On Desiring God: A New Take on Feminist Theology – By Frances Young

Frances Young on Sarah Coakley’s God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’

Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay 'On the Trinity', Cambridge University Press, 2014, 384pp., $26.72
Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 384pp., $26.72

Feminism and “patristics” (now often renamed early Christian studies) have not had an easy relationship. The very fact that the subject has traditionally been the study of the so-called Fathers of the Church caused adverse reactions: what about “matristics”? Unsurprisingly, attempts have been made to recover the historical contribution of women, to document the misogyny of the Fathers, and to demonstrate the inherently patriarchal bent of their theological language and social expectations. Sarah Coakley is sensitive to all this, but also profoundly critical of the less than satisfactory expedients adopted by some feminist theologians. God, Sexuality, and the Self is the first volume of her three-volume systematic theology, long in preparation, to be called On Desiring God. Here she focuses on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

As set out in the Prelude, the overall claim is that “the questions of right contemplation of God, right speech about God, and right ordering of desire all hang together.” Currently contentious issues about gender roles, sexuality, and sexual desire are necessarily involved in any attempt to understand the Trinity. The interconnections are evident in the work of “the greatest early Christian thinkers of the late antique era,” Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine, but rarely have scholars brought together their views on asceticism and Trinitarianism.

Examining these issues presents a challenge to the textbook approach to the development of Trinitarian doctrine of God, and integral to the project is the greater attention paid to prayer and scriptural exegesis than creeds and conciliar pronouncements. What Coakley seeks to do is to make these ancient authors “speak afresh” in a post-Freudian age. Theology is to be seen as a process of transformation, a journey into God through “particular graced bodily practices,” a social rather than a subjective activity, and an expansion of rationality rather than its repudiation.

Coakley’s underlying insight with respect to the Trinity is that Romans 8, especially verse 26, constitutes the driving impulse of Trinitarian theology. As she puts it, “… it is not I who autonomously prays, but God (the Holy Spirit) who prays in me, and so answers the eternal call of the ‘Father,’ drawing me by various painful degrees into the newly expanded life of ‘Sonship.’” Thus, “[i]n the ‘impossibility’ of the prayer of contemplation, in which the Spirit cracks open the human heart to this new future, divine desire purgatively reformulates human desire.”

It is from this perspective that a critique is offered of the usual linear account of the development of Trinitarian doctrine whereby the Spirit emerges as a kind of afterthought once the Father and Son are confessed as consubstantial. The major contribution of this book is Coakley’s uncovering the persistence of this prayer-based approach to Trinitarianism. She triggers not only fresh expositions of those key patristic theologians mentioned above but also subtle explorations of the subversive potential of Spirit-led movements: ecstatic release may challenge ecclesiastical authority, empower unofficial leaders (including women), create sects, and even split off the Spirit in such a way as to create a non-Trinitarian pneumatology — points made historically through reference to Montanism, and sociologically through the fieldwork described in chapter 4. Yet the danger of losing the Spirit is demonstrated from the iconographic study in chapter 5, and the second of Sarah Coakley’s final theses is the contemplative acknowledges the leading activity of the Holy Spirit and so jealously guards the distinctness of the third ‘person.’” She adds that, while church and sect need each other, the mystic, who “recalls both to contemplative practice, will always stand at the edges of institutional acceptability, always pressing to an ‘orthodoxy’ beyond mere propositional assent.”

Melania the Younger. Miniature from the Monologion of Basil II. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Melania the Younger. Miniature from the Menologion of Basil II. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Coakley’s starting point in Romans 8 challenges not only the standard history of development but also the classic modern typology of Eastern vs. Western Trinitarianism. It suggests a common “incorporative” vision of God, ecstatically overflowing and “catching up the created realm into the life of God.” The Trinity “is the graced way of God with the creation, alluring and conforming that creation into the life of the Son.” As Paul put it, the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God and are to be conformed to the likeness of the Son. But the ecumenical ramifications, though significant, are less striking than the implications for feminist critiques of patriarchal language. For “divine ‘processions’ cannot ever be about patriarchal hierarchy; they are about the perfect mutual ontological desire that only the Godhead instantiates … a desire not of need or imposition but of active plenitude and longing love.”

