I recently took part in a conversation among some young theologians and ethical thinkers, most of them Catholic, many of them gay or same-sex attracted. We found ourselves talking about the shelter the Catholic Church provided in Victorian England to many homosexual people. In a culture suspicious of their aesthetic sensibilities, these pariahs could take refuge in a Church that exalted an enfleshed deity, where the air was thick with incense and choral harmonies. There’s been a marked tendency, among some self-styled guardians of orthodoxy, to view the faith of these homosexuals as reducible to their eroticism—“He was a Catholic just because he was gay!” (There’s no corresponding attention to how heterosexual journeys into the Catholic fold have been equally sexually charged.)

The implication? Faith should be kept apart from the messy business of sexual desire. Insofar as one’s churchly experience is motivated by such desire, one needs purification. If one’s Christian faith can be explained in those terms—well, such an explanation goes to show the dubious nature of such “faith” to begin with. But religious and erotic motivations must be separate.

Sarah Coakley—an Anglican priest, a front-rank feminist theologian, and the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge—disagrees. For Coakley, Christian faith and theology are all about desire—not only the intertwining of human religious and sexual yearning, but also the divine desire that lures persons into transformative contemplation. Thus her ­projected four-volume venture in systematic theology is called On Desiring God, and its first installment is titled God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity.’

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