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Notes on the Trinity

April 4, 2011 7 comments

Over the last few years I have made a few “mental notes” on the topic of the Trinity.  I share them here in case they are helpful or stimulating to others.  Eventually, perhaps, I will be able to develop these inchoate thoughts into a more compelling project or argument.  But for now, here they are: 

1.) The inappropriateness of appropriations.  Supreme knowledge and love are proper to the divine  nature.   But there is a long tradition in the West (from Augustine, to Aquinas, to Rahner, and beyond) according to which knowledge is “appropriated” to the Son/Word and love is “appropriated” to the Holy Spirit.  My question is this: what is the point of these appropriations?  Do they, in fact, clarify or illuminate anything?  I am inclined to be rather sceptical.  For where is compassion more clearly shown than in Jesus?  Where is wisdom to be found if not in the Holy Spirit?  I simply fail to see the point of suggesting that the knowledge/love distinction maps onto the relation between these two divine hypostases.  The only reason to insist on it seems to be that it could shore up the idea that the human mind (composed, in a unified way, of memory, intellect, and will) is constituted as an image of the Trinity.  But this brings me to my next point.

2.) The banality of the 3-in-1 structure.  It is not especially difficult to come up with examples of three things that are really one thing, at least if one is willing to let the rules of counting be somewhat flexible.  Memory, intellect, will; lover, beloved, love; wife, husband, and child; three leaves of a shamrock; etc.  If an image of the Trinity is going to be compelling, awe-inspiring, thought-provoking, it would seem to require more than a 3-in-1 structure.  One needs a sense of how each one of the three is like a particular divine person, along with a sense of how the one in which they are united is like the unity of God.  But then the question of an imago Trinitatis has to be fundamentally concerned with the determinate characteristics, relations, or manners-of-being of the triune God and, therefore, not primarily with the 3-in-1 puzzle.  Perhaps a case could be made that the Son/Word is more like knowledge and the Holy Spirit is more like love, but I don’t see how this can be done without implicitly deemphasizing the love which Jesus embodies or the knowledge which the Spirit grants.   

3.) The ambivalence of the economic/immanent distinction. The significance of this distinction differs depending on whether the question on the table is one of access or of positive doctrine.  Let me explain.  Any insight into the Trinity to which we have access in this finite, created, historical, and fallen world belongs to what is called the “economy,” that is, God’s action for us, the divine life ad extra.  Within the economy, God’s innermost nature remains unknown, incomprehensible, ineffable.  This is the constant theme of mystical theology, of the doctrine of analogy, of genuine Christian apophasis.   But this means that there is no access to the immanent Trinity as such but rather only to the Trinity as mediated by worldly conditions of knowing or thinking.  Hence, our access is wholly economic.  However, there is no implication here that the Trinity itself is only economic.  On the contrary!  As a question of positive doctrine, it is necessary to affirm that God is not absorbed by the world, realized only within it, or finally subjected to its laws.  In short, the distinction between economic and immanent is important to maintain as a teaching, even though we cannot abstract ourselves from the economy–which is to say, even though our only knowledge of the Trinity is mediated, worldly, dependent on God’s free external self-communication.  The recognition that the economy is the inescapable condition of our Trinitarian reflection is important.  It keeps one from thinking, falsely, that apart from a more narrow understanding of economy (limited to the images and stories in scripture) there would be some sort of access to the immanent Trinity (provided by conceptual notions of relation, etc.).  The latter are (epistemologically) no less economic than the former, and in fact become more and more questionable to the extent that they depart from or no longer interpret faithfully what is disclosed in scripture.

