Tessa Voytovich/Daily.

In the Year of Our Lord 2014, I celebrated my golden birthday, turning 13 on March 13. And sure enough, the Pisces male, middle school version of myself was as emotionally charged, creatively centered and idiosyncratically idealistic as I am now. Yet, a corrosive force, turning what was supposed to be a gold-plated pubescent period into a rusty era of remorse, stemmed from the staggering realization I had that year as an increasing awareness of my social identities became ironed into my subconscious. The mainstream media’s fervent fixation on Ferguson with the murder of Mike Brown propelled this force into motion, prompting a prominent newfound perception of my own racialized identity as a Black male in (what I would soon learn to be) the settler-colonial police-state of America. But if this glass-shattering, innocence-apprehending awakening wasn’t enough to fuel the anxious adolescent fire inside of me, the subsequent suspicion, scrutinization and speculation of my sexuality in the seventh grade was. It was then that homophobia and anti-Black racism alchemized in antagonistic fashion, manifesting as a menacing mixture that meddled not only in my middle-school years but beyond.

The traumas troubling my life trickle down to the marginalization of these two identities, which are exacerbated by my working-class status and deepened by the damning forces of capital which control our culture. When I was 15, phrases like “faggot” and “queer” were hurled at me on the regular — all before I had figured out what my sexuality even was. Of course, this “figuring out” and my capacity to inquire about my own queerness was complicated by my mutable relationship with religion, having grown up in a conservative Black Christian church. Reconciling my faith with my ever-changing sexuality has been, undeniably, the most challenging tribulation of my life. When your devotion to the divine is dampened by dominating ideologies of the time, how else do you ensure that your modes of metaphysical and spiritual sustainment aren’t stifled?

Perhaps it’s my predetermined Pisces characteristics perpetuating my compulsivity. But in light of these painful predicaments, I’ve become fascinated with learning about different faiths and the rich complexities and insights that various worldly religions have to offer and seek to answer. If there is a silver lining to my suffering, then it’s to be found in the drive I’ve developed over time to discern the real from the fake, fact from fiction and truth from non-truth.

The interplay of sexuality and religion is severely complicated by notions of gender. In pre-patriarchal society, the divine was depicted as feminine, with the female God being an ancillary function of the Paleolithic and Neolithic era. In “The Great Cosmic Mother,” radical eco-feminist author Monica Sjöö describes ancient societies around the globe as advanced matrifocal cultures built on equality and kinship as opposed to dominance. In this period of time — from the Dahomey and Ashanti peoples of West Afrika all the way to the indigenous Pueblo peoples of America — the primacy of the mother was an essential element. By the Bronze Age, however, Sjöö asserts that the Great Mother was demoted in status as the “remains of a revolution shift from dominant female gods of Neolithic village to organizing and controlling male gods of the literate city.” Many of us are familiar with the famous Sumerian religious text, “The Epic of Gilgamesh” an epic that influenced religious myths and narratives within the Hebrew Bible. Sjöö distinguishes both this piece of Mesopotamian mythology and the Old Testament scriptures as a reactionary response to the Goddess-centered religions preceding it. She claims that much like the patriarchy, the emerging male-centered religions effectively “split material production from spiritual experience, science from magic, medicine from herbal knowledge and psychic/seasonal environment, sexuality from the sacred, art from craft, astronomy from astrology, language from poetry — and to place the resultant ‘specialized,’ abstracted, and mechanistic knowledge in the hands of a privilege male elite organized into professions, hierarchies, and classes.” This split and separation has been a sustaining characteristic in all major worldly religions, including but not limited to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic faiths, Hinduism and Buddhism. 

