Symposium Introduction

God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity, is Sarah Coakley’s eagerly anticipated and much-discussed first volume of her four-part systematic theology On Desiring God. As the title suggests, this is not your usual treatise on the Trinity. Coakley makes clear from the start that she is interested in “recasting ‘systematic theology’” (33). In particular, she foregrounds the claim that “the task of theology is always, if implicitly, a recommendation for life” (18). Coakley describes theology as “an ascetical exercise—one that demands bodily practice and transformation, both individual and social.” It must be, to use her word, “practitional” (45). As a result, “the task of theology is always in motion (in via)” (18). Coakley thus challenges the common contemporary division between “contextual theology,” on the one hand (which addresses lived cultural and political “issues,” such as gender and sexuality, from a theological perspective), and “doctrinal theology” or “dogmatics,” on the other (which supposedly transcends such concerns). Instead, she calls for a théologie totale, a holistic theology that is intentionally interdisciplinary and capable of integrating the insights of philosophy, cultural theory, and the social sciences (chs. 1–2). Such a theology does not sideline matters of human desire and power, treating them as add-ons or applications. Instead, it recognizes from the start that “no doctrine” has been or ever will be “completely innocent of political, familial, and sexual associations” (266). As Coakley goes on to demonstrate, this is particularly true of the doctrine of the Trinity. For “whatever the abstract form of trinitarian ontological speculation in its purest conceptual and theological expression,” throughout the Christian tradition we have seen that its “implications reach all the way down, personally and culturally.”

This is, of course, an implicit critique of theological “business as usual”—going about as if our social imaginations and embodied experiences did not thoroughly perfuse theological language and imagery on the deepest level. In this sense, Coakley’s théologie totale as a theology in via aims to be “fundamentally purgative of idolatry” (20), including “patriarchal idolatry” (84). She prioritizes the practical or ascetical character of the task of theology not least because “the discipline of particular graced bodily practices” can reform and transform “our very capacity to see” (19–20). This goes not only for systematic theology as it is conventionally conceived but also for feminist theologies. Echoing earlier arguments in works such as Powers and Submissions, Coakley reiterates her thesis that the “problems of power, sex, and gender with which contemporary theory struggles so notably cannot be solved . . . without . . . prior surrender to the divine” (59). Maintaining that feminist theology, too, must be “more nuanced,” “less simplistic,” and continually open to the interruption of the Spirit, Coakley calls into question what she considers a “white-out” approach to the tradition (296). This is seen, for example, in the total erasure of masculine language for God or any trace of hierarchy—a tactic that can give rise to other kinds of idolatry (326).

It is after surveying the historical and contemporary playing field and establishing the character and premises of her own theological method, in the first couple of chapters, that Coakley moves on to propose a prayer-based, “Spirit-leading” approach to understanding the Trinity (104). She commences her reflection with what she refers to as three “foraging raids” into the Christian tradition (144). In the central chapters of the book, she examines various early Christian practices of trinitarian prayer in view of Romans 8 (ch. 3), offers a contemporary field study of the perception of the Spirit in churches in England (ch. 4), and highlights the gendered theological dimensions of trinitarian iconography (ch. 5). The book culminates with more direct engagement with classical trinitarianism (ch. 6–7). As is her characteristic way, throughout these chapters Coakley subtly undoes the usual binaries of interpretation around polarizing doctrinal positions and creatively rereads key figures from the tradition.

Of the many insights and arguments interweaving the work, a few of the more prominent conclusions to which Coakley’s wide-ranging explorations lead us include the following. First, it is impossible for theology to avoid “the complexity of the aligned patternings of social, political, and theological factors” (134), so “it is a primary task of a théologie totale” to bring these connections “to greater critical consciousness” (308). Second, “the priority of the Spirit” (142) in the experience of prayer helps guard trinitarian thought from the dual pitfalls of, on the one hand, the sort of anti-trinitarian pneumatology that can accompany charismatic sectarianism and, on the other, the binitarian and subordinationist leanings that can underlie much “institutional” or “church” theology (153). Third, the tradition of contemplative prayer faces us with the human entanglement of sexual desire and desire for God—and in such a way that it chastens, expands, and refines the language and imagery of “acceptable trinitarian ‘orthodoxy’” (341).

These are dimensions of the work that the five panelists featured in this symposium attend to in different ways. Paul Jones and Anna Bialek, for example, both highlight the recurrent theme of vulnerability to God in Coakley’s thought. Tina Beattie, who provides a substantial summary of the book as a whole, is appreciative of Coakley’s patristic readings and her treatment of the relationship between divine and human eros. Swedish scholar Viktor Aldrin focuses on the problem of studying prayer as a phenomenon. Daniel McClain, like Beattie, picks up on the fact that this “new model of theology” is “a proposal for the theological way of life” that is “really quite ancient.” On the whole, this set of responses constitutes an “attempt to think with Coakley,” to use Jones’ phrase. However, there are also a number of reservations and questions raised that should generate an engaging conversation with the author in the days to come.

In conclusion, it is worth underlining one of the most provocative implications of Coakley’s Spirit-leading trinitarianism, which is only lightly sketched at the end of the book. Coakley says it is “the ironic ‘Nicene’ tragedy of the Holy Spirit” that “even to say ‘filioque’ is to presume that a privileged dyad of Father and Son is already established, and that the Spirit then somehow has to be fitted in thereafter” (330). Ever so passingly, she goes on to suggest a nonlinear account of divine processions but does not flesh out what this means for trinitarian thought and language (333). While contemplative prayer may be the “kneeling work” that ultimately “slays patriarchy” (327), eternal processions seems to be a doctrine quite extensively in need of the purgative and reconstructive touch of a “feminist théologie totale” (340). In short, along with the other respondents, I found myself both impressed by the vast territory Coakley was able to cover in this strikingly accessible first volume and wishing, at times, for a good deal more. There is much to anticipate, then, from forthcoming volumes of On Desiring God, as well as from this symposium on God, Sexuality, and the Self.

Paul Dafydd Jones


On the “Loving Mutations” of God, Sexuality, and the Self

IN HER INTRODUCTION TO Praying for England: Priestly Presence in Contemporary Culture, Coakley quotes the brilliant (and often brilliantly bitter) Welsh poet, R. S. Thomas:

Patiently with invisible structures
[God] builds, and as patiently
we must pray, surrendering the order
of the ingredients to a wisdom that
is beyond our own. We must change the mood
to the passive.1

Were one to describe Coakley’s theological program after the publication of Christ Without Absolutes, but prior to the arrival of God, Sexuality, and the Self, these lines would provide a nice summary. They capture one of Coakley’s abiding concerns: reimagining the human in terms of his or her “vulnerability” to God’s gracious and transformative action. This concern, moreover, can be understood in various ways: a key component of the demand that theologians and philosophers of religion pay heed to the tradition of Christian spirituality; a deft challenge to the style of philosophical reflection exemplified by Immanuel Kant, wherein the activity of reason in its various modes bulks so large that the possibility of a nonactive demeanor easily slips from view; an intervention in feminist and gender studies, proximate to, but obviously quite different from, the projects of thinkers like Judith Butler, Eva Feder Kittay, and Adriana Cavarero; a valuable provocation for those who would bind together “liberationist” and “classical” modes of theological reflection; and, last but not least, a subtle contribution to discussions about the proper shape of Anglican life.

With the publication of God, Sexuality, and the Self, another (and, arguably, the primary) reason why Coakley has been so committed to presenting vulnerability as a desideratum for human life comes into view—because it is this disposition, above all others, that God seeks, engenders, and sustains as the Spirit draws us, knowingly and unknowingly, into the desiring flow of love that is God’s tripersonal life. Vulnerability, by these lights, is not a subset of a kind of “passivity” that a tyrannical God exploits to move human beings around like puppets, nor an ethical counsel that renders individuals and communities susceptible to victimization and abuse. It is the presupposition of God’s life with us and our life with God:2 a demeanor and practice whose cultivation and application serves as the channel by which believers are enveloped in, and progressively transformed by, the economy of grace. It is, more concretely, the medium by which human beings can escape the dyadic mindset on which patriarchy depends, and thereby perceive and begin to overcome—with God, for God, and for one another—the habits of mind and the material conditions that underwrite Christianity’s fateful affiliation with the sin of male dominance.

In what follows, I identify three issues that seem especially ripe for discussion in light of GSS: Coakley’s construal of divine desire, Coakley’s choice of theological interlocutors, and Coakley’s account of “orthodoxy.” As will soon become clear, I approach this text not as a faultfinder, but as a sympathizer who wants Coakley’s project to go from strength to strength. To put it more explicitly: readers can take it as given that I support Coakley’s ambition to integrate feminist values and high-grade theological reflection, such that no dogmatic loci are left untouched and untransformed. (I use the verb “integrate” purposefully. GSS does not suppose that feminist insights, having been yoked to the project of systematic theology, will, to use a Coakleyian term of art, be “chastened” and diminished; it imagines systematics being transformed by feminist leaven, even as feminist insights are challenged, refined, and expanded in their affiliation with systematics.) I aim, also, to avoid precipitously imposing an alien evaluative scheme on GSS. Given that only one installment of On Desiring God is currently available, it is wise to exercise patience and to let this project unfold on its own terms. And that means avoiding critiques reducible to: “all will be well . . . if only Coakley would follow my lead, address x, y, and z, and read more [insert name].” As such, while I am aware that the issues that I raise in this essay attest to my own, idiosyncratic preoccupations, I will do my best to work within Coakley’s own framework. This essay, one might say, is intended to be an exercise in “nudging”: an attempt to think with Coakley, even as I encourage her to take up concerns that I judge to pressing.3

Enough preliminaries! Ad rem:

1. Granted that Coakley’s account of the Trinity in GSS will be deepened and refined in subsequent volumes, it already has, to borrow from Schleiermacher, “exceedingly strong features and a very marked physiognomy, so that it unfailingly reminds one of what it really is with every movement it makes and with every glance one casts upon it.”4 It is clear, too, that the “strong features” of Coakley’s trinitarian program help to break the hold that some unhelpful, but persistent, binaries have on the theological imagination. Instead of a crude standoff—Scripture or “experience”—we have an insistence that contemplative prayer can nourish and shape doctrinal work: Romans 8 functions as a template for a “Spirit-leading approach to the Trinitarian life of God” (102), wherein God’s third person is “perceived as the primary means of incorporation into the Trinitarian life of God” (111). Instead of Eastern vs. Western and Augustinian vs. “social” accounts of the Trinity, there is an endorsement of apophaticism that dovetails with some daring kataphatic moves. Indeed, granted that many will warm to Coakley’s appropriation of Denys, I reckon her positive claims to be of signal importance. The Son being “begotten” by the Father “in” and “by” the Spirit; the Father qua Source “receiving” his “primordial” hypostatic identity by dint of the active, desirous, operations of the Son and the Spirit; and desire being the engine of God’s tripersonal life—these proposals do not only set the vexed question of theological language in a new light by encouraging a feminist naming of God’s first way of being as Father (a “‘Fatherhood beyond patriarchalism” (332)); they also demonstrate a concern to shift trinitarian discussion beyond the technical, sometimes dull, and often hierarchical language of “processions,” “missions,” “notions,” and gesture toward better ways to affirm God’s non-hierarchical unity-in-distinction.

