Susannah Cornwall – « What is queer theology? »

Susannah Cornwall

« Constructive theological perspectives: What is queer theology? »

Stefanie Knauss – Carlos Mendoza Álvarez

Concilium 2019-5. Queere Theologien: Der queere Leib Christi werden
Concilium 2019-5. Queer theologies: becoming the queer body of Christ
Concilium 2019-5. Teologías queer: convertirse en el cuerpo queer de Cristo
Concilium 2019-5. Teologie queer: diventare il corpo queer di Cristo
Concilium 2019-5. Théologies queer : devenir le corps queer du Christ
Concilium 2019-5. Teologias queer: tornar-se o corpo queer de Cristo

I. Introduction: What are queer theologies?

Queer Christian theologies emerged in the 1990s and 2000s and are sometimes considered successors to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans) theologies of the 1970s and beyond. The term ‘queer’ reframes a word formerly used as a pejorative slur against gay people on the grounds that they were odd and abnormal. People who use the term queer positively today sometimes understand this as having ‘turned’ the insult, reclaiming it from their abusers, and see their ‘oddness’ and difference from ‘mainstream’ sexual and gender identities as a conscious refusal of them.[1]

Like LGBT theologies, queer theologies are often keen to disrupt the assumption that only heterosexual lives are licit, legitimate sites of grace, blessing and divine revelation. But queer theologies do not limit themselves to considerations of sexuality. Queer theologies usually involve a thoroughgoing disruption of norms of all kinds, asking questions about power, language, and the limits of identity. Queer acts as a noun, adjective or verb. As a noun, it refers to methods and approaches that question and subvert accepted norms and ideologies. As an adjective, it can refer to people, texts or other phenomena engaged in this broad project. As a verb, it has a variety of uses – but ‘to queer’ a tradition might, for example, mean asking what subversive or resisting voices have been latent, and perhaps suppressed, within it. Queering often entails asking questions about how some – and only some – identities have come to be understood as normal, healthy and desirable, and what kinds of power and ideology are hidden in the mechanisms through which widely-accepted understandings of normality have come into being.  

Queer is sometimes used as shorthand for a range of identities and political positions: lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, asexual, non-binary and more. However, many commentators resist the idea that queer can be used as an umbrella term to ‘encompass’ these identities. In fact, some are suspicious that to use queer in this way actually risks glossing over differences and tensions between these groups, erasing people who were already marginalized. They point out that non-heterosexuality in itself does not disturb the social systems that assume everyone is clearly and unambiguous male or female and that gender expression should map onto physical sex only in certain ways. Among queer critical theorists in particular, queer is more likely to be understood as a disruption of identity categories than an identity in its own right. So queer does not entail the replacement of one system by another better one, but rather a suspicion of systems and metanarratives per se.[2] Queer theologies more specifically might be understood as existing in two broad streams. The first, the queer-liberationist stream, focuses on the ‘normality’ and non-pathology of queer lives. It has a particular emphasis on reframing accounts of sex, gender and sexuality, and reclaiming the Christian tradition as healthy rather than hostile for LGBT and queer people. Queer theologians in this stream have been among those campaigning for the recognition of same-sex marriages, and for the acceptance of openly LGBT people as Christian clergy. Queer-liberationist theologians are likely to reclaim or rehabilitate biblical texts used to oppress non-heterosexual people. They argue that LGBT identities are just as natural and healthy as heterosexual ones. The second stream is less reparative, and is influenced more by queer critical theory than by liberation theologies. Queer theologians in this stream are likely to be less invested in apologetics and more invested in subversion and resistance. They are circumspect about the goods of queer ‘inclusion’ in institutions such as marriage and church leadership, pointing instead to the damage that traditional understandings of marriage and family may cause, and suggesting that queer people of faith should resist them, and church authority, still further. They are more suspicious of terms such as ‘healthy’ and ‘natural’, and are likely to hold – influenced by queer critical theorists such as Judith Butler, Michel Foucault and Lee Edelman – that understandings of health and nature are socially-constructed, not neutral or unchanging, and certainly not unambiguously good.

