“Shame need not crouch, in such an Earth as Ours; Shame—stand erect—the Universe is yours!”  – Emily Dickinson, #1304, 1874


“It would not be an overstatement to say that Christianity literally had its birth on the altar of shame.” – Jill L. McNish, Transforming Shame: A Pastoral Response


“… shame does not merely guard the boundary between the public and the private, the political and the personal, the inter- and intrasubjective, but also constantly traverses those boundaries—even very nearly dissolves them. This traversal—this near-dissolution—binds shame tightly to the erotic. If the embrace of the stigma of identity represents a conversion that takes place within shame, so too dos the plunge into the abjection of flesh-and-soul that undoes identity, giving rise to both wild joy and abysmal humility—courting the arrival of grace. This stigma itself turns out to be both the inscription and the erasure of identity, at once the fact of difference and its effacement. We are marked by countless others, by our responsiveness to others—our abysmal responsibility. Stigmata arrive like a gift, then, in the paradox of a granted receptivity that is also an expected overflow…In the ecstatic excesses of shameful vulnerability, ethics draws close to erotics – Virginia Burrus, Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects  

Auguste Rodin, "Eve after the Fall," 1886
Auguste Rodin, “Eve after the Fall,” 1886


In my last few posts, I’ve tried to work through shame, to rethink my own assumptions about its pernicious effects as well as its productive potential. In this final post of my little “series” on shame, then, I want to think a little more explicitly about the intersections of shame and theology…. What might it mean to embrace a shameful theology?


I. Saving Shame? More on shame’s productive potential

As my multiple references to her work suggests, I think Virginia Burrus offers a beautiful historically-grounded theology of shame in her book Saving Shame. In the introduction to the text, Burrus explains how she has found that, ““For me there is, finally, no place to stand outside shame, though it has always been clear that there are many places—‘many mansions’?—within this variegated domain…. Neither, however, have I experienced a shame as a sheerly destructive or paralyzingly inhibiting force—on the contrary” (xi). From this intrigue in shame and its effects, Burrus lays out the argument of her text She writes:

“Perhaps those who read this text will also find that they—you—can relate not only to the experience of shame, not only in the desire to resist shame, but also to the intuition that shame, in all of its complexity, may yet have much to teach us. The hunch that I am pursuing is this: there is no escape from shame but there may be many possibilities for a productive transformation of shame and through shame. There is no escape from shame because we are always already marked by shame. Might it be that this is not merely the tragic effect of a fallen history but also an inherent aspect of creaturely finitude and relationality” (xii, emphasis mine)?

Since we are “always already” marked by shame, what might it mean to listen to what shame can teach us? In his essay in Gay Shame, Hanson too focuses on how shame can be a powerful pedagogue, explaining that:

“Shame teaches, but will not be taught, will not be lectured to: teaching shame, an affect as a discipline, a disciplinary gesture, but never in itself the thing to be disciplined, refigure it and reframe it as I might. Shame remains itself intractable, though it is pedagogical by its very nature….Pedagogy without shame is like punishment without pain” (140).

What is it that shame might teach us? Obviously the possibilities here are vast, but Burrus hints at some of what shame has taught her in her comment about our creaturely finitude and relationality. She comes back to some of these points in her afterword, when she reflects upon how two theorists who’ve written about shame—Roger Kimball and Martha Nussbaum.[1] At first glance, Nussbaum and Kimball have quite divergent opinions about shame and it’s usefulness. As Christina Tarnopolsky puts it (which Burrus cites), “Shame is either considered an outdated, irrational, or painful emotion that we need to avoid and resources to it are then considered naïve or prudish, or shame is considered to be an infallible guide to morality and civic order.”[2] Burrus points out, however that these approaches might be two different sides of the same coin. As she puts it, “Despite their differences, each assumes that the stigma, whether involuntary and shameful or voluntary and shameless, is simply a bad thing” (150).

But, as she has pointed out in the various “case studies” of ancient Christian martyrs and ascetics that comprise her text, these ancient Christian stories, and the texts that tell them, “offer a more complicated and ambivalent understanding of stigmatization and of shame more generally,” an ambivalence we can learn from, and which “may also be our own” (150). Burrus goes on to explain:

“When a mark of shame, whether physical or verbal, is shamelessly embraced, the stigma is transformed in the process—a gesture graphically exemplified, and also partly displaced, within the contemporary aesthetics of body piercing and tattooing. Far from representing a simple absence of shame, shamelessness here manifests as a turning or conversion within shame, whereby the subject performs his or her fragile dignity apart from, and even in resistance to, the social privilege signified by hegemonic codes of honor. He or she performs, perhaps, the fragility of dignity as well as the dignity of fragility” (150-151).

