Reading Coakley: Mixing Metaphors

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

Erin, if you thought you had to look up lots of words in Coakley last week . . . sheesh.

Before Coakley, you ask a question about mixing gendered language in liturgy. I agree that’s a good way to pop the imagination of speaker and listener alike. The most important goal of such language for me is to show, simply, that God is not male. If God were male, or female, God would be a creature, and not Creator.

I confess that I feel freer to do this in some contexts than others. When preaching or teaching at the Divinity School I was more likely to use “she” for God, or a feminine metaphor. In my current setting I’ve simply not done it yet, I confess. I hope that’s not lack of courage. I just don’t know how it’ll go over, and want to save up my giving offense until I know what’ll give it and how bad.

I do worry such gender mixing efforts can become a kind of affirmative action plan, as though we should now use as many feminine images as the church has traditionally used male ones (this is more common in liberal seminaries, I grant, than in the church or at Duke). For example, one common Trinitarian substitute for a while has been “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one Mother of us all.” It’s not terrible, it just sounds like we’ve mentioned a boy, so now we need to mention a girl, in pedantic fashion. And I do think Father and Son language maintain a biblical and patristic priority against which other images have to be measured, and for which they cannot be substitutes.

There’s probably enough, I know, but to the book . . .

This is our last week in the middle section of Powers and Submissions, and I feel like I’m watching one side of a tennis match. I admire Coakley for reading in and responding to analytic philosophy of religion—basically the English and American schools of philosophy which begin with a skepticism toward metaphysics and seek to offer arguments only in the form of empirical proofs.

The problem is, for Coakley, those working in those fields offer arguments that are unschooled both by feminism and by Christian orthodoxy. Their approach to the problem of evil suggests that human free will requires the ability to do wrong, independently of divine intention, or else we’d be puppets (I confess I’ve used this argument before). The problem is it assumes a rational untethered male is the free person in question—one likely cared for, taught, and sustained in his work by unnamed women.

Such philosophy also argues for the existence of God in a way that arrives at a solitary, non-trinitarian deity, and then has to work backwards in awkward ways toward a doctrine of the Trinity. The mistake is in arguing toward a solitary powerful male unit in the first place, when a feminist approach would be more inclined to begin with a God understood in relationship and the vulnerability of the incarnation.

I’m left wondering why bother with analytic philosophy of religion at all. Coakley’s committed to bothering in that literature as well as a host of others on display here (epistemology, feminism, spirituality, medieval and patristic theology, surely some I’m missing). But I am left wondering a bit how these arguments touch down in the church.

They do, of course—I used the free will argument in theodicy in preaching and teaching because I got it from C.S. Lewis; I can only imagine when I’ve argued people toward a non-trinitarian God. But a better approach would be a more dogmatically and biblically robust doctrine of God and creation, one based on revelation, not one committed only to proofs accessible to intellects uninterested in grace. Alas.

Speaking of tennis: back over to you.


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