Sarah Coakley does some very interesting things in God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ , the first volume of a proposed four-volume systematics. She “risks” writing for a general Christian audience, and her readable, even entertaining book shows that it was worth the risk. She sets the development of Trinitarian theology in a thicker social, political, and even artistic cultural setting than is normally done, suggesting in the process that popular opinion (displayed, for instance, in paintings) did not necessarily keep up with orthodox dogma ( how , after all, do you paint homoousios?).

She approaches Trinitarian theology along a contemplative and ascetic path, and argues persuasively that in this she is following the footsteps of the fathers. More surprisingly, she links religious desire with sexual desire, and in this too she claims to be following Origen, Nyssa, Augustine, and Dionysus.

She thus formulates her response to feminist theology by saying that questions of sexual justice, “gender roles,” and sexual desire are inherent in Trinitarian theology, and, conversely, that questions surrounding sexual desire can only be put right as the Spirit disciplines our desires through prayer, contemplation, and meditation on Scripture. “God the ‘Father,’ in and through the Spirit, both stirs up, and progressively chastens and purges, the frailer and often misdirected desires of humans, and so forges them, by stages of sometimes painful growth, into the likeness of his Son” (6).

She comes finally to affirm a “trinitarian ontology of desire” focused in pneumatology. According to Coakley, “desire is an ontological category belonging primarily to God, and only secondarily to humans . . . . In God, ‘desire’ of course signifies no lack . . . [but] that plenitude of longing love that God has for God’s own creation and for its full and ecstatic participation in the divine, trinitarian, life” (10).

Along the way of this argument, she uncovers some very interesting details. Her chapter on Trinitarian iconography is splendid, alarming, and very funny. “Hunt the pigeon,” she says as she includes prints where the Spirit-bird is obscurely hidden. The three-faced, three-headed Trinities on 227-8 are bizarre, and she describes another painting (229) as showing the three enthroned persons united by “one pair of shared knees ” (227). Her exegesis of the Rublev Trinity makes sense of its mysterious power: “The highest figure in the circle . . . interestingly, is not allocated to the Father, but to the Son - who gestures toward the eucahristic dish as his own particular point of reference; but the inclination of the heads to the figure on the left still gently resummons the Eastern sense of the Father’s position as ‘source’ and ‘cause’ of the other two ‘persons,’ even as the circular movement to a large extent modifies this sense of hierarchy. Most striking of all, however, is the sense of inclusion into the divine circle: the viewer gradually grasps that the eucharistic elements are intended as a means of such incorporation into this divine circle of gentle movement and mutual submission” (255). In short: There is an open place at the table, inviting the viewer to the feast. William Blake’s Trinity sketch, where the stretched wings of the Spirit mimic the stretched arms of the dead but vital Son (256), and Marlene Scholz’s “Blessed Trinity” (259), are both arresting, profound in their simplicity.

Given all these interesting moves, it’s disappointing to find Coakley so exercised over the fact that she has to call God Father. She wants to, she really does, since she wants to speak with the tradition. And she works hard at it. She says, rightly, that the Trinity transforms our understanding of hierarchy. That “breaks” false patriarchalism. But she adds, again rightly, that its greater challenge is to the liberal who imagines she can “magick” hierarchy away altogether and thereby renegotiate God’s relation to the world. God is God, and “cannot be cut down to ontological size to fit a false feminist fear of divine transcendence.” We cannot get “powers and submissions right” by manipulating but only by the ” right primary submission to the Spirit” (322). This line of argument exemplifies Coakley’s ascetic “method,” demonstrating the disciplining of desires. I have no doubt that coming to conclusions like this was a painful process for her, and it took genuine courage for her to state it as strongly as she does.

Her feminist instincts make this very tough. Does this conclusion leave “everything as it is”? she wonders, and answers “Yes, but mostly No.” The Yes is obvious, the No she reaches through several avenues. First, the true meaning of “Father” is in the Trinity, not a projection from human fatherhood; second, this rigorous, even rigid, name should be allowed to jostle with the sort of “metaphorical profusion” one finds in Dionysus; third, this jostling helps loosen the grip of “Father,” and allows us to “follow Jesus into an exploration of the meaning of ‘Fatherhood’ beyond all human formulations” (326). Here, I think, her ascetic apophaticism gets in her way. Contemplation leads to a silence that is not submission but an “incubator for the strength and courage to resist.” In the silence of contemplation, “we learn to use ‘Father’ proprie , and only as ‘Father’ in Trinity (326). That means Father as “source . . . of infinite tenderness and joy.” So there is some sort of content to “Father,” but it is erased insofar as we transcend every human formulation. “Infinite tenderness and joy” is also human formulation, after all.

The problem is evident in her third thesis about apophaticism: Contemplation, she says, quoting Sebatian Moore, is “a love affair with a blank” (342). Isn’t a blank just thing one needs for projection ? And thatindicates that apophaticism can create the very problem it is designed to avoid: In stressing God’s transcendence of all human concepts, it turns God into an empty cipher to be filled at our pleasure.

Apophaticism without kataphaticism must lead to this dead end. Or, better put, apophaticism without a strong confidence in revelation .

Articles by Peter J. Leithart