Queering “The Human Situation”
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Queering “The Human Situation”

In her 1960 essay, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” Valerie Saiving responded to a brand of traditional theologizing that had rendered most women’s experiences anomalous, insignificant, and invisible. She argued that “modern theology” was a direct response to “man’s” experiences and the social circumstances surrounding and defining them.1 To confront this theological androcentrism, Saiving employed “feminine experience” as a critical lens through which to analyze “the estimate of the human situation” given by Reinhold Niebuhr, Anders Nygren, and other male theologians. This innovative method helped to establish a feminist theological discourse and altered the trajectory [End Page 126] of theology. Even as we honor Saiving for inaugurating a much-needed paradigm shift in theology and ethics by underscoring experience as a source for reflection, I am aware that her particular deployment of experience nonetheless perpetuates a limited view of the human situation. Furthermore, I suggest that queering the use of experience as a method can address this limitation, enrich understandings of human subjectivity, and reformulate human relationality.

Saiving promotes experience as an important source for theological and ethical reflection, and she calls attention to the marginalized particularity of “feminine” subjectivity. Her use of marginalized experiences challenges depictions of humanity that purport to be universally applicable but are really based on identities that are seen as normative. This entails three maneuvers. First, Saiving disputes the notion of humanity as singular by simply highlighting distinctions between masculine and feminine experiences. Second, she confronts masculine reliability by questioning the capacity of the masculine experience to fully capture, assess, and represent the entire human situation. Third, she contests male authority by challenging the relationship between men’s normative lens and their authoritative depictions of the human situation. Essentially, Saiving’s work illuminates the normative framework in operation among her male contemporaries, thereby challenging the “single rightness” of their theological and ethical claims.

Propelled by Saiving’s and other methods of liberation theology, feminists and womanists mapped new directions in theology and ethics. Feminist theologians used experience to humanize women and to elucidate the bond between gender inequality, patriarchy, and theological discourse. Womanists compelled feminists and black male theologians to notice the complicated intersections of identity and circumstance that have informed and been informed by those experiences. Complicating experience through praxis-oriented scholarship, womanists argued that race and class analyses ought to be key elements of feminist work and more broadly, theology. Saiving’s work and its feminist and womanist descendants continue to be important to me as a black queer woman ethicist. Their focus on marginality challenges the position of normative identities and experiences as cornerstones in theological and ethical reflection. Additionally, their work inspires a troubling—or queering—of the lenses through which we read experiences, contexts, and intersections.

Such a queering furthers the work that Saiving began in 1960. It forces theologians and ethicists to name the substantive inaccuracy and moral inadequacy of some of the normative apparatuses operative in theology and ethics. Queering the naming process highlights the mechanisms that create and/or perpetuate understandings of difference and experience. It also deconstructs the logics and frameworks operating within old and new theological and ethical concepts. Furthermore, it dismantles the dynamics of power and privilege persisting among diverse subjectivities. [End Page 127]

One of the most important features of experience as a method is its ability to both illustrate and dismantle the relationship between normativity and the frameworks of power operating within and among different groups of people. Saiving uses her feminine experience to investigate this relationship within masculinist theologies and exposes their tripartite logic: male experience is the normal experience; “normal” is the basis of moral; and moral norms founded on unequal power relations can lead to intimate relationships that are loving and social relations that are just. Based on this logic, Saiving’s male contemporaries seem to (dis)miss the need for theology and ethics to attend to the power dynamic between morality and normativity.

Recognizing the necessity of attending to this dynamic, Saiving asserts that theology is supposed to support and encourage marginalized people instead of misreading and devaluing their experiences.2 Unfortunately, while critiquing her male...


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