"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, April 23, 2018

God, Sex, and the Desiring Self's Repetitive Liturgics

The recent news that the venerable Norris-Hulse professorship of divinity in the University of Cambridge is passing from Sarah Coakley to Catherine Pickstock is as good an occasion as any to draw attention to some of the works of both of these extraordinarily luminous women, and to record some longer and long-overdue thoughts about Coakley's God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay 'On the Trinity' (Cambridge UP, 2013).

In 1997 Pickstock's doctoral dissertation was published as After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. It rightly attracted a good deal of attention, both for its own rather stunning argumentation but also because its author was involved with John Milbank and the Radical Orthodoxy crowd, even to the point of the two of them editing a book Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology. I devoured both books within weeks of publication, and contacted both Pickstock and Milbank (during his brief stint at the University of Virginia) about doctoral work with them.

That RO movement attracts far less attention today than it did twenty, and even ten, years ago. But Pickstock's After Writing nonetheless was, and remains, the most far-reaching and intellectually sophisticated critical analysis of the problems of liturgical reform at and after Vatican II. I have always maintained that her central point, about the abolition of structural repetition (treated also in a different fashion in a later book: Repetition and Identity) based on a suspect modern notion of linear time is the most damning criticism made against the reforms in the Latin Church which influenced, in turn, similar reforms in Lutheranism, Anglicanism, and elsewhere. I have yet to see anyone address this criticism in any serious way. To my mind this attempt at abolishing repetition is the greatest weakness of Western liturgics, as I argued at length elsewhere more than fifteen years ago now.

Let me turn now to Coakley, who did me the honour last July of being respondent to my paper at a conference at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota on reception history. She was as gracious an interlocutor as she is learned and it was a delight to converse with her.

This book of hers, God, Sexuality, and the Self, is the first of a projected four-volume systematics. Eastern Christians who might at this point be getting ready to pounce with objections to this method ("systematics" is not Eastern!) or to its author (she's Anglican! and she claims to be a priest!! who's influenced by feminism!!!) need to sit down and be quiet. She's grappling with questions that the Orthodox and Catholic Churches are grappling with in the same cultural context. And she's doing so in a way and via a method perfectly orthodox: by looking to see what the Fathers especially have to say, and how they can point us forward beyond the impasse of capitulating to the culture on all matters sexual, on the one hand, or merely repeating traditionalist slogans on the other while hoping these questions somehow go away.

She lays out in the introduction some of her major interlocutors: of the ancients, Plato, Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Augustine, and Ps-Dionysius (about whom see this co-edited work of Coakley); of the moderns, she begins with Freud and the question of desire, arguing that "desire is more fundamental than 'sex'" (10). For God (unlike for us), desire indicates no lack, but instead is the "longing love" God has for His creation to flourish in the fullness of life within the Godhead. It is this treatment of desire that is, to my mind, the most central and compelling part of her book.

At the outset Coakley is positioning herself by noting that desire for God is ultimately what is missing in contemporary "secular" discussions about sexual desire, sexual orientation, and sexual differentiation ("gender"). What Christianity, especially that informed by both Platonic and patristic sources, brings to the discussion, as she has argued in another book, is an emphasis on asceticism which, together with prayer "too deep for words" allows us to purify that desire and to be purified of any illusions we may have about God. Indeed, this focus on prayer is a central and distinctive feature of Coakley's work as she pushes back, rightly, against the tendency to treat theology purely as an intellectual endeavor: "theology in its proper sense is always in via as practitional" (45).

This emphasis on practice is not a means of escape either from hard metaphysical thinking, or the perhaps even harder task of working against injustice in the world. It is only in prayer and especially silence that we can hear the voices of those who are suffering and are marginalized--voices which, Coakley says, are often drowned out by our own high-minded calls to alleviate that suffering without first allowing the sufferers themselves to speak in their own terms.

As she continues to circle closer into her focus on desire, Coakley argues that "desire is also more fundamental than gender, and that the key to the secular riddle of gender can lie only in its connection to the doctrine of the trinitarian God" (52), a point I am very glad to hear someone else making. I attempted to make it several years ago in debates about same-sex relations in a theological context, saying that ultimately arguments from "authority" or "tradition" cut very little ice today even with people inside the Church; the only serious argument must centre on the nature of the triune God.

Coakley here introduces--with promise of more to come--her very sensitive and careful discussion of the 'threeness' of God and the 'twoness' of human gender, saying that hers "is a theory about gender's mysterious and plastic openness to divine transfiguration" (58). All the Christians currently freaking out about "transgenderism" would do well to think on Coakley for a while and the tradition she draws on. Any time you posit that the human person, divided into male and female, is created in the image of the undivided and sexless Trinity you are going to have very serious and difficult questions about the meaning of sexual differentiation vis-à-vis the Trinity.

Questions of transgenderism and sexuality invite contributions from sociology, psychology, gender studies, and other fields, and Coakley's book is especially helpful in laying out nine guidelines (pp.88-92) for such conversations as part of her project of théologie totale. The graciousness with which she engages these questions, and the honesty of her work, comes throughout the book, and is summed up again at the very end, where she notes that "the contemplative is the one who is forced to acknowledge the 'messy entanglement' of sexual desire and the desire for God" (340). Contemplation, with asceticism, also re-orders the passions, changes and purifies our desire for God, offers a safeguard against illusions and idols: "the hermeneutics of suspicion never comes to an end" (343). 

For these and many other insights in this densely argued, but carefully and clearly written, work, let all the people say: Deo gratias. And let us keep watch for the next volumes in her work.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous comments are never approved. Use your real name and say something intelligent.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...