Reading Sarah Coakley

One of the most significant books I’ve read recently (or just anytime, period) that has to do with gay Christian whatnot is Sarah Coakley’s new God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’. You can read a very short version of some of its main lines of argument here, and, if you’re interested, you can read my take on the book over at First Things for low price of $1.99 (or why not subscribe?)!

Joshua Gonnerman has already mentioned Coakley’s project here at SF, but I wanted to mention it one more time and draw your attention to a new review of it from Beth Felker Jones. I mention this because I think Felker Jones’ critique of Coakley’s book is especially relevant for the conversations we’re having here at SF.

First, here is Felker Jones’ summary of what Coakley is up to in the book:

If we are to think about what it might mean to understand humanity (and human desire) in the triune light (of divine desire) we will have to be clear that we do so not as imitators of God but as participants in the life of the Trinity…. Participation in divine desire is possible, for Coakley, “only in virtue of what one might call a posture of contemplative ‘effacement’” (23, see also 309).

In other words, we find our disordered desire laid bare and transfigured as we open it up to the fire of the Triune divine desire for us in, among other things, contemplative prayer. And part of this participation in divine desire means, according to Coakley, that our understandings of gender are disrupted and reconfigured. But it’s precisely at that point that Felker Jones questions Coakley’s argument:

Coakley argues that participation in divine desire transforms any theological account of gender and that redeemed gender becomes “redemptively labile—subject to endless reformulations” (59). The twoness of binary gender is “ambushed” (58) by the threeness of divine desire. Elsewhere, I’ve expressed discomfort with such an understanding of gender if the imagined transformation isn’t tethered to the goodness of creation and the goodness of real men and women here and now. Coakley builds more safeguards around her position in this book. Still, I continue to have differences with the way she conceptualizes gender.

Affirming that gender can be sanctified, Coakley allows that it may be not just “a locus of oppression” but also “the potential vehicle of embodied salvation” (54). I agree, but I still want a sustained account of continuity between creation and consummation. I don’t doubt that gender is “mysterious” and open to “divine transfiguration” (58), but Coakley’s account gives few particulars to help us imagine what that sanctified transfiguration might look like in the present community of the redeemed. Gender matters, in Coakley’s system, but she also insists that desire is a more “basic” and “fundamental” (52) category than gender. Are we meant to imagine human desire that is in no way sexed or gendered, and if so, how does such an account of desire continue to affirm the goodness of male and female bodies?

I’ve added the italics there to highlight what I think are the key questions. What Felker Jones finds missing in Coakley’s project is an account of how the redemption of male and female isn’t simply the cancelation or creative overcoming of bodily difference (and its meaning for marriage and celibacy) but rather the healing and remaking of that difference. If we want to talk about the transformation of gender, in other words, Felker Jones suggests that we must do so in terms of recreation and redemption (continuity) rather than unmaking and entirely new creation (discontinuity).

Here’s how she concludes:

As Coakley plays with analogues between divine difference and human gendered difference, we get a christological oddity. She writes that, in the incarnation, Jesus does not “re-establish” or “destroy” the difference between God and the world. So far, this is standard christological orthodoxy. Then, she suggests, “we might say that he ‘transgresses’ it in the Sprit, infusing the created world anew with divinity” (57). This is rather muddy Christology, and it doesn’t offer much in the way of practical advice for what it might mean for humans to “transgress” maleness and femaleness without reifying or destroying embodied difference. Perhaps, as with social Trinitarianism, we ought not engage in social Christology, at least not in terms of a gendered imitation of the incarnation, one which is, at best, difficult to practice and, at worst, a refusal of the created goodness of male and female bodies.

If you want to follow up on this point—that Christian theology needs to affirm the goodness of our creation as male and female and also to affirm that that goodness is not effaced or given up in the redemption Christ brings—I’d recommend reading all of Felker Jones’ review. And I’d also recommend reading SF contributor Christopher Roberts’ excellent Creation and Covenant: The Significance of Sexual Difference for the Moral Theology of Marriage.

One thought on “Reading Sarah Coakley

  1. Thanks for posting this. This book, and the discussions surrounding it, are exactly the type of conversations I think we need to have more of if we hope to unlock the reasons behind the Christian sexual codes.

    Out of the gate, though, I’m afraid I already have reservations for the way in which Coakley is presenting the sociological imprint of the Trinity. While I love her idea of discussing Trinitarian Sociology, as far as I can tell, she’s off in her genesis of the task: In Scripture, the female/feminine is modeled after the Son, not the Spirit. I’m uneasy about conclusions being drawn from metaphors that have been altered from the historic and Scriptural language.

    I look forward to my next break when I can dive into these!

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