Centering Prayer: A Door into the Trinity and Beyond Self

This is a guest blog by David Rawls.

In this blog I will be presenting a method of praying which helps us to better access the Trinity in our prayer lives.  Whereas many approach the topic of Trinity and prayer from a theological position, I plan to avoid an exegesis of such terms. It is my hope to provide a rarely used tool called centering prayer, which I believe can help us enter into the Holy Trinity.  The Apostle Paul may have had in mind centering prayer when he wrote Romans 8:26-27: “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.  And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”

Centering prayer by its very nature takes the focus off the one praying and seeks to focus on the Trinity.  Sarah Coakley believes this type of prayer, found in Romans 8, is a way in which a believer yields to the Spirit which then allows the Spirit to direct toward what is most important.  She says, “prayer at its deepest is God’s, not ours, and takes the pray-er beyond any normal human language or rationality of control.”[1]  Simply put praying in this manner is a way in which we listen and God talks.  Bruce Demarest further suggests that the goal is “to permit the Holy Spirit to activate the life-giving Word of God.”[2]

So, what is centering prayer?  Thomas Keating defines it as “a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship.”[3] So what are the practical ways to foster this discipline?  Here are a few practical steps which come from Michael Frost’s book Surprise the World.

Eliminate Distractions

Frost suggests that listening to the Holy Spirit is not an easy task.  One must seek to eliminate anything which might be a distraction.  It is important to avoid things which might interfere with your contemplative time.  Sights, sounds, smells and even taste can become a hindrance to listening to the Holy Spirit.  The quieter the place where you will be praying the better to eventually hear the Holy Spirit.  Matthew 6:6 reminds us from Jesus’ prayer that one should go into their room or closet.  The idea is that one needs to remove distractions.  Frost suggests that finding a comfortable position is essential.  This of course will depend on a person’s preferences.  He also suggests that if you clasp your hands together so that they are not moving it will make you less aware of them while you listen.  Closing your eyes is also important as it helps keep light out and helps us focus simply on God.  Personally, I have been trying this method at intervals of 10 minutes but Frost suggests 20 minutes or more, as he believes something happens many times 10 to 15 minutes into your quiet time.

Let God In

It becomes important that as you start in contemplative prayer time that you do not begin by asking questions or telling the Holy Spirit what you want.  The goal is simply to enjoy God’s presence.  Rather than controlling the Holy Spirit you are wanting the Holy Spirit to control you.  Frost says that we will be tempted at times to want the Holy Spirit to get to the point or to reveal what he wants.  If Coakley is correct, we need to believe prayer is not ours as much as it is God’s.  It is up to God to speak and reveal to us.  It is our job to let God in and have the place for him to do it.  Frost would say, simply let God’s love lavish you.  Phil Fox Rose says when we go into centering prayer it is important to “resist no thought; retain no thought; react to no thought.”[4]  Our minds are usually busy.  To simply not have any thoughts can be discouraging.  Frost suggests that we can help our minds by possibly saying things like,  “Amen, Abba, grace, love, peace and even let go.”  Ultimately, in centering prayer we let thoughts happen.  Frost says that the more we practice this discipline the more our thoughts will slow down so that we might hear the Holy Spirit.

Follow God’s Promptings

When we begin to quiet ourselves we may start to hear promptings which God gives us.  These promptings can be missional in nature.  God may place on our minds a person we need to see or talk to or even revisit.  The Spirit may prompt us to help someone in need.  Is it possible that when the Apostle Paul received his Macedonian call he was using the centering method?  Certainly this fits Paul’s theology of Romans 8 where it seems the prayer life he promotes is focused more on listening rather than petitioning.  The prompting can also lead us to a sin for which we need to ask forgiveness, or changes we need to make in the form of repentance.  A God-prompting can also help in restoring relationships. Not every encounter will prompt us to do something.  It is likely that most promptings simply will be for us to experience God’s presence in our life.  In this manner, as we simply enjoy God, we can be certain that the Holy Spirit is groaning and interceding on our behalf (Romans 8:27).  This is by no means a secondary reaction but a way to be reminded and encouraged that God is alive and well and that we are loved by Him.  Frost says that this is a time when God can bring oxygen to the soul of the believer.

Centering prayer is a great tool for the believer to enter into the life of the Trinity and to be shaped by the Trinity.  Referring back to Romans 8, we find that this may be the way a believer can focus on the things of the Spirit and not on the flesh. Ultimately this is one of the themes of Romans 8.  This is the purpose of centering prayer.  It brings us directly into the Trinity.  We are no longer praying to a God “out there” but we enter into the very Godhead itself. Coakley describes it this way; “an act of cooperation with, and incorporation into, the still extending life of the incarnation.”  Centering prayer reminds us that as we pray to the Father, the Holy Spirit prays for us in words we don’t even know, to conform us into the likeness of Jesus.  This is our goal to be more like Jesus.

[1] Coakley, Sarah. God, Sexuality, and the Self (p. 115). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Bruce Demarest, Satisfy Your Soul, (Colorado Springs: Nav Press, 1999), p. 133


[4] Phil Fox Rose, “Meditations for Christians,” On the Way,


Conceiving God: The Veneration of Mary and the Denigration of the Spirit

Privileging The Feminine Work of the Spirit

Romans 8 pictures a birth in progress, in which the Holy Spirit, all of creation, and humanity share in the groanings of travail which culminate in the incorporation of the children of God into the divine family. There is a conception in progress, the prime reality Paul is conveying, and his readers are simultaneously being conceived and conceiving. The two conceptions are interwoven, as incorporation into the divine order is inclusive of human realization. There is a dynamic of prayer, in which those praying do not know rightly; they cannot formulate their requests but the Spirit intercedes in the communion-communication-conception, so that engendering them into the divine intercommunication is birth in progress. The imagery is of the Spirit interpenetrating, indwelling, coalescing, incorporating, empathizing, so as to bring about the fulness of a love relationship. This binding together in the Spirit of love is an unbreakable bond in which all of created and uncreated reality converge, and while God is beyond gender, the imagery here privileges the feminine-like role of the Spirit. Even the fatherhood of God, or the Abba relationship enabled through the Son, is accessed and completed through the Spirit.

Confusing the Law with God

Chapter 8 contrasts with the masculine, commanding, principled, punishing, alienating, depiction of the law in chapter 7 (vs. 7-25). The implicit question of chapter 7 (answered in chapter 8), concerns the role of the law in perceiving God. Where God is known through the law, he is separate and dangerous. He dictates, prohibits, proscribes, and inscribes on stone and there is no sharing or incorporation. His Theophanous appearance is repellent to the senses, such that he cannot be looked upon, and only through special permission can Moses, from the cleft in the rock, view his trace.  He then disappears behind an impenetrable veil, leaving nothing for the eyes or the senses.

So too in chapter 7, everything proves ungraspable: the good or right action, the enactment of the will, understanding “what I am doing,” even the principle of the law. Though desire or coveting concerns the senses, the only object of desire which presents itself is the law. In verse 23 he sees this law, or at least its effects in his body, but even here it is not really an object of sight or any positive object for the senses, as it is felt only in its antagonism with the law of the mind. The depiction of 7 is of an ego who would reappropriate himself through the law, yet the law divides even from his own body. Where chapter 8 depicts an incorporating unity of all creation into the life of God, chapter 7 lacks any space other than the law and the law acts only as a point of division. The only portion of the created order to appear in chapter 7 is the body, but even this body is written over with a law that makes it inaccessible. Where chapter 8 is infinitely expansive and incorporative, chapter 7 describes the opposite movement of reduction, restriction, dis-communion, and uncommunication. Nothing is conveyed, nothing is grasped, and nothing is seen.

