Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Into the Intro: God, Sexuality, and the Self

Sarah Coakley

Institutional Christianity is in crisis about ‘sexuality’. Its detractors in the supposedly secularized and liberal climes of Northern Europe, who nonetheless yearn for what they call a satisfying ‘spirituality’, see this crisis as a sign of its failure to engage the contemporary world. Its conservative defenders, to be found mainly in religiously observant parts of North America and throughout the southern hemisphere, take it as an indication of cultural decadence and a deficiency in scriptural obedience. Probably both sides are right, but perhaps neither, exactly; this book notably does not aim to solve the problems in the terms currently under discussion. Instead, it aims to go deeper: to come at the issue that is now called sexuality through a different route – that of the divine itself.

No cogent answer to the contemporary Christian question of the trinitarian God can be given without charting the necessary and intrinsic entanglement of human sexuality and spirituality.

For this is a book about God, and more specifically about the Christian God. It is written for those who puzzle about how one might set about coming into relation with such a God in the first place; and who wonder how – without sacrificing either intellectual integrity or critical acumen – one might discover this baffling, alluring, and sometimes painful encounter to require thematizing in trinitarian terms: ‘Father’, ‘Son’, and ‘Holy Spirit’. Further (and this may seem odd to the contemporary reader), this book is written in the fundamental conviction that no cogent answer to the contemporary Christian question of the trinitarian God can be given without charting the necessary and intrinsic entanglement of human sexuality and spirituality in such a quest: the questions of right contemplation of God, right speech about God, and right ordering of desire all hang together. They emerge in primary interaction with Scripture, become intensified and contested in early Christian tradition, and are purified in the crucible of prayer. 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.

It is the purpose of this introductory prelude to explain in advance how the various lines of argument in this book fit together. An overview will supply a perspective on the whole.

Desire, Prayer, and the Trinity in the ‘Fathers’

A perception of the significance of the right ordering of desire was not, of course, alien to some of the greatest early Christian thinkers of the late antique era; and a central part of my task in this book will be to explore how, for them, the perception of ‘perfect relation in God’ (the Trinity) was fundamentally attuned, and correlated, to their concomitant views about men and women, gender roles, and the nature of ‘erotic’ desire. Not that we can oblige any contemporary reader to accept their positions without critique (they are in any case various); but rather I shall aim, first, to lay bare the subtle – and forgotten – ways in which these elements in their thought connect, such that they may now illumine contemporary theological choices. At the same time it will become clear that the way they speak of desire has a different valence from today’s post-Freudian context, and one as yet not cognizant of modern evocations of ‘sexuality’.

Download the full excerpt here.

About The Author

Sarah Coakley

Sarah Coakley is the author of God, Sexuality, and the Self. She is is Norris–Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge and a priest in the Church of England....

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