complicated by the populist interest in the pathos and rhetoric of class struggle and revolutionary praxis that animated left-wing revolutionary movements in Central and South America in the 1960s-1990s, as by the convergence of Catholic liberationist theology and leftist political work and activism, the brothers Cardinal and Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann from Nicaragua, for example, but also Colombian theologian Camilo Torres Restrepo, Ecuadorian bishop Leonad Proano, Brazilian Frei Betto, Chilean Eugenio Pizarro, and late Haitan Gerard Jean-Juste.
The activism and praxis of liberation theologians seems to side rather frequently with the left coordinates of Marxist political aims, while the theological and theoretical articulations of the same repeatedly indicate a rather uneven and irregular pattern of attestation and distanciation. In particular, this uneasy dialectic finds an odd – rather I should say, queer – equilibrium in the work of Argentin Marcella Althaus Reid, who brings a queer messianic Marxism to bear on a critique of liberation theology that she terms “Indecent Theology.” Her aim is to bring out its inherent sexuality and in so doing, capitalize on the radical politics immanent to liberation theology but lost behind the hegemonic barriers set up by a male and heterosexual ecclesial class. That is, she uses queer messianic reading of Marx (along with postmodern and postcolonial theory) to set liberation theology against itself for its own sake. Althaus-Reid distances herself at key points from the Latin American liberationist tradition, critical of luminaries such as the Boff brothers and Gustavo Gutierrez. Yet, while many point to her insistence on a particular kind of sexual reading of theology – what she calls the indecency of God-talk – this article hopes to point to how her work is saturated by a queer messianic perspective that cannot but be seen as the mark of Marxism in her work. Thus, Marcella Althaus-Reid has a lot to tell us, then, about the theological legacy that resides still within the critique of religion by the Marxist left.
In what follows, I link Althaus-Reid’s queer hermeneutics to her theological method, showing how – and why – she gets to a queer messianic politics through a Ricoeurian detour that is as Christological as it is Marxist. This, I believe, helps position Latin American liberation theology, not only as a political theology, but one that can welcome the rebirth of Marx, not as it appears in the contemporary European left, but as the messianic loca of queer theological truth.
A Queer Theological Primer
Marcella Althaus-Reid is increasingly recognized as paradigmatic for the latest generation of contextual theologies that bring queer, postcolonial, and postmodern theory into conversation with Marxist liberation theologies. Her theology, designed as an ideologico-critical strategy, is queer, not only due to its interest in sexuality, but also because of her presuppositional conviction that feminist and liberation theology must actively take up the issues and questions of poverty and sexuality, not as add-ons to gender analysis, class interests, and the interrogation of race, but as central components of its search for God in/as queer life. Althaus-Reid contends that the central weakness of Liberation and Feminist theology is that they do not depart far enough from the orthodox consensus of the Christian tradition. They exist as primarily reformist movements that try to reconstruct the tradition, its language, and symbolic systems through its idolatry critique rather than the more radical dismantling called for by the queer critique of ideology. In doing so, they are actively “repeating the Law of the Father in their theological reflection, even if using political or postcolonial or even gender analysis, by not disarticulating the relation between the construction of sexuality and systematic theology in depth.” This “disarticulation” is the job of queer theology, which acts as an immanent critique of ideology that is political while also being self-reflexively theological. Althaus-Reid is of interest here because she introduces queer theory as a critical model that takes the negativity of immanent critique seriously, even if this might mean that theology must put some distance between itself and normative claims that are aimed at promoting specific plans or programs for social change.
She approaches theology with a Marxist class-consciousness and a Foucaultian concern with knowledge as power, but is mostly concerned using invisible histories and narratives of queer folks as a critical hermeneutics. Althaus-Reid is eager to dismantle the social, ecclesial, and political hegemonies that are installed and justified by theological means and enforced by theological boundaries. We must go beyond a theology for social transformation and enact the disarticulation of the sexual ideology prevalent in the history of Christian theology, a task that calls for a queering of theological truth, that highlights indecency, perversion, and deviance at the heart of a libertine theological rationality. This queer theo-logic rebels against the regulative strictures of heteronormativity and dissents from the classical formulations for the sake of the Other, claiming to bring good news to the marginalized: the queer, the displaced, the colonialized, the poor. Althaus-Reid names “the Other side” as divine, as a political hierophant that appears and enacts itself in a resistant, insurrectionary, and so, non-ideological form:
The Other side is in reality a pervasive space made up of innumerable Queer religious and political diasporas, and a space to be considered when doing contextual Queer Theology. The Good News is that at that edge, still talking about the thousands of symbolic Nicaraguans present in every anti-capitalist demonstration, or the voices of people who stand up to claim the right to live in an alternative economic and spiritual system to the totalitarian globalization which has pervaded our lives, there is God…the God who has come out, tired perhaps of being pushed to the edge by hegemonic sexual systems in theology, has made God’s sanctuary on the Other side.
