ESCHATOLOGICAL “ANGELOID”: SARAH COAKLEY, GREGORY OF NYSSA, AND ON THE MAKING OF MAN, PT. 3
In this series, we are going to examine St. Gregory of Nyssa’s theology of gender in his work, On the Making of Man, and how the Anglican theologian, Sarah Coakley, is seeking to utilize his theology for her own project. If one were to follow Coakley’s engagement with Gregory, reading her academic articles and not just her books, they would see that her views of him have shifted and evolved over time. In all of her works on the subject, however, Coakley would have us see that Gregory has provided us with an innovative eschatological view of gender. To put it in a simple paraphrase, she interprets Gregory as having said, “Whenever the fullness of the Kingdom finally comes, and humanity is finally perfected, there will no longer be any gender differentiation between males and females.” In such a state, we will be like the angels; “angeloid” being the word she likes to use in describing this perfected anthropology. This future angeloid state should, then, have radical implications for how we view gender in the present, since it is transitory. It would especially impact discussions around notions of male headship and female subordination to that headship. While I have a lot of admiration for Coakley and her theological creativity, I am going to push back on some of her conclusions. This series is not a wholesale dismissal of her project, though. I think she has put her finger on something rather important in Gregory’s thought, and I want to help to tease it out all the more, contributing some of my own thoughts to the discussion.
Sarah Coakley, Gender and On the Making of Man:
“Whatever Gregory has in mind for the resurrection life, it will certainly not conform to anything we can catch and hold in gender stereotypes in this world.”1
Sarah Coakley gets this much correct. For one thing, as we have already observed in the first two parts of this series, Gregory detaches the image of God from gender. Furthermore, Gregory continually points us towards some sort of angelic future state where the significance of gender will seemingly evaporate. Granted, Gregory does not expound upon exactly what this will look like (in On the Making of Man, at least), but he certainly hints at the idea that something will be different in the age to come.
While I can agree with Coakley’s assessment that Gregory’s understanding of gender after the resurrection will differ significantly from the reality we now know, it is evident enough that Coakley has misinterpreted the prelapsarian theology in On the Making of Man. Even though a careful reading makes it abundantly clear that Gregory isn’t teaching a prelapsarian theory of “double creation,” as we’ve already observed (especially in part one), Coakley upholds the contrary view nonetheless.
“According to Gregory, there is a double creation: in the first instance a non-sexual and purely spiritual creation (for it is assumed by Gregory that to be truly ‘in the image of God’ the creature must be angelic, non-physical); only in in the second instance—and ‘with a view to the Fall’—is bodily nature added, both male and female. On this view, then, the female creature is not regarded as intrinsically more physical or bodily than the male; but both the origins and goal of perfect creatureliness lie in a sort of humanoid state, where sexual differentiation is irrelevant.”2
Alarmingly, in this instance, not only does she read a double creation theology into Gregory, but she even goes so far as to say that the original state of humankind was a purely spiritual one (as in “non-physical”), and the bodily element (not just gender) was added later, “in view of the fall.” Not only does this position defend a double creation, but suggests that creation was initially spiritual and only later became physical. I am not sure why Coakley reads this into Gregory, because this is not something that strikes me as an obvious takeaway. She repeats the same line of thought elsewhere.
“For Gregory, the human person is what one might call ‘humanoid’ (or perhaps ‘angeloid’)—neither male nor female in any commonly accepted sense. This intriguing idea is expounded in Gregory’s famous reflections about a ‘double creation’ in his treatise on the making of humanity (chs. 16-17), which has occasioned much recent exegetical comment. It is all a matter here of how Gregory interprets Genesis 1.27: ‘God created him, male and female he created them’. Taking Galatians 3:28 as a text to play off against this (‘in Christ there is neither…male [and] female’), Gregory argues that Genesis 1.27 should be taken in two parts, as the Hebrew text itself suggests: first a non-physical, non-sexed, angelic creation; and only then, with the Fall becoming imminent, sexual differentiation. (Thus, on this view, note, gender differentiation into two is implicitly connected with moving towards the fallen state.) So too, in reverse, at the general resurrection, says Gregory (in his oration On those who have fallen asleep), our bodies will lose their sexual differentiation…”3
I find Coakley’s interpretation here to be problematic, mainly because Gregory has stated outright that both the angelic and the animalistic ( spiritual and physical) aspects are necessary for the wholeness of the human being: “Each of these elements is certainly to be found in all that partakes of human life.”4 As I mentioned previously (in part 1), the loss of one of these elements (the physical or the spiritual) is a loss of essential humanness.
We also see in the quote how Coakley is seeking to expand and apply her interpretation of Gregory’s thoughts on gender. She urges us to “note” that “gender differentiation into two is implicitly connected with moving towards a fallen state.” In this way she can, on some level at least, argue that gender is a result of the Fall even though gender was introduced prior to it. It was in light of the Fall that gender became a reality to begin with. Thus, for her, salvation will reverse this “gendering” effect of the Fall: “at the general resurrection…our bodies will lose their sexual differentiation…” There is some support for this understanding in Gregory. He talks about salvation as a return to the original state of things, which is what leads him to speculate about an angelic mode of primordial existence to begin with; if, in the end, we will all be like angels, then it must mean we were all like angels in the beginning, so the reasoning goes.
