Concrete Theology

Bruce Charlton has noticed an essay by Mormon author Orson Scott Card, in which Card has a “Traditional Christian” and an LDS believer arguing over the nature of the Trinity. The Christian says the Trinity is like three parallel lines that everywhere touch each other, while the LDS says that it is like three disparate parallel lines.

Both these geometrical analogies are of course radically defective. That of the “Traditional Christian” fails to express threeness, while that of the LDS fails to express oneness. They illustrate the difficulty of trying to explain the being who is the very basis of explanation as such. If God is the origin of all that is, then he can’t be explained in terms of anything else. We should hardly be surprised that he can’t be accommodated by the abstractions of Euclidean geometry (especially since it is inadequate even as a formalization of our universe). If you’ve got an explanation of God, then what you’ve explained ain’t God. Nor would a God that you could fully understand be quite satisfactory to the religious impulse, for such a God would be in at least one way smaller than our own minds, and thus scandalous to worship.

Bruce has lately, rightly said that it is crucial to think of God as a living, concrete actuality, rather than a philosophical abstraction – that philosophical abstractions, interesting or helpful though they might be as heuristics, must not be confused with the real thing, and can obscure the real thing from our sight. I doubt that there is anywhere a philosopher or theologian who would disagree.

Analogies can help the understanding, and indeed one might almost say that the feeling of what it is like to understand is just a feeling of likeness between some thing that is familiar to us and another that is not. But the inapt analogy can create a mistaken feeling of recognition, and thus fool us into thinking that we recognize when really we don’t. Analogy to abstract concepts amenable to complete specification in a formal scheme, like those of geometry, are bound to be inadequate to the understanding of life as lived, or of any part thereof; for the complete formal specification of a concrete actuality is not completable in a finite number of steps. Better then to draw analogies between concretes, bearing in mind that any descriptions of concretes, or of their behavior, are rather indications than specifications.

Say for example that you were setting forth on a trip through a wholly unfamiliar wilderness in Mongolia. It would be one thing, and that wholly justified, for you to say, “this is rather like southeastern Nevada.” Such a recognition could appropriately inform your decisions as you made your way. It would be quite another and foolish thing to pull out a map of Nevada so as to find the nearest fresh water.

This is why Jesus says that, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a vinyard,” rather than saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a constrained generating procedure.”

There are two sorts of concrete actualities that have been helpful to me as analogies for the concrete actuality of God: magnets, and lives. The former is simple: the Father is like the north pole, the Son like the south pole, the Spirit like the electrical field that curves about their axis. The magnet is one substantial being, yet it is three distinct things, none of which is the same as either of the others, and each of which is an essential element that contributes to making the magnet a magnet, rather than a simple rock. If either pole were lacking, it wouldn’t be a magnet; likewise, if the electrical field rotating about the magnetic field of force between the poles were absent, it wouldn’t be a magnet (because the absence of the electric field would itself constitute the absence also of the magnetic field, and thus the absence of the poles). I discussed this analogy a bit here.

The magnet helps us understand the essential integrity of the three Persons of God, because it refers to just such an integrity of three in one, quite straightforwardly operative in an everyday phenomenon. But it doesn’t explain God. After all, we don’t have an explanation of the magnet, either. All we have is a very careful description of how the magnet behaves.

The other analogy that has helped me is to the life of a person. I am different now than I was a moment ago. The two moments of my life are quite distinct: e.g., in one, I had not yet fetched lunch, and in the other I had. There is more to the latter moment than to the former, for it includes all the history that the former moment does, and adds to it. If you were to scribe the two moments as a Venn diagram, the former moment would be a circle enclosed by the circle of the latter moment. The data sets of each of the two moments intersect, but are not a unit. Yet the two moments are moments of the same life. There is something about the relation of inclusion that makes this so.

I am quite different from the me of 1959; yet I am that same me. Nothing could be more familiar, or confusing.

We see the same dynamic operating in the part/whole relation. The atoms of my body are parts of me, and their participation in my life has direct causal effects upon their histories; yet they are still the same in and of themselves that they were when they were parts of, say, a wafer of bread. E.g., before I ate the bread, the atoms just sat there in the loaf, and didn’t wander about the landscape. But now that I have eaten them, they do. They are the same atoms that they always were, and if you were to examine them you would find they had the same masses, the same atomic numbers, and so forth, that they had before I ate them (were it otherwise, they would not be much good to me as food). Nevertheless, their inclusion in me makes them behave quite differently than they did when they were just a part of a bit of bread. I have discussed this phenomenon in relation to the Real Presence of God in the elements of the Mass (and, ergo, in us when we partake of them – when God is included in us, and we in him). It pertains also to the Incarnation of God in man, on the one hand, and on the other in relation to the general human participation in the divine life effected by that Incarnation. God now participates in Manhood, and so therefore men can now participate in godhood.

I don’t know for sure, but I doubt there can be any explanation of the part/whole relation, or of the more general notion of inclusion of one thing by another. We all think in such terms at every minute, in understanding our past as in fact just ours. We are familiar with these relations from the inside. We can specify such relations formally. Such specifications allow us to describe how they operate, what they do and what they tend to produce. But as with any of the relations we apprehend among things – especially, causal relations – the ultimate nature of those relations in and of themselves is mysterious to us.