Althaus-Reid finds both liberation and feminist theologies to be inadequately severe and insidiously self-aggrandizing, allowing theology to remain complicit while championing its already privileged position as the object of the ‘preferential option’. Surely, Liberation theology should not be abandoned, for it was among the first to teach theology the political virtues of self-reflexive negativity:
Liberation theology has helped us unmask political interests masquerading as “God’s will” in theology. This is called ‘ideological suspicion’ in theology. To this political suspicion, we are adding now a combination of suspicions in the making of theology: political, economical, racial, colonial, and also sexual.
This characterization of critique as ‘suspicion’ comes from Marcella Althaus-Reid’s tutelage under Paul Ricoeur, for whom the ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ affords Althaus-Reid the background upon which to build her case for queering theology as a form of ideology critique. Althaus-Reid argues that the primary ideology facing theology today is its sexual ideology, not only patriarchy but also heterosexuality.[Q]ueering the Scriptures will always be a project related to re-reading the patriarchs, for patriarchy is not a transcendental presence but has agents responsible for its order. To deconstruct the patriarchs means to deconstruct their law, for justice requires the vigilant revision (new visions) of the ideological construction of the divine and the social…. In this way deconstructing the patriarchs becomes part of what we can call a non-essential project of the hermeneutical circle of suspicion.
To counter the economic and political effects of this patriarchy, she calls upon libertine paths discerned within the margins of churchly traditions of the sexually dissident. She calls this ‘Indecent theology’, and its primary goal is to instigate immanent processes of sexual ideological disruption within theology, or a ‘theological queering.’ This project requires a certain critical “style”, one that “outs” the theologian from positions and postures of power and legitimacy, and so guides them and the church to the tender, though impolite, demands of the periphery. The aim of this refusal of ecclesial authority and traditional legitimacy is not to re-establish the marginal at the center, but questions the idea of a normative center of theology at all. The problem with normativity is its idolatrous claims: it is “the praxis of specific heterosexual understandings elevated to a sacred level.” This idolatry cannot be remedied by simply incorporating under-privileged perspectives or marginalized sources into the normal flow of theological talk and acts. She likens this strategy (associated most closely with first-generation Liberation and second-wave feminist theologies) to the development strategy of capitalism. To underscore the Marxist mood of her point, Althaus-Reid turns to a queer hermeneutics that equal parts materialist and messianic:
To try to espouse development according to the logic of capital expansion creates the same confusion and contradictions as when theology tries to ‘incorporate’ a gender (not even sexual) balance in its discourse. What is urgently required is not the improvement of a current theology through some agenda such as gender and sexual equality, but a theology with a serious Queer materialist revision of its methods and doctrines…The aim of theological and economic reflection should not be a new system of distribution, but a different system of production…This includes also consideration of the cost that such a theology must pay for the radical vision of its production.
Althaus-Reid’s understands ideology critique to be a form of queer thought. Queer thought subverts, “‘unshapes”, disrupts, and unveils Christianity’s sexual ideology, the way that theology supports and reflects the sacralization of heterosexual relations, which is then mapped and redistributed as a whole political project. For this to work, queer hermeneutics issue “the challenge of a theology where sexuality and loving relationships are not only important theological issues but experiences which un-shape Totalitarian Theology (T-Theology) while re-shaping the theologians.” “T-Theology” is her shorthand for “theology as ideology, that is, a totalitarian construction of what is considered as ‘The One and Only Theology’ which does not admit discussion or challenges from different perspectives, especially in the area of sexual identity and its close relationship with political and racial issues.” Theological queering displaces “T-Theology” from its tropic, corporate sites of economic exchange (the university, the church, academic marketplace, heavily policed peer-reviewed journals, et cetera) to the more vulgar, dirty, and non-civilized places of public, sexual life: bedrooms, bars, and alleyways. Such a dislocation shows that the God of “T-Theology” is “the non-relational God which does not survive well outside its ideological sites…Impurity may work here as an unveiling of sexual ideology in the construction of God.”