I want to focus particularly on Coakley’s account of divine desire. To begin with a question: Why and how does this term clarify, deepen, and improve trinitarian reflection? GSS certainly supplies the outline of an answer. Talk about desire arises from the Christian’s ongoing prayerful encounters with God, for in such encounters one finds one’s most basic desires confronted, refined, and transformed by God qua Spirit, the divine person who propels one toward God’s tri-hypostatic life. As that happens, one begins to learn, by grace, and with especial reference to the Spirit and her crucified Son, how God’s desiring purifies and reorders human desiring, sexual and otherwise. Our prayerful encounters with God, guided by Scripture and nested within the Spirit-led life of the church, in other words, warrant the development of a trinitarian “ontology of desire” (6, emphasis removed) and bring into focus a new option for thinking about God as Trinity.

Having reached the border of the complex (and somewhat speculative) world of theological metaphysics, however, a number of questions press. (a) Granted their different appraisals of spirituality and prayer in relation to trinitarian reflection, how would Coakley understand her “ontology of desire” in relation to actualistic accounts of the divine developed by Karl Barth and others?5 Is desire the word theologians ought to reach for, once they have learned that God’s being is a being-in-act—or is talk of God’s being as actus purus problematic, and should theologians instead describe God’s being as affectus purus (and, perhaps, to borrow from Bonaventure, as dilectio pura)?6 (b) How exactly does the Spirit’s desiring “make . . . God irreducibly three, simultaneously distinguishing and binding Father and Son” (24)? The ethical application of the claim is, to my mind, glorious: the “‘fixed’ fallen differences of worldly gender [being] transfigured precisely by the interruptive activity of the Holy Spirit” (58), a “third” undermines the (patriarchal) idol of “twoness.” Yet the theological claim itself is rather lightly sketched and, again, I want to hear more. Does the motif of desire help us to understand how God “preserves” God’s own hypostatic particularity—“preserves” in the sense that the outflow and inflow of God’s tripersonal relations are a matter of “giving” and “taking” that refuses to efface hypostatic distinction, while simultaneously maintaining divine simplicity and divinity unity? Is it divine desire that ensures that none of the “divine hypostases . . . is overwhelmed by being known by the others, since each subsists by being let-be?”7 (c) Finally, I wonder how the category of desire will shape subsequent applications of Coakley’s trinitarianism. Granted that GSS proposes that understanding desire aright can help chart a path beyond current controversies about human sexuality and help topple the false idol of patriarchal Christianity, is it fair to suppose that her proposal will ramify in more concrete ways? Is it incumbent upon Christians, for instance, to enable more desiring by creating and maintaining new ecclesial, political, social, and cultural “spaces” in which God can be known and enjoyed? What, in under words, are the material conditions that Christians should work towards, so that practice of (human) desire can be explored, cultivated, and refined?

2. Coakley’s Anglo-Catholic sympathies are evident throughout GSS. The patristic witness is understood to be an indispensable resource, with Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius the Areopagite, and Augustine of Hippo given pride of place; early church councils are accepted as authoritative and function as a doctrinal matrix through which scriptural exegesis is usefully routed; there is a concern to connect “faith” and “reason,” even as reason in its “secular” forms is reconceived. Yet this is Anglo-Catholicism with a twist. Coakley’s theology also draws, selectively but persistently, on feminist and gender studies, critical theory (especially of a Foucauldian kind, as that meshes with Coakley’s concern for disciplined, embodied practices), social science, and the visual arts.

A théologie totale, then; and a brand of Anglo-Catholicism that is, thankfully, uninterested in polemicizing against putatively “secular” modes of reflection. Yet I wonder if whether there are some missed opportunities here—“missed opportunities” in the sense that there are points of connection with some Reformed authors that could bolster and deepen Coakley’s theology, and could provide a waystation on the journey from the patristic writings to the present-day.

What might this look like? Well, in my judgment, John Calvin is the epitome of a “Spirit-leading” theologian—someone whose work connects, in quite striking ways, with “The Prayer-Based Model of the Trinity” adumbrated on pages 111–15 of GSS. While the order of reflection in Calvin’s Institutes moves from God the creator in bk. 1, to God the redeemer in bk. 2, and thence, in bk. 3, to the Spirit who communicates the benefits won by Christ to God’s people, the “order of experience” that underwrites Calvin’s summa pietatis runs in the other direction. It begins with the Spirit, who incorporates God’s people into Christ’s body; thereafter, it is Christ and the Spirit who propel God’s people into a relationship with God the Father—one who is not a judge but a divine parent who overflows with love. Jonathan Edwards could help, too. In his writings one finds an account of God’s “expansion” of human rationality, spliced with a fascinating retrieval of the “erotic” dimensions of a Christianized Platonism, nested within a robustly trinitarian framework.8 Finally, I suspect that great F. D. E. Schleiermacher would be a useful resource. Schleiermacher’s (infamous) remarks about the “feeling of absolute dependence” are not an “anthropological” starting point for theological reflection—just as Coakley’s turn to prayer is not one more “turn to the subject.” If understood aright, the “feeling of absolute dependence,” so prominent in the “Introduction” to Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre, is but a preliminary identification of the “receptive” dimension of the human who is increasingly caught up in the person-forming operations of Christ and the Spirit, and who, by grace, becomes aware that human life is less about an active, “grasping” of power, but a matter of “living susceptibility” to God’s all-encompassing saving activity.9

It is important for me to be careful at this juncture. Coakley is under no obligation to draw on any particular theologian, and given that GSS aims to be accessible to “the general educated reader as well as to the professional theologian” (xv), there is good reason for Coakley to limit the number of conversation partners she brings into play. Equally, those of a Reformed persuasion do well to avoid supposing that constructive theology ought to run according to our parochial preferences (which, all too often, come across as: “Listen up, and read more Reformed writers! Especially der alte Mann in Basel! Our people—I know, I know, they’re mostly dead white men, but whatever—they’re right, they’re the high road to theological success!”). To make my point in more tempered way, then, I would pose a pair of (genuine) questions: Might it be the case that, in subsequent volumes of her systematics, Coakley will connect claims in GSS with the Reformed tradition, given that there are valuable points of convergence? Or are there theological and ethical reasons why figures like Calvin, Edwards, and Schleiermacher will not feature heavily in subsequent volumes—say, because of failings with respect to theological anthropology, or the relationship between God and world, or theological language, or prayer and sacramentology, or the Trinity?

3. Finally, I am eager to hear more about “orthodoxy.” I think that I understand, to some degree, how this term functions in GSS. On one level, it serves notice that Coakley considers a Nicene account of God’s triune identity, codified in the ecumenical councils, to be a dogmatic given: a theological “structure” that, while not easily comprehensible or even self-evident in its import, is indispensable for thinking well about Christian beliefs. On another level, Coakley objects to the idea that orthodoxy is a matter of “mere propositional assent” to creedal statements, and expresses wariness about those who treat dogmatic norms in an authoritarian manner. She seeks something better: an understanding of orthodoxy as an “ongoing, spiritual project, in which the language of the creeds is personally and progressively assimilated” (5; cp. 89–90, 105, etc.), and made an engine of diverse ecclesial, ethical, and political endeavors—especially, one presumes, those which affiliate Christian spirituality and feminist concerns.10

Both layers of meaning are found, I think, in Coakley’s suggestion that one ought to name God in God’s first way of being as “Father.” A challenge to those who take refuge in a “‘Tipp-ex’ approach to liturgy . . . which ‘whites out’ what offends” (325) that is also a vote cast in favor of “traditional” language for God? Well, yes. Sure. But not just that! We also find here a complement to feminist critiques of uncritical, masculinized language about God, for Coakley hopes to reimagine the language of divine fatherhood in ways that disturb the patriarchal distortions to which Christian theology has so often, and so problematically, fallen victim. Not a matter, in other words, of failing to heed Audre Lorde’s brave warning that “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”; rather, an attempt to show how the “tools” in question never belonged to the “master” and, at the end of the day, have nothing to do with the project of patriarchal “mastery.”11

What, though, of the suggestion that orthodoxy depends on “a particular set of bodily and spiritual practices (both individual and liturgical) [that] are the precondition for trinitarian thinking of a deep sort”—so much so that “if one is resolutely not engaged in the practices of prayer, contemplation, and worship, then there are certain sorts of philosophical insight that are unlikely, if not impossible, to become available to one” (16)? On the one hand, I understand the frame in which Coakley is working. There is a commitment to “standpoint epistemology,” combined with a Foucault-like appreciation for “technologies of the self” that, in turn, connects with the conviction that the regularized practice of “contemplation” renders one susceptible to new kinds of knowing and unknowing. (And I would caution, incidentally, against sounding a Pelagian alarm at this point: Coakley presupposes that contemplative prayer is not a “work” but a disposition provoked by God’s gracious advance).12 On the other hand, I would have liked Coakley to be a little less specific, and perhaps somewhat agnostic, about the ways in which orthodoxy can be nourished, made and remade, done and undone.

