Faith, Rationality and the Passions

The papers from the 2010 conference at Cambridge on “Faith, Rationality and the Passions,” convened by Sarah Coakley, are now available: half of them in Modern Theology here and the other half in Faith and Philosophy 28/1. In the latter, the interesting-looking bits include Paul J. Griffiths, “Tears and Weeping: An Augustinian View” (19-28) and Merold Westphal, “Kierkegaard on Faith, Reason, and Passion” (82–92). What this really means, however, is not one, but two new Coakley articles! Sort of: they’re really just an introduction and postscript to the collected papers. But when her systematics has been “forthcoming” for as long as it has, you take what you can get.

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Sarah Coakley Interview on Pain and Spiritual Transformation

As part of her work editing Pain and Its Transformations: The Interface of Biology and Culture, Sarah Coakley gave an interview for ABC’s Radio National. While they have a partial transcript there, I decided to listen to the full mp3 myself and transcribe some of the other potent bits. On second thought, I really should just transcribe the full 40-minute interview, but for now, here they are for digestion (with time markers):

“Pain and suffering are often kept separate in our language, but actually they are acutely entangled, for reasons I’ve outlined, and different kinds of pain are subject to different sorts of interpretive or ritual or meditative amelioration or transformation. Some may not be capable of that.  In extreme cases of torture, for instance, agonizing pain that obliterates thought and language, then I think we’re at a place in which we move beyond what can easily be dealt with by interpretation.” (3:58)

“The imposition of pain has been a feature of the use of a penance for instance in the monastic tradition in Christianity, but is rather frowned upon nowadays and not without good reason I think, because that suggests a kind of manipulative use of pain for religious purposes.” (5:36)

“And then the interesting question is-is this pain that I have either in my body or my soul, or in both, something that is part of the divine plan for me? How do I respond to it? How could it perhaps be something which is a means of proceeding through to a deeper closeness to God in Christ? And in the case of some of the most exalted literature of mystical theology, especially that of the 16th century Carmelites, there is very subtle and rich reflection on how different kinds of pain may be significant for spiritual advance ultimately towards union with Christ.” (6:10)

“What’s very distinctive about John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, is that they see an unbroken intimacy with Christ, as something that can happen to at least to a few specially chosen people, in this life. And it can be an unbroken union, which once achieved, one doesn’t fall away from.” (7:27)

“It is an eroticism that arises out of long years of purgation and transformation of the physiological life to be in accordance with the spiritual.” (8:25)

“It is a spiritual wound, yes, and it bespeaks that utter unification of the soul with the what you might call the redemptive project of Christ which includes suffering as well as redemption and transformation. So it is not technically an obliteration of pain, spiritual and physiological, but it is its utter transformation because of its binding of itself in oneness with Christ’s redemptive life.” (9:10)

“But rather, because her [Teresa of Avila’s] body has become more used to this intimacy with Christ, it is a state of unbreakable closeness to Christ when Christ is being let into the innermost part of the self, the interior castle.” (10:48)

“In the night of sense, what is happening is that the spiritual feeling of dis-ease is actually God weaning you from needing to have nice feelings while you’re praying to a stage in which you are willing to wait on God in silence and relative sensual discomfort whilst your senses are being trained to be in alignment with your spirit. That’s the first stage, the stage of arid contemplation in which all delight is taken away from you in order that your senses be purged from delight in experiences in order to delight in God.” (15:48)

“Unless we have a sure spiritual guide, someone who can discern the signs, it is very difficult to know at any given time whether the pains that we feel really are purgative and transformative, or whether they are signs that we are off the road. And that’s part of the mystery of what one is undertaking, one can’t manipulate this in a way that has complete control precisely because one is handing over control by progressive degrees to God.” (17:32)

“Not seen simply as things that may ameliorate our sense of affliction immediately, but undertakings which are transformative in themselves because they draw us closer to God. They’re not tools that we can manipulate, but they are means to a possible transformation of consciousness and even physiological awareness.” (19:53)

“The point is that it’s so completely infused with the intimacy and presence of Christ that its distress is transfigured.” (21:10)

“Because there are ways of thinking about, positioning oneself in relationship to Christ’s suffering which can be, given the way that John and Teresa speak of … a wound that is the result of the divine cauterization of our human pain, into which as it were Christ is fully inserted in union, you see them as the most amazing, paradoxical combination of intense pain and pure delight and transformation. A secularized culture can probably only hear this as S&M, which it most certainly is not.” (21:55)

“But if you look at the great religious traditions, such as the Carmelites in the Christian tradition, you’ll see that tackling that question is completely impossible unless one tackles that deeper and profounder question of how the very self, body and soul, is being transformed in its response to pain.” (25:49)

“Because they’re able to distinguish between pains that indicate to us that something is awry, whether physiologically or spiritually, and pains which are a sign actually of our being stretched and purged and transformed, in order to arrive eventually at the ultimate spiritual goal, whatever that is in the particular religious traditions.” (30:23)

“But at the end of the day, those mystical theologians like the Carmelites are willing to say, ‘Only the pain that is the sign of complete union with the Christ who redemptively suffers for the world is a good in itself.’ And even then, it is only a good because it’s partaking in Christ’s actually leading people into a place of healing.” (30:55)

