A Critical Review of Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013, xxi + 365pp. (link to purchase).
Sarah Coakley’s work is a quite exciting rendition of both what it means to do theology and reflection upon the nature of the Trinity. As the first in a planned 4-volume series of systematics, broadly titled “On Desiring God,” the project remains incomplete, but Coakley’s work in this first volume already intends to promise a momentous shift in the conception of what modern systematic theology should be all about. This relatively new method, dubbed théologie totale, seeks to recognize the multifaceted layers of theology and to uncover both surprising findings from new procedures of historical/social analysis and creative constructions of doctrine for the modern age. While her written results are not always as clear as one would hope considering her intention to shift the whole discipline, the result is nonetheless the beginning of much anticipation for the completion of her project in the upcoming years.
The first third of the book is largely devoted to questions of method. Her conception of the particularity of the modern situation compels her to reimagine the task of theology. She writes, “if necessary, one must start from a new perspective if this is the best way to recapture the contemporary imagination for Christ, or to re-invite reflection on the perennial mysteries of the gospel” (p. 41). While such a correlation between the contemporary situation and the theological task is as old as the gospel itself, Coakley’s proposal for a théologie totale is certainly new as a method for doing systematic theology. Her approach promises to take into consideration the multi-layered nature of Christian belief and practice, wherein approved doctrine is not limited only to its official creedal expression, but is lived out politically, ecclesially, and culturally. In short, her conception of theology is one in which the theologian’s task is not to propose monolithic doctrines, but is rather part of the whole Christian quest for God. It is theology in via. Coakley is cognizant of the main modern criticisms of systematic theology, namely, its supposed totalizing, hegemonic, and patriarchal nature. Attuned to a théologie totale, and a stress upon the necessity of prayer, Coakley aims to ward off these anxieties while offering her own constructive formulations of the Trinity.
Coakley’s Trinitarian starting point is Romans 8 and Paul’s discussion of the Spirit praying within the believer. Naming this model an “incorporative Trinity,” Coakley weaves together biblical exegesis, and the experience of the contemplative is given primacy. In contemplation, Coakley argues, the Christian is aware of the activity of the Spirit in incorporating the believer into the life of God, reordering their passions and desires along the way. It is here that Coakley wedges the issues of sexuality and gender. While only teased out in-depth toward the end of the book, from the beginning Coakley is fond of noting that the threeness of the Trinity subverts our notions of binary gender; her remarks are “a theory about gender’s mysterious and plastic openness to divine transformation.” Gender, like desire more fundamentally, is to be reworked through the Spirit – yet the exact outcome of such reordering of desire remains ambiguous, though perhaps this is more of a note about the freedom of the Spirit to work as it wills than a fault of Coakley’s own argument. An odd silence remains, however.
In her chapter on the patristic development of the Trinity, she is quick to point out that the incorporative Trinity model is present alongside more linear models (the “textbook” version as she puts it) of the Trinity in church history. She recognizes that groups like the Montanists who placed a great emphasis on the Spirit, were always in danger from suppression by the evolving, yet more hierarchal-ordered church. Giving free rein to the Spirit, then, threatened the order of official doctrine and church unity – at least from the perspective of the Church authorities.
Yet Coakley is undeterred. She argues that “there is something, admittedly obscure, about the sustained activity of prayer that makes one want to claim that it is personally and divinely activated from within, and yet that that activation (the Spirit) is not quite reducible to that from which it flows (the Father)” (p. 112). While Coakley is intent to qualify her statements as not merely based upon subjective experiences in prayer, there remains the worry that Coakley has not adequately given explanation to the type of prayer she has in mind. What exactly is contemplative prayer for Coakley? What does it entail the believer do? Does evert contemplative have this same success in recognizing the Trinity? While generally consistent, these types of foundations seem missing given the gravity of prayer for her conception of the Trinity. If the details are a bit foggy at times, Coakley tries to make up for this by illustrating its effects – namely, incorporation into the Trinitarian life of God and conformation to Christ by the Spirit.
Perhaps the two most unique chapters, at least for systematicians, follow her methodological and patristic reflections. Through these two analyses, Coakley aims to show that “doctrine always has an imbedded texture, a set of subliminal cultural and societal associations and evocations, as well as its ‘plain’ meaning.” She enters into a detailed notebook of her own fieldwork examining the character of imbedded theology by spending time at a sectarian charismatic church and a spirit-friendly Anglican church. In keeping with her théologie totale method, Coakley understands fieldwork to be part of discerning the layered nature of Christian belief as it is found in local congregations. Her work yields insight on the differences in Trinitarian practice between ‘sect’ and ‘church’ type communities, but paints an admittedly more complex picture of Trinitarian implications. Moving toward a lengthy chapter on the history of visual representations of the Trinity, Coakley argues for the need to keep open imaginative possibilities. Christian art, she notes, is not merely an illustration of already settled truths. On the contrary, it has its own role in adding content to the Church’s theological reflection. While she is not claiming to uncover the entire context of her selections, Coakley’s focus on art is at times quite illuminating, especially for the theologian unexposed to the levels of a théologie totale.
Concluding with more direct reflections on a constructive rendition of the Trinity, Coakley highlights the yearning within God as the foundation for human desire and yearning. In the Trinity, divine desire gives rise to the Trinitarian persons through a sort of reflexive sourcing such that the Father as source is only confirmed by the Son and Spirit, therefore constituting, in a sense, the Father’s identity. She adds a few remarks to the filioque controversy, claiming that both sides of the argument get it wrong because the debate is presupposed upon the Spirit being an excess (rather unnecessary to the other two persons) rather than constitutive of the Trinity itself as Coakley has attempted to argue throughout. Divine desire, the source of human longings, becomes the starting point both for her systematic project and the human quest for God itself.
Overall, Coakley’s work is extraordinarily interesting, both for its written style and method. While readers of systematic theologies might normally expect long, detailed analysis of philosophical language or step by step rationalistic deductions so as to get an accurate presentation of doctrine, Coakley’s work does not function quite the same way. Her book is more of an exploration into the nature of Trinitarian belief, its imbedded structure in human life, rather than a dogmatic formulation and development of the doctrine itself. Apart from the somewhat worrisome lack of precision in describing the process of incorporative prayer, or the results of this new life in God as Trinity (its gender bending results, for example), any reader will benefit from her analysis of the Trinity. Her call for a shift in method ought to give rise to eager anticipations for how a théologie totale impacts her discussion of the other theological categories as her systematic project is completed in the coming years.