Let me explain what I mean. First, is it not important to acknowledge that the “contemplative” matrix, wherein “the discipline of particular graced bodily practices . . . over the long haul, afford certain distinctive ways of knowing” (19) is only one option among many, since God superintends a broad array of “graced” practices, some of which are not obviously, or at least not immediately, associable with the practice of contemplative prayer? I want to answer this question with a firm yes. I want to suppose, to put it more fully, that God can and does work on any number of “practices” in order to reveal Godself, to pursue God’s purposes, and thereby to draw human beings into the “darkness” of God’s trinitarian life. So while Christian formation often hinges on familiar things (prayer, the reading of Scripture, preaching, involvement in various kinds of Christian community, etc.), and while it is valuable to remind theologians of the “resources” that attend the practice of contemplative prayer, it is also important to underscore that God’s generosity is such that an array of endeavors, ranging from political activism, to artistic production, to the steady fulfillment of a secular calling, to experimental forms of sexuality, to various forms of physical ability and disability, can yield “distinctive ways of knowing” that might fund theological inquiry. Coakley might, for sure, concede this point: the contemplative pray-er stands among a host of witnesses, for there are “varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (1 Cor 12:4). What I’m seeking, I suppose, is a more explicit admission that God intends—and, I might add, desires—that knowledge of God’s infinitely rich life be built up from an ever-broadening array of graced practices.13

Second, and to return to the issue of the creeds, I wonder how much “give” there is in Coakley’s construal of orthodoxy. Ernst Troeltsch—a thinker that Coakley taught me to appreciate, and whose concerns I remain unable to shake—understood the “essence” of Christianity to be something upon which we labor, a “living religious production” forged from God’s work across history, the courageous act of the believer, and the intellectual discoveries of one’s time.14 While I take issue with the acutely historicizing framework in which Troeltsch operated, I want to hold fast to the claim that Christian identity can be pushed, by the Spirit, towards an ever-increasing diversity of forms—so much so that I judge the preservation of a surprising, and sometimes conflicting, array of proposals as to what is “essential” to faith to be a theological good. I am, in fact, inclined to view the relationship between “orthodoxy” and the early ecumenical councils (and, for that matter any “confessional” documents) as provisional, and maybe even up for debate. Not, I hurry to add, because I myself am uncommitted to keeping christological and trinitarian claims at the center of theological reflection; nor because I suppose Christian identity to be so infinitely open—an “empty signifier” that awaits any kind of content—that theologians ought to prescind from evaluative judgments. My concern, rather, is that theologians, beyond acknowledging the “messiness” of diverse and competing visions of Christianity, admit that this “messiness” is, to a significant degree, A Good and Wholesome Thing. Which means, to get back to Coakley, that I would prefer that the language of “orthodoxy” be subordinated to an acclamation of the surprising operations the Spirit, who blows wherever she wills (John 3:8), and leads faith in ways that are not given to us to know in advance. Or, to put it even more simply: I want it to be very, very clear that, even as theologians advocate for their own sense of the “essence” of Christianity, we should also admit that we do not know what orthodoxy was, is, or will be.

I am, admittedly, overstating my point. A laudable quality of GSS is that it shows no interest in policing Christian identity and thought. Coakley does not have recourse to a “regulative” construal of doctrine, adjoined to polemics about the perils of modernity; she does not suppose that “secular reason” is inimical to theological inquiry; there is no call to take refuge in the catacombs—or, for that matter, in “high, authoritarian ecclesiastical Christian ‘orthodoxy.’”15 The first substantive chapter of GSS states explicitly that systematics must “render. . . itself persistently vulnerable to interruptions from the unexpected . . . through its radical practices of attention to the Spirit” (49). The third chapter of GSS makes it clear, too, that “orthodoxy” has degraded itself at times, not least when it uses the Gospels’ interest in the relationship of Father and Son as a pretext for positioning the Spirit on the periphery of trinitarian reflection. Coakley then goes on to suggest that Max Weber’s church-sect pairing, which Troeltsch helpfully complicates with reference to “mysticism,” is a sociological distinction that makes a theological difference. Insofar as mainstream Christian communities should attend to what Oliver O’Donovan has called “disorganised and spontaneous manifestations of the church’s catholicity,” Christian theologians must eschew the presumption that dogmatic rectitude is equatable with extant standards; truth might proceed from unexpected quarters.16 (The counsel of Mark 13:37 is apposite: “And what I say to you I say to you all: Keep awake.”) Still more: already there is a Coakleyian voice in my head, allaying my anxieties, explaining that the meaning of the creeds is anything but self-evident, that their ostensible “restrictiveness” is precisely what is undone by the workings of the Spirit—for who is to say how God uses, and will use, these broken vessels to guide God’s people? Yet I am not quite at ease, not least because—and I know, this is not Coakley’s fault—there is no shortage of theological voices that seize on any appeal to “orthodoxy” as a pretext for bashing those suspected of heresy and heterodoxy. So this is a point that needs to be pushed. How “open” is orthodoxy for Coakley? What role, exactly, do the ecumenical creeds have? How attentive should the Christian systematician be to those who disregard, or even dispute, the standing, content, and import of these creeds? Is there, to borrow a phrase from British politics, a “red line” here?

In conclusion, I want again to appeal to the poem of R. S. Thomas with which I began. If the poem opens in a way that Coakley would approve (“Never known as anything / but an absence, I dare not name him / as God”), the closing lines nicely express what theological inquiry should do, and what GSS achieves—that is, bringing about

. . . more loving
mutations, for the better ventilating
of the atmosphere of the closed mind.

We are indebted to Coakley for the first installment in a project that, when complete, will surely mark a fascinating new front in the task to which many of us are firmly committed: the making and remaking Christian doctrine.

  1. Sarah Coakley and Samuel Wells, eds., Praying for England: Priestly Presence in Contemporary Culture (London: Continuum, 2008), 9. The quoted lines are R. S. Thomas, Later Poems: A Selection (London: MacMillan, 1983), 113.

  2. I borrow here from Mathew Myer Boulton; see Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).

  3. I appropriate the language of “nudging” in light of a recent essay by two colleagues at the University of Virginia. See Charles Mathewes and Christina McRorie (“Human Freedom and the Art of “Nudging””), posted on The Hedgehog Review website. Mathewes and McRorie take as their cue Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Susstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 2009).

  4. Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, ed. and trans. Richard Crouter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 98.

  5. An adjoining question that I cannot repress: Which reading of Barth on the Trinity would Coakley find most congenial to her project—the “postmetaphysical” option, favored (and diversely construed) by Bruce McCormack, myself, and others; or the “traditionalist” option, commended (and diversely construed) by George Hunsinger, Paul Molnar, and others? Given Coakley’s somewhat Thomist sympathies, I would imagine the latter . . .

  6. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my colleague, Karl Shuve, for helping me with this point. In Collationes in Hexaemeron (see esp. visio secunda, collatio 4.12), Bonaventure toys with the idea that the Father is the hypostasis from whom love flows; that the Son is the hypostasis who receives the love of the Father and passes it on, with the Father, to the Spirit; and that the Spirit is the hypostasis who receives the love of the Father and the Son. Coakley would likely want to modify Bonaventure; she’d argue, particularly, that the Spirit also gives, with the Son, love to the Father. At any rate, the question remains: is talk of divine desiring a modification of “actualistic” accounts of the Trinity (whether these be of a Thomist of Barthian variety), or an alternative to such accounts?

  7. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, vol. 2: Dramatis Personae: Man in God, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990), 259. Coakley seems to suggest agreement with von Balthasar on this point; see GSS, 24.

  8. A useful illustration of my point can be found in “A Divine and Supernatural Light”: “The mind having a sensibleness of the excellency of divine objects, dwells upon them with delight; and the powers of the soul are more awakened, and enlivened to employ themselves in the contemplation of them, and exert themselves more fully and much more to purpose. The beauty and sweetness of the objects draws on the faculties, and draws forth their exercises: so that reason itself is under far greater advantages for its proper and free exercises, and to attain its proper end, free of darkness and delusion” (see Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Volume 17, Sermons and Discourses 1730-1733, ed. Mark Valeri [Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University], 415; accessible here). Coakley could be sympathetic to much of what Edwards writes here—even granted that the suggestion one will eventually be “free of darkness” might rankle.

  9.  Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, ed. H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart (London: T. & T. Clark, 1999), 495 (§108). Note that the “living susceptibility” of the believer is grounded in Christ’s human receipt of God’s action. It is his perfect God-consciousness (which is itself the existence of God in him) that, as an “ideality” and not an “example,” transforms humankind and creation as such.

  10. Some apposite words from Kathryn Tanner: “The more that feminist theologians use for their own purposes the cultural elements that have been appropriated by patriarchal interests, the greater the feminist claim to theological credibility, and the harder it is for a feminist agenda to be dismissed by those committed to the dominant patriarchal organization of theological discourse.” See “Social Theory Concerning the ‘New Social Movements’ and the Practice of Feminist Theology,” in Horizons in Feminist Theology: Identity, Tradition, and Norms, edited by Rebecca S. Chopp and Sheila Greeve Daveney (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997). I was reminded of this passage when reading Laura Hawthorne’s recent doctoral dissertation at the University of Virginia: “Feminists, ‘Sin-Talk,’ and Revelations: Toward a Feminist Doctrine of Sin in the Augustinian Tradition” (2015).

