29 November 2015

Traces of the Trinity

 A review of Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience. By Peter J. Leithart. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-4412-2251-0. 177 pp. £10.99

I really enjoyed this slim volume from the pen of Peter Leithart. It is a really imaginative and thought-provoking piece of work, which stands loosely in the ancient vestigia trinitatis tradition. Like other works in this tradition, its basic premise is that God the Creator has left traces of his handiwork within creation and so it encourages us to look for traces of the artist in his work of art. However, there the similarity ends. Many exercises in seeking vestiges of God in creation are essentially exercises in natural theology: such vestiges are taken to be evidence for the existence of God. By contrast, Leithart is more interested in looking at the world with the eye of faith.

Specifically, Leithart latches on to perichoresis or coinherence – allegedly the most abstract concept of Trinitarian theology – and looks systematically for traces of such mutual indwelling in creation. The result is an extended meditation on the importance of relationality in the created order.

Beginning with our relationship with the things around us, he calls into question modernity’s emphasis on things at the expense of their interconnectedness, for example reminding us that a hammer is only a meaningless lump of metal and wood when abstracted from its appropriate environment in the hand of a craftsman. More generally, creatures only make sense when seen in their appropriate environments, in the network of relationships that gives them meaning.

In Chapter 2 he turns to interpersonal relationships, criticizing in passing the individualism that has been such a feature of Western society for the last couple of centuries. Perhaps he could have lingered slightly longer over friendships (e.g. C.S. Lewis’s remarks on the death of Charles Williams could have been expanded helpfully in this context), but it is a short book and so he moves quickly on in Chapter 3 to sexual relationships.

The next three chapters offer a change of direction, moving from the social world to the world of the intellect. First he explores our perception of temporality, which he presents as a mutual indwelling of past and future in the present. In Chapter 5, he turns his attention to the nature of language, emphasizing the interpenetration and interdependence of ideal and sensible. And Chapter 6 brings together time and human expression in an exploration of the perichoretic nature of music.

Having thus traced the outlines of a perichoretic ontology, Leithart asks in Chapter 7 how this way of looking at the world informs ethics. And he argues that such an ontology implies an ethics of loving openness to the other rather than a deontological or a situational ethics. Chapter 8 explores the practical implications for human and specifically Christian existence of suggesting that rationality itself perichoretic. This leads him to re-present several well-known binary oppositions, including liberal vs conservative and divine foreknowledge vs human freedom, in terms of mutual dependence. Given the brevity of the volume, he can do no more than hint at ways forward, but the material is certainly thought-provoking.

The final chapter, ‘I in Thee, Thou in Me’, is a discussion of perichoresis in light of John 17.

The whole might be seen as an exercise in relational Trinitarianism, which is sometimes misleadingly referred to as social Trinitarianism and dismissed as tritheistic. But Leithart is not about to take such misrepresentation lying down. A concluding appendix offers a brief defence of the kind of Trinitarianism promoted by the likes of Colin Gunton.

The book is easy to read and written in a popular style with a minimum of footnotes, but there is nothing simplistic about it. It amounts to a profound devotional exercise in learning to look at the world through a Trinitarian lens. As such it ought to be compulsory reading for undergraduate theologians about to embark on a study of the Trinity. Equally it could be mined by clergy and Christian educators seeking material to enable congregations to begin to grasp some of the implications of the doctrine of the Trinity.

30 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 30

The Three Notes
(30) The humility, love, and joy, which mark the lives of Tertiaries, are all God-given graces. They can never be obtained by human effort. They are gifts of the Holy Spirit. The purpose of Christ is to work miracles through people who are willing to be emptied of self and to surrender to him. We then become channels of grace through whom his mighty work is done.
The image of Tertiaries as channels of God’s grace is a reminder that it is God who must work through us. We don’t set out to change the world, or our local community, or even ourselves. Rather, we make ourselves available to God so that he might transform the world through us.

It has happened before. In about 1204 a troubled young man thought he heard God saying to him, ‘Rebuild my church for, as you can see, it is in ruins.’ He took it rather too literally and so he begged, borrowed, and even stole in order to restore the little church of San Damiano just outside the walls of Assisi. Gradually other troubled young men joined him and Francis found himself the reluctant leader of a dynamic new religious order that, during his lifetime, transformed the Church in Western Europe.