4.) Abstract and concrete sociality. That God is revealed as three persons in loving and self-giving relation provides the highest level of support to the idea of sociality (mutuality, reciprocity, intimacy-in-distinction, difference-as-communion, etc.).  However, it does not follow from this (admittedly important) point that any sort of specific understanding of proper relations among human persons should be derivable from reflections regarding the relations between Father, Son, and Spirit.  There will, in any case, be more difference than similarity in any analogy which might be drawn here.  But no less important is the fact that the relations among human beings are extraordinarily more diverse, if only because much more numerous, and this excess of complexity warrants careful attention.  The Trinitarian validation of the abstract ideal of sociality is not something to be taken for granted.  But the significance which the Trinity has for our concrete relationships depends, it seems to me, much more on the particular ways in which the triune God is encountered in the midst of these relationships  than it does on the mere fact that God is a unity of persons.

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Cornel West as prophet

March 30, 2011 3 comments

I have to thank my friend Jo for sending me the link to this interview.

Cornel West, as he does so well, speaks the truth to power.  It strikes me as an extraordinary example of biblical prophecy in the contemporary world.  I am moved by the unapologetic, deeply nuanced, and yet crystal clear preferential option for the poor:

 

Marion on excess: why we need both saturation and distance

March 29, 2011 3 comments

Early in his career (Idol and Distance 1977), Marion speaks of distance as a positively determined (but not predicated) divine excess through and toward which we traverse, but which we never abolish, in our prayer and praise.  God is ever greater as  given but more fundamentally as not given.  The difference between traversing and abolishing distance is precisely the gap between the given and the not given.  It is a gap which is denied by predication but respected by prayer/praise.  This is what Marion learns from the mystical theology of Dionysius the Areopagite, but also from Nietzsche, Hoelderlin, Balthasar, and certain passages of Christian scripture.   

Later in his career (e.g., In Excess 2001), Marion shifts focus toward the eidetic possibility of revelation conceived as the “saturated phenomenon par excellence.”  Again, the Dionysian tradition is recalled, but this time divine excess is thought as saturation: i.e., the surplus of intuition over intentionality.  This is a complete inversion of the Kantian (but also Husserlian) understanding of transcendence, according to which intentionality exceeds intuition, the latter being impoverished.  In saturation, it is not that givenness falls short of our ability to grasp it; it is that givenness wildly oustrips our ability to grasp it.  But what warrants our attention for the moment is this: that which makes God ever greater in this revised phenomenological rubric remains, perplexingly, a kind of immanence: immanence, not in the sphere of intentionality, but in the sphere of givenness (for consciousness), which entails possibility, not actuality.  According to Marion, we can say with phenomenological certainty that already within what is given there is given the essential possibility of much more intuition of God than we are able to organize, interpret, or understand. 

Question: having noted the difference and similarity between the two, should one conclude that saturation (because its theorization comes later) supercedes distance?  No. 

The emphasis has to be placed on distance, though not to the exclusion of saturation.  The earlier formulation must be prioritized.  Why?  Because the claim that God is ever greater cannot be translated adequately by a theory of immanence or givenness, however expansive and inverted.  If one thinks divine excess in terms of saturation alone, this suggests a never realizable potential for full understanding already within our consciousness.  It suggests that God is (qua eidetic possibility) already totally given.  It seems necessary to maintain, on the contrary, that however much the givenness of God already exceeds our ability to grasp it, that which is not given of God exceeds it all the more.  In short, the excess of distance exceeds (but does not render meaningless) the excess of saturation. 

Phenomenology perhaps cannot think this thought.  For this one perhaps needs prayer/praise, which, moreover, makes no pretense of bracketing the actuality of God.

Recent uprisings: some theological thoughts

February 19, 2011 2 comments

The theological significance of the recent events unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa can hardly be predicted.  Nevertheless, from afar, and with only the knowledge that is available on mainstream U.S. media sources (NPR, the New York Times, etc.), I have found myself beginning to ponder this question.  I offer here only a few hesitant and inchoate thoughts:

1.) Political revolution is not a thing of the past.  It remains, in many regions of the world, a focal point of practical consideration and collective action.  To the extent, therefore, that those of us working in theology employ, from time to time, a sort of revolutionary rhetoric–e.g., by invoking a radical disruption in or transformation of history–the recent events (reverberating from Tunisia) might remind us that these tropes do not only function as intellectually sexy fictions of postmodernity but also pertain to very real, in some respects deeply ambiguous, and yet nevertheless hope-filled events, affecting countless lives, for better or worse.

