Mark Jordan on the Future of Christian Theology and Queer Religious Thinking

September 28, 2021
Professor Mark Jordan
Professor Mark Jordan. / Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

From Christian theology to European philosophy, Thomas Aquinas to Michel Foucault, Harvard Divinity School Professor Mark Jordan has explored a range of figures and topics in and around the Christian tradition and has put them in conversation with urgent questions of gender, sexuality, and sexual ethics.

His most recent book, Transforming Fire, published in January 2021, explores the present and future of the tradition of Christian teaching. In the book, Jordan examines how the teaching of Christian theology can remain an invigorating, inspiring, and adaptive pedagogy even while traditional institutions of theological education shift and, in some cases, disappear. Retired from active teaching duties at HDS, Jordan’s latest project focuses on the neglected languages of queer spirituality.

Jordan, who is the Richard Reinhold Niebuhr Research Professor of Divinity, is delivering this year’s HDS Convocation address, entitled “Schools Visible and Invisible,” which he touches on in the interview below. (View Jordan's virtual Convocation address on the HDS YouTube channel.)

Ahead of Convocation, Jordan spoke with Gianluca Avanzato, a first-year master of divinity degree candidate at Harvard Divinity School. With a background in political science, poetry, language, and interfaith dialogue, Avanzato intends to explore the connections between religion, writing, and healing and integrate these elements into his future community and chaplaincy work.

GIANLUCA AVANZATO: Thank you for being here. I'm grateful to be speaking with you. To begin, I'm wondering what's holding your attention these days? What parts of your life are you tending to with the most care?

MARK JORDAN: That's a good question. I think, like most people, I've felt, in the last 18 months or so, that just getting from day to day was enough of a struggle sometimes. I find not just the effects of the pandemic but the relentless beat of political news depressing. And that has combined with the isolation of the pandemic and with my memories of AIDS, to make this an often gloomy time. But I'm also beginning to think that the time has come to pull things together and discern or invent a way of life for possible futures.

Then there’s writing—which always tugs at my attention and which I need to tend. I've had a book in progress for several years now. It is about the languages we use for what we call “sexual identities” or “sex/gender identities.” I've been trying to resuscitate, to reanimate alternate languages that are not based on the category of identity. Languages built around that category have important uses and are treasured by some people—and I hardly want to take the category away from them. But I find identity-languages are risky, misleading, flattening. They leave out large parts of queer experience, including spirituality and ritual. So, I'm back into that book now and re-reading some delightful texts from the last 150 years of queer writing, especially about spirituality.

GA: Wonderful. Thank you for sharing that. We will talk about Transforming Fire, but I want to pick up with what you're talking about, what you shared. When reflecting on queerness and queer lives at Harvard, you've emphasized the crucial role of students. What are some ways that you've witnessed students illuminating, invigorating, and, as you said, reanimating queer lives and work in spaces at HDS? And maybe even finding this kind of alternative language?

MJ: Some of the most powerful queer rituals I've witnessed—and I've attended a lot of them—were rituals organized and mostly enacted by students at HDS. I extend that to a whole range of other activities. Queer prayer groups or meditation groups, queer reading groups—most of them have been student-led, student-directed, and student-populated.

But I would go further. If you’re interested in the future of theology—in theology’s having a future—then it's obvious that you should be looking to the students—to younger people more generally—since they are more likely to be re-shaping language, forming selves, re-purposing pieces of history, establishing new institutions. Since I'm obsessed—I suspect that is the right word—with the future of queer religious thinking, it’s obvious to me that I should be listening to those who are facing the future—not least in its dangers or terrors.

GA: Which is exactly where you seem to be, by the way—which I appreciate greatly. So, with that, I want to turn to Transforming Fire. In an article you wrote for Faith and Leadership on the "Puzzles of teaching Christian tradition," you write, "We don't need books about teaching so much as books that teach." Can you speak more to this distinction?

MJ: This is one of my core convictions about teaching. It goes back to my undergraduate years. I went to a notorious liberal arts college, St. John's in Annapolis and Santa Fe, which is praised and cursed as a “great books” school. When I attended, there were no majors, no departments. Your curriculum was almost entirely set by the college. The emphasis was on encountering powerful books, artworks, musical compositions—encountering them on the generous assumption that they can be important, living conversation partners.

Books or artworks are not inert. They are active. They're not disposable containers for information or neutral summaries according to the ideal of encyclopedia articles. Books and artworks are scripts. They try to lead you to think, or act, or feel otherwise.

And that's what I mean by saying that teachers of theology don’t really need more books about teaching. We urgently need something at once more basic and more beautiful: books that teach. Which means that we need to give attention to the kinds of teaching that's being done by the texts we carry into the classroom—or the works of art, or the music, or the film.

GA: I like that a lot. In Transforming Fire, you state that the ongoing exercise of this book is to find or make new shelters for teaching theology. What do you mean when you use the word shelter? I'm curious about what's going into that word choice.

