(NB: I have agreed to act as a reviewer for the Speakeasy website (thespeakeasy.com). Hence, I received the book I am reviewing free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the US Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)
Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes within this book review are taken from:
Mattmann, Urs. (2006) Coming In: Gays and lesbians reclaiming the spiritual journey (trans. Urs Mattmann). Glasgow (UK): Wild Goose Publications.
This review is an interesting one for me to write, mainly for the historical context within which it was written and published. Urs Mattmann originally wrote this work in German in 2002, with the English translation appearing, including an introduction by Richard Rohr OFM, in 2006. The year after its original publication came The Queer God, the second of two ground-breaking works by Marcella Althaus-Reid (the other being Indecent Theology (2000)) which are viewed by many as the ‘Ground Zero’ works of what is now known as ‘Queer Theology’. While the focus of this review is on the work Mattmann, the work of Althaus-Reid (who died in 2009) cannot be ignored. Consequently, some element of comparison between their work is inevitable (NB: while I have not read Indecent Theology, I have read reviews and research articles devoted to it, and I have read The Queer God).
Mattmann’s purpose in writing Coming In is stated very clearly in the first chapter, his introduction. His endeavor is to provide ‘a deep mystical perspective’ on being gay/lesbian and Christian. To that end, he is very explicit in giving a series of guided meditations and prayers at the end of every chapter, each one designed to strengthen the individual gay/lesbian Christian in the conviction that s/he is a child of God, one loved by the Divine in all his/her aspects, including sexuality; and a rightful member of the body of Christ. This is a markedly different starting point from Althaus-Reid’s iteration of Queer Theology, growing as it does out of Liberation Theology, which was both a point of inspiration and criticism in her work. As such, there are elements of political, sociological, literary, and economic analysis in her writing which simply don’t appear in Mattmann.
This is not to say Mattmann is above making radical suggestions – far from it. The radicality in his conclusions and prescriptions are rooted (no pun intended!) in this statement:
(E)nough time has been spent in puzzling over how the same-sex orientation came into being or developed. It is now crucial to explore and visualise the purpose for which homosexuality exists, the contribution it can make to a more human world, and how gays and lesbians can integrate and live their sexuality in realisation of the power of God that permeates everything. (from Chapter 3, ‘Homosexuality as Potential’, p.56)
Mattmann declares that it is in effect a waste of time trying to justify ‘why’ homosexuality exists. By inference, this includes eschewing the debate about ‘if’ homosexuality is acceptable or unacceptable from a ‘Biblical’ or theological standpoint. This is made explicit in that he does not use any ink/pixels to discuss the ‘clobber passages’ or to refute theological arguments against a gay/lesbian presence in the church. He puts his writing energies into elucidating topics like the spiritual gifts gay and lesbian persons have (Chapter 4), acknowledging how the wounds inflicted on homosexual persons can be transformed into gifts of healing (Chapter 6), and the inherent goodness of gay and lesbian sexuality (Chapter 7). This leads to the process for which he uses the already-existing label ‘Coming In’, which refers to the process of gay and lesbian persons understanding that they have a spiritual essence which must be tended to and cared for. Mattmann views this as the necessary corollary to ‘coming out’, the process of publicly declaring one’s identity as a sexual/gender minority. In the spiritual exercises he places at the end of each chapter, he is also very specific about framing homosexuality as a spiritual gift, and about relating the meditative aspects very much within the body – even to the point of inviting participants to sense the spiritual energy pulsing within their very genitals.
This willingness to not debate sexuality as ‘an issue’ is a marked contrast to what I often experience in many Christian SGM contexts. In areas where there are marked conservative views, such as the USA or South Korea, where I was until recently, there is a seemingly endless process where SGM Christians, almost of necessity, need to justify their existence to the majority Christian community. I’m of the personal conviction that a whole other conversation can be had as to whether SGM Christians, or Christians in general, can hold on to evangelical/charismatic expressions of faith in a 21st-century world, but that is, as I’ve said, another conversation. The fact is, there have been Christian communities in the United States which have been willing to dialogue with and embrace SGM person for over fifty years. What would it be like if more and more SGM-affirming Christian communities just said to the more conservative Christian communities, ‘We know who we are in the eyes of God – we’re just not going to participate in this conversation anymore’? What would that be like? Mattmann invited SGM Christians to consider this possibility back in 2002/6, and it’s worth considering for many members of this community.
That’s not to say this work is not without a problem – in fact, one very glaring problem. It’s not directly the result of Mattmann’s writing, but comes from the foreword by Richard Rohr, OFM, director of the Center of Contemplation and Action. It can be summed up in this sentence:
Once other believers can see that gay men and women are concerned about the values of faithfulness, and are willing to preserve the normative value of heterosexual marriage for the sake of human life’s continuation, many of their fears will be lessened. (from ‘Foreword’, by Richard Rohr, OFM, p. 10f.)
In today’s SGM environment, falling in line with heteronormativity is simply a non-starter, and this is no different for SGM Christians. In contrast, one of the non-negotiable foundations of queer theology is that one must encounter and take seriously sexual practices which are considered non-normative – in The Queer God, for example, Altahus-Reid considers the work of many classic and modern authors of erotica, including the Marquis de Sade. Moreover, as much as I admire a lot of Fr Rohr’s work, I cannot ignore the fact that he is still a spiritual leader in an organization which views variations from heterosexual marriage as moral disorders. For this work to be even considered by SGM Christians in this day and age, Mattmann has to expunge this foreword and replace it – no other alternative is acceptable.
This one problem with the text, because it is as serious as it is, is unfortunate, because Mattmann’s work, on the whole, is invaluable. Coming In is contemporary with the work of queer theologians like Marcella Althaus-Reid and provides an alternative lens through which to view LGBT+/queer theology and spirituality. It accesses the resources of the contemplative/mystical Christian tradition, values them, and employs them, as opposed to the unbridled, unrelenting questioning of Christian tradition I see in works like The Queer God. In fact, after reading The Queer God, I have begun to ask, ‘Should I take it that traditional theology (which often referred to as “T-theology”) is the mistake while the alternative vision offered by Althaus-Reid is “the true Gospel”?’ That is yet another conversation for another time! Nonetheless, if Mattmann were to revise/update his work, with a new foreword (please!!!), Coming In would provide an excellent counterweight to the works of writers like Althaus-Reid in any university/seminary course which seeks to introduce queer theology.
One thought on “A Book Review – Coming In: Gays and Lesbians Reclaiming the Spiritual Journey, by Urs Mattman”
Thank you for such a thorough and detailed review. My interest has been peaked and I look forward to reading the book for myself.