Joseph Goh is a Lecturer in Gender Studies at the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University Malaysia. He holds a PhD in gender, sexuality and theology, and his research interests include queer and LGBTI studies, human rights and sexual health issues, diverse theological and religious studies, and qualitative research. In this interview he talks to Ahmad Fuad Rahmat, a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham Malaysia campus, where he researches the politics of Malay masculinity and its popular-cultural manifestations.
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Welcome to the show!
Thank you, thank you for having me.
I’m actually happy to finally have you because we’ve been corresponding a lot over the past year or so trying to find a time to have you on, and I know you that were working on your PhD at that point, and I understand. I’m trying to wrap it up soon as well, and it gets very hectic, but we are finally glad to have you.
Thank you very much. I appreciate your invitation and let’s get it going!
Definitely! So, you are a queer theologian. Now that’s a very interesting combination of terms, because we don’t often hear them together. Perhaps we can start with that – not just what those two terms mean, but how you came to combine them together. What inspired you to eventually move into this discourse?
When I did my graduate studies in the United States, I focused very much on traditional forms of theologizing. Basically, sacramental theology and liturgy, which in the Roman Catholic system, are very important elements of worship and how people relate to God materially. Eventually I realised that, while all that good work was going on, a lot of people were being left behind and side-lined, because they were seen as theologically invalid. These people mostly comprise the LGBT community, so we’re talking about lesbian women, gay men, transgender people, bisexual people, and other queer people.
They had two choices: they could either leave the church and practise their lifestyles as they wish, and abandon their faith, or they could, for want of a better term, repent, be counselled, give up their lifestyles, and then be valid Christians.
This was particularly strong in the Roman Catholic church and in other mainstream churches, and what intrigued me was that there were a lot of scholars who did not see sexuality and the discourse on God as separate and inimical entities. And what they sort of suggested was that, it was possible to live LGBT lives while having a strong relationship with God. That was probably in… 2008, 2009 when I first heard that and I thought, that must be a mistake, that’s impossible! And yet the more I read the more I realised that yes, queer theology fosters the idea that it is possible to be oneself and connect to God as oneself.
Now, that I imagine, was a very difficult move to make because even before the discussion on including sexual minorities there was still an ongoing discussion around making spaces inclusive for women, right? It’s going that far out; it must have been quite a daunting journey for you.
Oh yes. I suppose it was during that time that my theological activism sort of flared up and I realised that theology was just catering to the safe zones; it’s just catering to respectable people, decent people, who sort of fit the bill. But then, my theological training had informed me that theology, as Stephen Bevans says, is always contextual. There is no such thing as objective theology, if you like. There is no such thing as fundamental, official theology. If you look at the history of Christianity, it has always been contextualised.
It started with this carpenter from Nazareth, so Christianity in the beginning was Jewish, and then it spread into the Greco-Roman world and became an entity that reflected the lives, the wisdom, and the knowledge of the Greco-Roman people. Then, over time it spread out to the rest of the world and now we have all forms of contextual theology: black theology, Asian theology, and environmental theology too. Eco theology is a big thing now, and also feminist theology, and now queer theology. What we’re looking at is the idea that queer theology is just one among many conversations happening in the theological realm.
I was Jesuit-educated for a while, and one of the things I appreciate about the Catholic tradition is that it does have this rich legacy of discourse – intellectual discourse absorbing questions from the Arab-Islamic world. And really, the tome is canon. I found that very refreshing, but I often wondered, “why still stick within that frame, why not just go to say, the Anglican discourse which seems to be making waves in terms of inclusion?”
One of the common responses I got was that there is this affinity to tradition itself. The idea that history makes the exploration richer, right? This makes it different from just finding a church that is already inclusive – perhaps not rooted to that discourse. How important is tradition in your journey, and this idea that you are part of a longer historical question?
I’m glad you brought that up. I want to start responding to your question, Fuad, by quoting something from Gayatri Spivak when she was here at Universiti Malaya. She said something that I will always remember. She started the talk by saying, “you need to ask what’s at stake, for all parties involved.”
