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Queer and Indecent: An introduction to the theology of Marcella Althaus-Reid, by Thia Cooper

03 September 2021

Bernice Martin on a practitioner and critic of liberation theology

MARCELLA ALTHAUS-REID (1952-2009) was part of the wave of liberation theology in Latin America during the rule of the juntas between the 1970s and the 1990s. Marcella Althaus was brought up Roman Catholic in Peron’s Argentina. When she was a child, she and her mother were made homeless, an experience that underlay her life-long concern for marginalised people.

Indignant at the RC Church’s refusal to admit women to seminaries, she read theology in a Methodist institute full of liberation theologians. She married Gordon Reid and moved to Scotland, where she attended Quaker meetings and worked with poor women in Dundee and Perth. She wrote a Ph.D. on Paul Ricoeur and methods of liberation theology, and then taught at the University of Edinburgh, subsequently becoming its first female professor of divinity. She died from cancer at the early age of 56.

Thia Cooper, the author of this Introduction, was one of Althaus-Reid’s graduate students in Edinburgh. Althaus-Reid used terminology from French structuralism alongside her own new-minted terms, which can render her prose opaque; so it is good to have a lucid summary from another woman theologian whom she nurtured and mentored.

Althaus-Reid described herself as “a sexual theologian, a postfeminist, and more than that, a queer and political theologian of liberation”. Her objections to existing theology cluster around the term she most deplored: “decency”. “Decency” coerces people to fit the requirements of arbitrary systems over which they have no control. All systems generate “structural sins” that oppress some participants and privilege others. The main targets of her ferocious fire were patriarchal, heterosexual, and capitalist systems under all of which women, the poor and marginalised, and those who “love differently” are oppressed by the powerful men controlling the system.

She believed that structural sin creates “the macro-structures that perpetuate social injustice, poverty and violence”. Theological systems, too, are never neutral, but shaped by ideology. Ideology, and therefore must be replaced by reality, showing things as they truly are. We can do theology only in and with the body, specifically Christian theology, which starts from the incarnation of God in a real human body. We should learn to see Christ in the tortured body of a murdered street-child, an “indecent” sex-worker, a mad woman.

Althaus-Reid believed that liberation theologians misused their own method. The “hermeneutic circle” is supposed to start with marginal communities reflecting directly on their experience of God to uncover the structures of oppression which they have internalised and normalised (“conscientization”). The community then works out what action (praxis) is needed, and brings its life experience to the scriptures for a process of two-way criticism. Althaus-Reid believed that at this point, even in base communities, the priesthood usually intervened to make discussion fit into an accepted theological system, instead of coming back to more community reflection, thus turning the circle into a hermeneutical spiral.

Much of the original impetus of liberation theology is now spent, but Althaus-Reid still has challenging questions to put to the Church about who remains invisible and unheard, and why. Her trenchant analysis of social injustice deserves to be part of theological history, and this book will make her work available to a new generation of theological students and the wider laity.

Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at Royal Holloway, the University of London.


Queer and Indecent: An introduction to the theology of Marcella Althaus-Reid
Thia Cooper
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.99

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