Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Resisting Deficit Discourses in Christian Theological Accounts of Gender Diversity

Susannah Cornwall

Deficit discourses assume that someone has a problem, or deficit, which needs to be mitigated. For example, deficit discourses might paint new students starting at university as lacking in the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in their degrees – or as empty vessels which need to be filled up by those responsible for educating them. By contrast, strengths-based discourses focus on the skills, resources, agency and authority that someone already has, and give weight to opportunities rather than emphasizing potential problems.

In my new book, Constructive Theology and Gender Variance: Transformative Creatures, I suggest that much discussion about trans and gender-variant people in Christian theology and beyond has been based on a deficit discourse. This theological discussion has often assumed that trans and gender-variant people are lacking something, and have a deficiency that needs to be made up. Sometimes, what is missing is understood to be accurate self-knowledge and self-understanding; sometimes trans people are portrayed as lacking accurate discernment of a divine plan for humans as sexed and gendered creatures.

The nature of this deficit discourse means, however, that trans and gender-variant people frequently find themselves excluded by theological accounts of what it means to be human. Often understood by their detractors as people who are self-deluded, and who seek to deceive others, trans people’s self-understanding is held by their critics to be unreliable. I hold that this is a form of what Miranda Fricker calls epistemic injustice. Thus, trans and gender-variant people’s understandings are not trusted. They are not allowed to narrate their own stories, or give an account of what their lives and identities mean for wider theological understandings of human personhood. Denied the right to be authorities on their own lives, trans people frequently find that within theological discussions, others (who presume to have a more accurate and less occluded understanding of the divine plan for sex and gender) speak on their behalf.

In contrast with deficit-based approaches, my book does not start by assuming that trans and gender-diverse identities are problems to be mitigated. Instead, I centre trans people’s narratives and self-understandings, including existing theological and pastoral work by trans people, and I assume trans people to be the key authorities on their own experiences, as well as having particular insights into understandings of human personhood more widely. I bring constructive Christian theologies into conversation with trans studies, and show that social, cultural and religious anxiety which seems to be about trans people often actually stems from anxiety about other things entirely, including an ebbing-away of previously-accepted norms of religious (and especially masculine) authority and of white supremacy. I show that trans-suspicious narratives, in Christian theology and in wider society, are frequently used to deflect attention away from real threats and onto trans people.

As a cis (non-trans) writer, I am aware that my perspective on gender diversity is not the same as that of trans people. The book does not seek to speak on their behalf, and I know that not all my trans readers agree with all my conclusions. I am grateful to those trans and gender-variant people who have commented on the book as it has taken shape, and helped me to think anew about how far extant constructive theologies (especially those pertaining to creation, theological anthropology, and eschatology) do justice to the existence, reality and non-pathology of gender diversity.

Constructive Theology and Gender Variance by Susannah Cornwall

About The Author

Susannah Cornwall

Susannah Cornwall is Professor of Constructive Theologies in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter and Director of the Exeter Centre for Ethics and Pr...

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