“Loneliness seems to be an essentially human experience. It is not just about being alone. Loneliness is not the same thing as solitude. We can be alone yet happy, because we know that we are part of a family, a community, even the universe itself. Loneliness is a feeling of not being part of anything, of being cut off. It is a feeling of being unworthy, of not being able to cope in the face of a universe that seem to work against us. Loneliness is a feeling of being guilty. Of what? Of existing? Of being judged? By whom? We do not know. Loneliness is a taste of death.”
– Jean Vanier, Becoming Human

“We must love one another, or die.” – W.H. Auden, “September 1, 1939”


“Not only the other person who is earnest and devout, who comes to me seeking brotherhood, must I deal with in fellowship. My brother is rather the other person who has been redeemed by Christ, delivered from his sin, and called to faith and eternal life. Not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitutes the basis of our community. What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us.” – Bonhoeffer, Life Together



Late last month, I offered a (necessarily flawed/limited) typology on some of the why’s and who’s of loneliness in the academy. When writing that post, I thought I would have a lot to say theologically about said topic, even though I realized then that I had more questions than answers. But as I’ve been thinking, the theological avenue for these questions seems to center for me around belonging, or the lack thereof. Unsurprisingly, this is a topic I’ve been interested in for some time, for a number of reasons….

When I was applying to doctoral programs, I started my statement of purpose with this story, which may offer just a small snippet of insight into just one of many, many factors that makes this theme so salient for me. Back in 2010, I wrote:

“It’s easier to leave than to stay. I can’t handle seminary anymore. It’s not worth it.”  Those were Brian’s last words, the end of a short note scribbled on a yellow legal pad for his friends and family, right before he hung himself from the bar of his bedroom closet on December 23, 2008. Brian was one of my closest friends; not only did he understand what it meant to be queer and Christian, he knew what it was like to be a seminarian as well. He was the only other person I knew who shared that experience.  We would talk regularly, chronicling our moments of joy, lamenting the pain, and dreaming about things getting better. Yet, in the midst of Advent, a time of celebration and hopeful anticipation, Brian found neither. Precisely in the moment where salvation and hope were to be most salient, Brian ended his life—his physical death a mimesis of the social and emotional death he experienced at the hand of fellow Christians.


In my divinity and doctoral studies, I’ve been able to work with and learn from amazing scholars who’ve explored belonging, a key emphasis amongst much of this scholarship being on Gentile Christianity. From J. Kameron Carter and Willie Jennings’ brilliant work and teaching on race and belonging rooted in the Jewishness of Christ to Eugene Rogers’ profound examination of the significance of the inclusion of Gentile Christians for the inclusion of LGBTQ Christians, belonging seems to be one of the central, foregrounding aspects of Christian theology and practice I find most compelling.[1]


In many ways, this notion of belonging and inclusion seems so simple. And yet, of course, it is anything but—in the academy, in the church, in…anything. Herein lies the rub, and where it becomes difficult to write about—we humans seem to be terrible at times at being inclusive, at doing life together, especially amongst and in affirmation of difference. And many of us Christian folk seem to be the worst.


So, at least a key theological question for me has been: why? What is it about difference that we so wish to exclude, or at least to force into conforming? And what in theological discourse and practice contributes to this, and aids it? What in theology can, conversely, resist this impulse (which, also, is the ethical question)?


Key to questions of belonging and inclusion—or, conversely, exclusion—seems to be the notion of a “people” and thus some sort of qualifications being necessary to be part of said peoplehood. This is, of course, itself an enormous theme in Jewish (and thus Christian) histories… but, as scholars like Rogers and Carter and Jennings and others have pointed out, it has been…. telling, at the very least, how Christians have operated so predominately under a logic of exclusion, despite the fact that we have been —even to the point of excluding those who included us in the first place! Which the Christian scriptures are not too down with… As Paul writes in Romans 11: 17-22:

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not vaunt yourselves over the branches. If you do vaunt yourselves, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity towards those who have fallen, but God’s kindness towards you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.[2]


In exploring these questions, I’ve often discovered more resources in critical theory than in theology—I’m not sure if that is just because I do not know where to look, or if that says something about me, or if that is telling about theological discourse (or somewhere in between). One of the insights of critical theory that has been perhaps the most helpful for me in trying to understand belonging and exclusion and peoplehood is how it is anything but natural.


