If we think we have God figured out then we have created an idol

If we think we have God figured out then we have created an idol

Glynn Cardy

Sun 22 Jan

This morning I want to introduce some of the thinking of one of the current foremost theologians in the Western world, Sarah Coakley.  Sarah has taught at Oxford, Harvard, Princeton, and is currently teaching at Cambridge.  To quote from our friendly Wikipedia: “Coakley’s teaching and research interests cover a number of disciplines cognate to systematic theology, including the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of science, patristics, feminist theory and the intersections of law and medicine with religion.”  To add to this cross-disciplinary picture, from 2005-8 she co-directed with the biologist and mathematician Martin Nowak the “Evolution and Theology of Cooperation” project at Harvard.

In attempting this introduction I will inevitably give my interpretation of what Sarah is saying.  And no doubt, given the breadth and depth of her work, I will omit or misinterpret matters of importance.  Maybe I should add at this juncture that if you read her work or listen to her on YouTube you will find that she is one of those beguiling erudite thinkers who elude some of the binary distinctions [like ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’] that many of us use to make sense of the theological world.  So don’t presume, for example, that when she uses a word like ‘Father’ for God that she has an anthropomorphic, male-dominated model

Sarah Coakley begins, and probably ends, her theology by emphasising the importance of prayer – or more precisely, contemplative prayer.  And she mixes this with feminist theological method.  She would posit that we need to freely submit ourselves to G-o-d, practising unmastery, relinquishing control, and emptying oneself, in order to be available for transformation by the One who refuses to be controlled or contained by any social structure, including patriarchy.

So, there are a few, maybe controversial, nuggets in this starting point:

Firstly, contemplative prayer.  This is where the believer/seeker lets go of words, reason, and control systems [including beliefs] to sit in unthinking silence – for minutes, even hours.  This is a practice of subverting our accustomed, and much-beloved, church language and beliefs.  This is a practice of subverting dis-engaged reason – ‘objective reason’ being one of the historical touchstones of Western academia.  And it is a practice of subverting our aspirations to be accomplished autonomous individuals [the enlightenment ideal].  It is a costly emptying of ourselves into the silence of the no-thingness of G-o-d.  Contemplative prayer is about submission, but I hasten to add submission beyond its dreadfully gendered patriarchal history.  So, prayer is a dis-possession, a letting-go, a losing.

Secondly, this practice of prayer can be radically transformative.  It can open us to a whole different economy.  In Sarah’s reflection on Luke 7:36-50[i], that pre-crucifixion story of a woman who pours very expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, she points out that the normal worldly gift-exchange economy is not operating here.  The economy of control and order, with its cost/benefit analysis is overturned.  Instead an economy of excess and gift is operational, with no suggestion of return.  To quote Coakley:

“When a lover remains faithful to the memory of someone long-lost, praying for them even in rejection, we see this excess of gift.  When a mother continues to love her violent and lawless son, we see it again…  Such an excess of gift [like too in this Lucan example] leaves us with a deep sense of moral ambiguity, a suspicion that such love is nonsensical, damaging, open to abuse, and certainly beyond the pale of sense and sensibility.  As indeed it is.”[ii]

Can we live lives of excess and gift, beyond the ideological constraints of the gift-exchange and cost-benefit economy?

And thirdly, contemplative prayer is about the body as much, or more so, than the mind.  Prayer drives theology, and theology is done by bodies – rather than say incorporeal minds that somehow manage to get words onto paper.  But the goal of theology is not autonomy, or self-mastery, but the longing or desire for God.

How though do we know, if we downplay the importance of autonomous critical reason, that we are not submitting ourselves to an idol?  Coakley responds: “Of course I am initially submitting myself to an idol.  Being transformed by prayer takes a lot of time, and a lot of waiting.  If we think we have God figured out then we have created an idol.”  That is worth repeating: If we think we have God figured out then we have created an idol.

She, like mentors such as Gregory of Nyssa [4th century], will not accept a disjunction between systematic theology and spiritual practice.  If, as Sarah Brubaker writes in Christian Century,[iii] prayer does nothing then Coakley’s theology does not hold.

