Sarah Coakley and the Future of Systematic Theology

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Janice McRandal
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , February
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Anglican priest and Cambridge theologian Sarah Coakley is one of the most creative and fascinating systematic theologians in the world today. Her work is a convergence of systematic theology, analytic philosophy of religion, patristic and medieval theology and mysticism, and feminist theology. Her theological methodology is grounded in Christian contemplative prayer—an experiential practice of un-mastery, longing, and purgation through silence that involves an epistemic transformation via a progressive recalibration of our desire that exposes human idolatries and a disciplined inculcation “of habitual dispositions of deeper attentiveness” to God and others (34). Coakley advances a théologie totale, an approach to systematic theology that dialogically engages disciplines outside of theology, such as science (evolutionary biology), critical gender theory, postmodern philosophy, the social sciences, and art. She contends that this integrative method is required at this present moment when the task of systematic theology is contested and being renegotiated.

This volume of engaging essays constitutes a preliminary assessment of Coakley’s work following the publication in 2013 of the first volume of her projected four-volume systematic theology: God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity.” These essays bring together a group of established and emerging scholars who seriously reckon with the manner in which Coakley is potentially shaping the future of systematic theology. These ten essays, in the end, are appreciative testimonies to the significance of her ambitious, innovative, traditional, and controversial work. The book also includes a very helpful bibliography of Coakley’s publications.

With the title’s “future of systematic theology” in mind, let me identify several issues that emerge from the essays. First of all, many of the essays, to varying degrees, engage Coakley’s théologie totale. Her method is praised for its interdisciplinary nature and its potential for a more holistic systematics. For example, two essays praise Coakley’s method for its promise regarding the theology-science dialogue. Eugene Rogers argues that “natural theology represents an integral part of théologie totale, not a denial it” (65), while Nicola Hoggard Creegan sees in Coakley’s method an opening for constructing a dialogue between science and theology that holds “the tensions and integrity of different disciplines while juxtaposing them and placing them in serious conversation” (136). Praising Coakley’s method for different reasons, Janice McRandal argues that mysticism, prayer, and asceticism are vital dimensions of systematic theology and not a set of sideshow texts, discourses, and practices. These dimensions identify epistemic and bodily transformations of the self—in encounter with the divine—that can address such concerns as race, gender, and sexuality.

More chastened in her reception of Coakley’s method than others, Brandy Daniels contends that in the end, Coakley “implicitly, if not explicitly, privileges theology over and against ‘secular’ knowledges” (73). Daniels is disturbed by Coakley’s (over) confidence in contemplation’s ability to engender patterns of transformation, arguing that Coakley “fails to attend to how this practice itself functions to bolster certain hegemonies of power, in this instance, the hegemony of academic theology” (81). In other words, the totalizing character of Coakley’s theology troubles Daniels. Embracing the “queer failure” of Judith Halberstam, Daniels proposes, but does not develop, a théologie bricolage, which has the same aim as théologie totale—union with the triune life by way of desire. It differs, says Daniels, “in that it believes that the path towards the Divine, like desire itself, is far more circuitous and complicated and paradoxical“ (96). I agree with Daniels’s critique of Coakley on this point; her argument warrants further attention and exploration.

A second set of issues is related to a leitmotif of Coakley’s theology: experiencing the Trinity in prayer. Granting the Holy Spirit a certain logical priority, Coakley privileges the experiential quality of access to the Trinity, an experience rooted in the practice of wordless prayer into which the self is brought into “a movement of divine reflexivity” through the incorporative agency of the Holy Spirit. From this touchstone of Coakley’s theology, Creegan offers one of the most intriguing essays in the book when she places Coakley in conversation with Friedrich Schleiermacher. Creegan makes the bold claim that “Coakley has extended the Schleiermacherian program” (116). She sees continuity between Schleiermacher’s phenomenological method and Coakley's insistence that theology begins with mystical and contemplative prayer. Of course, Coakley jumps from wordless prayer to the Trinity, a move that Schleiermacher did not make. In the end, Creegan’s claim needs to be taken seriously. Perhaps Coakley’s method—in dialogue with Schleiermacher— and alongside her abiding concerns regarding sexuality, gender, desire, and asceticism, may hold promise for recalibrating theological discussions on the place and significance of experience in theological discourse.

Two other issues arise from Coakley’s leitmotif. First of all, when Coakley talks about experiencing the Trinity in prayer, her discourse is individualistic. Creegan and Myles Werntz are both right to question how Coakley often construes the relationship between the Christian and God dyadically. “Her argument remains insufficiently attentive to the communal context necessary” for cultivating and practicing contemplative prayer (99). Secondly, given how so much of Coakley’s work on experience, contemplative prayer, and God rests on a reading of Romans 8, it is surprising that so little space is devoted in her work to an interpretation of this text. This problem opens up to the larger issue of biblical interpretation—or the lack thereof—in her theological method. Ben Myers’s essay is concerned with Coakley’s retrieval of the tradition of the spiritual senses. His argument that Coakley overlooks the “exegetical mysticism” (the practice of spiritual exegesis) of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa gestures toward the weak scriptural interpretative foundation of Coakley’s argument.

Given the present pneumatological shift in systematic theology, and the explosive growth and study of charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity, this volume does not adequately engage the theological energy of Coakley’s work: the improvisational, inclusive, incorporative agency of the Holy Spirit. This is a glaring absence in an otherwise excellent set of essays.

One final comment: Stephen Burns offers an astute and significant observation, that Coakley’s “firsthand experience of liturgical presidency has entered more deeply into the pores of her work, to great effect” (204). Burns’s comment, when combined with Coakley’s insight that prayer touches all aspects of our identities and lives, leads to the suggestion that her “unsystematic systematics” may be a form of lex orandi, lex crendidi, lex vivendi. Of course, we will have to wait and see if her completed systematic theology is such.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark S. Medley is Associate Professor of Theology at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Janice McRandal is director of systematic theology at Trinity College Queensland of Australian Catholic University. She earned a PhD in systematic theology at Charles Sturt University. Her volume Christian Doctrine and the Grammar of Difference is based on a dissertation completed at Charles Sturt University under the direction of Benjamin Myers.


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