2.) There is a question of secularization.  On the one hand, this process has been bemoaned by many Christian thinkers in the West, who would like to revive some sort of theo-political synthesis, whether this is best represented by medieval Christendom or by pre-Constantian forms of Christian society.  On the other hand, however, there is a persistent–to some extent orientalist, racialized,  overgeneralized, and to that extent unjust, but not for all that entirely groundless–fear of Islam, which seems no less prevalent among Christians than non-Christians in the North Atlantic world.  For those who would desire a closer alignment of theology and politics, the Middle Eastern and North African context could prove difficult to assess.  There is the possibility of thinking revolution as a profoundly Jewish and Christian idea (stemming from the prophetic, messianic, and apocalyptic themes in scripture).  Nevertheless, at some level, there could be a choice to make between greater fidelity to a religious political culture (largely shaped by Islam) and a secularizing vision of pluralistic democracy.

3.) The poor are still with us.  Jesus’ words (Mt 26:11) should not be consoling.  That they constitute an accurate prediction does nothing to exonerate centuries of greed and indifference.  The question, though, is how best theology can serve the poor, whose misery remains a powerful motivation for political upheaval.  This is the question which gave rise to various movements of liberation theology in the twentieth-century.  To what will it give rise in the present?

Five important questions about the analogy of being

January 20, 2011 6 comments

1. First of all, what is it?  It is not so much a thing as it is a statement about everything creaturely.  It is Erich Przywara’s shorthand for his quite complex understanding of the formal structure of created existence.  As it tends to be used, it can refer not only to Przywara’s understanding of this structure but also to the structure itself.  Thus it is a name both for a theory and for that to which the theory refers. 

It has what one might call a horizontal and a vertical aspect.  In itself, creaturely existence is analogical.  That is to say, it is never identical with itself but is nevertheless not merely nothing.  Such is its incompleteness, its temporality, its provisionality.  Some of what it is definitively is always already present in it, and yet to a perhaps much greater extent what it is definitively still eludes or transcends it.  Przywara expresses this idea in the formula: Sosein in-und-ueber Dasein, essence in-and-beyond existence.  This is the horizontal aspect of the analogy of being.  Or, as Przywara says, it is the inner-creaturely analogy. 

The vertical aspect concerns the creature’s relation with God.  In this case, the transcendence is much more pronounced.  The being of God is infinitely above and yet nevertheless present within creation.  In the final analysis, to say that the creature is not merely nothing is to say that there is some likeness of God that is disclosed in the creature, however limited it may because of our finitude and however effaced it may be because of sin.  However, as soon as one posits such a likeness, Przywara believes it is necessary to remember the dictum of the Fourth Lateran Council, which is in continuity with the ancient Christian tradition of apophasis: namely, that every creaturely similarity with God is surpassed by a still greater–and, indeed, never bridgeable–dissimilarity.

2. What is the warrant for this theory?  Przywara grounds it both in his engagement with the philosophy of Greek antiquity (especially Plato and Aristotle) and also in his interpretation of creaturely existence as it is presented in Christian scripture and tradition (particularly in Augustine and Aquinas).  Thus he finds warrants for it in what have come to be called reason and revelation.  Suppose one rejects the former warrant, with the conviction that it illegitimately imports foreign elements into Christian theology, one must nevertheless contend with the second, which has a certain degree of independence.  One cannot dismiss the analogy of being by denouncing its philosophical foundation, for it is doubly founded, and also demands to be understood as an interpretation of that which God has revealed concerning creation.

