A Little Indecency with Marcella Althaus-Reid by Xochitl Alvizo

Incarnation, Goddess spirituality, Xochitl Alvizo, god became fleshInspired by the conversation following Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente’s post yesterday, I offer here a little synopsis of Marcella Althaus-Reid’s work in Indecent Theology: Theological Perversion in Sex, Gender, and Politics.

Marcella Althaus-Reid opens her book by recalling a question she received from one of her colleagues: “What has sexuality to do with a Feminist Liberation Theology?” To answer she reflected on early liberation theology when it was still in formation and later liberation theology as it gained its place in the academy and the church:

[T]imes change and subversive theology becomes incorporated: church leaders claim that they themselves have always been liberation theologians. They guarantee to the state that there is no danger here…It is acceptable in the academy, entertaining to the wider public and a valuable commodity to publishers. Having reached calm waters, why would I as a feminist liberation theologian risk rocking the boat by introducing such a scandalous theme as sexuality, especially when it is not the theology of sanctified sexuality? (Indecent Theology, 2)

Imarcellan answer to her friend, Althaus-Reid asserts that the reason one must “rock” the boat is that once a theology becomes incorporated, once its subversive nature becomes acceptable and is claimed by the structures of power, it ceases to be subversive. It must intentionally be reexamined for its undiscovered or unexposed oppressive elements.

In Indecent Theology, Althaus-Reid points out the oppressive sexual hegemony of heterosexualism – a term she uses to name oppression – still present and left unchallenged in liberation theology and Christianity at large. She affirms that all theology is sexual theology and that freedom from oppressive sexual hegemonies must be a goal of liberation theologies. The first task required for “indecenting” theology is to “uncover not just the gender codes but the sexual (ideological) assumptions of Christian theology, ecclesiology and the methods of theological inquiry which have pervaded our understanding of Christianity” (2).

Marcella Althaus-Reid begins theology with sexual stories because she believes that consciously or unconsciously every theology implies a political and sexual praxis (4). She presupposes that all theology is sexual theology with “divine implications” – there is no such thing as a sexually neutral theology. She affirms that instead of denying the sexuality of theology, theologians need to “come out of their homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, transvestite or (ideal) heterosexual closets” (88).

Althaus-Reid introduces Indecent Theology as “a theology which problematises and undresses the mythical layers of multiple oppression in Latin America, a theology which, finding its point of departure at the crossroads of Liberation Theology and Queer Thinking, will reflect on economic and theological oppression with passion and imprudence” (2). She challenges that liberation theology as it has been typically done only gives a preferential option to the “deserving and asexual poor” (30). She recognizes that liberation theologians were strong leaders in resisting the “brutal dictatorial regimes” of the time, but criticizes their use of ‘the poor’ as a category that subsumed women, and lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people. In a sense, she takes off where liberation theology left off and begins by questioning the notions of decency and order that liberationists left intact (2). Specifically, she brings in the voices and stories of the urban poor who she states have been previously excluded, and sets as her starting point the ‘everyday lives of people,’ which include their sexual stories (4-5).

Ultimately, Althaus-Reid proposes Indecent Theology as “a call for a deviant Sexual Theology, which would challenge the normalcy of women’s oppression in its ultimate consequences” (179). She affirms that one must think of politics and theology together, and of how constructions of sexuality and gender are theological frameworks used to support systemic oppression that have devastating economic consequences, not only of women, but gay, bi and trans people as well (176). Thus, Althaus-Reid encourages us to explore real people’s sexual stories, stories from the “bottom,” from people whose sexuality has been ignored, stories that are not told because they are not decent.

In Indecent Theology, Althaus-Reid provides a method; it is a method that gets people’s attention, makes them uncomfortable, and likely engages them in questioning what has traditionally been accepted as normative. Intentionally, Althaus-Reid does not give a systematic theology – she wants to allow incoherence. She states that the desire to maintain “a false sense of coherence” has been used to exclude, to universalize and codify sexuality (171). She does not advocate incoherence per se, in fact she says we must ‘queer clearly’ (95) – what she wants is to include what has been excluded in theology. She wants to liberate sexuality from the narrow confines of the heterosexual norming narrative and liberate theology to tell the sexual stories of a Queer God and Indecent Mary.

