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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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Metaphors of weight

September 15, 2010 Leave a comment

For some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, I find metaphors involving weight extremely moving and compelling. It’s a fairly common trope, at least since Augustine—who talked occasionally about how the pondus voluntatis et amoris, the weight of desire and love, was the real ordering principle in the cosmos. I ran into it again recently in Dante (who probably gets it directly from Augustine). Beatrice has to explain to him, when they first pass into Paradise, how his body is able to speed upwards towards and beyond the moon: because the weight of love allows one to fly, as surely as a waterfall pours faithfully to the earth.

And now this wonderful passage, from Kierkegaard’s discourse on the birds of the air:

And yet, yet human language has not ever, and thought has not ever, invented a more beautiful symbol of independence than the poor bird of the air. And yet, yet no speech can be more curious than to say that it must be very hard and heavy to be—light as the bird! To be dependent on one’s treasure—that is dependence and hard and heavy slavery; to be dependent on God, completely dependent—that is independence…. Dependence on God is the only independence, because God has no gravity; only the things of this earth, especially earthly treasure, have that—therefore the person who is completely dependent on him is light. (Upbuilding Discourses, 182)

Lacoste on care and restlessness: or, the irreducible difference between phenomenology and theology

September 7, 2010 4 comments

Jean-Yves Lacoste draws an analogy in several of his works–including both Note sur le temps and Experience and the Absolute–between Heideggerian “care” and Augustinian “restlessness.”  The analogy identifies a similarity located within a greater dissimilarity.  On the one hand, both care and restlessness express the unavoidable unease that comes with living in a temporal world of transience and death (the similarity).  On the other hand, Heidegger’s concept of care presupposes that the meaning of being which is manifest in the structures of human experience is definitive, whereas Augustine’s account of restlessness aims at an ultimate horizon of divine freedom which subverts the hold of any supposedely manifest finality in the here-and-now (the greater dissimilarity). 

This analogy might help to explain the attraction which Christian thinkers have had to Heidegger’s philosophy and other similarly rich descriptions of human-being-in-the-world which have emerged from the phenomenological tradition.  For there is a common concern to acquire a more nuanced understanding of what might loosely be called the “human condition.”  And yet, the analogy also demonstrates why these dialogues, these relationships, will always be strained.  Ultimately, the relation between theology and phenomenology is more dissimilar than it is similar.  The address to God, the hope in God, the existence lived before God–these primary theological practices have their final significance in things not-yet seen, in realities beyond manifestation, in a future without the apparent definitiveness of death.  Theology’s concern are just different. 

I realize that this point may be obvious to some, perhaps to most.  But it is something which occurred to me with a sense of refreshing newness today.