The key turn in chapter 7 is perhaps, verse 10. The expectation of this law was that it would produce life, but this proved to be the entry point of the deception of sin, which “killed me.” In Genesis 3, the deception of sin was that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would produce life, and so could displace God. The prohibition was not to eat of this tree, but this prohibition was not life-giving per se, as the tree of life, representing the presence of God, was the source of life. In Paul’s argument, the Jewish and Gentile type of person constitutes a singular form that can be summed up under Adam (so that the Jewish encounter with the Decalogue also falls under Adam’s encounter with God’s prohibition).  Due to sin the Jews attempted to establish their own righteousness through the law and failed to combine it with faith (10:3ff).  Paul’s argument throughout the letter is that the law is not an end in itself; at its origin is the faith and example of Abraham and at its end is the fulfillment of Christ.  Law alone, apart from this faith, is void and nullifies the promise (4:14). The work of sin is to skew the perception of the promise of life in the law, so as to remove the necessity of God and leave only the reality of the law. The Mosaic law, like the prohibition in the garden, may have been a pointer or guide, but to imagine that it contains life is to confuse the law with God.

The Law and Gospel as Masculine Incompleteness

This principle of life in the law reduces life to a singular principle which, if one can grasp or obtain it, enfolds all of reality into this singularity – which is, of course, the lie of sin.  This mistake is gendered masculine in the story of Babel and Abraham, in that Abraham is turned away from the Babel notion that he can make a name for himself through his towering (pro)creative powers. Circumcision marks the spot of the accepted incompleteness and dependence on God. This castration cut short exposes the satanic lie (you won’t die), which might otherwise have been repressed. The function of the law and of circumcision was to open the reality of death and mortality and to point to God as the source of life.

The law stood against idolatry but idolatry simply enacts the proclivity to displace God with human creative powers. The typical idol was phallic; a male ordering of reality. The problem is not maleness or procreation, but it is to imagine this alone produces life.  In turn, to imagine that circumcision or the law contains life is to make the law into an idol. It is to miss the counterpoint of the mark of circumcision. The mark means life, procreative power, endurance in the face of death, is only possible with God. For Abraham, this was a reality he committed himself to in his journey of faith.

The question Paul raises in Romans 7:7, might be translated as, “Is the law the Thing? Can’t all things be summed up in this Singularity? Aren’t all things reducible to this Symbolic Order?” Here is a disavowal of the meaning of the mark of circumcision and a return to the original sin. By giving oneself completely over to the symbolic order of law (the knowledge of good and evil), death is denied and sexual difference refused. The naked and ashamed condition of the first couple must relate to their genital difference which exposes the lie, “You will be like gods.” Likewise, beneath the denial of the meaning of circumcision (law) is the denial of death and a refusal of the contingencies of sexual difference. Nothing is lacking as the law is sufficient and “I” can enact the law (the law of sin and death). The question Paul poses is impossible for those who have already presumed that they have life in the law. The law is sin; it is the denial of death and sexuality, and there is no questioning of the all-encompassing order of the law. In this law ordered reality, God is masculine, singular, transcendent, and hidden behind and accessed through the law. This traditional masculine account of God subordinates any trace of difference – difference within the God-head and difference between the sexes (the bearers of the image of the Godhead).

This indifferent God is displaced in Trinitarian difference. As in Romans 8, this difference is an enacted realization in which “the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you” (8:11) and the law of life in the Spirit displaces the law of sin and death (8:2). The image is of the Father’s Spirit raising Jesus and incorporating believers into an egalitarian unified Trinitarian community. The Trinity incorporates difference into unity, so that male/female, slave/free, and Jew/Gentile are all given an identity that surpasses former modes of identity. Romans and a large portion of the letters of the New Testament, are written to ward off the legal, idolizing tendency, of Judaizers who would make the law absolute and so return Christians to this former mode of doing identity. This continued struggle with the masculine principle of idolatry characterizes the subsequent Christian age.

 Though there are abundant signs that in the early church women were apostles, prophets, deaconesses, missionaries, ministers, and were counted equal to men, the tendency was to gradually subordinate the feminine aspect of God, and this was marked by the simultaneous denigration of women.[1] Where God is masculine the male is most divine-like, and women are completed by men, so that theirs is a complementary role lacking its own substance. Patriarchy, monarchy, the privileging of fathers and sons, and a society premised on male sameness flowed from this masculine God. At the same time, the incorporating, birthing, empathetic groaning, qualities of the Spirit, tended to be written or drawn over (literally in iconography) by masculine images of God.

The Iconographic Subordination of the Spirit

When the Greek East and Latin West began to divide, primarily over their different understandings of the processions of the Trinity, Western iconography focuses on the Father and Son with the near loss of images of the Spirit. As Sarah Coakley describes it, “The simultaneous ‘feminization’ of the Spirit in some paintings, and the regular replacement of the Spirit by the Virgin Mary, represent important implicit relocations of female power and presence, but arguably serve more to shore up cultural stereotypes of ‘femininity’ rather than dissolve them.”[2] While it could be argued that the adoration of Mary, reflected in the art, represents an appreciation of the feminine, Coakley’s point is that it seems to reflect a reduction in status of feminine characteristics from the divine to the human.[3] The reduction of the power of the flaming Holy Spirit, first to a soft cooing dove and then to a woman, indicates that the greater the feminization the more the redundancy. The focus is no longer on God giving birth, incorporating, and indwelling as part of his saving action, as these attributes are relegated to a human female stand-in.

With the emphasis in the West on substitutionary atonement, in which Christ’s death satisfied the Father and secured forgiveness, male images of the Father and Son complete the edging out of the Spirit. The dove, where it does make its appearance, is often small and hard to find so that one has to go dove hunting to locate the Spirit. As Coakley notes in typical British understatement, this “witnesses to a less than vibrant pneumatology in the theological thinking that attends the type.”[4] For example, in Hans Holbein the Elder’s memorial for Augsburg (on the eve of the Reformation), punishment and pain are accentuated with the vengeful Father sheathing his sword only upon the pleadings of the wounded Son and the Virgin, who is baring her breast and begging (above her are the words): “Lord, sheathe thy sword that thou hast drawn and see my breast where the Son has sucked.” Here the Virgin has displaced the Spirit and even in this reduced role she only pleads to the Father on behalf of the Son.

