At a time of fierce contention with secularists and scientists, most theologians believe it is best to keep their heads down, argues Sarah Coakley, Norris-Hulse professor of divinity at the University of Cambridge.
Instead of “going out to fight with the enemy direct”, they opt to “stay within the circled wagons”, on the grounds that otherwise “you will get your head bitten off – and devalue the product [theology] in the process”.
But if that is a common view among her peers, it is very much not hers. Not only is she someone who “likes a fight”, she also worries that theologians are “acceding to their own marginalisation” by remaining “in the corner of the university talking to each other”. Her preference is rather to explore “how theology can come into creative interaction with secular thought, how it can make its case for itself, not in a bludgeoning but an engaging fashion”.
Coakley’s recent work only confirms the boldness of her engagements. God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity”, the first of a huge four-volume work of systematic theology to be called On Desiring God, addresses many crucial debates about gender. Her 2012 Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen, “Sacrifice Regained: Evolution, Cooperation and God”, audaciously returned to the 19th-century idea of “natural theology”, which held that contemplating the world around us can lead us to a belief in God. Much of her argument for this draws on the three years she spent “sitting in a top-rate Harvard research laboratory”, collaborating on an interdisciplinary project on evolution and cooperation with what she describes as “brilliant international postdocs milling around the centrally positioned espresso machine, and with other eminent faculty in mathematics, psychology, clinical medicine and biological science regularly pitching in too”.
The same research project also underlies a new essay collection, Evolution, Games, and God: The Principle of Cooperation, that Coakley edited with Martin Nowak, professor of mathematics and biology (and director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics) at Harvard University. The book is almost heroically interdisciplinary, touching on everything from brain science, meerkats and slime moulds to experimental economics and the theological concept of kenosis (or divine “self-emptying”).
All this makes Coakley exceptionally well placed to discuss the position of theology in today’s universities, and the role it can play in social and scientific debates. But I’m also keen to use our lunch at Kings Place in London to find out more about what drove her to become one of the UK’s most daring and prominent theologians.
She tells me that she comes from a religious background. Her mother is “a profoundly religious and spiritual person” and, although her father also “worshipped on the golf course”, she “can’t remember a time when God wasn’t a vibrant reality for me”. So much so that she already knew that she wanted to be a theologian by the age of 12.
After a first degree at Cambridge and a master’s at Harvard, Coakley returned to Cambridge for a short period before securing from Lancaster University a pioneering shared lectureship with her husband, which she held from 1976 to 1991. This experience proved “very cementing, as we had to stay together. The rule was: if one of you leaves, the other has to go.”
Since 1977, alongside her progress as an academic, she has been “exploring a particular kind of practice of attention, a form of prayer”.
“Sustained practices of silence are profoundly transformative over time of one’s spiritual and ethical perspective on the world,” she says. “Initially the undertaking can be quite fearful because – to put it in secular terms – you are encountering the unconscious, which can be very disturbing, destabilising, but at the same time there’s a sort of seepage into consciousness of all the creative material academics are otherwise trained to filter out…When I talk to a Buddhist who is also a practitioner I feel more in common than with many Christians.”
After Lancaster, Coakley spent two “very painful” years at a then highly traditionalist Oxford college, where she experienced “the extraordinary psychic difficulties of being the first woman in an all-male environment”.
She was met with what she terms “trivialisation”: “the assumption I couldn’t really do the job but had been appointed to look nice”, which led to “quite devious” behind-the-scenes attempts to undermine her. The atmosphere took its toll on the female students as well, almost all of whom “had some kind of neurotic problem: they had eczema, they picked their fingers, they suffered from depression – there was something about the culture that was not allowing them to flourish. When I got to Harvard in 1993, there was such a difference! The women there were sure of their own convictions and their own giftedness.” Coakley now has a rule of thumb that institutions begin to change significantly only once there are five women in senior positions.
But her 15 years at Harvard (1993-2007) – where, from 1995, she was Mallinckrodt professor of divinity – were not without their frustrations. She recalls that Lawrence Summers, who was president of the university from 2001 to 2006, was “totally opposed to any religious practice on his campus”.
“When he arrived, he banned the Dalai Lama from a conference – he didn’t want anyone in a robe in Harvard! That was a sort of declaration of war. He wanted a religion department that was secular: he didn’t want a divinity school that was training ministers. He had to back off because of antagonising alumni, but what he did instead was to try to secularise the place as much as possible. That was deeply unhappy for me. The indecision about what the divinity school was for made it difficult to operate with integrity.”
