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Unsystematic systematics

07 February 2014

David Atkinson reads a fresh approach to Trinitarian theology

God, Sexuality and the Self: An essay "On the Trinity"
Sarah Coakley
Cambridge University Press £18.99 (978-0-521-55826-6)
Church Times Bookshop £17.10 (Use code CT869 )

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 desire?

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 mind.

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.

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