Magazine article The Christian Century

The Indispensable: Sarah Coakley Theology through Prayer

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Indispensable: Sarah Coakley Theology through Prayer

Article excerpt

LET US IMAGINE a truly dreadful possibility. What if there had been no Sarah Coakley, theologian? (I should stipulate that in this alternate history Sarah Coakley is not written out of existence but merely finds some other fulfilling form of labor.) To be sure, this seems unlikely. According to interviews, Coakley knew she wanted to be a theologian by age 12. But let us imagine that through some catastrophic mishap Coakley's prodigious theological talents had been effectively squashed early on.

In this dire reality, there would have been no Powers and Submissions, no The New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender and the Quest for God; no God, Sexuality, and the Self. We would have none of the edited volumes that Coakley has shaped, nor the graduate students whose work she has helped to guide. The 2012 Gifford Lectures would have been given by somebody else. How might theology be different?

Academic theology might well have produced someone formally similar to Coakley, but I dare say that person would be less interesting. To be sure, Coakley's work stands at such appealing intersections that its appeal can tend to seem inevitable. Of course the spiritual senses can provide a way out of contemporary theological cul-de-sacs. Of course it is worthwhile for theologians to consider transformative desire, particularly if we want to say something thoughtful about bodies instead of scolding or ignoring them. Of course theology will need to avail itself of the best of other disciplines and should result in a vision for life rather than just a set of claims. Judging from the regard in which Coakley's work is held, these are the kinds of moves that many people want contemporary theology to make. They are certainly more invigorating than either cranky nostalgia or fatuous individualism, to mention two of the more shopworn theological options.

Yet we ought not to mistake appeal for predictability. These were not obvious areas to work in until Coakley did so. If they seem obvious to us, it is only because Coakley argues for them so persuasively. Had there been no Sarah Coakley, theologian, someone else might have been prompted by similar theological longings, but it is hard to imagine that the work itself would have been so creative or so beautifully rendered. Now that Coakley has published the first of her projected four-volume systematics--God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay 'On the Trinity'--her considerable influence will surely grow, much to the benefit of anyone with a stake in theology.

For Coakley, contemplative Christian practice goes hand in glove with feminist theological method. According to Linn Marie Tonstad, who interviewed Coakley for a chapter in Key Theological Thinkers, Coakley's "characteristic preoccupations" emerged when she was a Georgia Harkness Fellow at Harvard Divinity School in the early 1970s. Already immersed in both scriptural studies and philosophical theology, Coakley began participating in daily Eucharist and practicing contemplative prayer. In the process Coakley internalized the notion that theology is done by bodies--rather than, say, incorporeal minds that somehow manage to get words onto paper. This attention to bodies provided a point of contact with feminist thought, the need for which was apparently made clear enough at Oxford. In a profile by Matthew Reisz for Times Higher Education, Coakley recalls that she spent two "very painful" years at Oxford in the early 1990s, where she encountered maddening assumptions that "I couldn't really do the job but had been appointed to look nice."

Attention to bodies continues to drive Coakley's deep engagement with feminist thought. But her feminism is not unfiltered liberal feminism. For Coakley the desideratum of theology is not autonomy or self-mastery, even for those to whom it has been unjustly denied. Rather, theology's desire, and humanity's desire, is for God. And desiring God means practicing unmastery, relinquishing control, and emptying oneself--all theological themes that, Coakley acknowledges, can make other feminist scholars nervous. …

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