Thursday, February 20, 2014

Marcella Althaus-Reid : Saint of a sexually embodied spirituality

Marcella Althaus-Reid

Marcella Althaus-Reid was a major queer theologian whose books include “Indecent Theology” and “The Queer God.” Born in Argentina, she became the first woman appointed to a chair in the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland in 2006. She held that post when she died at age 56 on Feb. 20, 2009 -- five years ago today. Here is a new original reflection on her life and work by a scholar who knew her personally.

Marcella Althaus-Reid : Saint of a sexually embodied spirituality

By Hugo Córdova Quero

It is difficult to speak of someone who has recently passed away as a “saint.” Commonly, the popular belief is that someone who is considered a “saint” lived many centuries in the past. There is a need to “normalize” and “sanitize” the saint’s life in order to make it almost “perfect.” The temporal distance achieves this effect. If this is the rule through which the life and work of Marcella Althaus-Reid should be measured, then we are faced with someone who can hardly be placed inside this closet. If there is anything that Marcella did in her life, it was to come out of the closets that both culture and society as well as religion and theology have imposed on us through centuries of Christian history.

However, there is another kind of “holiness” which is not governed by perfection, but by its opposite, namely, imperfection, fragility and potentiality. The famous words of St. Paul “power made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12.9b); and “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Cor 4.7) are a guide in this respect. Saints are not super-heroes who can do almost everything; rather, they are individuals who have incarnated and embodied the depths of our humanity. This humanity, nonetheless, is not perfect, and its perfection is fully attainable only when embraced by the divine power. Latin America testifies to countless popular saints who embody precisely this “holiness from the underside.” Marcella is part of that popular tradition.

Marcella was born in Rosario, one of the major cities in the State of Santa Fe, Argentina, on May 11, 1952. Although raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, in her teen years she encountered the Evangelical Methodist Church of Argentina. Inspired by this tradition, she studied theology at the Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teologicos (known as ISEDET for its acronym in Spanish), the ecumenical seminary in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She then pursued her doctorate at Saint Andrew’s University in Fife, Scotland.

Marcella is mostly known for her indecent theology, which is also the title of her first book, published in 2000. In that book, she states:

The paradigm is an indecent paradigm, because it undresses and uncovers sexuality and economy at the same time. Not only do we need an Indecent Theology which can reach the core of theological constructions, insofar as they are rooted in sexual constructions, for the sake of understanding our sexuality, we also need it because theological truths are currencies dispensed and acquired in theological economic markets (2000: 19).

This quotation challenges us to face the materiality of theological constructions, which are closely related to bodily, sexual and relational aspects. However, by conceiving theology as an element of decency — understanding decency as control and regulation — it has been used to spiritualize those areas. Nothing is further away from the work of Marcella. For her, holiness does not only come through hearing “the word of Christ” (Ro 10.17), but also from listening to our own experiences, including — or should I say, mostly — our sexual experiences:

Why to do a theology of sexual stories? Is that not too particular, or too concerned with the ‘private realm’ of a person? The answer is no, because sexuality does not stay at home, or in a friend’s bedroom, but permeates our economic, political and societal life. Theology has always been a great theoretical discourse on hetero-normativity, prescribing sexual relations at home and in the public spheres of life (2000: 131).

One way to do this is by highlighting sexual histories either by reading the Bible from a sexual point of view or through listening to the stories of lovers as a divine revelation. The spirituality of Marcella unfolds a theology that embodies all human reality, not only those areas which are socially considered “decent.” In this, Marcella faithfully follows the Cappadocian Fathers, especially Gregory of Nazianzus (330-390 AD) who claims “what [Christ] has not assumed, has not been saved, because he has saved what he has also assumed to his divinity” (Ep. 101). An embodied spirituality must also be sexual. Otherwise, salvation is not completely attainable. Marcella thus guides us towards a spirituality which does not force us to sever our sexuality. On the contrary, she leads us to honor it as a path to holiness. Her indecent theology is a truly queer theology that has opened the doors of the closets of traditions and prejudices and prophetically calls us out to walk towards liberation.

A prolific writer, teacher and lecturer, Marcella penned two books, edited eight collections where she gave the opportunity to new scholars to present their work, and published more than fifty articles and chapters in academic journals and books. However, despite her tireless dedication, Marcella always had time to nurture her spirituality and cultivate her friendships. I had the privilege of knowing her work when I was taking a Masters of Arts at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. After our initial contact, we quickly became friends and I was always surprised that amidst her busy academic life, she devoted a considerable space of time to cultivate our friendship. It was she who invited me to publish my first article in an academic journal. When the article was published and I wrote to thank her support, she replied:

Hugo, when I was studying theology, because of being a woman and thinking differently, many people failed to understand me. It was difficult. It cost me much effort and struggle to progress in my career. I believe in your work, so I support it. When you become well known, promise me that you will do your best to act in solidarity with others who are like us “in the struggle.” Only then will we build community, only in that way will we produce liberation.