  11. This classic essay can be found in Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Freedom, CA: Crossing, 1984), 110–13.

  12. See esp. GSS, 92. Schleiermacher is again helpful on this point. On one level, faith is the consequence of God’s action. Indeed, “since faith arises only through the agency of Christ, nothing takes shape in [the human being] independently of the whole series of gracious workings mediated by Christ, alters his relation to God, or effects his justification, and that no merit of any kind avails for this.” On another level, it is legitimate for the dogmatician to identify the human being, precisely because she is made in the image of the image of God, as having a “living susceptibility (lebendige Empfänglichkeit), which is the real receptive organ (das wahre aufnehmende Organ)” (Christian Faith, 504 [§109]). Put simply: one can maintain a firm emphasis on divine initiative while also offering a description as to how the human being, by bearing the imago dei, is always-already “primed” to receive God’s activity.

  13. Indeed, Coakley may even be preparing ground for this acknowledgement, for she notes that “the method of théologie totale . . . is not only founded in ascetic practices of attention, but also rooted in an exploration of the many mediums and levels at which theological truth may be engaged. It is in this sense that it deserves the appellation totale: not as a totalizing assault on worldly power, but as an attempt to do justice to every level, and type, of religious apprehension and its appropriate mode of expression” (GSS, 48).

  14. Ernst Troeltsch, “What Does ‘Essence of Christianity’ Mean?” in Writings on Theology and Religion, trans. and ed. Robert Morgan and Michael Pye (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1990), 162.

  15. The allusions here, if they are not blindingly obvious, are to George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Grand Rapids: Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1984) and John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990). I am of course aware that there is much more to these books than critiques of modernity! The quotation is from GSS, 72.

  16. Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 170.

  • Sarah Coakley

    Sarah Coakley


    Desire and Dogma

    Paul Jones divides his points of discussion into three. First, he raises some important queries about my views on inner-Trinitarian relations and processions, which I readily acknowledge are insufficiently clarified at the end of GSS. His first question here is about my choice of “desire” as a special attribute of divine ontology: what work does this do for me, and why do I so prioritize it? (At this point in Jones’s critique I do feel somewhat caught in the net of his own preoccupations with Barth, von Balthasar and Jenson: caveat lector, since I am not myself primarily motivated by response to their distinctively modern and post-Hegelian alternatives, nor do I wish to be lured here into the “Barth wars” about “actualization”). But let me come clean: my attraction to recuperating the more ancient Dionysian characterization (in Divine Names, IV) of divine atemporal ontology as “desire” is, as Jones well intuits, a correlate, on the one hand, of my own anthropological focus on the centrality of desire in human identity before God, which I believe has a number of advantages over a primary focus on intellect—it well includes the neonate, the mentally disabled and the demented, for instance. (And in vol. 2 I shall expand on this in relation to the imago Dei and the story of the fall: sin is essentially misdirected desire, on my reading, whereas desire is also the primary locus where the tug of the Spirit back to God is felt). So, on the other hand, I am also consciously repristinating that classic Platonist/Christian theme of “exitus” and “reditus,” whereby the longing that we feel as humans for God is precisely that with which God has already marked us (shades of the Symposium, as also of Genesis 1–3). The uniqueness of the ontology of desire in God, however, is that its plenitude is marked by no lack: its lure is both eternally ecstatic and eternally stable, “always proceeding, always remaining,” as Dionysius puts it. Aquinas and Bonaventure take up this tradition somewhat differently, as Jones intimates, since their accommodations of Dionysius are also somewhat different; but I do not finally see their renditions as mutually exclusive: I am inclined to read Thomas’s actus purus as inclusive of dilectio pura. But probably I need to think about that more, and I thank Jones for the impetus.

    Jones raises even trickier questions when he enquires about the detail of my characterization of the intra-divine relations. It is here of course that Dionysius fails to help us, since his characterization of divine desire is (notoriously) unthematized in Trinitarian terms in DN, IV. It is here also that I make my boldest and most original claim in GSS: that the filioque disputes might have been averted altogether if both East and West had not in some way unconsciously continued to subordinate the Spirit, despite best intentions. What has divine desire got to do with this contention? It is appropriate for Jones to press me, and I have not yet substantially delivered the goods (but hope to do so in an upcoming Duquesne Lecture on the Spirit, 2016). But here are the lineaments of the argument I plan to explore, which are already hinted at in GSS, 332–34: if the Holy Spirit’s role in the Godhead is to be radically equal with Father and Son (an immanent critique of the Nicene tradition, note, not primarily an imposition from feminist principles), then whatever we mean by the Father as “source” must already and eternally be inflected by the mutually-ecstatic giving and receiving of both the other two “persons.” Yet I am reluctant to follow von Balthasar by speculatively projecting gender and mutual kenosis into the Godhead at this point. To work out my position more fully in the precise terms of internal relations and economic taxeis goes beyond the limits of this short response; but I am grateful to Jones for making me realize that here is my opportunity to refine the Dionysian theme of divine desire into a fully Trinitarian ontology. Jones’s question about the “material” conditions for stirring up divine desire in us is also wonderfully apposite: although my discussion of contemplation in GSS is already a major part of my answer to this query, I plan to address this most fully in my treatment of the Eucharist in the projected vol. 4; and before that—by implication—in my analysis of the political and economic issues of church and state in vol. 3.

    I think I can now answer the rest of Jones’s questions much more summarily.

    Jones asks secondly about my apparent neglect of the Calvinist tradition: but yes, strangely enough, I “was coming to that.” Each of the four volumes engage, for central ressourcement purposes, either with neglected texts in the classic tradition, or with neglected dimensions of more central texts. It is the sixteenth-century Carmelites who will feature centrally in vol. 2 (not as “spirituality” but as core theological resource); and then—on present plans—their near contemporaries, Calvin and Hooker in vol. 3. For reasons I shall discuss in vol. 2, the turn into “early modernity” represents a particularly rich moment of discussion for the central themes of my theological anthropology in (the conjoined, diptych) vols. 2 and 3: the early stirrings of the “turn to the subject” in new apprehensions of epistemic “certainty,” the construction of new raced understanding of “otherness” as the New World opened up, an intensified Augustinian reflection on the depravity of the self, and—in Calvin and Hooker—important new Protestant visions of the relation of church and state. All these developments, I shall argue, still manifestly continue to haunt us.

    Finally, as for Jones’s worries about “orthodoxy” as potentially hegemonic or restrictive: I can only return to my insistence in GSS that “orthodoxy” as “orthopraxy” continuously remains open to pneumatological interruptions and transformation. Perhaps the Greek notion of a doctrinal “definition” as horos (horizon) may be useful here: we can be clear about the delineating boundary in doctrinal definition, but as we progress in via it may appear to shift, or rather lead us off further into the mystery of the beyond. The creeds and councils of the church are thus in no way dispensable to me (although my own Anglican tradition only requires me to subscribe under authority to the ecumenical councils); but the full meaning they disclose may not be immediately and obviously apparent: if we ever think we have got them “sewn up” we are probably deluding ourselves. I remain reluctant, however, to cede the indispensability of “contemplation” in favour of any old alternative “practices,” despite the fact that a whole range of (graced) practices should and do flow out of the contemplative act. Without that altered contemplative gaze, however—first disconcertingly darkened, then slowly enlightened—there is no “stopping” and “breaking” of the world’s blandishments, no radical questioning of falsely-directed desire. This does not mean, however, that “contemplation” (see my response to Beattie, above) cannot be practised in many different ways; it is the crucial fostering of that “interruptive” attention to the Spirit that comes with such cost and transformation.

    It is always chastening to be so probingly critiqued by a former pupil, and so eloquently too: I do thank Paul Jones for his incisive and challenging review.

Anna Bialek


Vulnerability, Violence, and the Cultivation of Community

VULNERABILITY IS A SCARY thing, whether cultivated on one’s knees in contemplative prayer or confronted in the same position before an assailant, the next hand ready to strike after the first has already brought one to the ground. No one has done more to illuminate the relation between these experiences than Sarah Coakley. Arguing against the common identification of divine power in the former with the dominative, worldly power exerted in the latter, Coakley argued in her 2002 book Powers and Submissions for a practiced reversal, and revision, of this elision, a correction and critique of worldly domination through the cultivation of vulnerability in submission to God. Troubling standard binaries of power and submission, strength and weakness, and autonomy and vulnerability with this account, Coakley offered a radical lesson to feminist critics of Christianity mired in worldly assumptions about power, and unable to find the difference between vulnerability to God and vulnerability to the “false and worldly” powers of human beings. Where the latter experience is allowed to overshadow the former, it is hard to see how the former illuminates—and might ultimately wash out—the latter by its light. And what a light it is, Coakley emphasizes: difficult to approach, to be sure, but illuminating and already powering more than we can imagine.

In the brilliant first volume of her systematic theology, Coakley shows that what might have appeared in earlier arguments to be illuminated in twos, each setting the contours of the other in relief by its lights, is actually lit by the glow of the third, troubled by the “threeness” of the triune God. “Twoness, one might say, is divinely ambushed by threeness,” remade and transformed through divine desire (58). Doctrinal and historical emphases on the relation between the Father and Son thus “miss much of the drama” by ignoring the Spirit, in a way somewhat similar to the constraining emphasis on binaries in secular feminism (4). And indeed, these contexts have much more to do with each other than one might expect, Coakley argues, though not for the usual reductive ascriptions of sexual repression or “bids for power” (though “some of these factors were indeed undeniably at play” (5)). Rather, conversations about sex and gender have much to do with trinitarian theology, and vice versa, because both are entangled in complex questions of desire that define human relations to and in each. Coakley describes “a vision of God’s Trinitarian nature as both the source and goal of human desires, as God intends them” such that “divine desire can be seen as the ultimate progenitor of human desire, and the very means of its transformation” (6). The book is thus framed around the idea that “the problem of the Trinity cannot be solved without addressing the very questions that seem least to do with it, questions which press on the contemporary Christian churches with such devastating and often destructive force: questions of sexual justice, questions of the meaning and stability of gender roles, questions of the final theological significance of desire” (2). Likewise, of course, the questions of sex and gender must be addressed through the problem of the Trinity, she argues, infusing “fallen binaries” with the love and light of three (57).

