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Longing for God

The subversive theology of Sarah Coakley

People worth knowing
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I have always thought of myself as religious but not, alas, spiritual. (This phrase, which I stole from another writer so long ago that I can’t recover the reference, has gone viral in recent months, which at least assures me my plight is common.) On finding myself, in an international gathering of Pentecostals, I went through the usual angst and confusion that demonstrative spirituality arouses in me. With half my brain, I worried that my failure to register even the tiniest internal blip of the Spirit whose convulsions had already reduced several people in my immediate vicinity to twitching semi-consciousness meant that God didn’t want me. The other half of my brain wondered whether these people were crazy. Finally a piece of music resolved my doubts, as music often does. The lyrics, in part, ran: “I long for Your tender kisses. I long for Your divine touch.” Well, that decided it. I wasn’t spiritually deficient; these people were just goofballs.

I still don’t think much of that song on aesthetic grounds, but I have gradually been forced to conclude that whoever wrote it was nearer the mainstream of Christian devotional tradition than me. Contemplatives from the desert days onward have used erotic metaphors to figure the heart’s need for God or the ecstasy of worship. Stolidly male Puritan theologians explored the implications of being “Christ’s brides” without blushing or giggling. Even St. Augustine, that body-hating, common-law-wife-deserting, not-fully-recovered Manichean, wrote of the heart’s restlessness till it rests in God. My own fear of these metaphors, in fact, says a lot about their potency: I can’t imagine my relationship to a male God as sexual because it would completely subvert my identity as a straight guy; I can’t imagine my relationship to a female God as sexual because it raises the emotional stakes beyond bearing (because “God” and “woman” are the two categories of being from whom I most fear rejection). And I don’t know how to imagine, let alone desire, what is beyond gender – as God, of course, is. So my resistance to comparing these two kinds of desires just shows how coiled together they already are in my heart. I think I’m safe in assuming that other folks, whatever their genders or the directions of their desires, run into similar conundrums.

Right alignment
Few orthodox Christian theologians in recent years have taken this entanglement as seriously as the Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley, and few have written about it with such piercing intelligence. She risks a great deal in doing so, for women theologians, as Coakley herself complains, are all too often reduced by male commentators to whatever they might have to say about sex, the family, feminism and nurture, while the boys handle Christology, the Trinity, metaphysics, social order – you know, the underpinnings of the universe. Part of her genius, then, is to insist that these sets of concerns are intertwined. “The questions of right contemplation of God, right speech about God, and right ordering of desire all hang together,” she writes in her recent God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ – the first volume of a projected five-volume systematic theology. “Thus the problem of the Trinity cannot be solved without addressing the very questions that seem least to do with it, questions which press on the contemporary Christian churches with such devastating and often destructive force: questions of sexual justice, questions of the meaning and stability of gender roles, questions of the final theological significance of sexual desire.” This is true because the Trinity isn’t merely an ingenious solution to the puzzle of what happened to God while Christ suffered on the cross. It is a relationship, and a statement about relationships: that they are fundamental to being. And so the forms of relationship that we inhabit, yearn after, obsess over, feel constricted by, miss, fail, betray, destroy, and occasionally even get to enjoy – they remind us, even through the fog of sin, of what we are and what our universe is. And the Trinity stands out as both hope and judgment: its non-rivalrousness, its lack of possessiveness, throw our attempts at domination into harsh relief, but it reminds us that we are loved, too, and don’t need to dominate. So Coakley’s concerns are theologically central after all. And she reminds us that such reflections aren’t new: you can find them, as she does, in Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Origen, among others. “Sexual desire is . . . the ‘precious clue’ woven into our created being reminding us of our rootedness in God,” she writes. But she does not, in the manner of ‘70s soul singers or cult leaders, merely equate the two forms of relationship. Sex nevertheless must be brought into “right alignment with God’s purposes, purified from sin and possessiveness.”

Of all the spiritual resources that make such a purification possible, Coakley advocates especially for contemplative prayer – a form of activity that, I must admit, I once contemplated with the same fear and loathing that I did Pentecostal praise choruses or sexualized metaphors for God. Nobody has explained this part of the Christian mystical tradition more helpfully, for me, than Coakley, in my favourite of her writings, the essay “Meditation as a Subversive Activity” (easily found via Google). She recounts the months she spent leading silent prayer at a local jail, and her initial misgivings about such a project: “Especially odd – indeed, suspicious – might seem the act of imposing silence on [mostly] African-American prisoners. Does not such imposed silence represent the final accommodation to oppression?” She discovers that, within the terrible, mandated noisiness and publicness of a prison environment, silence can have the exact opposite effect – that the “unleashing of ‘dark,’ subversive divine power as the antidote to racist despair, marginalization and repression is symbolically encoded in this practice.”

In God, Sexuality, and the Self, she considers what silent prayer might mean for another oft-silenced group: women. “Contemplation presents us with a trinitarian model of power-in-vulnerability,” she writes. And, in response to the classic second-wave feminist question, “Can a feminist call God ‘father,’” Coakley writes, ”[S]he above all must; for it lies with her alone to do the kneeling work that ultimately slays patriarchy at its root.”

I have, as a result of my engagement with Coakley, taken up silent prayer. Once or twice a week I derail my trains of thought, turn my cellphone off, and sit for twenty minutes, inviting God to work in and around me, but otherwise shutting up. I have not yet slain patriarchy at its root, but I have noticed a new sort of quiet confidence, a dawning belief that I do not have to earn a relationship with God through my own personal awesomeness. It’s not spectacular. But it’s also deeply unlike me – as subversive of my usual ways of operating as quiet in a prison cell. And it wouldn’t have happened had I not read Coakley.

  • Phil Christman writes and teaches in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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