These words made me realize that Marcella was not an “armchair theologian,” but someone who sincerely “lived her preaching,” that she embodied each of her words. Her life was always a struggle in the midst of which she never lost the freshness of knowing what it is to be alive and that there is always a possibility of change for the better. Although she did not find her academic space in Argentina — maybe exemplifying that “Prophets are not without honor except in their own in own country” (Mt 13.57) — she never let go of her roots or her happiness. For those who were privileged to know her, in one way or another, the sense that life is worth living — although not without struggle — was a hallmark of her life, faith, spirituality and work, moreover an encouragement in our friendship.

The death of Marcella on February 22, 2009 in Edinburgh, Scotland, left a deep void not only in her family and in those who knew her, but also in the academic world where her prophetic voice emerged as an icon of queer theologies. Marcella was my dear friend and a member of my doctoral committee while I was studying at the Graduate Theological Union. She died a month before I defended my dissertation. It has been five years since she was with us and I really miss her. I miss our conversations, with that mixture of philosophy and laughter, intellectual depth and sensitivity to the most human situations of everyday life. She always has a word of comfort to guide me in my formation as a scholar. I feel that her death evoked the same emotions that I have when I read the testimony of the Gospels on the experience of the disciples in light of the death of Jesus; it makes me question why good people die early. However, quickly I am struck by the connection of death with the event of the resurrection, not as a dogma that has to be believed and repeated because it was just taught to me. On the contrary, the resurrection becomes the hope that I hold dearly that in God, somehow, in some way, we will live again in community. Marcella knew about this when she wrote these words in her book From Feminist Theology to Indecent Theology (2004):

The fact is that Jesus’ resurrection was also a community event: women and men witnessed how he came back from death, walked among them and continued the dialogue which existed before his crucifixion. Every death changes the life of the survivors, because some humanity is removed from them, so it is legitimate to think that, starting with Jesus’ resurrection, a whole community of people who suffered his loss when he was crucified came back to life again. Their eyes were opened in the sense that death took on another meaning; the resurrection became the paradigm showing us the durability and indestructibility of life and justice (2004: 113).

In her indecent theology, Marcella ably demonstrated a spirituality that interrupts the dictates of society and its counterparts in religious institutions, while bringing into the conversation our realities and sexual stories. Marcella, our popular Latin American saint, invites us to queer and embody a spirituality that is not surprised to find God in the theological reflection of our sexual histories. Those sexual stories — although imperfect — reveal our full humanity, and — although indecent — they are truly mystical. Saint Marcella’s proposal of a fully sexually embodied spirituality finally seduces us towards embracing our own liberation. I miss you so much, my holy friend!

Althaus-Reid, Marcella (2000). Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics. London: Routledge.

Althaus-Reid, Marcella (2004). From Feminist Theology to Indecent Theology. London: SCM Press.

Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 101.

Hugo Córdova Quero holds a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies in Religion, Ethnicity and Migration from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He received a Master of Arts in Systematic Theology, Queer Theory and (Post)-Colonial Studies from the Graduate Theological Union (2003) and a Master’s in Divinity from ISEDET University in Buenos Aires (1998). Currently he is Adjunct Faculty at Starr King School for the Ministry (SKSM) at the Graduate Theological Union. His busy schedule includes writing and translating for the Santos Queer blog.


A Spanish version of this article is posted at the Santos Queer Blog:
Marcella Althaus-Reid: Santa de una espiritualidad sexualmente encarnada

Links to books by or about Marcella Althaus-Reid:

Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics

The Queer God

From Feminist Theology to Indecent Theology

Liberation Theology and Sexuality

Dancing theology in fetish boots: Essays in honour of Marcella Althaus Reid

More books by Marcella Althaus-Reid

Related links:

Official website

Prof Marcella Althaus-Reid obituary and memorial page: Light a candle or add your own tribute

Remembering Marcella Althaus-Reid, “Indecent theologian” (Queer Saints and Martyrs - And Others)

En La Caminata: Remembering Marcella Althaus-Reid” by Alejandro Escalante (Indecent Theology blog)

This post is part of a new effort to add authors and theologians to the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

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