July 18 2018

Thinking at the Intersections of Theology and the Matrix of Differences: From Intersectionality to Interconnectivity

by Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, PhD Candidate at Illif School of Theology, University of Denver

Image: Plate XXX (Byzantine No. 3), The Grammar of Ornament by Owens Jones (1868; scanned from the 1910 reprint) London: Bernard Quaritch, via http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/DLDecArts.GramOrnJones.

Historically, systematic theology has been an institutional bloc within the field of theology that has in many ways ignored the matrix of difference while upholding orthodoxy. Nevertheless it has been forced to contend with the critical questions of race, class, gender, and sexuality because those intersections figure prominently in the work of contemporary, constructive, and queer theologies. Many of these theologies use feminist and queer theories to address systems of difference and oppressions, but their roots in traditional identity politics result in representational theologies. Such reliance undermines the relational aspects of interconnection and interrelatedness that can emerge by moving beyond traditional theories of representationalism that is found in theories of intersectionality. The classroom is one such place where we have upheld representationalism, requiring the teacher to represent to their students barriers to difference and the intersections of different standpoints. What results is a crossroads of identities that is passively introduced to students. This crossroads or intersection does not fulsomely illustrate interconnectivity and the matrix of differences.

The matrix of differences represented by each of these “intersections” mentioned above impact theological reflection in very particular ways: Latina feminist theologies address the gender disparity and patriarchy in Eurocentric and other White theologies; queer theologies address the overwhelming heteronormativity and heterosexism in “traditional” systematic theology and conceptions of sex, bodies, and sexuality; and theologies of color address the existing gap in white dominated theologies that do not privilege voices from the margins. What is important about thinking at the intersection of theology and the matrix of difference is that there is no illusion that this is a difficult or challenging exercise. In fact, the challenge of thinking at this particular boundary of theology and intersectionality demands attention to the ways in which relationality and intersubjectivity impacts this ‘intersection.’ I contend that we cannot do theology in any sort of substantive way without recognizing the co-constitutive ways that our multiple unstable identities connect with and also disrupt our material production of theologizing for radical social change. I propose a relational constructive theology that is rooted in difference-becoming-interconnection and opposed to totality (orthodoxy) and exclusion (heterodoxy, heresy, alterity, etc.). In this short essay, I will explain the concept of interconnection as a way to rethink theology and what is often understood as intersectionality by moving beyond the representationalism of intersectionality. Where intersectionality focused on the identities of black women in particular, interconnection as a theological frame utilizes differences to make connections and develop new contours of relationality. This is accomplished by privileging postrepresentational thought. This, then, mobilizes our radical interrelatedness and incites the material turn in theology. An example of this is the work of AnaLouise Keating’s (2013) postoppositional theories that utilizes interconnection as the primary frame in producing affinities with differences, rather than creating modes of sameness. The classroom, whether brick and motor or virtual, is a great place to cultivate moments of interconnection by moving beyond what is traditionally represented in theories of intersectionality.

As a theory, intersectionality gained traction after Kimberlé Crenshaw first used the term in the context of Black women’s lives in her 1989 article, “Demarginalizing the Intersections of Race and Sex.” Later, Patricia Hill Collins, in her oft-cited Black Feminist Thought (1999), theorized Crenshaw’s intersectionality further, utilizing the term matrix to describe the connected social categories that inform particular dimensions of oppression. As an analytic rubric, intersectionality frames the matrix of oppression by not only exposing the ways in which Black women are systematically oppressed by institutions and social relations, but also has created a language for (especially) women of color to access in explaining their own positions relative to the ways they have been and continue to be oppressed. Together, the concepts of intersectionality and addressing the matrices of oppression were a necessary intervention by Black women to critical race theories and the broader feminist analytic method, the latter of which largely addressed white-only subjects. Today, it is likely the foremost method in feminist analysis. But there are pitfalls to this method because traditional frameworks of intersectionality rely on representational identities. This reliance “locks in” the very identities it attempts to destabilize.1 As such, contextual theologies continue to use identity categories to merely flag difference rather than to relationally connect differences.

I wish to be more unencumbered in my work and therefore look to the postrepresentational identities posited in the relational theories of Jasbir Puar and Gloria Anzaldúa. Anzaldúa and Puar think differently about intersections—they talk about connections, relations, and power forces, thus bringing about a more robust version of intersectionality. I argue this theoretical and pragmatic move shores up new contours for theology to embrace. I try to use Anzaldúa’s concepts of the borderlands as a way to talk about intersectionality, because borderlands require relations and power. In AnaLouise Keating’s Transformation Now!: Toward a Post-Oppositional Politics of Change (2013), which draws on Anzaldúa’s epistemology and ontology along with women of color theorizing and is not bound to the intersectionality that is traditionally foregrounded in women of color theorizing, Keating discusses the syntax of relationality relative to intersectionality which emerges in the term: interconnectivity.2

With interconnectivity, no longer is theology fenced-in by the boundaries of stabilized identity politics. While womanist, Latina, feminist, and queer theologies—all representational in character—have attempted to embrace relationality, they have not succeeded in destabilizing identities through the processes of relationality and intersubjectivity. A theology of interconnectivity allows relational discourse to form between self and community, seeking radical liberation of both. In this sense, then, theology becomes the discourse of the politics of change, destabilizing traditional representational identities, unmasking them as stabilized identitarian politics, and pointing toward a horizon where theologies do not merely represent identities but also help mobilize the instability of such identities into difference becoming relational; this is the moment of interconnection and is especially apparent when this happens in the classroom. When theology leans into its future as a post-representational politics of change, it can become a theory of radical interconnectivity that transforms both self and community. In order for this to materialize, theology must be given the fluidity to become a discourse of connectivity, over against the solidity that seeks to contain it in a systematized discourse. When the fluidity of relationality disrupts the traditional solid discourse of theology, theology then emerges having the potential to create moments of radical interconnectivity.

