I’m back


Post PhD life!

Well, it’s been a while – and in truth a long road – but I’m back to blog at reddresstheology!

My PhD thesis has been submitted (cue: crowd roar) and I have spare headspace for the first time in 18 months or so. I am now awaiting examination (which will take a couple of months) and getting on to spruking my services and superior Phd intelligence (cue: rolling of eyes)!

So, stay tuned for a return to regular posts from me as I get myself sorted into a new post-PhD life, full to overflowing with exciting adventures.

Oh, and just in case you’re curious as to what I ended up writing about, here is my final thesis abstract. If you find the academic writing incomprehensible you’ve just discovered why I needed to take a break from blogging while I got this thing out of the way!!

Saint Augustine, the founder of Western theological hermeneutics, declared the double-love command of God and neighbour-as-self to be the key to Christian theology (On Christian Doctrine). Love is touted as central to theology, but love has a fluid range of meanings and its expressions are enmeshed within contextually specific forms. How can such a slippery concept form a stable guide for Christian theology, particularly in contexts where the sociocultural forms of love are in transition? 

Transparent Glass Sphere

The key image of my theological hermeneutic is a sphere of open-space.

This thesis develops a theological hermeneutic for contexts of change utilising liminality theory from the discipline of anthropology. First, it outlines the challenges for theologians in these contexts, and second, it directs attention to the theological resources required to negotiate these contexts. Central to liminality theory is a movement of ‘open-space’—a chaotic but creative opportunity where stable sociality falls away in order to be transformed into a new sociality, fit to express the complex relationship between the individual and the universal. By negotiating the cultural open-space via a spiritual open-space of contemplative prayer—an embrace of apophatic strategies for knowing without form and for the refinement of human wisdom—the theologian is equipped with the resources required to love in liminality. This can be translated into a theological method such as Rowan Williams has proposed, for theology as a conversation, where dialectical propositions are held as ‘thresh-holds’ to be traversed into a ‘liminal’ way of knowing, instead of limit-situations that are roadblocks to ‘rational’ knowing. Sarah Coakley’s methodological privileging of contemplation for the transformation of desire is shown to match liminality’s capacity for the transformation of sociality. This ‘contemplative communitas’ affects both an objective and a subjective transformation of theological knowledge.

Re-examining Augustine’s theological hermeneutic of love with these resources in place, it is argued that if love is to be a guide

I was getting my first hair cut in 6 months when I received news that the thesis had safely reached the Research Office in Wagga Wagga!

I was getting my first hair cut in 6 months when I received news that the thesis had safely reached the Research Office in Wagga Wagga!

for theology in contexts of cultural change, the conception of love itself must fall into liminality and be re-formed in the crucible of personal spiritual encounter with God-who-is-love. What results is a theological hermeneutic that loves from God, through self, to neighbour in continuous, life-giving connection.





Sarah Coakley Colloquium

downloadable brochure here: Sarah Coakley Colloquim Sarah Coakley Colloquim






















10.30am – 11.00am:    morning tea

11.00am – 12.30pm:   Keynote Address by Sarah Coakley

12.30pm – 1.30pm:    lunch

1.30pm – 2.30pm:      Benjamin Myers

2.30pm – 2.45pm:      afternoon tea

2.45pm – 3.45pm:      Chris Hackett

3.45pm – 4.00pm:      break

4.00pm – 5.00pm:      Teresa Brown



Professor Sarah Coakley (Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity, University of Cambridge): “Rational Sacrifice: Possibility or Impossibility?”

In this keynote address Sarah Coakley considers the massive resistances that have accrued in the modern period, and especially in the post-WWII era, to the idea of sacrifice as rational, productive or redemptive. Exposing the paradoxes at the heart of Rene Girard’s famous critique of the destructive violence of sacrifice, she turns the philosophical and theological tables back on this thesis in order to argue once more for a cosmological vision of productive sacrifice, one now illuminated afresh by evolutionary theory and made the more urgent by the ecological crisis that threatens human flourishing.


Benjamin Myers (United Theological College, NSW):

“Exegetical Mysticism: Scripture and the Spiritual Senses”

Drawing on the work of Gregory of Nyssa, Sarah Coakley has developed a rigorous contemporary account of the patristic doctrine of the ‘spiritual senses’. According to this doctrine, the soul has its own senses corresponding to the five physical senses. In this paper I explore the roots of the spiritual senses tradition in the work of Origen. For Origen, the ‘senses’ refer not to a wordless or non-thematic mystical experience, but to the spiritual practice of scriptural interpretation. Origen uses extravagant sensuous language to describe the process by which the soul is drawn more deeply into the life of God through the reading of scriptural texts. Based on this analysis of Origen, I consider Coakley’s retrieval of the spiritual senses, and raise some questions about the relation in Coakley’s work between spirituality and scripture, mysticism and exegesis.