For instance, in his essay “The Nation Form: History and Ideology,” Etienne Balibar explains that “no modern nation possesses a given ‘ethnic’ basis;” rather , this unity is constituted through a notion of peoplehood, of what he calls “fictive ethnicity.”[3] The nation form, then, is the imagined social community cohered by shared attributes, which Balibar names as language and race, and reproduced by social institutions such as school and the family.[4] What marks a nation form, as opposed to another state form, Balibar explains, is precisely the constitution of ‘the people.’[5] In his lecture series “Society Must Be Defended,” Foucault similarly explores how, put bluntly, the categorization and separation of people into groups in a form of power, what he names as “biopower,” the ““power of regularization,” of making live and letting die.[6] This, for Foucault, is the place where racism—which he uniquely defines as the construction of categories by the delineation of difference, ethnic, social, linguistic, or otherwise—intervenes. Biopower is the point where racism becomes inscribed as the basic mechanism of power, “a way of separating out the groups that exist in a population…of establishing a biological-type caesura within a population…”[7] The operations and techniques of power shifts ideologically from being about victory over the adversary to extermination of the threat of impurity. (Nazi Germany, then, functions for Foucault as the paradigmatic case study of the way racism operates as a mechanism of biopower.)


From there, folks like Judith Butler have then critiqued categories themselves as oppressive and exclusionary—in her instance, constructions of sex and gender being key, proposing that gender “operates as an interior essence that might be disclosed [which is then] an expectation that ends up producing the very phenomenon that it anticipates.”[8]


Reading these folks, amongst many others, has made me incredibly skeptical, then, of Christian appeals to unity and “peoplehood”, as unity effectively becomes a synonym for conformity, a technique for hegemony and regulation. As Butler puts it:

Is ‘unity’ necessary for effective political action? Is the premature insistence on the goal of unity precisely the cause of an ever more bitter fragmentation among the ranks…Does ‘unity’ set up an exclusionary norm of solidarity at the level of identity that rules out the possibility of a set of actions which disrupt the very borders of identity concepts, or which seek to accomplish precisely that disruption as an explicit political aim?[9]


Or as Balibar puts in:

The fundamental problem is therefore to produce the people. More exactly, it is to make the people produce itself continually as a national community. Or again, it is to produce the effect of unity by virtue of which the people will appear, in everyone’s eyes, “as a people.”[10]


I think critical theory, then, offers some incredible analyses and resources as to why we exclude, about the operations of power undergirding so many of our disourses, practices, even our identities. But, this then begs the question—what does it mean to do community without exclusion? I realize that this is utterly impossible, and that some forms of exclusion are not only necessary but good.[11]But how do we draw that line? And who has the authority to say where that line is drawn? It seems like an insanely precarious line, as it can very, very easily turn from care of and for the community towards oppression of people in the community….


Mary-Jane Rubenstein offers a really helpful framework for thinking through community and difference in her essay “Anglicans in the Postcolony: On Sex and the Limits of Communion.” Rubenstein, relying on the work of Jean Luc Nancy, delineates communion from community, privileging the latter. She quotes Nancy, who writes:

Community’s work, then, is to un-work itself; to become dés-oeuvrée; that is, the interrupt the formation of any single essence into which all its different singularities might be forcibly gathered. In other words, while “communion” must assimilate or destroy everything in its path, community’s persistent interruption resists ‘the delirium of an incarnated communion… Community is, in a sense, resistance itself; namely, resistance to immanence. Consequently, community is transcendence.[12]


Rubenstein’s delineation offers a theoretical framework for an idea of community amongst difference, but it still doesn’t attend to the practical questions, the “where is the line” sort of things? I mean, appeals to community amongst difference can, I think, function as its own sort of problematic unity at times… what kinds of differences are acceptable? For instance, I’m not cool with being accepting of difference that is not accepting of difference (read: of being “tolerant of intolerance”). A guest post from a friend of the blog elucidates this well, when they ask “what does dialogue take?” and concludes that not only does it take a safe base and the realistic acknowledgement of enemies, but sometimes, it take too much.