Coakley’s comments on a miniature in an eleventh-century Winchester manuscript serve to sum up what she calls “the subterranean pathology of Western ideas of inner-trinitarian relations.” The Father and Son huddled together on the right side of the picture are trampling on the devil, Arius (a heretic) and Judas, while all things feminine (i.e., a dejected looking dove and the Virgin holding a fragile baby) are excluded from the inner divine council. Coakley concludes, “For it is clear where the real power, the real locus of salvific activity, resides in this remarkable manuscript miniature: the left-hand figures, in contrast, strain to gain entry into that salvific realm of eternal male spiritual authority. Has the sense of ‘feminine’ exclusion from the realm of male divinity ever been more masterfully expressed?”[5]

Reconceiving God

Those images which best represent a Romans 8 mutual reception and procession, often depict a circular incorporating movement. In the mystical vision of Hildegard of Bingen, a silver outer circle, representing the Father, and a golden inner circle, representing the Spirit, encompass the figure of Christ. In her theology and iconography, the Spirit is a central theme – picturing, perhaps, Jesus’ explanation to Philip, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), and Paul’s understanding, “No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12. 3). Likewise, William Blake depicts the Father humbly bending to embrace the Son, who is lying as if on the cross (the cross or any orientating feature is absent). The Spirit forms an all-encompassing background, with outstretched wings mirroring and extending beyond the Son’s outstretched arms. The lack of any grounded perspective, makes it seem “the turned-around Christ is veritably leaping into the Father’s arms, in an ecstasy of simultaneous joy and costly gift.” The movement is from death into the waiting arms of the Father and the enfolding wings of the Spirit and thus a leap into life.[6] A final modern sketch that, in Coakley’s opinion best captures the imagery of Romans 8, depicts a Christ like pray-er with his palms turned upward in supplication, with a flaming dove receiving the prayer from the heart and channeling it into the vortex of the “Father,” represented in arms reaching toward a downward embrace. In Coakley’s words, “The downward movement is thus returned – balanced – by an upward one; and both are taken up into the ‘apophatic’ whirl of a circular tunnel reaching out and up to the unknown.”[7]

The biblical depiction of the law as a warning against and displacement of phallic idolization, and then the New Testament deliverance from the idolatry of the law (Paul equates the turn to law to a return to idolatry) directs us to an incorporating Trinitarian conception of God. The danger, illustrated in the iconography, is of returning to the masculine idolizing principle and of losing the birthing, indwelling, interpenetrating, bond of love, enacted by the Spirit.

[1] Noteworthy here is the recent find of a cathedral, dating to the 5th century, honoring women ministers. “The Holy Mother Sophronia. Theodosia the deaconess. Gregoria the deaconess. These are some of the women lovingly memorialized at a magnificent Byzantine basilica that Israeli archaeologists have uncovered in the southern city of Ashdod.” Thank you Matt.

[2] Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self (197-198). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] The feminization of the Spirit may already indicate relegation to a secondary status.

[4] Coakley, 211-212.

[5] Coakley, 247-248

[6] Coakley, 255-256.

[7] Coakley, 258-259.

Sarah Coakley’s Confusion of Sinful and Redemptive Suffering

Some conceptions (popular and academic) of Christian experience fail to distinguish between the suffering experienced due to sin (as depicted in Romans 7) and the prayerful groanings compared to childbirth (as depicted in Romans 8) connected to the redemption of all things. The former is a complete futility which gives rise to a living death, while the latter is a joyful, hope filled, experience of a new form of human subjectivity, no longer defined by the old order of oppression and suffering. Paul spends most of chapter 7 describing a form of suffering that is definitive in its all-consuming alienating agony. This suffering is the product of being separated from the love and life of God, and apart from the remedy of life in the Spirit, this suffering reduces one to complete wretchedness and death (7:24). There is suffering in chapter 8 but, in light of the hope of glory, this suffering is in no way definitive. Paul suggests it is not worthy of comparison to the hope of glory (8:17) and it is not a suffering of death but is likened to labor pain. Paul goes so far as to list the possible sufferings of the Christian – tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword (8:35) – but the point is that, unlike sinful suffering, this suffering cannot separate from the love of God. No matter the type of suffering or its source (death, life, angels, principalities, present and future, powers, height, depth, created thing (8:38-39)) this sort of suffering is not of the same order as that which can, indeed, separate from the love of God. Confusing the two forms of suffering can result in a practical misunderstanding of the normative tenor and experience of the Christian life, a misunderstanding of both suffering and redemption, and ultimately a misunderstanding of God.

At both a popular and academic theological level, the failure to delineate forms of suffering results in the valorization of suffering per se, such that it can be presumed one must continually contend with poverty of spirit, depression, darkness, or even abuse and oppression, so as to be spiritual. The compounding of the problem of mental illness and depression by well-meaning Christians (a common experience I witnessed with several friends and students in a Christian college) is bad enough, but more troubling is that the best of theologians (the very ones I admire and depend upon), are guilty of the same error. In both instances there is a tendency toward sacralizing suffering, as if suffering per se is redemptive.

Sarah Coakley is one of the most nuanced of contemporary theologians and while avoiding the cruder forms of heterodoxy, she nonetheless reifies suffering, making it integral to salvation. She speaks of a “productive suffering” and “a productive or empowering form of ‘pain’.”[1] What we learn from John of the Cross, according to Coakley, is that “physical and spiritual pain are inexorably welded together” and the “subjective experience,” whatever happens to him “neurologically or physiologically,” is of “a progressive transformation into God, even if only retrospectively understood.”[2] While we might agree that suffering is a “necessity” in one sense, in that it is tied to human experience and Christian experience, the error is to speak of it as a positive necessity, integral to salvation and Christian maturity. As Linn Tonstad has put it, Coakley’s depiction of being vulnerable and open to God “continually, inextricably, and intrinsically involves suffering.”[3]  

I am presently using Coakley’s, God, Sexuality and the Self, as a text in a course on the Holy Spirit and am in enthusiastic agreement with her description of contemplative prayer as a point of entry into reflection on the Trinity.  Her innovative examination of Romans 8 and focus on the key role of the Spirit make her text one of the best of contemporary resources, and my critique in no way undermines the basic premise of her work. But the tone of her depiction of contemplative prayer and her peculiar attachment to suffering of a particular bent, bear the mark of not having delineated the two varieties of suffering Paul is describing. Even where one might completely agree with her description of Christian suffering, the question concerns the integral necessity and quality of the suffering and the fact that there is no counterbalancing joy, peace, or simply resting in God’s presence from which one might begin. Suffering seems to be, for her, the point of departure into the deeper Christian life.

Take for example her opening description of the work of contemplative prayer:

Such deepening of vision will eventually also involve at some point a profound sense of the mind’s darkening, and of a disconcerting reorientation of the senses – these being inescapable fallouts from the commitment to prayer that sustains such a view of the theological enterprise. The willingness to endure a form of naked dispossession before God; the willingness to surrender control (not to any human power, but solely to God’s power); the willingness to accept the arid vacancy of a simple waiting on God in prayer; the willingness at the same time to accept disconcerting bombardments from the realm of the ‘unconscious’: all these are the ascetical tests of contemplation without which no epistemic or spiritual deepening can start to occur.[4]

As she makes clear further on, she is not simply presuming suffering is part of growth, but she is positing a necessary dereliction of the sort which caused Christ to cry out in forsakenness on the cross. That is, every Christian will have to pass through the dereliction of abandonment experienced by Christ. If Christ’s Spirit is that which is “breathed out of his scarred body” then this “fire of purgation (T. S. Eliot’s ‘flame of incandescent terror’, if you will)” must be allowed for along with “the refreshment of the comforting dove.” She concludes by asking, “Could it be that the acceptance of Christo-morphic pain is part and parcel of the full acceptance of trinitarianism in the ‘church’ type of Christianity?”[5]

Though she does not describe the contrast and means of passage from sin (in Romans 7) and life in the Spirit (in chapter 8), Coakley recommends a prayerful life of purgation as the/a means of transition. She says as much in her appeal to St. John of the Cross, where she describes the necessity of “negative pressure, causing disturbance, deep uneasiness, the highlighting of sin and even the fear of insanity. Such are the death throes of the domineering ego.”[6] As Cha Boram describes it, she equates “dark experiential vulnerability,” such as that found in Christ’s cry of dereliction, with a turn to dependence on God. She simultaneously sets aside the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (suggesting it is not biblical) and turns to what she calls “noetic blankness” or “that-without-which-there-would-be nothing-at-all” as the point of ultimate dependence.[7] Jacques Lacan, an atheist, would concur as he too sees the subject as arising via a reified nothingness (an atheistic creation ex nihilo). His is a subjectivity circulating the power of negation (referencing Romans 7 in his argument). It is not clear how one would distinguish Coakley’s dependence on “that-without-which-there-would-be nothing-at-all” and Lacan’s dependence on a reified nothing. Rather than a recognition of dependence on next to nothingness overcoming or destroying the ego, Lacan, in his reading of Romans 7, sees death, nothingness and anxiety as the very substance of the ego.    

