Monday, May 5, 2008

Living the heavenly life: One reason the doctrine of the Trinity matters

The stress laid by traditional Christianity on getting right what may seem to be abstruse aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity is, I expect, puzzling to non-Christians and even some Christians. But there is a simple consideration here. The Christian is already here and now caught up into the eternal life of the Trinity (this claim may depend on Catholic and Orthodox views of sanctification), worshiping the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.

Crucified together with Christ (Christô sunestauromai), it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me, and the life I live in flesh I live in faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20).

But participation in the life of the Trinity should integrate the whole person, which is why the most common traditional prayer of the Christian is not just in words, but in body—it is the Sign of the Cross where we proclaim our co-crucifixion with Christ with our hands and our faith in the Trinity with our words. A part of this integration is the life of the intellect. When the Gospels report Christ's giving us his version of the Shema`, the Shema` is amplified. Whereas the Old Testament exhorted us love God with "all your levav, all your being (nefesh), and all your might" (Deut. 6:5), in Mark 12:30 the levav—which is traditionally translated "heart" in English though it equally includes the mind—is expanded into both "heart" (kardia) and "mind" (dianoia). There is something right about the Jewish focus on intellectual life, the life of study, as essential to religious practice.

To participate in the life of the Trinity with the whole person also involves an intellectual participation, insofar as one is capable of it. After all, the second person of the Trinity, who lives in us, is the divine Wisdom, the divine Logos—an intellectual participation is, thus, an essential part. Faith involves both an act of the will and an act of the intellect. In meditating on the doctrine of the Trinity, as revealed in the Scriptures and as embodied in the life of the Church, we participate in an imperfect way in the life of the Trinity, where the Logos is the Father's knowledge of himself, as Sts. Augustine and Thomas say. We already participate in the heavenly life, and that heavenly life includes intellectual participation in the life of the Trinity.

Doctrine, thus, matters. Insofar as we get it wrong, we do not participate in the heavenly life. Of course innocent mistakes will be rectified when we attain the fullness of heavenly life. But love for God should impel us now to know that triune God whom we love, for love seeks knowledge and knowledge propels love further.

[Edited: Changed description of triune aspects of worship to match traditional formulation.]


Lopeztj said...

What a great meditation to start my day.

Dale said...

Hi Alex,

It's odd to leave critical comments on a spiritual meditation, but I'm interested in Christian experience and spirituality, and I agree with Alex's dislike for compartmentalizing our intellectual and spiritual lives, so here I go.

You say, "The Christian is already here and now caught up into the eternal life of the Trinity". If we in some sense "participate in" the life of the Trinity, then the Trinity is a living thing, a thing we a life. (Dare we say, a perfect person?)

In my (controversial) view, one problem here is that the NT and Christian experience actually, when considered in detail, seem to support the view that we have fellowship with these two persons - "Our fellowship is the with Father and the Son" John says somewhere. The Holy Spirit is certainly addressed as a third person in many liturgical statements, but is not portrayed as or experienced as a self/person in the NT. (The closest we come to this - a bird-like apparition.) Also, it's rare to see it portrayed this way in any later Christian spiritual writing. The Holy Spirit is often thought of and experienced as the power or presence of God (the Father). (See Acts, or go on a retreat, or hang out with charismatics.) In contrast, by numerous reports Jesus not infrequently appears to people (Christian and not) in personal form - I mean in dreams and visions (and I don't exclude the latter from involving normal, physical seeing-with-eyes). And people, it seems to me, frequently experience God the Father as a person - usually in more subtle ways.

So, I guess my point is this. If you put your trust in the Magesterium of the Church, this'll give you an idea of what the Christian life in fellowship with God *should* be like. But arguably, Christian experience, as reported by common believers of all stripes, as well as by famous spiritual writers, doesn't clearly or neatly fit with the trinitarianism of the Constantinopolitan and Athanasian creeds. Where does the homoousias element come into play? Where the generation and spiration? You instead get a picture like this: the Father and Son are worshiped (Rev 5), and Christians live in fellowship with both, through the power of the Holy Spirit (whatever this last is). And in some sense Christ lives in and through believers. The Father and Son are "in" each other, and we can be "in" them and both of them "in" us. (Again, John.) Now where does this other living thing which is more than any of the aforementioned three - the living Trinity - this thing which somehow "contains" three persons fit in? This is unclear.

Feel free to correct me here, but it seems to me many Catholics and other Christians think like this: Father, Son, Spirit, Trinity - these are all in some sense one thing. So to love or interact with or worship any of the first three is to interact with the Trinity. But this is where logic and metaphysics spoil the party - "one thing"? This can't be =. Most of us don't like relative-=. And so we're jolted out of (mere) adoration and back into theorizing. Of course, this isn't incompatible with love. I agree that we desire to understand what we love, and so we can express our love for God by pursuing knowledge of him. But note that some suggestions as to how the three "are one" have the result that to love/worship/experience one isn't to automatically do the same to the other two.

