Sarah Coakley is a theologian and philosopher of religion who is widely known for her writings on prayer, gender, and systematic theology. Her work argues that the rational exercise of theology must not be severed from the embodied practice of theology. In Part I of this interview, published last week, Coakley shares how prayer intersects with her work as a scholar and a priest and makes a case asceticism in the everyday prayer life of Christians. And here in Part II, she discusses the erotic nature of prayer, her Gifford Lectures, and how silent prayer is most meaningful in community.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Most Christians don’t normally think of prayer in the realm of the erotic, but how and why could prayer reorder the economy of sexual desire so that its orientation is finally ordered to God? And how might this fit in with ideas of chastity or celibacy?
Sarah Coakley (SC): Before I answer your question, there is one hump that we have to get over. You say that we don’t normally think of our prayers as having to do with the “erotic.” I think that prayer has everything to do with the erotic, particularly in its widest sense.
This is one of the big surprises when we pray silently—and when I say “pray silently,” I just mean being willing to be there without filling the space with all our good and pious thoughts. I’m really talking about a gentle longing for God in prayer, with the will as the central focus of the prayer. It goes something like, “My God, I want you, and nothing more above you,” except that one doesn’t really say that, but that’s the sensibility of it. And because distractions are always there, it’s sometimes useful to use a word or phrase (such as Jesus or a short psalm verse) just to keep the mind from going in a different direction. It’s a very simple thing. You find it discussed in early monasticism, such as in John Cassian’s discussion with Abba Isaac on prayer, or in later medieval manuals, such as the Cloud of Unknowing.
Now, you can’t do that sort of simple prayer daily for very long without sexual stuff just flooding in, either in the time of prayer itself or outside of it. Why? If you want to talk about that secularly, you’ll say, “Well, of course. This is a state of disassociation, and the unconscious is welling up.” But if you want to put it more theologically, you say, “Yes, that’s happening, and there’s a reason for it: God wants us whole.” God wants us. God doesn’t want a polite version of us but all our desires laid out for inspection and transformation.
But what if you discover through such a prayer of vulnerability, perhaps for the first time, that your sexual desires are not straight? I happen to believe—and I know this belief is not held by all Christians—that for whatever reason some of us are born not heterosexual. I’ve listened to too many students, too many people whom I respect spiritually, who have spoken very openly to me about this to disbelieve it or to believe that homosexuality can be cured. They tell me that they’ve known from age five, six, or earlier that their primary attraction are to the same sex and that they cannot be wrenched from themselves into something that they’re not. And other people live in a really gray area of attraction to both sexes. I cannot believe that God wants us to be anything other than who we are—or, rather, I believe that God wants us to be more truly who we are than we can even ask or imagine.
Still, realizing that one’s sexual desires are not straight can get a person very worried. You may want to sort it out, putting everything back into its genie box; or conversely, you can say, “What if the primary thing that God wants of us is honesty and a complete willingness to believe that whatever God has created is good?” Saying those things allows for the possibility that the one thing we all have in common is longing for God and the possibility that our particular being, which is being continually created, is somehow in God’s providence and that it is going to be ultimately and intensely ordered toward God’s love and plans for us. Once you get that to the front of your list, boxing people up into categories seems a very strange, modern obsession. Indeed, we only invented the category of homosexuality in the modern period.
A critic might say here, “Are you just being liberal”—in a negative sense of that word—“and telling people to let it all hang out, letting them do what they like?” My answer is absolutely not. The whole point about this kind of ascetical exercise of prayer and transformation is that it absolutely refuses the modern disjunction between repression and libertinism. It says, “I don’t want either of those. God won’t let me repress in this prayer; and libertinism is also out because God is drawing me to God’s self in such a way that that would be a very serious and harmful distraction from the unity and integrity of soul and body to which I’m being drawn.”
Those individuals who make a vow of celibacy—monks, Catholic priests, or anyone called to this vocation—are making a public, institutional kind of commitment to this process of ascetic transformation. They are saying, “I am going to give this my complete commitment.” For the rest of us who are not called to celibacy, God intends us to live in fruitful and transforming, though often difficult, faithful relationships with one another. And I believe that lifelong vows of stability and faithfulness, whether to a monastic community or to a partner, are ultimately the sort of royal road to which Christ calls us, whether we are straight or gay.
TOJ: In your Gifford Lectures from earlier this year, you argue for forms of “rational,” sacrificial altruism that are evident in “supernormal” saints, a grace that speaks to a “dispossession to the Spirit and in the imitation of Christ” yet has its roots in evolutionary biology. You seem to be pushing against the false dichotomy between science and theology.1 Is prayer a form of nature, grace, or a bridge between the two?
SC: Those are very probing questions and not easy to answer quickly. In the Gifford Lectures, I was initially concerned with discussing the latest developments on cooperation in evolutionary theory and with critiquing the popular Dawkinsian idea of primary and pervasive selfishness. That was my main kickoff point for a wider argument: I take the notion of rational sacrifice from Paul and give it new evolutionary valency. I’m not promoting bloody sacrifice, which the late antique world was very worried about, but laying out the idea that even in the pre-human evolutionary spectrum, we have very clear, mathematically demonstrable evidence that the flourishing of species occurs only when a countervailing set of sacrificial or cooperative behaviors are made on behalf of the group by particular members. Indeed, a population that only has self-interested forms of behavior will eventually die.