The ego of Romans 7 cannot be overcome by being starved, dissolved, dispossessed, or denied, as this defines the very energetics which give it reality. The “negative pressure, causing disturbance, deep uneasiness, and the highlighting of sin and even the fear of insanity” describes the power of this ego. It is anxiety, fear, and insanity by definition. Of course, this is not anything real or part of God’s good creation. It is the substance and dynamic of a lie that has the failed subject in its grip.

Coakley’s imagined defeat of this ego (through negation, disturbance, etc.) duplicates Paul’s description of the substance of the ego. Both are a description of the energetics of the body of death. The difference is, she lends a reality to this domineering ego which Paul would deny. In Paul’s description, one does not get rid of this lie by engaging its negative pressure but by being joined to the truth.

Coakley describes negativity as if it is part of the reality of being conformed to Christ, on the order of the agony in the garden, or the dereliction of the cross, making no distinction between the suffering of Christ and sinful human suffering. She concludes that the “all too human experiences of anxiety and desolation” are indicators of “the most powerful and active presence of God.” I fear this failure to discriminate pictures redemption in the language of Paul’s depiction of sin in its reification of suffering and death.

Coakley misses the stark contrast between the human subjects portrayed in the two chapters (Romans 7 & 8). The “I” split within himself, colonized by sin, in continual agony due to an oppressive orientation to sin, is deceived and this deception is definitive. This “I” does not arrive at life in the Spirit through intensifying his struggle, as this struggle is deadly and marks “I” as wretched and hopeless. The subject of 7 is without hope, without the Spirit, without prayer, without Abba Father, without Christ, and all he has is law and a desire which has overtaken him in deception with death. This subject is suffering, but this suffering is not redemptive but deadly. The intensification of the suffering seems to be its natural trajectory but no matter how intense, this suffering does not produce the Christian subject of chapter 8.

The only way to move from the deadly suffering of 7 to the birth pangs of 8 is through a change of subject. The passage from the subject of chapter 7 to that of chapter 8 has already been detailed in chapter 6 (verses 3-4): “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Paul’s call is for the Roman Christians to live up to their baptism and to the fact that they have been joined to the death of Christ. Having been joined to him they now have his resurrection power, so that they might “walk in newness of life.” They are not joined to the death of Christ through their own dereliction but through his. It is not their capacity to overcome sin but his which enables them to reorder their lives. Paul is calling them to act like who they are. He calls them to take up a cruciform and resurrected life because this is already the reality into which they have been inducted. “For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin” (Rom. 6:5-6). Their life is no longer defined by an alienating, oppressive orientation to sin and death. Certainly, their will, their practice, and their discipline are called upon, but this is not the point of departure but a reality enabled by Christ and the gift of his Spirit. “For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:10-11).

What we should learn in the contrast between Romans 7 & 8 is that the human tendency to valorize and reify death and nothingness induces the suffering originating in a form of failed human subjectivity, and to separate out this sort of suffering from the groanings of the Spirit and groanings of creation will put a different emphasis and tenor on prayerful participation in the Trinity depicted in Romans 8. Both 7 & 8 might be linked to different versions of creation ex nihilo, but in 7 the nihil and nothing serve as an abiding resource, so that the failed subject might be described as channeling the force of negation and death as if it is life. The gift of the Spirit depicted in 8 brings creation ex nihilo to bear directly on human subjectivity, so that the redeemed subject has life as a direct gift from God.

[1] Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), 36.

[2] Sarah Coakley, “Palliative or Intensification? Pain and Christian Contemplation in the Spirituality of the Sixteenth-Century Carmelites,” in Pain and Its Transformations: The Interface of Biology and Culture, ed. Sarah Coakley and Kay Kaufman Shelemay (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 91.

[3] Linn Tonstad, God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude, (New York: Routledge, 2016) 114. The above are quoted in Cha, Boram (2019) Suffering, Tragedy, Vulnerability: A Triangulated Examination of the Divine Human Relationship in Hans Urs von Balthasar, Rowan Williams, and Sarah Coakley, Durham theses, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses Online:

[4] Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self (Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition) 19.

[5] Ibid, 180.

[6] Coakley, “God as Trinity: An Approach through Prayer.” In We Believe in God: A Report by The Doctrine Commission of the General Synod of the Church of England, 104–21 (London: Church House, 1987) 109-110. Quoted in Boram, 157.

[7] Coakley, Powers and Submissions, 56. Boram, 155.

The God of Empire Versus the God of Passion

There is something of an endless debate about God within the major branches of the Christian faith – What role for Greek conceptions of God? Does the Spirit proceed from the Father or from the Father and the Son? How is the Father involved in the work of the Son and how do we conceive their difference, etc. etc.? East, West, Protestant, Lutheran, Calvinist, are largely defined by the perceived differences (real and imagined) in regard to fundamental issues about how and what we know about God. These divisions though, may be shaped by more subtle sociological concerns. Sarah Coakley, following Ernst Troeltsch, divides the sociological contexts between church, sect, and mysticism and sees the sociological as throwing additional light on theological emphasis. She sees certain forms of trinitarianism as cohering with particular types of ecclesiastical organization. For example, focus on pneumatology is unlikely to accompany strong patriarchal social and political contexts – given the individualistic, mystical, and “feminine” role of the Spirit. [1] Throughout the history of the church, the more settled the institution (the church type), the more unmoved, settled, and distant, the conception and perceived experience of God. The focus on the Spirit and the experientialism of mysticism have tended to be segregated from the theology of the church type. The adaptation of the Aristotelian concept of God (the Unmoved Mover), came with adaptation to empire, hierarchy, and institutions meant to endure by dint of their alignment with worldly power.