Finally, “the antisocial turn” within queer theory, and “Afro-pessimism” in black studies, building on the ways that belonging and unity have so, so often meant conformity and assimilation, have instead posed questions about what it means to resist such a notion of belonging, because belonging, frankly, means functioning within a fucked up order of things. This is some of the work that I’ve recently found myself gravitating towards, a sort of subversion of belonging… In his book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Lee Edelman, a pivotal—and quite provocative—queer “antisocial theorist” suggests an utter rejection of the current order, exhorting that:

Queers must respond to the violent force of such constant provocations [of their own lives via/for the ‘sake of the future’] not only by insisting on our equal rights to the social orders perogatives…but also by saying explicitly what Law and the Pope and the whole of the Symbolic order for which they stand hear anyway in each and every expression or manifestation of queer sexuality: Fuck the social order and the Child in whose name we’re collectively terrorized; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Mis; fuck the poor, innocent kid on the Net; fuck Laws both with capital l’s and with small; fuck the whole network of Symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop.[13]


Yet, even for Edelman, the rejection of the social order itself is the means through which alternatives are possible—that, “Such queerness proposes, in place of the good, something…‘better,’ though it promises, in more than one sense of the phrase, absolutely nothing.”[14] Similarly, while respecting  distinctions between Afro-pessimism and a black optimism—what he calls “Black Ops”—Fred Moten confounds the distinction between them. As he puts it in his essay “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh), ” in a passage that is well-worth citing at length:

What is nothingness? What is thingliness? What is blackness? What’s the relationship between blackness, nothingness and the (de/re)generative operations of what Deleuze might call a life in common? Where do we go, by what means do we begin to, study blackness? Can there be an aesthetic sociology or a social poetics of nothingness?…Our aim, even in the face of the brutally imposed difficulties of black life, is cause for celebration. This is not because celebration is supposed to make us feel good or make us feel better, though there would be nothing wrong with that. It is, rather, because the cause for celebration turns out to be the condition of possibility of black thought, which animates the black operations that will produce the absolute overturning, the absolute turning of this motherfucker out.”[15]


I love that—how for Moten,  the “paraontology” of blackness, which is “nothingness,” becomes the means for subversion and ultimately, for transformation. This strikes me as quite similar to what many queer antisocial thinkers are proposing as well. Moten calls this ante-belonging an “undercommon, underground, submarine sociality.”[16]


What might it mean to think belonging then, as an resistance to cultural forms of belonging, perhaps—considering aforementioned references to Christians being the outsiders who were invited in—as different precisely in its inclusion, or, put another way, different precisely because it constantly breaks down and questions the very things (exclusion, categorization/classification) that typically are seen as forming communities. As Rubenstein puts it , can “Christian fellowship understand its identity as both constituted and unworked by difference?”[17] What might it mean to think this in and of the church, as well as of the academy (I realize this post got a bit off topic from the foregrounding theme of loneliness in academia, but I think it is all connected!), and, then, by extension, of the theological academy?


I (also) love how Jack Halberstam narrates an approach to “antisociality” in his book The Queer Art of Failure. At one points, he writes, “We will wander, improvise, fall short, and move in circles. We will lose our way, our cars, our agenda, and possibly our minds, but in losing we will find another way of making meaning in which, to return to the battered VW van of Little Miss Sunshine, no one gets left behind.”  [18]


What might it mean to leave no one behind?


