The Spirit Helps Us in Our Weakness: A Review of God, Sexuality, and the Self
Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity” (Cambridge, UK: University Press, 2013).
In her recently published prayer journal, the influential southern writer Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Dear Lord please make me want You. It would be the greatest bliss. . . . Oh Lord please make this dead desire living.” O’Connor’s prayer is the unsung chorus of Sarah Coakley’s important new work, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity.” Coakley seeks to systematize what O’Connor and so many others have prayed; her project is to recover a “vision of God’s Trinitarian nature as both the source and goal of human desires” (6).
Coakley’s method, which she calls theologie totale, draws from a “much wider range of evidences than is normally employed” (26). She lays out her reasons for working, as a theologian, with feminism and the social sciences and then recommends an “incorporative,” “prayer-based,” and “Spirit-leading” model of the Trinity, a model that works against what she sees as the dominant “linear” model. Coakley then goes on “foraging raids” (190) to find Trinitarian doctrine in visual art, the patristic tradition, and fieldwork among Anglican charismatics. All this diverse evidence layers together to help readers see her vision of the “the primacy of divine desire” (the title of her last full chapter).
The Book’s Contributions
First among the book’s important contributions is the pneumatological energy it brings.The baseline of Coakley’s proposal is pneumatology of the highest sort. Her “incorporative” model of the Trinity is a “Spirit-leading” approach—the Spirit, in prayer, leads us to such a model, and this, she argues, turns the usual conversation about filioque in new directions. Good Trinitarianism acknowledges that “divine processions cannot . . . ever be about patriarchal hierarchy; they are the perfect mutual ontological desire that only the Godhead instantiates—without either loss or excess. Here is a desire not of need or imposition but of active plenitude and longing love” (333). Coakley offers this pneumatology as an appealing, indeed crucial, feature of classic Trinitarianism, arguing that early Christianity was “characterized by a normative association of the ‘Spirit’ with charismatic gifts” and that it emphasized “the ecstatic quality of experience of the Spirit” (118). This pneumatology is about the real work of the Spirit in the real lives of God’s people. “Spirit-led” Trinitarianism is “incorporative” as the Spirit works in “actually catching up the created realm into the life of God” (111). Romans 8 is paradigmatic for Coakley here, and she continually reminds us of prayer in which “the Spirit helps us in our weakness . . . [and] intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26 NRSV). Coakley argues that “Spirit-leading” Trinitarianism accounts for the threeness of God in a way that no other account can, and again, this matters for the actual lives of God’s people as “attention to the Spirit links Trinitarian thought directly to its true matrix in prayer and worship” (104).
Coakley shows that what is bad for pneumatology is also bad for women, and she suggests that “Spirit-leading” Trinitarianism is suppressed, in part at least, for political reasons of church hierarchy and sexual order. This connects to the book’s second strength, which lies in Coakley’srelentless push against hierarchical dualism, against accepting the separation of any number of “disjunctive divides” (xiv) that impoverish theology. The book presses us to hold together the theoretical and the pastoral, ethics and metaphysics, the Trinitarian traditions of East and West, academic theology and accessible theology, systematic theology and gender studies, eros and agape, theological method and prayer, belief and practice, thought and affect, theology and religious studies, and liberal feminism and postmodern gender theory. Coakley insists that other disjunctive pairs are false all together: fideism and secularism, libertinism and sexual repression, hierarchy and sectarianism, and the secular and the spiritual.
With that rejection of dualism comes the insistence that gender matters. The book continues Coakley’s characteristic yet unconventional posture on questions of gender. Before Coakley, few imagined that we could do theology in a way that cares about gender while attending charitably to the riches of the doctrinal tradition. Coakley changed that by resolutely ignoring old rules about feminist and systematic theology. There is, today, a good generation of theologians who have benefitted from that stalwart refusal, who work freely in space that owes a great deal to Coakley. Coakley knows that gender matters, and she seeks to understand it within central “theological concepts of creation, fall, and redemption” (53–54). She’s a blessed optimist here, certain that those same categories mean that gender “also has an eschatological hope” (54).
Coakley cuts through conversation about social Trinitarianism—probably the central issue in contemporary Trinitarian theology—with a simple, auspicious distinction. 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. This distinction works against the excesses of some social Trinitarianism, and it delivers the precision theologians need if we are to speak well of the difference between God and the world. Moreover, Coakley presses us to appreciate that participation is impossible outside of grace. 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).
I appreciate that Coakley names the importance of ordering desire and resisting idolatry and that she does so by drawing from the Christian tradition. She uses tradition to offer a fresh, unflinching vision of the theological landscape and presents her scheme for navigating this landscape with courage and a crispness of intellect. She has little patience with either nostalgia or triumphalism (because, after all, gender matters), and her thesis about desire—that right ordering of desire through Spirit-led contemplation helps us become participants in the triune life—lets her return reasoned answers to major criticisms of theology while acknowledging what is right in those critiques. As she explains, “It is the idolatrous desire to know all that fuels ‘onto-theology’; it is the imperious desire to dominate that inspires ‘hegemony’; it is the ‘phallocentric’ desire to conquer that represses the ‘feminine.’ To speak theologically: unredeemed desire is at the root of each of these challenges to the systematic task” (51–52).