3. What is the scope of this theory?  This is in some ways the trickiest question to answer.  For, on the one hand, the theory purports to apply to everything creaturely.  And yet, on the other hand, it says strikingly little.  What it says is precisely this: almost nothing.  To be a creature–in comparison with the fullness of being for which one strives, and especially in comparison with the God who is infinitely above and beyond all things–is to be almost nothing.  But it is necessary to take seriously both parts of this saying.  As radically distant, not only from that which is essential to our own being, but also from the hyperessential reality of God, it is as though–and this is barely an exaggeration–we are nothing at all, mere dust in the wind of the universe.  And yet, creation is precisely such that one can only almost negate it totally, for something remains present within it, even if one manages only to speak of it through a double negation: we are not not

So the analogy of being implicates everything but determines very little about it.  It is, therefore, far from sufficient as an account of what it means to be human, to be Christian, or–for that matter–to be Catholic.  Much more extensive use needs to be made of both reason and revelation to fill out a more adequate picture of things as a whole.  The analogy of being cannot claim any clear sense of priority over other kinds of questions, concerning, for instance, the Trinity, or Christology, the destructive effects of sin, or the life of the church.  It is a principle but not necessarily the first principle.     

4. Is the analogy of being toxic for ecumenical dialogue?  It could be.  To the extent that it tends to polarize groups of Christian thinkers who, otherwise, would have much about which they could agree, it is a dangerous bit of theorizing.  However, remembering its limited scope, its double foundation in reason and revelation, and its insistence on the radical alterity of God may help keep the conversation from veering off track. 

5. Is it possible to hold onto what is central to the analogy of being without recourse to the problematic discourse of being, which has become greatly destabilized in our postmodern age?  In a sense, this may be one of Jean-Luc Marion’s most stunning achievements, but I will have to say more on that later!

Enrique Dussel: Lecture on Political Theology and Political Philosophy

January 11, 2011 13 comments

Yesterday evening I had a chance to attend a lecture given by Enrique Dussel at U. of Chicago’s Divinity School.  What I’ve posted here is a summary, based on my notes, and a few brief reflections. 

SUMMARY 

Dussel was born in Argentina; he studied and earned numerous advanced degrees in Spain, France, and Germany; and he currently lives and works in Mexico.  Over the last several decades, Dussel has exposed the limitations of Eurocentric treatments of history, political theory, economic theory, theology, and philosophy by putting these academic discourses into critical dialogue with the cultural imaginaries and concrete struggles of Latin American peoples.  In his talk, Dussel followed the same general approach. 

His particular question was this: how to characterize the relationship between political theology and political philosophy, particularly in the Latin American context?  The talk had three parts: (1) Marx’s refusal of political philosophy; (2) political theology in the history of recent Latin American revolutions; and (3) a critical dialogue, from the perspective of Latin America, with recent European intellectuals who have given leftist political interpretations to aspects of Christian scripture, especially Paul.    

In the first part, Dussel argued that, although Marx constructed a comprehensive system of categories to critique the economic system of capitalism, he did not develop any positive political philosophy.  Instead, Marx bequeathed to subsequent generations a generally negative account of politics, one constituted primarily by the critique of institutions.  Thus Marx provided few conceptual resources for establishing suitable structures of government which would serve the poor after the anticipated revolution.  One of the reasons Marx may have failed to produce a positive political philosophy is that he refused, at least explicitly, any engagement with political theology.  Taking Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology and Hobbes’ Leviathan as examples, Dussel contended that  many of the central categories of positive polical philosophy, even in the modern age, are derived from political theology.  In short, Marx’s refusal of theology was, in the end, a disavowal of positive politics.

Dussel turned, in the second part, to a quick interpretation of recent revolutions in Latin American history: (1) Cuba in 1959, which retained Soviet, atheistic, atheological orthodoxy; (2) Chile in 1970, in which Christian groups informed by liberation theology were active in the political movement; (3) Nicaragua in 1979, which exhibited a higher degree of involvement of Christians in political leadership roles and a greater indebtedness to liberation theology; and then (4) Chiapas in 1994, (5) Venezuela in 1999, and (6) Bolivia in 2005, which, each in their own way, continued the trend of incorporating aspects of Christian political theology (the Latin American theology of liberation) into the concrete political struggles of the poor.  After these revolutions, the challenge has been to move beyond movements of critique and protest in order to build up positive political institutions.  Dussel’s argument was that the philosophies which one can elaborate on the basis of these developments cannot be formulated apart from the Christian theological sources which have deeply shaped them.

