The Argument A Frontier

Back in October this lady I follow, Jo, tweeted this thing about decolonizing faith that I didn’t really understand:

“If all our theological takes are Christian then we are not engaging in theology, but in Christian theology. The differentiation matters.

Native theology is theology
Muslim theology is theology
Secular theology is theology

To believe only Christian theology is valid is supremacy”

I mean, I got some of it. The first bit is pretty straightforward, and not particularly controversial. ‘Theology’ is a general term, as lots of different religions have their own beliefs about God. Muslims have theology, pagans have theology, whatever. Like ‘religion’, ‘theology’ is not a word that’s inherently attached to Christianity – so if you’re only doing Christian theology, it makes sense to call it Christian theology and not just ‘theology’ in its blanket, general usage. Fair enough.

I’m less sure about the final line – that is, I’m just not sure exactly what’s intended. I’m not sure what ‘valid’ means in this context. There are two likely options. First, it could mean that it’s supremacist to refuse other religions the use of the term theology, even if we disagree with them. That makes sense to me. Having a theology doesn’t make it necessarily true, but you know, I don’t think anyone should begrudge the use of the term. Muslims have Muslim theologies – sure, obviously. Second, it could mean that it’s supremacist to believe that only Christian theology is true. This one – I don’t know, I have conflicting thoughts on it. I do worry about the relationship between Christianity and fascism. I worry that the exclusive truth claims of Christianity will inevitably result in the persecution and violent murder of people of different faiths (again). At the same time, I do think that the exclusive truth claims of Christianity are true. I don’t really know how to resolve that tension. It’s something I’m trying to learn about, something I’m reading about and researching – and, you know, it’s part of the reason why I follow Jo. I think she’s got some interesting things to say. And regardless of whether I agree or disagree with her, she’s identified a problem that troubles me.

So, you know, I did the normal thing when you see a tweet like this. I wondered what ‘valid’ was supposed to mean in that context, and then I moved on with my life. More recently – a couple days ago, as I’m writing this – Jo tweeted about how some Hillsong pastor had picked up her tweet and gone on a bit of a rampage, and then all his little shithead followers were reporting her account to get her blocked and sending her incitements to suicide and calling her the c-word and all the rest of it. And that’s sort of where I want to start today.

In one sense, there’s nothing unique about this situation. Plenty of people get dogpiled and harassed online every day. We can see some of the common types of people who engage in that behaviour here – for instance, some of them are just saying cruel things, just being offensive for the sake of it. They aren’t doing anything valuable or useful, and they’re not really interesting, except maybe as an example of how opposition is used to define the borders of an identity. There’s a certain type of person who has a belief, and in order to affirm themselves in that belief they go round being rude to people who disagree with them. They’re maintaining their sense of identity by patrolling its boundaries, by attacking the people who fall outside of it. There’s this sense that anyone who exists outside of the group has relinquished their right to any sort of considerate, decent treatment.

And yet what we see is that when people define their boundaries in such close opposition to another group, they in a sense link themselves with their opponents. A boundary is also a meeting place. It’s an intersection, a point of transition. When battle lines are drawn up between two parties, the two are stitched together, edge to edge, join to join. It’s generally considered inappropriate to say that homophobes are all secretly gay themselves, but you understand why people say it. Hatred of gay people can seem like a sort of obsession, a fixation best explained in the language of attraction. Even if homophobes aren’t secretly attracted to the same sex, they are at the very least attracted to the idea of being really mad about gay people. And this isn’t an issue that’s restricted to conservatives, either. If you spend all your time getting mad about homophobes, you are in a sense stitching yourself to them. You’re drawing up your character in terms of the things you oppose, linking yourself to them through your opposition. There’s something to be said for an ideology that, instead of opposing, cuts across and through. It’s the ideology of a thief or a vagrant, of disruptive transience rather than bristlingly armed borders.

Let me tell you a bit of a personal story. I grew up in a homophobic church context. I don’t remember anyone directly saying anything about gay people, but I do remember growing up with the belief that there was something wrong with them. As I moved away from that position over time, there was a point where I felt obliged to learn about all the different Bible verses that talked about homosexuality, and learn how to rebut all the different arguments, and – you know, I got books out of the library, books by queer theologians and queer Biblical scholars, and I started reading them, and I – honestly, I decided I didn’t care. I set out to establish and defend the border, and I ultimately decided that it didn’t need defending – that I didn’t need to spend all my time preparing to fight against waves of Christian bigots. I just don’t feel the obligation to know all the arguments, to know all these little snippets of Aramaic and Hebrew – because as far as I’m concerned, the validity of gay faith doesn’t hinge on those arguments. I’m glad to know that the arguments exist, that there are geographies of thought where queer Christians can take up residence and find community and solidarity, but I don’t feel the need to be on border patrol.

To be clear, it’s not that every border is chosen by people on both sides. If you’re in a queer relationship, there are people who will pursue you and set themselves against you, such that you need to establish borders and boundaries just to keep them from the door. Transience involves a level of privilege, in that it implies the ability to pass from place to place without being questioned or challenged. Even so, for the people for whom it is an option, transience offers its own sort of spiritual potency. The transient is a pilgrim, a traveller who has abandoned their home and sense of belonging in pursuit of a new homeland that they know they will not see in this life. Their departure begins when they recognise the insufficiency of their original home, and more broadly the insufficiency of home as a practice. Transience becomes an ethical stance against idolatry: that is, while a home can briefly serve as a productive symbol of the eternal homeland, it inevitably calcifies and becomes an idol – a symbol that eclipses its referent, a sign that is mistaken for the thing in itself. Transience is therefore an ethical practice, refusing rootedness in pursuit of the eternal, in the style of 1 Corinthians 13: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” It insists on knowledge as partial, and shifts and mutates its base of reference in an effort to resist calcification and idolatry. The attendant psychological sense of rootlessness ultimately becomes an act of commemoration, of mortification, a deliberate and often painful orienting towards the eternal.

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