Only the clarification of the place of the Spirit in the Trinity can “resist the (ever- seductive) lure back into patriarchal hierarchy.” Feminists, though granted much, are challenged along with others to move beyond the binaries of male/female, us/other, East/West, and even of God/world. Three trumps two.

The Spirit-led approach not only “links Trinitarian thought directly to its true matrix in prayer and worship,” but also reveals “why the question of God as Trinity has always been implicitly linked to disturbing questions about desire, power and gender.” Coakley’s discussion of Origen sets out these deep connections. Four features of Origen’s treatise On Prayer (De Oratione) are highlighted. First, the treatise starts with “an insistence on the priority and primacy of the Holy Spirit in understanding the nature and purpose of prayer; and it stresses the capacity of the grace of God to take us beyond the ‘worthless’ ‘reasoning of mortals’ to the sphere of unutterable mysteries (see 2 Corinthians 12), where ‘spiritual prayer’ occurs in the ‘heart.’” Second, the exegesis of Romans 8 is central to the argument from the start. Next, this form of prayer is strikingly compared to sexual intercourse and procreation. Finally, the metaphysical force of the comparison is carefully distinguished from its normal physiological functioning: “the intrinsic connections between prayer and eroticism, it seems, are too close to be avoided, but also too dangerous to be allowed free rein.”

Coakley further substantiates these points by referring to Origen’s Commentary and Homilies on the Song of Songs: the sexual metaphor is both indispensable and yet holds “grave dangers,” especially for “those not yet morally prepared through a process of spiritual maturation.” This is contrasted with a passage from Contra Celsum, which demonstrates Origen’s view of the dangers attending the wrong sort of “ecstatic” behaviour and sexual abandonment to the “daemon spirits.”

Anyone who has read widely across the extant works of Origen will recognise the “erotic” and “mystic” themes briefly set out here. The insight that significantly challenges conventional readings of Origen is that an account must be taken of these themes if Origen’s Trinitarianism is not to be misrepresented. This observation is intriguingly novel, yet it can hardly be dismissed by any knowledgeable scholar.

The later chapter on Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine is likewise a successful attempt at orientation to broader themes in their theology. For both, it is fundamental that God is beyond human conceptuality — indeed, there is an “infinite difference between the divine Trinitarian life and the human life of sexual temptation and struggle.” Yet in their work these realms are drawn together “tightly and analogically” in the “uniting theme of desire.” The paradox of desire is that it may be at once “salvific and transforming” and the opposite.

At the heart of Gregory’s system is “loss of control, a yielding to the unknown in God in a desire without end.” Sexual metaphor, so far from being worrisome for Gregory, turns out to be indispensable. For Augustine, however, matters are more complex: sexual activity is intrinsically worrisome because of the revolt of the male body — the phallus — against man’s rational will to have complete control over himself. Augustine’s theology is one of “cooperative, harmonious, ordered mental activities in God,” and “the goal he has in mind is one final blessedness in clarity and certainty — not perfection in darkness and loss of mental control.” This contrast impinges on their approach to creation and sexual differentiation in humankind.

For Gregory, humanity predates and transcends sexual differentiation, while desiring God, longing and questing, implies gender, sometimes male eros, sometimes “womanish” response, irrespective of where a particular individual lies on the binary divide. The soul’s ascent to intimate relationship with the divine involves penetrating the invisible and incomprehensible, while waiting for the bridegroom in darkness points to a “dark womblike receptivity” as the person becomes “a receptacle created to be filled with the life of God.” This is in tension with Gregory’s more hierarchical exposition of the Trinity in apologetic works, according to Coakley, yet perhaps not entirely, given that on Coakley’s own showing the flow of Trinity from the Father through the Son to the Holy Spirit might be said to be reversed, as the soul is first enlightened by the Spirit, in order to ascend to the Son, and so to the Father.

For Augustine, by contrast, there is constant struggle for order over chaos, an order that can only be reached by divine grace. Sexual differentiation belongs to humankind from creation and will be retained eschatologically. But the problem of male loss of sexual control in the post-Fall condition is what makes sex shameful, and Augustine never resolves his ambiguous views on women — mentally equal but subordinate according to scripture. Spiritual advance is not into darkness, but into light — the light of grace that, as Coakley comments, is all too like divine control. Yet Augustine also has a discourse of “overflowing, enkindling, inflaming and incorporative flow of the holy Spirit, pouring forth into our hearts.”

