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Course: Sarah Coakley

In the fall of 2015, God, Grace, and Gumption explored the theology of Sarah Coakley, an Anglican priest and the Norris-Hulse Professor of Philosophical Theology at Cambridge. Informed by the early church fathers, the great sixteenth-century Carmelites Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, and by a host of feminist philosophers such as Judith Butler and Luce Irigaray, Coakley's work throws open new possibilities for theological reflection on questions facing the church by combining rigorous attention to the tradition with an approach open to philosophical, scientific, and artistic insights and grounded, above all, in prayer. The recently published first volume of her systematic theology, God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay 'On the Trinity' (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) shows us how deep prayer in the Spirit implicates us in the trinitarian life of God. As we submit ourselves to God through the gentle self-effacement of kenotic, contemplative prayer, the Holy Spirit floods the soul, re-forming the us into the image of the Son and answering the call of the Father: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8.15-16). Animated by this leitmotif of sorts, Coakley's new book offers a fresh perspective on vexed questions facing today's church involving gender and sexuality, as well as exciting forays into church history, iconography and art, and the doctrine of the trinity.  

 

Introductions

Class One: Introduction to the Course

Reading: "Kenosis and Subversion: On the Repression of 'Vulnerability' in Christian Feminist Writing," in Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Malden: Blackwell, 2002).

Video Recording

 

To begin the course, Fr. Justin gives a brief introduction to Coakley's life and thought, focusing one of her earlier essays on the concept of 'kenosis' (Phil 2.4) and contemplation.

 

Class Two: Leitmotifs: Desire, Contemplative Prayer, and a Program for Theology

Reading: Read GSS, "Prelude"

Video Recording

 

Next we discuss the "Prelude" to God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay 'On the Trinity,' which sets out the tune we must learn to sing in order to understand the rest of the book: how deep prayer in the Spirit relates to the work of the trinity to bring our desire into alignment with God's.

 

 

Prayer and Desire

Class Three: Re-learning Gender

Reading: Read GSS, "Recasting 'systematic theology,'" pp. 51–60

Optional: Read GSS, pp. 33–51.

Video Recording

 

In this class, we take a look at Coakley's account of gender in Chapter 1 of God, Sexuality, and the Self. Drawing on early Christian sources, Coakley argues that the Spirit renders our gender flexible and fluid as we are incorporated into the life of God.

 

Class Four: Re-learning the Trinity

Reading: Read GSS, "Praying the Trinity"

Video Recording

 

Here we discuss the roots and motivations of trinitarian descriptions of God and introduce Coakley's account of the 'incorporative' or 'reflexive' trinity, exemplified by Romans 8:15-16: "For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God."

 

Class Five: Learning from the Church

Reading: Read GSS, "The charismatic constituency"

Video Recording

 

In this session, we explore the fieldwork in which Coakley tests her trinitarian theology, taking a close look, in particular, at the way the Christians she interviewed described their experience of God in prayer, their use and understanding of "tongues," and the difficulties they faced in prayer (especially apparent failure, dryness, and desolation). On the accounting of Coakley's theology and her fieldwork reflections, as one enters deeper into union with God, one enters, too, more deeply into the mystery of Christ's passion.

 

 

The Trinity

Class Six: How to paint God

Reading: Read GSS, "Seeing God"

Video Recording

 

Coakley provides a way to glean profound theological insight from visual art and shows us how art can serve as an important testing ground for doctrine. Visual depictions of the trinity often surface the temptation to sideline the Holy Spirit or to read God as straightforwardly masculine (despite the declared intentions of most theologians). They also show us how our understandings of trinitarian relations can be destabilized through movement and color.

 

Class Seven: Risky Trinitarianisms in Gregory Nyssen and Augustine

Reading: Read GSS, "'Batter My Heart'" 

Video Recording

 

In this class, we take a closer look at the thought of Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine of Hippo, two early theologians who have had a significant influence on the development of trinitarian thought in both eastern and western Christianity. Particularly, we ask how they imagine relationship—in God, between us and God as we are brought into union with God, and between the sexes.

 

Class Eight: The Ecstasy of God

Reading: Read GSS, "The primary of divine desire," pp. 308–322

Video Recording

 

Discussing the first half of the final chapter of Coakley's book, Fr. Justin treats the question of whether or not God's love (both intra-trinitarian and for us and all creation) can be described as erotic, and then summarizes Coakley's defense of a certain understanding of hierarchy (as she finds it in the Pseudo-Dionysius). As human love is incorporated into divine love, it is transformed and re-ordered such that it accords with the hierarchy of being structuring the universe.

 

Class Nine: Starting from the Spirit: The Trinity and Calling God 'Father'

Reading: Read GSS, "The primacy of divine desire," pp. 322–334

Video Recording

 

In this class, we move into the heart of Coakley's doctrine of the trinity, discussing her proposal for escaping the difficulties faced by those who seek to reconcile Eastern and Western theologies of the Trinity (by focusing on what happens to the Holy Spirit in both) and her answer to the question, "Can a Feminist Call God 'Father'?"

 

 

Class Ten: Conclusions: In the Interruption of the Spirit

Reading: Read GSS, "Coda: conclusions and beyond"

Video Recording

 

In his conclusion to the course, Fr. Justin reviews three main takeaways from Coakley's work for future theological work: (1) the importance of a thoroughly theological account of gender and sexuality to contemporary debates facing the church, (2) her refusal of a 'white-out' approach to either liturgy or doctrine, and (3) her expansion of sources crucial to theological reflection—specifically, art and prayer.

 

 

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