In order to break through into the policed boundaries of T-Theological discourse, it requires a sort of guerrillera strategy, one that she terms the “libertine hermeneutical circle”, whereby she interprets the queer meaning of theological symbols, not by “adding queers and stir”, but rather by practicing intertextual readings that bring queer texts, narratives, spaces, and histories to the theological foreground for the sake of dialogical displacement, to transport readers to perverse spaces of love, freedom, and hope: dungeons, bedrooms, and other sexually unusual locations.
The point is not to merely revel in the sexual fun of it all, to fetishize experimentation, play, and transgression, but instead to unravel the edges of a Christian god who “comes out” from underneath the shadowy restrictions of the heterosexual parental imagery, and shows itself to be not only queer, but also libertine. In this way, the intertextual strategy of queering hermeneutics through dialogical displacement moves theology into diasporic and exilic spaces, those marginal theological locales where “the libertine is amongst us and is buried in us. The theological subjects cross all the sexual constraints of ideal heterosexuality.” Althaus-Reid invites theological subjects to do what they are already doing: doing theology with rosaries in one hand and a condom in the other, telling the stories and biographies of sexual migrants, whose “walking” brings them to the very borders of love, pleasure, and struggle. For her, this is Christologically justified. The messianic power of Christ is found in the displaced character, not only of a body broken by empire and state violence, but also of the post-resurrection Spirit who mixes with the air and soil to give life to lost histories and marginalized desires.
Althaus-Reid believes the criticality of theology against itself requires a certain indecent style, both formally and otherwise: “that is the scandalous position of what I have previously called Indecent Theology: a theology of liberation which, while exceeding the ideas of colonial liberation, surpasses the discourse of the correct God while searching for a more equivocal theological reflection.” She disparages a shift in contemporary theology that celebrates the emancipatory impulse and contextual particularity of liberation theology, but shows more interest in establishing differing norms than in the negativity of critique, a position incompatible with the queer ways of knowing she privileges. The goal of Indecent Theology is not constructive, but critical:
after all, even the God at the margins of many radical theologies has become only a lateral shadow or God-mirror. But the aim of the corruption of the ideology of normativity by sexual contamination, which informs our Queer theological path, is to move objects and subjects of theology around, turning points of reference and re-positioning bodies of knowledge and revelation in sometimes unsuitable ways…. The point is that we cannot think a Queer God without understanding different sexual ways of knowing.
Indecent theology is a critical theology, whose political mode is informed by fugitivity and peripherality, rather than re-centering or acting. Critique is an interpretative activity, not a directly actionist one. To queer theology is not to propose new theological forms that replace the dominant ones presently at hand, but to question whether or not ‘correct’, ‘normative’, or ‘centered’ are properly theological qualities. We must resist the temptation to replace or supplant the heteronormative ideology by instituting the queer as a norming, centering, legitimating discursive regime, which only reinscribes the theo-logic of the normal. We do not want to center or norm the queer, says Althaus-Reid. The only way we get to a truly indecent Christology is if we take up the displacement of marginality, in the “not-normal”. To be centered, to be legitimate, is to accept the central authority of heterosexual patriarchies: this marks the difference between a feminist strategy and a postcolonial one. Althaus-Reid seeks a theology of that which is truly marginal, that eschews authority, legitimacy, centeredness, and refuses to be co-opted by central discourses of theological power; “Normality… disenfranchises the real-life experience of people by forcing them to adapt to an idealized discourse… theology becomes a distorted praxis, which far from liberating, itself enslaves even more.”
But is the political refusal to be centered – to be normed – all that assures us that queer theological thinking is exempt from being ideological, in Althaus-Reid’s view? What is inherently non-ideological about the concepts of hybridity, diaspora, or the fetish? What is critical about the queer tactics of disruption, hyphenation, or the use of autobiographical narratives? What methodological provisions are put into place that restrict Althaus-Reid’s critical categories from simply replacing or substituting themselves as ideologies within a queer theology of God, of humanity, and of sexuality?
