Thursday, September 20, 2012

Elizabeth Johnson's Quest for the Living God: Concluding Theological Reflections

We're still traveling, and blogging remains difficult.  I thought, however, that I might share today some reflections I've jotted down in my journal as we travel. These are about Elizabeth Johnson's book Quest for the Living God. To be more precise, they're about reminders and insights provoked for me as I reconnect to the American Catholic theological academy by reading this book. These insights are not about Elizabeth Johnson personally, and not even about her book: they're about the Catholic theological academy in which her work is situated and whom it primarily addresses.

Here's my journal reflection.  It comes in two parts.  I'll post the second tomorrow.  Part one:

I've just finished Elizabeth Johnson's Quest for the Living God, and, though I've found it wonderful in the breadth of sources and topics it surveys clearly and with verve, I've ended my reading with that same itchy feeling I always have when I rub shoulders with Catholic theologians.

I know many of the people she features here, after all.  I know quite specifically that those of us who are gay are invisible to them.  Just as their privilege as theologians presumed to be heterosexual is also invisible to them.  Their inability to see real-life, in-the-flesh LGBT human beings in their midst--and suffering due to unjust exclusion and oppression--is in direct proportion to their inability to critique their own unmerited power and privilege as theologians presumed heterosexual in a heterosexist institution.  

And so as I read, I experienced that curious bifurcation (similar to what W.E.B DuBois names as double consciousness) inside myself--in my gay flesh--that I always experience when I read the kind of theology featured in this book: Liberation.  Justice.  Practical compassion.  Seeing those made invisible.  Acting for justice with those on the margins.

My head-self, my intellect, receives these wonderful theological preoccupations with joy.  Good news! But my heart-self--the place where I reside, where my gay flesh resides--hears these gospel proclamations aimed at someone else.  At someone entirely different from me . . . .

How can they be aimed at me, when I'm simply not there for those doing political, or liberation, or feminist,* or Hispanic theology?  When I and others who live life in gay flesh are never even mentioned--not once!--as theologians condemn the reduction of some members of the human community to the status of non-persons?  As they point to the Holocaust to awaken in us some critical awareness of the dreadful human propensity to recognize the reduction of despised Others to the status of non-persons only after the fact?

After we've gassed them, crucified then, used and abused them and then thrown them away.

As Johnson notes, the theologies she surveys all arise out of practical questions raised by human communities for whom the question of God's existence is not an intellectual exercise, but a real lived question.  And so I read Steve the striking and beautiful passages in this book, and he nods, exclaiming at their power.

But then he says, reminding me of the practical questions that have arisen in our lives as openly gay Catholic theologians, which complicate our search for God's redemptive presence in our lives:

And look at our lives.  Years of study, excellent track records as teachers and scholars.  And look where we are now. 
No Catholic institution would hire us.  They threw us away gladly and willingly, lying to us and about us, never giving us a bona fide reason for what they did to us.  You don't even have a paying, full-time job.  The only way we can get by is with my salary, for which I'm grateful. 
But theology?  What does it have to do with the work I've ended up doing, to sustain our lives?  When do I have time to read theology?   What do these pretty words have to do with us now?

I try to fathom the dynamics that can enable people to write such pretty words full of powerful liberating insight, while they appear utterly incapable of applying the words to one particular marginalized community right in front of their faces but invisible to them and unnamed (and therefore quite specifically non-persons), and a word that sounds out of the darkness of these dynamics as I struggle to understand them is the word "lie."

People are capable of imagining that the unmerited suffering of despised Others is simply not in the room--that the real, living and breathing flesh of despised Others is not there--primarily when they have believed lies about those Others.  And have not encountered them as living and breathing human beings whose flesh is consubstantial with all other human flesh.

The lie: this is an experience for which little in my formative years prepared me--the experience of dealing with toxic lies that reduce my human status to a subhuman level.  I grew up, after all, as a white male in a culture that gives enormous privilege to white males.  TO BE CONTINUED**

*Some sectors of feminist theology have, of course, directly engaged heterosexism.  But they're only faintly represented in the American Catholic theological academy, where many people--feminists included--like to play games contrasting what they imagine to be the privilege of gay men in the Catholic church with the oppression of women.  And so rather than making common cause with gay folks, some Catholic feminists actually work to drive wedges between gay men and women, playing what they imagine to be the privilege of the former against the oppression of the latter.

**Please see the second part of this posting, which continues this statement.

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