Reading Coakley: Vulnerability in Christian Feminism

Be still my Christian feminist heart.

Amidst the indulgent romance novel One Day and stacks of In Style magazine, I’ve added the most ambitious tome to-date to my summer reading list: Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy, and Gender by Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley. Only a contemplative Christian feminist whose love for the word paradox is rivaled only by my own (and perhaps, Quaker philosopher Parker J. Palmer) could make my brain twitch with such affection.

But the swooning continues. My friend and mentor Jason Byassee formerly of Duke Divinity and currently of Boone United Methodist Church has joined me in my ambition (fresh into a new gig as senior pastor). For the next two months, we’ll be reading Coakley together – section by section – and sharing our candid conversation on this blog every Wednesday.

Truth be told; both Coakley and Byassee are beyond my intellectual chops. But they’re both invested – to my benefit – in distilling the sometimes murky water of Christian feminism for the church, not just the towers.

Without further gushing…



We have a tough task ahead of us to keep our mutual musings on topics like power, submission, and gender to a brief blog post. In the prologue and first chapter alone, I made a total of twenty-three check marks for further reflection.

I want to home in on the idea of vulnerability this week, as it was central to Coakley’s first chapter on the self-emptying quality of Christ that has been absent from much of Christian feminist prescriptions. As a woman, and one who vacillates between embracing the (naive, yet compelling) idea of global sisterhood and eschewing its generalist assumptions of gender, I am admittedly still a bit honored when I’m able to prove my ability to “hang with the guys” – including you.

Power is at stake and submission is for pansies. Herein is the mistaken assumption (laden with gender anxieties) that Coakley combats with her insistence that vulnerability and empowerment can co-exist. This central contribution of Christ should be a central contribution of Christian feminists if only we could  loose our own ambition for the secular movement’s promises of agency, accolade, and accomplishment.

My husband Rush, as you can attest, is an admirably sensitive man. So why do I still relish telling anyone who will listen (this blog audience now included) that he cried three times during the sappy epic The Notebook while I merely got a round of goosebumps when the score kicked it up a notch? Masculine stoicism still has its grip on our aspirations.

I wonder:

  • how do you embrace vulnerability as a man? 
  • where do you resist its strength? 
  • and are you compelled by imagery of being Christ’s bride, willing to be soft and receptive and  submissive?

Coakley made a subtle distinction between a Christ who “choos[es] never to have certain (false and worldly) forms of power” and one who “reveal[es] ‘divine power’ to be intrinsically ‘humble’ rather than grasping.” While she favored the former, I found myself being more convinced by the latter, that power is a relationship dynamic that rightly exercised is in service and joy and humility to the other.  However, I can’t help but be a bit cynical that the one in service of another – the Christ-like self-emptying ‘man’ of Ephesians 5:25 – still ultimately has more honor and privilege, although a number of complimentarian champions would try to argue otherwise.

What I love about Coakley is that she questions the gender generalizations that would see vulnerability as a feminine weakness rather than a human strength. I’m curious to see as we continue reading if she’ll concede any “core attributes” of sex based on biblical interpretation.

For now, I’m taking her advice – and looking forward to your discussion next week of contemplation – and praying “not for negation of self” but “for the self’s transformation and expansion into God.”

And next time we’re watching a Kodak commercial, I’ll try not to smugly ask Rush, “Are you actually crying?”

In gratitude,

2 responses to “Reading Coakley: Vulnerability in Christian Feminism

  1. I think this is pride over being able to “hang with the guys” is such an important psychological phenomenon in the woman’s movement today. And you put it well with the wording, “prove my ability to hang with the guys.” Could this be an inferiority complex affecting 50% of our population?

    Just 100 years ago, women who could “hang with the guys” were pretty much social pariahs. Now they are desirable wives, great friends and good business people! I’ve been trying to locate that exact moment when that dynamic changed. Was it 2nd Wave feminism’s insistence that we are equal and can do everything just like men? Was it simply society changing, loosening its grip on proper behavior for both sexes? Just when did women start getting so obsessed with the ability to “hang with the guys”????

    Thanks for this post. It really rings true to me.

    I wrote a similar posting on vulnerability at if you want to check it out.

  2. Sara, you and I are entering hot water here as we continue the sameness vs. difference debate. Do we want to be treated equally as men, and subsequently be expected to conform to their traditional pathways to success or do we want to be treated slightly differently than men, and risk receiving special treatment and inciting gender essentialism?

    I think there is a middle ground that we’re both moving towards; one that re-valorizes many of the “soft” attributes historically associated with women and calls on men, as well as us, to reclaim our common humanity.

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