One of the great strengths of the volume is that it “does not aim to solve the problems [of sexuality] in the terms currently under discussion,” approaching these issues “through a different route” in the divine that offers them whole new roads, let alone new routes (1). Coakley addresses questions of male dominance and female subordination throughout the book, flawlessly enacting their entanglement with theological concerns. And she approaches the often harder, or at least immediately more monstrous, issues of sexual abuse throughout the volume as well, emphasizing “the crucial difference between authentic, Spirit-endowed union (with Christ and each other), and abuse, in which sin and blindness pervert the workings of desire from their Godward direction” (15). Human desire—for union with God, and also with other human beings—is simultaneously propelled by the Spirit and chastened by it where “misdirected” lust and longing draws human beings away from God. The cultivation of union with God, then, will rightly order human desire away from its abusive, grasping tendencies—a dynamic both exemplified and suggested by silent prayer, in which even subtle attempts at epistemic mastery are given up to leave room for “God to be God.”

This account offers much to the Christian who seeks not to abuse, or who is concerned by some of their longings and lusts and fears that the only solution lies in some “false choice” (to use an earlier phrase of Coakley’s) between the church and sexuality. It might offer much to victims of abuse as well, revealing a way to disrupt the binaries of power, gender, and sexuality that have been perverted to hurt them—binaries in which there are winners and losers, instead of relationships in which they might participate as beloved equals. These offerings are profound, life-sustaining, and even potentially life-saving (if in the complicated sense of “losing one’s life in order to save it” implied by Coakley’s kenoticism). And if we consider the referent of “abuse” to include more than clerical sex abuse but also the many forms of intimate violence, assault, manipulation, and domination suffered throughout human life, these lessons affect us all. (I take Coakley to have such an expansive definition in mind, though she doesn’t give us specific examples.) We all suffer, at times, from misdirected desires that incline us to grasp at others inappropriately, seeking mastery and possession where we should seek union and relation. And we all suffer, at times, from the effects of such desires grasping at us (or pushing us down), seeking to have power over us instead of connection with us.

This is part of why vulnerability can be so scary: we don’t know when our exposure to another in loving union actually makes us most immediately subject to abuse. In relation to God, this unknowing can be, or demand, a potent form of faith. But in relation to other human beings, faith or trust seem easily misplaced, as the stories of clerical sex abuse so dramatically display.

This thought brings me to the verge of making a version of the criticism Coakley already addressed, handily, in Powers and Submissions, about the danger of a Christian practice that encourages vulnerability to God even for the most vulnerable among us. But where those critics were concerned with recommendations of self-effacement made to oppressed women who have been given little chance even to cultivate a self to efface, I am more concerned with the simple danger of vulnerability, the risks to which it exposes us even when cultivated toward a non-coercive, non-dominative power. To put the problem crudely, the Christian kneeling in contemplative prayer is still vulnerable in worldly senses to the hand that strikes, even if it is the loving force of the Spirit that has brought her to her knees, and divine power that will ultimately raise her from the position. When we consider those on whom worldly threats are bearing down most powerfully, what kind of a recommendation is prayerful vulnerability to God? (A question I pose earnestly, not rhetorically.) What does it mean to encourage someone to grow more vulnerable in his or her relations to God when abuse threatens imminently and intimately in worldly relationships? What does such encouragement convey to him or her about the love of those making the recommendation, their availability to care and protect, and their understanding of the situations that threaten? What is it like to pray with them if they kneel beside one as a hand strikes, let alone if it is their hand that strays to abuse?

These are questions for Coakley’s trinitarian theology particularly because they are questions, in one sense, about a third, in the community that surrounds the Christian seeking union with God. Trained by the early chapters to look for three where others have emphasized only two, readers might be surprised as the relationship between the Christian and God is repeatedly posed dyadically, even in the superb chapter on charismatic communities. There, Coakley cites in support of her trinitarian view “the reiterated remark that people had in a new way found prayer to be a ‘two-way relationship,’ not just a talking at God, but God (the Holy Spirit) already cooperating in their prayer, energizing it from within, and no less also responding in it, alluring them again, inviting them into a continuing adventure” (169). As her informants’ relationships with God grew through prayer, she emphasizes, the workings of the Spirit began to fuel each life more strongly, “so that prayer became no longer one activity (or duty) amongst others, but the wellspring of all activities” (170). This effect suggests the promising possibility that human desires would be reordered by divine power in “all activities,” but its effects within the community are hard to find in Coakley’s account. Traditional gender roles remained largely in place, which might be an indication that dominative impulses were not relinquished, though not necessarily. We don’t hear much about abuse, clerical or otherwise, and the focus of Coakley’s consideration of worldly challenges is notably depression, an individual challenge faced (and potentially exacerbated) in wordless prayer. These sections are fascinating, challenging, and—like the book as a whole—spectacularly illuminating, but they reinforce an impression that the critical scene for Coakley is between two, the Christian and God. The worldly relations that she brings into the equation as analogues, uniting the questions of sexual desire and divine desire, begin to fall away, or, more precisely, remain important primarily in their most closely analogous form. Intimate relationships of desire hold their place; it is the community surrounding these relationships that remains in shadow.

God, Sexuality, and the Self provokes some concern about this community not only because it might brim with threatening figures ready to take advantage of the vulnerable posture of prayer but because it suggests a tremendously interesting way to think about community, as “twoness ambushed by threeness.” Community, in this view, is not an obliterating transcendence of persons or particular relations between them, but a transformation of both, in which each participates in something larger, and something different, than any duality. Like the Spirit—or even conveying the force of the Spirit, Coakley might say—communities seem to “interrupt” the “merely ‘egological’ duality inherent” in human relationships (318). This interruption can be of deeply destructive forms, a perversion of divine ambush instead of a participation in it, but understanding it by these lights might offer new ways of working in and with it as one of three, instead of having to fight against it as one versus many. Nowhere, perhaps, are these interruptions more urgently needed than in discussions of race. I look forward even more eagerly, then, to the next volume of Coakley’s systematics, set to address this pressing concern.

  • Sarah Coakley

    Sarah Coakley


    Healing Contemplative Vulnerability

    Anna Bialek focuses on the problem of the potential distortions of desire, and therefore on the remaining dangers of human vulnerability. I think it is important that I underscore here once more that I absolutely agree with her—this is the risk that is run when one seeks to elucidate the preciousness of the sui generis vulnerability of contemplative “nakedness” (which is paradoxically also the key source of resistance-against-injustice and freedom-in-God). As I repeatedly stress in GSS, however, the dangers of a perverse rendition of willed contemplative vulnerability-to-God in terms of a passive acceptance of human injustice and violence against the weak, ever lurks at the door: that is why the “hermeneutics of suspicion can never come to an end.” But this acknowledgment in itself crucially should not mandate a dogmatic suspicion of the contemplative act, tout court. Indeed, contemplation, if it is working aright, is precisely that which gives courage to resist abuse, to give voice against violence. But as I also claim with some passion, without such practised acts of attention the privileged may never properly comprehend the plight of those who are oppressed at all, but rather drown out their voices with the sound of their own pious plans for reform. As for someone who needs to be removed from a scenario of abuse, I would never hesitate to make that the first and most urgent priority; and it is indeed my experience as a priest that when someone has already undergone such abuse, the practice of “vulnerable” silence will often seem profoundly fearful unless and until some healing has taken place, and/or the abused person is fully supported by a group of fellow-pray-ers whom s/he trusts.

    I am grateful to Bialek for an insistent probing of these painful social and pastoral realities, and it is indeed in vol. 2 that I shall be exploring the realm of sin, precisely as distorted and abusive desire, and supremely within the context of an analysis of systemic “racism” and its own distortions of perception and desire.

Viktor Aldrin


On the Beholding of God through the Eyes of Prayer

PRAYER IS ONE OF the most fascinating things to research within theology, constituting the very core of Christianity as practiced regularly by worshippers. It exists and is being practiced everywhere.1 Still, the complexity of analysing prayer beyond the formalised prayers written in prayer books or books on prayer makes it difficult to study. In fact, most prayers said will never be studied, since these were said in utter privacy to God. This does, however, not render research on prayer impossible, only quite uncommon. Sarah Coakley’s book God, Sexuality and the Self2 is one of these all too rare studies where prayer is in focus from a theological perspective.3

Coakley writes in her book that her main perspective in the book is that of prayer, especially contemplative, mystical, prayer of desire (52). This is what first made me interested in her book, but with the study of prayer comes a long line of methodological issues that needs to be solved. In my mind, the first and major issue with this study, is whether or not it is possible to establish that prayer exists in terms of a mutual communication. In the age of normative secularism, this problem has raised concerns about the study of prayer from a believer’s perspective.4 If a mutual communication can be identified in prayer, it implies that both the sender (the human being) and the recipient (the divine) exist. In my own previous research on prayer I solved the problem by only examining the sender’s part of prayer and not of the receiver, through a hermeneutic approach.5 What Coakley does is much bolder—not only to examine both sender and recipient, but also to construct a theoretical standpoint in which the study of prayer cannot be undertaken unless the researcher actually knows what it is to pray (15–20, especially p. 16). This implies that Coakley has personal self-experiences of prayer. From a confessional perspective, this conclusion is, most certainly, obvious, but from an academic perspective (living in one of the world’s most secularised countries, Sweden) the conclusion turns the table upside down (or in fact, turns it right again from its previous position upside down). God exists as recipient, at least from a believer’s perspective, and it is from this perspective that Coakley writes her own, academic book (1–32).

