The woman before the cross

May 17, 1996

Sarah Coakley tells Elaine Williams why, as a feminist theologian, she believes in vulnerability before God and an eroticised notion of prayer

My feminism, I think, was born on my knees." Sarah Coakley, professor of Christian theology at Harvard University is describing how her theology has developed through the painful business of contemplative prayer.

Her thesis is paradoxical and is perceived by some female theologians to have dangerous implications. Coakley believes that the real long-term danger to Christian feminism is the repression of all forms of vulnerability, a failure to confront issues of fragility and suffering except through the perspective of women as victims.

Her argument derives from her desire to work within the Christian tradition, constantly pressing for what it can be made to yield when confronted with feminist questions. Not only is she a Christian, but she is a churchgoer as well and an Anglo-Catholic one at that, a sector of the Anglican church that, in places, is positively rank with misogyny.

According to Coakley, those who dismiss as victims women who take on "vulnerability" before God are "failing to embrace a feminist reconceptualising of the power of the cross and resurrection". She says: "Only by facing the paradoxes of 'losing one's life in order to save it', can feminists hope to construct a vision of the Christic 'self' that transcends the gender stereotypes we are seeking to upend."

She acknowledges that "vulnerability" has been a taboo subject because it can appear to condone damage to women from sexual and physical abuse and the seeming legitimisation of this by men "committed to the rhetoric of cruciform redemption". This is treacherous territory, precisely because women were perceived by the early church fathers as the ultimate tempting barrier to effective contemplation, turning men away from their quasi-erotic journey towards God. Coakley says she wants to see what feminist contemplation might look like philosophically worked out "and I am certain it doesn't look like the male orgasmic version" with its mystical blinding epiphanies.

The real challenge of feminist theology she states, is not simply to rubbish the overt misogynism of many of the fathers, but to unpick the connecting strands; the relationship in their writings between the sexual, the devotional, the political and the doctrinal in order to "rethread a new tapestry, a new alignment of the sexual and the theological in which women are no longer cast as that which distracts from the divine." She sets this within what she regards as a contemporary feminist dilemma: a quest for individual self-determination that does not deny or undermine the significance of dependencies or relationships.

Needless to say her critics have been vociferous. Post-Christian feminists such as Daphne Hampson, at St Andrew's University, vehemently reject the idea that "vulnerability" can have positive value, as does a Catholic feminist like Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Coakley's colleague at Harvard.

Coakley's work has been described as poetic. Although she has only written one book, born of her doctoral thesis on the German liberal theologian Ernst Troeltsch, her reputation flourished with the delivery of the Hulsean lectures at Cambridge in 1992, which caused ripples of excitement.

A brilliant student at Cambridge she emerged with a first, but in a course that was biblically based she longed to grapple with the philosophy of religion and systematic theology and to explore how historical relativism challenged the absolutist tenets of Christian doctrine.

At Cambridge she was introduced to Troeltsch's writings and was smitten: "The apparent choice required between these two, the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith was as much a Christological bugbear in Troeltsch's generation as it is in ours." She worked up the material for her doctoral thesis during two years as a Harkness scholar at Harvard. Eventually she came under some pressure from Edward Hardy, an American friend and priest, to visit the Cowley Fathers, a stone's throw from where she lived.

"The monastery was perfectly ghastly," she said. "There was a strong homoerotic atmosphere and total fear of women. But after a while I discovered you could go to mass there at 7.30 in the morning, and you didn't have to talk to any of the monks and to my disgust something began to take root. I think it was a sort of contemplative dimension which had always been a buried strand."

On her return to England Sarah married James Farwell Coakley, an American, and the two became celebrated as the first academic couple to job share, having been offered a lectureship in religious studies at the University of Lancaster.

The move to Lancaster marked the beginning of a very painful phase. She was attempting to finish her doctoral thesis, she was coping with early motherhood - Edith, her first child, "rivalled the desert Fathers for feats of ascetical sleeplessness" - and she continued to move towards contemplative prayer, a struggle that marked the "blackest phase of my life".

She said: "Anyone who goes in for silent prayer of any sort is asking for a hard time. The very fact you are courting the unconscious means you are bombarded with oppressed material and you have to cope with that - so I let myself in for seven years of painful inner work and I was in a pretty bad state, but it marked a turning point in my whole intellectual development.

"All my liberal, intellectual presumptions about Christianity began to collapse through contemplation, so that my suspicion, say, of the miraculous, as inherently incapable of chartable evidence, began to just fall away because supernatural things were happening to me. What I felt was a pressure coming to bear on me from God." She immersed herself in psychoanalytic literature "to come to terms with the unconscious pressing upon me," and underwent a revolution in the God image. Her feminism, she said, was born properly here.

She came to see that the prime problem for a Christian feminist was the relationship between sexual desire and desire for God "because no one can spend long on their knees in silence without having to confront their own sexuality".

What happened in contemplation was a drawing "of one's entire life towards one source which is undeniably proto-erotic". Mystics in the Christian tradition had unified God's love for us and our love for Him with a celibate male's version of eroticism "firmly excluding the woman as a fatal diversion from this goal". "There you have the problem," she says, "that both made me a feminist and drives my current work. How are you going to rethread the connections without throwing out the entire vision which I believe to be profoundly true?"

She has defended herself rigorously from feminist criticism that views this whole eroticised notion of prayer as a masculinist perversion, male sexuality writ large.

In many ways the resolution of her personal struggles at Lancaster through a new direction in her work, hardened her for the further problems she was to face at Oriel College, Oxford, where she was the first female fellow. But things did not turn out well. Rowan Williams, the Bishop of Monmouth and former Lady Margaret professor of divinity at Oxford, said that Oxford behaved badly and "was hell for Sarah", though she "had a tremendous impact on undergraduates and was extraordinarily refreshing."

Coakley is discreet on the affair, save to say her job was made impossible because she was not permitted to do what she had been appointed to do. She found herself caught in the "culture wars between analytic philosophy and religion and another set of wars about relationships in the college". After considerable unpleasantness the college backed down. In her view: "Oxford is a very, very conservative theology faculty and I think it is committing suicide by promoting the dead hand of tradition." She laid on the first course in feminist theology at Oxford with sensational results. Hundreds of people attended the lectures, as many men as women.

She said: "The most surprising presence was all the conservative men, the Greek Orthodox monks and conservative Catholics. What they couldn't understand and were fascinated by, was the fact that I was using very traditional, spiritual sources, asking questions about the relationship of sexuality and spirituality and trying to weave that into my theology. People would come around in droves to talk to me further". It was a "bizarre" period for Coakley combining a huge groundswell of support with "stolid negativity and worse" from some quarters in the college. Thankfully, Harvard intervened in all of this, offering her a chair in divinity.

Coakley believes she is regarded as something of a curious oddity at Harvard, though as always she has immense pulling power with students. She said: "It's bizarre for me to leave a place where I was regarded as so left-wing, so outre as to be falling off the edge, to a place where I am now regarded as so conservative and traditional as to be very suspect. Am I simply the same person who crossed the Atlantic?"

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