I think perhaps for mainstream churches such as the Roman Catholic church, there is a lot at stake, and you brought up one very important element, which is tradition. Many mainstream churches try very hard to preserve what they consider to be the canonical, pure discourse about God that we have inherited over the ages. Maybe to understand the idea of theology a bit further, I think it is important to go back to the basics and that is the idea that theology by and large has four sources. The first source is sacred scripture, the second is tradition, the third is reason, and the fourth is human experience. So that is what we call a quadrilateral source for theologizing. The problem is that, these elements… these components of theology, are often seen as static.
The Latin theologian Orlando Espin has reminded us that there is no such thing as tradition. What you have is the idea of tradition-ing. Tradition is an evolution. It is a process and a journey which started at one point in time but never really ended. As tradition progresses, it is important to see how it impacts human lives.
If tradition begins to oppress people, then the idea of tradition-ing has to loom even larger and make way for thought. You know there’s this idea that we want to preserve tradition. “It’s the Christian tradition, that’s what we’ve always done”, but the very idea that this is something that we’ve always done is false.
So tradition according to what you are saying is it is not this static thing; it is something that you constantly rediscover, reinterpret, recode, given its responses to contemporary challenges.
Exactly. So what are people saying now? How does theology speak to people, to actual human lives, and what are actual human lives saying to theology? There must be that ongoing conversation; there must be that ongoing tradition-ing.
Now I want to ask about how this is in dialogue with the broader discourse. Is this just an academic branch? I understand Catholic discourse can get very cerebral, and very scholastic, so is it just within that frame or is this being translated into practise?
Hmm. When you use the word ‘Catholic’, I think for a lot of people, especially for our listeners, the idea of ‘Catholic’ automatically translates into Roman Catholic. There are many forms of Catholicism. A lot of us would be familiar with Orthodox Christianity, Orthodox Catholicism rather, and Anglican Catholicism. At the moment, there is also a proliferation of old Catholic movements.
The old Catholic movement, to which I belong, has no affiliation with Rome and is a movement of churches that hold fast to Catholic traditions but do not pay allegiance to Rome. They moved away from the Roman institution in the 19th century.
When we talk about queer theology, yes it is cerebral, yes it is very much centred on the academia, and a lot of the early books talked about queer theology from an academic perspective. In order to understand queer theology, we have to remember that queer theology is not something that just fell from heaven onto our laps. Queer theology is actually a confluence of various theologies and ideas. Foucauldian thought is very big on queer theology – the idea of subversion and deconstruction, and if I would like to add, reconstruction.
Feminist theology has a big role to play as well, not to forget liberation theology, and also lesbian, gay, and bisexual theologies. For a lot of people, queer theology equals lesbian and gay theologies. That is not true. Lesbian and gay theologies began around the 70’s with the gay liberation movement in the United States, focusing on a more apologetic approach to theology, by insisting that gay men and lesbian women had a role to play in the Christian economy – that they were worth something.
A lot of it was to justify the presence of gay men and lesbian women who were both sexually diverse and active in their faith at the same time. The problem was that this movement soon gave rise to the idea that there is a lesbian world and a gay world. People started asking, “what about transgender people? What about bisexual people? What about practises that did not fit into the respectable forms of sexual diversity like polyamory and BDSM?”, and “why were these forms of sexual expressions seen as inferior to the more respectable forms?”
Queer theologians like Marcella Althaus-Reid and Bob Goss began to move into the direction of pulling away from lesbian and gay theologies and working them into queer theologizing which was a lot more transgressive, a lot more inclusive, and opened the eyes of the theological world to the fact that there were other resources that had before this been side-lined.
What we’re having now is this whole idea that God is present in the unfamiliar and the irreverent, and that’s nothing new. Because if you look at the life of Christ himself, where did he find God? Where did he preach God? He did so in places that are often considered as irreverent and immoral. Queer theology is actually a theological method of going back to basics and looking at the person of Christ himself, who was radically inclusive.
What are your further thoughts on that connection before we move on to the more theoretical component?
