Review of Sarah Coakley, The New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender and the Quest for God (Bloomsbury, 2015).
This is the best and most challenging book I read in the whole of 2015 (at the time of writing there are 16 days left in which I might read something better!). It is not always easy to read, but that is not a reflection on the excellent writing. Rather it is because the subject matter is important, and because it makes the reader engage with things within their own lives. It tackles issues that are dividing the church with a spiritual seriousness and depth that is all too often lacking. Whilst it will, inevitably, be read as a contribution to the debates that afflict the church, it should be read as a significant work of spiritual theology in its own right.
In her Introduction, Coakley tells us that she wants to retrieve asceticism as a vital part of Christian life and theology. This has implications for the life of the church, particularly its arguments over sexuality, and also for the mission of the church to a world that is deeply embedded in consumerism. She sets out her hopes for the project as a whole: "only a revived, purged - and lived - form of 'ascetic' life will rescue the churches from their current theological differences and incoherences over 'sexuality'; and only the same authentically 'ascetic' life will be demanding enough to command the respect of a post-Christian world saturated and sated by the commodifications of desire" (pp. 5-6).
Crucial to the project that Coakley has in hand is an account of asceticism that is about more than celibacy, but that encompasses all aspects of life. Here she draws on Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth century Greek theologian, who sees erotic desire as a 'glue' drawing things together for the sake of wider society. This account of desire runs counter to the individualized and physicalized accounts of desire so prevalent in our culture. In our culture, this individual and physical desire is exhausted by sex. In Gregory’s richer account it is not, but issues in service to the poor, care for the weak, and respect for all of creation. Desire for Gregory is not to be constrained, but intensified into desire for God. Disciplining desire, which is the goal of asceticism is thus a social and an individual task. The disordered desires seen in poverty, sex slavery, and ecological damage require a global response, but are rooted in our individual responses to desires. With this broad vision of desire, and an account of asceticism that is about the direction of desire towards God, Coakley sets up her work.
Chapter one takes this account straight into the church controversies about sex. But she does so through Gregory of Nyssa’s treatise ‘On Virginity’. This treatise has long puzzled scholars because Gregory was married, and not celibate, when he wrote it. In Coakley’s reading, this is because Gregory understands both marriage and celibacy as ascetic tools for the godly ordering of desire. They are each a form of “a training of desire, a life long commitment to what we might call the ‘long haul’ of personal, erotic transformation, and thereby of reflection on the final significance of all one’s desires before God” (p. 30). For Gregory, celibacy is a withdrawal not from desire but from worldly interests (family, status and honour). Similarly, marriage for Gregory has an equal potential for redirection of desire towards service, especially service of the poor. Neither celibacy nor marriage can properly reorder desire in these ways “without deep prayer and ascetic perseverance” (p. 51). This bringing together of marriage and celibacy, both understood as forms of asceticism, enables Coakley to find a path beyond the dichotomy of conservative/liberal responses to same-sex relationships in the church (and especially in journalism). It would enable an account of same-sex desire that could ask how it too can be disciplined ascetically towards the desire of God. At the same time it asks deep questions of the church to re-think its approach to desire as a whole. Without such ascetic discipline across the whole range of desire, Coakley suggests, the church will never move beyond the current crises.
From one ecclesiastical controversy, Coakley moves to another. She addresses the question of women presiding at the Eucharist and does so by moving firmly into theological territory occupied by the most conservative of Roman Catholic objections to the ordination of women. She embraces the imagery of the wedding feast as a means of understanding the Eucharist, and in doing so focuses squarely on the gendered nature of the participants. In such theological accounts, the Eucharist is an enactment of the nuptial love between Christ and the church. In doing so, Coakley points to the role of the priest not as taking the (masculine) role of God, as opposed to the (feminine) role of the human. Instead, she sees the priest as “in an inherently fluid gender role as beater of the liminal bounds between the divine and the human” (p. 57). The priest represents both divine and human, not in a way that flattens the distinction but in a way that moves between them without allowing them to be fixed. This is a re-ordering of the cosmic world, but one that reflects the great re-ordering of the incarnation and the gift of the Spirit. It is a fully Trinitarian account of the priest and the Eucharist, that is imperiled by the absence of women from the ordained ministry.
Coakley’s next chapter looks at prayer in more depth. She begins with an exploration of Romans 8. Here Paul speaks of prayer as a Trinitarian event in which the Spirit takes the primary role (of praying in the believer). Yet, she continues, what is striking is the absence of consideration of this passage in early Christian accounts of prayer and the late development of a doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Coakley attributes both to the way that Romans 8 uses the inherently female imagery of childbirth and speaks of the Spirit praying beyond words. Both bring us crashing back into the territory of desire. Origen, one of the few early theologians to examine Romans 8, does so by only allowing ‘advanced contemplatives’ to use such erotic imagery as found in Romans 8. This exclusion is something Coakley resists. Instead she issues a call “to rethread the strands of tradition on divine and human desires such that they are no longer set in fundamental enmity with one another, and no longer failing in their alignment” (p. 96). Thus she suggests reversing Freud so that language about God is not reduced to really being about sex. Rather sex can be understood as pointing us to God and to our desire for God. This insight then returns us to prayer, as the place where we encounter God, our desire for God, and God’s desire for us. The ascetic disciplines of patience, insight and practice are required for this encounter to develop theology here. Above all, we need to be faithful in prayer.
Such faithfulness in prayer is explored in chapter 4. Here Coakley interrogates the concept of practice, and seeks to show how the requirement of practice (that is, human action) is itself a means of grace (that is, divine action). Initially, Christian practice needs to be distinguished from non-Christian practice. This means that the new Christian concentrates on imitating Jesus, and especially on matters that are closely linked with the practice of the faith (prayer, study, service etc.). But fairly soon, the Christian needs to be operating on a level of practice like that of St Benedict’s Rule. Here there is a whole range of practices, some religious, some not. It does not aim at ‘development’, but at living in community. It aims to habituate love for a lifetime. From such an unsystematic range of practices, surprising encounters with Christ can be recognized, in the stranger and the beggar, in our own suffering, in the way others give themselves in service to us. In this recognition of Christ, Coakley detects a third level of practice – that of participation in the life of the Trinity. This is not a flight from the practices of life that Benedict is dealing with, rather it is something that happens in the midst of them. It is the goal of the desire for Christ, which may lead us into “a life of tough ordinariness, ministerial obscurity, and even a sense of human failure” (p. 126). But it is the goal of the spiritual life.
Finally, Coakley turns her attention to the travails of the Anglican Communion. As a priest who spent much time ministering in both Oxford (UK) and Massachusetts (USA), Coakley has a particular perspective to bring. She once again rejects the dichotomy between liberalism and Biblicism, seeing neither as Anglican. Instead she urges a more attentive view. “Amidst all the furors caused by churchly rows on homosexuality, not enough attention is drawn to the completely novel phenomenon of our generation – a ‘new thing’ in the best, Isaianic sense. That some gay and lesbian couples now wish to enter into public, and publicly accountable, lifelong vows of fidelity is, I submit, the true moral achievement of this painful cultural and ecclesiastical transition” (p. 140). This demands that we all reconsider the meaning and costliness of such vows. It demands a new approach to how asceticism functions in all our lives.