Reading Coakley: De-Centering Gender

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

Howdy again, Erin,

Glad we have this regular discipline of reading Coakley and writing to one another. I love your comment from last time about some theologians being drawn to speak of the Spirit in particularly feminine terms: “like the Spirit is supposed to be our Wonder Woman to your Batman and Spiderman.” Coakley herself has critiqued this common move. It often draws its origin from Syriac patristic sources, but doesn’t stop to note that the Syriac Orthodox Church is not especially noted for its feminist sympathies.

I’m pretty sure Coakley is where I first heard Mary Daly’s quip about this move: “You’re included in the Holy Spirit. He’s female.”

Coakley often gets her hackles up in response to intellectual uniformity and shrillness. So in the chapter we have just read she objects to theology’s near universal condemnation of Descartes, his cogito, and its purported “peeling back” of all things that matter: the body, community, the other, and all things but the lonely self contained in a physical shell. I love this move from her—first salvaging a more sympathetic reading of Descartes before dispatching him more carefully for failing to be as fully Trinitarian in his understanding of the soul as his predecessor Augustine was.

Then she makes a pivot and describes Gregory Palamas’ triadic understanding of the human person with its greatly more elevated vision of the body and commends Palamite thinking as a potential source for reconfiguring the self after Descartes. Now that’s a lot.

Ultimately this chapter didn’t satisfy me as much as her work usually does. I know these figures better than the average Joe, and I wanted a much slower account of who said what when and why before we ran to conclusions. This feels like a book, not a chapter, and even if I agreed or disagreed I’m not much sure what would be at stake. And where’d the feminist material go here?

You asked last week how I would practice and model a de-centered genderism. I don’t really know. I was impressed by meeting an intern from Duke who retired from a law enforcement career. After she regaled with stories of target practice I mentioned that being a first woman pastor in a congregation won’t likely intimidate her. “Nope,” she said. “I’ll just tell them to put on their big girl panties and then I’ll show them my Glock.” Nice. She can drown any would-be critic in testosterone. In one way I admire it. In another . . .

I’m glad Coakley can out muscle any male philosopher of religion. But I like her work better when it’s closer to the rough ground of the church in flesh and blood now, of her own experience, of matters of the soul (however understood) that church leaders like me might actually face.

What does it mean for gender to look on Christ as our mother, from whose side we, the church, are born in blood and water, who longs to gather us under her (his?) wings, who did not fulfill his era’s expectations of a rabbi that he have children but gave birth to a church now millennia old and billions strong? No idea. But I’m glad to have friends like Coakley and you to stew on it.


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