I had previously mentioned the idea of the quadrilateral – the sources of theology – and one of the important sources of theology is human lives, or human experience, but for the longest time, that usually translated as heterosexual, heteronormative lives. What queer theologizing is trying to do now is to also encompass queer lives and LGBT lives, and to look at how LGBT people live not just human lives, but lives in connection with God.
You know, queer theologians like Nancy Wilson and Marcella Althaus-Reid had always said that we need to begin not from any philosophical foundation for theologizing, but we need to begin from actual human lives and experiences and knowledge and circumstances. That’s very important. So that becomes the fundamental premise for queer theologizing, and as it comes from the people, it goes back to the people.
Now, I admit, a lot of queer theologizing is really way up there, and it projects a lot of very interesting ideas that people probably can’t live out. What a lot of people are trying to do now, especially queer churches around the world is to make queer theologizing – the salient points in queer theologizing – palatable to the average LGBT Christian.
Work has been done in churches like Free Community Church in Singapore and maybe the Blessed Community Fellowship in Hong Kong. The Queer Theology Academy in Hong Kong is also trying to make queer theology more liveable. A lot of people get inspiration from Patrick Cheng’s book as well, ‘Radical Love’, which is a very important and very detailed introduction to queer theology.
You know, a lot of these things I find interesting largely because there is this perception that queer theory outside its engagement with theology, while antinormative, tends to be antisocial, right? So one of the things I find curious is about the way you apply queer theory in this case. Community is so important, right? It’s presumed that that’s what theory is actually about.
Now let’s branch into the question of theory and discussion: What does it mean then to be antinormative, to be transgressive in this regard? I mean on one hand there is inclusion. You are bringing this marginalised community into recognition, but then that sounds normative in a way, because you’re including them in the “fold”. So where is antinormativity in this project?
That’s a very important question. I think a lot of us are exposed to the rise of homonormativity in which gay and lesbian people, transgender, bisexual, and other queer people want to fit into mainstream living. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I think that a lot of people need to be able to live. Using a Butlerian perspective, a lot of people are abjected, and because of that they fall outside the perimeters of liveability.
If you’re not straight and you do not follow heteronormative lines, and you don’t fit into society therefore you are outside. You have less opportunities for growth and for flourishing as compared to your heterosexual, heteronormative counterparts. So it’s not necessarily a bad thing. On the other hand, I think the idea of being antinormative cuts way beyond the LGBT issue and right into heterosexual communities as well. Let’s look at it this way.
How many purportedly heterosexual families live according to heteronormative lines? You could take two families together and they live very differently. In one family you could have the dad who likes to wear dresses at night and nobody talks about it, and you have another family where they’ve consciously decided that they don’t want to have children.
So you might have heterosexual families who are still antinormative, so the idea of non-heteronormativity or railing against oppressive forms of normativity, is not just for LGBT people. It’s for everyone. That we have the fundamental right to live as we want to live, as long as we cause no harm to ourselves or to others.
Yes, sometimes we take the word ‘normal’ for granted as if we know what it means. When we look at it closer, very few things actually fit that criteria of ‘normal’, because there are many sides to us that we don’t necessarily feel connect well to our normal sides.
There’s a side of us that is unconscious, that we don’t even know that we’re performing, and that can’t be classified easily. Let’s go back to the intellectual roots. You said that this began in the 70s. What was the text at that time that moved the queer theologians to say that, alright, this can be a good interlocutor for our project? You mentioned Foucault. Can you elaborate on that more?
There are several seminal texts. They don’t come to mind immediately at the moment but I can easily talk about it later. Maybe just to focus on one or two, and since we mentioned Foucault. I think one of the more important interlocutors for queer theologizing as in the case of queer theorising, is Michel Foucault.
His idea that power exists in discourse, but that power infiltrates every aspect, every nook and cranny of human life and incites resistance. His vision of radical subversion, and his vision of deconstruction has been pivotal in queer theologizing, because it has challenged Christian theological ideas that “we are doing what has always been done”, which is not the case. When you subvert and you deconstruct, you begin to see the cracks in queer theology and you realize that it’s not a perfect package that has been handed down from one generation to the next. There are fissures, there are interruptions, and there are a lot of situations in which theology has went through upheavals in order to arrive at where it is today.
