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
Daniel Wade McClain
About the Author
Sarah Coakley is Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. Her recent publications include Religion and the Body (Cambridge University Press, 2000), Powers and Submissions: Philosophy, Spirituality and Gender (2002), Pain and Its Transformations (2008), The Spiritual Senses (with Paul L. Gavrilyuk, Cambridge University Press, 2011) and Sacrifice Regained (Cambridge University Press, 2012). Coakley is also the editor of Re-Thinking Gregory of Nyssa (2003) and co-editor (with Charles M. Stang) of Re-Thinking Dionysius the Areopagite (2009).