“They always say the two things you don’t sit down and talk about at the dinner table are religion and politics. We run head into those,” says Professor Jacob Erickson, an assistant professor in the School of Religion, with a smile. Erickson is the lecturer behind two new Religion modules with a focus on queer theology, bringing a fresh look at LGBTQ+ perspectives in theology to Trinity.
The inside of the Loyola Institute, which houses Trinity’s School of Religion, is surprisingly modern. From the outside, the building is almost indistinguishable from the many other looming concrete mammoths on campus. But the inside is clean, bright and not at all like what might be imagined of a building dedicated to the study of religion. We laugh when Erickson tells me that one of the hidden gems of the school is how nice the building’s rooms are. So too, it seems, is the contemporary outlook in some of the modules which the School plans to introduce in the coming years.
“It’s so different to popular perceptions,” says Erickson, describing the study of theology. “There are so many preconceptions that are put on the academic study of religion, but it’s a diverse place, like any academic study.” And indeed, the modules which Erickson is introducing in the next few years – one on Sexuality, the Sacred and Society and another on Queer Theological Ethics – are not what may be expected from a religion degree for anyone outside its academic sphere. Particularly one in Ireland where the power of the Catholic Church has historically suppressed alternative voices. But Erickson is trying to challenge the idea that religion and the LGBTQ+ community are mutually exclusive.
“Everything is haunted by religion or theology in some way.”
“The history of queer lives and religion is not just one of antagonism,” he says. “There have always been progressive, religious queer activists doing different things.” He gives the example of Troy Perry who established the Metropolitan Community Church, a queer Christian denomination, in Los Angeles in 1968 and was one of the first founders of the pride parade in San Francisco two years later.
“I think one of the beautiful things about religious studies and theology is that there’s no taboo subject,” Erickson says. “Everything is haunted by religion or theology in some way and so in terms of what we interrogate, what we learn, what we’re interested in, it’s easy to make connections in unexpected ways.”
In a broad sense, Irish universities have been slow to introduce courses which look specifically at the experience of marginalised groups. The first module in Ireland dedicated to Black Studies, for example, launched in University College Dublin (UCD) only last year. Trinity’s undergraduate religion course is currently undergoing a complete rehaul, transitioning from offering two degree programmes – in World Religions and Theology or Catholic Theological Studies – to a Bachelor of Arts in Religion. When the department sat down to look at what the new course would offer, Erickson was keen to bring content with an LGBTQ+ focus to the table.
Queer theory in theology, Erickson explains, is about “rethinking the fundamental stories of identity” and “reimagining what it means to challenge heterosexist notions” of religious practices. There’s been no resistance to the introduction of the modules. “It’s a non-issue to have a module like that,” he states. It’s an exciting thought given what a conversation about a module which looks at the LGBTQ+ community may have looked like only a couple of decades ago in Ireland, in any discipline. For Erickson, it’s less of a political statement and more a statement of the areas that are considered academically valuable for the study of religion. “Queer theology is taught in most of the major theology departments around the world,” he says. “I think it’s a responsibility that we have to teach it and to teach it well.”
It’s an important subject for LGBTQ+ students who want to learn about it for themselves and how it relates to their own lives, and for people who want to learn about the complicated relationship between religion and sexuality and gain an informed perspective, Erickson outlines. It challenges sweeping statements made by churches or media or in everyday conversations about what religion or sexuality is. “Neither religion or sexuality have ever been only one thing, and that’s what a class like that says.”
“Theologians have a tendency to get in trouble for doing what they do, which is often offering criticisms to the churches which they are a part of based on research that is meant to be in the service of creative transformation for society, for the future, for more inclusive and just societies,” Erickson describes. “It’s just as important to know those as it is to know the ways that religious rhetoric and theology have been used to commit incredible acts of violence towards queer lives.”
“There have always been progressive, religious queer activists doing different things.”
The bright and colourful mix of books on Erickson’s shelves reflect the diversity of his academic interests – he’s taught modules on niche areas from theology and food to ecology to elephants in critical animal studies. While Erickson’s two new modules are designed to look at queer theory in theology, he also emphasises the importance of incorporating LGBTQ+ perspectives across classes. This means bringing different standpoints into curricula, but also re-examining the art of teaching and how to foster diverse classrooms and conversations across the university.
The new Religion degree is rolling out from this year under the Trinity Education Project, which has remodelled the Two-Subject Moderatorship programme to a Joint Honours degree. Although Erickson’s modules, which are designed for Sophister students, are yet to be taught, he has a clear sense of the content which could be covered. Investigating the bible’s “clobber passages” which have been used to exclude LGBTQ+ people and examining what they actually say and how people understand them would have a space, as would a look at the work of Marcella Althaus-Reid, a queer liberation theologian. Students could hope to learn about religious experience and transphobia, looking at “what’s current and next” in LGBTQ+ politics and thought, and to discuss how certain forms of Christianity and sexuality were deployed to colonise parts of the world, asking how indigenous perspectives on spirituality and sexuality challenge notions of Christian hetero-patriarchy.
Religious diversity in the present moment is shaking up how theologians interrogate and uncover ideas, according to Erickson. Moreover, religion and churches are in the processes of reimagining themselves as their shape and role in society changes. “Queer theology is one of those places where you have incredible thinkers and writers who are asking what stories have been told, how can we tell them differently, what doctrines do we need to interrogate,” Erickson says.
“People meaningfully talking about what they believe about the world – I think that’s one of the most important demands of our time,” Erickson says. With conviction, he outlines his recipe for a better future: “We need to think about how we talk to each other, what we value, what we can work on with each other and how we can live in a more just society with radically diverse views.”