By Matt Boulter
A few days ago, I came across a promotional message put out by a teacher within the New York city Public School District on social media. Entitled “Drag Queen Story Hour!,” it contained the announcement of a first-grade field trip, organized by real live drag queens, designed to promote “inclusiveness,” “gender fluidity,” “acceptance,” and “individuality.”
How should a traditional Christian, who strives to confirm her life to the witness of the apostles and the teaching of the Church, respond to such an exhibit? An honest and prayerful consideration of Sarah Coakley’s God, Sexuality, and the Self will surely condition the way one responds to this question. Coakley compellingly contends, over the course of the 350 pages which comprise this first volume of her planned four-volume systematics, that such issues of gender identity politics are inextricably bound to issues not just of theology, but also of contemplation. Coakley, who self-identifies as a feminist, argues that one’s account of gender and identity in the political sphere is a function of one’s account of the inner-trinitarian relations in the Godhead which Christians call Trinity.
Take, for example, St. Gregory of Nyssa. According to Coakley, the trinitarian theology found in this Cappadocian Father’s late exegetical writings (especially his commentary on the Song of Songs), far from insisting on a rigid hierarchy among the hypostases or ‘persons’ of the Trinity, is “freed up into a remarkable poetic and erotic license. Here, archers and arrows, winds and billowing sails, and human erotic lovers become the new analogies of the freedom of inner-trinitarian relations, and of their transfiguring relation to us” (288). Such a free-flowing picture of the three persons of the Godhead, Coakley would say, points in the direction of the kind of gender fluidity lauded by the New York City educator.
It’s not simply, however, that one derives one’s anthropology or account of human sexuality directly from one’s account of the Trinity; it’s more that one’s view of human nature and the sexes, one’s theory of prayer and spiritual development, and one’s understanding of God as Trinity, are tied up in a single, thorny knot. Each, for Coakley, is messily implicated in the others.
One central stream of her argument is that an incorporative trinitarianism — one that makes claims about God on the basis of an experience of the Holy Spirit — is immeasurably better equipped to evaluate and comment upon the gender issues of our contemporary Western society than is a model which remains in the mental realm alone. The ascetical practice of contemplation, Coakley thinks, radically repositions one’s attitude by transforming one’s desires. Here we see a second connection, a second tangled knot: one’s theoretical position on issues of gender and sexuality on the one hand, and one’s own experience of desire on the other. Without contemplation — the mystical encounter of God who desires you — you cannot authentically say anything helpful about the New York notice above, for or against.
Space will not allow me to unpack this claim of Coakley’s fully; for that I urge the reading of the book. Instead, allow me to focus on the two connections noted above. These two knotty connections — that between one’s theology and one’s gender politics, and that between one’s gender politics and one’s experience of desire in contemplation — bring me to my double motive for reading (and writing about) this volume, a motive that is intensely personal and urgent.
I did not read it alone. I read it with two friends, one of whom is a parishioner in the Episcopal parish I serve as priest, a parish which declines to perform same-sex rites of matrimony, for reasons of theological conviction, reasons with which I agree. My co-reading friend/parishioner, however, has two married LGBT loved ones in his immediate family of origin: his mother and his brother. His love for both of them causes him deep pain in light of his parish’s position on the marriage question.
We spent over a year reading and discussing Coakley’s book, which is not an easy read, mind you. Over that time we communed by way of text message, phone calls, and group meetings (even though one of us lives in a different city, a five-hour drive away).
Over the course of this extended discussion, did any of us change our mind on any of the issues? Even though we did see how gender politics, trinitarian theology, and our own experience of desire are all connected in a thorny knot, at the end of the day, no, we did not, any of us, change our mind on the issues at hand.
But that brings me to the second, perhaps more urgent, connection, alluded to above. I can say confidently that all three of us were pricked by a deepened conviction to dedicate ourselves anew to the practice of contemplation. We each trust the others, and we each admit that our motives are mixed, a tangled mixture rooted in a still deeper, still disordered, knot of desire.
It’s not that we celebrate perpetual indeterminacy. It’s not that we are uncommitted on the “issues” (like the “undecideds” inhabiting the vestibule of hell in Dante’s Inferno). Rather, we realize that, unless and until the knot of our own disordered desires is untangled, we must hold our views tentatively. Holding our views tentatively, we must continue to love and to submit to each other.
Fr. Matt Boulter is the associate rector at Christ Church in Tyler, Texas, and a PhD candidate in medieval philosophy at Maynooth University, Ireland.