This embrace of fragility—as it relates to dignity, and as it relates to humanity just in general/more broadly—is, like Burrus, something I find to undeniably engender “a capacity for creative transformation” (151) as well as a markedly theological claim about our identities as humans…


II. Shame, Failure, & Limits (read: on being human)

One of the theological soapboxes I tend to jump up on—perhaps the biggest (tallest?) of them, given that I’m writing my dissertation largely around this theme—is what I refer to as a “teleology of success.” By this, what I basically mean—and, from there, call into question/critique—is that there seems to be a trend in some contemporary theological conversations, particularly around the intersections of “theology and practice,” (or, more specifically, the intersections of theological method and spiritual formation) that operate with an ideal end in mind—either a vision of the future/ideal that is markedly stable (say, for instance, Stanley Hauerwas’ epistemological assumptions about “the church” or his account of virtue formation) or an ideal end that can that can, and (almost inevitably) will, be reached only through a very particular set of actions (i.e. Coakley’s method of théologie totale, and the role contemplation plays in both method and formation). This teleology and its clear directional trajectory seems, to me, not only to perpetuate the very problems these projects seek to remedy, but also operates with some theological anthropological assumptions that I find worrisome: in emphasizing an ideal end that is, it seems, at least somewhat reachable, or at least desirable, theology don’t sufficiently attend to the realities of our existence as limited creatures living in an imperfect world.

A number of theologians speak at length about our finitude/dependence/limitedness as essential to what it means to be human—from Reinhold Niebuhr’s distinguishing between imago dei and creatureliness and his articulation of sin as in part being when we fail to accept both parts of our identity, to Ed Farley’s existential/phenomenological account of humanity and his account of evil as grounded in idolatry and the failure to recognize our vulnerability and dependence, to Wolfhart Pannenberg’s eschatological anthropology of becoming, to—my personal favorite—Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reflections on our creaturely existence “from the middle,” and the ethics of risk that stem from that. For Bonhoeffer, to seek our origins or our end is both hopeless and idolatrous.[3] To live “in the middle,” then, for Bonhoeffer means taking risk, and possibly risking failure and guilt(/shame?!). As he puts it:

“Those who, in acting responsibly, seek to avoid becoming guilty divorce themselves from the ultimate reality of human existence; but in doing so, they also divorce themselves from the redeeming mystery of the sinless bearing of guilt by Jesus Christ, and have no part in the divine justification that attends this event.”[4]

Could embracing our fragility and our limits then, perhaps mean boldly embracing our shame, shame being an integral aspect of our humanity, often embodied in and through our failings?

I love the way Ellis Hanson talks about shame in this light in his reflections on the writings of Jean Genet. Hanson explains:

“Genet had the right attitude [when he wrote that]: ‘The mechanism was somewhat as follows (I have used it since) to every charge brought against me, unjust though it may be, from the bottom of my heart I shall answer yes.’ This is close to my ideal of coming out, but it smacks too much of pride. I have altered the mechanism somewhat as follows: to every confessional demand leveled at my person—‘Are you this, or are you that? Have you done this? But have you done that?!’—from the bottom of my heart I shall answer, ‘Yes! Oh, yes! But I’m not very good at it” (133).

Hanson goes on to note that, “Failure makes identity political. Failure can make it sexy. It shows the cracks in idealization and renders identity politics an inexhaustible resource for shame” (133). I love the language about failure showing “the cracks in idealization.” Perhaps its just because I grew up as a conservative evangelical, but I can think of countless examples of Christianity (of Christians), conservative and liberal alike, seeking to smooth over those cracks, to hide them (and God knows I do this all the damn time/am assuredly not exempt from this critique)—I mean, isn’t that kind of what Christian piety is all about? What might it mean to embrace failure then? Could that not only say something about our theology of creatureliness, but offer something by way of a theological imagination for alternative ways of being in the world—beyond perfectionism on the one hand and cynicism or nihilism on the other? As Jack Halberstam puts it in his excellent book The Queer Art of Failure, “ We’re all used to having our dreams crushed, our hopes smashed, our illusions shattered, but what comes after hope?…What is the alternative, in other words, to cynical resignation on the one hand and naïve optimism on the other?”[5] Halberstam finds this alternative in nothing other then failure.

