Opening the Christian Imagination: Yale Theologian Talks About Her Beliefs

Question: Your book God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality and the Transformation of Finitude came out last autumn. According to one reviewer, "the book is an important new work in Christian systematic theology that successfully employs queer theory to reconstruct Trinitarian theology." How should we be viewing the Trinity? How should the concept of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit evolve from the way we were taught?

Answer: In the book, I argue that the Trinity should be rethought without relations of origin, the traditional way of distinguishing the persons from each other in Western Christianity.

What inspired you to write the book? Why this subject specifically?

There's been a lot of theological interest in the doctrine of the Trinity for some time, often coming from progressive theologians who are excited by the way the Trinity overcomes certain typical critiques of Christianity. The doctrine of the Trinity places difference at the very heart of the Christian imagination, some argue. I started there as well, but over time became convinced that common ways of approaching the doctrine were still depending on a hierarchical and often patriarchal set of assumptions that threatened the full equality of the Trinity while reinscribing symbolic heterosexuality at the center of Christianity.

You are on the faculty of the Yale Divinity School as assistant professor of systematic theology. What classes do you teach? What are your main research subjects?

I'm a constructive theologian working at the intersection of systematic theology with feminist and queer theory. Typical courses that I teach include lecture courses in theology and seminars on topics like God, eschatology, or queer theology.

You have said queer theology is a primary focus for you. What is queer theology?

The nature of queer theology is heavily contested. It's often used as a term for LGBTQIA-affirming theologies, but my own interest is rather in the intersection between queer theory and theological method. I'm curious about the way queer theory can, like many other tools, be helpful in rethinking and reframing typical Christian ways of thinking about God, the world, and everything.

Queer theory shares with certain forms of Protestantism a suspicion of ideas of wholeness, self-possession, and self-determination, and instead looks at ways that human beings are mysteries to ourselves.

After earning your undergraduate degree at La Sierra University, you went to Yale for a masters, and then a PhD. Why did you decide to study theology?

Initially, I'd just intended to spend two years figuring out my own beliefs, but it quickly became clear that it was going to take a lot longer than that! Theology is interested in everything, and there are few other fields of study that are as flexible in this regard.

You grew up in Norway as an observant Seventh-day Adventist. Do you still consider yourself an Adventist in any way?

Some of my basic convictions remain Adventist, but they're probably not the convictions that most Adventists put at the center of their beliefs. A non-dualistic approach to the human person is important to me, as are beliefs about God's relationship to and ongoing engagement with history.

How does your Adventist upbringing impact your current academic work?

The last chapter of my first book is on what I call a non-reproductive ecclesiology, an understanding of the church that isn't about just repeating the same exact form of truth that was given once and for all at the beginning but rather reflects God's engagement with history and ongoing illumination of the world. The argument is framed in relation to expectation of the return of Christ.

To my mind, it's an Adventist ecclesiology, but not one that would be recognizable as such to most people. I also work on eschatological questions, so there's an Adventist interest there as well.

You have said you had read the Bible from cover to cover by the age of nine. You sound like you were a very precocious child! Did your parents encourage you in your pursuit of religion and spirituality? How do your parents feel about your choice of career?

My parents were very involved in the church, and that certainly affected the centrality of faith to my life. I was brought up to believe, as many Adventists do, that it's the responsibility of each person to figure out what she believes and what her most fundamental commitments will be, without being able to hand over that responsibility to an external authority. That sense of responsibility certainly led me to theology! I think my parents would initially have preferred that I go into a more recognizable (medical) career, but they are very supportive now.

How have your beliefs evolved since childhood? How closely do your religious beliefs align with Adventist theology? Do you identify more with a different church or denomination?

My beliefs certainly don't align very closely with 'official' Adventist theology, as in the 28 fundamentals. That way of thinking about theology is to my mind entirely misguided, in method as well as content. I'm overall a fairly 'orthodox' Christian (lowercase 'o'!) but in a very Protestant sense. I borrow freely from different parts of Christian history, but I'm especially interested in figures like Origen, Anselm, Luther, and Schleiermacher, as well as depending heavily on the work of feminist, womanist, and queer thinkers.

Do you see the Adventist church as misogynistic? What do you see as the future of the Adventist church? Do you think the gender bias can or will change to embrace women as equals?

