In July, I'll be holding a symposium here in Sydney on Sarah Coakley and the Future of Systematic Theology. It will include a public lecture by Sarah Coakley, together with papers that engage constructively with the whole range of Coakley's theological work. I haven't quite managed to gather up all the abstracts yet – but here all the paper details so far:
From Evelyn Underhill to Sarah Coakley: Women Teaching Theology in the English Context
Stephen Burns, Charles Sturt University, Sydney
- Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential figures in the Church of England through the twentieth century. Although she had no institutional position in either the church or a university, she nevertheless became the first woman to teach a course in theology at Oxford University (1921) and also the first women formally to teach the clergy of the Church of England (1926). Sarah Coakley credits Evelyn Underhill’s letters as introducing her to theology, and on occasion she refers to Underhill’s writings. This paper traces lines of connection between Coakley and Underhill, and in so doing raises two sets of questions – both relevant to a wide purview appropriate to a theologie totale. On the one hand, Coakley is considered in terms of women’s institutional opportunities to teach theology in English contexts. On the other hand, I move from context to the content of Coakley's theology, and especially the increasing attention being given by Coakley to “priestly” – particularly liturgical and pastoral – concerns as these complement her long interest in contemplative prayer. Together, these trajectories help give proper weight to Coakley's distinctive achievements as an English Anglican woman priest in a leading post in systematics.
Oliver Crisp, University of Bristol
- In this paper I will consider Sarah Coakley’s engagement with analytic philosophical theology, culminating in her recent contribution to the volume Analytic Theology. Much recent work from the ‘analytics’ (as we might call them) presumes some sort of univocal account of religious language is true. Coakley is unusual in that (a) her work thoughtfully and seriously interacts with the analytics while retaining her own independence from the analytics, and (b) her engagement with the analytics has included the deployment of a more apophatic account of religious language than many of her erstwhile philosophical interlocutors. Coakley’s work in this area touches upon an important theme in contemporary theology, where a number of theologians have opted for some sort of doctrine of analogy (e.g. a number of the Radical Orthodox). This paper will offer an assessment of the success of this strategy of critical engagement with a view to the wider debate about religious language and, in particular, whether a univocal or analogical mode of discourse is preferable for constructive theology.
Nicola Hoggard-Creegan, Laidlaw-Carey Graduate School, Auckland
- It was Schleiermacher who lamented two hundred years ago, “shall the tangle of history so unravel that Christianity becomes identified with barbarism, and science with unbelief?” Such is the situation today when faith is touted as a danger to human existence and systematic theology is often in retreat from science, becoming highly complex, counter-factual and counter-experiential. So we have the scandal of theology’s abstraction and objectification of the trinity in spite of our perception of God as personal and as love, the scandal of seeing the Christian life, and justification as code for a special covenant which divides the human race although science has shown us our solidarity, and imago Dei as that which divides humans from animals in spite of our new ecological sensitivities. The ethical repercussions of such theologies do indeed often lead to barbarism. Sarah Coakley has argued that we need a new ingredient in theology, that of apophatic prayer or contemplative awareness. Only this will give us the discernment that will nudge our theologies into a proper sensitivity to science, experience and gender. She is thus one of the first to take the practice of prayer deep into the heart of theology, and this is the first real leap in theology of experience since Schleiermacher. For if Coakley is right, we need to depend not only on Schleiermacher’s sense of absolute dependence, but on a properly focussed and mindful awareness. In this paper I examine Coakley’s method, and the ways in which it might help an interaction with science on doctrines of fallenness and redemption. I reflect on the winnowing and hallowing of doctrine that might occur if we take heed of science’s new discoveries of connectedness, and of Coakley’s insistence upon apophatic prayer.
Anne Hunt, Australian Catholic University, Melbourne
- Not a few theologians, including Karl Rahner SJ, have bemoaned the divide between mystical consciousness and doctrinal theology. Rahner, for example, speaks of bridging “the rift” between “lived piety and abstract theology.” Indeed, it is rather remarkable that theology, in its task of faith seeking understanding, has paid little systematic attention to the insights offered by the mystics. The aim of this paper is to take up that challenge and to examine a number of mystics who have had what could be described as distinctly trinitarian insights. While in all Christian mysticism, by virtue of the Christian faith from which it issues, God is necessarily trinitarian, for some mystics, such as Julian of Norwich and John of the Cross, their consciousness of God as Trinity is heightened to a particularly intense and explicit degree in and through their mystical encounters. Women’s mystical insights are particularly noteworthy, given that most of them did not have access to the education and scholarly training that was granted to their male contemporaries.