If the previous statement, that of combining the confessional and academic approaches, would not have existed in the book, I would describe Coakley’s main method of study as an enthomethodological inspired attempt at constructing God through the praying person’s talk of God in her prayer.6 In ethnometodology and conversation analysis (which derives from phenomenology), the talking is being analysed, and from it, a portrait is constructed where the subject of study constructs his or her reality.7 Thus, the reality is constructed out of subjective perceptions, and it is these perceptions that are to be analysed and not the ontology. The person experiencing God can therefore be analysed, regardless of whether or not the experience actually occurred in terms of reality. Even this, slightly narrower, ethnomethological approach, would be a fresh attempt at describing God through prayer. Yet, Coakley’s ambition of establishing a mutual conversation between God and the human being brings the traditional ethnomethodology/phenomenology into a new light. This light is, in the author’s terminology, described as the existence of God, and that God replies in prayer (16). I am, however, not convinced by her argumentation, if this bold attitude to research on prayer is fruitful for secular understandings of what academic theological research since it excludes so many ways of studying prayer (such as comparative prayer interreligious analysis and also the examination of prayers not possible to say unless the praying person has personal experiences of the situation, such as rape or the death of a child) and thereby excludes the unbeliever from participation. Still, in a post-secular age, it is perhaps time for a new approach to scholarly research where ontological approaches can be as valid as any secular constructional approach to theological and religious studies. If so, Coakley’s fundamental approach to prayer, that of a participant’s believing perspective, may constitute a new wave of bold theological studies that disregard secular understandings of what can be made. This brings theology back to the believing theologians. The question is: should it be so?

The focus of Coakley’s book is on God as the recipient of prayer, but she writes only vaguely regarding the praying person. It is true, that the author studies contemplative prayer, especially mystical contemplative prayer, and that the mental and physical desire of the praying person is described and analysed (2–11). Still, the praying person is, in my perspective, regarded almost as unchanging as God in terms of prayer practices. It is God who is in focus and the emotions of the praying person, but little is said on the cultural historical changes of emotions and that of the establishing of prayer practices. Coakley does not write about the ways in which Christians have prayed and changed through the two thousand years of Christianity, or at least in the first four centuries that are in particular focus in her book. Because of these changes, it is a risky business to take a single approach to what constitutes prayer and use that to examine prayer in the distant past and different geographical and social contexts. The author does, however, identify changes in prayer practices, such as the rise and decline of prayer to the Holy Spirit (100–151), but little is said of the cultural context of these changes. If prayer is about communication with the divine, this communication (at least on the human part) is shaped by many things, as all human communication is. It is true, that two persons frequently communicating inspire each other and mimic the other. In terms of prayer, this is at least considered for the human part of the prayer that, in Christian theology, is said to be influenced by God’s existence in prayer (cf. Imitatio Christi). But still, the praying person uses his or her own communicative knowledge in prayer. Prayer can be understood as a practice, and if such, it is bound by the ways practices are established and maintained.8 For example, practice can, according to studies on practice cultures, be understood as a composition of “sayings,” “doings,” and “relatings” that prefigure the practice before the practitioners themselves can act.9 In terms of prayer, sayings would be the words, thoughts, and emotions uttered; doings are the ways in which the prayer is performed; whereas the relatings are the social aspects in which the praying person takes part. The concept of prayer was not invented, but born into by the praying individuals and reconfigured by them being praying practitioners. All of these aspects on prayer change and are contextual, implying that the practice of prayer is far more contextually bound than Coakley seems to take into consideration. Prayer practices differ not only over time but geographically and socially.10 For example, in the Middle Ages, prayer practices differed greatly between different social groups and also geographically, but do show similarities to contemporary ways of praying among Christians.11 What looks like similar prayer gestures or expressions of emotions during prayer is saturated with the understanding of how society is constituted and the understanding of “good” conversational manners.12 In this perspective, prayer says much about the recipient, but even more about the sender. Even mystical prayer experiences are bound by these practices, since a person experiencing God needs to decide what is happening and how to interpret it. It is true, that many mystics have difficulties with explaining the mystical encounter with God; still they try, and they do so in a culturally bound language with practices of how a relation between God and a human being can be made. Even a protest against these constitutions is most often within these boundaries. I am, of course, aware that the author’s ambition is not to write a book on the practices of prayer though her main source of information is prayer. But practices of prayer have a major impact on the material for any study on prayer, resulting in a more contextually bound study than she implies (19). A fruitful way to solve this dilemma of culturally bound prayer practices regarding contemplative mystical prayer could be to identify a particular mystical prayer practice that the mystic becomes part of through his or her experience. Still, this mystical practice can also be understood as culturally bound since human beings exist in a temporal world socialised into being the adult persons they are. Reading about other similar mystical experiences shapes the ways in which a mystical experience is described to others. What is beyond the preserved written texts (or pictures) of these mystics is not available for analysis since there are no words (or pictures) describing it.

If prayer is analysed without these cultural, geographical, and socially diversified practices, much of what is actually performed in prayer is, in my perspective, lost. What then can be said of God through the perspective of prayer? Coakley does investigate the cultural implications of prayer practices in her book, albeit in my perspective far too seldom, although she states in her théologie totale that she intends to do so (33–65). What could have emerged was a far more diverse study of God, sexuality, and the self, but even as it is, it brings a fresh perspective to theology, putting prayer yet again at the core of Christianity.

Having read and responded to Coakley’s book, a passage in her book (19) reminded me of a Bible quote from the book of Job (albeit not referred to in her book), that could act as a concluding reflection on prayer and the beholding of God: “Even after my skin has been destroyed, clothed in my flesh I will see God, whom I will see for myself. My own eyes will look at him there won’t be anyone else for me! He is the culmination of my innermost desire (Job 19:26–27, ISV).

  1. E.g., I. N. Olver, Investigating Prayer: Impact on Health and Quality of Life (New York: Springer, 2014); T. ap Siôn and O. Edwards, “Praying ‘Online’: The Ordinary Theology of Prayer Intentions Posted on the Internet.” Journal of Beliefs & Values 33/1 (2012) 95–109; N. M. Lambert, F. D. Fincham, and S. M. Graham, “Understanding the Layperson’s Perception of Prayer: A Prototype Analysis of Prayer.” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 3/1 (2011) 55–65; V. Aldrin, The Prayer Life of Peasant Communities in the Late Medieval Sweden: A Contrast of Ideals and Practices (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2011); P. Zaleski and C. Zaleski, Prayer: A History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005); S. Hauerwas and S. Wells, “Christian Ethics as Informed Prayer.” In The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, edited by S. Hauerwas and S. Wells, 3–12 (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004); J. L. Chrétien, “The Wounded Word: The Phenomenology of Prayer.” In Phenomenology and the ‘Theological Turn’: The French Debate, edited by D. Janicaud, 147–75 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000).

  2. Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). Page numbers within parentheses in the paper refers only to this book.

  3. Albeit Coakley never defines prayer in a strict sense, I feel required to present the way I understand prayer in order to present how I read Coakley’s book: Prayer, from a Christian perspective, is the conscious effort of people to communicate with non-physical powers believed to be good, such as God, angels, or saints (Cf. Aldrin, The Prayer Life, 3).

  4. Chrétien, “The Wounded Word,”

  5. Aldrin, The Prayer Life, 2–4.

  6. Cf. H. Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967); E. Husserl, Logische Untersuchungen, vols. 1–2. (Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1913).

  7. Cf. Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology.

  8. Cf. Aldrin, The Prayer Life, 20–23.

  9. Kemmis, “Understanding Professional Practice: A Synoptic Framework.” In Understanding Professional Practice, edited by B. Green, 19–38 (Rotterdam: Sense, 2009).

  10. L. Gougard, Devotional and Ascetic Practices in the Middle Ages (London: Burns, Oates & Washourne, 1927).

  11. Gougard, Devotional and Ascetic Practices; Aldrin, The Prayer Life.

  12. Garnier, Le language de l’image au Moyen Âge, 1. Signification et symbolique (Paris: Le Léopard d’Or, 1982).

  • Sarah Coakley

    Sarah Coakley


    Prayer: A Theological Defense

    Viktor Aldrin’s review is perhaps the one in this collection where I feel most at odds with the reviewer’s own methodological presumptions, since I think he clearly wants me to be writing, as he himself has done (and I may say very illuminatingly), in a genre other than “systematic theology.” Thus it is obvious even from his opening comments that he is highly suspicious of any such endeavour as “systematic theology” in an age of “normative secularism,” and can only construe “God” as a human “construction.” The rhetoric is depressingly familiar to me: only the (supposedly) dispassionate and phenomenological account of the study of religion is properly “academic”; everything theological is by contrast merely “confessional” and—by implication—substandard intellectually. I cannot answer this (note, entirely dogmatically-asserted) charge at any length here, although I have done so in other writings. Suffice it to say that we are clearly at cross purposes. GSS is intended from the outset as a work of normative theology of a particular sort (that of théologie totale); it is not an apologetic prolegomenon in the form of an argument for the existence of God ab initio (although this is a philosophical task that I have also attempted elsewhere). Nor does it wish to partake of, indeed it deliberately eschews, that unattractive form of the academic “culture wars” between the “study of religion” and “systematic theology” that Aldrin immediately assumes is at stake. Indeed, if he had troubled to read on in somewhat less reactive a mode, he would have seen that I precisely refuse this disjunction: “theology” always stands to learn from the methods of the social sciences and the “study of religion,” but not by capitulating to a false chimera of nonnormativity in the latter! And nothing could be more normative than Aldrin’s highly normative review! For him, prayer is by definition a human, socially-constructed activity and should only be studied historically, phenomenologically, and cross-culturally—as he himself does it. All I can say in response to this is that I have no objections whatever to prayer being studied as a merely human endeavour in the context of the “study of religion,” but it is not what I am up to in this unrepentantly theological undertaking. Nor am I essaying any sort of general theory of “contextually bound” forms of prayer (this phrase in Aldrin’s text also seems to be inherently reductive in tone), although I had certainly hoped that my nuanced sociological analysis of two different communities of charismatics in ch. 4 would provide some particular new theological illumination. In short, to deal adequately with Aldrin’s objections I would need to go back to methodological basics: I would need to start with a deeper discussion about whether there are any conditions under which he would be willing to concede the possibility of the existence of God as anything other than a “confessional” delusion. I hope an opportunity will arise sometime in the future, and I thank him for wrestling with a text so uncongenial to his scholarly instincts.

