God is Queer: A Personal Confession of a Polemical Nature

the yogic body

In many religious environments around the world, being gay, gender-bending, or otherwise queer is considered a surefire recipe for eternal damnation. If your local religion doesn’t have a fiery consequence waiting for you in the afterlife, then the quotidian rituals of bullying, ridicule, and torturous teasing are enough to make daily life a living hell. It is no wonder, then, that for many queer people, the very word “God” is a triggering one, a painful reminder of parental judgments and cultural norms that guilt, shame, and repress the non-conforming expressions of queer identity and same-sex desire. As a result of this, unsurprisingly and unfortunately (from the point of view of these reflections) many queer people throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, preferring, rather than the loaded word “God,” concepts like “divine,” “spirit,” or more generalized references to the “cosmos” or “universe.”

For these brief considerations, I favor the word “God” for a very specific purpose: to support a revision of our popular conceptions of God such that it is no longer married to the cultural assumptions that are embedded in our historical traditions and worldviews – popular conceptions that are understandably experienced as repressive (and therefore resisted) by many queer people. Like the movements to reclaim words like “queer,” “faggot,” “slut,” even “cunt,” perhaps the best way to disentangle a word from its problematic leanings and associated prejudices is to re-appropriate it, re-form it, and in turn empower it for new uses. Isn’t it perhaps high time, then, that we re-imagine what God is (or can be) for the queers who were exiled from the garden and who all too often suffer violence in God’s name?

Re-appropriating “God”

Let us now take steps to re-appropriate the word “God,” which has for too long haunted many queer people in the Judeo-Christian world as a dogmatic overlord, who looks down upon the promiscuous citizens of Sodom with rage and spite; who, at best, “hates the sin, not the sinner” (when nearly every homo alive knows that the two cannot be separated). Yes, God, for many of us, has been a hater and a bully, or at least an inspiration for the many bullies and haters who have skulked in the dark corners and hallways of our lives. God is thus the sign of a deep scar, and, like any scar, we learn to live with it in ways specific to each of us; we make do with our altered flesh. For in a twist that amounts to one of the greatest of tragic ironies, even after we’ve made the escape and managed to stop believing in that definition of God that hates and excludes us, we nonetheless often find ourselves still suffering from the guilt and shame we learned from him.

Because of this, when making an argument for re-appropriating “God,” one struggles with the counter-argument that words like “nature,” “spirit,” and “divine” can be just as sufficient to the task of expressing the essence of a “higher power.” Why, then, insist on “God,” when “divine,” for example, is a perfectly effective (and less loaded) substitute? My initial response is not particularly satisfactory, as it relies on a somewhat muddled conviction that there is something socio-politically and spiritually significant about picking up God from the gutter of popular fundamentalisms. Because these fundamentalisms have directly and indirectly monopolized the word “God” and ‘colonized’ its meaning. These fundamentalisms are not just religious, but atheistic as well, and share in a similar proclivity to stifle exploration of what God is through an assumption that the matter has already been decided. Is the stain on the word “God” experienced by many queer people, then, just as much perpetuated by well-meaning secular “non-believers” as it is by the rigidly, religiously devout?

In his book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, theologian David Bentley Hart refreshingly argues that much of the contemporary debate on religious belief leaves the concept of “God” vaguely or obscurely defined. As a result, many of the so-called “New Atheists,” among others, when rejecting the existence of God, do so based on a straw man concept that has been repeatedly debunked in the history of theological argumentation. This straw man is the anthropomorphized deity form – the proverbial grandfather-like white guy peering down in judgment from his cloud-covered throne. Paraphrasing Hart’s point, such an image is rather easy to reject by a critical mind, and so the New Atheists make their job easy by rejecting God on the basis of this image rather than engaging with the history of theology. The anthropomorphic image of God has been continuously questioned (directly and indirectly) by theologians throughout history, within Christianity but also within non-Christian traditions like Vedānta. Therefore, the responsible thing to do, Hart seems to think, is to grapple with these arguments rather than assuming you’ve killed God off, once and for all, by poking holes in what turns out to be just one possible conception of God – and a fairly flimsy one at that. 

Of course, most people don’t devote much, if any, attention to the shifting positions of theological debate. The nuanced arguments for the existence of God found across religious histories and traditions remain inaccessible to most laypeople, and as a result this straw God is still largely operative in the cultural imagination. Both believers and non-believers, then, either worship or reject God on the basis of shared assumptions about what the word “God” signifies. Hart does an admirable job derailing some of these assumptions by defending God as an experience of being, consciousness, and bliss – an understanding of God he extracts from the Vedāntic definition of Brahman (synonymous with “God” for Hart) as sat-cit-ānanda (or saccidānanda).

Why “God”? 