In addition, the promised engagement with that wide variety of sources is beautifully done and convincingly argued. We can hope that Coakley’s project might sanction much more systematic theological fieldwork and forays into the realms of aesthetics and imagination. The chapter on Trinity and visual art is fun to read. And, yes, let us rehabilitate John Donne!
Queries for Coakley
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?
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.
Coakley is clear, both implicitly and explicitly, about the high place of Scripture in theological reasoning. Nonetheless, I have questions about the relationship between Scripture and pneumatology at work in the book. Is the “incorporative” and “Spirit-led” model of the Trinity accessed only, or even first, through prayer? Or did that model come first to the church through sustained, Spirit-illumined reflection on Spirit-inspired Scripture? At several points (see 182), Coakley seems to cede key biblical texts about gender to those who would interpret them in the most subordinationist light, to “biblical conservatives” and “fundamentalists” (53). But are these groups really the same thing, and are they the only Christians who have ways of reading texts like 1 Corinthians 11?
I think Coakley is right to recover a particular, Spirit-empowered kind of experience and practice as theologically normative, and I agree with her that such a practice need not devolve into hopeless subjectivism, but I believe it is important to emphasize the coherence between Spirit-led experience and Spirit-inspired Scripture. I also wonder whether Coakley doesn’t unduly limit the sort of experience that transforms. Coakley claims that “a particular set of bodily and spiritual practices . . . are the precondition for trinitarian thinking of a deep sort” (16). This at least threatens to slip into in-group elitism, a dangerous notion of special knowledge that would be better guarded against if we attend to the ways that “trinitarian thinking” is also (and, I think, first) rooted in engagement with the publicity of the scriptures.
What counts as right “bodily and spiritual practices,” and do those have to look like contemplation as Coakley practices it? On this point, I have questions about Coakley’s analysis of her fieldwork, done among two groups of charismatics, one Anglican parish and one group that split off from that congregation. Coakley’s account here should be read—it’s instructive and fascinating—but I am not convinced that her conclusions are justified by her interviews with the two groups, at least inasmuch as the details of those interviews are reported in the book.
Coakley deems those who have remained within the Anglican structure better Trinitarians than those who have split off. She reports that the first group “seemed to be moving towards a less sporadic and emotionally dramatic understanding of the Spirit, encouraged by its minister to believe that a new phase of the renewal had been entered, the original ‘recovery of gifts’ being succeeded by what he called the ‘recovery of disciplines’” (168). But I would like to see more attention to the class differences Coakley reports between the groups—might the middle-class respectability of the first group (compared to the “sartorial dishevelment”  of the second) influence their pneumatology as much as their openness to contemplation? Furthermore, might the practice of tongues—a practice that continued in public worship in the split-off group while becoming more private in the other group—itself be just the sort of ecstatic Spirit-led prayer Coakley hopes will change lives?
Coakley makes no mention of Anglican church history here, but the differences between her two groups echo the history that led often-less-than-middle-class-respectable Methodist “enthusiasts” (spiritual forebears of today’s charismatics) to differ with the church’s hierarchy. Might class, and not encoded Trinitarianism or “lurking dualism” (179), have something do with the split-off group’s sense—perceived and found problematic by Coakley—of hesitation about identifying the Spirit with “‘low’ feeling states” (179) and “Christo-morphic pain” (180)?
She is careful here, aware of the problems of valorizing pain, and she is clear that contemplative silence “is not the silence of being silenced” (84). Still, christological pain is not pain for its own sake but pain that conquers pain through resurrection. Again, I’m left looking for a more clear connection between created goodness and the one who comes before God in prayer, seeking transformation. Is Coakley open to bringing pain into the life of the Godhead? If so, can that square with her anti-idolatry project and its insistence on the holy mysteriousness of God?
I’m grateful for that anti-idolatry project, and for this book. It prompts me to wrestle with the questions I’m naming above, and it opens up many hopeful avenues for theology. This is a full, rich volume, one that theologians won’t be able to ignore. It may well change the rules of the discipline. I look forward to the publication of Coakley’s other volumes, and she has helped me in thinking anew about how, though “the seductive tug of idolatry is an ever-present danger, there is always also the deep propulsion to find in God, through the Spirit, the way to the true goal of human longing” (267).
 O’Connor, A Prayer Journal, (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 36.
 In a note on page 304, Coakley takes a step back from “gender fluidity” in Judith Butler’s line. Coakley also affirms gender as “ineradicable,” even eschatologically, as God intends humans as “a particular sort of ‘differentiated, relational being’” (54).
 See my Marks of His Wounds: Gender Politics and Bodily Resurrection, (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007). Also, observe that in a note on page 304, Coakley takes a step back from “gender fluidity” in Judith Butler’s line. Coakley also affirms gender as “ineradicable,” even eschatologically, as God intends humans as “a particular sort of ‘differentiated, relational being’” (54).
Beth Felker Jones teaches theology at Wheaton College in Illinois.