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Seminar 1- Sarah Coakley

Our first seminar for the ‘Understanding and Christian Doctrine’ project was provided on 4 November 2015, at St John’s College, by Sarah Coakely, Norris Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. Professor Coakley spoke to us in the light of her long-term systematic theology project, the first volume of which has been published as God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

At the heart of the whole ‘Varieties of Understanding’ project is the question of how understanding differs from mere knowledge. Understanding might involve, for instance, the development of mental models of the world that allow predictions to be made about future states of the world, or more generally that allow the world successfully to be inhabited. It might be thought that Christian doctrine functions rather like such a model, albeit on a large scale: it sets out a broad picture of the world, providing a context for individual claims about the world, and enabling the world to be inhabited. Christian doctrine, it might be thought, provides a way of making sense of the world.

Professor Coakley’s discussion took us in a rather different direction. Christian doctrine, she argued in effect, might indeed be said to mark out a way of making sense of the world, but only if we give that word ‘way’ its full strength. That is, Christian doctrine marks out an on-going process, a journey, along which understanding emerges and is refined.

The method employed in her systematic theology, she explained, is one of théologie totale. This method involves two central moves. First, it involves acknowledgment that all theological claims – claims made about how we should understand the world, ourselves, and God in the light of scripture, the Christian tradition, and the operations of our reason – are involved in a whole range of ‘messy entanglements’. Théologie totale insists that to understand these claims well involves exploring these messy entanglements by which the epistemological is bound up inextricably with the moral, the spiritual, and the political. It is therefore inherently interdisciplinary, but even more importantly it necessarily involves overcoming various oppositions such as that between theoretical and practical (or contemplative and practical).

Second, théologie totale involves a recognition that the task of understanding is inseparable from the task of the purification of desire, and the pursuit of holiness. That task is fundamentally a contemplative one, with its heart in prayer – though it is equally, indeed inseparably, a practical task that involves the reordering of our relationships, personal, institutional, and political.

Drawing on the account given in God, Sexuality, and the Self, pp. 88–92, Professor Coakley explained that théologietotale priviliges contemplation (‘an undertaking of radical attention to the Real’). This contemplation involves ‘an attentive openness of the whole self (intellect, will, memory, imagination, feeling, bodiliness) to the reality of God and of the creation’ in ‘an ongoing journey of purgative transformation and change’).

Doctrine does not name a static orthodoxy that defines true understanding. Rather, it marks out a path or purification and transformation – and is itself revised and refined along that path. ‘“Orthodoxy” in théologie totale is understood as a project, the longed-for horizon of personal transformation in response to divine truth.’ To understand some reality, in this view, is not best thought of as the possession of an adequate placing of that reality against the backdrop of a doctrinally orthodox picture of the world, or the formation of a practically adequate model of the world. It is best thought of as a developing relation with that reality in the context of a process of ongoing contemplative, ascetic purification.

Further information on Professor Coakley’s approach to systematic theology can be found in her article, ‘Is There a Future for Gender and Theology: On Gender, Contemplation and the Systematic Task’, Svensk Teologisk Kvartallskrift 85 Nr2 (2009), 52–61; available online at

Summary by Mike Higton