Queering hermeneutics by outing theology as politics
To answer this question is to take a step back into Althaus-Reid’s queer hermeneutics. My hope is that this will foreground the queer Marxist messianic power that politicizes Indecent Theology in its distinctly negative way. We begin by first linking Althaus-Reid’s theological perspective to her interpretation theory. It is interesting to note that she wrote her dissertation on Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics and its influence on the methodology of Latin American liberation theology. Her theology is a queer one, not only due to its interest in sexuality, but because of her presuppositional conviction that Feminist Liberation Theology must actively take up the issues and questions of poverty and sexuality, not as add-ons to gender analysis, class interests, and the interrogation of race. This project requires a certain ‘style’, one that “outs” the theologian from positions and postures of power and legitimacy, and to the tender though impolite demands of the periphery: the transgression of ecclesial authority and traditional legitimacy, not for the sake of re-establishing the marginal at the center but betraying the idea of a normative center of hermeneutics at all. To queer hermeneutics is to recognize that the Latin American community of poor women are divine tout court; it is to name the suffering woman as the arbitrator, the communitarian agent whose ‘permutative’ readings disrupt Theology, ‘cross-dressing’ it, so that it (Theology) can pass as politics.
What is unique about Althaus-Reid’s theological perspective is that she is actively trying to “out” theology as ethics through a reimagining of the hermeneutical circle as a critical theory. This allows theology to actively transgress the borders of hermeneutics and ethics in ways that queer the normativity of ethics, but also performativity as coital acts of love that belongs not in churches, but in marginal sexual spaces (e.g., gay bars, sex dungeons, trans-orgies, and gloryholes). We should blush and stammer when acting theologically because theology is always a public sex act. Sexuality is constitutive of all attempts to give rise to the interpretive expression of the sacred. Theology is only truly god-talk when it is indecent, impolite, and dissident, when it exposes itself as a subversive “guessing game” far more exploratory and experimental than it is revelatory and authoritative. When the religious authorities – the ecclesial dictators who police the discursive regime of theological knowledge and speech – seek to censor, silence, or put theology on a “seven-second delay”, it testifies to theology as its most liberative moment – the moment of its horrifying indecency, when it has become most dangerous, when it most able to speak for and give voice to the dead and gone, the long-forgotten, those who are not merely marginalized (at least the marginalized are represented by social order as marginalized), but the invisible, those whose bodies do not register as human. When theology exceeds that borders of decency, as deemed appropriate by the ethereal powers that govern our speech acts, when it is transgressive, perverse, libertine, this is when theology is most theological: when it crossed over past the sexual ideologies into a contextual location when we can hear the queer voice of God again from queer locales and within disruptive assemblages. It is here that theology “outs” itself as politics but it needs queer hermeneutics to do it, and this hermeneutic comes to Althaus-Reid through the queering of a Marxist messianic power. This dynamic gives Indecent Theology its queer aesthetic and epistemology, but also its political character. It is what makes Liberation theology truly a political theology in ways quite different from the Eurocentric disciplinary forms within academia.
Central to Althaus-Reid’s “indecent” theology is a queering of hermeneutics into politics, as so to surface the messianic power that lies within the queer theological subject. As such, the hermeneutical circle, most visible in her collection of essays, From Feminist Theology to Indecent Theology, is important, most notably for the kind of theological and political readings that a queer interpretative theory affords us.
The Hermeneutical Circle in From Feminist Theology to Indecent Theology
For the purposes of this article, I want to reconstruct Althaus-Reid’s “queering” of the hermeneutic circle into a certain kind of queer Marxist Christology that functions both as an ideology critique and a politics, a move that I understand as thoroughly messianic, but in a queer way. This, I hope, illustrates what it means to think of Liberation theology as a political theology shaped by a Marxist ideology critique.
First, a few words about the structure of From Feminist Theology to Indecent Theology: Althaus-Reid first introduces the question of the “sexuality” of Liberation Theology (Part 1), which results eventually in a “sexual queering” of hermeneutics (Part 2). This materialist analysis asks whether or not Liberation theology’s reticence about its colonial memory had allowed it to become commodified and so further distanced from the real political lives and struggles of poor women, whose memories of militant resistance can provide subversive strategies to resist the essentialist allure of the exotic, the native, and the indigenous. (Part 3) This refusal to homogenize is what brings Indecent theology and Queer theology into a political alliance. When theology is marginal, when it is incubated in communities, spaces, and languages that are indeterminate and promiscuous, its produces relations of solidarity and affectivity that happen “off the radar” of franchisement, institutionalization, and “official” endorsement: the strategic regimes of tenure and legitimacy.