The idea of subversion and deconstruction also suggests that there is no real point of arrival for theology. Earlier I mentioned Espin’s idea of tradition-ing. So when I talk about queer theology, I’m also thinking about queer theologizing, which is a process that never really ends, because it is constantly being deconstructed.
It is constantly being subverted, and these processes are happening because it is the human lives that appropriate and embody theologizing. And even when we talk about queer theologizing, it’s more appropriate to talk about queer ‘theologizings’, because there are so many ways to do it. What is important though, I think, is that it must make way for actual lives, it must absorb actual lives into its discourse.
Now, this is interesting to me for two things: the first is the notion of sin. What happens to that? Now I know we are going beyond the convention, so I’m starting to wonder, what happens to the notion… the kind of old school notions of sin, well, sin is always updated too and it’s always evolving too in that it is not old school, but I mean it is somehow so connected with our piety. There is this idea that we don’t want to be sinners, so what does it do to that impulse? And secondly, connected to that, is what happens to the body in this picture? Because when we talk about lived realities, we are embodied creatures, but at the same time, there’s something about, broadly speaking, the Abrahamic context.
It’s very ambivalent about what to do with the body. Some would like to separate it altogether. You want to accept the body, or deny the body altogether; some try to live with it in this sort of very contradictory relationship. What does this discourse do with that notion of body and sin? In fact for the longest time, sin and body were connected – the seven deadly sins were mostly problems with the body. So what happens there?
Spot on. And you know, queer theologians have pointed out that it’s ironic that whenever there’s talk about sin, it has something to do with the body or sex. The idea of ethics becomes sexual ethics; the idea of morality becomes sexual morality.
The idea of sex is so taboo in Christianity and yet at the same time it emerges in other places. It’s like what Foucault said about the idea that while you may oppress sexuality in one area, it sort of survives and projects itself in other ways. So this is something that is really human but people forget that. Yes, I think for the idea of sexual sin, we need to really go back to people like Augustine, people like Aquinas. Augustine, a 4th century bishop, had for the longest time struggled with the idea of sexual sin. Before he became a saint, he was not really a saint. He had a lot of sexual exploits, and he had a son outside of wedlock. For Augustine, sexuality and sex were a necessary evil, for want of a better term. He went as far as saying that sin is justified – though still sin – if men and women have sex because it brings about a generation of offspring. Aquinas who came centuries later also took up that idea and thought that if people are going to have sex, then they are going to have sex because they are going to have children. That’s a good thing, but it took a long time before mainstream churches realised that conjugal love, the conjugal act in and of itself, was also something good. So now most mainstream churches, I think, would agree that the generation of offspring as well as the conjugal act are both gifts from the divine. Having said that, it’s also important to know that something that’s officially proclaimed does not necessarily translate easily into how people live.
In many parts of the world, the idea of the body is still very negative. The body is still seen as a vehicle for sin; the harbourer of inequity, if you like, and sexual sin. You know, all of us have gone through periods where, whether we’re Christian or otherwise, we were told we have to be very careful of how we conduct our bodies because it could lead you to perdition, and God would not be very happy with that.
What queer theology is trying to do though, is to look at how the body operates, and see the body as fundamentally good – that the sexual, and the erotic, are gifts of the divine. And if it is channelled in constructive ways, even if it is constructed in constructive unconventional ways, it could still act as a conduit between the human and the divine.
Queer theology has given rise to various forms of sub-theology such as, body theologies, erotic theologies, and sexual theologies. It is especially in erotic theology that we find lesbian thought. Theologians like Carter Heyward, Mary Hunt, and even my colleague from Hong Kong, Lai-shan Yip, and my other colleague Rose Wu, have talked about how the body is actually this very strong conduit that leads us to God.