W. Chris Hackett (School of Philosophy, Australian Catholic University):

By the Renewing of your Minds: The Theologian’s Task between Contemplation and Concepts”

The passage from theôria to theory that defines philosophical thinking is fraught with difficulties and provides the itinerary and challenge for a ‘way of life’. In religious-philosophical thinking, the difficulty is made all the more acute.  How does the theologian—defined in the first place as the one who speaks to God—properly speak about God without constructing an idol out of his concepts? We will explore this question in light of Sarah Coakley’s recent work and with special reference to St Paul.


Teresa Brown (School of Theology, Australian Catholic University):

“Reframing Trinitarian Theology: Coakley’s Essay On the Trinity

In this paper we will explore the ways in which Sarah Coakley reframes and reorients key insights from the classical tradition of trinitarian theology to present a theology which speaks to the contemporary Christian, particularly from the perspective of feminist concerns. Focusing on the first volume of her théologie totale, entitled, God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’, we will critically examine her project in light of the pressing contemporary questions she addresses: How to speak of God and name God in a contemporary, feminist context, and how to live in the world in such a way that we image God the Trinity, in whom we ‘live and move and have our being’.

Prayer as Crucible by Sarah Coakley

Christian Century, March 2011

Sarah Coakley is an excellent writer, perhaps especially for an academic theologian!  She is clear, concise and somehow very direct: a ‘straight shooter’ we might say.  I always get the impression that whatever ends up on the page has been ruminating in her head for a long time – like a slow cooked roast, ready now to fall off the bone and melt in the mouth.

In this article for Christian Century magazine, she explains how her experience of contemplative prayer has transformed her understanding of theology.  In her first academic post Coakley started a program of transcendental meditation and quickly discovered the power of silence.  She then started a quest to understand what was happening to her in the silence through the wisdom of the Christian tradition in which she was academically trained as well as spirituality formed from childhood.

This is something similar to my own experience: the shock of discovering the transformative power of silence.  Of discovering reams of cognition beyond rationality and in particular the depths of knowledge we hold physically in our body.  Yes, I still feel a little self-conscious when I come out with statements like this: in particular my non-spiritual family members clearly think I’m on drugs!  But once you’ve experienced it there is no turning back.

“I hadn’t been going longer than about two months with this simple discipline of 20 minutes of silence in the morning and early evening when what I can only call a seismic shift of seemingly unspeakable proportions began to afflict me. Whatever was going on here was not only “transcendental” but severely real…
But I must not leave the impression that this adventure in prayer was all anxiety-making, although its initial impact on my sense of self as a young theologian was certainly that. Underneath was an extraordinary sense of spiritual and epistemic expansion —of being taken by the hand into a new world of glorious technicolor, in which all one’s desires were newly magnetized toward God, all beauty sharpened and intensified. Yet simultaneously all poverty, deprivation and injustice were equally and painfully impressed with new force on my consciousness…
Lest this seem like a claim to some special supernatural encounter, I hasten to add that the daily practice of silence itself was usually more like the tedious quotidian discipline of brushing one’s teeth than anything else. It was the effects outside prayer—including, of course, the effects on other normal Christian or academic duties (hearing the Word, participating in the sacraments, attending to students in difficulties, writing lectures and so on)—that were initially hard to quantify and yet palpably transforming of all my previous theological assumptions.  “

Coakley identifies three areas where her experience of silence has transformed her approach to theology.

First, Control and Loss of Control: ‘powers and submissions’.  For a feminist, power is a primary preoccupation, particularly personal power.  Is not this kind of submission to God a dangerous relinquishing of our individuality?  No, because this is prayer: the place where we become our best, most powerful selves.

“submission to God and silence before God—being unlike any other submission or any other silence— was that which empowered one to speak against injustice and abuse and was the ground of true freedom (in God) rather than its suppression.”

Second, Coakley discovered Sex, bodiliness and the Mystery of Desire in prayer.  I have been utterly surprised at the intense physicality of sitting still!  My personal meditation practices have veered more and more towards conscientious embodiment, particularly using breathing to refocus my attention on that abstract ‘space’ within me where my true and whole self encounters God.  This transition into the body, integrated with head and heart, was one I desperately needed to make, and for the first time I understand Jesus’ metaphor of being ‘born again’.  As for my concept of sexuality: it was blown out of the water!  Sarah’s description perfectly matches my own:

“No less disturbing than the loss of noetic control in prayer and all that followed from that was the arousal, intensification and reordering of desire that this praying engendered. Anyone who has spent more than a short time on her or his knees in silence will know of the almost farcical raid that the unconscious makes on us in the sexual arena in such prayer, as if this is a sort of joke that God has up God’s sleeve to ensure that “ourselves, our souls and bodies” are what we present to God and not some pious disembodied version of such. Our capacity as Christians to try to keep sex and God in different boxes is seemingly limitless, but the integrative force of silent prayer simply will not allow this, or not for very long.”

