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The Trinity as Communion

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This book is highly recommended: Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church, by John D. Zizioulas, Eastern Orthodox metropolitan of Pergamon and modern theologian. Among other things, the book discusses a valuable new perspective on the nature of God, and, in particular on the Trinity.

This new perspective depends on an important logical innovation. We ordinarily tend to understand reality in terms of objects primarily, and relations secondarily. Our view of reality, that is, seems decidely object-centric: objects exist for their own sake, but relations have little more purpose than to give objects something to do.  We define ourselves, for example, as objects, not as relations.  One could almost imagine a universe that contains only objects and no relations.  Relations, in other words, have a kind of second-class status in our worldview.

However this view actually seems rather arbitrary. Are objects truly more important or more fundamentally real than relations? We have no strong reason to assume so. Could we not as easily shift our perspective, paradigm, or frame of reference, and see relations as primary and objects as secondary?  Perhaps relations are the important things, and objects serve mainly to connect or realize relationships.  (Need objects even exist at all?  Or could they be conceptual fillers we interject mentally to organize our perception of a reality composed entirely of relations?)

Among other things, such a shift would help solve the logical ‘problem’ of the Trinity: how can God, as an object or substantial entity, be both one and three at the same time? If we change from an object-centric to a relation-centric view of reality this seems less problematic. God, by such a view, might be understood as a relation or set of relations. Perhaps God would even be a Supreme Relation, analogous to how, in the object-centric view of reality, God is the Supreme Being. And could this Supreme Relation be Love?

I’m carrying this line of thinking a little further than Zizioulas does in his book, but the principle is more or less the same. Another summary of the book was given by an anonymous reviewer: “The main philosophical/theological argument is that nothing exists without communion, not even God.”

Implications for Ecumenical Dialog

Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, addressed the similar ideas in a written statement to an ecumenical movement (A Common Word) initiated by Islamic scholars and clerics:

In human language, in the light of what our Scripture says, we speak of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, but we do not mean one God with two beings alongside him, or three gods of limited power. So there is indeed one God, the Living and Self-subsistent, associated with no other; but what God is and does is not different from the life which is eternally and simultaneously the threefold pattern of life: source and expression and sharing. Since God’s life is always an intelligent, purposeful and loving life, it is possible to think of each of these dimensions of divine life as, in important ways, like a centre of mind and love, a person; but this does not mean that God ‘contains’ three different individuals, separate from each other as human individuals are

Because God exists in this threefold pattern of interdependent action, the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit is one in which there is always a ‘giving place’ to each other, each standing back so that the other may act. The only human language we have for this is love: the three dimensions of divine life relate to each other in self-sacrifice or self-giving. The doctrine of the Trinity is a way of explaining why we say that God is love, not only that he shows love.

When God acts towards us in compassion to liberate us from evil, to deal with the consequences of our rebellion against him and to make us able to call upon him with confidence, it is a natural (but not automatic) flowing outwards of his own everlasting action. The mutual self-giving love that is the very life of God is made real for our sake in the self-giving love of Jesus. And it is because of God’s prior love for us that we are enabled and enjoined to love God. Through our loving response, we can begin to comprehend something of God’s nature and God’s will for humankind:

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love (1John 4:8).

Again, these comments were directed to Islamic scholars who had specifically mentioned the Christian idea of the Trinity as providing a basis for productive dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

This subject raises a more general point: we should be most reluctant to engage in strife between religious or denominations about issues that are largely definitional in nature, or which require definitions for their expression (and wouldn’t this include nearly everything?). Philosophy, it is often said, is the handmaid to theology. But in a certain sense theology is also dependent on philosophy (this was a major point of the 1998 Encyclical Fides et ratio, by Pope John Paul II). Theological arguments can only be expressed existing logical and linguistic tools. Regardless of how difficult a theological problem, paradox, or disagreement may appear, it is always possible that, as in this case, some fundamental innovation in logic may occur which solves it, or casts it in sufficiently new light as to offer hope for solution. Theological disputes are constrained by the and terms logical tools currently available. Should some new innovation occur, the problem may vanish and be seen as largely an artifact of inaccurate logical tools or terms. We ought, consequently, to be most reluctant to engage in strife about theological disagreements. How simple it would be to say instead, “Well, we appear to have different beliefs, but perhaps this mostly a matter of definition.”