29 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 29

(29) This joy is a divine gift, coming from union with God in Christ. It is still there even in times of darkness and difficulty, giving cheerful courage in the face of disappointment, and an inward serenity and confidence through sickness and suffering. Those who possess it can rejoice in weakness, insults, hardships, and persecutions for Christ’s sake; for when we are weak, then we are strong.
In reading this, we must remember that these are principles, not a rule. Tertiaries are not expected to fake joy when the going gets tough. Rather this has the form of a promise: even when life seems intolerable, something of the divine joy will slip through; there will be a light in the darkness; there will be moments of laughter in the midst of sadness, of joy in the midst of grief.

28 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 28

The Third Note
(28) Tertiaries, rejoicing in the Lord always, show in our lives the grace and beauty of divine joy. We remember that we follow the Son of Man, who came eating and drinking, who loved the birds and the flowers, who blessed little children, who was a friend to tax collectors and sinners and who sat at the tables of both the rich and the poor. We delight in fun and laughter, rejoicing in God’s world, its beauty and its living creatures, calling nothing common or unclean. We mix freely with all people, ready to bind up the broken-hearted and to bring joy into the lives of others. We carry within us an inner peace and happiness, which others may perceive, even if they do not know its source.
During his earthly ministry Jesus showed very clearly that he loves life. His followers too should rejoice in all that is good in God’s creation. Yes, there is sin and evil out there – and we should discern and oppose these – but these are not the defining characteristics of the world we live in. On the contrary, orthodox Christian teaching has always insisted that God sees the material world as very good.

The natural world is God’s good creation and we should rejoice in it – a view traditionally associated with Franciscans of course. But that includes our own physicality (and with that our sexuality).

And the human world (our social arrangements, institutions, and cultures) is as much a part of God’s good creation as the natural world. So it is never wrong to enjoy great art or drama or well-prepared food or fine drink. We should not neglect to sing or laugh or dance together. Neither should we look down on the simpler, humbler aspects of our human world as too unsophisticated or primitive – a well-made pizza offers as much enjoyment as the latest creation of a Michelin starred chef; an old folk song shared by friends over a pint as much a recital of Schubert Lieder.

All of God’s creation is good. Therefore we must rejoice in all things.

27 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 27

(27) The Third Order is a Christian community whose members, though varied in race, education, and character, are bound into a living whole through the love we share in Christ. This unity of all who believe in him will become, as our Lord intended, a witness to the world of his divine mission. In our relationships with those outside the Order, we show the same Christ-like love, and gladly give of ourselves, remembering that love is measured by sacrifice.

26 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 26

(26) Therefore, we seek to love all those to whom we are bound by ties of family or friendship. Our love for them increases, as our love for Christ grows deeper. We have a special love and affection for members of the Third Order, praying for each other individually and seeking to grow in that love. We are on our guard against anything that might injure this love, and we seek reconciliation with those from whom we are estranged. We seek the same love for those with whom we have little natural affinity, for this kind of love is not a welling-up of emotion, but is a bond founded in our common union with Christ.
Today’s portion of the Principles sounds a little too easy – as if love for others automatically increases as love for Christ deepens. The juxtaposition of ‘increase’ and ‘deepen’ is interesting. What is that meant to signify? How can my love for Christ grow deeper? Surely this is not something I can achieve – it is not a matter of my efforts. Christianity doesn’t work like that.

Increased awareness of the depth of Christ’s love for me may evoke a response of love in me. But this is not a matter of my effort. I simply put myself where Christ can make me more aware of his love – i.e. in worship, in devotional reading of Scripture, and in the places where Christ is likely to be in this world (among the poor, the marginalized, the suffering). These are the places where he is likely to act. But he may also act through my other reading, my encounters those who are not poor or marginalized or suffering, and through creation.

25 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 25

The Second Note
(25) Jesus said, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13.34–35)
Love is the distinguishing feature of all true disciples of Christ who wish to dedicate themselves to him as his servants.
Love is the distinguishing feature of those who follow Christ. It can also be an aid to discernment. When faced with a decision, why not ask which outcome will help me love better? Obviously it will be irrelevant to some decisions (red wine or white? lamb or chicken?). Arguably those decisions are not important to God. God is love, so God’s concern will be with those decisions that affect our relationships with one another – the ones where the question which outcome is more conducive to love is only too relevant.