Giorgio Agamben describes the rise of two orders of church, each consisting of its own conceptual and experiential reality. In the biblical mandate, the church is to dwell on the earth as an exile or sojourner captured in the Greek verb paroikein, as in the description of I Peter 1:17 – “the time of sojourning.” In this imagery truth is discovered along the way – or truth is the way (viatorum). The sojourner church stands in contrast to the settled church, which takes on the look of a city, state, kingdom, or empire – captured in the Greek verb katoikein. The katoikia church is built to last, and as opposed to the paroikein church, is not geared to the parousia or the coming of Christ, as it has put down roots in the world. The parousia, in Agamben’s conception, is not in the future or deferred but speaks of the immediate experience of time (fundamental human experience).  In the true church (Agamben counts the institution as we have it an imposter), every moment bears the possibility of the inbreaking of the Messiah, made impossible by the katoikia church.[2]

Agamben locates the point of departure from the biblical church within early debates about the Trinity. The distinction between the immanent (ad intra – or God’s self-relation) and economic (God’s relation to creation) Trinity accounts for the development of western politics and economics. However, according to Agamben, this secularizes theology even before there is a secular order: “from the beginning theology conceives divine life and the history of humanity as an oikonomia (economy), that is, that theology is itself ‘economic’ and did not simply become so at a later time through secularization.” Where the political order can lay claim to a first order power relation, Christian’s (through this theological maneuvering) only have to do with an economy (a second order of experience).[3] While one may not agree with the sweep of Agamben’s critique, his depiction parallels Coakley’s sociological contextualization of theology.  

In the 20th century there have been a variety of attempts to correct this theological failure precisely where it had the greatest impact. Where the church (at least the church type, with its institutions) failed in Germany with National Socialism, this gave rise to striking theological innovation. Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer turn from the characteristic church type dogmatic speculation to a Christocentric point of departure.

 Bonhoeffer in his lectures on Christology locates the Logos, not in the realm of the transcendent. He claims “this will inevitably constitute that Logos as an object for human logos, locating it within the territory of things about which we can ask ‘how is it possible?’ or ‘how does it work?'” As Bonhoeffer puts it, “the question is no longer ‘how?’ but ‘who?’ Who is it that I confront when I look at Jesus? But also, and equally importantly, ‘Who am I?'”[4]

Bonhoeffer depicts the question of the person of Christ as challenging his self-understanding: “When a human being confronts Jesus, the human being must either die or kill Jesus.”[5] The reality of Jesus creates its own context and terms of engagement. Jesus is not Socrates, reminding us of what we already know, but he creates the conditions for knowing him as these conditions do not otherwise exist. He is what he teaches.

Picturing the Logos as on the order of the Aristotelian difference (the apathetic God) is simply to accommodate divine revelation to the human word. “The divine revealed as overwhelming power or unconstrained agency as we understand those things will not recreate us, re-beget us; it will not require the death of our logos.” This sort of God simply accommodates our instincts about the absolute Other, the humanly conceived difference of divinity. If we do not accept the death of the human logos, we will deploy it in defeat of the divine Logos.[6]

Of course Christ allows for his death. He is not a rival to my will or my word. It is precisely his kenotic humility – “taking the form of a slave” (not just being incarnate) that challenges the foundation (foundationalism) of my selfhood. Though it is not as if there is any actually existing foundation – this is simply the “poisonous fiction” that must die or the pride that must fail.[7]

 One of the sharpest German attempts at a revisionist understanding came from Jurgen Moltmann, who begins his book on the Trinity by recounting how Greek notions of God effectively corrupted the Christian faith. He suggests that where Greek philosophy has been deployed in conceiving of God, “then we have to exclude difference, diversity, movement and suffering from the divine nature.” He names the resultant heresy of nominalism (God cannot be known in his essence) as giving us a God that is so far from us (impassible and immovable in his remoteness), such that apathetic portrayal of God has trumped the importance of the person and work of Christ. He concludes that, “down to the present-day Christian theology has failed to develop a consistent Christian concept of God? And that instead . . . it has rather adopted the metaphysical tradition of Greek philosophy, which it understood as ‘natural theology’ and saw as its own foundation.” By allowing the “apathetic axiom” to prevail over the person and work of Christ, God became “the cold, silent and unloved heavenly power.”[8]

Moltmann poses the following choice: either the apathetic God prevails and the passion of Christ is seen as “the suffering of the good man from Nazareth,” or the passion of Christ prevails and divine apatheia is no longer determinative. Within this second alternative, Moltmann points out that his depiction of suffering entails a two-fold rejection: the Greek depiction of the divine incapacity for suffering, and suffering defined as incapacity or deficiency. “But there is a third form of suffering: active suffering – the voluntary laying oneself open to another and allowing oneself to be intimately affected by him; that is to say, the suffering of passionate love.”

Without passion God would be incapable of love. Moltmann develops the two-fold meaning of passion – inclusive of passionate desire and the suffering passion of Christ. If God were incapable of suffering in every respect, then he would also be incapable of any form of passion or love. As Aristotle puts it, he would at most be capable of loving himself, but not of loving another as himself. But if he is capable of loving something else, then he lays himself open to the suffering which love for another brings; yet, by virtue of his love, he remains master of the pain that love causes him to suffer. “God does not suffer out of deficiency of being, like created beings. To this extent he is ‘apathetic’. But he suffers from the love which is the superabundance and overflowing of his being. In so far he is ‘pathetic’.” [9] God is love and his is not a cold love (as if there is such a thing), but the passionate love revealed in Christ.

Sarah Coakley cites Moltmann as an influence in her turn to desire, sex and gender in conceptualization of the Trinity.[10] However, what Coakley avoids and Moltmann spells out, is the historical and theological challenge to notions of divine apathy entailed in discussions of passion. Moltmann finds in Jewish theology and Origen precedent for his depiction of the suffering of the Father as a necessary part of the love of God.

Origen describes the suffering of God in his exposition of Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.”  “In his mercy God suffers with us, for he is not heartless.” In his explanation, Origen equates the love of God with the necessity of suffering:

He (the Redeemer) descended to earth out of sympathy for the human race. He took our sufferings upon Himself before He endured the cross – indeed before He even deigned to take our flesh upon Himself; for if He had not felt these sufferings [beforehand] He would not have come to partake of our human life. First of all He suffered, then He descended and became visible to us. What is this passion which He suffered for us? It is the passion of love {Caritas est passio). And the Father Himself, the God of the universe, ‘slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy’ (Ps. 103.8), does He not also suffer in a certain way? Or know you not that He, when He condescends to men, suffers human suffering? For the Lord thy God has taken thy ways upon Him ‘as a man doth bear his son’ (Deut. 1.31). So God suffers our ways as the Son of God bears our sufferings. Even the Father is not incapable of suffering {Ipse pater non est itnpassibilis). When we call upon him, He is merciful and feels our pain with us. He suffers a suffering of love, becoming something which because of the greatness of his nature He cannot be, and endures human suffering for our sakes.[11]

As Moltmann explains, Origen’s talk of God’s suffering means the suffering of love; the compassion of mercy and pity. The merciful person taking pity on another participates in the suffering of the one he pities, “he takes the other’s sufferings on himself, he suffers for others.” For Origen this is the suffering of God, “the suffering of the Father who in giving up his ‘own Son’ (Rom. 8.32) suffers the pain of redemption.” The Father is not removed from the suffering of the Son, anymore than he can be said to be removed from the passion or desire of God. Origen depicts the divine passion of Christ as inclusive of the divine passion between the Father and the Son in the Trinity. “The suffering of love does not only affect the redeeming acts of God outwards; it also affects the trinitarian fellowship in God himself.”[12]

Origen predates the distinction and Moltmann and Coakley, in varying forms, would equate the economic and immanent Trinity. Moltmann notices in Origen what Coakley notices in Romans 8, that it is precisely in conjunction with suffering that the Trinitarian nature of God is most clearly delineated.  Like Coakley and Paul, Moltmann also locates the apprehension and participation in the suffering of God in prayer.

