God, Sexuality and the Self: An essay "On the
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PROFESSOR Sarah Coakley has a wonderfully refreshing way of
looking sideways at things - or perhaps "bifocally" might be a
better metaphor. The distance vision is of a Christian
understanding of God as Trinity, illuminated by Origen, St Gregory
of Nyssa, St Augustine, and Dionysius the Areopagite, and with a
persuasive critique on the way of Maurice Wiles. The nearer focus
is on human desire, engaging with gender studies, feminist
theology, sociology of religion, and Coakley's own "field studies"
in Charismatic experience.
She wants, among other things, to give a new account of
Christian Platonism's understanding of "desire". How can we rethink
the relation of sexual desire (which is deeper than "gender" or
what we now call "sexuality") with desire for God? and how can a
vision of the Trinity chasten and direct the tangled roots of human
But even "bifocal" is not quite right; for what Coakley is
exploring is another way of looking - a different way altogether of
doing theology, offering an "unsystematicsystematics", what she
calls a theologie totale. This brings theology together
with insights from the human sciences by way of Ernst Troeltsch,
and from aesthetic appreciation, and crucially also from the
experience of God as Spirit through the sometimes discomforting
ascetical discipline of contemplative prayer.
It is theology in via, founded not in secular
rationality, but in spiritual practices of attention, and exploring
the many mediums in which theological truth may be engaged. It is
an excitingly fresh and integrative exploration, embracing
intellectual, affective, and imaginative approaches to doctrine and
practice, and touching the reader's spirit besides stretching the
Coakley makes clear her debt to, and also distance from, aspects
of older-style and post-modern feminism; and her dissatisfaction
with traditional "systematics". The heart of the book is a
development of her earlier work on patristic theology, showing how
a prayer-based model of the Trinity, starting with the Holy Spirit,
is truer to biblical foundations (St Paul's interweaving of prayer
with the prompting of the Spirit in Romans 8). Her approach opens
up ways of thinking through the "entanglement" of issues of sex and
gender with contemplative theology.
Such "entanglements" also emerged in Coakley's field studies in
the 1980s of a northern parish's experience of Charismatic renewal
and its aftermath. They are raised, too, in the long history of
representations of God as Trinity in Western art, to which Coakley
gives a long illustrated chapter.
The final chapter, on the primacy of divine "ecstatic" desire,
points to the way ascetic encounter with God through the Spirit -
"through fidelity to divine desire, and thence through fidelity to
those whom we love in this world" - can bring human desires into
alignment with God's purposes. She discusses implications for
filioque, and for human language about God.
The result is a confident and gracious feminist Trinitarian
theology, rooted in the life of prayer. It is an astonishingly rich
and deep theological and spiritual exploration, but one that,
inevitably, raises huge numbers of questions. The really good news,
though, is that this is only the first of a four-volume work in
"unsystematic systematics", which, it is proposed, will cover a
theological anthropology with particular reference to race (in
which we are promised further philosophical exploration of human
cognition), theology in the public realm with reference to sin and
atonement, and a theology of the eucharist, taking us finally and
climactically into Christology.
Dr David Atkinson is an honorary assistant bishop in the
diocese of Southwark.