Yes, the Adventist church is misogynistic. In that it's not particularly different from most of the rest of the world. It's unfortunate that, like so many other Christian denominations, the church has decided to make gender and sexuality utterly central to its self-understanding. As many have pointed out, the decision for churches to stake themselves on issues like this--rather than, say, poverty--is discouraging as well as (I believe) unfaithful to God.

That said, humans are unfaithful to God, and it's often when we are most convinced that we are being faithful that we turn our backs on God most decisively. Thankfully, God loves us anyway! I don't really see equality for women as a primary goal. It might be necessary along the way, but the diagnoses of feminist and queer thinkers point me to the need for an entire reconfiguration of the structures of power and recognition within which something like equality can be sought. I hope and work for a world very different from the one we inhabit.

Do you feel that your work in feminism and theology can have an impact on changing churches and the way they operate? Is changing the culture of traditional churches a goal for you in your work? Can your academic work bring about concrete change?

I certainly hope so! My work tries to open up Christian imaginations to different ways of thinking about ourselves and our relationships to God and to each other. The work is grounded in Christian convictions, but the work of Christian theology has always gone on in conversation with influences that aren't themselves 'distinctively' Christian, for lack of a better word.

For instance, in God and Difference I make a theological argument against the identification of a particular stance on gender or sexuality as the decisive issue on which the gospel stands or falls. Typical debates on women's ordination or LGBTQ relationships don't, I think, offer much theological insight on either side, so I try to look at such issues from unexpected directions to see what emerges.

I believe that you are working on a new book? Can you tell us a little bit about that?

The book is in early stages, but it builds on the issues of ecclesiology and eschatology in the first book. I'm interested in how to think about social change in the absence (but expectation) of the coming of God's kingdom. A thread that runs throughout my work is worry about Christian self-righteousness, so I try to think about how Christians might work freely for the better without imagining that we can bring about the good.

In the book I'm also using resources from queer (especially queer of color) performance theory to think about how visions of the impossible can be materialized in a world in which change for the better is almost impossible.

Linn Tonstad is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale University. Tonstad joined the Yale Divinity School faculty in 2012 after teaching for a year at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. From 2009 to 2011, she was a Lilly Fellow in the humanities and theology at Valparaiso University.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7560
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If only! In fact, the SDA Church is very weak on issues of gender and sexuality. It is as though, having discovered or re-discovered some biblical truths regarding the Sabbath, the state of the death, and Bible prophecy, the Adventist Church decided that it does not need to care about the divinely created sexual order.

Even though our official doctrine upholds Christian/biblical sexual morality, the actual character of the SDA Church is feministic and licentious. As a practical matter, we promote abortion, and non-biblical divorce and remarriage even among the clergy. Only someone specializing in “queer studies” could possibly view the SDA Church as patriarchal or sexually conservative.

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Bravo to Tonstad for having the courage to engage in serious theological reflection related to our emerging consciousness of LGBTQ challenges in the contemporary situation. Exploring what we can learn about God as trinity as bequeathed us by the Christian tradition is an important task. We have absorbed a masculine and patriarchal bias in relation to the trinity which we must escape if the gospel is to have meaning to the modern world. I look forward to reading her work and growing from it.

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An interesting take. Some time ago there was work being done by some using pharmacology to gain insight into theology through altered mental states but I suppose that went out of style in the 60’s. Perhaps someone will resurrect that line of doctorate level inquiry and continue pioneering in that field.

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Only someone specializing in “queer studies” could possibly view the SDA Church as patriarchal or sexually conservative.”

Not true…there are many who do not specialize in “queer studies” that see the SDA Church as patriarchal or sexually conservative.

For example, how many women are fully ordained SDA ministers?

Adventists believe in sex within marriage. This certainly places them within Christian conservatism.

One might ask if the “character” of the Adventist church is “licentious” why would one want to be a member??

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Religions revolve madly around sexual question.The clergyman so wicked what would they be without it? Tonstad’s research everything is at random, in this direction, in that, what the end result is going to be, acquired by looking up something and finding something else on the way. Yes, scratch the Christian and you will find the pagan, a soul, spoiled.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed that–(AGod who lets us prove His existence would be an idol.) A theology that attempts to make God into our image is idolatry. Queer Theology is just that. Of course there are others that claim Mary M was His wife. TZ

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Men have made God in the image of men. You may not like the direction in which the professor is headed, but traditional Christianity is patriarchal and seeking to deconstruct it into a purer form is hardly idolatry. God is the God of men and women, oh yeah and the lgbt community, who are also his children.