II. Querying translation and interpretation

Theologians working in the queer-liberationist stream argue that Christianity itself is not inherently antithetical to LGBT and other queer lives. Rather, they suggest, homophobia, sexism and cisgenderism (prejudice against people who have transitioned gender or who understand themselves as neither masculine nor feminine) are distortions of the real message of Christianity, which is about love, justice and inclusion. Some theologians in this stream have embarked on reclamations of the tradition, trying to uncover ‘proto-queer’ texts, figures and traditions in the bible and in Christian history. For example, some queer Christians have suggested that biblical figures like David and Jonathan, Naomi and Ruth, and the eunuchs, might be understood as forerunners to today’s queer people. These interpreters do not necessarily claim that David and Jonathan or Naomi and Ruth were gay or lesbian as we would understand those terms today (though some readers do make such claims): they might rather, however, hold that these figures are examples whose strong love for people of the same sex gives a model for other same-sex friendships and relationships. 

The eunuch figures have been particularly important for trans, intersex, bisexual, lesbian and gay readers, because they seem to be examples of people who stand outside their society’s typical structures of sex and gender and yet are not condemned for it (and are, in fact, sometimes considered particularly blessed: Isaiah 56 makes reference to eunuchs who will be given ‘riches greater than sons and daughters’, and an ‘everlasting name which will not be cut off’). In Matthew 19, a passage containing Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce, Jesus remarks that there are three kinds of eunuchs: those born that way, those made that way by others, and those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom. Historically, ‘eunuchs’ was often understood metaphorically here, with ‘eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom’ being those who had elected not to marry or have their own families so that they could give greater service to the community: avowed celibates, for example. In recent decades, however, some scholars have suggested that ‘eunuchs from birth’ might be understood as being intersex people (those with congenital physical variations of sex), ‘those made eunuchs by others’ might be trans people (especially those who have had some kind of medical intervention to alter their bodies), and ‘eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom’ might be those who electively stand outside expected sex-gender norms in other ways. Nancy Wilson of the Metropolitan Community Church (an explicitly LGBT-inclusive denomination) goes so far as to say that if queer people are unable to see themselves represented among figures in the Bible, then it cannot be understood as their book.[3]

Several texts in the Bible have been used for many decades to demonstrate the illegitimacy of non-heterosexual sexual activity and, in some cases, orientation. They are sometimes collectively termed ‘clobber texts’ or ‘texts of terror’ (a phrase also used to refer to sexist, anti-female texts). Queer biblical interpreters have a range of approaches to texts of this kind. Some hold simply that these passages, particularly those in the Hebrew Bible, originated in a very different time and culture and are not binding on Christians today. They may point to other texts, on issues such as diet, dress and the keeping of slaves, which most Christians have come to understand as time- and culture-bound, and suggest that verses on same-sex activity should be regarded likewise. Others hold that, whilst the Bible still remains a prime authority and Christians today are not at liberty to dismiss portions of it, it is possible that the Bible requires reinterpretation in light of contemporary scholarship. 

Some interpreters, for example, argue that terms translated ‘homosexuals’ in modern English Bibles are obscure, and might legitimately be translated otherwise. Scholars including Mark D. Jordan and Dale B. Martin have noted that biblical translation is always an interpretative process: translators never come to texts neutrally, but always already with assumptions and biases.[4] Translators who already expect the Bible to condemn homosexuality may be more likely to translate an obscure term in a list of sins as ‘homosexuals’: but at other times, when other issues provoked more anxiety than same-sex relationships do today, the same term may have been translated in quite other ways (as we can see if we look at older English translations). Even interpretation of translations can be freighted: Jordan and others note that the ‘sin of Sodom’ condemned on several occasions across the Bible is often assumed to be male-male sexual activity, or anal intercourse more specifically. However, holds Jordan, it was not until the medieval era that ‘sodomy’ was commonly understood in this way. Indeed, there is at least an ambiguity in what exactly is being condemned: is the problem that the men of Sodom had sex with other men, or was the problem that they were angels and therefore not licit sexual partners for humans? Jude 7, which condemns the people of Sodom and Gomorrah for their sexual immorality, does so on the grounds of their pursuit of ‘other flesh’ – which could, suggest some interpreters, refer to angels. Or, as many contemporary queer readers have come to believe, is the problem less the gender of those concerned, but the voracious violence, greed and inhospitality exhibited by the people of Sodom? After all, Ezekiel 16.49 says, ‘This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy’.[5]

These kinds of reframings of the Bible often have in common their desire to reclaim it as positive and liberating for queer people. However, such attempts may seem futile given that there are still plenty of Christians and others unpersuaded by such readings who see in the Bible clear condemnations of same-sex activity. For this reason, suggests Mary Ann Tolbert (2000), the Bible is likely to remain dangerous for queer people despite queer interpreters’ best efforts to the contrary.[6]