But again, why “God” and not some trendy New Age alternative? The answer is at once deeply personal and political (as if one could ever definitively distinguish between the two). It is personal – indeed for me, and perhaps for others harmed by the effects of a judgmental, moralistic God – because a part of our individual contemplative process requires healing our relationship with the word “God” and with the content that it signifies. We need to feel that this word is not a rotting corpse festering in our hearts, but rather a reverberating source of aliveness and creativity that is simultaneously the source of our deepest fulfillment. 

To invite in another tradition’s perspective, from the perspective of non-dual Śaiva-Śakta Tantra, nothing is truly separate from anything else. This includes the words that are deployed socially to characterize different realities, predilections, and political positions. Thus, if I allow the meaning of “God” to represent contracted negativity, malignant intent, and toxic prejudice, and then, in turn, force it outside the orbit of what I consider relevant to my individuality, then I have merely denied its presence within me. In reality, it remains underground, dormant, repressed, and ripe for rearing its ugly head in the manner characteristic of a Freudian case study. 

So while this reflection is self-consciously about a personal process of queer healing, it is simultaneously consistent with the philosophical theology of Kashmir Śaivism. In that tradition, words are important, especially those that trigger feelings of pain, 

suffering, and division within us. Such words, in fact, are the name of a kind of internal blockage, or – as the Tantrik tradition might put it – a contraction. They are contractions of our very own Self that frame, structure, and organize the experience that determines our lives as individuated beings. To allow them to persist in their current character, then, is to excuse or ignore the limitations that they sustain, to walk over or around them like a homeless person on the street, and to imagine – in an encore of that once-comforting childhood refrain – that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” 

On the contrary, it turns out that words can hurt (as any gay man knows who has been called “faggot” from the window of a passing car). Words and their associated ideas are like rocks made of a subtler substance, and, like any well-set stone making its home in a meandering river bed, they cause the flow of awareness to swirl. Words can obstruct and redirect the flow of attention into regions where it becomes halted, stagnant, and muddied. Thus, if spoken and unspoken words – even those denied or disavowed by the speaker – hold this kind of power to renegotiate the flow of life, then the inner sufferings and interpersonal conflicts stemming from words are like symptoms of a dis-eased body. Words become like blood clots stifling the proper functioning of our collective circulatory system. Related to as such, we then recognize the point of attending to words; for perhaps none of us need to review the consequences that inevitably ensue when symptoms are ignored for too long. 

So if, according to this perspective, we cannot trample, negate or bracket out the signifiers of our pain and loss, what then can we do with them? Śiva Sūtras 3.4 states śārīre saṃhāraḥ kalānām, which directly translates as the absorption or dissolution (saṃhāra) of limiting energies (kalā) in the body (śārīra). Kṣemarāja’s commentary reveals that the “body” referred to in this sūtra is first the so-called physical body, then the subtle body, and ultimately the body of the Absolute Consciousness, of which my physical body is but one individuated, albeit contracted, expression. Like the nestled bodies of a Russian matryoshka doll, these bodies are each enfolded within an increasingly subtle variation of that same conscious substance. The “limiting energies” are the forces (śakti) of that same Consciousness that manifest as the differentiated object-bodies that furnish the world – bodies that, in turn, condition the shared experience of forgetting who and what we are such that we then identify with these “smaller” bodies. A resulting symptom of this cosmic forgetfulness is the altogether pervasive perception that there are insides and outsides of things; when, from the non-dual perspective, there is no outside and only one inside – namely, that of the body of Consciousness, or God.

Taking seriously this perspective (as well as striving to cultivate an embodied awareness of it through practice) in part means resisting the temptation to erect false oppositions between contemplative work and political action. When conceptions of inside and outside break down and dissolve in the sacred fire of meditative sādhana, one at last (or once again) recognizes difference and separation for what it is: a mirage of disconnection lodged in the discordant vibratory fields of our awareness. 

If we allow it, this consideration can beautifully invoke a radical sense of responsibility for everything – from symptoms of oppression, suffering, and ignorance that are near-at-hand to peoples, planets, and cultures that are far removed from our everyday lives. It can therefore motivate a radically inclusive ethics of socio-political engagement. For indeed, if everything is ultimately an extension of my very own Self, then it matters not whether the suffering is at home or abroad. If there is suffering, I am suffering. 

In Kashmir Śaivism, forces of fragmentation born in and reproduced by God as the paradoxically free outpouring of her līlā, or play, then take the form of limited and limiting relationships, attitudes and worldviews. Indeed, all relationships are but various modes of her play. Acknowledging this, then, and referring back now to our previous discussion of the New Atheists, one can ask: If one establishes a relationship with “God” in the form of non-belief (as atheists arguably do), is this not still – from theŚaivaperspective – a relationship equally couched within (and therefore dependent on) the body of God? If the answer is “yes,’” then the disposition of “believing” or “not believing” merely reflects a quality or expression of God herself. Put another way, when a cultural circumstance exists wherein sense can be made of either believing or not believing in God, we are working with a concept of God that has been too narrowly defined. The existence of God, from the Śaiva-Śakta perspective, is then, in a sense, profoundly obvious, insofar as God’s existence is implied through any and every expression.