Nathan Kerr, Trevecca Nazarene University, Nashville
From the Moment to a Lifetime: What Continental Moral Philosophy Might Learn from Sarah Coakley
Annette Larrea, University of Sydney
- Continental moral philosophy as a whole has been decisively shaped by a phenomenology of interruption whereby ethics is variously described as a singular encounter, a moment of rupture in being summoned by a call, an event or an instant demanding the leap of decision. Yet while the “time” of this privileged “moment” has been elaborated with ever-increasing nuance (particularly via discussions of the “trace”), it is nevertheless the case that such accounts continue to encounter difficulty in articulating how they relate to a process of moral growth over the course of an individual’s lifetime. As one critic complains in relation to Levinas, “his phenomenology of ethical experience has nothing to say about the formation or development of a moral consciousness, a moral sensibility”; about “moral maturation…– ethical life as an ongoing practice”. Readers familiar with Sarah Coakley’s work will be aware that, from the standpoint of her own concerns, she has an enormous amount to say with regard to such questions of disciplined practice, life-long maturation and the progressive nature of patient moral and spiritual transformation. The first aim of this paper then is to provide a detailed outline of this conglomeration of themes in Coakley’s work. Secondly, though, I seek to offer some suggestions concerning how Coakley’s insights might be instructively taken up in continental moral philosophy. My main contention here will concern the need for renewed attention in continental discourse on responsibility to the question of the practices which cultivate responsiveness.
Benjamin Myers, Charles Sturt University, Sydney
- In this paper I argue that Sarah Coakley’s work forms a subtle critique of the modern tradition which understands systematic theology as scholarly Wissenschaft. Setting Coakley’s work in conversation with Anselm and Augustine, I argue that practices of prayer can form a methodological framework for interpreting the nature of theological language. Nevertheless, Coakley’s concentration on the practice of apophatic prayer raises challenging questions about the possibilities and limitations of systematic theology. In an attempt to probe Coakley’s own reflections in this area, I argue that the relation between prayer and poetry might expand our vision of the situation of theological language. In both prayer and poetry, one catches speech labouring with its own limits – not because of the impoverishment of language, but precisely because of its inexhaustible resources, its endless playfulness and plasticity in the face of new experiences. If we approach theological method along these lines, we might consider theology not in terms of an epistemological priority of silence, but as an activity arising from the graced suppleness and receptivity of human language to God.
Janice Rees, Charles Sturt University, Sydney
- Sarah Coakley’s defence of systematic theology may seem an unusual move from a feminist. Yet Coakely’s théologie totale assumes a systematic project in which gender truly matters. It may be that this kind systematic theology gives the Christian feminist a more cohesive picture of gender's place within the widest theological framework, and thus offers fresh paths for both feminist theology and systematics. This paper explores the economic Trinity through this lens in an attempt to place gender at the centre of contemporary systematic discussion.
Scott Stephens, Trinity Theological College, Brisbane
- This paper uses Coakley's provocative analysis of the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools of scriptural interpretation, and her interpretation of kenosis, as a way of inflecting the current revival of interest in patristic exegesis and the practice of theological interpretation.
Matthew John Paul Tan, Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas, Rome
- This paper will investigate the future salience of systematic theology by applying Sarah Coakley’s work on contemplative prayer as a lens to evaluate a cultural context increasingly circumscribed by the internet. More specifically, it will evaluate the Church’s enthusiastic embrace of cybernetic forms, from online services to the establishment of churches in Second Life, as part of its evangelising mission and of cybernetically extending the Body of Christ. This paper argues that a sharp critique of this enthusiasm can be launched with the realisation that deep parallels exist between the processes of immersing oneself within cyberspace and those of contemplative prayer as outlined by Sarah Coakley. Ultimately, this paper will argue that far from a neutral instrument or even a cultural form, cyberspace constitutes an interesting, but ultimately deficient version of Christian contemplative prayer. This paper argues that cyberspace is a manifestation of a posthuman anthropology that has several important overlaps with Christian subjectivity, decentring the autonomous Enlightenment subject, affirming the deep need for others in defining self, and rehabilitating the necessity for submission to authority. However, an uncritical celebration of cybernetics’ promises often ignores theological undercurrents that lie beneath their manifestations. Attention is given first to a neo-Gnosticism which denigrates humanity as embodied subjects. Also, the centrality of coding evinces an anti-incarnationalism that encourages the breaking up of concrete bodies, biological and social, for the sake of more universally superior, digitised alternatives. The paper concludes by proposing a way for the Body of Christ to navigate these poles by reference to the linking and juxtaposition of the Church’s cybernetic context to its sacramental worship.