III. Querying decency, marginality and power in theological discourses

Queer theologians have also attempted to re-read and re-frame aspects of historical, moral, pastoral, doctrinal, systematic and constructive Christian theology in light of the concerns that queer theory highlights. One of the most influential queer theologians is Marcella Althaus-Reid, an Argentinian theologian whose work was curtailed by her early death in 2009. Althaus-Reid devised what she called an ‘indecent’ theology, which refused to separate off theology from the real circumstances of people’s lives, including those whose sexual identities and practices would likely be condemned by mainstream Christianity. Althaus-Reid held that Christianity (particularly the Roman Catholicism of Latin America, influenced by alliances with colonial and capitalist powers) had been invested in maintaining ‘decent’ ideals unattainable and deeply damaging for ordinary people. Althaus-Reid devised a compelling account of what she called the Queer God: a God in exile, of the streets, of sex workers and drag queens, who continued to dwell with those at the margins rather than moving toward the privileged ‘centre’. She held that theologians should embrace ‘indecency’, and reject the idea that salvation is something to be doled out in limited portions by those in positions of power. The tight control of sexual behaviour and reproduction wielded by the Church in Latin America was, she argued, less about protecting the good of the people and more about siding with political authorities to keep workers docile. Althaus-Reid believed Christianity had attempted to corral and domesticate God rather than recognizing God’s profound otherness and inability to be possessed or controlled. She held that it was vital to resist heteronormativity (the idea that only heterosexuality is legitimate or desirable) and to speak the truth that the really outrageous thing was not sexual ‘deviance’ but the exclusion of such ‘deviants’ by religious and other authorities. Theology must, she insisted, learn to live with uncertainty and fluidity, and get beyond its obsession with boundaries and demarcating who was in and who was out. God, she said, is a stranger, living in diaspora: this is where Christians should also dwell. This will mean theologians must come to interrogate their own sexual, political and economic lives, rather than hiving these off from what happens in church: in short, for Althaus-Reid, ‘God cannot be Queered unless theologians have the courage to come out from their […] closets’. [7]  

Some notable queer theologians active today, including Elizabeth Stuart, Gerard Loughlin, Robert E. Shore-Goss, and Mark D. Jordan,[8] knew and worked with Althaus-Reid. There is also a generation of younger and emerging scholars who have continued to be influenced by her work and to develop it in new directions. Some scholars (including Jay Emerson Johnson and Patrick S. Cheng) have been particularly invested in exploring queer theologies’ outworkings within ecclesiastical structures, whilst others have explored the interactions between queer theology and questions of ethnicity, race, class, disability, climate change, and nationality, as well as re-reading and re-examining well-established theological approaches such as virtue ethics through a queer lens.[9] In all these cases, these scholars continue the project of interrogating how power rises up in multiple contexts, and how far the church’s own sometime alliances with social and political authorities, and its own perpetuations of conservative norms of family, sexuality and relationship undermine its capacity to speak prophetically into situations of injustice. 

IV. Querying the historical Christian tradition

A common feature of queer theologies, particularly those more influenced by queer critical theory, is their rejection of binary distinctions – notably male and female, but also others such as human and divine. For this reason, theologians invested in ‘uncovering’ queerness right back through the historical Christian tradition have sometimes suggested that Christ himself, in his holding-together of humanity and divinity in one body, might be understood as profoundly queer. The scholar of patristics (early Christian theology) Virginia Burrus makes just this kind of claim when she says that the Chalcedonian creed (the affirmation that Christ held together two natures in one person) ‘demands a new math, a calculus that exceeds the logic of addition and subtraction, of fractions and wholes’ and thus goes ‘beyond the categories’.[10]Tricia Sheffield agrees that the Christ imagined at Chalcedon is not either-or, but both-and: in this sense, he is queer, resisting binaries and divisions, holding together uncertainty, therefore paving the way for other ‘ambiguous’ identities in those who make up the Body of Christ, the Church.[11] To say ‘Christ is queer’ is, then, not a claim about Jesus’ sexual orientation or gender identity – though some readers have more explicitly wanted to disrupt the assumption that Jesus was necessarily heterosexual – but rather a claim about his disruption of expected norms, and solidarity with all queer people. In this way, Christ’s queerness is read in and through the various ways he resists and subverts norms of power and control. To claim Christianity as queer is to ask how Christianity might help to uncover and bring to light hidden structures of power, oppression and control, including those within its own tradition. 