Alexander R Pruss said...


The traditional formulation that we worship the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit supposes that our fellowship with the Father is through our fellowship with the Son. So we have fellowship with the Son, and the Son is the Logos of the Father, so that by him we know the Father. All of this happens in the Holy Spirit, but that does not make the Holy Spirit be directly the object of our intentional attitudes, just as typically we do not see the light by which we see objects, but only the objects that we see by the light. (An odd analogy here given that it is the Logos that is normally compared to light.)

I think there is a Trinitarian element to the experience of love, and this implicitly includes analogies to the processions. Notice, for instance, how in a love relationship, the love itself becomes something desired, an object of intentional attitudes. Sometimes, people are criticized for being "in love with love", but there is something good about the experience of loving love itself. This tendency to hypostatize the relationship, to hypostatize the love, is a way in which the relationship approximates the Trinity, where the love between Father and Son is himself a person.

The Holy Spirit is not so much related with as lived.

Apophatikos said...

It might also be worth saying that the ordinary articulation of typical Christian experience shouldn't be taken as peculiarly or deeply authoritative. The various formulations that people use to understand their experience have changed drastically; no doubt there is a fairly robust common core of experience that can be articulated in various different but compatible ways, but it's extremely implausible to be a metaphysical realist about the language of ordinary religious experience.

Part of the problem is that because religious formulas remain the same while the language in which they are expressed changes, important words start to take on quite different meanings even without people noticing it. For instance, people talk about experiencing God (or the Son, or the Father, or the Spirit) as a 'person,' but anyone who knows anything about the history of theology knows that the word 'person' in Trinitarian language doesn't mean anything like what it has come to mean in ordinary or philosophical discourse. God is not three centers of consciousness or three rational agents. Moreover, neither God as a unity nor any of the 'persons' (with the exception of the Incarnate Son, who really is a person in the everyday English sense) is very much like a person in any of the straightforward senses in which we might use that word. It's true that we interact with God in personal terms and that God must be personal in some sense -- more like a person than like an impersonal force, we might say. But it's only in the last several hundred years that otherwise intelligent Christians have begun to think and speak as though God were really just a really powerful human being who happens not to have a body like we do. The history of theology makes this clear enough, and the Church has made it clear that any similarity between God and any creature whatsoever (including 'persons') is less than the dissimilarity between God and that creature in the very same respect. Yet contemporary Christian experience, at least as it is commonly expressed in language, tends overwhelmingly to neglect this point. Of course, if you're a Protestant who thinks that the last 20 centuries of theological reflection has been just a bunch of nonsense, then you may prefer to stick with your experience rather than revise your understanding in light of the thought of people who were much closer to the source. But for anyone who gives any credence to that history and to the councils of the Church, taking ordinary religious language as authoritative is bound to be deeply misleading.

Pgr said...

On loving love -

Alex Pruss wrote "Sometimes, people are criticized for being "in love with love", but there is something good about the experience of loving love itself. This tendency to hypostatize the relationship, to hypostatize the love, is a way in which the relationship approximates the Trinity, where the love between Father and Son is himself a person."

Sorry for intruding, I've been thinking about this one for a few days now... I'm having a hard time with your analogies...

The Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son, and that is not the same thing as being the love-of-love.

The tendency to love love itself, would be analogous, if anything, to the love from the Father to the Holy Spirit, or from the Son to the Holy Spirit. The love of love is not the procession of the Holy Spirit, it is a "posterior" reflexive moment.

About hypostatizing the relation: it is not the love of love that spires the third person; but rather the love from the Father to the Son and from the Son to the Father. On the human love analogy, it is not the love of love that brings forth a third person, but rather the love of the couple for one another.

The Trinity is not two Persons loving Love, but rather two Persons loving one another in a way that mysteriously constitutes a Third Person, right?

I'm glad I'm confused, that is always a good sign when trying to understand the Trinity... :-) but I hope I was able to explain my objection in an understandable way...

Alexander R Pruss said...

All I meant in saying that there is something to the idea loving love itself is that there is something right about hypostatizing love (for to love x is to hypostatize x--see this old post). I wasn't implying that the Holy Spirit results from love of love.

Pgr said...

Ah, ok, thanks...

And about hypostatizing love: do you see that as love in some way "causing" substance, or the other way round, simply as substance being the "base" for lovability?

The second option seems classical to me, the first seems revolutionary...

Alexander R Pruss said...

I was just thinking of substance as the base for lovability.

apophatikos said...

Or perhaps not worth saying.