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Reviews

The New Asceticism: Sexuality, gender and the quest for God

Mark Vernon

Sarah Coakley
Bloomsbury, 208pp

Desire has always been a problem in the church, perhaps the main problem. And yet, implies Sarah Coakley, this should come as no surprise. Christianity is, at heart, about the human desire for God. Her new book, which weaves together a series of talks and so provides a readable introduction to her theology, finds its focus in the flourishing of desire expressed in the Trinitarian understanding of God. It's a basic theological dynamic that Coakley argues individual Christians and church leaders alike repeatedly lose sight of when the desire for God is unleashed.

As it must be, because becoming a Christian begins with the yearning to know God called Father - the verb 'know' meant in the Biblical sense: the most basic sense of knowing has always implied a union with what is known. As Paul intimated in the crucial eighth chapter of the letter to the Romans, this yearning is discovered to actually be God's because, as Paul puts it, the Spirit groans within us with a desire too profound for words. It is God's longing for cosmic rebirth and renewal. But there's a crucial step that must now be taken. Desire must be purged if it is truly to know God. In particular, its inclination towards possessiveness must be converted into the kind of self-emptying that follows the pattern of Christ. In short, in coming to know the Father by the energy of the Spirit, we become like Christ. At least, that is, when the transformation is going well.

A key figure for Coakley is Gregory of Nyssa. This fourth century Greek bishop offers an approach to desire that is radically different from those typically adopted in the western church. The latter has tended to faintheartedness in the face of the desires that the Spirit stirs. It has wanted to control and contain, within ecclesiastically enforced limits; it has been nervous of the sexual imagery that the exploration of desire inevitably requires because the desire for God is an erotic desire for more from life. But in Gregory, Coakley finds a fascinating figure who never recoils with distaste. And moreover, offers an approach to the transformation of desire that offers crucial leads for us today.

Take his first treatise, On Virginity. It is an arresting choice of subject because Gregory was married at the time he wrote it. The question arises as to how or why he so celebrated this virtue? The answer is that literal virginity is, for Gregory, the least interesting form of virginity. At its most developed, it is a state of mind in which all desires intentionally channel towards God. This means, for example, that simply being celibate is not nearly enough. In fact, the celibate who keeps his vow but turns to the bottle or becomes overbearingly churchy may be being less true to the Christian vocation than the married person who, through an exploration of desire in a faithful relationship with another, comes to a rich often painful understanding of the ups and downs of love.

Gregory had the advantage of being Greek and, therefore, of reading Plato. Plato realised that the palace of wisdom is found via the road of excess, as William Blake was subsequently to put it. In fact, the experience of falling in love may be a crucial first intimation of the path towards God. Think of what falling in love is like, Plato advises. It's wanting what is beautiful and good. At first, that's mistakenly over-identified with the newfound beloved, as becomes apparent in any relationship that matures. But that's not the important thing early on. Rather, it's that the individual has fallen for the alluring power of what's beautiful and good - the desires that can carry them to God.

It's a journey through the narrow gate, for sure. The shadow of love's dream is a nightmare, because it continually runs the risk of not getting what it wants, and so forcefully taking what it wants. That's why, in Christian terms, the possessiveness of love must be transformed into the pattern of Christ's love. But again, married life offers helpful models here. After all, what is the desire to have children if not the moreness of the love that originally wanted only the beloved, evolving into a kind of over-spilling of love that wants to share its love with the offspring of that love? If that has a Trinitarian feel to it - love over-spilling in love to share with the offspring of love - then that's because Trinitarian desire energies reality.

Discipline is crucial in all this, hence the new asceticism of Coakley's title. Without the purging, there is no fulfilment. But perhaps we need new resources to inspire the discipline, as the old ones so easily feel as if they are closing life down, not opening life up. Take the medieval notion of courtly love. The point of these romances is almost inconceivable today, when the goal of love is so quickly aligned with sexual consummation. But courtly love sought the more patient goals that asceticism at its best aims for too. The knight fell in love with an unavailable lady so that the love would be indefinitely delayed. It had to be borne so that, as the poems put it, he was transformed, becoming gentle, aware, kind - more Christlike. Love nurtures experiences and, then, capacities of which the knight was previously unaware.

Coakley's work is important because it goes to the heart of what we need to address in Christianity today - not just the problems faced by the church, but what might make Christianity attractive in a culture that yearns for the spiritual dimension and yet doesn't consider that the church has anything substantial to offer it. That's because, in many of the church's current manifestations, it doesn't. But the deep wisdom about desire that's in the tradition, and is always longing to be reawakened, can stir us all anew.