Obviously, one does not have to look very far or very meticulously to see this unfortunate reality. The holy texts of today are tainted with a patriarchal positioning that has subjugated women around the world for thousands of years. And this construction of an oppressive male-centered society has had damning effects for sexuality as well. Sjöö ascribes the Hebrew Bible’s heterosexism as “an attack on all shamanistic ecstatic religion, against the bisexual image, theory, and practice of the Great Goddess.” Her elucidation reminds us that holy texts don’t exist in vacuums, and are drastically informed and curated by the material and historical conditions of the era. Yet, these are the same texts which play a profound role in the lives of many around the globe. How do we harmonize the holy aspects with the harmful? Is there still a Truth to be found in these faiths? Is there a Devil or divinity to be found within the details?

Attempts to answer these questions lie not only in the hands of hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) but in our conception of divine revelation. Biblical scripture, for instance, has the capacity to be interpreted from a literal, moral, allegorical and anagogical perspective. These differing angles of approach produce an infinity of interpretations, allowing us to arrive at an infinity of outcomes. This becomes even more complicated when we consider the dialectics of distanciation especially in relation to the written word. In this literary context, distanciation refers to the concept that the writer of any text is “blind” to not only the readers of their work but also the context that their work will be read in. They are “blind” in the sense that the separation of the writer and reader, as well as the reader and the world of the text, fundamentally blurs the writer’s intention and reader’s interpretation. This blindness allows for what French hermeneutic philosopher Paul Ricœur  — a key crafter of the distanciation concept  — refers to as a “surplus of meaning” to be amassed. As you can imagine, this article alone would evoke an infinitude in understanding, comprehension and interpretation for anyone who stumbles across it. We can only imagine, then, the immensity as to which any one individual relates to a religious text. In writing, we emulate the enigmatic enterprise of our own Creator to effectively communicate the complexities of existence without exterminating the free will of creation. 

In this same vein, divine revelation (the reveal of a celestial Creator to creation) carries with it an abundance of perspectives as well, which can complicate our relation to religion even further. Notably, Swiss theologian Karl Barth’s notion of a conception of revelation in which he argues that while having the capacity to express the revelation of the divine, human constructions, such as scripture and the written word, cannot be a divine revelation in itself due to the fact they are mediated through fallible mortal concepts such as language. Yet, nonetheless, Barth believed there is Truth to be found in what he labeled as the “Subject Reality of Revelation.’ Like him, I, too, believe wholeheartedly in the outstanding capacity of our Creator to use us as vessels of disclosure and divulgence. After all, through the arts and writing, especially, we often find ourselves able to communicate to and construct knowledge within others that we might not even be privy to ourselves. As Black theologian James Cone clarifies in his seminal text, “Black Theology and Black Power,” “the Work of Spirit is not always a conscious activity on the part of the persons through whom God works.” In the Biblical scriptures there exists a labyrinthine nexus of Truth and knowledge to be ascertained above that which the original writers even intended. Moreover, many of these Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious myths and narratives are what queer theologian Elizabeth Stuart refers to as “parodies” of “extended repetition with critical distance, improvising on a theme [with] non-identical repetition, freshly embodied on new context.” Much like Marxist theory espouses the notion of retaining the old within that which is new, we can still discover the liberatory essence of the Cosmic Mother and the matriarchal mantras of pre-patriarchal society in our current holy text.

Systematic theologian Patrick Cheng and feminist and queer theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid both do exactly this by putting forth theologies of liberation focused around this feat. In Cheng’s book “Radical Love” he advances a doctrine of queer theology stemming from classical doctrines around (the Biblical) God. He claims that the doctrine of the Trinity, which posits God as the begetter (The Father), the begotten (the Son) and the procession (of the Holy Spirit), which through radical love establishes a dissolution of self and other, of knowing and unknowing and of flesh and spirit. This dissolving of dualisms gives rise to a God that “transcends gender,” encompassing supra masculinity and super femininity. In this vein, God is a relational God, not operating outside, but with/in us. Along these lines, Cheng characterizes Jesus Christ as the embodiment of this radical love, exemplified through the crossing of the divine into the human realm and then back into the divine realm. Additionally, Cheng queers Christ in a multitude of ways. Beyond the androgynous imagery Christ is commonly depicted with, Cheng cites his transgression of societal norms, homosocial relationships with disciples (and loving relationship with Lazarus) and biological intersexuality (Mary’s immaculate conception being devoid of a Y chromosome makes Christ chromosomally female while phenotypically male) as evidence. He goes on to liken the scapegoating of Christ in the crucifixion with the scapegoating of queer people in society. 