Drawing on this lightning-fast historical sketch, Dussel began in the third part of his talk to engage the recent works of leftist European intellectuals such as Badiou, Zizek, Taubes, and Agamben, who have retrieved insights for contemporary political philosophy from biblical sources, and especially from Paul.  Dussel seemed to endorse this general strategy, although he argued that it needed to be pursued with a greater awareness of the particularity of Latin American political contexts.  Dussel insisted upon a political philosophy that would be deeply shaped by the cultural imaginaries of communities on the ground who are actively seeking viable forms of political organization.  And yet, like his European interlocutors, Dussel maintained that Paul is useful precisely as a source of political concepts, which would be relevant not only for the institution of the church but also for the properly political institution of the state.  Both the church and the state are called to mediate the kingdom of God in history, albeit in different and limited ways which will never be perfect.  Nevertheless, the church and the state both suffer from corruption by the sin of the world, so there is a constant need for vigilance and critique from the perspective of those victimized by sin–above all, the poor and marginalized in society.  

Romans was a key text in Dussel’s argument.  In this letter, Paul constructs a polemic against the law (which includes the law of the Roman empire, the Torah, and the new Christian community) but nevertheless announces a new law constituted by faith.  Paul’s polemic against the law corresponds to the critical impulse that has dominated Marxist political thought.  The challenge that Dussel and others face is translating the theological concept of faith, which constitutes the new law for Paul, into a language suitable for positive political philosophy after protest and revolution.  Dussel interpreted faith as a message, embodied by a community, intended for the poor, and directed against the law that kills (i.e., against political oppression).  In other words, faith is the belief that the weak, acting together, can transform history.

On a final note, Dussel broadened his purview to include feminists, people of color, those enduring the effects of colonization, and workers from around the world, who cannot respect the law of the system (the old law) but must believe inand work together to bring about, as much as possible, the transformation demanded by the new law.

Two questions were raised after the lecture.  The first pressed Dussel on human frailty: How can one account for Paul’s understanding that the good that we want to do we cannot do?  How can one account for the fact that the Canaanites were not liberated?  Should not Dussel’s political theology and political philosophy be chastened by a greater awareness that no political regime can avoid succumbing to sin or to its effects?  The second question asked Dussel to consider whether his call for a positive politics brought him nearer to the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, insofar as Dussel gives the state a crucial role to play in mediating the kingdom in history.  Dussel’s response to both concerns was complex, but the general point seemed to be that there is a constant need to critique the state from the perspective of the poor–that is, the people whom it is meant to serve.  An insufficient awareness of sin and an overzealous theological legitimation of the state (the problems corresponding to each question) occur when states become self-enclosed and are not kept in check by the needs and demands of suffering humanity. 

REFLECTIONS      

The most striking thing about Dussel’s lecture seems to be his translation of Pauline faith into a kind of collective political will of the poor and victimized.  I find this move both promising and troubling. 

On the one hand, this move is promising insofar as there is perhaps some reason to believe that the state, even the modern state which is separated from the church, can participate in mediating the kingdom.  Dussel is seeking a positive political philosophy, something required by modern states that do not want to subordinate themselves explicitly to the church and its theological commitments.  Nevertheless, he believes that Christian scriptures have something crucial to contribute to this philosophy.  In other words, although Dussel is concerned with developing a philosophy, he does not arbitrarily exclude biblical sources from this endeavor, as would a rigid secularist.  Instead of excluding these sources, he translates them into a particular modern, Latin American political context.  This sort of translation (in which analogues of scriptural teaching enter the government’s self-understanding) is perhaps the most that one can hope for from a philosophy of the state that is not subsumed by the church and its theology.