Written by John Uebersax

April 19, 2009 at 8:16 pm

Notes: On the unity of world religious culture

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I recently ran across the following quote from 20th-century Christian author, C. S. Lewis in his book, The Abolition of Man. These remarks preface an assemblage of quotes that relate to what Lewis termed Natural Law, which he more or less equated with ancient Chinese term, the Tao:

The idea of collecting independent testimonies presupposes that ‘civilizations’ have arisen in the world independently of one another; or even that humanity has had several independent emergences on this planet. The biology and anthropology involved in such an assumption are extremely doubtful. It is by no means certain that there has ever (in the sense required) been more than one civilization in all history.

This is a very important point to remember. Sometimes we act as if Christian culture and Muslim culture are two different things. In truth, they are not distinct. This might be true concerning some (but by no means all) of their religious doctrines, but it is most definitely not true of their religious cultures, broadly defined.

Take but one example. Christians prefer certain postures of prayer, and Muslims prefer others. In Hinduism and Buddhism still others are to be found. Are these postures efficacious only for a particular religion? Or are these postures collectively the proper spiritual heritage of all humankind? The latter seems far more plausible.

But if that is so, should we not study each others religious cultures, and freely borrow from one another. Do not mistake that for syncretism, the mistaken notion of producing a bland, watered down world religion which glosses over doctrinal differences. Our concern here is rather with practices, not doctrines. And the model is a more complex one. The suggestion is that the spiritual practices of our most ancient ancestors, say those of the ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Indians, are now found scattered throughout the modern religions of the world, each retaining a subset. We are then not seeking to produce a new religious culture, as much as to reclaim an old one.

As I write this, the Muslim children are playing ball outside in the pool of Anspach fountain, drained for the winter, in St. Catherine’s place. Their teacher, leading the play, is a young Belgian woman, scarcely more than a girl herself. I do not speculate on the significance of this, except to vaguely consider that it has <i>some</i> meaning. It has happened; it is part of the Tao, and is worthy of comment on that basis alone, and for this reason: I planned originally to write something else — in fact, to quote a poem by the Sufi poet, Rumi, for the express purpose of participating in a mingling of cultures, and by that simple action, to further it. Here is the poem, chosen before the events outside my window began:

I used to be shy, you made me sing.
I used to abstain now I shout for more wine.
In somber dignity, I would sit on my mat and pray,
now children run through and make faces at me.

The children have not made faces at me, but they have enjoyed themselves playing as I wrote this.

Finally, here are two quotes cited by Lewis:

Men were brought into existence for the sake of men that they might do one another good.’ (Roman. Cicero. De Off. i. vii)

This is obvious enough, and needs little comment. Another is this:

‘Man is man’s delight.’ (Old Norse. Hávamál 47)

This simple statement speaks volumes. How many of modern misfortunes have come from our constant attempt to improve upon nature, and to seek something beyond what is already given to us. We imagine that one day in the future, when all problems have been solved, then humankind may have happiness. We seek to be rich, to have automobiles, and wide-screen televisions.

In truth, technology has already succeeded. We have beaten most of the diseases that afflict humankind. We are no longer at the mercy of the weather. We can feed everyone, if we simply try. Having conquered these enemies, who do we not enjoy the blessings that God has given us? Foremost among these is the gift of life itself. And second is the gift of others. God, in his kindness, has designed us so that little, if anything, on earth gives us more pleasure than to see the smile of another, to see the sparkle in their eyes. This is what truly makes us happy, and it is all free.

This blog entry is not as so rigidly organized as the others; consider it poetry, if you like, just writer’s notes.

Written by John Uebersax

February 18, 2008 at 5:07 pm