Steve Taylor, Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide
- The aim of this paper is to explore the Trinity’s relation to the world, with specific attention to the practice of public prayer. The paper will examine what I will call “non-priestly” narratives in the Bible. These are narratives in which someone outside the faith community offers public prayer. Potential sources include Melchizedek in the Abrahamic narrative (Genesis 14), the blessing of Israel by Balaam (Numbers 22-24) and the worship of the Magi (Matthew 2). Coakley and Wells, in their book Praying for England, seek to reimagine the place of the church in contemporary culture. They suggests a number of roles for the contemporary priest, including those of representation, glory, imagination, presence, attention, honesty and debate. These can be used as a framework to analyse “non-priestly” biblical narratives, or even the “non-priestly” ministry of a rock star, with particular attention to the work of the Spirit in the world. In this way, the paper seeks a creative theological conversation regarding priests, prayer and pneumatology.
Heather Thomson, Charles Sturt University, Canberra
- Systems of thought, whether in philosophy, psychoanalysis or theology, have been critiqued by Luce Irigaray as "phallocentric". By this she means they are constructed around a unifying principle which tends to reduce and repress difference for the sake of the whole (neat) system and in doing so, work from patriarchal assumptions and identities, defining men as the norm (unifying principle) over against which women’s identities are constructed. Irigaray’s counter move is a strategic one, deconstructing and subverting such systematic thought. She transforms the task so that irreducible sexual difference is maintained (rather than having a single, unifying principle) in order to give space for women’s self-representations of the human and the divine. In this paper I will take account of the critiques of systematic thought, and argue, with Sarah Coakley, that there is nevertheless a place for systematic theology. Without systematic thought, one loses integrity and honesty. On the assumption that maturity in psychology and spirituality assume an integrated self, systematic thought is an attempt to have integrity within a discipline of thought. The question then becomes: what is the centre (unifying principle/s) around which the various doctrines are integrated? I will also argue that systematic thought is an attempt at intellectual honesty such that various aspects of theology are integrally related to each other rather than held (unsystematically) in isolation or incongruence. The integrated self pushes toward an integrated, systematic theology.
Nick Trakakis, Monash University and Deakin University, Melbourne
Brave New World: On a Feminist, Prayerful and Pentecostal Future for "Systematic Theology"
Paul Tyson, Australian Catholic University, Brisbane
- This paper opens by recalling some well known and highly persuasive objections to the enterprise of modern Western systematic theology. Yet, with Coakley, the paper argues that even where objections to modern systematic theology are valid, there remains a continuing need for an integrative theological perspective. That is, a valid théologie totale need not fall to the same critiques often rightly raised against "systematic theology". Indeed, by approaching theology in a richly integrative and prayerfully open manner, remarkable new possibilities and disruptions come into view. To illustrate this, the paper combines aspects of Sarah Coakley's work on gender with Jacques Ellul's work on prayer and Simon Chan's work on the Holy Spirit. In concluding, I will argue not only that théologie totale in this register has a promising future, but also that such a theology – though full of radical implications – may be a catalyst for the renewal of Western Christianity itself.
Jodi Belcher, Vanderbilt University, Nashville
- This paper suggests a way of transposing the Philippians Christ-hymn by conceiving of kenosis as a kind of subversive subjection. Instead of the more prevalent, yet illusory, notion of self-emptying as loss of self, I advocate a recapitulation of kenosis as a transformative and empowering re-identification in God, which is not only plausible for feminist theology but also good news for those who have been made powerless by the powers of this world. In order to enact this musical transposition, I juxtapose Judith Butler’s work on power and subject formation in The Psychic Life of Power with Sarah Coakley’s analysis of kenosis in Powers and Submissions, and thus propose a contemporary retrieval of Christian kenosis. [This paper won't be presented at the symposium, but it will be included in the published collection of essays.]