God, Sexuality and the Self by Sarah Coakley (Review)

This is everything a work of theology should be and upon completing this book, Sarah Coakley has valued into my list of favorite theologians (yes, people like me have such lists). Granted, I have not read any of her other work, but I am looking forward to reading more. At the very least, I hope to read the rest of the volumes in this systematic theology when they are completed.

Is this a systematic theology? When I think of systematic theology books, I think of a glorified outline of all the major points of Christian faith, from God to angels to the Bible to end-times. Coakley’s book is about God, the Christian Trinitarian God to be precise, so it basically starts where you would expect a systematic theology to start. Yet it does not read like a systematic theology.

Its actually kind of fun and engaging.

I know, I know…systematic theologies CAN be engaging despite the stereotypes. What I appreciated about this book is Coakley wrote it for pastors and theologians. Thus, while it is profoundly deep, it is also engaging and well-written. This ties in with how she describes her purpose as what she calls theologie totale : a connecting of the rational (and usual) methods of theology with contemplative practice. True theology does not happen without contemplation:

“God’, by definition, cannot be an extra item in the universe (a very big one) to be known, and so controlled, by human intellect, will, or imagination. God is, rather, that without which there would be nothing at all; God is the source and sustainer of all being, and, as such, the dizzying mystery encountered in the act of contemplation as precisely the ‘blanking’ of the human ambition to knowledge, control, and mastery. To know God is unlike any other knowledge; indeed, it is more truly to be known, and so transformed” (44-45).

Further, she writes in such a way as to split the difference between two extremes. In contrast to a biblicist fundamentalism, she takes seriously the findings of sociology, psychology and especially movements in feminism. On the other hand, she recognizes where these fields may be deficient and where theology may have something fresh to say.

This is where one of the core points of the book can be found. She recognizes an entanglement between desire for God and sexual desire for other humans. Coakley argues that desire is more fundamental than sex. In this she says she is turning Freud on his head. Where Freud said our desires for God are actually sexual desires, Coakley argues our sexual desires point to a deeper desire for God.

Her argument developers over the course of seven chapters. The first two are mostly set up, as she recasts what systemic theology is and puts forth her plans for how she will do her work. The next three chapters look at desire from different angles. First she analyzes the patristics and praying in the Trinity, then she shares some findings form surveys with churchgoers in England and their prayer habits, finally she examines icons and Christian art. She wraps up the book with examinations of Augustine’s and Gregory of Nyssa’s writing on desire and of desire leading to spiritual growth into the mystical darkness (or light) beyond words.

There is so much more to be said, but one vital point to mention is in rethinking and reshaping our understanding of the Trinity, Coakley emphasizes the place of the Spirit. She shows how the Spirit is often demoted to third place, if the Spirit is mentioned at all. Often the Spirit just disappeared from portrayals of the Trinity in Christian art. Part of Coakley’s argument is if we reread the patristic writers and connect their ethical and practical writings on prayer and celibacy and such to their more theological writings we get a fuller picture of the Trinity. From this, our understanding of the Trinity shifts if we start with the Spirit praying in and through us (Romans 8).

In an exciting shift then, when discussing the procession of the Son and the Spirit from the Father and the whole filioque controversy, she imagines the equally true procession of the Father from the Spirit:

”What we discover in the adventure of prayer, in contrast to these other routes, is a gentle bu all-consuming Spirit-led procession into the glory of the Passion and Resurrection, a royal road to a ‘Fatherhood’ beyond patriarchalism. . . There can be in God’s Trinitarian ontology no Sonship which is not eternally ‘sourced’ by ‘Father’ in the Spirit” (332).

Overall, a smart and challenging read for any theologically minded folks. If you’re on the more conservative end, there is stuff in here to shake you up and make you question (or make you mad, I guess). To be fair, if you’re on the more liberal end, there is probably stuff in here to make you wonder too. Of course, in that I mean theologically conservative and liberal.

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