Here we see Althaus-Reid developing key elements of her queering of the hermeneutical circle. She starts in chapter 1 by laying out the dialogical method of seeing theology as a form of “walking with” with the memories of the past struggles of suffering Latin American women (told in mythological texts). “Walking with” (doing the “caminata”) highlights the importance of the dialogical style of doing theology for a coherent, liberative praxis in the act of theology, and so extends the idea of a “hermeneutics of suspicion” to a genealogical Christology that seems quite Foucaultian. It establishes a different hermeneutical circle for a theological ethics, one that is required if one is to do Christology from the indecent perspective of a queer and dissident sexuality. Linking theology to sexuality is a hermeneutical journey where subjects and identities live and struggle at borderlands and interstitial spaces, where the method by which we read texts and understand their meaning is taken up as the political task of solidarity with and advocacy for those histories and memories of both the sacredness of women and the economic independence, both of which are direct causalities of colonial conquest and heterosexual domination. To read through “the mirror of Otherness” is to welcome both subversion and vulnerability; it is to allow the history of women’s suffering to function as a hermeneutical clue for how we understand our theology, a Christology that considers the natality of Jesus to be a communitarian process of becoming the messiah, occasioned by the Herodic project of conquista and mutilation: the murder of the innocents that (theologically) repeats itself in the history of “woman serpents”, who too have been abducted, beaten, and sliced apart by the Herodic forces of colonial Christendom who were threatened by the queer messianic forces alive and well in women’s ministry.
This hermeneutical process is exemplified in a progressive chain of critical theologies that use “the feminist body” as an actively political space which produces queer and indecent re-readings of Christology: these dialogical interpretations understand the past and present experiences of poor and suffering woman to be modes of theological production that disclose, not only to the primordial link between god-talk and sexuality, but in turn emphasize a messianic “Christ” that is always more than the biblical or “historical” Jesus, for it always engendered, indeed, birthed from, the community of women whose prophetic denunciations of patriarchy and heterosexualism engender an interpretative “resymbolization” that reopens the closed order of theological discourse. The indecenting of this Theology plays on the regulations of decency in order to naturalize and sacralize a political economy of sexuality, only thinly disguised as Theology. In this way, Althaus-Reid mobilizes hermeneutics as ideology-critique, using sexual practices, transgressive or taboo sexual acts, unusual locales of sexual activity, dissident sexual positionings, deviant partnerings, fantasies and fetishes of women, all as theological acts, acts that disclose theological truth, for the community of women whose dialogue includes indecent stories about their bodies, the Eucharistic nature of their sexual acts, and god’s presence in and for them. Indecent hermeneutics is practiced from within those deviant historical, religious, and cultural spaces where the experiences, reflections, and bodily acts of the Latin American poor and sexually dissident (critically) identify heterosexuality as an ideology and (constructively) reclaim deviant ways of knowing and loving.
The queer turn to Sexuality as the hermeneutic for reinterpreting theology acts as an ideology critique of the enduring patriarchy and heterosexuality of liberation theology, blunting the effectiveness of the liberationist’s class analysis and materialist critique of exploitation and oppression. A sexualized rethinking of the hermeneutical circle critiques the discursive regime of heterosexuality “as a way of thinking”, opening theology to the Queer as a different aesthetic and epistemology, a different way of thinking sexually that goes to sexual dissidents in order to expose heteronormativity as a culturally and politically produced evil that trades in idealizations which keep theology removed from “sexual critical reality.”
Hermeneutics as Radical Conscientization: Queering Riceour through Marx
Paul Ricoeur is all about distinctions and detours. Reading Ricoeur drives me mad: I drink way too much when reading him, and as I weave through the pages, I find myself wondering when we will get “back” to “the point.” My battered copies of his texts are full of arrows and lines, trying desperately to tie me, the reader, back to the “central argument.” The irregular way that Ricoeur’s dialectic takes the reader along, the way it slides out of view, marks the spatial confluence between poststructuralist and queer readings, particularly their respective ways of queering hermeneutics into politics; that is, reading Ricoeur and finding Marx. In what follows, I try to trace two Ricoeurian distinctions that I think are important if we are to understand Althaus-Reid’s queering of hermeneutics into politics: (a) the distinction between critique of ideology and hermeneutics of tradition, and (b) the distinction between subjectivism and structuralist approaches to textual readings.
First, Althaus-Reid understands the task of hermeneutics to be not only the understanding of a text, but also the critique of ideologies acting within the worlds that it produces and operates within, as well as the interpreters and actions involved in its reading. Ricoeur’s intervention in the Gadamer-Habermas debate was guided by his commitment that the critique of ideology and the hermeneutics of tradition are interdependent, while Gadamer and Habermas played each other through the opposition between understanding and explanation. Gadamer’s view was that the function of tradition as an ontology — our pre-understandings, prejudices, effective historical consciousness — limits possible meanings. Habermas, aspiring to the final ideal of human emancipation, as all good critical theorists do, claimed that such constraints can be ultimately overcome. As such, distanciation, or the adoption of a stance of critical self-understanding that requires the interpreter to “distance” herself from the text, is akin to ideology critique, but cannot be separated from tradition. Ricoeur sought a method to uncover the ontological structures of meaning and to produce an interpretation of the “type of being-in-the-world unfolded in front of the text” rather than which is behind the text, hidden psychological intentions, for example.
Second, Althaus-Reid’s stated commitment to “reader-response” criticism is supported in part by the post-structualism of Ricoeur’s interpretation theory. Ricoeur makes a distinction between subjective and structuralist approaches to reading in relation to what he sees as the referential function of a text, which relates to both its meaning and significance. The subjectivist approach constructs “the world behind the text” while also presupposing the “pre-understanding” of the interpreter, which can never be fully transcended. Alternatively, the structuralist approach adjourns referring to “the world behind the text” and focuses instead on identifying and classifying the parts within the text and their interconnections. Two points can be identified here: first, there is the naïve surface meaning of the text, referring most specifically to the narrative of the myth, for example. But, secondly, what understanding needs is a depth semantics, a critical reading that finds the sense of the text as it is disclosed in the front of the text: “what has to be understood is not the initial situation of discourse, but what points towards a possible world…Understanding has less than ever to do with the author and his situation. It seeks to grasp the world-propositions opened up by the reference of the text.” This is what the text (in the wide sense) is “about” as a non-ostensive reference which passes beyond the author’s intentions. For understanding to be achieved requires an affinity between the reader and this “aboutness”. As Ricoeur concludes, understanding is entirely mediated by the whole of “the explanatory procedures” which precede it and accompany it, by which Althaus-Reid means the queer and indecent permutations produced by acts of love, devotion, and sexuality understood as conscientization practices:
What we have said about the depth semantics that structural analysis yields rather invites us to think of the sense of the text as an injunction coming from the text, as a new way of looking at things, as an injunction to think in a certain manner.
How does she adapt Ricoeur’s hermeneutical circle in queer and postcolonial perspective? To think queer-ly is to think along postcolonial lines; the postcolonial critique is a queer one. Queer thought is always sexual, but not in an essentialist way that bifurcates “sexuality” from other forms of life, speech, and action. Sex as a speech act is the same kind as theology. So queer is always about sexuality but also introduces a frame and field of reference of thought transgresses the heteronormative frame of reference to which it is confined by the sexual ideologies of patriarchal gender ordering. Yet, this transgression precedes the subject; it happens without the subject becoming aware of it, and so it is here that Althaus-Reid queer hermeneutics into “conscientization”, or as I said before, reads Ricoeur and finds Marx.
Like Ricoeur, Althaus-Reid identifies the basic tensions and conflict in Liberation Theology and seeks to accomplish their resolutions in an interpretative synthesis, with the help of postcolonial and queer forms of thinking and acting. The tensions and conflicts in the task of indecent theological hermeneutics do not come so much from the dialectic between explanation and understanding, but rather between epistemologies and sexualities. Queer epistemologies recognize how the structures and meanings placed on human bodies keep the human from being sexual and restrict sexual thoughts from taking hold in human ways. In Rancièrian terms, sexuality is that part of the human that has no part; it is defined by its non-being, by its not-being-recognized. Althaus-Reid, then, theorizes Indecent hermeneutics as a Marxist pedagogy, or what Paulo Freire called “conscientization”, that teaches political subjects to see themselves again as political subjects. Hermeneutics is performed as an act of conscientization, whereby in attending to particular locales, practices, stories, and communities, it produces “the generative themes” necessary for the repositioning and repartnering of queer and indecent theologies of, for and by sexual deviants and economic dissidents.
