Science, Pastoral Ministry, and Systematic Vision: An Interview with Sarah Coakley, Part Two

In this interview, Regent’s Post-Doctoral Fellow in Theology and Science, Dr. David Robinson, speaks with Professor Sarah Coakley, Emeritus Norris-Hulse Professor at the University of Cambridge, about her experience in hospital and prison chaplaincies, the category of “race”/racism, and what her scientific study means for her systematics.

Professor Coakley visited Regent College in the Autumn of 2018 to deliver her Interface lecture, “Is There a Future for ‘Natural Theology’? Evolution, Cooperation, and the Question of God.” She also led a research seminar with Regent students on themes from her forthcoming book, Sacrifice Regained: Evolution, Cooperation and God (Oxford University Press, 2019).

David Robinson: You have spoken of your own work of scientific enquiry as a strategic “dispossession” in the Spirit. If I’m understanding the posture, “church dogmatics” are held back from pre-empting the answers that can only be revealed more fully through the slow, often painstaking processes of scientific engagement with the world. Why expose yourself in this way, particularly given an academic ethos of specialization?

Sarah Coakley: First of all, I suppose it’s my longing to respond to Lord (C.P.) Snow’s famous lament about the disjunction between the arts and humanities that’s at stake. It is my desire to engage in a conversation in the university that unifies its response to reality. You can tell that I’m not a fully paid-up “post-modern” here! Of course, I can’t deny that we are fragmented to a large extent into our different discourses in the university, and probably necessarily so for pragmatic reasons. Nevertheless, it seems to me that it is still the duty of the university to bring us together at some table, the table of the “real”. So it’s partly that that propels me; but, over-ambitiously you may think, I believe there’s something more at stake here, which is that I do not presume as part of my method as a systematic theologian that the church, as it were, controls and constrains truth about God. When it tries to do that it strikes me that it becomes idolatrous about its own possessions. Therefore, that’s what I mean by “pneumatological dispossession” to any discourses in which God may be manifesting Godself. If you believe fundamentally that nothing is alien to God, then God may be playing in the most mysterious places—and be waiting to surprise us afresh through insights and wisdom that are even outside the realm of the church.

Do you see that posture of dispossession among other discourses to be a characteristic of the Episcopalian and Anglican traditions in which you’ve worked?

Yes and no. Can we first distinguish here between Episcopalian and (English) Anglicanism? They are very different animals! And the Episcopalian church itself has several strands within it, as does the Anglican because we already combine the Protestant and the Catholic. But there is something distinctive about English Anglicanism, of course, which I only became fully conscious of when I lived outside of the UK for fifteen years at Harvard, because of its historic church-state relation set up at the Reformation. Whatever you think of establishmentarianism, what it does give people who belong to the established church, however undermined it is by secularism and numerical weakness, is a sense of confidence that it belongs in this country. And that part of its duty is to talk about God in public places, including the House of Lords. That means, I think, that Anglicans in England still feel less discombobulated by the idea that we might find in strange places in our so-called “secular” society something that might say something about God. We don’t circle the wagons in the same way that I think Protestant Christianity has increasingly come to do in America generally, as atheistical discourses, in the universities particularly, have become more dominant and strident. That instinct to sectarianism is not Anglican. Unfortunately, as we lose numbers in the Church of England, there are many bishops who would like us to be disestablished, and that includes Rowan Williams, our former Archbishop. It’s not a coincidence that he was born a Presbyterian Welshman. But I think that would be an absolute disaster. It is true that our national Church is currently disempowered numerically, and we have to ask ourselves with insistence why we have so failed to capture the hearts and minds (and especially the intellectual respect) of younger people: much that I’ve discussed above about science, culture and religion is relevant here. But I do think that a rational space for public religious discussion in the country is of enormous significance in a contemporary world in which the clash of religious forces and the descent into irrationalism in relation to religion are amongst the most dangerous political forces we confront. Does that help to answer your original question? I would advocate more prayerful “dispossession” to our contemporary culture’s urgent concerns and longings, though not without discerning critique.