The outcome of this chapter is the suggestion that gender is recast by both of these thinkers in ways different from modern gender theory and in ways informed by scripture and Trinitarian reflection. The climax comes in the following chapter with an outline of how these things are taken up in the ecstatic theology of Dionysius the Areopagite. That necessitates tackling the whole notion of hierarchies and the problems of naming God. Coakley admits that no Trinitarian language is innocent of sexual, political, and ecclesiastical overtones and implications — these need to be brought to critical consciousness. But just to insert feminine or maternal images while repressing traditional language of Fatherhood is hardly adequate to the task. The potential for cultural and patriarchal distortions is endless. What is needed is an assault on all forms of idolatry, all attempts to rest in human projections, and to discover how language about God works.

One may begin with an outrageous array of multiple cultural meanings, only to purge them of all anthropomorphism through contemplative prayer. Prayer engages with the matter of divine yearning and the soul’s ecstasy — what Coakley describes as “purgative kneeling before the blankness of the darkness which nonetheless dazzles.” One of her final theses is that this apophatic turn “has the capacity not only to undermine gender stereotypes, but to lead to a form of ever-changing modellings of desire for God.” This “strange subversion of all certainties” is for her a fundamental consequence of putting contemplation at the heart of theology: “divine desire, and human desire for the divine, is more fundamental than gender.”

God, Sexuality, and the Self provides an immensely refreshing approach to redeeming an essentially orthodox theology while acknowledging the significance of postmodern critiques in general and feminist objections in particular. It is also true to the patristic texts on which it draws, admitting complexity, paradox, and ambiguity, yet distilling a vision of implicit connections that have largely gone unnoticed. In some ways Coakley uses an extremely broad brush in her characterization of the patristic material and not only assumes a whole raft of exegetical scholarship, but also provides little in the way of textual exposition. She instead employs a certain rhetoric that appears to lay out clear arguments, only to admit a certain ambivalence or paradox.

But maybe I should refrain from demanding a more exegetical style from a hermeneutical project with different ends in view, not least the imaginative conjunction of material from a variety of disciplines, all of which impinge on the kind of théologie totale envisaged. This expression is for Coakley a way of describing a method which attempts “to do justice to every level, and type, of religious apprehension and its appropriate mode of expression,” a theology in via which attends to the marginalized and works through contemplation, risking “destabilization and redirection.”

There are perhaps some missed opportunities. We miss, for example, discussion of the physicality of the Christian tradition, expressed in such themes as the resurrection of the body, a feature which profoundly modified the Platonist tendencies of both Gregory and Augustine and led them to make an extraordinary shift from the binary of soul/body to the eschatological transformation of the whole human person. Treatment of apatheia as both divine attribute and ethical ideal is also missing. Nor is there discussion of those monastic exponents (Evagrius, for example) who through contemplation achieved its subtle reminting as a reordering of the passions — yet such a reordering is precisely one of the six final theses of the book. But these points are just a hint of the depth and range of potential further material corroborating the general position advanced in this book, and may be in any case reserved for later sections of this large systematic project.

Whether Coakley’s work can, as hoped, successfully communicate to a wider readership remains to be seen. The very presence of a substantial glossary at the end is an indication of the way the discussion is shaped by the technical and intellectual discourses of both historical scholarship and postmodern theory. Furthermore, its range of targets, both methodological and theological, sets this work in the particular cultural context of current conversation in the academy, despite its fundamental appeal to both the social reality of church life and the lived reality of prayer and contemplation. Nevertheless, with her declared aim of accessibility, Coakley has created a flowing style, generally without the distractions of footnotes or attempts to cover every potential pitfall. Large bibliographic notes at the end of each chapter supply the backup required by scholarly conventions. Above all, I endorse her insistence, not merely on including the lived reality of prayer and contemplation in the data, but on capturing its centrality to the history and meaning of Christian doctrinal discourse: in other words, the theological significance of the purgation of heart and mind, and its explosive impact on the pretensions of human creaturely reason.