“We place ourselves at the disposal of divine intervention, healing and we also help each other in this by various practices of combined rituals. But I don’t think we can ever actually predict the outcome.” (32:08)

“Whatever God gives one in this life as a baptized person, that process of transformation is always on offer. If pain and grief come, then one must take it first and foremost as at least the possibility and opportunity of such transformation.” (34:19)

“When people have a meaning system that involves eschatological verification, that is, someone who believes that the meaning of life will be discovered after death, then as they approach death, they realise that this isn’t just going to be a snuffing out, it’s some kind of passage which is of extraordinary spiritual significance, and therefore sometimes they may undergo more suffering because of the significance they impart to this.” (38:15)

Coakley on Belief and Practice

In the volume, Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, theologian Sarah Coakley has an essay on “deepening practices” (79-93). In it, she argues for an alignment of three sets of practices with the traditional three stages of spiritual progress. In mystical theology, there are three steps in a deepening pattern or practice of prayer: the “purgative,” the “illuminative,” and the “unitive.” Of course, the three are not so neatly divided, but are interwoven in the “messy reality” of day-to-day faithfulness (79).

To the first stage, the “purgative,” Coakley links the sort of practice of turning away from evil practices associated with new converts or beginners in the faith. In this early phase, “Much of the emphasis is on setting one’s life in a direction different from that of the world” (84). The second stage, the “illuminative,” Coakley illustrates with Benedict’s monastic Rule. This stage is about ingraining the love of Christ on one’s interior through repeated, habitual practices. Over time, things like worshiping together, welcoming the stranger and giving charity to the poor shape one’s life to become more like Christ. A “habituating of love” takes place (86). This not just in external matters, as in the first stage, but in one’s deep attitudes or dispositions.

The third and final stage, the “unitive,” as the name suggests, is the stage of spiritual union with God. At this level of grace, the soul is so empty of self and filled with God that it becomes “transparent to the divine” (90). Here a level of holiness or sanctification is reached that “even the skeptical outsider” must begin to recognize as a supernatural grace (80). As with von Balthasar, so too with Coakley: “The saint is the apology for the Christian religion” (The Glory of the Lord, vol. 1, 229). Importantly, however, this level is not necessarily even consciously attained for the believer. Sanctification, or growth in grace, proceeds, as Coakley writes,”discreetly, quietly, and often even unconsciously in the recipient—through the ‘long haul’ of repeated practices of faithfulness” (83).

As we progress, through the “‘long haul’ of repeated practices of faithfulness”, a subtle transformation of our beliefs takes place as well. What initially began perhaps as a dogmatic clinging to truths proposed to us by an authority, by the Church, becomes the truth out of which we live and breathe. Our practices begin to “infuse beliefs with richer meaning” (92). Coakley speaks of the final stage this way:

This practice of contemplation is, strictly speaking, God’s practice in humans—a more unimpeded or conscious form of that distinctive human receptivity to grace that has sustained the process all along and that is itself a divine gift. But it does not obliterate or invalidate all the other practices; rather, it sets them all in a new light, reversing more obviously now the logical relations of beliefs and practices as this practice finally discloses the incorporative telos and meaning of ‘beliefs.’ In particular, the Trinity is no longer seen as an obscure though authoritative ecclesial doctrine of God’s nature, but rather a life into which we enter and, in unbreakable union with Christ, breathe the very Spirit of God. (93)

Progress in Mystery in Hilary of Poitiers

Taking up our discussion of Trinity and mystery from Karen Kilby, I came across a similar discussion in Hilary of Poitiers (300-368). He is here, in On the Trinity, discussing how it is that the Son is eternally born from the Father–a basic confession of Christian faith:

Penetrate into the mystery, plunge into the darkness which shrouds that birth, where you will be alone with God the Unbegotten and God the Only-begotten. Make your start, continue, persevere. I know that you will not reach the goal, but I shall rejoice at your progress. For he who devoutly treads an endless road, though he reach no conclusion, will profit by his exertions. Reason will fail for want of words, but when it comes to a stand it will be the better for the effort made. (On the Trinity, Book II, §10; in Gunton, ed., The Practice of Theology, 229)

Hilary seems to be setting out on a quite different path than Karen Kilby in her recent article, “Is An Apophatic Trinitarianism Possible?” Making a comparison across disciplines, she argues, “[T]heology does not ‘progress’ in the way that mathematics does, and the doctrine of the Trinity which is the conclusion of a long hermeneutical struggle should not itself be taken as a fresh starting point for a new enquiry” (70). For Kilby, “[T]here ought properly to be … a resistance to, a fundamental reticence and reserve surrounding, speculation on the Trinity” (72).

The proper grammar surrounding the Trinity has been achieved: this is the result of great struggle in the first five centuries of the Church’s life. But that does not mean that we may now set off, as it were, from the Trinitarian definitions as a launching pad to deeper things. Instead, the Trinity remains most properly shrouded in a veil of apophasis. But Kilby makes an important additional distinction: apophasis is not simply a sheer act of denial–that we, for instance, have no knowledge whatsoever about the Trinity. Rather, the Trinity is so overwhelmingly excessive that all our attempts to “understand” what the Trinity is like fall short.

