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.