Taking him apart: Seeing Tonstad’s theologian in the mirror

The following is meant to provide a minimal context to highlight what is one of the most succinct and demanding criticisms of orthodox theology I have recently come across. Linn Marie Tonstad’s God and Difference is a critical examination and constructive proposal of trinitarian theology (see here for an extended book event).

If you are invested in these matters you may enjoy the first half of the book which thoroughly examines a number of contemporary and influential theologies. I do not find myself invested enough. I skimmed the first half.  But before skimming those sections I did resonate with a key element in her critical methodology, namely identifying corrective projectionism as a major failure of orthodox trinitarianism.

Corrective projectionism identifies certain problems of human existence (e.g., delusions of autonomy, selfishness, self-possession, consumerism) and then generates a trinitarian theology that shows how the constitutive relationships of the trinity uniquely critique and overcome such human problems. In this way, corrective projectionism imports the very problems of human existence it intends to overcome. (13)

If you can understand and observe how this tends to play out in theology (that somehow everything of importance in the contemporary moment was already anticipated and solved in the trinity! [see also the ‘magic’ of the Eucharist]) then anything else you gather from the critical section is a bonus.

After drifting through the critical section the tone and texture of her writing changed. Tonstad began to mount her own more direct critique. Tonstad observes that “orthodoxy is always under threat” (191). Or so it perceives itself. The orthodox edifice is a built around an ability to preemptively account for and determine anything foreign to its core. This is particularly important when the ‘core’ of orthodox theology already requires its own transgression (as will be demonstrated). The main method of defense is too offload its own transgression onto marginal voices of theology (in this case identified as the feminist theologian). And so the “constant threat of heresy serves to generate the very rules of faith that identify what counts as heresy” (192).

This is already a worn path of critical theology but Tonstad’s project gives this criticism a new intensity. Orthodox theologies maintain that traditional language of God protects against the biological abuses and failures of gender (i.e. correctly understanding God the Father is what really will overcome patriarchy) while it is feminists who introduce gender into theology allowing patriarchy to maintain its power (and thus feminists become idolaters). Here Tonstad introduces Lacan’s distinction between the phallus and the penis. The penis is reflective of the biological and material while the phallus orders the symbolic. The phallus is (apparently) distinct from and not-to-be-identified-with the penis and so reflects how authority exists beyond gender. In the case of orthodox theology this is equivalent to the claim that ‘Father’ (the orthodox way of speaking of God) is beyond or otherwise than the abuses of the patriarchal ‘father’ (which feminists focus on).

But who is authorized to make such distinctions and on what basis? Here Tonstad (pages 196-197) offers one of the most brutal litmus for theologians. I think any theologian (or pastor) invested in confessional theology and church practice needs to sit with in honest self-reflection. I will quote the section in full (bold text is my emphasis) with some brief summaries interspersed.

Revelation tells us who the true God is: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God. The vocation of the theologian is fidelity to that revelation; the temptation of the theologian is misidentification of that God. The theologian recognizes the impossibility of stabilizing reference to God in language. But for the sake of the church’s worship, speech, and self-reflection, the fundamental distinction between God and all else must be policed under the sign of submission to revelation. For worship of non-God is idolatry.

Revelation is prior and demands non-mastery but the realities of worship require a type of mastery.

So the theologian finds himself in a double bind. On the hand, he, like all people, wishes to be God: he wishes to judge between good and evil, he wishes to be self-sufficient and independent, and he wishes to set the conditions for others’ existence. On the other hand, his calling is to point away from himself to God. He must resist misrecognitions that continually transpose the divine and things of the earth, even as he knows that he has no power of his own that could finally control his own misrecognitions. He knows that he must be taken up and formed into adoptive brotherhood with the Son (who only does what he sees the Father doing) by the Spirit (the only one who searches the deep things of God). And finally all shall be subjected to the Father. The theologian both fears and knows that there can be no final obedience to the symbolic power, the lawgiver, yet that obedience is what is required of him: this is what Butler terms the ‘very presupposition’ of the fear of castration: The phallus is always already elsewhere. It belongs to God, not to him.

The theologian cannot be what he wants (God) though he will still want to. Revelation requires submission and life requires mastery. The theologian disavows the phallus and yet still fears castration. [I found this section a little more difficult to summarize.]

He is constituted by a fantasy that he could have had the phallus (he wants to be like God), but obedience to the symbolic power is the recognition that the only one whose speech is coincident with himself is God (as the Father speaks his Word). If the classical theological diagnosis of sin is correct, the theologian will constantly transgress this recognition and lie to himself about its transgression.

God and speech are only aligned in God. Therefore the theologian necessarily transgresses. In as much as he might ‘confess’ this transgression he will also lie about it.

Looking at “woman” (for instance, the feminist theologian), he can be certain that “she” does not have “it,” for “it” belongs only to God, whose potent Son-seed is always erect and always coming. But looking at “her” forces the recognition that he does not have it either, a recognition that he can only deflect by an increasingly hysterical insistence that is “she” who does not have it. Policing the boundary then becomes a way of covering over his desire to – like God – be “man.” But he knows that God is “man” (self-identical, a se) and he is not. (Otherwise, he does not deserve the name of theologian.) He knows that God has graciously castrated him, and what God requires of him is auto-castration in the imaginary, or feminization. “She” never had the fantasy of the phallus to begin with. “She” then comes to stand in the place that he must, but cannot, inhabit.

Through claiming his castration he can really claim that she does not have it. His preemptive claim to non-mastery allows his mastery. This is important because if we allowed “her” it would expose “him”.

The ambivalence of his disidentification with “her” appears as obsessive insistence that it is only “she” who makes the constitutive theological mistake of thinking that God the Father is the only true “man. In naming God “man,” “she” faces the full inevitability of the constitutive misrecognitions that structure human attempts to speak about God. “She” admits that no safe word will prevent God the Father from turning into father-god. And so “she” provides a figuration far more dangerous than reassuring, for “she” has no difficulty admitting that the phallus is elsewhere.

She is doing what theology demands; constantly confessing that humans transpose divine and human matters. This makes her dangerous because it undermines his humble mastery.

He must then find another claim to bring against “her,” and he has no difficulty doing so. She” is the idolater: “she” sets herself up as the judge of divine things, so it is “she” who refuses to submit to castration. Unlike him, he says, “she” claims the phallus for herself: “she” is an idolater, an avowed opponent of God; “she” sexes God – he faithfully worships the (unsexed) Father. She becomes the phallic mother, the most dangerous and threatening form of phallicism.

By exposing the transgression of theology he claims that she is claiming mastery.

The phallic mother in this analytic is the imagined feminist theologian. “She” is the “woman” who speaks improperly (without submitting to the rules) of God and who trusts God to make it right rather than insisting on “her” own rightness in the (dis-)avowal of authority through transcendent deferral. “She” appears for him as the one who dares the improper speech that he knows is not permitted him, and “she” accepts the failures of speech that he cannot. His disidentification with “her” requires him to assume the paternal (or divine) symbolic authority that “she” (unlike he) transgresses against. In calling “her” to account for her transgression, by invoking the law according to which “she” is found guilty, he claims the symbolic authority that he explicitly disavows at that moment, and so becomes HIM. His idolatry runs more deeply than “hers.” And that is what he cannot forgive “her.”

He retains the phallus for his penis and cannot forgive her for raising the possibility of his castration.


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