Moltmann though, references a Jewish mystical tradition in which praying the Shema is the uniting of God: “To acknowledge God’s unity – the Jew calls it uniting God. For this unity is, in that it becomes; it is a Becoming Unity. And this Becoming is laid on the soul of man and in his hands.”

Franz Rosenzweig takes up this notion to describe an Old Testament and Jewish conception of the suffering of God:

Mysticism builds its bridge between ‘the God of our fathers’ and ‘the remnant of Israel’ with the help of the doctrine of the Shekinah. The Shekinah, the descent of God to man and his dwelling among them, is thought of as a divorce which takes place in God himself. God himself cuts himself off from himself, he gives himself away to his people, he suffers with their sufferings, he goes with them into the misery of the foreign land, he wanders with their wanderings . . . God himself, by ‘selling himself to Israel – and what should be more natural for ‘the God of our Fathers’! – and by suffering her fate with her, makes himself in need of redemption. In this way, in this suffering, the relationship between God and the remnant points beyond itself.”[13]

Just as in Romans 8, so too in the Jewish conception, prayer inserts the one praying within the communion of God. The Jewish depiction is an estrangement or suffering into which God enters, and the estrangement is overcome through those reflecting the Shekinah to God through prayer. Moltmann explains, estrangement is also overcome “through the acts of the good, which are directed towards the overcoming of evil and the establishment of the future harmony of the one world. That is the meaning of the Hebrew word tikkun (world repair).”[14]

Theology proper (talk of God) cannot begin in the abstract, which inevitably depends upon the human logos, but in the fact that God has opened himself to human experience and human suffering, becoming human that humans might participate in the divine. But it is the primacy of God’s love and not human suffering that determines the course of God’s suffering love. The passion of Christ as point of departure suspends talk of an economic and immanent Trinity, with the first order (the ontological reality) of God removed from the contingencies of the second order (the economic). The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, though as Coakley notes, this does not mean that God is reduced to what is revealed, as “there must be that which God is which eternally ‘precedes’ God’s manifestation to us.”[15] However, speculation about what “precedes” Christ cannot be given precedent over the revealed truth given in Christ.

[1] Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self (p. 156-157). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Giorgio Agamben, The Church and the Kingdom, trans. by Leland de la Durantaye (Seagull Books, 2012).

[3] Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics) (p. 3). Stanford University Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] The Bonhoeffer Reader, ed. Clifford]. Green and Michael P. Dejonge, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013. Cited in Rowan Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation, (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018), 185.

[5] Reader, 268.

[6] Williams, 187-188.

[7] Williams, 190-191.

[8] Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (First Fortress Press edition, 1993) 21-22.

[9] Moltmann, 22-23.

[10] Sarah Coakley, “The Trinity and gender reconsidered,” in God’s Life in Trinity (ed. Miroslav Volf and Michael Welker, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006).

[11] Homilia VI in Ezechielem (MPG XIII, 714 f). Cited in Moltmann, 24.

[12] Moltmann, 24.

[13] F. Rosenzweig, Der Stern der Erlösung, III, 3rd ed., Heidelberg 1954, pp. 192ff. Cited in Moltmann, 29.

[14] Moltmann, 29.

[15] Coakley

Do Not Give Way on Your Desire: Comprehending Sexuality Through the Trinity

The Church, in its various institutional forms, is in the midst of a sexual crisis in which both married and supposed celibate clerics are not keeping their vows. Could it be that the ordering of desire around a misconstrued image of ultimate reality (God and human) is playing into this crisis?

At the heart of what is considered the most theologically developed portion of the New Testament, Paul brings together sexuality, desire, and Trinity that depicts the deepest “groanings” of human longing as a direct communion with the Holy Spirit. Desire gone bad and then rightly channeled is the substance of Paul’s depiction of redemption. For a variety of reasons, this economy of desire once developed and appreciated in the early church, is often no longer accounted for in standard depictions of salvation, God, and what it means to be human.

The extra-biblical discourse on the Trinity, for example, is typically abstract and esoteric or it is presumed that God’s inner life is completely closed off to us (apophaticism). But in passages like Romans 8, which most clearly depicts God as Trinity, there is also a depiction of human entry into the divine life on the basis of this intra-triune relation. Here there is no clear demarcation between immanent (who God is in himself) and economic (and who God is for others) Trinity.  In fact, it is not clear that these categories are adequate, as what is being depicted is that who God is for himself opens his life to others.

 At the same time, the God who is become man incorporates humankind into his life on the basis of who he is but also on the basis of what it means to be human. That is, prayer “groanings” (Ro 8:26), inclusive of the depth of human desire and need are the point of communion with God through the Spirit. It is not the setting aside or thwarting of desire but the mediation of desire which opens into participation in the inner life of God. God’s desiring love, his incorporating communion, is the ontological ground and fulfillment of human desire.

In this use of the word desire, we have passed beyond gender, though human desire is always initiated in gender. It is engendered bodily, but to limit it to gender is on the order of explaining thought as a mere product of the brain. The embodied and enabling factor of thought and desire, for all but the crudest reductionist, is not its ultimate explanation. Paul accounts for this tendency to reduce desire to gender as the law of sin and death (a law of desire – Ro 7:7). A “married woman is bound by law to her husband” so that her husband, representative of the law, constricts her desire.

Paul is not advocating adultery or celibacy but he is describing how desire can be ordered and channeled, such that one becomes a slave to law/desire (“I did not know desire apart from the law” 7:7). That is, both things (desire and law) arise simultaneously as a form of bondage in which all that one is and does is defined by this dynamic. Those who channel their desire into gender alone are on the order of those who have made the law the ultimate point of mediating relationship to God. The law bound are also the gender bound, so that one is controlled by their relationship to the law/husband. To state it in different terms, one’s love is constricted by the marks of maleness or femaleness.

Becoming united with Christ amounts to a breaking free of this dynamic: “you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another” (7:4). The love of God experienced in Christ is a release from the slavery to the law: “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Ro 7:6). Gender and with it, desire, is not an end in itself but is the medium to a relationship which transcends gender and erotic love. In the words of Sarah Coakley, “desire is more fundamental than gender, and the desiring, trinitarian God ultimately ambushes all attempts to fix and constrain gender in worldly terms.”[1]

It is on this basis of a transcendent desire that Paul describes a communion with God through the direct intervention of the Spirit in prayer. Prayer, the expression of “eager longing,” is the occasion in which there is evoked and realized adoption into the family of God: “you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (8:15). All three persons of the Trinity enable this communion. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” and “fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him” (8:16-17). Prayer is both the entry point and defined by the communion with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit.

This realization of Trinitarian agape love is not on the basis of a sublimation or refusal of erotic or gendered desire but the realization that gender, desire, and marriage, are a human economy which is to be conjoined with the divine communion in which the Spirit engenders Sonship. The divine communion opened to humanity through the Son links all of creations groanings in a cosmic sort of childbirth in which human desire is drawn into the divine economy so as to bring about the full adoption of humanity into the life of the Trinity (8:22-23).

Sex, gender, and desire, disconnected from this life in the Spirit, is on the order of a disembodied agape love or a prayer life that always seems to be speaking into the void. Prayer as a monologue to a distant patriarch is like an empty eroticism or a desire defined by gender and law.  The communication, the groaning, the desire is not answered by God but is left to itself – which describes life in the law; relationship, not to a person, but to an impersonal and mechanical-like symbolic order.

