Sunday, March 8, 2009

Vale Marcella Althaus-Reid 1952-2009

I heard recently of the death of queer theologian, Marcella Althaus-Reid, last month in Scotland where she held the chair of Contextual Theology at the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh. Marcella was from Argentina of Protestant background and studied at ISEDET Protestant Theological Faculty in Buenos Aires. She completed her PhD at University of St Andrews in Scotland.

I confess that I have read little of her work probably because she did not deal very much with biblical matters but was primarily a theologian. So much of theology engages little with biblical texts, that nowadays I find that, without the biblical anchor, I can't really connect with it. The book I must read is Indecent Theology, in which she engages with liberation theology, feminist theology and queer theology in South American context. There is a very good summary of her thesis here from which I want to quote the following

Its starting point is a suspicion on the ideological use of traditional understandings of the category of Decencia/Indecencia (Decency/Indecency) in the Latin American cultures, and specifically in Argentina.

Decencia is a concept that traditionally has implications of honesty and truthworthiness for men (especially in economic transactions) but for women, it is a different story. Decencia for women in this context implies a complex set of regulations of sexuality (as in sexual options), the dealings with transgressions of expected behaviour according to age and civil state, but also a complex web of expectations based on gender perceptions and sexual understandings including codes of dress, mobility and hairstyle. It gets further complicated with economic issues but also with race. Somehow poor women are more prone to be considered indecent than wealthy ones. If they are indigenous or black women, this adds an extra category of indecency , that is, of oppression.

Decency and Indecency are therefore gender/sexual/ racial/economical categories of defining 'normality' in people's lives and in society. What is expected and proper. But what is expected and considered proper for Latin American women to be 'decent' masks a multitude of oppressions.

This gendered hierarchy of decency is not peculiar to South America but dates back into the ancient Mediterranean world and has analogues in all the great ancient civilisations. Wombs were places of power and consequently had to be controlled and indeed male power was very much invested in control of the wombs of women. Ever since the rise of agriculture, wombs were considered as fields in which men sowed their seed and like fields had to be fenced in and access controlled so as to ensure ownership of the products of said womb (field). Endogamous or close-kin marraige was common throughout the Mediterranean world to ensure that wombs were kept within the orbit of the clan. With urban civilisation came the opportunity for greater hierarchialisation and the development of class so those at the top of the social pyramid, if male, had greater sexual access to those below in the hierarchy. Slaves were at the bottom and household slaves were considered available sexually to the male householder, both male and female and regardless of age. They were household property after all.

These patterns of class and gender/sexuality are reflected in ancient literature including the biblical texts. Given that male male anal sex in the ancient world was understood as a form of subordination of one male by another, I wonder if the Levitical taboos on male male anal sex (Lev 18:22, 20:13) even if borrowed from Persian religion, were not an attempt at building a male solidarity as part of the Holiness Code for priests and Levites. I also wonder if Paul's arsenokoites (1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:20) generally translated as sodomite, homosexual, sexual pervert etc in English bibles might not actually refer to such phallic aggressive males, especially such householders who screwed anything that moved by right and without consideration for consent or other such niceties (ancient Christianity was a religion of slaves, amongst others, after all).

But I have wandered far from Marcella Althaus-Reid. I'll conclude with a quite from Bob Shore-Goss obituary for her from a recent Other Sheep e-newsletter:

Marcella was very familiar with my own theological work, so she had her editor at Routledge send me her manuscript of her book Indecent Theology for an endorsement quotation. I read the manuscript with a perverse glee, noting how I originally underrated this creatively, queer and in her own words, “indecent Latina, bisexual theologian.” Marcella maintains that all theology is sexual theology, and she explored how vanilla Christian sexual theologies were oppressive. As an outsider, she creates an indecent theology, a counter-patriarchal and heterosexist theology.

And so I wrote an audacious endorsement quote for the back cover of the book: “I believe that this may be the best feminist theology (and I am not exaggerating) in the last decade.” And I meant the quote, for Marcella adeptly brought class and economic analysis to feminist theology, from a postcolonial perspective, into her indecent, albeit queer theology.

It was a pioneer development in feminist and queer theologies.

Kwo Pui Lan, a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School, contacted me in the spring of 2001 to participate on a panel to review Indecent Theology at the American Academy of Religion. Pui Lan mentioned that the invitation originated from tMarcella’s suggestion.

I was the only male panelist on the panel of the Feminist Theology Group, and my paper, “Expanding Christ’s Wardrobe of Dresses,” became one of the essays on Christology in Queering Christ. The essay built on her insight into the nomadic and bisexual incarnation of Christ.At the AmericanAcademy of Religion in November 2001, I had the opportunity to interact with this feisty and bold Argentinean theologian, stylishly dressed in a black skirt and blouse with polished leather boots.There was no mistaken that I met a theologian embedded in the leather/fetish community as well.There was strong scholarly kinship already, and our friendship instantaneous.

