Sarah Coakley on desire

God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’, the long-awaited first volume of Sarah Coakley’s theologie totale was finally published last month, and my copy has arrived. Coakley’s broad project is to find resources in the ascetic traditions of Christianity to help to deal with contemporary concerns about sex and gender. In her Prelude, she writes about the understanding of desire in contemporary culture and the theological tradition; I include some selections, which I hope will be of interest to our readers:

When people talk about ‘sex’ and ‘sexuality’ today, they often presume that the first and obvious point of reference is sexual intercourse or other genital acts. … The presumption, then, is that physiological desires and urges are basic and fundamental in the sexual realm; and to this is often added a second presumption: that unsatisfied (physical) sexual desire is a necessarily harmful and ‘unnatural’ state. From such a perspective, priestly or monastic celibacy is indeed monstrous – a veritable charade, necessarily masking subterfuge and illicit sexual activity. A popularized form of Freudianism is often invoked in support of this latter view about the ‘impossibility’ of celibacy.

[E]arly Christianity – at least those strands of it heavily influenced by forms of Platonism – was enormously drawn to the Symposium‘s vision of ‘desire’; and from the second and third century onward it began to discourse on this matter intensively. Although it could find little or nothing in Jesus’ teaching about eros as such, it did not read his views on love (agape) as in any way disjunctive from the Platonic tradition of eros. And what it did inherit from Jewish scripture, and then from the earliest rabbinic exegesis of Jewish scripture, was a fascination with the symbol of sexual union as a ‘type’ – indeed, in the Song of Songs the highest type – of God’s relation to Israel or Church.

It is the central project of this systematic theology as a whole to give new coinage to this tradition of Christian Platonism, but to re-evaluate it and re-express it in ways that meet and answer some of the most difficult challenges that contemporary culture presents to the churches. Not the least of these challenges is the demonstration of the way in which the wisdom of this tradition is as applicable to those who are sexually active as to those who are not – whether ‘heterosexual’ or ‘homosexual.’ There is no denying, then, that such a re-expression of this tradition is required, even as it raises its own implicit critique of a contemporary erotic malaise.

First, Freud must be – as it were – turned on his head. It is not that physical ‘sex’ is basic and ‘God’ ephemeral; rather, it is God who is basic, and ‘desire’ the precious clue that ever tugs at the heart, reminding the human soul – however dimly – of its created source. Hence, in a sense that will be parsed more precisely as the book unfolds, desire is more fundamental than ‘sex’. It is more fundamental, ultimately, because desire is an ontological category belonging primarily to God, and only secondarily to humans as a token of their createdness ‘in the image’. But in God, ‘desire’ of course signifies no lack – as it manifestly does in humans. Rather, it connotes that plenitude of longing love that God has for God’s own creation and for its full and ecstatic participation in the divine, trinitarian, life.

[T]he immense cultural anxiety that, in a secular society, is now accorded to ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ (and to their contested relations) can here be negotiated in a different, theological light. Not that ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ do not matter; on the contrary, the profound difference that incarnation makes to Christian Platonism will prove that they do indeed so ‘matter’, and deeply so. But it is not in the way that contemporary secular gender theory would (almost obsessively) have it. Such an obsession, I dare to suggest, resides in the lack of God as a final point of reference. As for ‘orientation’, too (another modern verbal invention): what orientation could be more important than the orientation to God, to divine desire? That is why this particular book will not divert to a detailed discussion of the so-called ‘problem’ of ‘homosexuality’. For it is concerned with a deeper, and more primary, question: that of putting desire for God above all other desires, and with judging human desires only in that light. Ascetic transformation, ascetic fidelity: these are the goals which so fatally escape the notice of a culture bent either on pleasure or on moral condemnation. And to escape between the horns of that false dilemma is necessarily a spiritual and bodily task, involving great patience and commitment. From ‘sexuality’ and the ‘self’ to participation in the trinitarian God: this way lies a long haul of erotic purgation, but its goal is one of infinite delight.

6 thoughts on “Sarah Coakley on desire

  1. Thanks for posting this. This point about desire being more fundamental than sex is really important. If celibacy can be lived as a fulfilling and life-giving choice, than it must be that the erotic desires of the human person can find their consummation in something other than sex. This has certainly been the experience of millions of people through history in a wide variety of cultures and religious traditions. It has certainly been true in my own life. Celibacy lived well involves and intimate, erotic relationship with God and an all-embracing, non-exclusive (but not cold and abstract) love for others. Coakley’s point about human desire being a reflection of divine desire is also interesting. From a philosophical standpoint, it is very difficult to speak of God as having desires, since, being perfect and eternal it would seem that he is also impassible. However, anyone I have ever spoken to who has seriously pursued a relationship with God agrees that yes, God loves passionately. I suppose, as Coakley says, that this desire implies no lack in God, and yet I think we can only understand this reality through mytho-poeic imagery. There are perhaps better images out there, but I find very few more compelling than Plato’s description of Eros as a poor god, begging for love.

    • God has no desires? I think most all religious traditions, and those similar to your own, seem to have common thread- The Soul is in love with God, and God in love with the Soul.

  2. Pingback: Reading Sarah Coakley | Spiritual Friendship

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