    • Viktor Aldrin

      Viktor Aldrin


      Response to Sarah Coakley’s comment

      The comments by Prof. Coakley on my reading of her book, has made me realise that I need to clarify the position of my text, and also reply to some of her comments, knowing that she has misunderstood my intentions.

      The initial comment that I feel urged to make, is that, yes, we belong to two different academic traditions (Coakley’s Systematic Theology, and my tradition is Practical Theology) but these two traditions are siblings and far closer than most other academic traditions. One thing in common (of many) between these to disciplines is the position that God exists, but how this position/statement can be studied differs between the disciplines. Practical Theology often focuses on how Christianity is being practiced, especially through worship (i.e. prayer), and therefore my focal point of Coakley’s book is from that precise perspective of how prayer is being performed, albeit Coakley her self is doing a Systematic enquiry of the human desire towards God made through prayer.

      In Coakley’s initial comments, she makes a conclusion of my position that is, not true, and that, in my perspective, dyes her argumentation throughout her response:

      ‘Thus it is obvious even from his opening comments that he is highly suspicious of any such endeavour as “systematic theology” in an age of “normative secularism,” and can only construe “God” as a human “construction.” The rhetoric is depressingly familiar to me: only the (supposedly) dispassionate and phenomenological account of the study of religion is properly “academic”; everything theological is by contrast merely “confessional” and—by implication—substandard intellectually’.

      As I interpret her comment, she considers me a person believing that God is a ‘human “construction”’, and that I disregard other research on the divine (e.g. Systematic Theology) that is not phenomenological. Nothing could be more wrong, and my own research on prayer shows that this issue is most important to me. I believe it is possible to study theology from perspectives other than normative secular, and in fact, the secular perspective (i.e. non-believing) makes much damage to the study of religion. That would be, to hold a normative view of believing people not really believing in what they are saying in terms of prayer. For example, I once heard a Danish professor speaking about his neurological research on praying people. He examined if the brain reacted differently to prayer words from an actual prayer, prayer-like words from a faked prayer (yes, he described it in these precise words), and reading a newspaper text. He found differences, but when I asked him if he believed in a god (i.e. if prayer was something other than just words from an individual), his answer was no, and as it turned out, the experiment used a non-believer to say these words. He was passionate about his research, I on the other hand found it merely an insult. For how can prayer be examined if the examined person praying does not believe in the supernatural aspects of prayer? It is my impression, that Coakley believes that I held such views, when reading her book. I did not. Instead my perspective was on how this prayer in desire was performed, within the human aspects of a praying person (i.e. culture, language, practices) but never disregarding the divine aspects of prayer. This means, that I consider prayer broader than just contemplative prayer, but contemplative prayer is part of this broader perspective. I never wrote such things as Coakley suggests in my text, especially since I do not believe in such ways to examine prayer. How could I, being a believer myself, hoping that God response to my prayers and my innermost desire of God, state that God is a mere construction? Still, how can it be possible, as Coakley seems to suggest, that contemplative prayer is the prayer par excellence. Most Christians do not have time only to pray in contemplative ways, and should their prayers be considered less than people having enough time to pray contemplative? If this holds true, in Coakley’s perspective, I disagree on her understanding of Christian prayer. For me, every person’s heartfelt prayer to God is equally important, to suggest otherwise would be to make a distinction between elite Christians and common Christians. That view am I unable to comply with.

      When I did the research for my own book on prayer in the Middle Ages, where miracle stories constituted a major part of the sources, I was once asked by a British professor if I believed that these miracles actually had occurred. In his reading of my manuscript, he discovered that I did not take a stance against the possible reality that these miracles had occurred, and was intrigued. He, himself, did not believe in these miracles and consequently thought that the people describing these miracles did not believe in them themselves. I told him, that he had actually read my conclusions correctly, though the actual fact of God responded to their desperate prayers with a miracle is, in my point, beyond human science to prove. But we can believe, and I do (and the people examined in my research did as well). But enough of my own research, since this example was only intended to point to the fact that Coakley’s presuppositions of my reading of her book is not entirely correct.

      In a way, yes, there is sometimes a “culture war” between secular and confessional investigations of prayer, and I feel as depressed as Coakley of the harsh ways in which that debate is evolving. The only difference, is that Coakley and I are on the same side in terms of believing in the study and performing of Theology, but on different aspects of it: she on the Systematic aspect, and I on the Practical aspect. Still, constructing a diversion between elite Christians praying in contemplative ways, and common people praying in other ways, is not a fruitful way to construct a complex understanding of Christian prayer. That would suggest, that most Christian people are praying the wrong way, simply because they do not have enough time to pray contemplative. Perhaps it was wrong of me to write a comment from a Practical Theology perspective on a book so much devoted to the love of Systematic Theology as Coakley’s book is, but as a Practical Theologian I did enjoy reading her book, and as a researcher on Christian prayer, I was much delighted in spite of the differences between our disciplines. Prayer is such a wonderful and complex thing!



From Contemplation to Caritas

SARAH COAKLEY WANTS THEOLOGIANS to be good, really good. Theologians need to be good, or better yet, holy, in order to see God. But Coakley is no Pelagian. No, the theologian and the practice of theology alike need to be drenched in the Spirit. Indeed, a realized pneumatology is key to Coakley’s project; the theologian must be a Christian not only in the shadow of the cross, but a person set aflame at Pentecost. It is only in the wake of the work of the Spirit, and the transformation that the Spirit works on the person, that the theologian is truly trinitarian. By extension, this is also to say that theology is only trinitarian when it prays in and through the Spirit.

One way to read God, Sexuality, and the Self would be as a new model of theology. However, I see in this work much more than that. In fact, the model of systematic theology espoused therein is really quite ancient. And Coakley’s often careful and creative retrieval of sources demonstrates her friendly dependence on traditions of theological discourse. More about that below.

Rather, I think it is far more fruitful to read this work a proposal for the theological way of life. Notice, for instance, Coakley’s description of theologie totale, which is entirely practical. It is not, she admonishes, “a totalizing discourse that excludes debate, opposition, or riposte” (41). It is totalizing, however, in the sense that it places the comprehensive claim of the gospel on the person and on systems of discourse. And that claim is transformative: “. . . theologie totale involves an ongoing journey of purgative transformation and change” (88). Coakley’s systematic theology is systematic because it structures and orders critique toward this spiritual and moral claim. It is “an integrated presentation of Christian truth” (41), the integration being the practical, or “practional” as Coakley says, character and telos of theological discourse (45). Indeed, the vision of God in contemplation is a totalizing vision; it overtakes the whole person, their practices, their desires. “To know God is unlike any other knowledge; indeed, it is more truly to be known, and so transformed” (45). Theologie totale makes the theologian a contemplative. Yet prayer and contemplation reform the person, transforming them in mind and will for the theological task.

What is the shape of this totalizing, contemplative way of life? Coakley’s prelude is clear: systematic theology requires the methodological, metaphysical, and epistemological shift that only prayer can bring. Indeed, the stakes are high. “[S]ystematic theology without contemplative and ascetic practices come with the danger of rending itself void . . .” (45). With these practices, on the other hand, the person is made more attentive not only to the other (47), or to the dangers and graces of the unconscious (51), but also to the desire for God. And this final good of the ascetic and contemplative practices is significant for Coakley’s agenda, for it speaks volumes about human being as such, gender, and human transformation. Prayer and contemplation enable and introduce a total shift in the person. “[A]uthentic contemplation . . . [as a] practice of gentle effacement allows communication with the ‘other’ at a depth not otherwise possible. To contemplate is to invite uncomfortable change” (86). In other words, prayer, as an act, resituates and reconfigures the self, thereby properly inaugurates the theological task. Without this prayer-generated approach, the theologian is, to use a phrase of St. Paul’s, a resounding gong.

In this Pauline mode, specifically along the lines of Romans 8:26, God, Sexuality, and the Self proposes that contemplation and prayer are necessary means to properly order love (caritas). Indeed, for Coakley, the heart of contemplation a kind of handing over of self to God; it is not the person who prays, but the Spirit prays the person. Or, better yet, the person is transformed by prayer precisely as the person becomes a vessel for the Spirit’s prayer to the Father. Here, Coakley retrieves the ancient language of the spiritual practices and puts it to anthropological ends. Prayers works on the person at the foundational level of desire. However, prayer and contemplation offer not merely ancillary facets or practices to a life of entrenched desires. “The practice of contemplation sustains the systematic theological enterprise, not because it is a manmade foundation for it, but because it is the primary ascetically submission to the divine demanded by revelation” (88).

Rather, prayer transforms desire. Here we see the Augustinian character of Coakley’s project—albeit a critically Augustinian character (278–79). Her repeated reminders throughout the text, that sexual desire is “the ‘precious clue’ woven into our created being” (309), resound similar statements in the Western, Augustinian tradition too numerous to recount here. So too, Coakley continues in an equally Augustinian mode by arguing that “to bring this desire into right alignment with God’s purposes, purified from sin and possessiveness, something profoundly transformative has to happen” (309–10).