In terms of classical doctrines of Christian theology, queer theology has been particularly influential in the areas of Christology (teachings about the person and work of Jesus), the doctrine of God (including Trinitarian theologies), ecclesiology (teachings about the Church), and eschatology (teachings about the ‘last things’, usually understood as including matters concerning death, judgement, the afterlife and the ‘end times’). 

Since the 1960s, influenced in particular by the work of the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann, the Church has seen a revival of interest in eschatology. In Moltmann’s own account, eschatology concerns not just the end of the world, or what might happen after death, but what goes on here and now. The work of Jesus and the Spirit is such that the ‘new creation’ has already begun to be brought into existence. Living lives marked by justice and inclusion might be understood as helping to live this new world into being. This kind of account underlies much queer-liberationist theology. However, queer-critical theologies have a more freighted relationship with doctrines of eschatology. Classically, eschatology is marked by hope for the future, for a time beyond death when the present things will have passed away. But some critical theorists, including Lee Edelman, are suspicious that investing too much in the future tends to have negative consequences for life here and now. In particular, future-oriented theologies often appeal to the need to make things better for the sake of children and other ‘innocents’. However, such appeals tend to be socially-conservative and tend to sacrifice the goods of those alive now to the goods of putative future people.[12]

Althaus-Reid formulates an account of a queer God in solidarity with those marginalized for reasons including their sex, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, class, and economic status. Since her death, other theologians have developed the project of queer theology to interrogate the doctrine of God still further. Linn Marie Tonstad, for instance, persuasively argues that many classic theologians of the mainstream Christian tradition have been distinctly untroubled by the assumption that order, procession, hierarchy, sacrifice, death and alienation are built into the relationships in the Godhead. Attempts to find warrant for gender difference in God (like identifying the Spirit with the biblical figure of Lady Wisdom) actually, suspects Tonstad, just end up solidifying the sexed and gendered nature of divine hierarchy. Appeals to human sexed and gendered difference are often made to rest on accounts of divine difference via the Trinity; however much people might appeal to the Trinity to disrupt sexist and patriarchal accounts, suggests Tonstad, the doctrine of God itself is too bound-up with its sexist and patriarchal history to be of much use here.[13] This is just one example of queer theology’s challenge to mainstream theological accounts of power and knowledge, highlighting that how we arrive at our understanding is never neutral but always impacted by our social, political and cultural circumstances – and emphasizing, too, the ways in which even challenges to power from within ‘alternative’ theologies can perpetuate their own problematic neo-orthodoxies which themselves require interrogation and critique.

V. Recent developments in queer theology

Additional significant recent works in queer theology include Kent Brintnall, Joseph Marchal and Stephen D. Moore’s 2018 collection Sexual Disorientations, which re-examines the theological and biblical traditions in conversation with queer anti-futurity, re-reading central themes such as eschatology, profiling the work of emerging queer scholars who draw on feminist, crip and critical race theory, including Brandy Daniels, Karen Bray and Jacqueline Hidalgo; Kathleen Talvacchia, Michael Pettinger and Mark Larrimore’s edited volume Queer Christianities, critically reframing traditions of celibacy, marriage and ‘excessive’ sexuality from across the tradition; Pamela Lightsey’s Womanist Queer Theologywhich sheds queer theological light on the politics of the Black Lives Matter movement; Andy Buechel’s That We Might Become God which re-reads sacramental theology and traditions of theosis/divinization in conversation with queer concerns; and Robert Shore-Goss et al.’s anthology Queering Christianity, which takes a pastoral theological approach and focuses in on questions live in church life such as the queer significance of baptism, eucharist and ecumenism. In my own work I show that institutions including marriage, parenting and family need not be understood as antithetical to queer concerns, nor that queer reframings of them constitute inherent breaks with the Christian tradition.[14]

Queer theology is no longer, then, if it ever was, primarily interested in sexuality and gender, but takes an intersectional approach which also requires interrogation of other contexts and identities such as ethnicity, disability, class and social location. In this way it has the potential to encourage reflection on faith communities and their activities in a kaleidoscopic perspective deeply committed to the pursuit of justice. Some of these more recent works respond directly to criticisms levelled at earlier queer theologies that they were too centred on white and male experience and took too little account of how these vectors of privilege had been concealed within ‘liberalizing’ theologies as well as more obviously conservative mainstream ones. It remains a conundrum within queer theology, as in queer theory more broadly, that queer is simultaneously understood as a way both to reclaim and reframe formerly-marginalized identity perspectives, and to challenge the whole notion of identity per se.