 In describing the Trinitarian communion Paul also describes a world participating in the purposes of God in which the deepest human “eager longing” is not closed in on itself. Primordial desire left to itself becomes the law of sin and death, but this same primordial desire opened to Christian hope is channeled beyond “life in the flesh” to hope of adoption as “children of God.”

A common theme of the church fathers is that the incorporation of the believer into the life of the Trinity through the Spirit is on the order of being incorporated into marriage through sex. As Sarah Coakley describes it, “For Origen, agape simply is Eros, by another name; whereas for his rather different successor in the Song-commentary tradition, Gregory of Nyssa, Eros is agape “stretched out in longing” toward the divine goal.” Just as the sexual bond makes of the two one flesh, so too the binding together in the Spirit is a fulfillment and ordering of desire. As Dionysius the Areopagite describes it, “’desire’ becomes an ontological force inherent to the divine life itself, an ecstatic capacity of God to go out and return, always ‘carried outside of himself’ whilst also “remaining within himself.”[2] Just as one is incorporated into the marriage relationship through the fulfillment of desire, so too the desire of God (the desire originating in God) describes this same self-transcendence or going outside of himself in an overflowing love.

Gregory of Nyssa, in Homilies on the Song of Songs describes the kinsman/Christ as drawing his lover/disciples through a reflected beauty in which desire is the power of the Spirit: “the Bride has dedicated herself to her kinsman and in her own form has taken on the beauty of her Beloved.” Andrew was led to the Lamb by the reflected attraction in the voice of John. Nathanael attracts Philip through the same allure that the maidens find in the kinsman’s lover – perfect in her comeliness. This reflected “’glory’ means the Holy Spirit, if account is taken of the Lord’s words; he says, after all, ‘The glory that you have given me, I have given to them.’” That is, the eroticism of sexual attraction in the Song translates directly into the attraction of Christ through the Spirit (Homily 15). “For it is obvious that where she is concerned the Word is pointing to this: that the soul, through the upward journey she has completed, has been exalted to the point where she is straining forward toward the wonders of the Lord and Master.”

There is a passage into desire in which “childishness” is left behind as the “disposition shaped by erotic love” is joined to God – “such were the souls of David and Paul.” David says, “But for me it is a good thing to cleave to God” and Paul says, “None shall separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, not life or death or what is present or what is future, or anything else.” Gregory calls those who stifle this desire through a misbegotten virtue, “concubines” (as they do not share in the divine Spirit of kingship) as it is out of fear, rather than by rightly directed desire, that they refuse evil: “by drawing near to the good through servile fear rather than through a bride’s love—she becomes a concubine rather than a queen because of her fear.”

Gregory, unlike Augustine, in no way denigrates marriage or sex. “We are well aware that it is not a stranger to God’s blessing” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). As Gregory describes it, however, one can either be a “Pleasure-lover” or a “God-lover.” The problem is not desire per se but whether desire is rightly ordered or given its proper telos (as a God-lover). It is not a matter of setting aside desire but of channeling it and even preserving it. That is, one should not spend desire solely on the earthly but channel it toward the heavenly.

Imagine a stream flowing from a spring and dividing itself off into a number of accidental channels. As long as it proceeds so, it will be useless for any purpose of agriculture, the dissipation of its waters making each particular current small and feeble, and therefore slow. But if one were to mass these wandering and widely dispersed rivulets again into one single channel, he would have a full and collected stream for the supplies which life demands. Just so the human mind (so it seems to me), as long as its current spreads itself in all directions over the pleasures of the sense, has no power that is worth the naming of making its way towards the Real Good; but once call it back and collect it upon itself, so that it may begin to move without scattering and wandering towards the activity which is congenital and natural to it, it will find no obstacle in mounting to higher things, and in grasping realities. Gregory of Nyssa (de virginitate, chapter VII)

He goes on to explain, desire rightly regulated and channeled will burst upward against the constraining force of gravity: “in the same way, the mind of man, enclosed in the compact channel of an habitual continence, and not having any side issues, will be raised by virtue of its natural powers of motion to an exalted love.” This is the way God ordained “that it should always move, and to stop it is impossible.” Thus, to spend desire on “trifles” is to introduce a leak into a stream which would otherwise speed one “toward the truth.” This does not entail setting aside sex and marriage. “That in the cases where it is possible at once to be true to the diviner love, and to embrace wedlock, there is no reason for setting aside this dispensation of nature and misrepresenting as abominable that which is honorable” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). It is a matter of arriving at “due proportion.”

Purity is not a matter of ridding oneself of desire but of not dissipating desire on trifling rivulets. Much as in a Lacanian frame, Gregory equates desire with the life force. Lacan’s singular ethical imperative (“Do not give way on your desire”), understood in this light is the empowerment to remain in the right channel of life. “If, as an inexperienced and easy-going steward, he opens too wide a channel, there will be danger of the whole stream quitting its direct bed and pouring itself sideways” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). So, the sexual passion, which he compares to a “trifling debt of nature” need not and should not consume one in “over-calculating.” Rather, through “the long hours of his prayers [he] will secure the purity which is the key-note of his life” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). This purity is a desire preserved and propelled by the Spirit, bent not on sexual union alone, but on the ultimate “blending” by “sharing in the place the Spirit holds between Father and Son.”[3]

William of St Thierry, reflecting Gregory of Nyssa, in his Exposition on the Song of Songs freely depicts an erotic spiritual love: “his left hand is under my head, and his right hand shall embrace me” (Song 2:6): “This embrace extends to man, but it surpasses man. For this embrace is the Holy Spirit. He is the Communion, the Charity, the Friendship, the Embrace of the Father and of the Son of God; and he himself is all things in the love of Bridegroom and Bride.” He describes the full consummation of this desire in union with God: “Then, I say, it will be the full kiss and the full embrace, the power of which is the wisdom of God; its sweetness the Holy Spirit; and its perfection, the full fruition of the Divinity, and God all in all.”[4]

This understanding of the Trinity leaves behind the apophatic and lifts up the human condition as preparation and mediation for participation in the inner life of God. God is known through an empirical order, rearranged and redirected by its inclusion in the love of God.

[1] Sarah Coakley, “Pleasure Principles” in Harvard Divinity School Bulletin Archive (AUTUMN 2005 (VOL. 33, NO. 2)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Quoted from Coakley, Ibid.

The Treatment of Women as a Test of Trinitarian Orthodoxy

The male/female nature of the image in Genesis, as Paul explains in I Corinthians 11, is necessarily plural and pertains directly to gender in that the two are interdependent in both origin and relational integrity (the woman is from the man and the man from the woman and separated from one another they are nothing, v. 11). That is, image bearing pertains to relationship between the two, with God, with the world, and within the self, and this multidirectional relational capacity is interwoven within all these spheres. We might say the Fall of humankind is a failure of gendered identity but of course this pertains to the deep psychology of the individual, relationship to God, or simply the capacity for relationship. The New Testament brings this out most sharply (it is present already in the Old Testament) in that salvation and final redemption are depicted in terms of restored gendered relations: the Church is depicted as bride and Christ as groom, the Kingdom is celebrated as a marriage feast, and the most abiding mystery, male/female unity, is either the vehicle for or analogy of the unity between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5).