To return to the essential point, the definition of God as separate, patriarchal and judgmental (promulgated by believers and non-believers alike) need not be the case. We need not accept it as our definition for what constitutes God. More than this, as queer people, we may find that exploring and discovering God anew (whether through the lens of another tradition or not) is just as fundamental to our liberation as are the many political movements that have responded to the historical exclusion and violence unleashed upon LGBTQ+ people. Acknowledging the reign of terror exhibited upon queer people around the world in the name of God warrants a closer look at the meaning of that name, and so too the constellation of assumptions, dogmas, and prejudices erected around it.

Embracing the Existence of God

Moving beyond the perspective that it is only by denying God’s existence that we can counter fundamentalism, I suggest the opposite: perhaps we cannot confront nor eradicate the negative forces of fundamentalism through positions that deny the existence of God. We cannot heal the wounds of religiously-motivated queer oppression by simply positing ourselves as exterior to the religious ideology that wronged us. 

This claim is predicated on the Śaiva view that reality as Śiva-Śakti is like a Möbius strip. What presents itself as a more “enlightened” perspective (denying God’s existence) can turn out to be an equally problematic inversion of the perspective it wants to negate (that God does exist). So the “New Atheist” view that sees itself as “exterior” to Christian ideology is not in fact external to that ideology, but is rather an expression of it – insofar as the ideology itself describes, defines, and therefore organizes its own “outside” as a subjective experience that we then call “non-belief.” For this reason, in an echo of Hart’s refrain from his previously mentioned book, The Experience of God, dogmatic atheists are perhaps just as ‘responsible’ for the effects of our culturally-limited understanding of God as are fundamentalist believers, for they themselves reinforce a hardened conception of God through the energy they spend on opposing it. Such atheists assume they know and fully understand the deity they are denying, when what they actually know is a cultural mythology composed of a narrow set of assumptions. Which is not to say that such assumptions are not to be found in the belief structures of many people, but rather to highlight that perhaps denying the truth of a mythology does not necessarily entail an exemption from the mark of its effects. In other words, “not believing” in the existence of God remains internal to a specific symbolic structure of God and fails to address conceptions of God that may actually turn out to be compatible with its usually materialist (at least in the West) worldview(s). 

But the point, of course, is not to shame or blame fundamentalists of whatever sort. Any number of bruised and battered queer persons could tell you that we hardly need any more shame and blame floating around. So what is needed is not more of the finger-wagging self-righteousness currently en vogue in social media. What is needed is more humility regarding our own pretenses of certainty, more sensitivity to the slipperiness of our concepts, and more openness to the effects they have on the lives of ourselves and others. In a culture as hard-headed and bitterly divided as our own, compassionate conversation across boundaries is a lost art (assuming it ever existed in the first place). As such, the vulnerability that is necessary to participate in it is a scarce but precious resource. 

Indeed, at a time when ideological war-mongering is all the rage, inviting in a broader, public conversation about our mainstream ideologies of God will seem naive with so many people barricading themselves behind their seemingly impenetrable differences. Conversation, it is thought by many extremists of all sides, will get us nowhere – or at least not far enough. But what it will do is perhaps remind us collectively of what has been forgotten. It will bring to the surface what remains submerged and unresolved in our collective psyches. And it will perhaps wake us up to the beauty of an ongoing inquiry into the meaning of God.

The Political Answer to the Question of God

And so the political answer to the question of “Why ‘God?’” extends from the personal, yet theological one. “God,” for better or worse, is a shared cultural construct that is at the very center of many of our political divisions. Choosing to “leave it alone” at the social and political levels for the sake of an ideological sanctity regarding “private beliefs” does little more than leave intact and un-questioned a rudimentary concept of “God” that so bitterly divides us. Whether it is the atheist who vehemently denies God or the religious believer who damns him, what they both share is a strikingly similar belief in a concept and the associated network of meanings that fit the picture of that concept. And then they rally themselves on opposing sides of this concept, either refusing to directly address the role the concept plays in their disdain for each other, or never considering that this concept had anything to do with their disagreements in the first place. 

Obviously it would be wildly naive to suggest that we could ever come to an agreement on what content best fits the idea, reality, or experience of God, as if such an agreement were possible or even valuable. Indeed, it could easily be argued that such an agreement would only arrive on the heels of violence. Disagreement, thus, isn’t to be devalued, as it can be a healthy generator of new insights and progressive change. Just as we can’t assume that all disagreements will be or should be reconciled, neither should we assume that agonistic dialogue will end – and perhaps we don’t want it to. 