Speaking of the church, could I turn more directly to your pastoral experience? I know that as a full-time professor of theology you took a year out to devote yourself to ministry in both a hospital and a prison. What have been the effects of that experience on your ensuing work of academic theology?

Vast, is the answer. I think I’ve undergone two Copernican revolutions in the course of my career, to put it in an over-inflated way; and they came rather close together in time, though they were paradoxically related. The first was being invited by the Lilly Foundation to do this experiment in transformation you refer to: to take a year out of my professorship at Harvard in my diaconal year, and to submit myself to the humiliations that all my students in the M.Div. program went through, i.e., a year of Clinical Pastoral Education in a busy and difficult Boston hospital, and then, by my own choice, a weekly period in the same year spent in a South Boston jail. The other Copernican revolution came not long after that: the invitation to go and sit and learn in a science laboratory (as described in Part One). You might think that these things had absolutely nothing to do with one another; but both challenged me to think about how I could integrate into my “systematic” theological vision what was being thrown at me from these very different arenas.

What I have come to think out of that first, Copernican revolution (quite apart from the way that it changed me personally, and not without pain), is that we don’t do our churches or our ministers-in-training any favours by dislocating what we call “pastoral” or “practical” theology from “systematic” theology. I tend of course to get pained messages from people high up in the field of “pastoral” theology when I hold forth in this way, for they have staked their careers on this disjunction. And I understand how all this came about historically. It came about, ultimately, in the way that Schleiermacher in Berlin carved up the arenas of theological training in order to fit them in with the vision of the modern university as conceived by Alexander von Humboldt. And this has been determinative for subsequent theological formation of ministers, especially in the United States. What Schleiermacher did was to distinguish the high intellectual work that needed to be done in Bible and church history and ethics, philosophy of religion, and systematic theology, from the “professional training” that prospective clergy needed to undertake (on a certain parallel track with medicine and law). That latter arena in clerical/practical training later became a sort of cobbled-on addendum with rather more questionable academic credentials. Schleiermacher himself, I don’t think, disjoined these arenas in his thinking and working, in the way that they came to be disjoined once they were implanted into the university divinity schools of the “New World”; but that has come to be the rather unfortunate impact. Now, the assumption is that “pastoral” and “practical” theology are somehow secondary stepsisters to systematic theology. This tends to make systematic theology appear distanced from practical/pastoral realities, and mutatis mutandis, to give pastoral and practical theology an unfortunate status of second-rate theological thinking, which sometimes veers, regrettably, to the so-called “experiential”/anti-intellectual.

So if you are asking me what I learned in methodological terms in that crucial transformative year, it was that as I was myself struggling with how to express what I wanted to say about the integrative force of various strands in my systematic theology, I became determined that these historical disjunctions between “pastoral” and “systematic” theology be overcome. And I modified my teaching as a result, immediately. Every year at Harvard I would have about a hundred people in the Introduction to Christian Theology course, which was an extremely demanding one. It went from Thomas Aquinas to contemporary theology, passing all the “greats” en route, both Catholic and Protestant. We asked key questions about historical choices on the “starting point” in systematic theology, about the core nature of the doctrine of God, and then about the theorizing about theological language in the case of each of the authors we studied. What I added on after I had gone through this year of pastoral transformation myself, was a set of extra classes that the M.Div. students were invited to do towards the end of this course if they were going into active ministry. I gave out to them the sort of practical test-case examples which are normally used in pastoral and practical theology. I then asked them to reflect on the theological content of the material they’d been studying that year in Introduction to Theology and what difference it would make to how they would respond to these particular pastoral issues, that is, whether or not they held one view of God or another view of God. To begin with they found this challenge completely impossible. They just couldn’t bring these parts of their thinking together at all – the “practical” and the “systematic”. But then, as we worked at it, I think they really did begin to see that there’s no such thing as a theological position which doesn’t have practical/pastoral implications. And there’s no such thing as a practical issue in ministry that doesn’t implicitly have systematic theological underpinnings or challenges.