In her critique of some of the various “negative” accounts of shame, Burrus notes how “despite the dramatic differences in their positions,” one commonality amongst some of these scholars is that they “agree that the vulnerable particularity of the gendered, sexualized, racialized, dis/abled, and otherwise marked—stigmatized—flesh should remain veiled protectively in the realm of political life. In order to see clearly, justice must be bling to difference, ‘no matter how unpopular’” (152). Burrus questions whether stigma and its shaming effects should be, to put it one way, closeted. She continues to reflect on this, in a passage that is well worth citing at length. She writes:

“But is it safe to be rendered secure against shame? (Should we desire to become so, even if we could?) One who seeks, however vainly, the impenetrable cloak of total privacy cannot be known any more than he or she can be shamed, nor can one who seeks, however vainly, the non-negotiable transparency of full exposure—[the] unblushingly ‘honest’ man or woman, lacking not only a sense of shame but also a sense of humor and the ability to forgive. It is in the encounter with others—in the never quite-perfect mutuality of acknowledgement—that identity is effectively constituted and reconstituted, remaining thereby not only contingent and provisional but also partial since ‘the identity we say we are cannot possibly capture us and marks immediately an excess and opacity that falls outside the categories of identity,’ as Butler puts it. Perhaps justice is neither blind nor all-seeing, after all. Arising at the borders of our visibility and our invisibility—of what is knowable and what eludes knowledge—justice may present a more modest fact than expected, peeking at us from under the lids of half-shut eyes….It is in this play of hiddenness and exposure mobilized in transformative encounters with others that our sense of self is ever emerging and withdrawing” (152).[6]

Shame, then, in and through its exposure and reminder of our failures… our limits…our humanity, shapes our selves as we relate to others…

"Expulsion from the Garden of Eden," Masaccio, 1425
“Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,” Masaccio, 1425


III. Shame, Selfhood, and Sociality

Burrus’ point about the self-formational and relational aspects of shame reminded me of Butler’s avowal about how our encounters with others shape us. Butler writes :

“Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel. And so when we speak about my sexuality or my gender, as we do (and as we must), we mean something complicated by it. Neither of these is precisely a possession, but both are to be understood as modes of being dispossessed, ways of being for another, or, indeed, by virtue of another.”[7]

By eschewing shame, in our efforts to stay intact, are we missing points of genuine encounter with each other? I’ve already written quite a bit in the last post about shame and identity and community, but here, I wanted to add a little bit, specifically in thinking theologically about the possibilities in this dispossessing account of identity via encounter. As Burrus explains in a synopsis of what she’s gleaned from her case studies of ancient Christians on shame:

“Among ancient Christians, I shall argue, shame is no longer primarily the source of admonishing exempla that fortify the honorable will. Instead, an extravagant—even gratuitous—embracing of shame puts honor itself into question. Rather than simply converting (one culture’s definition of) shame into (another sub/culture’s definition of) honor, ancient Christians lay claim to their own shame, at once intensifying it and converting it into a potent source of identity—and, paradoxically, also of identity’s dissolution” (8).

Burrus points out something Foucault began to explore in more depth towards the end of his life—the ways in which ascesis can be transformative and liberative, and what early Christianity can teach us about that. Eribon talks about this in relation to the realities of stigma and shame, reflecting on how society rejects gay men and lesbian in a variety of ways (many which were more overt at the time he wrote this—i.e. legal recognition of same-sex couples, military, churches, etc.…). Because of this lack of recognition, Eribon explains, “there is a constant need to come out and navigate the world. Therefore, one must always be making oneself. Foucault speaks of a homosexual ascesis (an aesthetic of the self), a self fashioning which is nothing more then the coming to consciousness and deliberate assumption of the structure of inadequation that is at the heart of the daily life and consciousness of gays and lesbians—one must make ones life a work of art.”[8] Shame is the charge that calls for this ascesis, as well as a conduit in one’s continual self-fashioning, a self-fashioning that Sedgwick notes is “the double movement shame makes: toward painful individuation, toward uncontrollable relationality.”[9]