This line of thought would work very well in a double creation interpretation of Gregory’s work. However, we have already shown that Gregory resists such an interpretation. To recall what Fr. John Behr has observed, “Gregory specifically denies that human beings ever had any means for multiplying other than through their existence as male and female…”5 It is evident enough that, in Gregory’s mind, humankind was meant to be gendered from the very beginning: had they not been, an image-bearing humanity never would have progenerated. Only through the reproduction of human beings through time can the “image of God” be sustained. In other words, the image of God couldn’t have been obtained had gender not been infused from the beginning.
While we may find ourselves necessarily diverging from Coakley’s interpretation of Gregory’s prelapsarian theology, we need not dismiss the entirety of her eschatological conclusions. Just because humankind was not created in an pseudo-angelic and genderless state does not mean this state is not our ultimate trajectory. As we have mentioned before: Gregory, while speculating, interprets the beginning in accordance with the end. It is only because “we will be like the angels”6 that he can speculate in one of his hypothetical discourses that at our origin we were like the angels. Coakley asks the question of where Gregory’s theological implications can take us logically. If we are male and female now, is it possible that one day we will transcend this binary in some way? We will evolve from gendered beings into “humanoid/angeloid” type beings? Once the image of God is fully restored in humankind, will this mean that the reality of human gender will shift into something new?
While Coakley foresees such an eschatological transformation, this need not mean that gender will be entirely obliterated as humanity ascends to such a state. She spells this out in a few different places. In engaging with Verna Harrison’s work, for example, she says that, “As Harrison has tellingly expounded, it is not that either “body” or gender are disposed of in this progressive transformation to a neo-angelic status.”7 Thus, even though we are moving ever towards an angelic state, neither the body nor gender is discarded in the process. Instead, drawing on the work of Judith Butler, she says that, “Gregory’s gender theory, like Butler’s, does not claim to obliterate the binaries that remain culturally normative, but seeks—also like Butler—to find a transformative way through them.”8
Perhaps Gregory would have us come to the same conclusion as we survey his work. In On Virginity he says something rather intriguing, “…the life which is promised to the just by the Lord after the resurrection is similar to that of the angels—and release from marriage is a peculiar characteristic of the angelic nature…”9 Does this “release from marriage” and the acquisition of a state which is “similar” to that of the angels mean that we will no longer be physically gendered, or can we simply interpret the “release from marriage” as the passage into the angelic state? In other words, will we be released from marriage because we will be like the angels, or will we be like the angels because we will be released from marriage? Coakley clearly leans towards the latter as she envisions a post-resurrected state where gender is still intact, but merely transcended inter-personally (hence the dissolution of marital relationships in Gregory).
Truth be told, concluding this series has been incredibly difficult for me. On the one hand, I heartily disagree with Coakley on some of her key takeaways from Gregory. It is clear that Gregory is not promoting a double creation theory, and the fact that Coakley sees this in his work gets her off to a questionable start. Furthermore, it is alarming that she sees Gregory as having taught a solely spiritual and disembodied origin for humankind. I can’t help but question how closely she is actually reading him before promoting her own perspective of him. I worry that she is beginning with a feminist agenda and seeking to bend Gregory to her will, rather than seeking to hear what Gregory is actually saying.
On the other hand, I still feel as though Coakley has put her finger onto something in Gregory that we need to pay careful attention to. We can certainly say that Gregory envisions a world where gender relationships will be radically transformed. Thus, if we are all heading towards an eschatological state where gender no longer defines interpersonal relationships, what impact should this have on the present? If we are all going to be “like the angels,” then it means that gender, ultimately, is not definitive of the human endeavor (not as definitive as we often tend to make it, at least). Thus, I find myself agreeing with Coakley when she says, “Gregory seems to be implying that the binary gender difference does not play the defining role in our true spiritual—or even bodily—identity at all.”10 If humankind is striving to live into the image of God, and if the image of God is the genderless aspect of human composition, we are all striving towards something that transcends, on some level at least, gender differentiation. If differentiation does not matter in the end, how much should it matter presently? If the male and female alike will one day be equal with the angels, what is prohibiting us from pursuing gender equality here and now? These are the sorts of questions that Coakley leaves us with and, for this, I am grateful.
 Coakley, Creaturehood Before God: Male and Female, 349-350
 Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self : An Essay ‘on the Trinity’, 281-282.
 De Hom. Op. X, 16:9
 Behr, “The Rational Animal: A Rereading of Gregory of Nyssa’s De Hominis Opificio,” 243. De Hom. Op. X, 17:2.
 Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions : Spirituality, Philosophy, and Gender. Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2002): 165.
 Ibid, 162.
 Callahan, 51.
 Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self : An Essay ‘on the Trinity,’ 282.