Marcella tried hard to get the manuscript Gay Catholic Priests and Clerical Sexual Misconduct published in the UK, but publishers were too timid about the content. It was about the same time when I was teaching in Thailand, that I received news that the dean of Webster was opposing the Religious Studies Department’s recommendation for my tenure evaluation. I was turned down for tenure, for more than transparent reasons. Marcella Althaus-Reid organized a group of theologians in the United Kingdom to write the President of Webster University. She wrote to the President asking him to overturn what she considered a violation of academic freedom but also a human rights violation to silence my voice.Later she commented to me that the President of Webster University did not her the courtesy by not even acknowledging receipt of her letter. In 2003, Marcella published The Queer God, a very seminal book in queer theology.I read the book, and I sent her an email of congratulations, explaining that while I may have previously wore the mantle of outrageous queer theology, she had superseded me, and I gladly acceded that mantle to her until we could write a collaborative, transgressive, and indecent theology. On her website, she writes, “The Queer God is a call to 'disaffiliation' processes in theology. To be unfaithful to sexual ideological constructions of God in order to liberate God- a Queer God who also needs to come out of the closet of theologians of the status quo.” She wrote about God “found in the complexity of unruly sexualities and relationships,” or she as coined the phrase—“god of the dark allies.”.

Eternal life grant unto her, Most High, and may perpetual light shine upon her. May she always shine in the perpetual light of your presence.

UPDATE: More information in English and Spanish plus further discussion at Holy Vignettes here.


  1. That's really shocking news. I remember emailing with her a little back in 2005 when I was starting to look at PhD options are trying to structure an academic career. Her work was inspiring and her personal correspondence was very encouraging. I'm sure you'll enjoy her work.

  2. Oh, and it's Ibrahim commenting, by the way. It came up with the little snowflake for my blogger profile. I'm sure I'll run into you at a conference one of these days.

  3. Hi Ibrahim, I especially look forward to Indecent Theology. And I also look forward to running into you at a conference too. I hope to get to Newcastle in July for the B&CT Seminar if heaven smiles on me. Perhaps then

  4. Now that it is over a month since Marcella Althaus-Reid has left us I feel a bit freer to pass a more critical comment on her legacy.

    As literature and philosophy A-R’s work could be dazzling and she was all of the estrella she has been called. Whether the elitist intellectual pyrotechnics she displayed really served the poor in line with the Liberation Theology whose parameters she sought to extend is another matter. So too, and very much so, is the question for religion of whether she actually believed in God. Reading “The Queer God”, it is hard to believe she did believe in any deity unless as an imaginative construct servicing it’s not quite clear what purpose. Atheist philosophers like Deleuze feature strongly in her thought and their buzz words pepper her jargon. Theology and Bible as opposed to modern philosophy scarcely feature in her work. Her commentary on Mark in “The Queer Bible Commentary” is so minimalist it scarcely gets beyond commenting on one verse involved with Jesus’ death and offers sub-headings like Cruci/fictions: Jesus in the Tabloids and The Redundant God..

    Liberation theology with its strongly materialistic cast had controversially asserted that God is as good as unknowable unless Hegelian style through events of history. Mystical and personal religion was never its strong suit. But A-R, drawn to Liberation Theology, goes further. She decides that “God” will be knowable through the histories of the rejected and thus sexual lives that have been censored out and belong to God the Shadow. This lets her propose assessments of theology and ethics following “a Sadean hermeneutic” (i.e. interpretation of religion through the lens of the writings of the Marquis de Sade – a silly notion she invented under the influence of ex Bendedictine Christian atheist, Pierre Klossowski, who popularized Sade and would better never to have done so, as Sade’s work has inspired such as the Moors murders). Playing fast and loose with doctrines of the Trinity and kenosis, the divine self emptying in incarnation, A-R proposes that God-Self becomes and knows itself down back alleys, as God the Sodomite, the Top, the Bottom and various other names drawn from the sexual margins. She believes stories of adultery reveal “God”, everything that is eros energy necessarily reveals “God” (does pedophia, a subject she doesn’t treat?) A bisexual herself and much involved with leather sex she admits to various affairs with bishops and clergy – in Argentina presumably where by her account everything goes – no need to cite from Indecent Theology on that.

    In short we are back at Gnosticism, albeit Gnosticism without the mysticism and A-R appears to dismiss all traditional moral values as “imperialistic” or an aspect of class warfare only. This leads her on to attack any notions like “repentance” or “conversion”, they are imperialistic impositions and believers must follow the energies which will produce a new unrepenting “demonology” because sexual minorities are like opposing spirits to the T theology of the imperial God and we need to claim our hell spaces in opposition to it and him.

    Work so shocking as A-R’s necessarily had an impact and didn’t have the problems with publishing that so much in religion is up against. She was the bestselling Indecent Theologian of her “Indecent Theology” manifesto; but was she, beyond questioningly and originally “indecent”, simply blasphemous and taking the unsuspecting Christians who didn’t understand all her philosophies for a ride? Partly to excuse her I think A-R was a fantasist. Various facts about her life don’t add up because of the contradictions. Was she even born Catholic or Protestant? Was she born in Rosario or in Che Guevara as her website states – we know Che was born in Rosario, a fact that doubtless delighted her. Who was this person, and what was she doing? And what were the people doing who so easily accepted what I feel was more than simply “indecent” and that anyone with genuine spiritual feeling whether gay or straight, living at the centre or at the margins might well experience as strange, even as oddly demonic as the “demonology” A-R wished to establish?

  5. More information in Spanish and English plus discussion at Holy Vignettes

  6. Rolland, do you think there may have been a more appropriate place for your criticisms of someone's life work than as a comment on a posting of a that person's death?

  7. Michael, thanks for a helpful and wide-ranging piece on Marcella. I included a link to this post today at the Jesus in Love Blog in my piece on the 3rd anniversary of her passing: