A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

Theology Thriving at the Margins: An interview with Linn Tonstad

Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at YDS, Linn Tonstad is a constructive theologian working at the intersection of feminist and queer theory. Her first book, God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude (Routledge, 2016), was named a best new book in both ethics and theology by Christian Century last year. Her latest book is Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics (Cascade, 2018). Born to Norwegian-Iraqi parents, she grew up in Norway as a Seventh-day Adventist. She says her theological interests are animated by a cherished Adventist theme: each person’s responsibility to investigate the truth. She spoke to Reflections in June.

The value of queer theory for theology …

As I see it, queer theology isn’t a celebration of particular sexuality but a way of facing the radical nature of the Christian gospel and unmasking the tyranny of exclusion – society’s brutal game of saying who’s out and who’s in. Queer theology is a method of questioning the demands made by the social order on all people – society’s enforced definitions of what’s normal and abnormal, who’s acceptably human and who isn’t. Queer theology works from the margins and thrives there. Like certain kinds of Protestantism, it has a suspicion of ideas of wholeness and self-possession. It works hard to remind us that we human beings may be more mysterious to ourselves than we recognize.

Many of us in gender and sexuality studies have been trying to say that there’s a lot of complexity and messiness – a lot of contradiction – around sexual identity and ethics. The way women get punished for being both too timid and too aggressive, for instance – it’s lose/lose. Queer and feminist theologies help us recognize patterns of contradiction and interlocking oppressions.

The trouble with the Christian debate on sexuality …

Both sides often take similarly bankrupt forms. Opponents of the full participation of queer persons commonly resort to proof-texting – tearing texts out of place and history, deploying them as weapons, shutting down debate. Proponents of the full participation of queer persons tend to respond by an anemic assertion of the historical difference between sexuality then and now, followed by selfcongratulatory statements about God’s love for everyone. These debates produce exhaustion and boredom and have done little to advance thinking about sexuality or to deepen theological reflection. (see Tonstad, God and Difference, p. 3.)

On misusing language to capture God …

There’s a sense among a lot of Christians that if we can find ways to image God in feminine terms, then we can undo the damage of sexism. I’m not that optimistic about that. I don’t think symbol systems work so transparently or directly. I’m not against inclusive language and liturgy – let’s try it out whenever we can! But symbols are more likely to catch up with lived experience than produce lived experience. The imagination of replacement – replacing God the father with God the tender mother – presumes a symmetry that isn’t present. It’s very hard to take something that’s been devalued, like female images, and present them suddenly as valued replacements.

On the sin of seeking an ethical safe spot to land …

I want to resist the sense of closure about arriving at a safe spot to stand on the question of ethics. We all have a tendency to do that – find that safe spot and stand there, and define it as good, and see ourselves as being good for standing there. Precisely at that moment, when I conclude that I am good, is likely the moment when I am unaware of the fact that I’m not so good. This wariness is, to me, a Protestant instinct – to resist that closure and admit I am a mystery to myself, with all kinds of evasive strategies of presenting myself to others as good and saying to myself, “I’m not a sinner like they are.”

My notion borrows from Kierkegaard’s warning about Christendom: There’s all kinds of ways of externalizing our ethical systems in order to disavow our own responsibility. He’s hard on the individual, the individual’s strategies of self-preservation. But he argues for the security that God provides when we make ourselves honestly vulnerable – the security of insecurity.

On the role of gender in Christian identity …

Should gender be at the center of Christian identity? Absolutely not. But people keep making it the center, leaving us no choice but to deal with it. So we get debates like “homosexuality – yes or no?” and denominations split over it, and ministers go on trial over it. What if it weren’t at the center? What if something else was? What if our practices centered around the phrase from Acts 2, “they held everything in common,” which might enact the Eucharistic vision of one body, or around a complete reconfiguration of structures of power and the elimination of poverty? I don’t think the gospel should stand or fall on a particular stance on sexuality or gender.

Issue Title: 
Sex, Gender, Power: A Reckoning
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