Shortly after Easter I began reading an article by Sarah Coakley entitled “‘Not With the Eye Only’: The Resurrection, Epistemology and Gender” (motivated in part by the thought that if I read nothing other than Orthodox theologians I will have only myself to blame if I have a crisis of faith!). This proved to be a somewhat interrupted reading but I was reminded of it by the quote from St Leo the Great in my previous post, in which he speaks of the disciples needing time between the Resurrection and Ascension that Christ could “teach and impress upon both the eyes and hearts of His own people” that He was truly risen.   

Coakley contrasts two modern approaches to the Resurrection, which she terms the ‘Lockean’ and the ‘Barthian’ approaches, and suggests that they are in fact two sides of the modernistic coin. The first, represented by theologians such as Pannenburg and Swinburne, seeks to supply empirical evidence for the historicity of the Resurrection. The second, represented by Barth and his followers, seeks by contrast to remove faith in the Resurrection of Christ from any historical scrutiny. Coakley suggests that neither of these approaches do justice to the New Testament texts and notes that “It is especially the narratives that chart a change of epistemological response that are noteworthy here, or else indicate the possibility of simultaneous and different responses to the same event (such that some vital shift is again required for recognition of the risen Christ to take place.”

Coakley draws on the doctrine of the spiritual senses of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa in her goal of seeking the epistemic conditions for “seeing the risen Christ today, a possibility that much modern Western theology has either despaired of completely, or reductively demythologised.” This doctrine, with its somewhat different emphases in Origen and Gregory – the body receives a more positive role in Gregory – is concerned with “the transformed sensibilities of those being progressively re-born in the likeness of the Son.” Coakley also – rather tentatively – discerns a similar emphasis Wittgenstein in which he suggests differing levels of faith and a growth in spiritual and moral perception. Such an approach is often also identified with “the feminine” although it is worth noting that Coakley avoids an essentialist reading of this.

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I find Coakley’s discussion of the spiritual senses in Origen, and especially in Saint Gregory, stimulating, and also helpful in providing an alternative to rather one-sided modern alternatives. Here the emphasis is placed not on immediate perception or purely cerebral knowledge, but on a lifetime’s work of purification and transformation. It also emphases the importance of practice, that we come to faith through the practices of faith, and that this encompasses the whole of life, including the body.  However, as with some of Coakley’s other work that I have read, I find it rather frustratingly suggestive and would like to see it fleshed out some more. And it reminds me of my own desire to pay more attention to Saint Gregory, and especially to his perspectives on asceticism. More ideas for investigation and reflection – I’m just not so sure when I’ll get to it! 

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