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God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’
by sarah coakley
cambridge, 384 pages, $29.99

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.’

Coakley wants to practice a théo­logie totale in which doctrines of humanity, redemption, and sacraments can’t be thought about apart from matters of race, gender, sex, and polis. She would probably agree with Rebecca West that “there’s no such thing as an unmixed motive,” but not in a pejorative sense: All our “religious” motives are mixed.

And that’s a good thing. In owning up to that reality, we are ushered into a confrontation with our sexuality that must be sustained if we are ever to learn how to pray rightly and speak truthfully about God. ­Coakley’s aim in her first volume is to show the “entanglement” of the doctrine of the Trinity, both in its initial development and in its contemporary form, with sexuality and spirituality. The resulting book moves from close readings of patristic texts to recent feminist theology to sociological fieldwork in charismatic parishes to art history and iconography. The effect can be dizzying, but it’s not gratuitous: The aim is to demonstrate that attending to gender and sexual desire in ­contemplative prayer is in­tegral to engaging God as Trinity.

Coakley does not deconstruct the patristic heritage wholesale. Nor does she suppose that it can be reduced to “bids for power . . . or sociological forces, or manifestations of repressed sexuality, or devious attempts to occlude the voices of the oppressed.” Rather, she views the early ­trinitarian discussions as already enmeshed in their authors’ ascetic pursuits and treatments of prayer and purgation, and in their complex (often unresolved) conversations about how the language used about God relates to his (gendered) creaturely analogues. Discovering why and how this entanglement existed then should better position theologians to nourish a similarly productive entanglement now.

Coakley begins with the practice of contemplative prayer and certain kinds of wordless spirituality (such as charismatic tongues-speaking) as experiences that destabilize and decenter their practitioners so that they are brought face to face with their desire, unable to repress it any longer. “The contemplative task,” she writes, “which rightly sustains systematics, is itself a progressive modulator and refiner of human desire: in its naked longing for God, it lays out all its other desires—conscious and unconscious—and places them, over time, into the crucible of divine desire.”

Coakley links this experience with early Church doctrines of the Holy Spirit, who moves believers to such wordless encounters with the divine. The Spirit, she argues, breaks open our inherited notions of hierarchy that we project onto the Godhead. The Spirit disrupts these notions, supplying a profusion of metaphorical names of God that prevents any one name—such as “Father”—from becoming all-determining. This “breaking” of language is inextricably tied to the laying bare of our own desire. In the end, our naming of God and our confrontation with our own disordered loves, as these loves find expression in our social hierarchies, are one irreducible movement or action. Participating in the Spirit’s groanings, we are taught what it means—and what it doesn’t mean—to name God the Father as “Father” and the Son, “Son.” And we are taught to reject the ideal of easy self-understanding and self-mastery as a Pelagian pipedream.

Following this train of thought, Coakley suggests that early in the patristic era, during the reception of Nicene trinitarian theology, this elemental encounter with the Spirit—with its “intensification of erotic power and a problematic entanglement of human spiritual and sexual desires”—led doctrinal gatekeepers to mistrust it, and, ultimately, to ­corral it.

In the process, a doctrine of the Trinity shaped by Paul—in which the Spirit’s “wordless groans” catch believers up into the life of God—was replaced with a “linear,” Johannine model, in which the Spirit “becomes the secondary purveyor” of the already-complete relationship of ­Father-Son to the Church. This ­dyadic conception of God, too little chastened by the Spirit’s purgative work, has proved susceptible, over and over again in the Church’s life, to idolatrous, hierarchical interpretations by its male adherents. The divine name “Father” has been filled with patriarchal content, rather than being recognized for the sui generis reality that it must be if it is truly divine.

So, then, Paul’s “incorporative” model of the Trinity must be recovered today. Such contemplative decentering has the potential to enable the Church to think more critically and constructively about some of the urgent matters of our time. In the face of “heterosexual” and “homosexual” desire, in the face of ongoing troubles surrounding celibacy and sexual abuse, the Church may be enabled to arrive at “an expanded view of the self rooted in the trinitarian God.” And we (feminists especially, ­Coakley hopes) may be further strengthened for “the ongoing, elusive quest for ‘equality’ and the simultaneous ­acknowledgement of ‘difference.’”

There’s a lot to argue with in this book. In particular, I take issue with Coakley’s rejection of Johannine trinitarianism in favor of an allegedly incompatible Pauline theology. I would have also liked to see Coakley acknow­ledging the efforts of others covering the same ground but arriving at different conclusions. Stephen Holmes, for instance, a British systematic theologian, has been pursuing a similar (albeit more Augustinian than Nyssan) theme—that all human desire, gay, straight, and everything in between, is compromised—but he has ended by reaffirming some traditional convictions (for instance, that the scriptural naming of God as Father remains normative; that the definition of marriage is necessarily male and female).

Mike Higton at Durham University has made a parallel point in his discussions of recent bishops’ statements in the Church of England regarding so-called “equal marriage.” Higton points out that a radical querying of the meaning of sex and gender as Coakley has done may lead to a rejection of some central parts of the tradition (as it has in his own theological work), or it may lead instead to a more careful, more sophisticated articulation of what the tradition has consistently taught about, say, marriage. One doesn’t get the sense from Coakley’s book that she is aware of, or cares to discuss, the ways her project could wind up reinforcing—and deepening—traditional Christian accounts of sex, gender, and divine naming.

Mainly, however, I want to return to the conversation between my Catholic friends and me that I began with, because it’s in addressing such questions that Coakley’s most urgent contribution lies. As she has said more explicitly elsewhere (in a fine essay for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Religion and Ethics website), much of her current theological work has taken shape against the conversation in Western society about the meaning of sex and gender—and, more recently, the ­conversation regarding the practicability of celibacy and the status of same-sex partnerships.

Likewise, my fellow young theologians and I, in the discussion I described earlier, found ourselves grappling with the following basic question: How might we speak of our own sexualities, our erotic (in the root sense of that word—desiring) orientations, before God? And more concretely, how might we live with those orientations, embracing them with appropriate ascetic discipline, in the life of the Church?

To these questions, Coakley’s book says: The only way in which desire can be safely acknowledged and explored is if it is understood, most fundamentally, as desire for God and, just so, as capable of purification and elevation. Sex and gender, celibacy and ascesis, are for something—for teaching us that we can love and be loved by God. If not all of Coakley’s understanding of that theme proves defensible in the long term, her placing the theme on the table for reflection is reason enough to welcome this book.

Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.