By Scott Masson,
Dept. of English, Tyndale University College
Fellow, Ezra Institute for Contemporary Christianity
My Christian life began in the midst of two controversies in the Anglican evangelical world of St. John’s College, Durham: one surrounding the recent ordination of women as priests, the other the call to give homosexual relationships a similar sanction.
It was argued that the same hermeneutic principle of reading Scripture that permitted the inclusion of women as priests ought also to legitimize the latter. Both had been historically marginalized, and were now being emancipated from Christian social prejudice in much the same way that slavery had been early in the nineteenth century. The emancipation was presented as a function of the Gospel principle of ‘inclusion’ in the body of Christ.1
It always seemed to me that regarding the two issues to work according to the same hermeneutic principle ignored an important difference. The Bible stated that allowing women to teach in a position of authority was not permissible2; but it declared homosexual activity to be sinful3. Not even a generous understanding of ‘dynamic equivalence’ allows the two issues to be construed as the same. Furthermore, the Gospel is not about inclusion but repentance and conversion. Sinners, i.e. all people, are called to be free from sin and to know the freedom in following Christ. The matter is cut and dried.
Yet in the intervening 15 odd years, the issue has not gone away. What is now called ‘queer ecclesiology’ has developed, along with a whole framework of argumentation that motivates its acolytes, even as is it remains largely inaccessible to the general public.
That does not mean it has not been hugely influential. There is little doubt that queer theory has had a significant effect on Western culture, inside and outside the church.
Not long ago, people thought of themselves either as male or female, single or married. Now it is difficult not to be conscious of what has been called ‘sexual orientation’:4 many people immediately think of themselves in terms of being gay, straight, or bi-sexual. People speak of being in ‘partnerships’ rather than marriages, and the formal designations of singleness and marriage are fast disappearing.5
The boundaries around human sexual identity and sexual activity have become blurred as the departure from the Biblical view of marriage continues both inside and outside the church. The change has culminated in gay ‘marriage’. Gay marriage is no longer an oxymoron or category mistake: it symbolizes how plastic the terms of human identity have become in the past two decades.
The new plasticity has created something like a cyborg people, still rooted in a natural identity but often understanding themselves in terms at odds with it. Even among Christians, a new generation has grown up whose thinking and sense of personal identity has been ‘queered’. In short, as one writer has put it, we have become ‘Plastic People’.6
The fact that laws have now been brought in to inculcate and enforce the new terms; mandatory educational policies have been crafted to transmit them; and academic and governmental policies have been brought in to professionalize them should not confuse us about their stability or rootedness in reality. They are just attempts to cool the plastic and offer the veneer of continuity inherent in institutions.
To sketch out the intellectual and social transformations that have taken place in such a brief span of time, we would really need to venture into fields little known in Christian scholarship, let alone the wider church community. Queer theory is often a compilation of Continental philosophy,7 a Marxist suspicion of power, Freudian psychology, Nietzschean moral teaching and post-structuralist views of language. There is no time to get into them in anything other than a cursory manner here, so a focus on one figure will need to suffice.
Michel Foucault, perhaps the most cited scholar in the humanities today, is undoubtedly the key figure in the transformation. Foucault engaged in cultural studies in a way that rejected traditional historiography and sociological analysis. Above all, rather than engaging in the fundamentally conservative activity of understanding and recovering the meaning of what had happened in the past (including in its texts), which assumes that it can be and was understood at the time, Foucault’s scholarship assumed the malignance of past forms of understanding and sought to disrupt them.
In other words, Foucault brought social activism into the heart of the scholarly endeavor. By questioning the basic comprehensibility of the past even to those who lived at that time, and by charging them with simply preserving the power structure of an arbitrary worldview as if it were foundational (i.e. as if it were true) he broke ranks with the idea that the past should in any way shape the present – the view of time immemorial. His logic was this: if all reality is simply a social construct, then why should the social constructs of the past prevail upon the present?
