Sacrament as Excess

I’ve been going back over some of the work I began last summer on a paper attempting to think sexuality and marriage theologically. This is to be a reworking of my undergraduate thesis, which will probably bear little resemblance to that paper in any way except a reuse of one or two sources and a concern with thinking “good news” for queer folk that actually is good news (as per my previous post). I really think that the way Paul locates marriage among those natural orders that Christians are free w/r/t is crucial to thinking sexuality as something that is “queered” as it mingles with the body of Christ by baptism/crucifixion/resurrection. The struggle for me, then, is how to think that alongside the sacramental status of marriage in the post-Pauline church (which, in practice, is hard not to read as a straight endorsement of marriage as such).

As I was thinking through the deadlocks I reached before the semester started, I started wondering about the sacramental status of marriage alongside Zizek’s notion of overconformity; the way to break up an ideological order, for Zizek, is not to simply resist explicitly (resistance is what the order counts on) but to identify fully with one of the operative rules of law at work in that order, refusing the implicit exceptions by which the law functions. For Zizek, this act of taking the law more seriously than it is built to be taken subverts the law’s own ideological function and breaks it apart as a functionary of the given order. While Zizek works out this notion of overconformity from a reading of Paul’s reflections on the law in Romans, he distances himself from the notion that this is a straightforward reading of what Paul is doing; it seems to him to be an operative logic that Paul gropes at but never quite identifies explicitly.

I’m starting to wonder, though, if something like this excessive character really is at work in the way Paul addresses issues other than the law (gender and marriage, for instance). Furthermore, I’m wondering if this logic of excess is endemic to the notion of sacrament itself.

One helpful thing for me about this way of thinking, at least while I’m “trying it on,” is that it fits rather nicely with Paul’s proclamations of freedom AND his non-libertinism. It also deals well with the manifestly “excessive” character of pre/Augustinian treatments of marriage/celibacy. Thus, the other side of the coin (of getting so damn married that polite, married society can only say “whoah, slow down, buddy”) is getting so damn not-married that tempered, discerning, independent folks can only say “whoah, slow down, buddy.” The trick, from there, is that it’s easy to inscribe even that into a sort of “right” and “churchy” way of doing sexuality. I think it’s pretty obvious that that’s the world we now live in. Even if there’s something to this schema of sacramental excess, it’s difficult to know what to do with it in a world where even excessive marriage and celibacy have been successfully assimilated into the power complex of marriage itself.

Maybe, remembering how marriage is to be sacramental doesn’t help one “know what to do,” so much as it reminds us that the position we’re in is always that of eunuchs who are to receive other eunuchs as means’ of grace? Which is not to say that the sacrament is not to be practiced, but that it is to be practiced only sacramentally; that is, only as a way of learning to be opened/given for the life of the world. A good friend and prominent influence of mine recently asked the (rhetorical) question “what if all sacraments were nothing more than the irruption of the crucifixion/resurrection of Jesus into the institutions of normal well-adjusted life?” I think this gets close to where I want to be going, but the problem I can’t shake is that the sacraments manifestly aren’t that. It seems exceedingly easy for this sort of sacramental talk to get re-inscribed in a mindset where the most revolutionary thing one can do is prop up actually existing church practices. It may be my pessimism, or it may be my heavy Quaker influences, but it seems to me that even and especially our rituals and patterns of being churchy have to die before they can be something else.

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The Unground of Our Being

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Nothing is real, if “real” is taken to mean anything beyond a momentary existence. Everything is ambiguous and transitory, unstable. People, which is to say, humans, can only perceive their perceptions. The perceiving of perceptions enables people to be affected. But even this affectedness is not a universal. The perceiver, which is to say the “I,” who is an I by the very nature of her being a perceiver, does not always allow affectedness. In order to enable affectedness, where affectedness means something like what Slavoj Žižek calls being moved to the point of the movements being traumatic (though in a good sense), one views the Other with which one is confronted as a “Thou.” Insofar as one views the Other one encounters as an “It,” she will be incapable of this engagement.

The traumatic affectedness of encountering the Other in all of her Thou-ness does not merely affect one in such a way that one is moved to a greater or lesser degree but remains stable, but moves one in such a manner that the very makeup of her world is altered. Her perceiving of her perceptions change, not because she is nearer the “actual truth” but because the mode of perceiving as well as the Others that she perceives have been fundamentally altered. There is only present, and present is never and will never be static or stable. The past is only existent insofar as it is re-membered and re-présented (that is, [ɹiˈpɹɛzɪntɪd] in IPA, or [ree-prez-int-id] in free form). There is no Kantian “thing-in-itself” that simply cannot be reached or perceived; there is only continual re-ideation of existence.