Transformed desire is better known as the prime theological virtue, charity. “The greatest of these, the essential work of love, is fostered in contemplation” (92). Coakley does a great job showing her reader that, despite a somewhat popular confused notion that Christian theology privileges a brotherly affiliation over eros, key Christian thinkers, such as Dionysius the Areopagite, hold that perfect love incorporates both philos and eros (313). Dionysius, Coakley argues, connects eros with agape, with the theological consequence of giving an eschatological character to love. For love yearns for a consummation in perfect Love. Dionysius’s reordering of eros to agape accords with “the prayer-based model” of the Trinity; “Dionysius’ ancient vision means that . . . Freud is turned on his head. Instead of ‘God’ language ‘really’ being about sex, sex is really about God” (316). Human desire finds is fulfillment, through Spirit-filled prayer, in divine desire. Before human desire can attain such heights, before the soul can be set aflame at Pentecost, it must be pressed through the crucible of the cross. And thus, once again, contemplation is not a bare affirmation of desire, or, as some reader might worry, a reification of hierarchy (319–20), but rather a process of ascetic purgation that opens us to healthy and whole relationships. “Contemplation is an act of willed vulnerability to divine action” (343). Coakley challenges her reader to recover Fatherhood from the dyad of patriarchy through spiritual practices, precisely because they are SPIRITual (341).

Pneumatological History

There is an interesting historical reading, almost a typology of pneumatologies, in chapter 3, such of which I find illuminating to Coakley’s broader project, and some of which is too cursory to capture the nuance and details at work in the texts. To the former, the manner in which Coakley traces pneumatological implications of Origen’s theology for future trinitarian controversy helps the reader see just how central prayer and contemplation are to the tradition of trinitarian theology. To the latter, one might question the rather brief critique of the gendered character of Irenaeus’ anti-heretical writing. “We have to face the fact that what I have called an ‘incorporative’ approach may be mediated exegetically in ways which implicitly signal the consolidation of male gendered authority rather than any ‘ecstatic’ release from such” (124).

Just before this passage, Coakley contrasts Irenaeus’ over-determined, gendered authority with the receptivity and encouragement toward female authority held by some Irenaeus’ heretical opponents. To be sure, Marcus, by Irenaeus’ own admission, eagerly cultivated the membership of wealthy women. However, we should also remember that one of Irenaeus’ passionate critiques of groups like Marcus’, is not that they had female leadership, but the ways in which they manipulated and took advantage of their (wealthy) female members. Moreover, in Against Heretics I.13, Irenaeus seems to suggest that Marcus identified the male factor (their “inner man”) in these women as the recipient of theosis. In my opinion, to the extent that Irenaeus never explicitly states his own position on female leadership, we have to read between the lines of a very complex social, liturgical, and theological scenario in order to ascertain his general position, to the extent that he had one. And arguably, neither my response, nor Coakley’s text are the appropriate places to do so. Is Irenaeus’ push toward institutionalization a betrayal of Paul’s spiritual ecclesiology? Irenaeus’ case is ironic, in my reading, given that he’s attempting to release Christians from an anti-material, anti-corporeal cosmology, and show them brilliance of the incarnation.

In any case, this example doesn’t detract significantly from the overall gains of this or the other historical excursions in the text. Rather, the renewed role of the Spirit and attendant exploration of gender in Coakley’s work suggest new angles for thinking gender in early Christian and medieval texts. To some extent, this task is already well under way; studies by Virginia Burrus and Caroline Walker Bynum come to mind. However, Coakley’s project exceeds these historical studies in its systematic practice and creativity.

Source, Mode, and End

One of the most fascinating elements of God, Sexuality, and the Self for me was the attention to creation and eschatology. Language of God as source is rife through the text. Consider this passage, for instance: “The pray-er’s total perception of God is here found to be ineluctably trifacted. The ‘Father’ is both ‘source’ and ultimate object of divine desire; the ‘Spirit’ is that (irreducibly distinct) enabler and incorporator of that desire in creation—that which make the creation divine; and the ‘Son’ is that divine and perfected creation” (114). The Father is the source, the Spirit is the mode, and the Son is the telos, or perfection, of creation.

Typically, the activity of being made divine—divination, deification, or theosis, depending on your preferred flavor—is couched, in modern studies, within a binary model of exitus/reditus, procession and return. For example, see studies by M.-D. Chenu, R. Roques, P. Rorem. The Father creates the world, and Christ returns to the world to the Father. Binary models, as you can see, have little time for a Spirit who seems to fuss about with a world not yet returned, or at best plays a supporting role in Christ’s salvific activity. We can already see how Coakley’s model of Trinity and creation escapes such dyadic strictures.

In contrast to a binary model, the incorporative model of the Trinity, alluded to above, presents the Trinity as “the graced ways of God with creation, alluring and conforming that creation into the love of the ‘Son’” (112). In this model, Coakley argues, “priority . . . is given to the Spirit: the ‘Spirit’ is that which, while being nothing less than ‘God’, cannot quite be reduced to a metaphorical naming of the Father’s outreach” (112). Rather, the Spirit is the means, or mode, by which creation is propelled toward its perfection. This is why spiritual practices are so key to Coakley’s work. Without them, creation possesses no substantial means by which it can reply to the Trinity’s call. Creation without prayer and contemplation would be all frustrated desire.

Coakley’s attention to the language of source, mode, and end hearkens back to an ancient understanding of the relationship of the Trinity and creation, wherein the Trinity is not merely the first cause—Aristotle’s unmoved mover—of the cosmos, but rather the excessive font of creaturely being, the principle of happiness in this life, that in which creaturely being finds its perfect rest. “In him we live, and move, and have our being,” as Paul said to the audience of the Areopagus. Coakley attends to this history in her section on the lex orandi. But I want to make a different connection, perhaps to show the provenance of such a model.

St. Bonaventure (1219ish–1274) developed a triadic model of the procession of creation from and back to God. Bonaventure’s preferred vocabulary for this triadic model was ortus (order), modus (means), and fructus (fruit/end). Bonaventure was less than sanguine with attempts to tie the trinitarian persons solely to one of these three terms. Rather, for Bonaventure, the Father creates through the Son, and the Spirit is always the Spirit of Son.

Bonaventure, like Coakley, saw in this triadic model the importance of spiritual practices.

Scripture . . . flows from divine revelation, coming down from the Father of lights, from whom every fatherhood in heaving and on earth receives its name. It is from him, through is Son, Jesus Christ, that the Holy Spirit flows also into us. It is through that same Spirit, who apportions gifts and allots to each one according to his will, that faith is given, and it is through faith that Christ dwells in our hearts (Breviloquium, prologue).

Note here the mutual incorporation of activities between members of the Trinity. The Son, the perfection of love in creation, is sent by the Father, who is the metaphysical source of all things. The Spirit is not only the Spirit of that perfection, but is in fact the principle by which the Son comes to dwell in us, which is to say, the Spirit is the principle by which creation arrives at that perfection. Thus, the Spirit is that principle by which creatures are able to respond in faith, and act according to that faith. The Spirit, in Bonaventure’s model, is arguably as central as in Coakley’s incorporative model, so it’s no surprise that in the Breviloquium, as well as Bonaventure’s countless mystical treatises, such as the Journey of the Mind to God, contemplation and prayer are advocated as the primary means and ends of theological discourse.

As a final aside, one wonders if thinkers like Bonaventure already offer the means to begin reforming gendered trinitarian language, as Coakley hopes to. Is Bonaventure’s connection between creaturely fatherhood and divine Fatherhood simply a patriarchal move, or already beginning to show that creaturely fatherhood is “really about” divine Fatherhood? Given what I know about exemplarity in Bonaventure’s thought, and the way it permeates the entirety of his theology, I suspect that Bonaventure was already moving in directions of which Coakley would approve.

In conclusion, despite any historical reservations I might have about Coakley’s project, I was thoroughly excited by the move to spiritual practices of purgation in God, Sexuality, and the Self. One can only hope that Prof. Coakley continues in the ancient model of mystical ascent with subsequent works on illumination and unification.

  • Sarah Coakley

    Sarah Coakley


    Power and Gender in Irenaeus

    Finally, I am grateful to Daniel McClain for a sympathetic response that attends carefully to the main themes of GSS and locates them in a wider framework of historical and contemporary theology. As an expert on Bonaventure, McClain, like Jones (see above), would urge me to interact more closely with Bonaventure’s theology, which—flatteringly!—he sees as somewhat consonant with my own; and partly on account of these two nudgings I now find myself inclined to include Bonaventure amongst my planned conversation partners for vol. 4 (which will cover Christology and Eucharist, and focus on elements in scholastic thought). In relation to the one point of criticism that McClain raises about Irenaeus’s views on gender, I would like to clear up a possible misunderstanding, and acknowledge first that I wrote what I did (at GSS, 123–24) in an over-dense fashion. My main point there was that Irenaeus, as an authoritative male bishop writing “against heresy” in a still-persecuted church, was in an inherently ambiguous position in relation to power. At one level he simply took for granted (over against some “gnostic” groups of the period) the emerging consensus on male leadership in the church; but this did not prevent him (as in the case of Marcus and his female followers cited by McClain: Adv. Haer. 1.13) from drawing attention to the vulnerabilities of women to corrupt male leaders in other, rival groups. A full treatment of Irenaeus on gender would certainly have demanded more detail than I provided; but I did not intend to imply that his whole vision of authority was “overdetermined” by gender, as McClain puts it.

    I want to end these responses by thanking my interlocutors once more for what I have learned from all of them, and Syndicate for the opportunity to enjoy this discussion.

    • Avatar

      Daniel McClain



      I am humbled by Prof. Coakley’s response to my reading of her work, and grateful for the added clarification regarding the part that Irenaeus does and does not play in that section of GSS. It is too generous to call me an expert on Bonaventure, but I am glad that my suggestions could contribute to the conversation.

      At some point along the way I had mistakenly thought that Prof. Coakley’s systematics series was to be a trilogy, but am now surprised to find that it will be four volumes… a fascinating development, but one that nevertheless foils my playful suggestion that the subsequent volumes concentrate on illumination and mystical union (respectively). I eagerly await new surprises.