[1] See Eugene Rogers, Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999), especially “Part I: Orientation in the Debates: Sexuality and the People of God,” 15-86; J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), especially Chapter 2: The Great Drama of Religion: Modernity, the Jews, and the Theopolitics of Race, 79-124; and Willie J. Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), especially Chapter 6 “Those Near Belonging.”

[2] NRSV, emphasis mine.

[3] Etienne Balibar, “The Nation Form: History and Ideology” in Geoff Eley and Ronald Grigor Suny, eds. Becoming National: A Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 140.

[4] Ibid, 142, 146.

[5] Ibid, 133ff.

[6] Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1976-1976, trans. David Macey(New York: Picador, 2003), 247.

[7] Ibid, 255.

[8] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 2nd ed. (Routledge, 2006), xiv.

[9] Ibid, 21

[10] Balibar, “The Nation Form: History and Idealogy,” 136, emphasis mine.

[11] I cede here to a good friend, Shelley, regarding a lengthy conversation we had about the necessity and limits of exclusion/belonging.  This was also a point that was discussed and acknowledged and debated amongst some of my colleagues/co-bloggers for this site—I’m grateful for, and welcome, continued conversation and debate!

[12] Mary Jane Rubenstein, “Anglicans in the Postcolony: On Sex and the Limits of Communion,” Telos 143 (Summer 2008), 140-141, quoting Nancy, “The Inoperative Community,” p. 35.

[13] Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Duke University Press Books, 2004), 29.

[14] Ibid., 5.

[15] Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” The South Atlantic Quarterly 112:4, Fall 2013, 742.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Rubenstein, “Anglicans in the Postcolony,” 142.

[18] Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Duke University Press Books, 2011), 25.

5 thoughts

  1. Thanks for a powerful reflection. I am wondering what might be the relationship between the competition that is so present in the academic (theological) world and exclusion? I feel like there are lots of gendered cultural dynamics involved in academic competition. Does that contribute to a sense of exclusion? Maybe this is a different issue, but I’m thinking of the whole tenure process, etc.

    1. Hey Kevin,

      I definitely think that competition and the realities of the academy add to/exacerbate loneliness in a number of ways, exclusion being one of them…I’m hopefully that attention to the structural problems within the academy helps with this, but it seems like a slow learning curve–i.e. that, despite keeping up with the overabundance of blogs and articles about the corporatization of the academy/the rise of adjuncts/the crisis in the humanities/etc… (see, for instance, Rebecca Schuman’s great stuff on Slate- http://www.slate.com/authors.rebecca_schuman.html), that it is still really, really hard not to see academia as a pure meritocracy or something–that if we work hard enough, we’ll “make it”… (hahahahahahaha, right?), and thus we exist accordingly (i.e. being super competitive)… As to what to do about this, I have no idea, of course. I really like the notion of–and small ways that folks–operate according to a logic of abundance as opposed to a logic of scarcity, but the reality of academia seems to pretty much be very, very scarce…

  2. Thanks Brandy for a passionate post on a subject of vital importance for the Church.

    I think that the Holy Trinity is an excellent model here: 3 distinct persons so closely united in love that they truly form one God while also retaining their distinctiveness. That’s a great mode for community, which cannot really be built without the deep respect and space for difference which Love requires.

    You touched on possible limits to inclusion but I see these as sometimes necessary limits on the behaviour of persons rather than on persons themselves. Communities need to be very wary of excluding members, even for misbehavior damaging to the community, because that exclusion is so corrosive to community.

    I suggest that what it might mean to leave nobody behind is that part of the Eucharistic prayer which prays for the Church to be brought to the “fullness of charity”. Ultimately this is expressed in the Christian hope that everyone will one day be united in God. Until then, it’s a goal which we need to constantly work towards.

    God Bless

  3. Just a quick question, is it the play of difference that indicates that it is the losers (the no-one) who don’t get left behind? That is, I am not sure I can read your last statement as one of totality (no one = everyone), is that right?

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