Our Christian worldview as the Colonialist of the mind
For Foucault, the mindset of the past was the pre-eminent source of injustice. His project sought to emancipate the present from the past in the most radical way, by deracinating all the accumulated cultural and religious understandings that had come to form Western consciousness from our language, by separating our words from the Word. The foundational understandings of human identity were his foremost concern, because rooted in our understanding of human nature were attenuated all our notions of subjects such as truth, beauty, goodness, justice, and morality. That is because human identity had been predicated in the West upon its rootedness in the personal nature of the triune God, in whose image men and women are made.8
For that reason, the practice of political correctness which began in the 1980s (and the Human Rights tribunals which soon transformed to operate according to its dictates) is inseparable from Foucault’s project. Political correctness should in no way be confused with an odd form of politeness; it should be understood as a reconstruction of the developed cultural assumptions of the polis, and in particular the reversal of what Christianity had done to reforge human identity in accordance with the terms of Christ’s kingdom. In other words, it presented an antithetical agenda to the Great Commission, which entailed obedience to everything God had taught.9
While it is becoming increasingly clear in our day that obedience to the legislation of a new kingdom was the invariable consequence of Foucault’s seemingly esoteric scholarly endeavors, the new legalism was not presented in such terms. It announced itself in terms of a ‘creative endeavor’ characterized above all by freedom.
In a 1983 interview, Foucault made it clear that he endorsed Nietzsche’s views on self-creation. Sartre and California’s New Agers had gone awry, he suggested, because they had introduced the notion of ‘authenticity’, implying that one had to be faithful to one’s true self. In fact, there was nothing within or without to which one had to be true – self-creation had no such limits. It was about aesthetics, not morals; one’s only concern should be to fashion a self that was ‘a work of art.’10
For that reason, the notion of ‘coming out’ is part of the parlance of queer writers – it is the celebration of the act of a new creation by the artist, a new birth he celebrates for him/herself.
This may sound like a wholly individual experience. In one sense it is. Yet because this notion of gender is at odds with biological sex and the family, it is a celebration that queer theorists insist everyone must celebrate. For as Peter Sanlon notes (speaking of gender as sex),
Queer theorists seek for a freedom from the limitations of gender itself. Only when humanity understands itself as construed not by biological realities, but malleable sociological relations, will homosexuality be able to be enjoyed without heterosexual oppression. The assumptions latent in a presupposed biological bias towards heterosexuality must be Queered sufficiently that they may be discarded.11
In other words, because they regard gender as a social construct, for this freedom to be truly free, queer theorists require that everyone in society must approve of it.
Christians need to become more aware of the fact that treating all people as image bearers of God is utterly at odds with the conforming to the dictates of queer theory. This does not mean ignoring it. Even if that were desirable, it is quite clear that queer theorists will not allow that. It is at odds with their understanding of human freedom.
There is little doubt that a better acquaintance with queer theory would equip us in our apologetics, and prevent us from furthering the construction of a cyborg Christianity, as is so prevalent in the emerging church.
Above all, it would set us on the path of true freedom and true human identity, conformity to Christ: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”12
1. [The debate within the College was made known externally through its Faculty’s publications. Michael Vasey’s Strangers and Friends: a new exploration of homosexuality and the Bible (Hodder & Stoughton, 1996) argued for a change in the status quo, Mark Bonnington and Robert S. Fyall’s response, Homosexuality and the Bible (Grove Books, 1996) explained why there could be none.]↩
2. [1 Tim. 2: 12-14.]↩
3. [This is implicit in Ge. 1:28 and 2:23-24, but explicit in Ge. 19; Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1: 9-10; Jude 1:7.]↩
4. [The state of California in fact is henceforth requiring its judges to identify their sexual orientation. Clearly justice is considered a function of one’s ‘orientation’: http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/california-asks-judges-gay-or-straight_631857.html]↩
5. [The designation ‘mademoiselle’ designating a woman as unmarried is going to be pronounced officially verboten by the government in France henceforth: http://www.france24.com/en/20120222-france-strikes-out-mademoiselle-coup-feminism]↩
6. [Peter Sanlon, Plastic People: How Queer Theory is Changing Us (Latimer Studies 73), 2010.]↩
7. [Charles Taylor describes the main feature of contemporary Continental philosophy as the study of man ‘as a self-interpreting animal’ Human Agency and Language: Philosophical Papers 1 (Cambridge University P., 1985), p. 45.]↩
8. [Ge. 1: 26-27.]↩
9. [Matt. 28: 18-20.]↩
10. [ John Coffey, Life after the Death of God: Michel Foucault and Postmodern Atheism (1996; available from http://www.jubilee-centre.org/document.php?id=15.)]↩
11. [Peter Sanlon, Plastic People: How Queer Theory is Changing Us (Latimer Studies 73, 2010), p. 14.]↩
12. [John 8: 34-36.]↩