Even Paul’s depiction of individual failure in regard to the law is sexualized (in Ro. 7:1-4) in that a woman’s marital status and relational fidelity (adulterous or not) serve to get at the deep psychology of self-estrangement. One can have sexual relations but the status of this act is universally predetermined by the Fall, and of course Paul is not talking about actual sex and marriage but an individual’s internal orientation. Love (of the Christian sort) cannot be coordinated with the body and sex, in Paul’s illustration, apart from the marital-like fusion with the body of Christ. There is a fruitful coordination of love with the body only in being joined to the body of Christ (vs. 4), such that gender fulfillment is salvation.

In both Ro. 7:1-4 and in I Cor. 11, Paul not only depicts human failure and success in terms of gender relations but apprehension and understanding of God, particularly God as Trinity, is interdependent with the full realization of male/female interdependence. “Belonging to another” in Romans (7:4) and male/female interdependence in I Cor. (11:11-12) is to be realized “in the Lord.” In both instances this speaks of a simultaneous realization of right relations between men and women coordinated with a fuller realization and understanding of the work of Christ.

In the case of Romans, Paul is demonstrating that an understanding of God, apart from Christ, will result in a two-fold failure – internal failure within the “I” (“I do what I do not want . . .”) and a failure to know God except as he is wrongly perceived through the law. The sexualized failure of 7:1-3 is more fully depicted from verse 7. It is depicted as an internal antagonism due to a deceived orientation to the law, spelling out the meaning of the adulterous, transgressive, failed relationship described at the opening of the chapter.  Ro. 8 fills out Paul’s sexualized success (of 7:4), in that salvation is depicted as participation in the Trinity in which knowing God takes on the Hebraic sense of knowing (knowing bodily or holistically) in that it is a holistic participation in the Trinity. Through being incorporated into the body of Christ, the Father is apprehended as Abba as one is adopted into His new family and the Spirit enables a new sort of intimate relationship with God. The deep psychology of chapter 8 contrasts with that of chapter 7 in that union with God and others (in the body of Christ) displaces alienation, hope displaces desire, life in the Spirit displaces death, the body of Christ displaces the ego, and God as Father displaces the law (the law of sin and death is replaced with the law of life in the Spirit).  Paul sums all of this up at the end of the chapter as the full realization of love. Love can be coordinated with the body (no more mind body antagonism) through incorporation into the body of Christ, as the rightly gendered relation finally and completely overcomes alienation: nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro. 8:39, NASB).

In the chapters leading up to I Cor. 11, Paul has been attempting to dispossess the Corinthian elite of a domineering, cruel, authoritarian, treatment of the weak in regard to sex, finances, visiting pagan temples, and eating meat. The Corinthians’ conclusion that the idol is nothing is indirectly countered by Paul’s depiction of male/female interdependence. Woman is nothing apart from man and man is nothing apart from woman and it is this separation and alienation commonly portrayed in idolatry.  As in Ezekiel, the idol as male or phallic and the worshiper as a female adulterer depicts an impossibility of relationship. The horse sized phallus (of 23:20), serving in place of God, is not describing intense eroticism but an impossibility of relationship (leading to heightened desire and child sacrifice) created by a false image. The restored image, as a direct counter to the failed image (as nothing), draws a direct correlate between men and women and God and Christ. Just as there is no such thing as the Father independent of the Son (or any one member of the Trinity apart from relation to other members of the Trinity), so too there is no such thing as man apart from woman and woman apart from man. The very notion of self-identity depends upon how we relate to others but this in turn is best apprehended in Trinitarian relations – relations which are extended to include human participation. The unity of the Godhead is reduplicated or repeated in male/female unity (v. 3) – not just analogously but, as with Romans, through direct participation (as depicted in the language of “headship” and interdependence). As with the Trinity, to say that one is not without the other is to preserve the individual identity of each (male and female distinction is Paul’s point in regard to hair length and head coverings) while positing each as internal to, or interdependent with, the other (through the Lord).

The meaning of God’s image in humankind cannot be abstracted or removed from Trinity, as the created image repeats the reality of the relation of God to himself (in the Trinity), and this repetition is the unifying factor of human relationship. This means our practical and lived out comprehension of God (a unity containing difference) will be first and foremost realized in male/female relationship. In turn, our understanding of these relationships (as expressed in both theology and practice) in marriage and, as in Corinthians, in ministry (praying, preaching, prophesying) will be a test of our understanding of God. Thus, I mean my above title to carry a double meaning: (1.) we can see how orthodox our Trinitarian belief might be in the practices (particularly involving our understanding of personhood) to which this belief gives rise and (2.) we can test orthodoxy itself (which I explain below) in its views of gender and in its treatment of women.

In a sort of crude illustration of part (1.): male/female oppositional difference might be extrapolated from tritheism (the persons of the Trinity are separate), the reduction of the genders to a singular substantial humanity (e.g. androgyny, soul body duality) might be connected to modalism (the persons of the Trinity are simply a manifestation of a singular essence), and as in the recent evangelical controversy (appealing to I Cor. 11:3), subordination of women to men finds support in the heresy of subordinationism (the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father). With traditional Trinitarian doctrine as a guide, notions of maleness and femaleness as separate principles, as manifestations of a singular essence, or as one subordinate to the other (e.g. women subordinated to men), should be ruled out of court.

While it is clear that heretical Trinitarian theology has helped produce oppression of women (e.g. primary focus on God as Father connected to patriarchalism, complementarianism connected to subordinationism), can orthodoxy claim to have done better? So to part (2.): Augustine’s convoluted notion that the male alone contains the proper and full image of God while woman is corporeal (defined by her bodily nature), carnal, and necessarily subordinate to the male, shows up an inherent weakness in his understanding, if not in his formulation, of God’s Trinitarian personhood. Is the weakness, as with the Eastern criticism, that he allows for subordinationism? Clearly there is a failure in what he extrapolates from his Trinitarian formula (which seems to protect against subordinationism). Gregory of Nyssa (representative of the East) posits a double creation: the first is non-sexual and purely spiritual and the second is bodily and includes male and female. His Trinitarian formulations, like his view of men and women, is more egalitarian but so too the union (devoid of sex in the case of humans) is left a mystery. As Sarah Coakley notes, the apophaticism of the East may mask and make room for the hierarchical and subordinationist tendencies manifest in the abysmal treatment of women in the Eastern Church.[1]

Personhood as understood through orthodox traditions surrounding the Trinity and applied (as in I Cor. 11 and Ro. 6-8) to humankind should give rise to difference-in-unity in male/female relationship (something on the order of egalitarianism in marriage and ministry).  Why has this not been the case? Maybe because people are sinful, they simply do not live out their beliefs. Perhaps, it is simply not the case that orthodoxy produces orthopraxy? Yet, doesn’t John suggest that belief and practice are necessarily related (those that practice righteousness do so because they know the righteous One, I Jn. 2:29)? Isn’t this the whole point of Christianity – transformation of the mind and transformation of lives? Or is it simply, as Tolstoy would have it along with revisionist feminists, that the Trinitarian formulas as we have them are wrong?

Mine is a more moderate suggestion: I believe there is progress to be made in theology and orthodox theology provides a foundation upon which we continue to build our understanding of faith and practice. The failure of practice does not necessarily indicate an error in theory. However, in the case of Trinitarian theology as applied to gender (a biblical correlate central to Fall and redemption, as I have argued), it indicates a failed apprehension and understanding and shows the work that has yet to be done.

[1] Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Blackwell, 2002) 63-65.