(In Criterion 47:1 (2009), 2-11. Access online here.)
Call it God, the Universe or the Mystery of Life but I’m not the only one who experiences the wonder of meeting just the right people at just the right time. All those posts about spirituality, sexuality, psychology, love and marriage … enter Sarah Coakley. Sarah has a theology chair at Cambridge and writes integrating interests in systematics, postmodern hermeneutics, spirituality, contemplation, mysticism, feminism, anglicanism (she’s a priest), Depth Psychology, the body and sexuality, biology, ecology, and any other thing I could possibly desire in reddress theology! She has a book in the pipeline called The New Asceticism (first promised late 2010, now early 2012 – we should pray for her!)
In this essay Coakley outlines how combining investigations into postmodern gender issues and trinitarian systematic theology forges some important pathways into knowing God.
“It is the very threeness of God… transformatively met in the Spirit, which gives the key to a view of gender that is appropriately founded in bodily practices of prayer… [Giving rise to] … an understanding of theology in progressive transformation… and one founded not in any secular rationality or theory of selfhood, but in a spiritual practice of paying attention that mysteriously challenges and expands the range of rationality, and simultaneously darkens and breaks one’s hold on previous certainties.”
She addresses three typically postmodern suspicions about the meta-narrative approach of systematic theology, in which she identifies entangled objections about power, knowledge and gender. The first of these is an onto-theological suspicion that systematics too readily turns theology into idolatry. The second comes from liberation critiques which identify the tendencies for overarching systems to give refuge to controlling and oppressive uses of power. Third, French post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory identifies systematic thinking as intrinsically phallocentric.
Coakley suggests that a contemplative approach to systematics is able to address each of these difficulties in it’s capacity to transform (redeem) ‘desire’. Desire to control for the sake of managing one’s deepest fears, gives way to a Desire to be in free relationship to others. The refining fire is of course, the “naked longing for God” which the “desiring trinitarian God” implants in us. It is through contemplative prayer that we most fully encounter the Triune God whom Jesus Christ revealed. She argues (and I agree) that Human Spiritual Desire is more fundamental than sexual desire, lust for political control, love of money, and so on. By addressing the human spirit’s desire for the divine (think in Jungian categories here) theology has the capacity to look at those other desires from a different angle.
“The very act of contemplation – repeated, lived, embodied, suffered – is an act that, by grace, and over time, precisely inculcates mental patterns of un-mastery, welcomes the dark realm of the unconscious, opens up a radical attention to the other, and instigates an acute awareness of the messy entanglement of sexual desires and desire for God.”
Sarah Coakley’s writing is so erudite and beautiful that one finds oneself considering really complex and contentious concepts before you even notice you’ve traversed into stormy waters. It’s worth taking a look at this article for her trinitarian conceptualizations as much as for her theological foundations for the sex debates raging in the Church. Do yourself a favour… [read the article]