An example of this type of theology can be seen in queer of color theologies and post-representational theology. Both of these types of nascent theology establish a new contour in constructive theologies that take intersectionality to task. In rethinking structures of family and queer desire, the matrices of difference emerge quite naturally as moments of interconnectedness that mobilize the multiplicity and fullness of identity into a relational connection. This approach has the capacity to reframe our efforts of faith seeking understanding and the ethical practices emerging from this frame. Remapping representational theologies as theologies of interconnection lends them to new moments of difference rather than immutable constraints.

It is not enough to simply unmask the intersections of race, class, sexuality, gender, and other differences, or to build theologies from these stable points of departure. A more generative way to highlight the contours of interconnection and trace interrelatedness is to show the contours of connection within these differences. Puar does this in her analysis of assemblages (which can be traced back to Deleuze and Guattari and refers to the interlocking connection of thought, things, and beings), and Anzaldúa does this by speaking about a planetary connection with all things and beings. What Keating offers us is the potential to put interconnection into action for a tangible politics of change. We are all assemblages, faced with multiple systems of power and oppression that affect us all, most especially in the classroom. When we understand that the teacher is also an assemblage that is connected with their students, new contours of interrelatedness can emerge.

Establishing theologies of interconnection demands attention to multiple differences. A more relational theologizing helps bring about contours of connectivity and interrelatedness through which intersections can flow, creating new paradigms for thought and action. Allowing co-constitutive identity markers to become assemblages that are affected by relations and power resituates theology as an art that not only participates in the flow of these markers, but also helps mobilize theological discourse. It is relationality seeking action rather than faith seeking understanding: Where the latter creates insiders and outsider, a relational approach in intersubjectivity operates by collapsing those boundaries and creating new pathways for interconnection. Doing this radically reframes our theological task of systematizing difference into unitary moments of experience and instead allows for the disruptive moments of theology and pressing social concerns to guide us in our intersubjective relationality—an interconnection that is rooted in a difference that can be mobilized for radical social change, a new participatory flow of differences becoming connection. This mobilization of difference as an assemblage of theological thinking remaps the tradition of theology into productive moments of a materialist theology whose frame is the radical interrelatedness of multiple identities becoming different.

As a theological frame, interconnection redistributes identitarian politics and the co-constitutive identity categories and connects differences within the existing matrices. Doing theology as interconnection and advocating for the radical interrelatedness of all things, especially of multiple differences, reframes both theology and intersections of difference by shifting to radical differences as the focal point of change. Difference becomes the locus of reflection for theology in this sense. This change, then, helps interconnection to irrupt the stable representational points of identity that in turn disrupt traditional ways of representing intersections and this, in turn, establishes a new shape of theology in the form of interconnection. In many ways, it is the materialist turn in theology that circumvents the largely linguistic turn in traditional intersectionality discourse.

The impact of this on education is great. New contours of relationality emerge, new methods of teaching can take root, and difference no longer becomes something to overcome but rather embraced as part of the radical interconnections that are being developed. If these material realities can have a place in the teaching of theology, our theologies can then really become the spirited-material theologies (or pneumatological) that have the capacity to produce radical social change, transformative realities that our institutions desperately need.

Notes

See, for example, AnaLouise Keating’s Transformation Now!: Toward a Post-oppositional Politics of Change (2013).^

While I focus primarily on AnaLouise Keating’s work, it is important to note that she is heavily influenced by Gloria Anzaldúa. I find resonances with Keating’s work and Puar's, though due to the length of this essay, I am unable to fully articulate the connections between these three theorists.^

Resources

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1989. "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics." University of Chicago Legal Forum: 139–67.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 1999. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.

Keating, AnaLouise. 2013. Transformation Now!: Toward a Post-Oppositional Politics of Change. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.


Robyn Henderson-EspinozaRobyn Henderson-Espinoza, self-identified as Christian Agnostic and Queer Mestizaje (of Mexican and Anglo heritage), is a PhD candidate in the joint PhD program at the University of Denver-Iliff School of Theology focusing on constructive philosophical theology with a primary interest in the ethics of interrelatedness stemming from a New Materialist account. Robyn’s work exists in the in-between spaces of ontology, epistemology, and ethics, working to establish a speculatively queer material realism. Robyn uses the thought and theory of Gloria Anzaldúa, queer theories, the New Materialisms movement, along with queer epistemologies to consider a queer materialist philosophy. Robyn’s interests, while wildly philosophical, are also at the intersection of addressing issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Robyn’s scholarly work starts at the point of departure of “what is reality?” to address existing disparities. Robyn participates in public writing on various sites: Tikkun Daily and Emerging Voices. While having been a fellow for the Human Rights Campaign and the Hispanic Theological Initiative, Robyn has also served the Hispanic Theological Initiative as a faculty member for the past several years.


Image: Plate XXX (Byzantine No. 3), The Grammar of Ornament by Owens Jones (1868; scanned from the 1910 reprint) London: Bernard Quaritch, via http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/DLDecArts.GramOrnJones