Back to the Trinity, then: the relation of a moment in the life of the Son to his Father and to the Spirit is like the relation of one of our moments to those of its past. The moment of the Son somehow includes those of the Father and the Spirit; and vice-versa. All are parts of each, and each is part of all.

Again, these are not explanations. They are, at bottom, ways of recognizing the form of one mystery by analogy with familiar aspects of our lives that, on close inspection, are revealed as equally mysterious. The roots of every dear familiar thing – even such as parallel lines – lie deep in unfathomable mystery.

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16 thoughts on “Concrete Theology

  1. But this depends entirely on your philosophical view of reality. If philosophical abstractions aren’t really “real”, then of course God must be part of “living, concrete actuality.” But what if living, concrete actuality is simply an echo of the true reality encompassed by philosophical abstraction?

    Say you are in the midst of the wholly unfamiliar terrain of Mongolia, and you are desperate for water, and you say to yourself, “This looks a lot like Nevada.” And you have a map of Nevada. Is it foolish to open up the map of Nevada and look at where the water is? Oh look, mountain lakes.

    “I don’t know for sure, but I doubt there can be any explanation of the part/whole relation, or of the more general notion of inclusion of one thing by another. ” I agree. So why do you persist in looking for analogies? You are trying to explain logos by means of reference to ordinary everyday knowledge, when in fact ordinary everyday knowledge is a reflection of logos.

    • But this depends entirely on your philosophical view of reality. If philosophical abstractions aren’t really “real”, then of course God must be part of “living, concrete actuality.” But what if living, concrete actuality is simply an echo of the true reality encompassed by philosophical abstraction?

      The only philosophical abstraction that could encompass the true reality is the comprehensive abstraction – if you could call it that – entertained by God. I. e., the Logos himself. Our partial apprehensions of the Logos – as, e.g., of the truths of math or metaphysics – are informative and helpful, to be sure. But, there being infinitely many truths that might be expressed in re any actuality, be it ever so humble, no set of merely creaturely philosophical abstractions, howsoever great, can quite explain any thing. We can improve our understanding, always, but cannot ourselves ever understand as perfect understanding does. This is just to say that we cannot complete our explanations. Since Gödel this result has not been controversial.

      Say you are in the midst of the wholly unfamiliar terrain of Mongolia, and you are desperate for water, and you say to yourself, “This looks a lot like Nevada.” And you have a map of Nevada. Is it foolish to open up the map of Nevada and look at where the water is? Oh look, mountain lakes.

      Of course not. Generalizing from one’s knowledge of the logic of Nevadan terrain – including the knowledge stored on the map – would be perfectly sensible in the circumstances. But only an idiot would refer to the map of Nevada in order to find a particular lake – “Oh, look, according to this map there’s a lake up at the top of that big hill over there. Amazing; it’s called Lake Washington. I guess they admire Washington even in Mongolia.” That’s what I was getting at.

      “I don’t know for sure, but I doubt there can be any explanation of the part/whole relation, or of the more general notion of inclusion of one thing by another.” I agree. So why do you persist in looking for analogies? You are trying to explain logos by means of reference to ordinary everyday knowledge, when in fact ordinary everyday knowledge is a reflection of logos.

      No; I’m not trying to explain logos, I’m arguing that complete explanation is not possible. I’m drawing analogies to satisfy the nisus to understand, e.g., that there can indeed be one in three and three in one, and that, since we see such things realized in mundane life, such a thing must be both possible and, ergo, both rational and intelligible. By judicious use of analogy to a thing whose operation we understand, we may understand how a similar thing works. But such understanding of any given thing extends only so far as our understanding of like things; and no creaturely understanding can extend all the way to the infinitely distant bottom of the full explanation of any thing.

  2. We could heed Sirach 3:
    22 Seek not to know what is far above thee; search not beyond thy range; let thy mind ever dwell on the duty God has given thee to do, content to be ignorant of all his dealings besides. 23 Need is none thy eyes should see what things lie hidden. 24 Leave off, then, thy much questioning about such things as little concern thee, and be content with thy ignorance; 25 more is granted to thy view than lies within human ken. 26 By such fancies, many have been led astray, and their thoughts chained to folly

  3. Yes, the magnet analogy is helpful but it’s not exactly adequate. Of course you already know this. The best analogy I have yet been able to come up with – I mean that is satisfactory to my own mind – as relates to the triune Godhead is that of myself as father, son, and spirit all wrapped up in one existence.

    As son to my own father I conduct myself in a certain way that I do not as father to my children. E.g., if Dad says to me “hey, go pick up that rock and move it over there,” I don’t ask “why?”, I simply follow his instructions, and cheerfully so even at the age of 47; and even whenever a good reason for the order given isn’t readily apparent to me. But, in fact, it is very often the case that my Dad and I are on precisely the same page, in the same paragraph and sentence, even when not a single word has been spoken between us concerning the movement of the rock from point A to point B. Thus it is often that before my father gives the instruction to move the rock, if he even feels the need to, I’m already halfway there. And that is one reason the analogy works so well for me.