MJ: Your question brings us right alongside what I've been thinking about for the HDS Convocation. Theology—like philosophy or poetry—is increasingly at risk in a technocratic society that conceives education chiefly as technical training for rapid information processing in service of more comprehensive management. If that's education, then it excludes in advance things like theology, philosophy, poetry.

On top of that, we're at one of those historic transitions in Christianity—a moment when you can feel all the timbers of the ship creaking and straining as the high winds hit. In such moments, Christian communities need theology—which means, they need theology made new in and for the moment. Such theology will require new forms of community that foster theology.

I don't have any confidence that I can predict what theologies are germinating. So, I focus on a prior question: What kind of communities do we need to hasten that germination? What communities do we imagine in which people can choose to lead lives given to theology?

Theology takes a long time. It's knotted, complicated. It demands sustained study and a lot of craft—not to say, grace—before you reach the point of expressing things originally. That’s what I mean by looking for theology’s new shelters.

GA: What do you think the future of Christian theology will look like? Specifically, I'm thinking of your Convocation address, where you say, “I worry about where candid Christian theology will live.”

MJ: I can only speak—I do speak in the Convocation remarks—from the limits of my own formation and my tiny experience of the divine. The church communities that formed me were “traditional” in several senses: sacramental, credal, bookish. I retain great affection for old forms of Christian life, like monasteries or orders of teachers and preachers. So, I hope—or wish—that the future of Christian thinking will supply new forms of language, of life, of church governance to carry forward contemplative learning—offer means of stepping back from “the world” in order to love it more fiercely.

But that wish doesn’t mean that my hopes for the future center on preserving or reforming existing institutional structures. I don't have much useful to say about that, actually. I suspect that we need rather different structures—and fewer grand institutions. Structures for people who re-invent monastic life because they hunger for contemplative encounter with God, for people who believe that the world needs to hear the Good News and then to reflect on it. So, some days I wonder about reintroducing theological apprenticeship or medieval houses of study alongside universities.

Now that I’m supposed to be retired, I consider the role of a school like HDS as an incubator of new religious networks, languages, forms of life. Given its denominational origins and its intellectual character (which I would describe as both feisty and creatively heretical), HDS is a very good place to perform religious experiments in service of alternate futures.

GA: In your address, you distinguish between visible schools, which are buildings, structures, endowments, to name some, and invisible schools, such as friends, social circles, communities of ritual, landscapes, and so on. Are visible and invisible schools symbiotic? Do they or can they coexist harmoniously? And is one more effective in imparting knowledge than the other?

MJ: That's the central question that I struggle with in my remarks for Convocation. Visible schools have to be symbiotic with invisible schools because our flourishing depends on inhabiting both—whether we're aware of it or not. Unfortunately, visible schools can be rather aggressive about shutting the gates against invisible schools or insulting the knowledge that's available “outside.” That's not always the case, of course. In my experience, HDS tries to encourage fluid motion for students between classrooms and the many other places they learn. This is particularly important since HDS wants to be a religiously plural school.

At its best, HDS also tries to integrate or juxtapose scholarly approaches to religions with candid practice—with honest living. I don’t mean that your religious or spiritual practices become mere case studies for your theory of the week. As someone who chooses the label “theology” or “philosophy” over “religious studies,” I’ve found the connections of classroom to contemplative space or to ritual-space very complicated, at once tense and consoling, opposed and mutually illuminating.

Sometimes the complications can become overwhelming. But that’s an old problem for religious scholarship. In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola cautions that reading a lot of books dries out the soul. Whole seasons of graduate schooling can feel like crawling across a desert. We need time in which to replenish ourselves—to drink water and to be re-rooted in our traditions or communities of friends.

I’m using a lot of Christian examples—and rather churchy ones. So, let me make clear that I include among spiritual communities friends who dance together regularly at a queer club—because the dance floor has been and still can be powerful ritual space. And so for many other sorts of communities in which people perform the liturgies of their flourishing—or, indeed, their survival.

GA: Beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. And lastly, are there any words of guidance or advice that you might offer me as an incoming MDiv student?

MJ: When I first got to Harvard, a senior member of the divinity faculty told me, “Nothing important happens at Harvard except when a group of people get together to make it happen.” He gave me that advice as a new faculty member. But it’s very good advice for students as well. The most exciting things that happen at this divinity school happen because students gather to make them happen.

I appreciate the demands of the curriculum—and, as a teacher, I have sometimes worried that my students were so involved in “activities” that they forgot to study. But I also believe—as I’ve said—that the books I teach make claims on our living. Rejecting a book’s claims on you can represent a more serious reading than merely noting down a few of its theses and then moving on to the next item in the syllabus. My hope remains that when students gather to change the world, they will almost inevitably bring to the conversation the authors that matter to them. In that moment, all the buzzing rush of Harvard begins to cohere in unexpected ways.

GA: Thank you so much for your time and for what you shared.

MJ: It's my pleasure. It's good to talk.