Featured Reviews, VOLUME 7

Sarah Coakley – God, Sexuality, and the Self [Feature Review]

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0521558263″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51kuYQI5OmL.jpg” width=”222″ alt=”Sarah Coakley” ]A Communal Way of Doing Theology

A Feature Review of

God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On The Trinity’
Sarah Coakley

Paperback:  Cambridge UP, 2013
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Reviewed by Joshua Brockway
Not many theologians, save those dedicated to the work of Karl Barth or John Calvin, choose to identify as systematic theologians. Few publishing houses have the ability or patience to publish extensive, multi-volume theologies in the tradition of the Institutes or Church Dogmatics. Seminaries and Universities rarely call the field systematics, but prefer the generic appellation of “Theology” so as to make space for the unique methodological approaches of their faculty.


It is no wonder, then, that some have said that systematics is passé. Philosophically, the early prognosis was sounded by the likes of Lyotard and Derrida. The Post-Modern assumption these two writers helped to articulate, namely that any attempt at constructing a comprehensive system, or meta-narrative is futile, has soaked into the consciousness of academics. Instead, professional theologians have turned to consider particular modes of theology. Instead, Feminist and Liberation theologians now write of contextual perspectives shaped by the cultural experiences of particular peoples. Still others seek out other arenas for their work, dividing up theological disciplines among historians, preachers, counselors, and teachers. The problem is, of course, that other theologians appear to have not received the memo.

Some have ventured back into the world of systematics, unsatisfied with the more parochial attempts at historical, practical, and contextual theologies. Sarah Coakley, the Norris-Hulse Professor in Divinity at the University of Cambridge and fellow of Murray Edwards College, is one such an example. As she notes early in the first volume of her long awaited systematic theology, “one cannot stop merely at the point of retelling a historical narrative: from there one looks to reapply the lessons to current social and ecclesiastical concerns.” (Page 11) What follows in this magnificent monograph is just such an attempt at inter-disciplinary theology that takes into account the significant developments in academic theology, including feminism, psychoanalysis, aesthetics, and sociology of religion. In addition, Coakley’s version of systematics is one that makes ascetic re-formation and apophasis the core of the project. In this mode, Coakley identifies her theology “in via”- on the way. What is more, such a systematic theology for Coakley “must attempt to provide a coherent, and alluring, vision of the Christian faith.” (41) As such, it accounts for a number of 21st century realities including a global consciousness and the marginalized voices that have made their mark in theological discourse. Altogether, this “theology in via” she says is a kind of “theologie totale.” It encompasses interdisciplinary conversations, the voices of many others, and the necessity of ascetic formation and prayer. Basically, theologie totale leaves no stone unexamined and unturned.


Few writers could pull off such a sweeping project. In this case, Coakley clearly exceeds all expectations. Methodologically, she sets the context for the whole study, assesses the arguments of feminist theology, explores patristics sources such as Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa, narrates field studies of contemporary congregations, and summarizes Lacanian discussions of desire. Not only does Coakley construct her own argument, she aptly summarizes the current state of these fields of inquiry and presents a bibliography for each chapter.

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One Comment

  1. How much more “theology” does the world need?
    Is there really anything new to be said about the great matters of human existence?
    The world is saturated with more than enough “theology” on every possible topic. More people are studying and even doing “theology” than ever before and yet no fundamental change has or will occur to anyone or anything.
    Indeed the world is becoming more and more insane every day. And what is more some of the leading edge vectors of this now universal insanity are very big on “theology” – think of everyone who signed up on the Manhattan Declaration, or who links into First Things or the American Spectator.
    From another perspective consider the parable of Humpty Dumpty – all the king’s horses and all the king’s men with their oh-so-clever theology can never ever put Humpty back together again. If you begin from the extremely limited perspective of a fragment of Humpty’s broken shell, how much of the totality can you possibly account for.
    Or take Plato’s famous cave. What we perceive as “reality” are mere flickers of light on a dark wall. We then presume to make “theological” speculations about the nature of Reality as a response to these momentary dimly seen flickers of reflected light.
    Another metaphor. We are like tiny stick figures running around on the tip of a giant iceberg, the great mass of which lies below the dark surface. Again we build “theological” speculations based on a fragmentary perspective of the whole.