I appreciate Tonstad’s comments on being raised to feel the need to decide her beliefs for herself and not to hand over this responsibility to an external authority. I too was raised with this as a strong belief. Yet as an adult I understand that the assumption was that we would naturally come to agree with the standard teachings of “the church”, because they are of course correct. Uncertainty or disagreement is upsetting and many people wish to avoid it. Add to that the fear that God may be wrathful or waiting to judge and people start doing anything to avoid wrong thinking.

Your quotation is therefore apropos. God is not an idol and for reasons we do not understand we cannot fully know him or even prove his existence. We only know what we know. Pretending we know more sets us up for endless argument. Surely then we should be careful to frame our understanding of him without prejudice.

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Excellent interview.

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Having invested a lot of money in Yale University— I paid the proverbial" arm and a leg" to graduate my daughter with a Yale degree, – I am delighted that Yale is fostering studies in " Queer Theology"

My son in law has a masters from Yale in Social Ethics, a related field.

LGBTs are a small but significant demographic, about 3-5 per cent of the population. Their proportion in the population is consistent world wide in every ethnic group.

Every extended family with more than twenty cousins, aunts, uncles, grandchildren, has unquestionably one or more LGBT members (although some maybe “closeted” and not “out” to other family members).
Believe me, gay kids are born into the very best of families!

In former eras, many “old maids” who shared lodging with another woman, supposedly to cut costs, were actually co-habitating lesbians. Likewise, for male “room mates”.

Happily, with more openness and acceptance, such subterfuge is no longer necessary in modern societies.

But in Islamic and more repressive African cultures, the fate of LGBT people, born WITHOUT CHOICE in this matter, is a quagmire of horrific danger for them.

I have every admiration for Dr Tonstad. Any elucidation about the etiology, psychology, sociology, theology of our much despised LBGT offspring, will hopefully help them receive less negative and destructive input from their families, churches, and communities.

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Tonstad offers some great lines in this interview. Two of my favorites:

  • “I hope and work for a world very different from the one we inhabit.”
  • “I try to think about how Christians might work freely for the better without imagining that we can bring about the good.”

I vary from Tonstad in her skepticism of “wholeness”: I believe the good provides flourishing room for all of us, and the better makes way for more of us.

But I agree that we can imagine a church and world in which no one need seek an equal stake in an unjust structure, because the rough places have been made plain and relations of coercion and control are no longer normalized. We don’t live with that church or in that world, but we can imagine it, and faith insists that it can materialize, at scale, over time.

The challenge, of course, is that those people content with things as they are right now really don’t want the rough places made plain or more seated at the common table. And this is why “change for the better is almost impossible.”

“Better” requires more of us and more from us than we’re showing willingness to give right now.
The annual observance of Theological Humility Day (October 22) could help to remind the collective that there’s more to understand and approach than we’ve grasped so far. Not sure we want that reminder, though.

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Churchonepointzero.org [Church 1.0], an SDA group in the SanFrancisco Bay Area, recently concluded a multi-week study on the book
"An Introduction to Queer Theology – RADICAL LOVE", by Patrick S. Chen.
These church services have been archived. By going to their web site, one can click on the archived discussion.
It is a discussion on God’s Radical Love for us as human beings.
5 Sections. 1. What is Queer Theology? 2. A Genealogy of Queer Theology. 3. God: The Sending Forth of Radical Love. 4. Jesus Christ: The Recovery of Radical Love. 5. Holy Spirit: The Return to Radical Love.
The last 3 are based upon the Nicene Creed – God the Father, God-Jesus the Son, God the Holy Spirit.

His Conclusion-- Christian theology is fundamentally a queer enterprise. Queer theology and Christian theology are about the breaking down of traditionally fixed boundaries and categories. Revelation, Creation, Incarnation break down the alleged fixed boundaries which separate the Divine and Human. The Resurrection and Last Things break the fixed boundaries that separate death from life. The Atonement breaks the boundaries that separate Guilt and Innocence.
Radical Love is so extreme that it dissolves all existing boundaries, including to relating to sexuality and gender.
God 's first act – Sending forth of Radical Love. Jesus Christ-- the second act, recovery of the radical love that was lost by humans. Holy Spirit- the third act, Who is the means by which we return to radical love.
Christian theology is ultimately about Radical Love. It and Queer theology affirm the truth that God is love, God’s very self is an internal community of love, that God’s love spilled forth in the act of Creation, that God became Human out of love for humanity, and that God continues to guide us back toward the love from whence we came.
Christian theology promises that NOTHING can EVER separate us from the love of God [Romans 8:35-39] There is no love that is more Radical than that, and that is why Christian theology is, at its core, a Queer Enterprise. — pg 140.