If hermeneutics is a practice of conscientization, a kind of pedagogy from which we will lean to think in a certain manner, Althaus-Reid identifies two kinds of (theological) interpretations that come about as a result: ones that (a) legitimize the structures of power, and ones that (b) question the interpretation and the power itself. Ricoeur calls the latter “a reading of rupture”, which actualizes the positive role of the imagination of a community, in an ongoing process of interpretation of their own faith and everyday reality. For Althaus-Reid’s interpretation theory, the text we interpret is always already interpreting us. This is a process of self-understanding: understanding a text requires a reading that interprets a text and allows us to be interpreted by the text. This hermeneutical materialism becomes the methodological scaffolding for her queering of theology into politics.
Central to her conscientizing hermeneutics is the generative function of the Basic Ecclesial Communities of poor Latin American women and marginalized sexual dissidents, whose dialogues about their sexualities as expressed in their theological practices are properly Marian in their fecundity: they give birth to the messianic Christ. She incarnates Ricoeur’s ‘hermeneutic of attestation’ (she takes up attestation as a historized bodily act, a sexual performance of deviance) because if truth is to be found in hermeneutics, it will be an apocalyptic truth about history, a rupture that comes from historical voices, from the past memories and histories of those original and indigenous women from the “rings of hell” who have struggled and suffered the most from the theological hands of colonializing, occupying, mutilating forces within the church. She seeks a hermeneutics that will produce a Christology that will redeem the “memory of past sufferers” one that will allow their prophetic testimony to be heard, and for their critical histories to be accounted for in the communitarian dialogue within rejunte. The politics of Indecent theology activate the liberative praxis that is celebrated by Liberation theologians, but turns it against them repeatedly, reminding all those who have ears to hear: “Redemptive practices are those which let the memories of bodies that have been loved outside the limits of heterosexual ideologies to become sacred.”
And it is here that her hermeneutics – or rather, shall we say, her critical hermeneutics a la Ricoeur strikes yet another queer tone (which is also a Marxist note), and follows yet another detour, this time toward a kind of messianism that has found its way into the heart of political theology itself. I am presenting the “messianic” here as a site of rapprochement whereby liberation theology can see itself as its own form of political theology, and so can perhaps lead to an embrace of its own Marxist identity as a queer messianism.
Althaus-Reid understands messianic power to reside, not in the Great Figure, the Transcendental Signifier, or the Church, much less in theory or Theology, but rather in those queer and unsightly locales where God is nowhere to be found: the God-forsaken peoples, places, and histories. Althaus-Reid gives theological option to the “extremely marginalized subject, almost a ‘dammed’ subject. Such is the privileging of the S/M practitioner, the poor transvestite, the de Sade reader, or the promiscuous ‘out of the closet’ heterosexual subject.”
When discussing the legacy of Marxism within liberation theology, Kristien Justaert echoes Althaus-Reid’s extension of “the preferential option for the marginalized” from praxis to revelation,
“it is in the ‘face’ of the oppressed that God can be found, and from the perspective of the ‘poor’ (in a broad sense) that resistance must grow. The Marxist interpretation of economic and social relations in the reality in which we live is then used as a means to reach the final objective of liberation theology: the liberation of the poor and thereby, the installation of God’s Kingdom on earth.”
I agree fully with Justaert, and yet she is not entirely right in the sense that I think that Althaus-Reid follows Jacques Derrida’s reading of Marx and Marxism as having a spectral account of justice’s relation to social reality, which incidentally draws it close to Christianity, perhaps closer than is comfortable for either. The “messianic” for Derrida is best represented by “the spirit of Marxism,” the incessant “calling”, the announcement of the deferred, but always imminent, advent of justice. The power of the messianic is not in its being realized in history, in its concrete installation as policy or procedure, but rather its pure, undeconstructable, ineffable presence as absence. In short, the messianic spirit of Marx and Marxism is queer. The ability of the “messianic” to help subjects imagine a world, to make and re-make the world (what Daniel Barber has recently called the “theological task of immanence”), is excessive in its unwillingness to come to form; its transgressive refusal to institute itself with content’s heavy letters. The “messianic” character of justice, then comes, from its negativity, its failure to enunciate itself; its anarchic power comes from its weakness, its infinite promise from its not-yet-determined horizons, from the fact that it remains unplugged from the socio-symbolic order, that it lacks intelligibility within political coordinates of the present.