With this in mind, I think a great linguistic misappropriation has brought confusion and disorientation (vis a vis “faux-stabilized orientation,” as it were) into the “Christian” lexicon. Even this word, “Christian,” has seen stabilizing attempts. Where to travel to “God” through the “Spirit” by “Christ” should be existential and constantly moving, never ceasing to undo and re-ideate, a concerted effort has been made to capture it and ground it, keeping it from its “beyond control-ness.” These other words–“God,” “Spirit,” and “Christ”–are also taken captive by a grounding motive. “God” becomes this being, this entity, this force, moving away from the perplexing “I am who I am/will be.” “Spirit” becomes this force that can be called upon, manipulated. “Christ” becomes this entity that can be asked into one’s heart, understood by one and described.

Instead, these words should be understood as sorts of verbs, or perhaps allowed their own descriptor that is not so limiting. Their ideations are not, I think, either to be understood as grounded in any sense other than their co-temporary grounding as potential affectors and affecteds.

The world is made up of a continual bouncing between the particular “I’s” who are not allowed to remain still, ever, though they cluster together in packs and try to hold on to some groundedness. These clusters try to trap others in their faux-grounding, causing those who “are” otherwise-than-the-faux-grounding to despair in their present. The hope for the future (again, “future” is only ever a part of “present”) is a hope that, though one is trapped by those who would ground the ungrounded, a loosening of the cracks might occur that in turn might affect an irrupting of this faux-grounding, allowing “I” to be affected–traumatized, in a good sense–by the other “I’s” with whom she is confronted.

A Modest Plea Against Theological Inclusiveness

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This week, as has become customary every couple of years or so, I re-read Marcella Althaus-Reid’s contribution to the book Another Possible World, a 2005 compilation of conference papers evaluating the state of then-contemporary theologies of liberation. In her essay she accuses, not only the usual targets, (mainstream, “European” theologies) but liberationist thought itself of being incapable of thinking rigorously about the intersection of poverty, class, and queer bodies. Althaus-Reid ties this inability to a number of factors: for instance, liberationist thinking is militarist and identitarian in a way that predisposes it to concessions of efficacy and expedience. Thus, the poor is most prominently poor, straight, males, and once those problems are addressed, [for the liberationist] we can move on to include women, queer folk, etc. It’s important not to read her point reductively: it’s not that liberationists are secret queer-phobes, or that they would claim to be doing this prioritizing, but instead these priorities play out at the level of material relations. A radical sermon from the likes of James Cone, she notes, seems easier for militant churches to receive than the actual concrete relations implied by the collision of cultural and sexual difference in their midst. Also important to note is the way that the target of Reid’s ire is not merely exclusive, but in fact inclusive rhetoric. She doesn’t spend a lot of time on this particular point, but I want to draw attention here. Because of the formal properties (the closure) of inclusionary process, inclusionary self-identity can’t receive difference as such uncolonially, no matter how transgressive the identity is upon which inclusion is based.

Queer is, it seems to me, for a number of reasons, the one predicative identity that gets closest to the ability to do some theological work. Its etymology and history are both really nicely suggestive, and thus tempting to take up in a certain way (for me, even more tempting, etymologically, than, say, “poor” or “oppressed”). The word, in its earliest use, carries connotations of “de-centered,” “oblique.” It’s not hard to see why, especially working from an apocalyptic framework, the word is ecclesiologically attractive. The trouble, though, is that there’s a certain sedentary nature to (even that!) naming that makes a home in a world where there really are “straights” to hate and name “queers.” I really do believe that we are to live and work and gather in a way that can only be called “queer” by a “straight” world, and that’s part of what makes it tempting to embrace such a name for oneself. The word “queer” comes to “queer” folk as violence from the beginning, however, and to proclaim a shared “queerness” with those to whom that name has come not by choice is to forget that violence. If we are to be called queer, it can only be insofar as a straight world recognizes us as something that does not fit, and as already-queer folks recognize us as folks who are cast out alongside them. All that requires living, and working, and gathering in a certain way, and it requires gathering in a way that isn’t so much about inviting already-called-queer people into something (perhaps a place where the name Christian might come to them) but instead to a kind of intermingling to the point that we might become indistinguishable.

This, to me, as many things do, points back to that discursive aporia of Christian theology Lucas gestures towards in his first post. Christian attempts to think the significance of queer bodies theologically have historically had very little to say that can register meaningfully as “good news” to queer folk. In light of a long history of Christian violence, it seems rather hard to imagine “well, now you can join too” as news anybody’s going to really appreciate. This isn’t to denigrate open and affirming congregations; if anything, I’m saying that’s the least a little local church could do. Perhaps what I’m saying is that any attempt to move beyond the discursive aporia is going to have to be reckoned by its ability to think beyond the given categories for sexual discourse in the contemporary West, and is going to have to be radically unconcerned with its own self-identity. It’s going to have to be a way of thinking, say, the significance of the person Jesus, that neither insists on a sort of originary harmony in denial of the violence that underwrites the contemporary order nor leaves the maimed and silenced and killed with no place to stand and no word to say.