Book Review: Sarah Coakley, “God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity'”

Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity” (Cambridge University Press, 2013). Amazon Indiebound

Why should Mormons read (or even care about) a work of Anglican systematic theology about the Trinity, a doctrine in which we are prone to saying we do not believe? (But which we enjoy probing around here: see J. Stapley’s recent post, which links to several earlier Trinitarian BCC musings—get this—by three men, including me.)

Here’s why: some of the most urgent theological questions currently occupying Mormonism have to do with gender and the divine. Not only has the Ordain Women movement raised (once again) the issue of women’s ordination, but people are asking questions about Heavenly Mother (see the “Connecting to Heavenly Mother” series at FMH, or the Heavenly Mother category at the Exponent II blog), with some wondering whether she can be separated from earlier teachings about Adam-God and polygamy. A recent review of Terryl Givens’s Wrestling with the Angel drew attention to the ways that our theology (along with Givens’s account of it) struggles to make sense of gender or even to find a place for women. In sum, although many members of the Church (female and male) do seem satisfied with present teachings and practices around gender, a growing minority can’t help butting up uncomfortably against questions about how women fit into the economy of heaven.

Coakley offers a fairly accessible exploration of these issues, looking at how gender and sexuality have informed Christian thinking about God from the very beginning. Giving particular emphasis to Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa—two of the most significant early Trinitarian theologians—she shows how different gendered assumptions frame their understandings of how humans relate to the Godhead (to substitute the preferred Mormon term for the Trinity), with Nyssen placing humans in a state of womblike receptivity and Augustine in an active ascent into light. Studying both theological and art historical representations of the Godhead, she argues that, even though theologians present a theoretically genderless equality among members of the Godhead, in practice people have tended to privilege the “male” duo of Father and Son, at the expense of the Spirit, which merely testifies of them and lacks any explicit function of its own. One of Coakley’s colleagues charmingly refers to the process of finding the Spirit in representations of the Godhead as a game of “hunt the pigeon,” because it’s often not easy to find—and sometimes it isn’t represented at all. Sound familiar?

Coakley thus finds that the relationship between equality and difference—which vexes current debates about gender (see the “Equality is Not a Feeling” series at Doves and Serpents)—is also at play within the Godhead. Relating theological subordination of the Spirit to subordination of women, because Mary often substitutes iconographically for the Spirit, she offers a contemplative practice of prayer in the Spirit as the key to getting gender and God right. Crucially, she argues that theology without contemplative practice is a dead letter, nothing but so much God-talk without roots in the divine life. Contemplative practice involves desire, and for Coakley this reality alone puts gender at issue, for desire often means longing for mastery and possession.

Mastery is problematic for several reasons, not least among them being the ludicrousness of the idea that humans through desire can master God. But mastery also poses problems for the very idea of the Godhead: can mastery have any part in intra-Godhead relationships if the persons are truly equal? Human tendencies to subordinate or altogether neglect the Spirit at the expense of the male Father-Son dyad obliquely (and, Coakley argues, falsely) import a mastery discourse, gendered masculine, into God.

Contemplative practice, led by the Spirit, offers an antidote to this kind of mastery. Coakley privileges a mystical form of receptive non-mastery, typified in the apophatic theology of Pseudo-Dionysius and poetically expressed by St. John of the Cross as “dazzling darkness.” Such mystical experience comes when the Spirit interrupts binary human experiences (e.g., with institutionalized religion: part of Coakley’s argument involves recuperating Ernest Troeltsch’s mystical addition to the sociological church/sect dyad). Mystical experience puts a person at productive, if uncomfortable, tension with religious institutions, because in practice (and Coakley’s book includes some fieldwork to substantiate this point) it inevitably raises questions of female authority and sexuality.

Mystical practice interrupts the tendency to understand the Godhead as a linear hierarchy of Father-Son-Spirit, with emphasis on controlling the third person; instead, Spirit-led prayer modeled on Romans 8 (a very important chapter for Coakley’s argument) brings the one who prays into the likeness of the Son as the means of reaching the source of desire, the Father. This incorporative model involves all three persons on equal terms while allowing for genuine difference among them. It also undermines the “masculine” model of a Father who insists on mastery over the other persons. Such experience of the Godhead transforms us as we act in the world, harmonizing sexual desire and desire for God (which Coakley understands as two versions of the same thing) and shifting us through spiritual means toward a more egalitarian and loving social practice that can admit the possibility of female authority.

A brief review cannot do full justice to Coakley’s arguments here. I’ll simply invite those interested in further exploration to read her immensely rewarding book. She deliberately strives to write in an accessible, easy-to-understand style, with a glossary of the necessary technical terms in the back, so this book need not appeal to trained theologians alone. Coakley concludes by summing up her argument in six brief theses, which I reproduce here.

1. The contemplative is one who is forced to acknowledge the “messy entanglement” of sexual desire and the desire for God.

2. The contemplative acknowledges the leading activity of the Holy Spirit, and so jealously guards the distinctness of the third “person.”

3. The “apophatic turn” has the capacity not only to undermine gender stereotypes, but to lead to a form of ever-changing modelings of desire for God.

4. Contemplation entails an expression of the “self,” a subversion of disengaged reason.

5. Contemplation reorders the passions.

6. Contemplation presents us with a trinitarian model of power-in-vulnerability.

By my lights, this last thesis is the most important, for, from a Mormon perspective, it both presents God as the model of the D&C 121 virtues—our primary model of how authority should work—and provides a way for all members of the church, both women and men, to attain them. Thus, even though Coakley writes from outside Mormonism and in a language that might be slightly unfamiliar to our tradition, her book offers a useful provocation that can help us come nearer to living quintessentially Mormon values by looking to God as the model for resolving the disputes that divide us. Coakley plans to continue her systematic project in three more volumes; I look forward to reading them!

Although book reviews don’t typically include music, I can’t help myself, so here’s Mendelssohn’s famous anthem of prayer, which references holy darkness, emphasizes the Spirit, and, on the gender-is-complicated front, is rendered sublimely by a boy soprano:



  1. J. Stapley says:

    Really interesting stuff, Jason. I appreciate it and look forward to more.

  2. Jason, I am going to have to stop reading your reviews, as my wife is getting angry with me for buying all of these books.

  3. Jason K. says:

    Libraries, Mike.

  4. Blasphemy

  5. Jason K. says:

    It’s a good thing you don’t work at Notre Dame, because the library there just begs to be worshiped.

  6. “God, Sexuality, and Self” sounds a little bit like the book She Who Is by Sr. Elizabeth Johnson.

  7. Jason K. says:

    Looks like an intriguing book; thanks for the lead!

  8. That sounds interesting enough for even me to read.

  9. Jason K. says:

    It really is, RJ.

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