VI. Conclusion

Queer theology remains a profoundly self-reflexive area and one which is becoming increasingly better at examining its own, sometimes hidden, hierarchies and orthodoxies, particularly as these pertain to institutional (whether ecclesiastical or academic) ‘acceptability’. That queer theologies are being discussed in churches and universities at all is understood as deeply ambivalent, since this kind of mainstreaming might diminish its capacity for critique. Yet the diversification of voices and perspectives – especially, though not exclusively, in terms of sexuality and gender identity – that queer theology brings to these arenas also represents a welcome means of reinterpreting and renewing aspects of the tradition.


[1] For an accessible graphic overview of some historical and theoretical context, see Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele, Queer: A Graphic History, London: Icon, 2016.

[2] See further discussion in Susannah Cornwall, Controversies in Queer Theology, London: SCM Press, 2011; see also e.g. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London: Routledge, 1990; Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1: An Introduction, London: Penguin, 1990; David Halperin, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

[3] Nancy Wilson, Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995, p. 164. For additional work on the significance of eunuchs see e.g. Mathew Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001; Megan DeFranza, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female and Intersex in the Image of God, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015; Virginia Mollenkott, Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach, Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2007.

[4] Mark D. Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997; Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

[5] For additional useful queer critical engagements with the Bible see e.g. Deryn Guest, Robert Goss, Mona West and Thomas Bohache (eds.), The Queer Bible Commentary, London: SCM Press, 2006; Ken Stone (ed.), Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001; Teresa Hornsby and Ken Stone (eds.), Bible Trouble: Queer Reading at the Boundaries of Biblical Scholarship, Atlanta: Society for Biblical Literature, 2011.

[6] Mary Ann Tolbert, ‘Foreword: What Word Shall We Take Back?’, in Robert Goss and Mona West (eds.), Take Back the Word, Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2000, pp. vii–xii.

[7] Marcella Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology, London: Routledge, 2000, p. 88.

[8] For key texts see e.g. Elizabeth Stuart, Gay and Lesbian Theologies: Repetitions with Critical Difference, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003; Gerard Loughlin (ed.), Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

[9] See e.g. Patrick S. Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology, New York: Seabury, 2011; Patrick S. Cheng, Rainbow Theology: Bridging Race, Sexuality, and Spirit, New York: Seabury, 2013; Jay Emerson Johnson, Peculiar Faith: Queer Theology for Christian Witness, New York: Seabury, 2014; Karen Bray, ‘The Monstrosity of the Multitude: Unredeeming Radical Theology’, Palgrave Communications, 1 (2015), doi:10.1057/palcomms.2015.30; see also essays in Kent Brintnall, Joseph Marchal and Stephen D. Moore (eds.), Sexual Disorientations: Queer Temporalities, Affects, Theologies, New York: Fordham University Press, 2018.

[10] Virginia Burrus, ‘Radical Orthodoxy and the Heresiological Habit: Engaging Graham Ward’s Christology’, in Rosemary Radford Ruether and Marion Grau (eds.), Interpreting the Postmodern: Responses to ‘Radical Orthodoxy’, New York: T&T Clark, 2006, p. 40.

[11] Tricia Sheffield, ‘Performing Jesus: A Queer Counternarrative of Embodied Transgression’, Theology and Sexuality, 14 (2008), 243.

[12] Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

[13] Linn Marie Tonstad, God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of FinitudeLondon: Routledge, 2015.

[14] Kathleen Talvacchia, Michael Pettinger and Mark Larrimore (eds.), Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms, New York: New York University Press, 2015; Pamela Lightsey, Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology, Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2015; Andy Buechel, That We Might Become God: The Queerness of Creedal Christianity, Eugene: Cascade, 2015; Robert Shore-Goss, Thomas Bohache, Patrick S. Cheng and Mona West (eds.), Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at the Table for LGBTQI Christians, Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2013; Susannah Cornwall, Un/familiar Theology: Reconceiving Sex, Reproduction and Generativity, London: Bloomsbury, 2017.


Susannah Cornwall is Senior Lecturer in Constructive Theologies at the University of Exeter, UK, and Director of EXCEPT (Exeter Centre for Ethics and Practical Theology). Her books include Theology and Sexuality (2013), and Un/familiar Theology: Reconceiving Sex, Reproduction and Generativity (2017). She also edited Thinking Again About Marriage: Key Theological Questions (2016). Her current book project is a constructive theology of transgender.

Address: Dep. of Theology and Religion, University of Exeter, Amory Building, Rennes Drive Exeter EX4 4RJ, UK.