If I Were to Do Theology Again…


This is my model of how people arrive at faith, if they ever do. It is also a reworking of an e-mail I sent my dad. If I were to do theology again, these would be some initial thoughts.


Gordon Kaufman grounds his An Essay on Theological Method not in the Bible, a tradition, or human experience, but in language. While I had thought experience may have been a good place to start in the past, he reminds his readers that there is no such thing as pre-linguistic experience: experience involves meditation, reflection, ratiocination, speaking, writing, and reading, all of which presuppose linguistic competence in some human language.


Children are not born religious or really anything in the sense of experience. These they accumulate through time. Human personhood, or subjectivity, includes all that goes into making a person: habits, decisions, mistakes, parents, thoughts, relationships, abuse/acceptance, bodies, societies, communities, wars, money, education, livelihood, religion, friendships, ethnicity, race, conflict, politics, hobbies, etc. Some of these elements are far more important than others in self-formation; selves are an amalgam of things that become more or less stable over time, though there is the possibility of change, like trauma, new experiences, etc.


Regarding “texts,” I take these to mean all linguistic artifacts, from speech to writing. One brings a lot of one’s subjectivity to the texts that one reads, not just parts. Based on various experiences one can reject or accept things in texts rather quickly. At other times there are texts that give one pause, particularly if they are eloquent, beautiful, jarring, peculiar, or any combination of these things. If I read a headline, I bring a bent, previous thinking, as well as openness to that text. More often than not headlines go out of my mind by the next day because of the nature of that genre of text. Texts such as the Bible, which contain rich layers of genre and human interest, I generally give more time to ruminate.


Texts, however, do not sit by themselves. I can drop a book on a table and say, “Speak,” and, barring some miracle, it will sit silently on the table (this example is worked from Dale Martin in Sex and the Single Savior). Interpretation organically springs from subjectivity as described above. Depending on what community one does or doesn’t belong to, one can come to a wide variety of interpretations of a particular text. Dale Martin has demonstrated that those committed to the historical-critical (e.g., lexicology, syntax, literary forms, genre, discourse, text-criticism, redaction) method of the Bible can come to diametrically opposed interpretations. One can also adopt more avant-garde methods like feminist, queer, post-colonial, ideological/Marxist, reader-response, deconstruction, economic, and African-American and come up with helpful and insightful interpretations not on display in more traditional approaches. These approaches question the proposition that there is one inherent meaning per text.


The final part in the model is faith. This section assumes arriving at a kind of faith; some people never want this. Some people have faith, and then leave it. Others don’t start with it, but find it later in life. I have written elsewhere (here, here, here, and here) of my slavish dependence on Bruce Lincoln in defining religion (I really need to work this out more). He regards the phenomenon as discourse, practice, community, institution and these all reinforcing each other. If one takes this in Christianity, discourse can be Bible/tradition, practice ethics, community congregation, and institution Church structures.

My model, though I introduced it as linear, becomes circular, dialectical. Each of these structuring structures (Bourdieu) end up reinforcing, sometimes breaking, each other.

Me and My Past Faith

For me, I no longer have a particular faith. I was raised in a Pentecostal, evangelical tradition. Some of biblical themes have been with me since I was a boy: humans are special and deserve dignity (e.g., imago Dei), people are built for community and owe to their communities (e.g., brother’s keeper, not good for “man” to be alone), redemption. Some ideas have moved me beyond reconciliation with evangelicalism: patriarchy as divinely ordained, death penalties for trivial things (blasphemy, sorcery, men having sex with men [note the lack of the same standard against women!], proclivity to war, authoritarianism, embeddedness in empire, the concept of messianism, the injustice of substitutionary atonement theory, racism/ethnocentrism, slavery, and choosing ambiguities of faith over certainties of reason.

Me and Interpretation

Probably where I fit in interpretation is synthetic. I think we have to make use of the building blocks of history, language, and syntax, but texts don’t just sit there as “fully interpreted” if we stop at “this verb means this in such and such tense when followed by the definite article in Hebrew and when used by the leader of a family household.” If that’s what a text meant for such a person, what, if anything, has that to do with me? That question involves what I call the Gap. There is a vast chasm between ancient literature and myself, of time, language, and culture. I can fill in some of that, but inevitably I fill in with tools from my training, my community, and my life experience. This is why there’s no such thing as a Bible commentary without an author and publisher. There simply is no such thing as a biblical interpretation without human subjectivity involved. At all.

