Reading Coakley: Practicing Dependence

This is the third post in a ten-week series on reading Sarah Coakley’s Powers and Submissions with my friend and mentor, Pastor Jason Byassee.


Three weeks into our public reading project and me thinks I’ve gotten the juciest chapters to date. First, the necessity of vulnerability in Christian feminism. Now, the perils of “creaturely dependance”  for women in the church.

To start, you were right to subtly correct my essentialist and, dare I say, lazy sexist assumption in your post last week that Christian submission is soft and receptive, like a passively veiled and demurely bejeweled bride of Christ.

Coakley begins her discussion of our dependence where theologians rightly should: with a discussion of the Trinity, and the dependence of Christ to the Father God and even the Mother Mary in his vulnerable human life and death.

I remember being stunned in my class on the rabbinical tradition of Midrash last semester when our professor, Rabbi Steve Sager, suggested to us that God is always learning. Like the infant Christ who dangles precariously on Mary’s knee in Georgios Klotzas icon, even God required attention, care,  and discipline. If our Christ was ( or is?) dependent, then surely all of us should count sharing in that need as a blessed inheritance.

Thus Coakley concludes it is not the wholly mind-blowing doctrine of dependence itself – however divergent Eastern and Western conceptions of it are – but the practical implications of these theologies upon the bodies of women that is so perilous to the church. The message is: “All creatures are dependent, but some are more dependent than others.”

This is a bold-faced lie, and one Coakley pegs on the Enlightenment’s cultural ideal of the stoic man, reluctant to admit his dependency on anything more than his own free will and ambition. She even goes so far as to wonder who in the Godhead men more readily identify with – “the yielding, depotentiated Son, or more truly with the impassive and all-powerful Father?”

I gather from your attraction of late to Bride of Christ imagery that you do not find yourself in this either/or bind. But from my own experience, many Christians are eager to tout the feminine-like nature of the Holy Spirit as a condolence for women’s lack of linguistic heritage with the Father and Son.  It’s like the Holy Spirit is supposed to be our Wonder Woman to your Batman and Spiderman. We all know which ones make the big blockbusters.

As you begin to pastor your new church, I wonder how you will model that de-centered genderism you mentioned last week. Coakley is skeptical that it can come from moving beyond these male and female images of stoicism and vulnerability to one of adrogynous political-correctness. While she rightly points out the need to examine the actual relationships between men and women, leadership and laity, doctrine and practice in any church, I think she ultimately is too dismissive of the power of language and imagery in the Body of Christ.

But then again I am a theologian now. And we are nothing if not dependent on the Word.

Until next week,

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