Training of any kind . . . is precisely about staying in well-lit territories and knowing exactly which way to go before you set out. Like many others before me, I propose that instead the goal is to lose one’s way.

—Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure


The question about the good always finds us already  in an irreversible situation. We are living.

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics


Spiritual discipline has a rich and long history within the Christian tradition, grounded in the sacrificial acts and teachings of Christ himself and rooted in Paul’s portrayal of the Christian life as a race with the “punishment” and “enslavement” of the body becoming the practices necessary for success (1 Cor. 9:22-27 NRSV) While the most extreme acts of spiritual discipline and asceticism—those of askesis, the training of the self were largely relegated to monastic communities in the fourth century, the training and practices necessary for the cultivation and sustenance of Christian living have remained a focus of church teachings throughout the centuries. Though practices of self-renunciation and deprivation may be on the decline amid the abundant consumerism and materialism of the modern West, spiritual formation nevertheless remains an emphasis in Christian theology and practice and has become a topic of growing interest, often articulated as an effort to resist and supplant capitalism and other encroaching evils of secular modernity.[1] Virtue ethics is one notable area of Christian life as well as academic discourse where this emphasis on askesis is especially predominant.

Different strands of virtue ethics maintain complexities and various nuances, yet the matter of telos, or the aim of a clear end, has emerged as a chief theme within most virtue­-ethics approaches. As Julia Annas puts it, classical virtue theories are marked by the “insistence that if we are thinking ethically, we are striving to be better, to reach an ideal that is not already attained.”[2] This is especially the case within Christian narrative-driven virtue-ethics accounts. Joseph Kotva, in A Christian Case for Virtue Ethics, speaks at length of the connections between virtue theory and Christian convictions in their teleological ends, grounding his claim in Alasdair MacIntryre’s point that within this “teleological scheme there is a fundamental contrast between man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature.”[3]

Although common to Christian tradition, a significant insight of queer theory has been its critique of discipline. Stemming back to Michel Foucault’s analyses of how power creates and disciplines subjects, queer theory investigates how discipline has fashioned subjectivation and normalization and how it has functioned oppressively, delimiting social possibilities and freedom. The “antisocial turn” in queer theory, in particular, has interrogated and resisted various efforts at normalization and assimilation.[4] Antisocial analyses commonly criticize the telos of practices or philosophies: from Lee Edelman’s critique of futurity to Halberstam’s embrace of failure to the queer horizon that marks José Esteban Muñoz’s utopic vision. Antisocial accounts have demonstrated how efforts at formation have, whether implicitly or intentionally, obscured difference and have thus oppressed those who embody it—those who are queer, referring both to queer sexualities, as well as those who deviate from the norm in myriad ways, sexually and otherwise.


Seeking the Good Stability?

In many ways, both the teleological thrust of virtue ethics and queer theory are grounded in a discontent with the current order of things. These approaches diverge, however, in their respective responses to this discontent; whereas queer theory tends to respond by critiquing the epistemological assumptions undergirding the current order of things, questioning the norms that govern and discipline behaviors and thus delimit possibilities, virtue ethics seeks to resist the current order of things by moving subject and communities towards particular ideals. Put simply (and thus overly simplistically), one could perhaps say: while queer theory takes a step back, virtue ethics blazes forward. Formation, in virtue ethics, not only holds particular visions of what is ideal, of what constitutes the good life, but proffers clear paths for attaining that life—whether it be that virtue is formed in and through the sacramental life of the church, through practices of contemplation, or through the return to Aristotelian philosophy.[5] Queer theory, conversely, suggests that when particular ideals are assumed and marked as “right,” and clear practices are identified and uplifted as necessary to attain those ideals, those practices are reified into norms and formation turns into yet another oppressive regime of assimilation and subjectivization.

To theologically understand and elucidate queer theory’s cautious (some might say cynical) reserve towards such ideals and practices, I find Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Reinhold Niebuhr’s respective reflections on the limitations of human knowledge particularly helpful.[6]

For instance, whereas Stanley Hauerwas and others speak to the ends we can attain in and through Christ, Bonhoeffer calls Christians to act boldly and riskily in light of our creaturely existence (and Christ’s redeeming actions), saying “Those who, in acting responsibly, seek to avoid becoming guilty divorce themselves from the ultimate reality of human existence; but in doing so, they also divorce themselves from the redeeming mystery of the sinless bearing of guilt by Jesus Christ, and have no part in the divine justification that attends this event.”[7] Niebuhr, relatedly, points to the ways in which our humanity can get in the way of identifying the virtuous. Melissa Snarr so aptly sums him up in her text Social Selves and Political Reforms. She explains,

Experiencing the “caughtness” of their existence, individuals inevitably attempt to universalize their particular, finite interests. It is in reaching for perfection that people deny their creatureliness, decenter God, and place themselves at the center of the world. Perhaps what is most dangerous about the will to power, however, is its capacity to come in disguise. Niebuhr argues that the will to power is often cloaked as a “will to live truly” and shows up in seemingly pious people and project for the “common good.” . . . Self-deception is rife through all social relations, even seemingly pious ones.[8]

In light of our limits as created beings and our concomitant susceptibility towards masking power as piety in our quest for the ideal life, how then might we approach virtue formation?  It is precisely here that I find Halberstam’s stance on failure helpful.


On Ethics, Failure, and Formation

We are all used to having our dreams crushed, our hopes smashed, our illusions shattered, but what comes after hope? …What is the alternative, in other words, to cynical resignation on the one hand and naïve optimism on the other?

—Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure


Christ said, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10: 39). What might it mean to apply this theme, along with failure, to the formation of virtue itself? In Queer Art of Failure, Judith Halberstam offers resources to do just that, although, of course, he offers no clear path with how to do so. [9] Instead, Halberstam, in language eerily reminiscent of Scripture, considers “the utility of getting lost over finding our way.”[10] Halberstam leads into this possibility through a brief narrative of an episode of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon show SpongeBob SquarePants, focusing particularly on a scene involving SpongeBob in conversation with his boss, Mr. Krabs. “And just when you think you’ve found the land of milk and honey,” Mr. Krabs tells SpongeBob, “they grab ya by the britches and haul you way up high, and high, and higher, and higher, and higher, until you’re hauled up to the surface, flopping and gasping for breath! And then they cook ya, and then they eat ya—or worse.” SpongeBob, terrified, asks, “What could be worse than that?” Mr. Krabs, softly but matter-of-factly, notes, “Gift shops.” Halberstam uses this silly but significant scene to speak to those of us who do not hope or believe that “a trip to the land of milk and honey inevitably ends at the gift shop.” Halberstam proposes his text, then, as a sort of “SpongeBob SquarePants Guide to Life,” and suggests failure (as well as low theory, a theoretical correlate to ‘low culture’ that values, well, failure, along with the insights that arise from embracing failure and the unknown) as a practical and methodological resource that “loses the idealism of hope in order to gain wisdom and a spongy relation to life, culture, knowledge, and pleasure.”[11]

In my dissertation research, I propose a number of ways that failure—a low-theory/SpongeBob­-SquarePants approach—can be applied to spiritual practices and virtue formation: destabilizing practices—finding manna, so to speak—in and through secular practices; confounding categorization, rethinking what we even consider as spiritual in our practices as well as in our theological and academic discourses; and eschewing order as an end, rejecting systematization and totalization in favor of a theological bricolage of sorts.

Whereas John Howard Yoder suggests that “there is nothing in bricolage worth dying for,” I—siding with Halberstam—would suggest otherwise, believing that—to riff off another queer theorist Lee Edelman— “such queerness proposes, in place of the good, something I want to call better, though it promises, in more than one sense of the phrase, absolutely nothing.”[12] Accepting, anticipating, and even seeking failure in and through spiritual and virtue formation enables us to seek and imagine new alternatives, to recognize our humanity and finiteness (and the goodness of it), and, finally, to take belonging seriously, being open to the ways that norms exclude and discipline. As Halberstam so beautifully and brilliantly puts it: “We will wander, improvise, fall short, and move in circles. We will lose our cars, our agenda, and possibly our minds, but in losing we will find another way of making meaning in which, to return to the battered VW van of Little Miss Sunshine, no one gets left behind.”[13] Perhaps only in risking failure, in potentially getting lost, even dying, for what may turn out to be, as Yoder puts it, “nothing,” can we really flourish.

[1]  The growth of interest in the practices can be seen in the growing field(s) of “practical theology” from the numerous Lilly-funded doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships that emphasize practices and ministry to various contemporary emphases on ecclesial practices (i.e. Hauerwasian or “Duke theology” iterations of “church as polis,” Coakley’s théologie totale rooted in contemplation). While not all of theological literature that turns towards practices is antagonistic towards secular culture, this is nevertheless a prevalent and orienting theme.

[2] Julia Annas, “Virtue Ethics,” in David Copp, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), 486.

[3] Joseph J. Kotva, The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1996), 17. See also Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd edition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 52.

[4] This “antisocial turn” is also by no means monolithic. For a useful introduction into the discourse, as well as the debates within it, see Robert L. Caserio, Lee Edelman, Judith Halberstam, José Esteban Muñoz, Tim Dean, “The Antisocial Thesis in Queer Theory,” PMLA 121.3 (2006), 819–828.

[5] These particular paths are respectively evidenced  in the scholarship of Stanley Hauerwas, Sarah Coakley, and Alasdair MacIntyre.

[6] See Hauerwas, Approaching the End: Eschatological Reflections on Church, Politics, and Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013). For instance, Hauerwas admits his own failure to attend to the creatureliness of our human condition, instead focusing on what we can be in light of Christ. As he puts it, “The centrality of Christ in my work leaves some with the impression that I have no place for reflection on what it means to be human. I should like to think that the Christological center of my work has been an attempt to help us see what it would mean for us to be what we were created to be—that is, no more or no less than human” (xv–xvi).

[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, vol. 5 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 246.

[8] C. Melissa Snarr, Social Selves and Political Reforms: Five Visions in Contemporary Christian Ethics, (New York, NY: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2007), 28, emphasis mine.

[9] While Halberstam goes “by the name ‘Jack’ nowadays,” as he notes on his blog post “On Pronouns,” I’ve referred to him by Judith throughout this post while at the same time using male pronouns, in order to retain consistency—especially given that he has retained the name Judith in scholarly publications, including The Queer Art of Failure—as well as to honor his “refusal to resolve [his] gender ambiguity that has become a kind of identity.” See Jack Halberstam, “On Pronouns,” September 3, 2012 <>.

[10] Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2011), 15.

[11] Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, 1. See also Stuart Hall, “Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies” in Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula A Treichler, eds. Cultural Studies (New York, NY: Routledge, 1992), 277–285.

[12] John Howard Yoder, The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), 194; Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 5.

[13] Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, 25.