INSTITUTIONAL Christianity is in crisis about
sexuality. Its detractors in the supposedly secularised and liberal
climes of Northern Europe, who none the less yearn for what they
call a satisfying "spirituality", see this crisis as a sign of its
failure to engage the contemporary world.
Its conservative defenders, to be found mainly in
religiously observant parts of North America, in Evangelical
circles in Britain, and widely throughout the southern hemisphere,
take it as an indication of cultural decadence and a deficiency in
I do not seek to solve the problems in the terms
currently under discussion: "liberal" v. "conservative". Instead, I
am attempting to go deeper: to approach the issue that is now
called sexuality through a different route - that of the divine
I write about God, and, more specifically, about the
Christian God. I write for those who puzzle about how one might set
about coming into intentional relation with such a God in the first
place; and who wonder how - without sacrificing either intellectual
integrity or critical acumen - one might discover this baffling,
alluring, and sometimes painful encounter to require thematising in
Trinitarian terms: "Father", "Son", and "Holy Spirit".
Further (and this may seem odd to the contemporary
reader), I write in the fundamental conviction that no cogent
answer to the contemporary Christian question of the Trinitarian
God can be given without charting the necessary and intrinsic
entanglement of human sexuality and spirituality in such a quest:
the questions of right contemplation of God, right speech about
God, and right ordering of desires all hang together.
They emerge in primary interaction with scripture,
become intensified and contested in early Christian tradition, and
- most importantly - are purified in the crucible of prayer. Thus
the problem of the Trinity cannot be solved without addressing the
very questions that seem least to do with it - questions that press
on the contemporary Christian Churches with such devastating and
often destructive force, such as questions of sexual justice, the
meaning and stability of gender roles, and the final theological
significance of sexual desire.
A PERCEPTION of the significance of the right
ordering of desire was not, of course, alien to some of the
greatest early Christian thinkers of the late antique era. A
central part of my task is to explore how, for them, the perception
of perfect-relation-in-God (the Trinity) was fundamentally attuned
and correlated to their concomitant views about men and women,
gender roles, and the nature of "erotic" desire.
Not that we can oblige any contemporary reader to
accept their positions without critique (they are, in any case,
various); but rather I seek, first, to lay bare the subtle -and
forgotten - ways in which these elements in their thought connect,
such that they may now illumine contemporary theological
At the same time, it will become clear that the way
they speak of desire has different overtones from today's
post-Freudian context, and one as not yet cognizant of modern
evocations of "sexuality". This difference is itself revealing.
Some of the most significant figures in the
historical development of the doctrine of the Trinity (Origen, St
Gregory of Nyssa, St Augustine of Hippo especially) feature large
because of the fascinatingly different ways in which they relate
their perceptions of intense desire for God, their
often-problematic feelings about sexual desire at the human level,
and their newly creative understandings of God-as-Trinity.
Yet the modern textbook account of the development of
the doctrine of Trinity has largely obscured these crucial points
of connection, often by concentrating more on philosophical issues
of coherence, or political and ecclesiastical manoeuvring than on
the Fathers' biblical exegesis or ascetical exercise.
It is not customary, therefore, to study the
fourth-century Gregory of Nyssa's (fascinating) views about
virginity and marriage while simultaneously exploring his
contribution to the development of technical Trinitarian terms. It
is not usual, either, to reflect on Augustine's understanding of
sexual relations while studying his magisterial theological
reflections on Trinitarian analogies.
But this omission is odd, not least because these two
authors - prime progenitors of different, but mammothly
influential, Trinitarian visions of the Godhead - themselves saw
these points of connection, and discoursed upon them explicitly.
And they did so under the impress both of scriptural injunction and
of ascetic dictate, not merely by taking thought
Both of them, too, had extremely sophisticated ways
of insisting how God cannot be compared to anything creaturely (how
a relationship with God is necessarily unlike any other), as well
as a keen sense of how one's particular vision of God none the less
also informs the whole realm of the personal and the political.
Once you grasp these nexus of association which they
offer, you are also able to see, intriguingly, that their two
Trinitarian traditions are not as disjunctive as they have long
been presented. Here I contribute to a growing body of scholarship
that seeks to reconsider the supposed gulf between early "Eastern"
and "Western" views of the Trinity.
IN ADDITION to misrepresenting the Trinitarian
developments of the fourth and fifth centuries, the standard modern
textbook narrative has more fundamentally and fatally obscured much
of the richness of the earlier, emergent stage of Trinitarian
thought-forms in the first three centuries of the Christian
The picture here is more com- complicated than is the
case with the Cappadocian Fathers and Augustine; because it must be
admitted that polemical patristic authors of huge significance have
themselves been strongly implicated in purveying the
conciliar-based narrative that I am now seeking to query.
It is not just the story of councils and creeds and
dominant ecclesial and political personalities to which one should
attend in an account of developing Trinitarianism; and nor should
the only principle of selectivity be a focus on an approximation to
a presumed later "orthodoxy" (in the sense of assent to credal
By repressing or marginalising much of the early
history of the doctrine of the Spirit (messy and erratic as it may
seem), accounts of early Trinitarianism that give sole attention to
the status of the "Son" vis-à-vis the "Father" up to the mid-fourth
century miss much of the drama: at one and the same time, the
crucial prayer-based logic of emergent Trinitarianism is missed,
and the related and complicated entanglements with questions of
human gender, power, and desire mutely disregarded.
I PROPOSE a rereading of the formative, patristic
sources for the origins of the doctrine of the Trinity. I am also
attempting to work out, in a number of perhaps unexpected and
challenging ways, the issue of how such a rereading could
creatively transform our current dilemmas about sex and gender.
My method of doing theology involves not only the
primary practices of prayer and attention, but also an intensive
multi-disciplinary approach, utilising fieldwork techniques and
insights from the arts, alongside textual and philosophical
By the end, a vision of human desire, purged and
transformed by ecstatic Trinitarian desire, becomes the means of
recasting contemporary anxieties about "gender". Gender is now seen
as less fundamental than desire for God (and thus as rendered
strangely fluid by the interruptive workings of the Spirit, in
Christ: see Galatians 3.28).
The same logic causes a rethinking of the relation of
prayerful celibate and prayerful non-celibate vocations (as united
in their commitment to Christ as the finaltelosof all desires: see
What the world tends to see as "opposites" (a choice
for sex vs. no-sex) turns out to be the wrong, disjunctive way of
approaching the question in the first place. The crucial issue is
the painful sorting of all desires (not just sexual ones) in the
light of God's desire for us.
The key lies in a subtle shifting of thought in
relation to practice: prayer, especially relatively wordless or
charismatic prayer, becomes the means by which ascetic, ethical,
and theological reflections are, in the long haul, reunited. Here,
I argue, is the way beyond the false modern disjunction between
"repression" and "libertinism" - a royal road in which the demands
of tough, purgative asceticism and "infinite delight" finally
The Revd Dr Sarah Coakley is Norris-Hulse
Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, and an
Honorary Canon of Ely Cathedral.
This is an edited extract from her new book,
God, Sexuality and the Self: An essay on the Trinity (CUP,