You know, that to me has lessons, potentially or not, to even non-religious attitudes towards the body. Lauren Berlant makes this point: She uses the word ‘erotophobia’ a lot and this is something that even liberals tend to assume whether they realise it or not, that even when you secularise the body, you’re not necessarily more open to the sensations it yields, especially in the more erotic context.
In the age of liberalism, after Sex and the City, there is this idea that it is just sex… there is this implicit reduction of what it is. “It’s just biological, it’s just your choice.” But it seems to me that there is an insight to your discourse that says, “no it is not just that.”
It tries to rescue the body in a lot of ways from the reductions of liberalism that just sees it as chemicals and synapses in your brain, and the discourse in more conventional religion that sees it as a problem. So it says, “no, there is a lot of mystery here, there is wonder here, there is a kind of communication that is happening.”
Yes, absolutely. I think what queer theology in all its various forms is trying to do is to, maybe in a way, theologically democratize the body, and to allow the body to be appreciated for what it is, whether it is the straight body or if it is the queer body. It adopts a non-reductionistic form of appreciation for the body, and this is nothing new actually. It is a recovery of something that’s always been there. If you look at the book of Genesis, what does it tell us? It tells us the story, in a metaphorical sense of course, of how human beings came to be. So you’re talking about a God, a creator God, who chose to express love in a very material way.
So right from the beginning, materiality was good, and is good. So when we talk about the theological origins of the body, and how God saw all that God had made and that it was very good, we are actually allowing people to look at their own bodies as they are.
Their bodies with their expressions, with their particular embodiments, and to say that it is good. And anything that is good, is godly, and connects to the divine. So I think queer theologizing has a pivotal role to play in helping people, straight or otherwise, to appreciate their bodies as they are, and to live as they wish to live in everyday life and in their connections with God.
I have one last question and then we can wrap up. That’s interesting, and perhaps before we end – unfortunately we have to wrap this up soon – I want some insights on what happens to those traditional categories like guilt, sin, and shame. I don’t want to make this move where we get rid of those things completely because I think they can be of good use.
I mean, if I don’t recycle I should feel ashamed. Or if I litter everywhere I should feel guilty. There’s something about our conscience that we can articulate and relate to in a healthy way. And there are ways that destroys us when we feel too burdened by self-resentment or shame. So what happens to those traditional categories in this picture?
Queer theology has sort of reworked and reread the normative historical notions of sin and guilt, and Patrick Cheng in his book, ‘From Sin to Amazing Grace’, really talks about it at great length.
He says that for LGBT people, sin is not to be LGBT; sin is a denial of who you are. With this he brings about a more theological traditional idea of creation in which human beings are created by the divine in particular gender and sexual expressions.
So he talks about homophobia, internalised homophobia, and internalised transphobia, as being sin. He talks about the failure to recognize one’s worth as sin. So there is already that reworking, and I speak as a queer theologian. When we talk about guilt, what’s the purpose of guilt? Guilt is a knock on the door to say “hey, something’s not right, so can we not shift rather, from seeing guilt as something that ties us down and oppresses us and makes us feel bad about ourselves, to something that helps us to be more responsible and accountable human beings?”
For the longest time, I have made the decision that in my own life, guilt serves no other purpose than to help me avoid making similar mistakes in the future. So guilt is a phase. Guilt should not stay on the table for the longest time. It should be there just to help us take stock of how we’ve not been living constructive lives, how what we’ve done has not been life-giving, and then to move on from there.
I think that queer theologizing also helps us to realise that we do make wrong choices in life, especially in terms of our bodies, but they’re not there to stay.
Interesting. Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have left for this episode, but we do end typically with recommendations – books, articles, or even films that you feel can be useful for our listeners to pursue the questions further.
But, I think that Patrick Cheng’s ‘Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology’ is an easier insertion into the world of queer theology. Apart from that I think a lot of people, especially our listeners out there who want an even gentler introduction could look at the website of the metropolitan community churches and see resources that help parents especially, understand their LGBT children.
I am currently working on a book called ‘Living Out Sexuality and Faith’ so hopefully that would be out soon. There are many other books out there. I’m happy if people want to email me to ask for recommendations, I’d be more than happy to suggest a few books.