In God, Sexuality, and Self, the first of her four volume systematic theology, Coakley comments on the gendered aspects of being transformed by prayer.  Unlike those who want to contrast say ‘feminine’ creation with a ‘masculine’ godhead, or a ‘feminine’ church with a ‘Father’ God, she shows the gender binary to be changeable and slippery.  Gender binary is interrupted time and again by the Holy Spirit who is the consummate interrupter of binaries.  In other words our fashioning of God into three male persons, or two male and one female, is destabilised/deconstructed by the experience of being ‘in’ God.  Indeed being in God is destabilising of all our business-as-usual ideas – as the story of the perfume on the feet illustrated. [I will say more about being ‘in’ God shortly]. 

A comment on Sarah’s use of the word ‘desire’: She is critical of the division of love into the Grecian categories – like sexual love [eros], love of friends [philia], maternal/paternal love [storge], and altruistic love or love of God [agape].  Eros is about sensuality.  Agape too is about sensuality.  All love involves our sensual bodies.  All desire, including desire for God is sensual.

Again referring to Luke 7 and the extravagance episode Coakley writes:

“It is inescapably erotic…  Oil to the feet [is] an act of extravagance and suggestiveness, as we know from parallel cases in the pagan world.  And the hair is down, too, and flowing to mop up tears from the feet: the sexual evocations are unambiguous.  But Jesus’ fearlessness and poise in the face of such effusive intimacy is what is striking.  It is as if, in commending such an excessive gift of love, he points to an inner purity within it, to a place where erotic longing finds its true and final goal in the divine gift which it meets here.”[iv]

Contrary to Freud who said God is a code for what we desire, Coakley says that “instead of ‘God’ language ‘really’ being about sex, sex is really about God—the potent reminder woven into our earthly existence of the divine ‘unity’, ‘alliance’, and commingling that we seek.”[v]   Sarah brings this word ‘desire’ into the ongoing church debates about sexuality, and says ‘desire’ is not the liberal ideal of choice, nor the conservative ideal of repression, but the ascetic ideal of the narrowing of choices (fidelity) – and is not just about our sexuality but all our relationships, including those with money, status, and power. 

‘Desire’, and it’s synonyms of ‘longing’ and ‘questing’, reveals God.  This understanding is not dissimilar from the thoughts of the ‘weak’ theologians, like John Caputo, who talk about god being a disturbing whisper/touch that unsettles our usual ways and thinking.  And Coakley and Caputo would say it is a whisper/touch (that is without our worldly understandings of power) that invites us deeper.  Coakley of course thinks we can say a lot more about God than Caputo does

But desire not only reveals God but is the means of incorporation into God and the ‘energy ‘of commingling in God.  This leads me to talk about that preposition ‘in’.  Here Coakley draws significantly on Romans 8: 26 – “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words”.  Sarah posits that by praying in silence, by praying dis-possessed, we enter into the movement of God where – as Paul suggests – the Spirit does the praying for us. 

Coakley understands the Trinity does not follow a hierarchical linear procession model, like the model one could build from a reading of John’s Gospel.  This is a model where the Father sends the Son who then after the resurrection goes up in order that the Spirit comes down.  [This model, the up-down three-tier universe, is still evident in many Eucharistic prayers].  Rather Sarah understands the Trinity in an incorporation model that she extrapolates from Paul’s writing on the nature of God [Paul of course being a monotheistic Jew!]: God is a movement into which we are incorporated through prayer.  Or to use her words:

“God’, by definition, cannot be an extra item in the universe (a very big one) to be known, and so controlled, by human intellect, will, or imagination. God is, rather, that without which there would be nothing at all; God is the source and sustainer of all being, and, as such, the dizzying mystery encountered in the act of contemplation as precisely the ‘blanking’ of the human ambition to knowledge, control, and mastery. To know God is unlike any other knowledge; indeed, it is more truly to be known, and so transformed.” 

Any map for God is not the territory.

So for Coakley, God is not a group of three powerful ‘persona’ having a dance party and trying to control [or even love] the world.  But rather God is that which is beyond our knowing into which we enter via freely choosing the stripping of certainties, the vulnerability of faithful ‘waiting upon’ and loving, and submitting ourselves – in the spirit of Jesus – to being transformed.

[i] S Coakley The Cross and the Transformation of Desire, p.5

[ii] P.6 op cit

[iii] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-11/theology-through-prayer

[iv] P. 6 ibid

[v] God, Sexuality, and the Self, p.316