CATCHING UP WITH…DAVID BENNETT
In today’s ‘Catch Up’ post, we hear from David Bennett, who studied the MLitt in Analytic and Exegetical Theology from 2017-2018.
What did you write your dissertation about?
The title of my dissertation was ‘Not my will but yours be done’ – Prayer as Discipleship in Mark’s Gethsemane: A reconstructive critique of Sarah Coakley’s New Asceticism’.
During my studies at Oxford beforehand and during my year as an MLitt student I became fascinated by the work of Sarah Coakley. Her interest in desire and asceticism as it relates to the knowledge of the Trinity overlapped with my own natural interests. The question I probed really sprang from the practical question of how our different desires are purified and transformed as we follow Christ who awakens a deeper ‘proto-erotic’ desire in us for God through the Spirit. The role of desire in knowing God seemed central to the Church’s wrestle with the questions that have dominated its life. Prayer was also central to Coakley’s work and the practical context where answers could be found.
I reconstructively critiqued Coakley’s systematic approach to desire, suggesting that there was a need for a greater role for the dynamic mediation of Christ from above in prayer. I concluded that the event of Gethsemane was the Christological ground that could more surely anchor her theology of Trinitarian prayer: ‘Gethsemane, and Christ’s incarnate life more generally provide the objective basis for the transformation of fallen human desires in prayer; and thus, secondly, its effects are experienced by the Spirit described by Paul in Romans 8.’ I concluded that both the epistemological and exegetical order should be reversed in Coakley’s new asceticism, but that ultimately her work is a true gift to the Church’s wrestle with sexuality, desire and gender, and embracing a far greater role for the Holy Spirit.
How did you come up with the idea for the dissertation?
My dissertation idea came from my own life as someone passionate about prayer in the charismatic tradition and as a disciple with the gift of strong desires for God, but also experiences of trying to work out the moral nature of my desires internally. I was also writing my own book at the time, A War of Loves, which was a reflection on my life as a gay atheist, turned Christian disciple and all the difficult questions that led me into over the last decade. When I heard Coakley give a paper on prayer in Oxford it was pivotal to my own thinking about how prayer leads us into knowledge of the Trinity and how to adjudicate the practical questions of sexuality through a systematic approach. It was truly illuminating and meant I wanted to dedicate my time to her work on asceticism particularly. I also had some initial discussions with Brian Brock in Aberdeen who helped me to think about her work.
What have you being doing since you finished the Master’s programme? And have you thought any more about the dissertation topic since?
After finishing my work, I’ve been undertaking doctoral studies at the University of Oxford in contemporary Anglican theology of desire and gay celibate asceticism under the supervision of Prof. Joshua Hordern. I’ve been applying Coakley’s renewed account of asceticism, and extended that to the patristic tradition, particularly Augustine’s reception in contemporary Anglican theologians like Oliver O’Donovan and Graham Ward. From Coakley’s work I’m interrogating alternative forms of ‘queerness’ which exist in the Christian tradition, but also exist in the subjectivity of gay celibates who decide to take a traditional route with their sexuality. I’m showing how this other queerness ‘queers’ the queer, and disrupts the social context of the Church to break it out of certain idolatries and fixed positionalities, and that celibacy has always done that in exciting ways, starting with Jesus.
My project at the Logos Institute was vital to the work I’m now doing and the particular specialism I’m able to bring to the Anglican and broader church conversation. I’m hoping my work can lead to deepening our resources in the Academy in how to have varied accounts of queerness, which can allow for a healthier and more respectful conversation between people of different positions and experiences. I’ve become very interested in how holy virginity in the patristic tradition can resource our theological anthropology of desire, particularly Jesus’ own life as a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom and how this was received right up until today.
I am deeply grateful to Logos for providing an environment where I could really wrestle with the sources of modern systematic theology alongside the clarity and tools of analytic philosophy. The various papers I wrote are also papers I hope to develop into publications once the doctorate is finished and were fantastic preparation for a career in theology and ethics.
How did the interdisciplinary engagement of philosophy, theology, and biblical studies help you in the writing of your dissertation?
One of the qualities of Logos is the insistence of referring to scripture throughout your papers and becoming equipped to exegete scripture as the foundation of the theological enterprise. I came in with a bit of expertise in Pauline Literature from Oxford but not much else, and found I came out with a better-rounded knowledge of scripture, and applying it to the epistemic questions that shape our shared life as the Church. The central focus on Gethsemane really came from the value for perspicacity through the interdisciplinary focus. It just seemed obvious to me that Gethsemane was the place we should ground a theology of prayer first, not just the experience of the Spirit in Romans 8 in Coakley’s work, and this was an insight developed through analytic theology’s value for epistemic orderliness, cogency and clarity. The interdisciplinary approach also helped me to see larger issues that could be linked together and formed my mind and unique style as a theological thinker which is now developing creatively in my doctorate in Christian ethics at Oxford. I am bringing together queer theology, Anglican moral theology. The work I was able to do at Logos prepared me very well to articulate very difficult concepts in often very unclear and hard terrain, and thus a braver theological stance to really ask the questions that need to be worked on in the academy, the Church and the world.