Reading Coakley: Transforming Gender Here and Now

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


What brought me to attend Duke and what brought me to read Coakley were in part you and in part the desire for middle ground in the famously fraught lines of faith and feminism.

It is Coakley’s last section of her piecemeal collection of essays in Powers and Submissions that reminds me of the sympathetic synthesis needed between feminist theorists and orthodox theologians. Here she seeks to reconcile the theory of the notoriously thorny Judith Butler and the 4th century ascetic Gregory of Nyssa.

Anyone who’s ever read Butler either loves or hates her for her desconstructive theory of gender that claims there is no biological essence to sex and desire but rather gendered identity – if at all stable – is fashioned by the repetition of performative acts. In effect, we are what we do. There is no other way for society to “read” our gender than by what we inscribe on and enact through our body.

I confess that I love Butler. I love when theory itself is a performance of idealistic word acts that constitute their authority by a sort of scholarly repetition. Butler is an unmissable tool for any feminist theologian seeking to bridge gaps in understanding between a postmodern theory of gender construction and an enduring theory of human transformation. I curled into this last chapter of Coakley as I would a crisp new issue of the gossip rag Us Weekly, just brimming with curiosity about the smack talking that might ensue.

Coakley argues that Butler, albeit an ethnic Jew and performative lesbian, is concealing an eschatological longing in her obsessive focus on the body as the sole focus for (somewhat hopeless) societal change. As a feminist, I was already a bit taken a back at this somewhat paternalistic (“I know she’s saying no but she really means yes”) scholarly approach.

However, what Coakley concludes is monumental for the work I’m seeking to do on transforming gender in the church. She argues that Butler’s insistence on performative acts has parallels in Gregory’s practices of transformation. Both “create the future by enacting its possibilities.”

Amongst my complimentarian friends, I often hear Galatians 3:28 dismissed as an echatological vision, one that will be enacted when God’s kindgom comes to earth again but one that is not meant to be embodied now. Surely, for the sake of order we must have male and female, slave and free, Jew and Gentile! Not so.

We create the future by enacting its possibilities.

Both feminists and theologians are trying to enact the possibilities of  transforming the oppressions and inequalities of this life. Feminists often use the language of utopia to signify the potentially unrealistic and other-worldly ideal of gender liberation. But for Christians, we have the very realistic and this-wordly guarantee that such a utopia will occur when heaven comes to earth again in the form of Jesus Christ. And though we are waiting, waiting for the fulfillment of all God’s promises, we are charged to enact – whether through performance or practice – heaven on earth here and now.

What propels me in my vocation as a Christian feminist is nothing more and nothing less than the following summation: There is more feminist hope in the Gospel for gender transformation than there is any secular feminist  theory of change I’ve ever read.

Thank you for helping me to affirm as much.


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