Coursework on queer theology often startles those who see queer theory and religion as incompatible. But Yale Divinity School professor Linn Tonstad DIV ’03 GRD ’09 is not deterred by misunderstandings of her specialty.
Tonstad has returned from a yearlong sabbatical to reintroduce her class on queer theology, taught twice before and which studies the relationship between Christianity and queer thinking. In the past, the small seminar has attracted a mix of half queer and half nonqueer students. Although the class has been well-received at Yale, Tonstad confessed that she has received “strange emails” — including admonitions and down-right threats such as “God will get you” — from people outside campus. Tonstad, who comes from a conservative Christian background, said she understands the frustration, but added that those criticisms often have little to do her work in the classroom and personal research.
“The class is much more oriented toward the study of the religious discourse than towards the development of answers to religious, ethical questions,” said Matt Shafer ’13 GRD ’20, who took the class during his senior year as an undergraduate.
Tonstad said people who question her work tend to think that she is advocating for how Christians ought to deal with LGBTQ-related issues and are worried that she seeks to “tear down Christianity.”
In fact, the course takes on a more theoretical approach. Through readings including “Indecent Theology” and “The Queer God” — titles written by Marcella Althaus-Reid, long considered a pioneer in queer theology — the class engages students in questions such as “Is Christianity inherently queer?” and “Would a queer theology still be Christian?” Though there is room for personal stories in class discussion and essays, Tonstad said the primary focus of the class is on understanding and debating the texts.
A scholar on Christian traditions, Tonstad became interested in queer theology when she first noticed the striking similarity between religious thought and queer theory. She added that she wondered if putting the two in conversation with each other would change the way she answered religious questions.
“What’s true about Christians is that they like to disagree with each other, and I am participating actively in that,” Tonstad said.
Queer theology is a relatively new and small field: it was not studied until about two decades ago, and only a handful of institutions offer coursework on the topic. According to Jennifer Herdt, senior associate dean of academic affairs at the divinity school, the school chose to offer the course because queer theology is a dynamic area within contemporary theological discourse and therefore important for students to learn. The field has become more popular in recent years due to queer rights movements and increasing awareness of the LGBTQ community, Tonstad said.
The divinity school has a reputation of being more progressive compared to similar institutions elsewhere. Last fall, the school announced the creation of a scholarship specifically for students who identify as LGBTQ. Tonstad said the school is at the forefront in introducing coursework on queer theology.
Tonstad is a member of the American Academy of Religion and serves on the steering committee of the Queer Studies in Religion group.