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Asceticism to the rescue

29 January 2016

David Atkinson reads a discussion of desire in theological context

The New Asceticism: Sexuality, gender and the quest for God
Sarah Coakley
Bloomsbury £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 


ONE of the least-commented-on features of the Pilling report was the Prologue by Jessica Martin, “Living with holiness and desire”. It provides a challenge to think more widely and theologically than the usual parameters of church debates. As far as I can discover, however, it does not feature in the resource material for “facilitated conversations”. And yet it is this — theological and spiritual wisdom about the godly ordering of our desires in the direction of holiness — that is so lacking and so needed in our current discussions.

The theme is explored here with considerable subtlety, pastoral wisdom, and theological depth by Professor Sarah Coakley. Bringing together five previously published papers, Coakley discusses contemporary confusions about the meanings of desire (for food, comfort, intimacy, etc., not only physical sex), and argues that these need both a deep theological analysis and also the recovery of a “new asceticism” that sees God as the source and goal of all human desire.

Coakley draws on Freud’s changing views of “sublimation”, criticises Nygren’s “false” disjunction between eros and agape, and demonstrates the contemporary pertinence of the ascetical theology of Gregory of Nyssa. From this she seeks to retrieve “desire” from simply “sex”, and then points to a contemporary “asceticism”, rooted in prayer, which “yields to that subtle but ecstatic plenitude of divine desire freely outpoured in the life of Christ”.

In a culture of “instantly commodified desire” and “massive infidelity”, a rethinking of celibacy and of faithful vowed relationships (heterosexual and homosexual) is a daunting task, but one that could undercut the false modern alternatives of “repression” and “libertinism” and help us to recover godly human flourishing by theologically reimagining our sexuality “within the crucible of divine desire”.

In a chapter on gender, eroticism, and priesthood, Coakley looks at the eucharist as a symbol of the nuptial love between Christ and the Church, and speculates that the priest, representing both, mediates that relationship in an inherently fluid gender role destabilising the traditional binaries.

Using critical conversations with Mary Douglas and Hans Urs von Balthasar on masculinity, femininity, and gender fluidity in the light of the Trinity, she argues that the priest at the altar “beats the liminal bounds between divine and human”, liturgically representing both the “feminine” Church and the bridegroom, Christ.

A third chapter probes the relationship between the Trinity, contemplative prayer, and sexuality which Coakley developed more fully in God, Sexuality and the Self (CUP, 2013). A wonderful fourth chapter offers perspectives from ascetical theology illustrating how the right understanding of the relation of sexual desire and desire for God is a gift of grace for those who have “stayed the course of prayer and ascetic practice” through the contradictions and ordinarinesses of contemporary culture.


Dr Atkinson is an Hon. Assistant Bishop in the diocese of Southwark.

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