The Trinitarian dogmas, Kilby wishes to affirm however, do really teach us things about the nature of God’s life, even the immanent life of Father, Son and Spirit together. They also, importantly, hedge off certain wrong understandings. In her own words, “Or again, one thing the doctrine affirms is that there really is only one God, and to say this is to say something about the immanent Trinity, but this does not mean that one has a comprehension of – or even a feeling for – how the oneness of God fits with the threeness” (71). And here Kilby is much closer to Hilary:

Therefore, since no one knows the Father save the Son, let our thoughts of the Father be at one with the thoughts of the Son, the only faithful Witness, who reveals him to us. It is easier for me to feel this concerning the Father than to say it… We must feel that he is invisible, incomprehensible, eternal. But to say [these things]… all this is an acknowledgement of his glory, a hint of our meaning, a sketch of our thoughts, but speech is powerless to tell us what God is, words cannot express the reality. (§7; in Gunton, 227-228)

So what purpose, then, does theological writing on the Trinity serve? Karen Kilby and Hilary of Poitiers here offer the same answer:

So much I have resolved to say concerning the nature of their Divinity not imagining that I have succeeded in making a summary of the faith, but recognising that the theme is inexhaustible. So faith, you object, has no service to render, since there is nothing that it can comprehend. Not so; the proper service of faith is to grasp and confess the truth that it is incompetent to comprehend its object. (Hilary, §11; in Gunton, 229-230)

With equal elegance, Kilby: “What answers we may appear to have – answers drawing on notions of processions, relations, perichoresis – would be acknowledged as in fact no more than technical ways of articulating our inability to know” (67). Perhaps this, then, is progress: a recognition of the fundamental–indeed, theologically reasoned–need for a “trinitarian theological modesty” (67), or what Sarah Coakley calls “a theology committed to ascetic transformation.” Indeed, in the last analysis, “To know God is unlike any other knowledge; indeed, it is more truly to be known, and so transformed” (Is There a Future for Gender and Theology?, 5).

Karen Kilby on Apophatic Trinitarianism

Nottingham theologian Karen Kilby has an article in the January 2010 issue of the International Journal of Systematic Theology on the possibility of an “apophatic Trinitarianism.” Interestingly, she argues that there is something potentially rationalistic about an over-confident speaking about the Trinity, which, after all, is a fundamental mystery: how can we think of three persons in one essence? Father, Son, Spirit: these three are one? Instead, Kilby wants to throw up an important caution:

Or again, one might ask whether some versions of trinitarian robustness presuppose a rather elevated conception of the role of both theology and the theologian: it can sometimes seem that only if one has sat at the feet of contemporary theologians can one really see what it was … which was, all along, the deep meaning of the Christian revelation, the central thing it has to teach us. And ultimately of course one might wonder about the danger of idolatry, about the possibility of being so robust, so confident that we know what we are talking about when we talk about the Trinity, that we are in fact projecting our most pleasing ideas onto God and making those the object of our worship. (67)

Trinitarian theology is (perhaps) the deepest point of the Christian mystery. The only other point that is (perhaps) more mysterious is the self-giving of love we see in Jesus’ cross. For the theologian, then, who is charged by the Church to care for its speech about God, there is an incredible spiritual danger in speaking too confidently–of over-reaching what is given to him or her. But, as Kilby also reminds us, apophaticism–making negative statements of God, stating what we cannot say about God–has classically occurred (in the Church Fathers, for instance) in tandem with contemplation.

To define contemplation, Kilby states succinctly: “The Spirit allows us to contemplate the Father in the Son. This is the fundamental structure of Christian contemplation” (72). Christian contemplation, in other words, is structurally Trinitarian. This is something recognized also by Sarah Coakley: “[P]rayer (and especially prayer of a non-discursive sort, whether contemplative or charismatic) is the only context in which the irreducible threeness of God becomes humanly apparent” (Is There A Future for Gender and Theology?, 10).

But, Kilby notes, how can apophaticism–the making of negative statements–be associated with the Trinity, which is a reality and a truth preeminently rich and inexhaustible? Instead, Kilby turns this logic on its head to show that it is precisely the overflowing reality of the Trinity that cautions our speech:

Richness, excess, this overwhelming quality of what we cannot comprehend should, on the view I am developing, be located precisely at the level of our contemplation in the Trinity, rather than at the level of contemplation of the Trinity… And it is precisely because of the sense of excess and transcendence associated with contemplation in the Trinity that there ought properly to be, on the view I am exploring, a resistance to, a fundamental reticence and reserve surrounding, speculation on the Trinity. (72)

As Coakley states similarly elsewhere, “[S]ystematic theology without contemplative and ascetic practice is void; for theology in its proper sense is always implicitly in via. It comes, with the urge, the fundamental desire, to seek God’s face and yet to have that seeking constantly checked, corrected and purged” (Is There a Future for Gender and Theology?, 5-6).