Homophobic, transphobic, and masculinist theologies are not primarily the result of scriptural misinterpretation, honest cultural differences, and the like—they are the result of idolatry. These are theologies that conflate God with a human, cisgender vision of gender and sexuality, theologies that conveniently uphold a specific set of power relations. This idea finds its most explicit form in Marcella Althaus-Reid’s Indecent Theology. Writing with the rise and fall of Argentinian Catholic fascism in mind, Althaus-Reid famously remarks that “theology is still desperately clinging to what gives it an ultimate sense of coherence and tradition: not God, but a theory of sexuality.”[1] From there, she attacks Christian dogma like a rampaging iconoclast, often using explicit sexual imagery to expose dogma as, at best, having been co-opted for the purpose of upholding an economic, colonial, and heterosexual order. In short, for Althaus-Reid, Western systematic theology is rife with idolatry at every turn.

Althaus-Reid’s iconoclasm is uncomfortable to sit with. She leaves the door open to some form of Christian belief, namely in her assertion that a theologian’s task is to seek Christ among those whom our theologies exclude—impoverished people, colonized people, queer people, sex workers—but she does not provide the tools for putting the pieces back together. For those who reject the sexual reactionism and fascist rumblings of contemporary conservative American politics and yet also believe that God is at work in the Scriptures, the church, and the sacraments, those who believe that God’s work prevails over the sin which is adjacent to those harmful ideologies, Althaus-Reid’s work provides us with “something to think about.”[2] But her work is not enough. It does not provide the tools to substantially contend, for example, with the case made in the opening addresses of Pope John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, which is among the most influential compilations of Christian thought on the meaning of sex and gender and proudly stands as a comprehensive, systematic theory of sexuality and theology.[3]

Taking a cue from Jesus’s near-universal prohibition of divorce in Matthew 19, John Paul II constructs a narrative of human sexuality and gender identity wherein cisgender heterosexuality is not only divinely decreed but also revelatory of the character of God. For John Paul II, Jesus’s appeal to the “beginning” in Matthew 19 (i.e., the Genesis story of Adam and Eve) is an invitation to use human experiences to interpret divine revelation theologically.[4] Theology of the Body thus locates a sexual complementarity in the creation story—in the creation, first, of Adam and, then, Eve as his companion, the one to assuage his loneliness. This exegetical move is unremarkable—the idea that humans are sexually differentiated and find identity through such differentiation (even if those identities are contested) is not controversial. Yet Theology of the Body takes a significant turn in its proposal that the body, specifically the sexually differentiated body, is revelatory in nature, not only of humankind but also of the triune God.

“The body reveals man,” John Paul II writes. The body reveals a sexed human, either male or female. Male and female, masculinity and femininity—these dual realities confirm themselves in the light of the other in such a way that sex becomes “constitutive” of a person— sex establishes who we are. John Paul II justifies placing such a high premium on sexual differentiation by connecting this notion that masculinity and femininity confirm themselves via each other to the idea that this reciprocally completing relationship overcomes solitude. Sexual differentiation provides the means by which two modes of being human have communion with one another.[5] Thus, Adam’s exclamation “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” reveals not only humankind but also the very image of God in humanity (Gen. 2:23 NRSV). For John Paul II, humanity becomes the image of God through the communion that men and women form. Maleness and femaleness are an image of the triune life of God, who exists in a communion of three persons.[6] Going even further, John Paul II proposes that these original subjects, Adam and Eve, drawn into communion with each other reveal the “spousal meaning of the body.” The dually sexed, reciprocally completing human body inherently reveals heterosexual marriage through communion that extends across difference, wherein one finds oneself “through the gift of self.” That gift also grounds the gifts of self given in celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God.[7]

From this perspective, sexual differentiation helps define what it means to be human, and in turn, it reveals the naturalness of both heterosexuality and heterosexual marriage and forms the genesis for human sociality and community, all of which further reveal the fullness of the image of God in humankind. For John Paul II, heterosexuality is central to what it means to be human and to reveal the image of God in the world. Sexual complementarity, heterosexuality, and heterosexual marriage all reveal the true nature of humanity and serve as revelatory disclosures of the character and communion of the triune God.

John Paul II does not need to mention homosexuality for homophobia to take root in his thought. The homophobia is implied. His conclusions grant heterosexuality a privileged theological status as the key to God’s revelation in the world. Sexual modalities that do not fit this paradigm are thus implicitly cast as anti-God and are subject to negative social and political consequences. This points to the true crux of the issue: John Paul II’s conclusions project human ideas onto God, and, moreover, humans do this so that they might take hold of power. This is the essence of idolatry. In our finitude, wandering in the desert and lacking control, we so quickly seek to wrest control by divinizing that which is not God. When Moses disappeared for a time on Mount Sinai and those at the bottom were left waiting for meaning, direction, and certainty, was not the construction of the golden calf merely a means to construct and control a narrative? “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” exclaimed the people (Exod. 32:4). The homophobia that, I argue, ensues from the narrative at hand is thus about protecting the idol, protecting a human claim to the divine, protecting power.

