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 3: Sarah Coakley – God, Sexuality, and the Self

Coakley’s theology in via, this theologie totale, is then a talking with God. Rather than engaging in a discourse about God as the object of our reasoning, Coakley presents a way of doing theology that takes seriously the spiritual longing enflamed by the activity of the Spirit. This is far from a subjectivism, but an acknowledgement of God’s own reach towards humanity. For it is God’s desire, internal to the perichoertic dance of the economic Trinity and in the Spirit’s incorporation of humanity into that same movement of love, that defines the theological project itself. Thus, the reason and dispassionate endeavor of the Enlightenment is set aside for a holistic approach to understanding God and ourselves. In this way, Coakley’s skillful discussion of discursive and aesthetic theologies, as well as the ideas of past and present Christians, is not just a methodological decision but an acknowledgement of God as subject and actor in the conversation.


Whether Coakley achieves a new way of doing systematics is now up to the reader. Certainly there will be detractors, those who find her perspective too hierarchical, or to embedded within the church institutions. Such criticisms, however, are more indicative of the reader than they are of Coakley’s meticulous work. Some may even say quite plainly that she does not fully understand a century’s worth of significant deconstruction of hegemonic and patriarchal theology. However, given Coakley’s regular acknowledgement and incorporation of this work, and the detailed bibliographic narratives following each chapter, the burden of proof lies with her critics.


This is clearly a book for theologians. Despite Coakley’s protests of the current ways of doing academic writing in the Preface, and her acknowledgement that this book ventures into a new way of doing theological writing, it is still a book that requires a significant degree of theological vocabulary. As publishers struggle to keep up with rapidly changing technologies, and seek out wider audiences for their publications many writers have adjusted to the expectations of an increasing population of arm-chair theologians. That is not to say that God, Sexuality, and the Self will not be widely read. Rather, those of us among the guild of professional theologians have a long way to go to make the language and content of our disciplines part of the ecclesial vernacular. Thus, this is a book that longs to be read in community. The range of her sources, the assumed background in the basics of church history, and the interdisciplinary nature of her overarching argument begs a wider audience. This certainly is a book that begins to chip away at the academic silos of disciplines and invites theologians into dialog. Even to bring this book into classrooms, whether in church or academic settings, requires a guiding companion. That should not detract from the significant contribution this book makes, but to acknowledge that theologie totale is a communal way of doing theology.


Only time will tell if Coakley has resuscitated the once dead systematic mode of theology. However, from the opening sentences to the final period, it is clear that this book moves theology into a new set of expectations. Scholars of antiquity, practical theologians, and sociologists of religion will certainly all include God, Sexuality, and the Self in their bibliographies. Coakley’s contribution finally addresses trinitarian, ecclesiological, and practical questions beyond entrenched positions that have formed in the last fifty years. Rather than dismissing or polemicizing the positions of these encampments, Sarah Coakley brings them into a constructive, and yet critical, conversation.


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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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.