That was rather a long answer to an artfully succinct question. There were many, many other impacts that my work in that year had on me personally. And even more important to me, frankly, than what I’ve just described in pedagogic terms, was the disruptive and disturbing revelation, discovered over some months in a Boston jail, about how (what I now call) “race”/racism really operates in North America in and through systemic practices of policing and incarceration of non-white people. Of course I had been vaguely aware of these charges before this; but now I saw it in a most visceral and horrifying way. And what I learned I am now trying to weave in a thoroughgoing way into the second volume of my systematics. I think also, finally, what this year brought home to me is that theology “in the field” is the place where the Spirit makes an appearance in unexpected arenas and corners. We need to introduce into our systematic thinking these surprising, destabilizing, and creatively re-energizing “interruptions” of the Spirit which may cause us to rethink our systematic task.

And yet, if I can follow up on that briefly, you still hold to the language of “systematics”?

I do, against screams of protest to the contrary (and I do identify and respond to these protests in volume 1 of my systematics, as I think you know). In this I am also ironically following Barth by carrying out what he called an “unsystematic systematics”, because I insist that whatever I’m writing is always “in via”, precisely because it’s open to interruption and dispossession in the Spirit. Therefore (as I explain at length in chapter 1 of God, Sexuality and the Self), the task is not “hegemonic”, it’s not finished, it’s not patriarchal and it’s not “onto-theological”. That’s because it’s underwoven by practices of dispossession; only thus will it speak, and be heard, aright. But the reason I refuse to lay down the title of “systematic theology”, is that I’m perfectly aware that that is a classic power move! So I’m going to make the power move, and then I’m going to question the way that that power’s been operated in the past and displace it into something else.

Shifting to your forthcoming work, a number of us are anticipating the second volume of your systematics, which includes theological attention to the categories of “race” and racism. Some claim that “race” is a pseudo-scientific concept that we should leave behind, so why do you think it’s critical for theology to engage with it?

The way that I am currently speaking in volume two, which is in the writing, is a bit cumbersome, but I’m finding it necessary to refer to “race”/racism rather than “race”, as such. I’ll explain to you why I do that. For those that would rather get rid of the term “race” there is an understandable propulsion to reject the false ontologizing of race in the way that it was done by moderns such as Kant, who thought that humanity was literally divided into Balkanized races, some of them better and whiter than others. That kind of essentialism has absolutely finally been blown out of the water by the genome project, if it hadn’t been already for cultural and historical reasons. However, the problem is that if you try and “disappear” the notion of race, you tend to end up denying that it remains a problem. Whereas, in fact, it still “colours” perceptions of the world in ways we find difficult to acknowledge; consciously or unconsciously, it is a fact that cannot be denied. Therefore the language of race is still being used in strongly normative ways, even when people are pretending that it isn’t. So if we simply erase the term we would be in denial. We would say, “oh, we’re colour blind; there’s no problem, we’ve overcome all that, we’re post-racial.” This point is made to me repeatedly.

The whole of the second volume of my systematic theology is an attempt to reconnect, in a way that has not been acceptable in recent analyses of racism in America, to the theological problem of sin. This is because once we have correctly re-analyzed what sin is (which of course is by no means obvious—there is no uniform definition of sin the in the history of the Christianity, but you won’t be surprised to hear that I see it as a corruption, misdirection, and misalignment of desire building directly from Genesis 3—), we can then begin to see what immediately comes with that is a kind of epistemic and moral blindness, on the one hand, and at the same time a blame, an immediate blame of the “other” for the problem we can’t see in ourselves. That’s portrayed in Genesis 3 in the most incisive way, of course, as the blame goes down from Adam to Eve to the serpent. It may or may not surprise you to know that in late 19th-century (post-Darwinian) America, there was a perfectly serious exposition of Genesis 3 in social scientific terms that directly identified the serpent in Genesis 3 with the “Negro” who was half-beast, half-man: the “missing link”. This is very interestingly explored in David Livingstone’s book, Adam’s Ancestors; and it shows that even (and especially) in post-civil-war America, religious meaning-systems reflecting on the Fall were precisely deflecting blame onto the “Negro”.