The notion that we are dealing with constructed ideas here finds its roots in the history of psychiatry. The rise of psychiatry as an independent medical discipline in the nineteenth century was aided by a science of sexuality as an explanation for various disorders and, conversely, health. As psychiatry emerged, Michel Foucault argues, a phenomenon of sexuality proliferated. For Foucault, the sexuality of psychiatry produced a litany of perversions that were mapped onto specific types of individuals. Among various kinds of perversions of one’s sexuality, the homosexual emerged no longer as the criminal sodomite but as a “personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. . . . a species.”[8]

Sexuality and self-identity emerged from the matrix of fields of knowledge (such as psychiatry) and power (such as various forms of political power and the power exacted in psychiatric and penal institutions)—they are not a priori or natural. Foucault offers that sexuality was produced by psychiatry to perpetuate a form of social relations which were economically useful and politically conservative at a time of great economic and social change.[9] Although he wavers on this point, Foucault does describe sexuality as a “transfer point for relations of power.” Indeed, sexuality is relevant for a wide variety of strategic power relations, such that sexuality appears in relations of power across gender, age, family structure, education, religious hierarchy, and political administration. Sexuality appears in these domains as part of a “crucial target of a power organized around the management of life”—the modern age’s current preoccupation rather than the menacing dominance of death in previous periods.[10]

The psychiatric codification and interpellation of sexuality figured sexuality as a sort of window into the essence of an individual. Drawing from early psychiatric writings on sexual perversions, Arnold Davidson notes that as psychiatry emerged as an independent field of knowledge and power in the nineteenth century, sexuality and perversion were found to be important factors in individuality. “Sexuality individualizes, turns one into a specific kind of human being—a sadist, masochist, homosexual, fetishist.”[11] These perversions reflect a vision of what is natural, namely, heterosexuality and gender conformity. These were the reference points for early psychiatry and the science of sexuality.

One can begin to see how this vision of the natural is present in Theology of the Body—the body reveals man and his sexuality, which in turn reveals both humanity’s essence and the essence or image of God. Here, sexuality properly conceived—that is, heterosexuality—promises that we might find God within that essence and possess God, or at least maintain a firmer grasp upon God and God’s will and, from there, wield power. Such is the idolatry of Theology of the Body.

And this idol must be protected, for perversions such as homosexuality and gender nonconformity, among others, represent a destruction of the essence of humankind. Writing after both John Paul II and Foucault, David Halperin notes that homosexuality presents a social threat in that “the homosexual” is figured as “an impossibly contradictory creature,” not having a core but defined entirely by how they contradict heterosexuality. Famously, Halperin noted that “in short, ‘the homosexual’ is an identity without an essence.”[12] Herein lies the basic conflict at the heart of the Christian sex wars. The reason that arguments over sexuality and gender are so potently divisive within Christianity is that homosexual and transgender people expose the idolatry at the heart of much of Christian theology: it is only a fantasy that we can possess ourselves, our essence, and God.

Dismantling this idolatry requires a fundamental reorientation of the theological task. Much of queer theology has (rightly) focused on taking a negative approach to Western Christian theological paradigms and to theological methods that contribute to LGBTQ people’s suffering. That is, queer theology has largely abandoned attempts to make those paradigms and methods somehow inclusive of LGBTQ people and has instead taken an iconoclastic stance. But here I propose that Karl Barth, the Swiss Reformed theologian, offers an approach that might help us point such negativity toward constructive theological work and action.

The task of what it means to do theology is not self-evident, and the agony of the world, the scarcity of university jobs, and the continual question of whether one’s work stands on solid ground together produce a profound anxiety for those who take up the task of theological inquiry. But we must remember that such anxiety is not new. Speaking to a pastors’ conference in 1922, Barth describes the “plight” of the theologian as facing deep angst at the core of their vocation, an angst that can never be fully alleviated and that cannot be attributed to secular society, an angst that serves as a sign for how theology operates. Theologians continually attempt to recast, reframe, or restructure theology and its method, and Barth, perhaps cynically, asks whether these activities amount to any more than a sick person turning over in bed to find distraction from the illness. More particularly, Barth describes the theologian’s plight in this way: “As theologians, we ought to speak of God. But we are humans and as such cannot speak of God. We ought to do both, to know the ‘ought’ and the ‘not able to,’ and precisely in this way give God the glory.”[13]These words imply that God initiates the task of theology, not human beings.

The solution that Barth offers in response to this dichotomy between divine and human speech could be distilled to “yes and no.” Barth maintains that human beings, in our “weakness and perversion”—to which I might add finitude—cannot speak of God; only God can speak of God. If this is correct, it may also be true that the problem for theologians, the necessity that we speak of God and our inability to do so, can become our promise. That is, God might become human and speak our words, thereby encountering us as the Word of God.[14] Here, Barth refers to the Christian claim that Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate and that we can stake our hope on the biblical witness of him. The theological vocation becomes possible once again, but only if it begins with the reality of its impossibility. In other words, precisely because humankind cannot speak of God, God became human and encounters us. Thus, Barth asks whether theology can be—or even ought to be—more than a prolegomena to Christology. 

