Part of the 2013 Queer Theology Synchroblog | Thanks, @anarchistrev, for the invite.
The earth was without form and void
and darkness was on the face of the deep.
And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. – Genesis 1:2
Imagine with me the void before “Let there be light”—the empty space before the components of creation started to self-assemble. In the formlessness of the earth, there’s nothing to see, and nothing to see by: no light or substance but water, Spirit, and movement. The water ripples while the Spirit hovers overhead, and all else is still. This second verse of Genesis shows us a planet-sized zero, and in the midst of this zero, God is. Before land, life, or any recognizable form has emerged, the Spirit of God moves. All that exists begins in this formless place, and with God present, anything is possible.
Perhaps because so many verses come after Genesis 1:2 and only one comes before it, we often struggle to understand what “anything is possible” actually means. We enter this life and find pre-mapped worlds of experience, interpretation, and meaning already here. If anything in the scriptures is foreign to us, it’s the formless void described in this text. We don’t know what to do with formlessness; it’s a shifting thing to us, and so we struggle to tame it by assigning it a name: queer.
The Hebrew word translated “spirit” in Genesis 1:2, ruach, is a word that can also mean “wind,” or “breath.” When ruach appears in the Bible, it almost always signals God’s presence. God breathes, and divine breath brings life. In John 3, Jesus says, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes.” We can see what wind and Spirit produce, but we can’t trace their source or project their next motion. We don’t know what the blowing wind or moving Spirit might become, but we can experience their presence with us in this moment. An experience of presence: that was the experience and gift of the beginning, when the infinite possibility of God appeared without form and void.
“And so is everyone that is born of the Spirit,” says John (John 3:8). We are formed in God’s image, and unfolded by the Spirit of God. The Spirit that once moved over the waters now moves through us, and like the once-formless earth, we are fluid in the hands of God. As the void held space for God’s designs, so we express all the variation God can imagine. As the Spirit moves through us, we receive in our bodies new possibilities for the world.
Breathing through Uncertainty
But just as the primeval void came with darkness, new potentials come with uncertainty. Formless spaces are both liberating and paralyzing: it’s when we gain the freedom to create absolutely anything that we can be tempted to mimic the commonplace, the average, the usual. Because of our bias toward the already created, it’s easy to fear the darkness that covers the deep and makes the familiar strange.
Yet that darkness also teaches us: the possible doesn’t have to use precedent as its foundation. “Tradition” is not reified in the darkness or in the void of potential. We can choose to cite the already-done, to incorporate it into new life-yielding patterns and rites, but tradition stands with and never over us. Convention stands in the same relationship to the void and the pre-manifest space of potential as any other configuration of reality. The so-called normative, dominant, and customary are not the heart of all things; there is only one Heart, and we are Its very good creation.
The moving Spirit of Genesis 1:2 is the Breath of God that connects the creature to the Creator, and this connection cannot be broken by any made thing (Romans 8). We’re entangled with God, moved by the ever-present limitlessness of Spirit-Wisdom, pulsing with Her potential for innovation and life. Connected to our Creator by our in-breath (inspiration) and out-breath (expression), we’re inherently part of something more deeply coherent than atomized identity, institutional affiliation, or conditional belonging. As God inspires matter, as energy moves through what is, earth’s formless void becomes a teeming planet. We can breathe deeply and in trust, being inspired through the Spirit, and opening to what could just as easily be and not only what is. 1
Generating as well as Restoring
So queer creation may begin with reshaping, recasting, and recreating what’s already here. In To Heal A Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, R. Jonathan Sacks writes that we all have a role in reshaping this world: “We are here to make a difference,” he says, “to mend the fractures of the world, a day at a time, an act at a time, for as long as it takes to make it a place of justice and compassion where the lonely are not alone, the poor not without help, where the cry of the vulnerable is heeded and those who are wronged are heard.” Yes, this is part of our work; it’s a restorative, “repairing the breach” role, and as long as we’re queer in a world that resists and oppresses the different, we’ll have that role to play.
But queerness is more than merely restoring what is: we can also sense and draw out from the void possibilities that rigid and exclusive structures didn’t allow to emerge in the first place. Our generative work requires that we add to the world fresh wisdom and new structures, not merely revisions, hacks, or disruptions. Just as our Creator drew us out of nothing, we too have the capacity to create powerful newness through our lives, in our relationships, religious and spiritual communities, and social organizations.
When I shared Genesis 1:2 with a group of LGBTI and queer Seventh-day Adventists three years ago, I didn’t yet have the words for what I sensed in the text or in the slow development of my life: our very existence as queer people invites us onto a different pathway for imagination, vision, and creation than those opened to us by a hyper-structured hetero- and cis-sexist society. Not only do we see this reality differently because of who we are and how we experience life, but it’s also our spiritual responsibility to share our vision from the ground on which we stand instead of rejecting our ground and privileging others’. When we fail to express out of who we are, whether because of fear, repression, or disbelief in our own value, our band of creative potential is wholly lost to the manifest world.
To express this capacity in a coherent way, we’ll have to develop and practice a new gaze.
Creating with a Different Gaze
Earlier this year, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison spoke to the Cornell University community about her literary legacy and her play Desdemona. She explained to the audience why the character Iago didn’t survive her editorial cut as she re-envisioned Othello through Desdemona’s eyes, what it means to excise “the white gaze” from one’s work, and how doing so opened up creative space for her. Listen to what she said (38:58-47:12).
[This is what] has been happening more and more and more in my books, actually all of them, and that is to take away what I call ‘the white gaze.’ Whose eye, whose language is controlling this? Well, in Othello, it’s Iago…
[In the traditional African-American novel] the oppressor is the white man, or the white idea, or the captain, or the plantation; that’s who they were confronting. [Ralph] Ellison, [James] Baldwin, Richard Wright—you understood they were responding to, defending themselves, or aggressively attacking that idea of the white oppressor.
And I thought: I can’t do that. What is the world like if [the oppressor’s] not there? The freedom, the open world that appears… it’s stunning. And I notice most African-American women writers did the same thing. Toni Cade Bambara, not always Alice Walker but many times, Maya Angelou, those writers, and the poets…
There was this free space opened up by refusing to respond every minute to the gaze, somebody else’s gaze. So that flavored a great deal what I was writing. But you’ll understand about Iago now, why I had to get rid of him.—Toni Morrison
Refusing to respond every minute to the gaze, someone else’s gaze. Refusing to root our creative acts in the limitations others project onto us or the frameworks of meaning and value they map onto the world. Refusing to allow our Iagos to dominate our attention or conversation. Using our creative energy not to battle or defend, but to build up and out instead from the beautiful we see in ourselves. Having shifted our gaze, we center ourselves and our visions for this world on what we see from our perspective and the connectedness we experience with our Source and the Source of all creation. If, according to community catechisms and statements of belief, we’re not enough as we are, creating anew must become enough for us.
What’s the world like if the oppressor’s not there? What will we see when our gaze is authentic, when we’re grounded and clear? What will we make with our talk-of-God and love-of-others? How will we change? What will we teach?
May we inquire of ourselves, and answer in our creating.
Let there be light… and may it be queer.
1. I owe this formulation to the man I call My Friend’s Dad: an incredibly wise grandfather and sense-maker who sees beyond the manifest and inspires me to do the same. ↩