Some are uncomfortable with human subjectivity being involved so much in faith. When I came to this realization, it was preposterously disconcerting, especially since I was raised with the idea that the Bible is the only authoritative rule for faith and practice. I had to come to grips that I am responsible for what I believe and practice, and couldn’t put it on some outside force to do my thinking or doing for me.

Tons of traditions agree on the idea of biblical truth, but then claim that they have the right interpretation in the bag, regardless of how much diversity of opinion there ends up being. Charles Hedrick wrote once that if God really wanted to clear things up (assuming the Bible contains some kind of God speech), God could speak for godself. It would settle disputes, there would be winners and losers, loyalists and rebels. I would add that because language is ambiguous, God would have to clear things up quite often.

As we have it, we have a lot of people grasping at straws about the unseen and then holding people accountable based on that unseen thing that some apparently have access to, but which I don’t. I can’t corroborate it unless I bathe myself in their communal discourse. I get along quite well with people even if they accept that God speaks from beyond a metaphysical barrier. It gets sticky when it gets political, though, for then the private, innocuous belief becomes a concrete political option that makes or breaks other communities in a pluralistic society.

Alabama Overreaches in Law to Control Pregnant Persons

Photo from blog https://www.biffandi.com/

About 4 years ago, I wrote a piece on abortion in which I asked a lot of questions and waffled even more. I hadn’t thought about it much since then until this week. I didn’t discuss personhood, pregnant persons (more on this below), etc.

A Dumb New Law in Alabama

May 15 ended a series of debates within the Alabama state congress over abortion. The Alabama House passed the measure 74-3 in April and the Alabama Senate passed it 25-6 on May 14. Governor Kay Ivey signed it into law May 15. There are no exemptions for rape or incest. It outlaws abortifacients. It condemns doctors who perform abortions to up to 99 years in prison, but doesn’t hold the woman criminally liable (which is interesting, for one would think the woman would at least get some kind of accessory or conspiracy to murder charge if the fetus is a person with rights). Not widely reported on, it also defines a woman as a female regardless of whether she has “reached the age of majority.” Also, while she can’t have an abortion, a woman can have one if her life is in danger from suicidal intent. Read the rest of the shitty bill here. (A friend of mine pointed out that this language is woman-centered, erasing trans men who are pregnant; hereafter, I will refer to people who are pregnant as “pregnant persons”).

This condemns pregnant persons to a particular ideological destiny, one that only gains traction from a theological backdrop. One lamb senator said, “When God creates the miracle of life inside a woman’s womb…it is not our place as human beings to extinguish that life.” He slept through class when they discussed the establishment clause.

That Sticky Issue of Personhood/Subjectivity

The spectrum of human life begins when distinct DNA originates from the fusion of 23 chromosomes from two donors. Thus begins the stages of human development. However, the human zygote is not yet a person. Personhood cannot possibly enter the discussion until a fetus has exited a uterus. Pregnant persons are already persons. They have experienced heartache, hope, happiness, hostility. They exist in social relations. Perhaps they have jobs unless, of course, they’re little girls who’ve been raped and are forced by this terrible law to bear their rapist’s child. Their destiny outweighs the decision making power of the fetus.

Fetuses do not have volition. I’m not arguing whether a fetus is a life. I actually agree with pro-birthers that the fetus is a life on the human spectrum. However, it’s like asking which life is more valuable in war, the general or the private. The general, with more experience, training, information, and networking is far more valuable since they make far-reaching decisions; privates follow orders. This analogy breaks down because both generals and privates are persons; fetuses simply aren’t.

What this comes down to is limiting the parameters, destiny, volition, autonomy, body-sovereignty, privacy of pregnant persons to childbearing. For trans men or those who are non-binary, it forces them into the gender binary they no longer live.

Pro-birthers Don’t Do Much with the After-birth

Pro-birth proponents traditionally don’t support much after-birth help, at least through the government. They typically want no help from the government to go to the mother or newborn, or notice that many children grow up without co-parents, or don’t acknowledge the brokenness of the foster system, or redo adoption pricing and policy. There’s only the thought of getting that baby delivered and then the good lord taking care of the rest. What irresponsibility and negligence. This is pure blindness to the poverty and pain in the world caused by policies like this.

Pro-birth, not Pro-life

It is this irresponsibility regarding life that irks me so much. Conservatives are all about death penalties, peace-time aggression, forever wars, depleting the welfare state/social democracy, denouncing marriage equality (though admittedly, this last one is more from older folks). They want families, not the government, caring for children. They want personal responsibility. I get that. But at what cost? According to what definition?

