In case you haven’t heard, N.T. Wright–author of theology books such as Surprised By Hope and Simply Christian, and former Bishop of Durham–recently did an interview in which he compared people who support marriage equality to Nazis and Soviet Communists.
And Soviet Communists.
While I’m not surprised that Wright is not on board with marriage equality (he’s brought up his opposition to LGB people in several other places), I was a little shocked to hear a man who is considered, according to Times, to be “one of the most formidable figures in Christian thought” stoop to arguments usually brought out by Fox News analysts and YouTube commenters.
As T.F. Charlton put it on Twitter, “thoughtful people leave thought behind when it comes to their prejudices.”
I was also a little surprised (just a little) with the way Wright utilized Scripture in order to support his bigoted views. In fact, as someone who has read several of Wright’s books and articles, he seemed to contradict many of the theological arguments that he is well-known for.
While his Surprised By Hope is not a perfect book, N.T. Wright’s take-down of the heaven/earth dichotomy found in this book was extremely influential in my own spiritual and theological development.
In this book, N.T. Wright makes the case that Christianity isn’t about flying away to heaven. It isn’t about our souls being taken up to be with God. It isn’t about leaving our bodies and denying the world around us…
Christianity is about the Kingdom of Heaven being ushered in on earth. Christianity is about making the phrase “on earth as it is in heaven” a reality right here, right now. It’s about the incarnation and the resurrection showing us that the realm of God is not a place entirely Other to the realm of humankind, but a place that touches and intersects with the realm of humankind, and one day these two realms will be reunited.
For me, Surprised By Hope served as a gateway drug into feminist, liberationist, and queer theologies that emphasize bodies and history and engagement with “the world.”
Yet, in Wright’s recent interview, he seems to reinforce the very binaries that Surprised By Hope attempted to “queer,” if you will.
In his interview, Wright states (emphasis mine):
With Christian or Jewish presuppositions, or indeed Muslim, then if you believe in what it says in Genesis 1 about God making heaven and earth—and the binaries in Genesis are so important—that heaven and earth, and sea and dry land, and so on and so on, and you end up with male and female.
I would ask N.T. Wright to support the idea that heaven and earth, sea and dry land, and yes, male and female are truly binary to one another:
Can you stand with your feet in the muddy sand on the beach, waves crashing around your feet, tide slowly rising or falling, and honestly draw a clear line between sea and dry land?
Was not the entire point of Surprised By Hope that heaven and earth are not actually a dichotomy? Can you point out the exact place where the heavens begin? Was Christ, as incarnated in Jesus, human or divine? Do not the Psalms that Wright so fervently praises in his recent book, A Case for the Psalms, bring us to a place where the heavens and the earth are indistinguishable? Does not Wright himself argue in this book that God’s concept of space is not dichotomized like ours?
Unfortunately, N.T. Wright forgets all of this when it is convenient for him in making a case against gay, lesbian, and bisexual relationships. Suddenly, the heaven/earth binary that N.T. Wright has spent years challenging becomes something of essential Biblical importance, because Wright needs it to make his case that the female/male dichotomy also exists.
Wright was also an important part of my journey as an advocate for egalitarianism and women’s ordination. His article, “Women’s Service in the Church: The Biblical Basis,” was one of the first pieces writing I came across that convinced me I could honor scripture and still (as a woman) follow God’s call toward ministry, if that call ever came.
With this in mind, I was disappointed to see him drag out verses that, for years and years, have been used to put women “in their place,” and use them to oppress gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.
Wright states (emphasis mine):
The last scene in the Bible is the new heaven and the new earth, and the symbol for that is the marriage of Christ and his church. It’s not just one or two verses here and there which say this or that. It’s an entire narrative which works with this complementarity so that a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth.
As someone who identifies both as a woman and as a gender queer and bisexual person, this hurt me on multiple levels. By comparing male/female to a binary land/sea and earth/heaven, Wright not only erases the queer part of me, but he applies negative connotations to the woman part of me, associating femaleness with earth (historically seen as base, lowly, non-transcendent, etc.) and sea (viewed in the Biblical narrative as representative of evil and chaos).
Instead of using the marriage-as-Christ-and-Church metaphor to communicate a message about the mutual love, care, intimacy, and friendship possible between humanity and the Divine, Wright uses it to promote a binary system and gender essentialism, which oppresses women and completely erases anyone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and/or intersex.
When I left fundamentalism, N.T. Wright introduced me to the beautiful vision of a world where binary systems are dismantled in favor of a celebration of relationship and diverse creation. His work inspired me to seek out other theology that dismantled the “heaven/earth” dichotomy–a search that eventually led me to the discovery of queer theology.*
Perhaps N.T. Wright needs to partake on a similar journey, fully embracing his own theology as a starting point. Perhaps he needs to read creation narratives by queer theologians like Alan Hooker, who refuse to see the “binaries” in Genesis as boundaries that limit the beauty and majesty of God’s creation (emphasis mine):
‘Beginning and end’ is a pairing that represents the whole scope of history and time. ‘Alpha and Omega’ stretches from the first letter of the alphabet to the last, representing the whole alphabet in one swoop by referring to its extremities. ‘From head to toe’, ‘from top to bottom’, and ‘from cradle to grave’ all denote a spectrum through the use of pairs considered to be extremities of that spectrum. Take for example Genesis 1.1: God creates the ‘heaven and earth’, i.e. everything. Or even the phrase ‘there was evening and there was morning’, signifying the passing of a whole day.
Now return to Genesis 1.27: ‘male and female [God] created them’. Male and female. I think you can all see what I’m probably getting at here. The ‘and’ is not a binary ‘and’. Male and female can disclose a spectrum of varied gender identities in the same way that ‘Alpha and Omega’ discloses the whole alphabet, or how ‘from head to toe’ means the length of the whole body.
I hope N.T. Wright will one day take the theology he espouses in Surprised By Hope to it’s logical end: God’s creative work in our world is not hindered by supposed binaries.
The existence of people who do not neatly fit into the binary of male/female does not threaten the kingdom of God anymore than does the damp seashore after the tide has gone down, the reality of evolutionary processes that connect humankind to the rest of nature, or the fact that our bodies are temples–places where heaven and earth are one.
Diverse community–not stifling binaries–is an essential part of who The Trinity is. To be queer is to live “on earth as it is in heaven.”
*If you are interested in learning more about queer theology and the dismantling of binary systems, check out Patrick Cheng’s book, Radical Love. I owe much of the thinking in this post to that book.