Even a reformed global society with a shared, pluralistic approach to religion might be an admirable campaign, but to imagine it would ever fully arrive may be the stuff of utopian fantasy. Relatedly, there will perhaps always be folks who cling to a reality that is constituted by the exclusion of others. But nevertheless, a set of questions: what might happen when a culture that previously siloed its religious denominations in increasingly tribalized contexts suddenly engaged in an open, public, civic debate on the nature of God? What shifts would need to take place if we were to openly explore all the various ways that God can be conceived? What would arrive as a result of this conversation? Indeed, what would transpire if God came out of the closet in all of her outrageous queerness?

At first, there would likely be screaming, sucker punches, and blows from all angles. After all, we have been socialized to be rigidly protective of our beliefs, especially in the United States, where personal opinions are sacrosanct and considered synonymous with one’s very identity. Sharing God with each other will be terrifying because for many people it is like putting one’s heart on a platter to be potentially ridiculed and devoured. Furthermore, talking about the source of life is taboo in many arenas, and it takes an act of profound vulnerability to discuss it outside our circles of comfort. 

In a cynical, anomic society largely alienated from itself, openly talking about God easily triggers others to confuse you for a dummy, a fundamentalist, or a simpleton. But when the noise dies down and we re-learn or re-train ourselves to listen to each other with compassion, in a spirit of understanding beyond the blinders of our own prejudices and presuppositions, we may discover that God has not died after all. Rather, perhaps God will have become reborn, or even born for the first time – this time more expansive, refreshingly paradoxical, transcending definition or binary opposition. When it happens, we’ll delight in the image of Jerry Falwell rolling over in his grave; for at that point, God will have become queer. 

Or perhaps God was always already queer, insofar as the word “God” has always been host to an infinite variety of expressions, both binary and non-binary. Indeed, hasn’t God always been the greatest of drag artists, assuming a multitude of names, forms, and fabulous looks? Hasn’t God declared herself time and again, across a variety of traditions, to be beyond words, even as words are deployed ad nauseam to give expression to her? There is something fundamentally queer about this, in the sense of queer as that which resists limitations being placed on its capacity for expression – be they heteronormative, fundamentalist or otherwise. Therefore, God is queer because he resists being enslaved to systems of normalization. God is queer because she wears whatever the hell she likes at the whim of her own supreme freedom. God is queer because they are everything, nothing, and the relationship between the two. 

Of course, “queer” is a contemporary word, one with a culturally-contingent history. But in an interesting twist on the “nature vs. nurture” debate, the non-dual Śaiva-Śakta tradition posits that everything that comes into manifestation exists initially as a seed of pure potentiality in the very body of God, or Śiva-Śakti. Nothing is, in that sense, new, having existed in seed form in the body of the Absolute. And just as a seed will grow into a different expression of its possibility according to climate and circumstance, so too will names variably arise as do the leaves of a tree. As such, the word “queer” may be just one word by which a certain seed names itself, a seed as universal as the womb of reality it grows in. So if, according to this perspective, nothing is new in an absolute sense, then neither is anything “unnatural” – for nature is simply an aspect of God’s body, and nothing that grows or happens within it is other than of its nature.

It may be an empowering thought, this notion of a queer God, but it likely won’t serve as much comfort to the believers of my hometown church, many of whom would most certainly be outraged by such a provocative claim. It is therefore probably an understatement to say that many will not be convinced by the direction of this diatribe, and some will claim it as proof of my eternal damnation. But when all is said and done, perhaps it is impossible to get through to such people, and thus being able to do so shouldn’t be seen as ultimately that important. After all, people are not quick to shift their religious perspectives, and, for some, being asked to do so is experienced as a kind of violence. So an important stop on the road of queer spiritual healing is to make peace with that and to remember that it is okay to mourn the loss of a religious community that once 

was considered home. Anger and its partner resentment are familiar stages on the path of grief, but the more we cling to it, the more we press pause on our opportunity for transmuting that pain into an enriching capacity for insight.

Finally, while there is of course work to be done to communicate sensitively across boundaries of belief and non-belief, queer people nonetheless need strong constructive theologies that celebrate inclusively the variable expressions of queer experience. We need theologies, iconographies, mythologies, and communities that reconstruct God in the wake of so much hate spewed in his name. For, it should be said, without apology or hesitation, that God was taken from us, and taking God back is an important, but certainly not easy task. Re-appropriating God from those who have heteronormalized him can be both a personally healing adventure and the grounds of a contemplatively informed socio-political movement. The insights born from this process can be both transformational and empowering, and can inspire the beginning, continuation, or refinement of a contemplative journey that comes to rest, at last, in the playful confidence of this assertion: 

God is here. She’s queer. Get used to it.