15 October 2013

Notes on Teleconference with Linn Marie Tonstad “The Sexuality of God”

WATER Teleconference with Linn Marie Tonstad
“The Sexuality of God”
Wednesday, September 11, 20131-2 PM EDT
Mary E. Hunt Notes

WATER thanks Professor Linn Marie Tonstad for a provocative and insightful teleconference on her forthcoming work. The following notes attempt to capture the heart of the presentation and subsequent conversation.

            Professor Tonstad began by saying that she initially saw the Trinity as less than useful from feminist and queer perspectives. But on closer examination, she discovered that many people considered the Trinity a useful site for dealing with matters of truth, social relations, equality, and the like, a way to move beyond theologies that are hostile to relationships. In fact, the Trinity might be a “magic doctrine that can be used creatively.”
            Other feminist scholars have seen the Trinity as a male club with the Holy Spirit as a third rate member. Mary Daly’s insistence on how masculinity and hierarchy are maintained by language about Trinity comes to mind. The homosociality of the Trinity can be problematic. Concerns about hierarchy are obvious. But Linn became convinced that feminist scholars had not yet grappled adequately with the specific ways in which masculinity and homosociality are maintained in trinitarian theology.
            Linn’s effort is to read contemporary Trinitarian theologies against the grain from feminist and queer starting points. The major difference is that some theologians think that “persons” have to be distinct, one withdrawing to make room for another, as if they can’t be in the same place at the same time. Metaphors of distance can be problematic. “Penetrating” borders, persons “broken open” are all part of the discourse. Postmodern thinking about persons is quite different. Rather than valuing personal autonomy, contemporary people value vulnerability; instead of seeing individuals it is persons in relationship that matter.
            Dr. Tonstad critiques the work of Anglican scholars Sarah Coakley and Graham Ward. Coakley argues that a feminist can make room for God in herself by praying silently on her knees, an approach Tonstad thinks sets up humans in competition with God. She critiques Ward similarly. He argues that the Trinity is about loving difference, each person emptying itself to make room for the other. Masculinist ways of understanding God, especially through the Cross, are left uncriticized while Father and Son language persists. She acknowledges that Ward and others would say that they do not mean any of their language to be taken literally, but symbol systems are not innocent. Linn encourages overliteral readings to demonstrate just how this works.
            She wants people to rethink the Trinity. She describes an “Ecclesiology of Abortion” as a useful way to break the hold of nature and reproduction dynamics. Thus people refuse the notion of reproduction in ordinary time. The church becomes a sign of failure and judgment rather than of faithfulness.
Such an approach shakes up the theological conversation making it hard for systematic theologians to ignore the moves of feminist and queer colleagues. It is an invitation to engage more carefully with some of the technical distinctions where some of most dangerous moves are maintained.

Questions and Discussion

1. Some students at Wake Forest Divinity School inquired about what language could be offered instead of “penetration.”

Dr. Linn suggested words like “co-presence,” and “co-locality” to talk about Eucharist and Resurrection. The Body of Christ can be present without penetration/shattering. Eucharist is “impanation,” literally Jesus taking on a bread body. All of these suggest new forms for the divine without moving “the other” aside.

2. A colleague from Boston spoke about a nun (Editors’ Note: Sister Jeannette Normandin) who was vehemently attacked by Roman Catholic Church officials for, among other things that irked authorities, participating in the baptism of a child in which the masculinist formula was left aside and more inclusive language—Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer—was used. What are the implications of new forms of Trinitarian thinking for prayer and liturgy?

Discussion revolved around reproductive ecclesiology. But it may not be enough to change the language of the Trinity without also thinking about who can use the words. In this case, a layperson was acting in ways normally reserved for a priest.

3. Another colleague raised the question of what to do with maiden, mother, and crone language/imagery.

Dr. Linn allowed as to how she is favorably disposed to it and encourages other naming structures as well. But just feminizing God does not solve fundamental problems.

4. One colleague asked about the “Arithmetic of God” wondering why Dr. Tonstad stays with threeness rather than twoness or fourness, for example. 

Linn responded that God in Christ with Spirit lures the church/world on to greater intimacy. But she affirmed that God is finally not countable though there is a narrative logic to threeness in Christian scripture.

5. A caller was confused by the final chapter that Linn described.

Linn clarified that the Body of Christ is lost to the institutional Church that tends to assume that it has and controls the Body of Christ. She cited Matthew 25 as a text that points to affirming the divine in all people, including those who are on the margins. She urges people to “minister indiscriminately” rather than trying to control the Body of Christ. She counsels to avoid language of Christ's headship and the Church as his body. The Bride/Bridegroom language is equally fraught.

6. Another concern was raised about how this theology might play out in queer friendly, women friendly places.

Linn mentioned the Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary ( She mentioned the work of AA Bronson and Carlos Motta on queer spirits and queer rituals (; Rather than theologians telling people how to create ritual out of an ecclesiology of abortion, an effort to interrupt order of the normal, it is better to learn from what is already happening in Women-Church, the Metropolitan Community Churches, etc. Experience then becomes matter for theological conversation.

7. A graduate student asked Linn what queer theologians/theorists have influenced her thought:

Dr. Tonstad mentioned:
a. Marcella Althaus-Reid   Indecent Theology. Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics and
The Queer God

b. Judith Butler    Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter

c. Lee Edelman     No Future: Queer Theology and the Death Drive

d. Kent Brintnall   Ecce Homo: The-Male-Body-In-Pain as Redemptive Figure.

e. Sara Achmed    Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others

f. Judith Halberstam   In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives 

She concluded that new queer work is just beginning to trickle into Christian discourse in systematic theology. Her work is a good example of that beginning to happen.


WATER thanks Linn Tonstad for graciously sharing her scholarship. The audio recording may be found at .

Our next teleconference will be with Nancy Sylvester, founding director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue on Wed. October 9, 2013, 1 PM EDT. All are welcome so please join us.
Information on all WATER activities can be found on our web site at

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