The third change Coakley identifies is particularly relevant to her vocation as philosophical theologian.  Rationality and its expansion: variations on post-foundationism.  In silence, we encounter an expanded experience of cognition.  Knowledge and ‘truth’ take new and varied forms and we realise that empirical knowledge is but one small aspect of the whole.  All I can say is, ‘Amen Sarah, amen!’

“In a period when there has been a remarkable set of attacks on classical foundationalism by both philosophers and theologians, I have again felt myself to be plowing a subtly different course as a result of the prayer perspective I have tried to outline above… My own response to this philosophical and theological crisis is one that seeks to analyze the dark testing of contemplation as precisely an epistemological challenge. In other words, I continue to reject another false modern disjunction—that between spirituality and philosophy. It is not that contemplation affords just another sectarian theological perspective, which one can take or leave as one wills. Rather, its painful and often dark expansion of consciousness, its integration of thought and affect and its ethical sensitizing to what is otherwise neglected (including, of course, the poor “who are always with us”) all demand that one give an account of how philosophy, and science and politics too, cannot ultimately afford to ignore the apprehensions that contemplation invites.”

You can access a copy of the whole article on the Christian Century website:  http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-03/prayer-crucible

Praying For England edited by Samuel Wells and Sarah Coakley

(London: Continuum, 2008)

What is it to be a christian priest in a secular society?  What do we do and why?  Is there still a public role for priests once religion has been privatized and marginalized?  These are the highly existential questions of this book and they feature prominently, and somewhat painfully, in my own life as mother-priest-daughter-sister-sociologist-writer-theologian-melbournian.  In the introduction Sarah Coakley describes this as a recovery of the ‘liminal sensibility’ of ministry.  “The representational ‘invisibility’ of priesthood in a secular society thus can, paradoxically, be its true strength” (p4).

The book includes chapters from Stephen Cherry on being the Representative God Person in a community tragedy; Peter Wilcox on the parallels between Priest and Footfall Fan; Samuel Wells on Godly Play; Edmund Newry on Presence in Funeral Ministry; Jessica Martin on paying Attention when life is hard (an incredibly moving chapter); Andrew Shanks on owning up to our past, present and future with honesty (fantastic!); Grace Davies on vicarious ‘debate’; and a final theological reflection from Rowan Williams (erudite as ever).

I am grateful for this book.  There are elements to it which have challenged me, because I don’t see myself being good at some of the public roles of  priestly ‘representation’ presented in some of these stories of ‘traditional’ parish roles.  And yet, if I translate the theological purpose or identity into the context of my own mixed-up set of relationships, that dissolve the boundaries between public and private, I’m very comfortable.  As a priest born into the evangelical family, I fear we reacted too severely to ‘ontological theories’ of ordination that we missed the basic Christian characteristics of incarnational living which has a particular expression in priesthood.  We embody the gospel of Christ for those with whom we cross paths, we live it not just teach it.

I think coming to terms with the embodied nature of priesthood has been a particular journey for me as a woman.  The more comfortable I have become with my own femininity, the less propositional my notions of priestly ministry have become and the more integrated with myself as a whole person.  This fits with my image of the womb as a definitional image for the feminine – drawing the world into ourselves to love and live from our inner place.

Jessica Martin writes about the struggle to hold onto her priestly vocation when most of life is absorbed with the trauma of loving a daughter suffering from drug addiction.  I wish more stories like this were told but instead we keep secrets and lose the benefit of the insights which struggle brings.  Priests are always human beings first, with responsibilities as humans and christians, that must not be neglected if one’s priestly ministry is to be effective.  The damage done by priests who have refused to address their own inner needs or illnesses are too well known.  We need to shake the human ego out of the priesthood and let the Spirit of God preside.

Rowan Williams never ceases to inspire me and I was so humbled by his words about sacrifice being at the heart of the priestly life.  He also talks about wonderful God opportunities in liminality (which could have gone into my liminality essay if I’d had another month plus an extra 2,000 words to include a section on vocation):

“So where the priestly people are to be found is where there is a certain kind of space for human beings, a space that does not belong to any sub-section of the human race, but – because it is first the space cleared by God – is understood as a space where humanity as such is welcome.  It is not defended against anyone; it exists because of the defencelessness of God in the crucified Jesus.  Those who occupy it are not charged with marking it out as a territory sharply defined over against territory that is the property of others; they are to sustain it as a welcoming place.”