I stand in awe and admiration of any LGBTQ person who decides to abide and wrestle with God rather than “throw in the towel” due to maltreatment from the wider Christian culture. The bravery and faith that it must take to maintain a walk with Jesus - without the wider support and encouragement that others of us take for granted - is inspiring to me. Thanks for sharing your perspective, Linn.

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Thank you for this! I wish her book were not so expensive—I guess that’s what academic libraries are for. Queer theory is even now not well understood or deployed by most academics, who are still trying to defend their own reconfiguration of meaning derived from power and control and their relationship to the human body. And when they (we) get through or over that, some queer theorists are concerned about the potential appropriation of QT to the benefit of those who are now only “getting it.” Ironically, Adventists should be comfortable with some of the central ideas underneath QT; but, oops . . . . that means thinking about sexuality in more complex terms that “either/or” (not our strong suit).

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I would have thought a female writer interviewing a female theologian about the Seventh-day Adventist Church might get around to discussing the female co-founder of that church, who is revered as having the Spirit of Prophecy.

Regarding Tonstad’s theology. She appears to want to redefine Trinity without reference to the Son or the Father–that would seem to be her basic starting point, as with most liberal “Inclusive Language” substitutions for the Triune Name. Based on what is said in this article, I think she wants three equal without the Trinitarian relations. Or, as I see she argues in another place, she wants to separate (using traditional terms) the economic Trinity (as we see in history) from the immanent Trinity (as the Trinity is in itself). She critiques Pannenberg and von Balthasar for using the cross as the starting point for discussing Trinitarian relations. But that’s the Biblical starting point, as Robert Jenson notes well. If we get away from that, we end up in philosophical speculation. And separating discussion of the Trinity from the specific relationship of Father and Son, has the further effect of usually ending up in Tritheism, with three separate and equal beings, any of which could have become human (a problem we find in some Adventist theologians).

Curious about Tonstad’s book, I did some Googling and found this review.

Here’s a quote from Tonstad:

“If we no longer arrange ourselves kneeling around god’s Son-phallus or the priest-theologian’s asymptotic possession of it, we will no longer gag on God’s fullness nor be forced to swallow an eternal emission. Instead we may find there already the differences of pleasures ‘outside the law.’” (p.141).

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All discussion about the Trinity are merely “philosophical speculations.” The concept of Trinity: three equal yet one, cannot be shown biblically; which is why the church argued and fought over this for more than two hundred years before finally adopting a formal statement, now accepted by all Christians, including Adventists.

To make such an affirmation imperative is to accept a theory unfounded in Scripture but a man made decision without biblical certainty. This was the beginning of religion: an idea conceived by men as all religions are. Christ never established a religion or formal creed, yet man has pre-empted His authority in doing so.

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Hi Bill, thanks so much for engaging my work! In the book, I offer an extended discussion of the genre conventions of queer theory, which obviously seem very shocking from the outside. Precisely because they are so shocking, the book only makes use of them in a few chapters, but (as I argue) I think there are ways in which God-language functions that only become visible when over-literalized. (The quote you posted is referring back to language employed by theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid in telling a story about kneeling in front of a priest during her girlhood in Argentina.) Happy to send you a PDF if you’re interested in thinking further about these issues.

As for the trinity, I argue for relations without origin. While it’s a minority position in the history of Christian thought, it’s not unprecedented by any means. (I’d argue that my position is far more orthodox than Robert Jenson’s, but that’s a matter for another day.)

All best,
Linn Tonstad

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I have the uncomfortable feeling that most Seventh-day Adventists, if interviewed, would unwittingly reveal that they are tritheists, notwithstanding what the Seventh-day Adventist Church actually teaches.

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Is it me, or was this conversation too vague?

That is, it seemed like the speaker mostly talked about what her ideas were not. I was interested in hearing her outline her concepts in some detail, and talking about what they dislodge.

HA

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Thanks, Linn. I sent you a private e-mail response. :slight_smile:

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