This rings true with the queer experience of not belonging, not fitting, not conforming within binary systems, dyads, coordinates, or symbolic continuums. The fact that so many queer bodies, voices, and histories are unspoken, absent (but always present, too), negated by sexual narratives of normativity, is what enables the queer theological subject to know the most about what must be done to bring justice into the world or to discover God again. Christianity’s queer messianic power is its political core – and is that which positions it in a mutual relation of founding and perseveration with Marxism: Marxism expresses the political core of Indecent theology in materialist terms, and it is Christianity, in these post-secular times, that keeps the coming promise of Marxism’s messianic power infinitely open.
Ultimately, the critical-political goal of Althaus-Reid’s theological hermeneutics is negative: to wake Theology up from its amnesia, its forgetfulness about the political acts of the theological symbols of Christianity that ignore the sexual dissidents whose love and freedom have been actively undermined by the ideological fences of the totalizing heteronormativity of the theological tradition. It is to dismantle the sexual ideology of theology in order to rediscover the true face of God as part of the queer theological quest. Towards this end, Althaus-Reid’s theology employs divine immanence as its central thesis: the radical theology of the Incarnation and the cruciformic admission of divine impotence presents her with the fundamental theological principle she needs to interpret God as queer, to find in Christ a messianic loca, and so invests God-forsaken peoples, places, and histories with the grace of the divine Spirit. Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again … but no one knows when or where, even if we do know that whatever bodily form it appears, it will be queer indeed.
In the introduction, I asked to what extent can we speak of Latin American liberation theology as political theology – both as a disciplinary field and frame of inquiry. This question is important insofar as political theology has emerged again as a central organizing point for contemporary discussions across the critical humanities, including discourses that have deeply shaped the Liberation theology tradition like poststructuralist and queer theory. Marcella Althaus-Reid is a unique example of Latin American liberation theology because she employs ideology critique, a feature both of Western Marxism and political theology, in ways that press Liberation theology against its own actionist tendencies, asking it to examine itself as it squirms in its chair as she describes the live and work of theologians “under the bridge.” Theoretically, she gives an Derridan account of eschatological justice for queer folk that turns to a dialectical hermeneutics that decenters normativity and rethinks the political in political theology in a negative direction, eschewing the re-centering temptations of normativity. The revolutionary high jinks of indecency, promiscuity, and queer failure will never be televised.
This is not only just to revel in the sexual fun of it all, the fetishization of experiment, but in order to unravel the edges of a Christian god who comes to us in eschatological drag of Trinitarian excess that “comes out” from the shadowy restrictions of the heterosexual parental imagery. In this way, the intertextual strategy of queering hermeneutics through dialogical displacement moves theology into diasporic and exilic spaces, those marginal theological locales where “the libertine is amongst us and is buried in us. The theological subjects cross all the sexual constraints of ideal heterosexuality. Queer Theology has welcomed the ‘SMers’, the 24/7s, leather folk, genderfuckers and Travas (the Argentinian nickname for transvestites) into the midst of its hermeneutical circle and theological enquiries.” It is ostensible that this invitation is a hermeneutical one: to welcome theological subjects to do what they are already doing, doing theology with rosaries in one hand and a condom in the other, is to tell stories, biographies, of sexual migrants, whose “walking” brings them to the very borders of love, pleasure, and struggle. To do theology indecently – to do theology as queer – is not limited to one’s own sexual identity or practice, but rather is a way of understanding, a practice of interpretation, a political hermeneutics, that repositions the queer and indecent Subject in theology through attestations to deviance, dissidence, perversity, and promiscuity, a circle that considers these stories of libertine bodies as the hermeneutical keys to discerning God’s action and presence in the world today.
[This article was translated into Spanish by Néstor Medina.]