Conservatives define personal responsibility in this case as reducing pregnant persons to baby-making machines. This framing, though, actually takes responsibility away from the pregnant person and puts it in the hands of the government. This is the literal maintenance and perpetuation of patriarchy, via government. If you want patriarchal relationships in a religious context, go ahead. We have a constitutional right for that. But don’t force that on the goddamned secular republic.

Conservatives desire the fetus to have a chance to live. That’s not necessarily a bad thing to wish if it didn’t also involve requiring pregnant persons to make this chance a reality, to delay the lives of a person in order to actualize the merely potential person, to demand the physical/emotional turmoil of pregnancy, birth, and postpartum separation if they choose not to raise the child.

Some Concluding Remarks

All in all, I don’t want to live in A Handmaid’s Tale. And neither do many. If these lawmakers want to curtail abortions, maybe they should wear some fucking condoms before they impregnate their mistresses. It is the privilege of those like Rep. Tim Murphy who could actually procure abortions after a law like Alabama’s. As Senator Linda Coleman-Madison said, “We want abortions to be safe, and we want them to be few, but it should be legal, because there will be abortions,” and “The people who have the wherewithal will fly out of state…Not everyone can afford to do that.” Illegal abortions jeopardize the life of pregnant persons; legal abortions do not. Once again, this is not about protecting babies but policing bodies. We need more sex ed and stiffer rape penalties, not jailing doctors and playing god with pregnant persons.

What Do I Mean “Your Sexuality Isn’t Natural”?

In my post “Working Thoughts on Gender and Sexuality,” I used the words “natural” and “naturally” to describe something I don’t subscribe to. When I was explaining my thoughts included there to a friend at work, he got me thinking how I’m using those words.

Natural can refer to socially constructed things, because no one exists outside of social relations. In that sense, all that humans do is natural. Even the prisoner in solitary confinement has food brought to him or her; social relations do not have to include words. They simply infer what one does not do oneself. So I may cook my own food, but Walmart workers stocked shelves, from materials transported by truck and train, from materials worked on a farm, from seed and antibiotics administered by farmers, bought from corporations, produced from still more materials, etc. While all that involves many steps, it is natural in the sense of humans produce and consume socially.

I do not mean natural in that way, however. What I am reacting against is “essentialism.” This word (essentially, ha!) carries the idea that if an object or concept is called by something, then it must contain all elements of the definition, or else not be that. Take the word “human” or anything having to do with humanity. One-size-fits-all definitions tend to leave out a lot of human phenomena. If humans are featherless bipeds, do persons who are quadriplegic qualify as humans? If humans are meaning-making animals, are people in comas or vegetative states nonhuman? If women are defined functionally by having the ability to bear children, do women who cannot bear children (or just don’t) not qualify as women?

To the person who says we need definitions in place to have a conversation, I will agree. But I think definitions need to be working definitions to deal with living data. If my definition does not capture all that is human, I need to interrogate the usefulness of my definition. Definitions necessarily leave something out, but how much do they leave out (or how far are they inclusive?) before they cease to be useful? I also think definitions need to be brought into discussion rather than just thrown around as if they have innate meaning. African-Americans and white Americans many times mean completely different things with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” until they discuss their situatedness.

Speaking of situatedness, I am aiming in my writing for more concreteness. My same friend asked me what percentage of people are born gay. I don’t think we’re born anything because we haven’t expressed anything yet when we’re born. I think there are predispositions for things at birth—presence of genetic markers for given traits, a certain ratio of sex hormones—but again, these do not determine outcomes. Babies don’t think other babies are hot or want to date people with a different or similar pair of genitals; they want to eat, if even that. Their self-expression is limited to eating, sleeping, pooping, and peeing. I attribute gender and sexuality to personhood, and babies, while starting their journey of personhood, simply don’t have much yet.

My initial bias does not include much interaction with genetic research on gender, I will admit. What I was trying to say is that possessing certain criteria (I provided three—hormones, sex organs, and chromosomes) does not determine existence. So maybe “non-determinism” regarding gender and sexuality is what I was talking about and not “unnaturalness,” or more concretely, “You’re not born with sexual express.” As I will admit throughout my blog, I offer ideas in process. Because of this stance, I invite questions, disputes, clarifications, negations. All I ask is that we bring a stance of at least understanding the other on their own terms before disagreeing with them on our terms. If I fail to do that, call me out. I don’t know it all. I just kind of claim to know where I’m coming from, though that isn’t always the case either.