When Lawrence Summers arrived, he banned the Dalai Lama from a conference - he didn’t want anyone in a robe in Harvard! He wanted a religion department that was secular
It was partly because of this that Coakley decided to take on “a big flagship interdisciplinary investigation”. She was “given postdocs and space in Nowak’s lab, and spent a year there on a sort of sabbatical watching the number crunchers at work. He’s a devout but liberal Roman Catholic. We went out to lunch every Friday to talk about theology because he was keen to find a way of integrating his religious belief with his scientific work.”
At the heart of God, Sexuality, and the Self is the compelling and perhaps disconcerting claim that sexual desire is “the precious ‘clue’ woven into our created being reminding us of our rootedness in God”, not least because “the contemplative on her knees well knows the messy entanglement of sexual desire and the desire for God”. Rigorously argued, the text also makes appeal to the insights derived from contemplative practices that “involve the stuff of learned bodily enactment, sweated out painfully over months and years, in duress, in discomfort, in bewilderment, as well as in joy and dawning recognition”.
Each planned volume of On Desiring God will take in one of the arts because, as the first volume puts it, “to allow oneself to be caught off guard, disturbed, intrigued, irritated, freshly inspired or even reduced to mirth” by such an experimental approach to academic writing is “precisely part of the searching of dark corners that my method bespeaks”.
Each volume will also draw on theological fieldwork. The forthcoming second volume will describe Coakley’s experiences when she was training for the priesthood and working in a Boston jail with black men between the ages of 17 and 23, most of whom were in for minor drugs offences.
“I was asked to teach them practices of attention,” she recalls. “They were doing a programme of anger management and post-addiction training, which involved learning to deal with their own inner turmoil…Their whole social status depended on a policing culture that ensured they would be cycled round criminality for at least the first few decades of their lives. When they engaged with practices lacking in immediate gratification, they were enormously empowered. One of them said to me: ‘I get it! This practice is the opposite of drugs.’ It’s a wonderful insight.”
But, I suggest, doesn’t her impassioned, wide-ranging and somewhat experimental brand of theology put her at odds with the modern academic imperative to produce a stream of methodologically “safe” works that peers on research assessment panels are likely to smile upon?
“It’s risky to be appealing to prayer and contemplation as well as to argument,” she agrees. “The nature of the university right now, and the way our work has come to be policed, makes it seem a little unusual. But if you don’t take such risks in our subject, you are painting yourself into a corner of extinction, because the claims of theology have always been about the nature of God in relation to the world…[It is not enough to] talk about what other people have said about the nature of God – that’s safe, but it’s reducing theology to textual criticism and anthropology.”
Furthermore, Coakley believes that “there are a set of seeming irresolvable questions in contemporary culture”, such as many of those relating to gender and race, “where we seem to have reached an impasse” – but which now “deserve critical theological illumination from a left-field perspective”. In God, Sexuality, and the Self, she sets out to develop a form of feminism that disputes the idea that “submission to God” is “the opposite of female empowerment”, noting that “it’s a strong strand in my writing that submission to the right and only and true source of power empowers you better than any form of worldly power”.
Meanwhile, with Evolution, Games, and God, Coakley, Nowak and their contributors have stepped right into the heart of the disputes between science and religion.
Central to the book is an attempt to think through the implications of new mathematical models of “the impact of cooperation on evolutionary processes”. Nowak argues that there are “three principles” of evolution and cautions that mutation and selection alone, without the third principle of cooperation, “may not give rise to complexity”.
This issues a direct challenge to the “story of evolution as something propelled entirely by selfishness”, which Coakley and Nowak take to be the message of Richard Dawkins’ seminal 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. They also speculate that “the intensification of the idea of evolutionary selfishness” may be linked with “a Western market bubble that has subsequently burst”.
I remind Coakley of a striking aside in her Gifford Lectures about the “great secret that men rarely discuss”, namely that “sacrifice is being done all the time physiologically in the tiring and painful human business of pregnancy, birth-giving and lactation”.
Yes, she agrees, “self-giving is a reality. I think Nowak’s work points directly to those features of evolutionary life that haven’t been sufficiently reflected on. Nature red in tooth and claw is dominatingly there, but other things are going on as well. No clear gender theory can be read off the results of evolution. What you can read off is the productive significance of certain forms of sacrificial behaviour. The whole process can’t occur without those. That allows us to look at the spectrum of evolution in a way that has been deeply out of fashion.”
But whether or not we agree that a religious perspective on sacrifice and cooperation can sustain a fruitful dialogue with modern evolutionary theory, it is hard to disagree with Coakley about the sheer importance of cooperation to our future as a species. “I think we are at a moment when cooperation either is or isn’t going to go into a completely different gear of operating globally,” she says. “We now have the communications systems to be able to do that. Do we have the moral purpose? If we don’t, there are certain pressing problems for the human race we can’t solve.”