What a hard lesson this is – that just when we feel like life is not working properly and we don’t quite ‘fit’ – that is the very best opportunity to bear witness to Jesus, to love God, and to love our neighbour standing right there with us in the shit, whoever they turn out to be.

This book has helped me clarify the purpose, plans and passions of the reddresstheology project (not just the blog – the whole ‘ministry’ of theology as spiritual exercise and spiritual gift to the church).  I have no desire to be an academic, I’m a priest.  My concern is for the spiritual and wholistic growth of individuals and the church.  My passion is to see people come alive with the spirit of Christ at work within them.  That’s good to know about myself:  I write to move people in the depths of their being and hope that God will use that to draw them towards Godself.

‘Rethinking sex and the church’ by Sarah Coakley


Musing with a friend recently about the dearth of spirituality encountered in our interactions with institutional church, it struck me that if the Church is married to Christ, it has become a Sexless Marriage.  I’m referring of course to Paul’s analogy in Ephesians 5 about the relationship between Jesus and the community of believers forged in His name, but it’s not the only time marriage is used to describe the relationship between God and God’s People.  Hosea is a diatribe against unfaithful Israel depicted as an unfaithful and immoral wife.  Song of Songs is often seen to be analogous to God’s relationship with God’s people – though it need not be to have a valid place within the canon in my opinion!

‘Rethinking sex and the church’ is a theological essay by Coakley addressing some of the categorical errors we make when it comes to discuss the incredibly sensitive differences of ‘opinion’ about sex in the Church.  Her arguments under gird my own view that the anglican church will not be able to constructively address the question of homosexual faithfulness until it addresses the de-sexed state of our spirituality and theology.  We have ‘disembodied’ our faith and lost any knowledge of what it is to be a whole, sexual person in relation to ourselves, to others and to God.  This is a spiritual problem, not just a moral one.  There is so very little ‘mystical union’ going on between the bride and groom, which just makes things, well sexless: there is no seduction, no sensuality, (no sensibility,) no sacredness, no specialness and no regeneration.  What strikes me most about sex is its capacity (promise?) to create something new.  Two opposites create a third other: whether that other be a child, an orgasm or the inward sacred journey opening up for both partners.

Though I suspect Coakley would agree with me, her concern in this essay is the sex debates in the roman catholic and anglican churches.  Whilst we are disconnected from the interconnectedness of human spirituality and sexuality, any conversation about sexual conduct is going to be reduced to moralistic rationalisms expressed in sound-bite propaganda between warring factions.  The suggestion that we can ‘debate’ sexuality has long made me mad!

There are several ‘worldly’ presuppositions  about eroticism which the church has integrated unexamined.  Notable Christian Saints of the past have found spiritual ecstasy in celibacy but we now tend to assume that life without explicit sexual activity is intrinsically impossible.  Coakley quotes David Brooks as saying (in 2003) that “our age is in a crisis – not so much of homosexuality – but more generally of erotic faithfulness.”  The disintegration of marriage which has produced children has far more concerning social consequences than gay relationships, yet divorce not longer receives moralizing condemnation.  Being married is by no means a guarantee of fulfilling and faithful sexual activity.

Coakley goes on to make a really interesting clarification about Freud’s mature understanding of ‘eros’ (sexual desire) and the potential for positive redirection.  It seems that there is a difference between actual Freud and pseudo-Freud of pop culture.  She argues that “the concept of ‘sublimination’ that started in Freud’s early work as related to mere biological drive, has now become [in his later work] a theory of a positive, and seemingly non-repressive, ‘rechannelling’ of psychic energy.

She then goes on to the Christian witness of Gregory of Nyssa, 4th century Cappadocian Church Father (younger brother of Basil of Caesarea).  Gregory was married, but he wrote in praise of celebacy inspired by the experience of Basil.  In both cases, he saw that the ‘stream of desire’ was equally channelled into spirituality.  Sexual Desire, guided by the Spirit in contemplation, flows into Spiritual Desire.  The sparkling stream of eroticism gains pace and volume as it rushes towards the glistening ocean of Divine Love.  Gregory “sees good, spiritually-productive, marriage as almost on a par with celibacy given its equal potential capacity, when desire is rightly ‘aimed’, to bear the fruits of ‘service’ to others, especially the poor.

Coakley’s conclusion in relation to the so-called ‘anglican crisis about homosexuality’ is that we will get nowhere “unless we first, all of us, re-imagine theologically the whole project of our human sorting, taming, and purifying of desires within the crucible of divine desire.”  I would add to this that we will also get nowhere on the revival and renewal of our Church as a community of spiritually flourishing human beings, made alive through the most amazing person of Jesus Christ and the gift of Christ’s Spirit, unless we do the same.

‘Is there a Future for Gender and Theology?’ by Sarah Coakley

(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]