God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity”
by Sarah Coakley
(Cambridge University Press, 2013, 384 pages)
God, Sexuality, and the Self is an ambitious “new venture in systematic theology,” from Sarah Coakley, Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. It is the first of a projected four volume series on systematic theology. The project is meant to be a model of what Coakley calls théologie totale, which she defines as “a new form of systematic theology that attempts to incorporate insights from every level of society and to integrate intellectual, affective, and imaginative approaches to doctrine and practice” (352). In other words, systematic theology, which attempts to present a coherent account of the interrelation of Christian doctrines, must include more than the philosophical and exegetical tools that it traditionally employs. For Coakley, a holistic grasp of a particular doctrine, like the Trinity, must draw on the insights of aesthetics, fieldwork in the social sciences, and the ascetical discipline of contemplative prayer. She includes chapters on the importance of feminism and the social sciences for theology, the history of Trinitarian iconography, and the results of interviews from fieldwork regarding the prayer practices of charismatic Christians. Each of these veins offer something to our understanding of the Trinity that is not reducible to the other.
Coakley is convinced that this methodology is in keeping with the best of the patristic tradition. She draws heavily on the trinitarian thought of Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and Dionysius, drawing out the ways that their formulations of the Trinity are dependent on reflections on desire, sexuality, and prayer. Perhaps the fundamental conviction of the book is that, “Divine desire, and human desire for the divine, is more fundamental than gender” (342). Giving proper place to the activity of the Spirit and to the discipline of contemplation not only transforms our understanding of God’s nature, but it also transforms the way we understand the nature of our desire for the divine and all our subsequent desires and passions. To fully understand who we are and the nature of our desires, we must first grapple with our foundational desire for the divine. Contemporary theology needs to pick up on the patristic impulse to reflect on fundamental doctrines in a way that gives proper place to the affections and the imagination.
The variety and ingenuity of Coakley’s approach is exciting and original. It would be easy to underestimate just how bold such a project is. Coakley is not simply saying that theology needs to learn from other disciplines, but in fact, that all fields of study find their proper end in theology. This gives a primacy of place to theology among the disciplines that it has not been offered in within the modern university. What’s more, she does not simply theorize about possibilities in this direction, but engages in systematic reflection on God along the lines of her methodological proposal. In less capable hands, this might become a license to devalue the contributions of other disciplines or to commandeer their findings and force them into ready-made theological categories. Coakley is far too conscientious to take this path, and her synthesis shows a real openness on her part as a theologian to the methods and concerns of other disciplines and viewpoints. She is concerned that theology not simply retreat into a privatized language, and to that end, she attempts to write in a way that is accessible to informed readers who are not theologians. At times I wondered how effectively she accomplished this particular goal, but there is no doubt that she achieves a more straightforward and accessible result than most works of contemporary theology. On the whole, this is a beautifully executed (and sometimes humorous) first installment of what is sure to be groundbreaking series.