Knowledge, Power, and God

Dr. Ish Ruiz

Greetings everyone! Thank you, President Kim, Chairman William Glenn, Dean Peña, and Associate Deans Holder and Arce, for inviting me to offer this commencement address. Thank you to our professors and GTU staff for guiding us on this journey.

I am also grateful to my family for coming here all the way from Puerto Rico: Los amo con todo mi corazón. And as a gay man I am also blessed with a chosen family which is also here – so I thank my friends for the love and support you have given me throughout these years. And I know I speak for the vast majority of us graduates in extending this gratitude to all family and friends – Thank you for accompanying us in our journey.

Finally, to my fellow graduates: Congratulations! I am grateful to you too.

This time at GTU has been an adventure. I have been a high school teacher while taking courses GTU so I usually taught a full day of classes in San Francisco before hopping in my car, rushing over the Bay Bridge and getting to every class a few minutes late. On that drive over, I’d usually be listening to something: Perhaps an audiobook version of an assigned reading, or a YouTube video reflecting on an assigned reading, or a podcast…. or, honestly, most times I’d just take the opportunity to practice my go-to Karaoke songs. But then I’d arrive at the GTU, engage in class, and – on the drive back – I’d drive in absolute silence… I was just taking it all in.

Each one of these courses was immensely transformative. However, I want to share one class session that significantly shaped my worldview: This was Professor Marianne Farina’s class on power.

I had discussed the concept of power in many classes at GTU. Most of these conversations explored a Marxist account of repressive power, but in this class, we discussed another form of power: the power of ideas. For that class session, we had read Michel Foucault’s take on power as a normalizing force deployed through the use of language. In his view, real power consisted in having the knowledge and ability to discursively craft what would then be considered to be either “normal” or “not normal.” Of course, once society determines what the norm is, it would then move to establish structures that reinforce and preserve it.

And we can see this form of power exercised throughout society: Some people are deemed to be “in, accepted, good, and ordered” while others are “out, repudiated, depraved, and disordered.” We know what happens to each group.

This was a great class discussion… and, on the silent drive back from that class, I came to a profound realization, which is this: Theology is powerful. Theology can craft those ideas about what is normal.

No matter what your major was at GTU, we all discussed two theological questions in all of our programs: Who is God? and, most importantly, who is God to us?

These questions seem at first theoretical and esoteric – but the truth is that the way we answer these questions is powerful because it translates into doctrine, devotional practices, culture, and even public policy… Theology is powerful…

As a Catholic theologian, I have seen my Church wield this power in wonderful ways – from the pulpit and in the public sphere – by supporting the plight of immigrants, the dignity of the poor and vulnerable, and the preservation of our planet (among other things). In fact, this is why I chose to become a Catholic Theologian. However, I have also seen Catholic theology serve to historically justify slavery, the subjugation of women, and the exclusion of my LGBTQ+ community.

In these cases of exclusion, how the Christian community has historically conceived God has also guided how we conceive of and relate to others. To be more specific, in Western Christianity, many communities have largely recognized the image of God as white, heterosexual, cisgender, and male. And this image of God has led those communities to consider some people to be made “more” in the image of God than others.

Last semester, I was teaching a college class at the University of Dayton and we were discussing different accounts of the “Image of God” when I proposed to my students that God might be a black transgender lesbian. I saw some of my students’ eyes grow wide open and I asked them why that would surprise them. Which of the designations shocked them? Blackness? Trans-ness? Woman-ness? Or Lesbian-ness? Without a doubt my students had a singular rigid conception of God and, therefore, struggled seeing God in the face of someone who did not fit that vision. That was the power of the theology they had been taught.

In response, Fr. Bryan Massingale states, (quote) “We have to rethink God. We have to get the false ‘god’ out of our heads… that ‘god’ is an idol: a human construct made to justify exclusion and injustice.” (end quote) Our world is in need of a new a new powerful theology…

… So, Who is God? And who is God to us?

Well, although we all have different powerful answers to that question, I’ll take the opportunity to make a controversial proposal: I think God is queer.

I’m not saying that to be provocative… (Well, maybe a little bit…)

But in all seriousness, here is what I mean. The word queer, which originally meant “weird,” is used to describe those whose sexual identities fall outside of the norm. Queerness is a challenge to “normal.” It refers to people who transgress by blurring the lines set forth by definitive categories.

To see God as queer does not necessarily mean that God is trans or gay or anything like that (indeed God is beyond those designations), but rather to acknowledge that God’s work in human history has been – in part – one of transgressing against normative barriers that are oppressive.

Think about it: God is a very strange being. The Incarnation of Jesus blurs the lines between human and divine, the Resurrection blurs the lines between life and death, the Beatitudes are baffling, and Pentecost is essentially a coming out of the closet of the upper room to radically transform the world. And don’t even get me started on the woman that is both virgin and mother… Patrick S. Cheng further characterizes this queer God as radical transformative love… a beautiful image…

Theology is powerful – and learning about the queer God at the GTU empowered me to reclaim the power of my queerness to reframe my work as a theologian.

I realize that, on many of those silent drives back from class, I was actually deconstructing that idolatrous belief in a God that was oppressive to me and to many others.  In its place, I reconstructed a new understanding of the queer God who made room for someone like me in this world.

Theology is indeed powerful. And thankfully it is a power we all now wield. Those of us who are graduating from the GTU now have a new language and new tools to help those we minister realize that they are all made in the image of God, regardless of who they are. And that God’s image is so queer that it makes room for every single one of us.

If we can promote this idea, then maybe we can empower those we care for to claim the promise of God’s radical love. If queerness is the new normal, then maybe closeted gay boys in Puerto Rico will not have been taught there is something wrong with them. Maybe Russian religious leaders would not invoke theology to justify an act of war in order to supposedly cleanse Ukraine from social deviance. Maybe women would be priests in the Catholic Church. Maybe kids in Florida would be able to hear and say the word “gay” in their schools. Maybe we will see more black, brown, and Asian images of Jesus throughout the US… Theology is powerful. So I ask you: How will you present God to those entrusted to your care once you leave the GTU?

My adviser at the GTU is the amazing Lisa Fullam, so I will obviously conclude my remarks with my favorite virtue, which is Hope.

I see this commencement as an act of hope: here we all are graduating with degrees in theology… This is not the most lucrative or convenient job market, so why did we choose this path if not because we have hope that God (or should I say, the queer God) is working through us to radically transform our world? We are agents of hope because we can now wield the power of theological ideas. May we exercise it in a way that upholds the dignity of everyone, especially the most vulnerable. And to that end, I leave you with the words of Harvey Milk:

“Remember that the young gay people… The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only queer people, but black people, elderly people, disabled people, the “us-es.” The “us-es” will give up….

… but hope will never be silent…

… And you and you and you– you have to give people hope.

You gotta’ give ‘em hope.

you gotta’ give ‘em hope.”

Thank you.