Reid elaborates on this queer-coded Christ even further. To Althaus-Reid, queerness is not an “oddity” or even a sexual/gender identity, but instead a zone of possibility, potentiality and the essence of a denied reality. In her seminal text, “Indecent Theology” she inserts the notion of a “Bi/Christ” which refers not to sexual relations but ways of relating and thinking beyond binary. Over time, my own bisexuality has granted me the fortune of experiencing the world outside of the gay-straight dichotomy, which has, in turn, prompted me to perceive of reality along non-dualistic lines. Christ, while deliberately walking in community with proclaimed “sinners and prostitutes” did so with an unfettered fluidity eschewing false dichotomies. The Virgin Mary also experiences an “indecenting” or “queering” under liberation theology. No longer a representation of repressive Marianismo and anti-sexual celibacy rhetoric, Mary instead in Althaus-Reid’s eyes undergoes a divinization through “spiritual clitoridectomy” and becomes a bearer (through the bearing of the Begotten son) of radical love. These interpretations, from a hermeneutic lens, as divinity scholar Hannah Hofheinz describes, are creative interpretations which “create new liberative possibili[ities] by embodying knowledge as praxis within communities of struggle.”

Furthermore, these queerings are important because they allow us to deconstruct the compulsory heterosexuality that has been so vigorously confounded into our culture. Althaus-Reid describes “heterosexuality” as originating within a pathological patriarchy operating through coercion and violence. Sjöö describes rigid heterosexuality as a mental and physical limitation, stating that “it is as if on all levels of our being we are split in half — locked into one half, and forbidden the other … split against ourselves and against the self in the other by this moralistic opposition of natural polarities in the very depths of our souls.” She claims that this causes war and alienation as cisheteropatriarchy on behalf of capital continues to construct barriers and boundaries. If we have any chance of moving forward in our liberation efforts, we need to be cognizant of these constructions and the ways in which organized, institutionalized religion in their capitalistic efforts attempt to exacerbate them. 

Today, radical interpretations of Biblical scriptures are becoming increasingly common as more and more people begin to reconcile religion with their sexuality.* “The Queer Bible Commentary,” for example, is an 800+ page work providing an interpretative queer lens of every book in the Bible, and is just one of the many works seeking to unravel and resolve what Cheng describes as the typical “texts of terror” which supposedly condemn queer peoples to an eschatological fate of fire and eternal damnation. Beyond Biblical scripture, we should be interested in locating the righteousness in revelation of all worldly religions and holy texts. However, we should do so with a discernment between historic literalism and mythic-symbolic interpretation, which Sjöö points out is often difficult to distinguish. Nonetheless, what we derive from the divine texts of our time is mostly ours for the making and taking. In the context of the Trinity, the queering Christ is a queering of God, as our Creator. If this is hard for you to re-imagine, consider how much we’ve constructed a mainstream conception of God as male, heterosexual and historically white. Indeed, as Althaus-Reid states, “To say ‘God the Faggot’ is to claim not only a sexuality which has been marginalised and ridiculed, but a different epistemology and also a challenge to positively appropriate a word which has been used with contempt to humiliate people.” 

In the Year of Our Lord 2021, I still struggle to make this reclamation without reservation. Yet, in the midst of my misfortune, I remind myself that this struggle, much like the religious myths of the Cosmic Goddesses of Creation, is a collective, universal and transformative one. And along those same liberatory lines, I know now, seven years after my Golden birthday, that if all else fails, I can rely on what I learned in Sunday School seven years prior; the Golden rule — a principle permeating in nearly all worldly religions — reigns supreme: “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.’ – Galatians 5:14.”

*Further Reading: 

MiC Columnist Karis Clark can be reached at kariscl@umich.edu.