This “double movement” of shame seems to be precisely what makes it ecstatic, what makes it erotic. As Hanson puts it in “Teaching Shame:”

“By affirming shame, I am not merely indulging a decadent fascination with my own abjection, though that alone would be sufficient to recommend it to me. Its intensities are alluring, however painful, but they can also be reassuring in that they presume a powerful bond with other people, a civility far from serene or static, a mobility of affiliation with little respect for the conventional limits of identification or even rational judgment. Like aesthetic bliss, like desire, like love, shame affords its greatest pleasure in a violence to the ego that keeps the self in motion even while keeping it in check. Shame defies me, defines me, overwhelms me” (134).

As Burrus puts it, which I’ve already cited in the epigraph to this (now far too-long) post,“shame does not merely guard the boundary between the public and the private, the political and the personal, the inter- and intrasubjective, but also constantly traverses those boundaries—even very nearly dissolves them. This traversal—this near-dissolution—binds shame tightly to the erotic” (152). In light of this dissolving movement of shame, Burrus calls stigmata “a gift” and precisely “in the ecstatic excesses of shameful vulnerability, ethics draws close to erotics” (153). Insult echoes this claim, and Eribon’s argument against the closet bolsters Burrus’ critique of those in the name of liberalism seek that stigma be “protectively veiled,” that potential sources of shame be hidden. As Eribon points out, that which the discourse of liberal tolerance would recommend, this hidden private life, is nothing other then an interior ghetto, a ghetto that is imposed by structures of oppression that demand a radical, and damaging, disassociation between one’s hidden self and public self.[10] The opposition between public and private is then so taken for granted, and public life so fundamentally linked to heterosexuality, that when anyone who isn’t straight fails to respect that, by making their sexuality known, by making it public, they are immediately accused of “flaunting it.”


IV. Shame & Love

To embrace shame, then, is to embrace the erotic. To flaunt it. To love shamelessly, or rather shamefully perhaps. Shame is bound to eros, bound up in love. Both Hanson and Burrus make this point far more eloquently then I could. Reflecting again on Jean Genet’s literature, stories rife with a shameless embrace of shame, Hanson writes:

“What Genet hides in plain sight is not so much his self, nor even just his face, but his pleasure in the passivity of mortification, the unconsenting connection to other people, the strange and sudden apprehension of the self at its very limits, the reassuring rudeness, cruelty, and treachery of self-definition. Punishing, obviously, but gratifying too in that shame generates paradoxical forms of love…I read Genet not for the quality of his transgressions, but for the quality of his love. Not for his shamelessness, but for his shame. With his cheeks aflame, he offers us—repeatedly, tirelessly—a love as primal as shame, love of oneself and other people, love even of objects and places, that is nevertheless predicated on the appreciation of error, vulnerability, unworthiness, disgust, abjection, and powerlessness—a shameful love, in other words, that can insist on nothing, claim nothing, but itself. Shame is an occasion for artistry without mastery, love without possession, connection without community, and desire without dignity” (138-139).

And as Burrus puts it:

“Indeed, what is at stake in the politics of shame is nothing less than our capacity for love…. We pause to ask ourselves what it means to love, whether and how love is possible….we may also begin to feel our own shame—the shame of our fleshly and psychic exposure, our naked yearnings, our hidden fears and secret hopes, our sense of connection and dread of transgression. The question is what we do with it” (153).


V. Conclusion

What I’ve tried to think through in these past few posts on shame, in my efforts to “think out loud” to make sense of what I think about shame, is something Burrus points out at the beginning of Saving Shame (and really, this series of posts could have been encapsulated in a brief sentence/as a tweetable book review: “Read Burrus’s Saving Shame and Halperin and Traub’s edited volume on Gay Shame; they’re really good, and made me totally re-examine what I think about shame”). As Burrus puts it:

“Shame is arguably something we need to take more seriously, in its productively transformative as well as its destructively inhibiting effects—in its unavoidable ambivalence. Shame is at the heart of the anguished awareness of human limits at the point where those limits are exceeded, conveying the power as well as the danger of relationality itself” (4).

