After a lifetime of ground-breaking and ground-laying systematics and philosophical theology, Sarah Coakley returns to one of her earliest theological itches with the theological courage to write and publish on tabooed subjects—the messy entanglement of sexuality, gender, desire, the Spirit, and the trinity. The product, God, Sexuality, and the Self, opens her ambitious four-part systematic theology, titled On Desiring God. In following volumes, Coakley will address theological anthropology and race (vol 2, Knowing Darkly), the public realm and secular institutions of prisons and hospitals (vol 3, Punish and Heal), and Christology and eucharist (vol 4, Flesh and Blood). (As noted elsewhere, Sarah Coakley and Katherine Sonderegger are the first and only two female systematicians [that I am aware of] working on a multi-volume systematic theology. See my review of Sonderegger’s first volume here.)
While Coakley eschews an “excursus on method,” or what Jeffrey Stout belittles as “throat-clearing” (33), as the first volume of On Desiring God and a volume in its own right Coakley opens with theological prolegomena, or introductions on method. Coakley, however, draws a fine line between throat-clearing and what she has in mind, which is redirecting theological explorations with fresh imagination.
In the first two chapters, she redirects readers to look at overlooked sources, seemingly disparate things, and loosely connected strands with fresh and contemplative eyes. She calls such venture théologie totale (“total theology”), which is marked by a theology in via (“on the way”) and contemplative prayer. Such posture and movement allows—even privileges—prayer, aesthetics, and social sciences (cf. 88-92 for the nine hallmarks of théologie totale). Théologie totale calls strange bedfellows, such as sexuality and the trinity, as proper partners (pun intended). It is more than interdisciplinary work; it is an ambitious opening that makes the discipline of theology porous, even vulnerable, to interruptions.
What opens theology is not human work per se but human submission to God in contemplative prayer. Such submission opens the pray-er radically humble before the God who interrupts. Without this opening, this humble welcome, theology is just another human enterprise. For theology to be theological, God must be able to interrupt all levels of theology, hence théologie totale.
In such théologie totale spirit, Coakley brings together gender, sexuality, desire, and the trinity in all their messiness. Coakley starts that desire—Eros—is properly divine, and that human desires are secondary to divine desire. Human desires can go awry—desiring mastery in sex and gender ordering, for example. So, human desires must undergo the crucible of divine desire in contemplative prayer—when the Spirit interrupts the pray-er. Making desire fundamental puts sex, sexuality, and gender under theological light. Sexual desire is refined under desire for God, and the gender-binary—what contemporary gender theorists bemoan and conservatives zealously protect—is exposed to redemptive light. In radical divine desire, the Spirit enlivens hearts Godward to experience Sonship with the Father. In other words, the Spirit catches humans up to trinitarian life—threeness. This threeness interrupts the fallen twoness of gender-binary.
Coakley says so much more. Her analysis of three major critiques against systematic theology (being hubristic, oppressive, and male-center) and her responses thereof are piercing. Her exegesis of Romans 8 as a critical proto-trinitarian text that privileges the Spirit—the “incorporative” model of the trinity—and of Gregory of Nyssa and Origen are illuminating. Her chapter on icons and the disappearance of the Spirit is revealing. And her overall fervent defense of the Spirit’s place and primacy is fresh and inviting.
God, Sexuality, and the Self is a rich and thick read. Nearly every chapter (except four) is a storehouse of theological tour de force. She says it is written for the wider public, but I think she has entry or intermediate level seminarians in mind. Personally, I found her arguments cogent, but only with some effort. The places I’ve stumbled most, however, were due to the oddity of such an argument: who thinks that sexual desire is refracted desire for God that privileges the Spirit in the Trinity? But perhaps that is precisely why her work is so important—it’s odd but revealing.
I highly recommend listening to her yourself, here.