In our time, we have lived through bizarre manipulations of evolutionary evidence, with a heavy ideological overloading of this metaphor of selfishness. Of course, the idea of selfishness qua genetic material is either highly misleading, because genes don’t themselves have intentionality, or else tautological, because the genes that are the strongest are the ones that survive. But this emphasis on selfishness becomes very different if it insidiously recommends selfishness as a consistent human strategy. For we now know that the strongest bacteria, genes, amoebas, and viruses only survive because of cooperation—that’s how population balance can occur, how the overall group can flourish.
So how does human cooperation relate to prehuman forms of cooperation? In higher apes and dolphins and meerkats we see very elaborate forms of cooperation and so-called sacrificial behaviors by individuals on behalf of the group. There’s a kind of praeparatio in the prehuman. But humans are different in that we’ve developed forms of language so that these stories of cooperation can be told and reflected on, and thus this cooperation is intensified even beyond what would be regarded as a sort of higher form of selfishness. But at what point could we say that some manifestation of altruism is not simply a clever bit of ratiocination about what would work out best for our family, group, or species sometime later down the road? When does human altruism cease to be a cunning form of higher selfishness and become a sort of ecstasy or excess of response to something higher?
This is where the argument in my Gifford Lectures peaks—in examining individuals who engage in what we might call supernormal forms of altruism, I spell out how divinity undergirds the whole of evolution, how evolution itself and its processes mirror the sacrifice of the cross and the participation of the Trinity. And this isn’t just a superficial overlay—it’s not that I’m imposing my own little vision on the material as a private whim. Rather, when the evolutionary manifestation of cooperation reaches the human realm, it can, under special conditions, create manifestations that mathematicians can’t figure out; there are excessive forms of supernormal altruism, and these seemingly only occur because of human religious convictions. As a theologian, I would say that these are instances of grace. But they are not the last gasps of the God of the gaps. They are not the lone areas where God is operating—God is operating in and undergirding the whole evolutionary spectrum.
TOJ: Would you say, then, that prayer is a kind of recognition on our part of this excess or ecstasy?
SC: Thank you for pushing me on that because I don’t think I address it in the Gifford Lectures. But yes, I would say prayer is partly that recognition of excess, though it may not be a conscious recognition. More significantly, though, it seems that the possibility for supernormality is born through submission to the Spirit. But notice that the Spirit isn’t pushing away our embodied, genetic inheritance but completing it—there is something in our genetic inheritance that is opened upward to this more excessive manifestation in Christ.
TOJ: What suggestions would you give regarding cultivating the practice of silent prayer, and what sources have particularly shaped your own experience?
SC: There is much to be learned from realizing that prayer is always implicitly communal; it is always done in and with Christ “where two or three are gathered in my name” (Matt. 18:20). For fifteen years I ran a silent prayer group at Harvard, and now I’m running another one at a theological college, Westcott House, in Cambridge. When I started this practice myself, I was doing it on my own. It was very lonely and quite frightening, but I found that there are plenty of good things that one can read if one feels drawn into this encounter. There are contemporary how-to manuals. There are books from the centering prayer movement that insightfully draw upon other resources, like the sayings of the early monks, though I have mixed feelings about the way these books are marketed. There are medieval authors who are both profound and practical—The Cloud of Unknowing is the supreme text here for beginners. But above all, there is John of the Cross, who in book one of Dark Night of the Soul explains that being moved into this road, this passive form of waiting on God, is the lot of virtually all serious Christians. The idea that this is elite stuff for the higher flights of saints is a very naughty imposition on what John said; that was the church trying to cordon contemplation off, realizing that it had explosive, transformative power. The democratization of this practice has been one of the great movements in the twentieth century, and I think it’s all the more necessary because we are so bombarded by intellectual and sensual material in our modern lives, in our privileged places, that we are suffering mental overload. We have so shut out the true God that even when we do pray, we pray to an idol we’ve created for ourselves.
So how do we set about undoing this? We can only do it by an intentional practice, which is often very disconcerting and quite frightening. And I’ve come to the view that it’s best if this practice is sustained with a group of trusting people, because then you can sort of hold each other in it. It’s just like a Quaker meeting, in some ways. But while you are reading some of the classics on this, every week you are being sustained and encouraged by others who are active in the same undertaking. That gives an anchor to your individual everyday practice. And that means that when you have a moment when you’re waiting in the bus queue or a traffic jam or you simply have ten minutes when there’s nothing else to do, instead of fantasizing about your next power move [laughs], you can move into this practice instead. And it’s cumulative—it is! Every time you’re doing it, you’re opening up to a divine propulsion.
1. Coakley, “Sacrifice Regained: Evolution, Cooperation and God” (Gifford Lectures Series 2012, University of Aberdeen, April 2012), http://www.abdn.ac.uk/gifford/about/.