I think the dynamics of projecting blame are alive and well in the psyche of North America, though I am aware that it doesn’t work quite the same way in Canada, because it doesn’t have quite the same open sore of slavery as its backcloth (though actually, as you know, there was slavery in Canada for nearly 200 years). But instead, and painfully, it has its awful subjugation of indigenous peoples as its history. But in the United States, something particularly terrible happened after “emancipation”, which pushed the problem of slavery underground and gave it new justificatory manoeuvres as the white north and south attempted to heal their own wounds. I think the same blame of the “other” is characteristic of all racism, but that there are forms of “race”/racism that are very specific to different parts of the world and we always need to contextualize: some of them do not involve differences of skin pigmentation as such (think of Northern Ireland).

Finally, we’ve just held a seminar with you where we worked to distinguish between natural theology and systematic theology. Could you speak to how your work in evolutionary biology has affected your systematics project?

There are perhaps two sides to my answer here. The seminar this afternoon, in which your students performed so brilliantly, made me very much aware that I have yet to clarify, first, certainly to the public and perhaps even to myself, exactly how my “systematic theology” and my apologetic “natural theology” are both overlapping to some extent, yet very much distinct. Ultimately my work in systematic theology is intended to draw on whatever interdisciplinary negotiations are illuminating for the final theological vision. But I am very aware that in the first volume of my systematics I did not draw on the natural sciences, and that arose from the contingent biographical fact that when I was first writing that book I hadn’t yet had my scientific “Copernican revolution”. I now have to decide how much of my new knowledge and interest in evolutionary biology I wish to advert to in my systematic theology overall. I think that’s one of the things that I’m not absolutely sure about yet, and being here at Regent has helped me to think about it much more deeply. I don’t want huge excursuses on that within the systematic theology; but it definitely has flavoured the way I think about the history of humanity, and the question of what have been the evolutionary and biological patterns in that history. So it can hardly fail to be in the background, at least, of volumes 2 and 3 of my systematic theology, which precisely constitute the “anthropological” strand in the vision.

More significantly, though, and on the other side of the coin, I want to keep my “natural theology”, or my “apologetics” as I also like to call it, as a non-hegemonic or open-minded invitatory conversation with secular science and seekers of different sorts. There really is a distinctive genre here which does not leap too quickly to the full-blown theological, but waits on its advent. So I want this to be a non-bludgeoning but also critical discussion, because I think one has to model that “dispossessive” way of operating as a theologian in conversation with the contemporary scientific world. What secular scientists are expecting, in contrast, of course, is someone to come in with all theological guns blazing; and I noticed that your own theological students also expected me to impose an instant trinitarian deus ex machina into this evolutionary discussion, which I am increasingly reluctant to do. It’s not because I don’t believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, as you know I do! But I think the patient conversation with contemporary secular science has to go on in a more subtle way so that the scientists concerned can see that you are willing to stay with them as they really struggle with what stories of meaning they might apply to the latest developments in evolutionary theory. To get them as far as thinking that perhaps the utterly deterministic and reductionist utilitarian ethic that they’ve been using to undergird their thinking for many years might not be best one, for me would be an enormous breakthrough. That would be opening up the seams of the discussion exponentially. So keeping one’s “theological powder dry” is sometimes the best way forward initially in these delicate and productive discussions with open-minded scientists; one can possibly intrigue them and then go forward from there. Always the Spirit must lead – and one must never presume that the Spirit is one’s own possession!

As to how much of the new scientific insights I’ve gleaned from my work with evolutionary biology will get into the cracks of my own systematic theology is something I think I have to decide, seriatim. I certainly now think I have to say something, when I discuss “the Fall”, about how, if at all, my theological views can cohere with an evolutionary perspective – even if I do not discuss this explicitly or at length in volume 2. I owe it to my general reading audience to do this. But for the meantime I continue to see my “natural theology” as a sort of invitatory vade mecum on the limen between faith and non-faith. And since so many people nowadays authentically inhabit that liminal place, it’s a good one to address as a theologian. Defensive “post-liberal” theology has tended to despise and neglect that limen; but it’s where so much that is interesting spiritually is happening right now, and as a priest and theologian I want to attend to it.