Theology as Activity

December 3, 2014
Mark Jordan
HDS professor Mark Jordan / Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

A focus on basic composition is not something one would expect from a graduate course titled "Queer Theology, Queer Religions," but Professor Mark Jordan has good reason.

Jordan, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Christian Thought, says the "big books" on queer theology have yet to be written, and he sees no reason why the students at HDS can't change that.

"Queer theology is very new, at least that phrase is very new. We're talking about something that's appeared in the last two to three decades," says Jordan. "I want my students to come roaring out of the course wanting to write. It's less important to me that they conform to a particular view of queer theology than they become passionately critical about writing. One of the reasons I want them to come out of class eager to write is that I'm always hoping someone in this class will write the masterpiece."

With the subject matter so current and at the forefront, Jordan says questions in his course around religion and sexuality or religion and the body are perfect topics to enable his students to think about writing. He pushes his students to grow the collection of queer theological writings, reminding them that their efforts do not have to be chained to academic genres.

In a recent class, he asked them what they can do in an academic essay that they couldn't do better in a blog post or short story.

"We're at a moment in theology, in religious writing, where we're trying to negotiate our relations with two really different bodies of writing happening right beside us. Academic religious writing is trying to figure out how it's related to journalism, including all the electronic media, on one side, and how it's related to literature on the other," he says.

"I want the people in the class to think about the activity of religious writing, the activity of writing theology in the present. So, theology not just as an inheritance that's been handed down for us to accept or reject, but theology as an activity. Theologians have to ask what it is to write about a god or what is it to write about spiritual matters right now."

Because there is not yet enough written about queer theology, leading to a lack of language and even insight on the matter, Jordan, in a recent class, supplemented his lesson by showing his students icons of "queer saints." For some, the holiness seen in the Sistine Chapel can also be seen in a painting of assassinated gay rights activist Harvey Milk.

Jordan's students say they enjoy his approach, which has helped them become better at how to think—not what to think—which is a description that's often used for HDS faculty.

"Mark teaches much more about how to read and how to write and how to think," said PhD student Cassie Houtz, who received a master of divinity degree from HDS in 2013. "He is really good at helping us to think about text differently, think about writing differently, and think about the academic enterprise differently. That, to me, is the most valuable part."

Jordan's own writing now includes the recently published book, titled, Convulsing Bodies: Religion and Resistance in Foucault, which highlights what he's learned from decades of reading Michel Foucault, the late French philosopher, gay man, and strong critic of religion, who explored what happens to bodies at the limits of language and physical experience.

"My argument is that in Foucault, as in American history, we often look for religion in the wrong places," says Jordan. "We think religion has to happen inside churches, temples, or synagogues, when, in fact, religion is happening wherever bodies and ritual meet."

–by Michael Naughton