In contrast, Theology of the Body does not grapple seriously with the human inability to speak of God. Instead, John Paul II finds permission from the Scripture to seek out the word of God within humankind, or rather within a prefigured idea of humanity. Rather than God revealing the true nature of humanity, a particular vision of human sexuality and gender serves as divine revelation. This would not sit well with Barth. To the question of whether creation can in itself reveal God, he responds with an emphatic “No!” If human beings have a natural capacity to acquire knowledge of God through and from nature, then Christ and his revelation becomes “arbitrary.”[15] For Barth, the reality of sin’s effects on us and the world inclines us to projection and idolatry rather than discerning God’s revelation of Godself via the event of Jesus Christ.

In his commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Barth speaks of Christian grace as a crisis. According to Paul, Christians share in Christ’s death and resurrection (see Gal. 2:20), and those who encounter grace experience a movement into death and life. For Barth, “this death is grace,” in that it is the death of sin and the human notions of selfhood which sin has wrought. Christ’s death on the cross creates a crisis of our existence, including all our conceptions of human corporality, personality, and individuality. This crisis of death unto sin (and thus self), which results in an apparently untenable paradox, is the same grace of the resurrection. For Barth, the meaning of Christ’s resurrection is that God “reckons [humankind’s] whole existence to be His and claims it for Himself.”[16] Which is to say that under grace, we take an apophatic view of the self, relative to the way it has been idolatrously propped up throughout history.   

In this essay, I have shown how the foundational premise for homophobic, transphobic, and masculinist theologies is the idolatry of cisgender heterosexuality, and leaning on the work of Althaus-Reid, I specifically described the idolatry of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Yet for Christians who believe that, despite our idolatry, God works through the church, the Scriptures, and the sacraments, iconoclasm is not enough to resist homophobic theologies and support a rich faith. We must then embrace the impossibility of talking about God, as suggested by Barth, because it is in that impossibility that God, through the grace of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, Christ’s death, and his resurrection, makes faith—and theology—possible.

What, then, is our task? As pastors, theologians, and lay leaders seeking to resist homophobic theologies in solidarity with the church and LGBTQ people, I encourage us to take an apophatic view toward the self, rooted in the conviction that there is no natural or perfect way to be. There is only a perfect one to follow. In practical terms, this means rendering sexuality and gender identity as unimportant as possible. This does not mean that we should ignore the political plight of LGBTQ people. Rather, when we encounter yet another local board of education initiative to intrude upon the rights of LGBTQ youth and teachers, for example, or a legislator’s attempt to limit access to transgender health care, and so on, and we see that Christianity is invoked to support these efforts, we resist. We use our words and actions to communicate in no uncertain terms that God’s work in the world is decidedly not centered on upholding the idol of cisgender heterosexuality nor any other idol. In so doing, we refute idolatrous programs and conceptions of selfhood—theological or otherwise—that inevitably result in leaving some vulnerable to abuse, scapegoating, condemnation, and the like by proclaiming the crisis that the crucified and risen Christ brings upon all idols. We proclaim too that God brings the crisis of God’s grace upon us so that we might live freely.

[1] Marcella Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender, and Politics (London, UK: Routledge, 2000), 22.

[2] Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology, 118.

[3] Pope John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books, 2006).

[4] John Paul II, Theology of the Body, September 26, 1979,4.4.

[5] John Paul II, Theology of the Body,November 14, 1979, 9.4; and November 21, 1979, 10.1. Also, see John Paul II, Theology of the Body,December 19, 1979, 12.5.

[6] See John Paul II, Theology of the Body,November 14, 1979, 9.3.

[7] John Paul II, Theology of the Body,January 16, 1980, 15.5.

[8] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1990), 43. For the relationship between psychiatry and the science of sexuality, see Arnold I. Davidson, The Emergence of Sexuality: Historical Epistemology and the Formation of Concepts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 2, 18–22, 57, and 63–64.

[9] See Foucault in Davidson, The Emergence of Sexuality, 31; and Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 37.

[10] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 147.

[11] Davidson, The Emergence of Sexuality, 63–64.

[12] Halperin, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995), 61.

[13] Barth, The Word of God and Theology,trans. Amy Marga (London, UK: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2011), 148 and 151, emphasis in original; also, see 149 and 155.

[14] Barth, The Word of God and Theology, 175; also, see 173.

[15] Barth, “No!” in Natural Theology: Comprising “Nature and Grace” by Professor Dr. Emil Brunner and the reply “No!” by Dr. Karl Barth, trans. Peter Fraenkel(Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002); andBarth, Natural Theology, 87.

[16] Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th ed., trans.Edwyn C. Hoskyns (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1968), 194 and 221. Also, see 225 and 199.