On the other hand, Dussel’s translation is also a distortion–by which I  mean that it is obviously not a straightfoward reading of Paul, nor is it a reading conformed to the doctrinal developments regarding the new law of faith and grace elaborated by various Christian traditions after Paul.  This is not an oversight on Dussel’s part: in this lecture, he was not offering a political theology but a political philosophy constructed in relation to political theology (or at least to its sources).  But even though Dussel’s move makes sense at a certain level, it still proves troubling because it changes Paul’s meaning, and changes it in certain vital respects, by putting the emphasis on our collective political action in history as opposed to God’s action for us in Christ which will be manifest definitively at the end of time, even if it is already present in history.  Paul’s new law is theocentric and eschatological; Dussel’s philosophical translation is anthropocentric and temporal (as in Kant, the eschaton becomes a postulate). 

In a world of diversity, in which political organizations and governments are not only for Christians (even in Latin America) but for all people, of whatever creed, the risks of this sort of translation seem necessary, in order that Christian scriptures can contribute to a broader public discourse.  And yet, the awareness that something major is being distorted is also necessary, at least for the church, and this is something which Dussel’s account could have brought out more clearly.

Theology, the university, and the poor

December 11, 2010 2 comments

I recently read the commencement address given by Ignacio Ellacuria, SJ in June 1982 at Santa Clara University.  (Ellacuria would be killed in El Salvador just over seven years later, in November 1989, at the very university about which he speaks in this address, Universidad Centroamericana.)  The talk is available here: http://www.scu.edu/jesuits/ellacuria.html.  Ellacuria’s words have made me reflect again on a topic which has emerged many times on this blog: namely, the preferential option for the poor.  In particular, I want to ask, What role does the university play in realizing this option?  And how does our theology relate to this task of the university? 

Ellacuria may provide some guidance:             

A Christian university must take into account the gospel preference for the poor. This does not mean that only the poor will study at the university; it does not mean that the university should abdicate its mission of academic excellence–excellence which is needed in order to solve complex social issues of our time. What it does mean is that the universitv should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those without science; to provide skills for those without skills; to be a voice for those without voices; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to make their rights legitimate. 

What strikes me about this passage is that the realization of the option for the poor at the university is not limited to a sector of it, such as a Center for Social Concerns, as we have at Notre Dame (http://socialconcerns.nd.edu/), or some analogous institution.  Ellacuria certainly does not deny the value of this sort of center–which, at Notre Dame, does serve the poor in concrete ways that are worthy of support.  But this vital part of the university is not his focus.  The things he calls for involve the university’s work as a whole.  The intellectual presence of the university should have a positive outcome for the poor.  Its academic excellence should provide the means to analyze the complex social realities of a world in which the majority of humankind lives in poverty.  The science and the skills that the university develops and teaches should be used for those who have no access to them.  The collective voice which the university has–of numerous students, faculty, staff, and administrators, whose voices are heard throughout campus–should give voice to those who have none (which means, above all, listening to them, and bringing their concerns out into the open).

Theology, as both an academic and a Christian pursuit, must have an important role to play here.  But what exactly is it?  It cannot be to reliquish its intellectual rigor in order to be an advocate for the poor.  Rather, as Ellacuria suggests, it must put its intellectual rigor in service of the poor.  Nor can it be to forsake faithful reflection on the gospel in order to make way for a secular ideology.  That is far from Ellacuria’s mind.  Ultimately, for Ellacuria, theology’s role at the university is this: to understand more deeply how to confront the realities of a sinful and suffering world in an authentically Christ-centered way.  

Much more really needs to be said on this topic.  But for now, perhaps you and I can take some time to meditate on the concluding words of Ellacuria’s address, in light of our own contexts (wherever we are):    

And how do you help us [the poor]? That is not for me to say. Only open your human heart, your Christian heart, and ask yourselves the three questions Ignatius of Loyola put to himself as he stood in front of the crucified world: What have I done for Christ in this world? What am I doing now? And above all, what should I do? The answers lie both in your academic responsibility and in your personal responsibility.