Opening the Christian Imagination: Yale Theologian Talks About Her Beliefs

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Published:
July 17, 2016

La Sierra University graduate Linn Tonstad has gone on to teach eschatology, queer theology and more at Yale University. She spoke to Spectrum about her Adventist upbringing, her book about the Trinity, and how she hopes to effect change in churches.

Question: Your book God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality and the Transformation of Finitude came out last autumn. According to one reviewer, "the book is an important new work in Christian systematic theology that successfully employs queer theory to reconstruct Trinitarian theology." How should we be viewing the Trinity? How should the concept of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit evolve from the way we were taught?

Answer: In the book, I argue that the Trinity should be rethought without relations of origin, the traditional way of distinguishing the persons from each other in Western Christianity.

What inspired you to write the book? Why this subject specifically?

There's been a lot of theological interest in the doctrine of the Trinity for some time, often coming from progressive theologians who are excited by the way the Trinity overcomes certain typical critiques of Christianity. The doctrine of the Trinity places difference at the very heart of the Christian imagination, some argue. I started there as well, but over time became convinced that common ways of approaching the doctrine were still depending on a hierarchical and often patriarchal set of assumptions that threatened the full equality of the Trinity while reinscribing symbolic heterosexuality at the center of Christianity.

You are on the faculty of the Yale Divinity School as assistant professor of systematic theology. What classes do you teach? What are your main research subjects?

I'm a constructive theologian working at the intersection of systematic theology with feminist and queer theory. Typical courses that I teach include lecture courses in theology and seminars on topics like God, eschatology, or queer theology.

What is queer theology?

The nature of queer theology is heavily contested. It's often used as a term for LGBTQIA-affirming theologies, but my own interest is rather in the intersection between queer theory and theological method. I'm curious about the way queer theory can, like many other tools, be helpful in rethinking and reframing typical Christian ways of thinking about God, the world, and everything.

Queer theory shares with certain forms of Protestantism a suspicion of ideas of wholeness, self-possession, and self-determination, and instead looks at ways that human beings are mysteries to ourselves.

After earning your undergraduate degree at La Sierra University, you went to Yale for a masters, and then a PhD. Why did you decide to study theology?

Initially, I'd just intended to spend two years figuring out my own beliefs, but it quickly became clear that it was going to take a lot longer than that! Theology is interested in everything, and there are few other fields of study that are as flexible in this regard.

You grew up in Norway as an observant Seventh-day Adventist. Do you still consider yourself an Adventist in any way?

Some of my basic convictions remain Adventist, but they're probably not the convictions that most Adventists put at the center of their beliefs. A non-dualistic approach to the human person is important to me, as are beliefs about God's relationship to and ongoing engagement with history.

How does your Adventist upbringing impact your current academic work?

The last chapter of my first book is on what I call a non-reproductive ecclesiology, an understanding of the church that isn't about just repeating the same exact form of truth that was given once and for all at the beginning but rather reflects God's engagement with history and ongoing illumination of the world. The argument is framed in relation to expectation of the return of Christ.

To my mind, it's an Adventist ecclesiology, but not one that would be recognizable as such to most people. I also work on eschatological questions, so there's an Adventist interest there as well.

You have said you had read the Bible from cover to cover by the age of nine. You sound like you were a very precocious child! Did your parents encourage you in your pursuit of religion and spirituality? How do your parents feel about your choice of career?

My parents were very involved in the church, and that certainly affected the centrality of faith to my life. I was brought up to believe, as many Adventists do, that it's the responsibility of each person to figure out what she believes and what her most fundamental commitments will be, without being able to hand over that responsibility to an external authority. That sense of responsibility certainly led me to theology! I think my parents would initially have preferred that I go into a more recognizable (medical) career, but they are very supportive now.

How have your beliefs evolved since childhood? How closely do your religious beliefs align with Adventist theology? Do you identify more with a different church or denomination?

My beliefs certainly don't align very closely with 'official' Adventist theology, as in the 28 fundamentals. That way of thinking about theology is to my mind entirely misguided, in method as well as content. I'm overall a fairly 'orthodox' Christian (lowercase 'o'!) but in a very Protestant sense. I borrow freely from different parts of Christian history, but I'm especially interested in figures like Origen, Anselm, Luther, and Schleiermacher, as well as depending heavily on the work of feminist, womanist, and queer thinkers.

Do you see the Adventist church as misogynistic? What do you see as the future of the Adventist church? Do you think the gender bias can or will change to embrace women as equals?

Yes, the Adventist church is misogynistic. In that it's not particularly different from most of the rest of the world. It's unfortunate that, like so many other Christian denominations, the church has decided to make gender and sexuality utterly central to its self-understanding. As many have pointed out, the decision for churches to stake themselves on issues like this--rather than, say, poverty--is discouraging as well as (I believe) unfaithful to God.

That said, humans are unfaithful to God, and it's often when we are most convinced that we are being faithful that we turn our backs on God most decisively. Thankfully, God loves us anyway! I don't really see equality for women as a primary goal. It might be necessary along the way, but the diagnoses of feminist and queer thinkers point me to the need for an entire reconfiguration of the structures of power and recognition within which something like equality can be sought. I hope and work for a world very different from the one we inhabit.

Do you feel that your work in feminism and theology can have an impact on changing churches and the way they operate? Is changing the culture of traditional churches a goal for you in your work? Can your academic work bring about concrete change?

I certainly hope so! My work tries to open up Christian imaginations to different ways of thinking about ourselves and our relationships to God and to each other. The work is grounded in Christian convictions, but the work of Christian theology has always gone on in conversation with influences that aren't themselves 'distinctively' Christian, for lack of a better word.

For instance, in God and Difference I make a theological argument against the identification of a particular stance on gender or sexuality as the decisive issue on which the gospel stands or falls. Typical debates on women's ordination or LGBTQ relationships don't, I think, offer much theological insight on either side, so I try to look at such issues from unexpected directions to see what emerges.

I believe that you are working on a new book. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

The book is in early stages, but it builds on the issues of ecclesiology and eschatology in the first book. I'm interested in how to think about social change in the absence (but expectation) of the coming of God's kingdom. A thread that runs throughout my work is worry about Christian self-righteousness, so I try to think about how Christians might work freely for the better without imagining that we can bring about the good.

In the book I'm also using resources from queer (especially queer of color) performance theory to think about how visions of the impossible can be materialized in a world in which change for the better is almost impossible.

Linn Tonstad is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale University. Tonstad joined the Yale Divinity School faculty in 2012 after teaching for a year at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. From 2009 to 2011, she was a Lilly Fellow in the humanities and theology at Valparaiso University.

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