Instead of ending, then, with some sort of neat summary (not that I ever end with any kind of actual conclusion when I blog, I usually just sort of just end abruptly after I’ve said what I’ve wanted to say, but alas…), especially given how Burrus gets at the heart of where I’ve landed thus far in how I think about shame, I’ll end with a poem that also gets at how my theological thinking about shame got all turned around as of late… It’s a poem I found in the midst of researching shame, written by Lord Alfred Douglas, who was Oscar Wilde’s lover—many are familiar (whether they are aware of the source or not) of another one of Douglas’ poem, “Two Loves,” where he speaks of “the love that dare not speak its name.”[11] This poem, published in 1894—a year before Wilde is tried for gross indecency and sodomy, convicted of the former, and sentenced to two years of hard labor in prison—is (aptly, for this blog) titled, “In Praise of Shame:”


Last night unto my bed bethought there came
Our lady of strange dreams, and from an urn
She poured live fire, so that mine eyes did burn
At the sight of it. Anon the floating fame
Took many shapes, and one cried: “I am shame
That walks with Love, I am most wise to turn
Cold lips and limbs to fire; therefore discern
And see my loveliness, and praise my name.”

And afterwords, in radiant garments dressed
With sound of flutes and laughing of glad lips,
A pomp of all the passions passed along
All the night through; till the white phantom ships
Of dawn sailed in. Whereat I said this song,
“Of all sweet passions Shame is the loveliest.”




[1] See Burrus, “Afterword: Shame, Politics, Love” in Saving Shame, 148ff. The texts she’s referencing are Martha C. Nussbaum’s Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004) and Roger Kimball’s response to Nussbaum, “Does Shame Have a Future?” New Criterion (September 2004), 4-9.

[2] Burrus, 149, citing Tarnopolsky, “Prudes, Perverts, and Tyrants: Plato and the Contemporary Politics of Shame,” Political Theory 32, no. 4 (August 2004), 469.

[3] “To take a gigantic leap back into the world of the lost beginning, to seek to know for ourselves what humankind was like in its original state and to identify our own ideal of humanity with what God actually created is hopeless. It fails to recognize that it is only from Christ that we can know about the original nature of humankind. The attempt to do that without recognizing this, as hopeless as it is understandable, has again and again delivered up the church to arbitrary speculation at this dangerous point. Only in the middle, as those who live from Christ, do we know about the beginning.” Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, volume 3) John W. De Gruchy, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 62

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green (Fortress Press, 2005), 276. In Creation and Fall, it’s important to note, Bonhoeffer does speak about shame in a quite negative light, writing that “Shame only exists as a result of the knowledge of the division on man… Shame is the expression of the fact that we no longer accept the other person as a gift from God… In the unity of unbroken obedience man is naked in the presence of man, uncovered, revealing both body and soul, and yet is not ashamed. Shame only comes into existence in the world of division” (63). However, in light of what Bonhoeffer writes about our identities as fallen creatures, both in Creation and Fall and Ethics, it seems then, that shame is an inevitable byproduct of our post-Lapsarian identities…

[5] Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 1.

[6] See Burrus, 152 n16 for the Butler reference.

[7] Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 19.

[8] Eribon, Insult, 117, quoting from Michel Foucault “Friendship as a Way of Life” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, Ed. Paul Rabinow, Trans. Robert Hurley et al. New York: New Press, 1997, 136.

[9] Sedgwick, Gay Shame, 51. Or, as Michael Warner puts it in the same volume, “Shame is seen…as foundational to the sense of self, but in a paradoxical way, for it is both individuating and obliterating. It is an essentially social affect…yet it is fundamentally an experience of the separateness of the self, a broken exchange” (289).

[10] See Eribon, Insult, 101ff.

[11] “It’s also worth noting that, like “In Praise of Shame,” “Two Loves” also speaks of shame and its relation to love… –“….I cried, ‘Sweet youth…What is thy name?’ He said to me, ‘My name is Love.’ Then straight the first did turn himself to me. And cried, ‘He lieth, for his name is Shame…” shame being, then, that love that dare not speak its name. This poem was used as evidence against Wilde at his gross indecency trial in 1895.














"Expulsion from the Garden of Eden," Masaccio, 1425
Masaccio, “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,” 1425

2 thoughts

  1. I can’t remember if you have touched on this earlier in this series, but it might be helpful to reflect on the shame of Christ’s crucifiction and how the early Church appropriated that and turned it into a sign of honour and resistance to Empire.

    God Bless

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