Featured Reviews, VOLUME 7

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

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0521558263″ locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51kuYQI5OmL._SL160_.jpg” width=”107″]Page 2: Sarah Coakley – God, Sexuality, and the Self

God, Sexuality, and the Self is the first volume of Coakley’s long awaited systematic series. The entree into this theologie totale begins, Coakley says in the preface, with contemporary questions of gender and sexuality. The sum of the parts, she notes, is “entitled overall, ‘On Desiring God.’” (xv) “In short,” she notes, the book “is written for all those who continue to seek a vision of God for today, one attractive enough to magnetize their deepest human longings so as to order their desires in relation to God.”(xv)


The central theme of this initial volume is that of the Trinity itself. To explore the facets of human longing, not just for others but for God, requires a strategy apart from the current terms of the discussions of sexuality and gender in vogue today. (1) Rather, as Coakley notes, the starting point is the exploration the Divine life itself and God’s desiring of all creation. All the same, Coakley assumes that “no cogent answer to the contemporary question of the trinitarian God can be given without charting the necessary and intrinsic entanglements of human sexuality and spirituality.” (2) This approach is to thus turn Freud on his head. “It is not that physical ‘sex’ is basic and ‘God’ ephemeral; rather, it is God who is basic, and ‘desire’ the precious clue that ever tugs at the heart, reminding the human soul— however dimly— of its created source.” (9)


The Holy Spirit is the fulcrum on which Coakley leverages her discussion of the practices and theology of the Trinity. Each of the chapters deals specifically with the implicit and explicit understandings of the Spirit in theological descriptions of the Trinity and practices of two charismatic congregations. Whether discussing the patristic sources or contextualized field studies, Coakley builds on the foundation of Romans 8 and Paul’s discussion of the believer’s access to the Spirit. There, it is in prayer that the Christian comes to know the Spirit’s workings and passionate procession from the whole of God. As she notes, “strictly speaking, it is not I who autonomously prays, but God (the Holy Spirit) who prays in me.” (55) “There is,” she continues, “an inherent reflexivity in the divine, a ceaseless outgoing and return of the desiring God; and insofar as I welcome and receive this reflexivity, I find that it is the holy Spirit who ‘interrupts my human monologue to a (supposedly) monadic God; it is the Holy Spirit who finally causes me to see God as a patriarchal threat but as infinite tenderness.” (56)


Here two major facets of Coakley’s overarching project emerge. First, this discussion of Trinitarian thought and practice is not a decontextualized reasoned dogmatism. Rather, prayer figures prominently, and not just prayer but contemplation formed in the ascetic reorientation of desire. Certainly, a discussion of desire complicates any theoretical theology. Coakley does not shy from making practices, especially contemplation, central to her theologie totale. In fact, the “unknowing” of contemplation exemplified in the noted treatise The Life of Moses by Gregory of Nyssa is central to the deconstructing of the idolatry of orthodoxy. Simply stated, “systematic theology without contemplative and ascetic practice comes with the danger of rending itself void; for theology in its proper sense is always implicitly in via as practional.” (45) In terms of her perspective on prayer within this practical element of theologie totale, Coakley further writes that “the practice of prayer provides the context in which silence in the Spirit expands the potential to respond to the realm of the Word, and reason too is stretched and changed beyond its normal, secular reach.” (25)


Second, Coakley takes the feminist critiques of orthodox trinitarian theology seriously, and head on. In the second chapter, she summarizes the problems. “The danger of a false reification of the divine, the danger of false bid for totalizing power, the danger of a false suppression of material associated with the ‘unconscious’, gender, and desire: all these are real dangers for contemporary systematic theology.” (66) Through all the discussions of Augustine and Nyssa Coakley does not mince words. She names the ways patristic sources have been both interpreted oppressively and misread by contemporary feminists. In the closing chapters, Coakley returns to the questions of God the Father. Throughout the argument Coakley is clear that no language, image, or practice of trinitarian theology “is innocent of sexual, political, and ecclesiastical overtones and implications.” (308) Thus, “God the Father” is both inappropriate and correct. There she turns to Thomas Aquinas, who famously noted that “Father” is a proper name “when the word is used of inner-trinitarian relations.” This appropriateness “means that he true meaning of ‘Father’ is to be found in the Trinity, not dredged up from the scummy realm of human patriarchal fatherhood.” (324)


Among the many strengths of God, Sexuality, and the Self is Coakley’s ability to navigate her many sources with charity. She makes generous use of theological sources from Mary Daly to John Milbank. Few writers today could present such an impressive breadth of reading, and present it critically with Coakley’s grace. In the Preface, she acknowledges the tendency within theological writing to do just the opposite. “The author in the academy habitually writes with one eye on the reviewer, friend or foe, and the tendency to heap up extraneous references, to engage in self-aggrandizing polemics, or to employ impressive, if inflated, jargon is at times almost irresistible.” (xvi) In the conscious effort to avoid these pitfalls, Coakley engages her sources critically, but with the goal of a constructive difference. Thus, the extremities of the likes of Daly and Milbank are set aside for the valid and cogent contributions to theological discourse and perspective. This is no clearer than in her second chapter on feminism and the social sciences. There Coakley summarizes the cultural shifts of Christianity alongside the theological reactions to such shifts. Rather than place her own work within feminist theology or with the social critiques of Radical Orthodoxy, Coakley works from the strengths and critiques of both in an effort to construct another approach. The significance of feminism, she notes, “resides in the attention to the perennial spiritual temptation of idolatry.”(68) At the same time, the return to a strong orthodoxy in the work of Milbank, especially in his tome Theology and Social Theory, reveals the tenuous logics of Enlightenment perspectives, especially the so-called “secularization thesis.” However, in chastening the extremes of these exemplar theological perspectives Coakley steers clear of sweeping generalizations that both intellectual communities themselves are known for constructing.


This same critical and constructive balance applies equally to the sources Coakley considers in each chapter. Whether she discusses the Anglican and Free Church charismatic communities of her field studies, or the writings of Augustine and Nyssa, Coakley freely names the pitfalls while highlighting what is constitutive for her own argument. Again, few writers are this adept within their own field of study, and yet Coakley moves with skill through contemporary and historical sources easily. In the end, this is a theology beyond the now engrained categories of progressive and conservative. Instead, what emerges is a contemplative perspective comfortable with the “noetic slippage” of engaged and yet humbled theological reflections. For as she notes near the conclusion of the book “contemplation entails an expression of the self, a subversion of disengaged reason. The act of contemplation involves a willed suspension of one’s rational agendas, a silent waiting.” (342)

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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.