I continue to build on this on the next post here

*Marcella Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender, and Politics. New York: Routledge, 2000

Xochitl Alvizo is a Ph.D. candidate in Practical Theology at Boston University School of Theology. She loves all things feminist. She often finds herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, and works hard to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably connected and what we do, down to the smallest thing, matters; it makes a difference for good or for ill.

Author: Xochitl Alvizo

Feminist theologian, Christian identified. Associate Professor of Religious Studies in the area of Women and Religion and the Philosophy of Sex Gender and Sexuality at California State University, Northridge. Her research is focused in Congregational Studies, Feminist and Quuer Theologies, and Ecclesiology specifically. Often finding herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, she works hard to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably connected and the good one can do in any one area inevitably and positively impacts all others.

9 thoughts on “A Little Indecency with Marcella Althaus-Reid by Xochitl Alvizo”

  1. Thank you, Xochitl, for this excellent post. The following, I believe, gets to the heart of so many matters: “…Althaus-Reid asserts that the reason one must “rock” the boat is that once a theology becomes incorporated, once its subversive nature becomes acceptable and is claimed by the structures of power, it ceases to be subversive. It must intentionally be reexamined for its undiscovered or unexposed oppressive elements.”

    Nasr Abu Zaid, the late Islamic Studies scholar I worked with, would often say, “Once a particular thinking has become law, it is not longer effective and must be changed.” (The “law” part has to do with Islamic jurisprudence–technically called fiqh, but what many call Shari’ah Law.)

    Another Islamic Studies scholar, Farid Esack, reflects: “…humanity, rather than a canon or a set of laws, is the repository of the spirit of God.” Farid works tirelessly at re-examining those “oppressive elements” and calls them out, explaining that when the law fails to bring about dignity and justice (both values firmly rooted in the Qur’an), then the law must be changed (reinterpreted, amended) or abandoned.

    Let’s keep on “rocking the boat.”


  2. Thanks for a little indecency, Xochitl. You mentioned that Althaus-Reid wants to liberate theology, “to tell the sexual stories of a Queer God and Indecent Mary.” What a delightfully humorous and playful proposal, itself a leap for joy.


  3. Thanks for this very useful reminder. It helps to have some distance. When I first heard Althaus-Reid speak, I was surprised that she did not situate herself within a broader feminist context. It seemed that she was only speaking with and to male liberation theologians. They might have been afraid of sexuality and difference, but she was totally ignorant of post-Christian work that explored a variety of sexualities, of Audre Lorde, Mary Daly, Susan Griffin, Alice Walker, and so on. I did not understand why she did not consider their work, which would have given her some allies, and also made it clear that she was not the first or the only one to raise many of the issues she found to be left out. Any ideas or thoughts on this? She might have been the first to speak of doing theology in a leather bar, but as far as other non-heteronormative ideas, she was far from the first.


    1. Yes, I see your point, Carol. I do agree with you and think that in these early works, she really was just speaking primarily to the Latin American male liberation theologians. She definitely broke new ground in her context. I don’t know about why she didn’t contextualize herself within the broader feminist context. But I nonetheless appreciate the specific work she does contribute which I think is valuable and onto which we can continue to build.


  4. Xochiitl captures the spirit of Marcella. Her INDECENT THEOLOGY was indeed set in the context of poverty—women selling lemons without wearing underwear. I think her work was pivotal for many of us because she challenged both the systematic ignoring of women and women’s lives in liberation theology and the assumptions of middle/upper middle class feminist analysis, all from a queer perspective. I only wish she had lived longer for more engagement. See the anthology DANCING THEOLOGY IN FETISH BOOTS for more in-depth commentary, including my own where I compare her with the surrealist artist Remedios Varo.


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