    Interestingly enough, when Jesus speaks of the Father in the New Testament, he speaks in terms that I can very much relate to in terms of my relationship to my own natural father. Hence, if someone comes along and turns my father’s house into a veritable “den of thieves,” I ain’t gonna be none too happy about it, and I’m liable to allow my “inner tyrant” to come forth in response; I know my father and my father knows me. Indeed, if you’ve seen me, you have seen my father, ask anyone who knows him. This is why we can get away with such harmless pranks as my answering his phone, for example, and carrying on a conversation with the caller posing as my Dad, and them not the wiser until I’m satisfied to make them the wiser. My eldest son and I have pulled the very same prank on people, with me answering his phone posing as him and vice versa. Not only do we sound alike, but we also think very much alike, so only those who know one or both of us very very intimately can tell the difference between us over the telephone, and even they have a hard time making the distinction at times.

    Of course like any other analogy this one is fraught with difficulties. First, it presupposes a proper, unbroken relationship between father and son, which we know is not always the case, so it is not very useful to certain people since they simply cannot identify with it. Second, my father and I don’t see eye to eye on everything, just on most things. Same with my son and I. Third, some children are not as “in tune” with their father as one of their siblings might be – generally the firstborn son is more deeply acquainted with his father than his younger siblings. Fourth, even if our spirits were the same instead of merely being alike, I and my father are NOT one; that is we’re not the same being or essence, nor do we actually act as one, we just have a lot of the same characteristics which is why we can get away with stuff like the telephone anecdote with certain people. Fifth, well, there are 687 reasons why the analogy is imperfect, but this is of the essence of analogies and I’m only on number five and I’m tired, so I quit.
    Geometrically I’ve always thought that the triangle explanation was the most analogous to the triunity of the Godhead. But I don’t see why, if one is disposed to try to explain it in terms of parallel lines, one couldn’t form the lines in a triangular shape, rather than three lines on the same plane. Or maybe you could show them as strands of DNA, I don’t know.

  4. Of course the thing about definitions of the Trinity is that a *particular* interpretation is supposed to be a definitive article of the creed – The Athanasian Creed – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athanasian_Creed – which Anglicans are supposed to subscribe-to:

    Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.

    Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Essence of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Essence of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood by God. One altogether; not by confusion of Essence; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of the God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.

    To recite this is one thing – it is beautiful poetry, to swear that one believes it is *possible*, and no doubt it is true in some sense – but really to understand what it is that one is supposed to be swearing-to (on pain of damnation), well…

    • Quite so. But part of my point is that while we think of such humdrum things as lives and magnets, and for that matter corporeal bodies of all sorts, like chairs or atoms or rocks, as being unremarkable and well understood, really they are every bit as staggering to the intellect as the Trinity or the Incarnation, when you think about them carefully. Think of light, for Heaven’s sake. There it is, we simply *see* it. Yet it is a whopping great mystery.

      With the Trinity and the Incarnation – and the Real Presence and ecclesiology – almost no one is in catechesis given any phenomenal analogies to work with. All we are given is the raw formalization, as in Athanasius’ Creed. It is as if a man were given Clerk-Maxwell’s equations to recite as a credo, but without any instruction as to what they meant, or how to interpret them, just a wave of the hand in the direction of what they were about.

      • Well, the thing is that the Trinity (or, at least Christology – the nature of Christ) is given such prominence in most Christian teaching that lack of clarity and concreteness on this topic looks very much like either evasion or confusion. Also, a lot of the theology is hard to reconcile with what the Bible seems to be showing us – for example the relationship between Jesus and is Father seems very obviously that of a Son to his Father – filial, deferential etc. And the Father’s attitude is “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” This relationship is not reversible in the way implied by some ways of explaining the Trinity – it seems quite straightforwardly hierarchical. Of course all this can be explained at a higher level of abstraction, but then…

      • Well, the thing is that the Trinity (or, at least Christology – the nature of Christ) is given such prominence in most Christian teaching that lack of clarity and concreteness on this topic looks very much like either evasion or confusion.

        I prefer to think of it as a proper intellectual humility. He’s *God.* We *can’t* explain him. Like I said, “If you’ve got an explanation of God, then what you’ve explained ain’t God.”

        That doesn’t excuse us from the obligation to understand him as well as we can, and ever better. That we can venture ever deeper, ever higher in our understanding of him is the central beauty of theology – and the mystical ascent.

        Bring on the higher levels of abstraction. God forbid that we should expect the pitch of our climb should ever become easier.

        And God forbid that we should ever represent the central mysteries of the faith to Christians as either peripheral or easy to grasp.

      • Dorothy Sayers in The Mind of the Maker explores meaning of Trinity in the light of God as Creator. The Father is analogous to the Idea (which is timeless) , the Son to Energy (that works in time to create), and Spirit to the Power of the creation.
        There are other analogies as well e.g. to act of seeing.

  5. @Kristor “If you’ve got an explanation of God, then what you’ve explained ain’t God.”

    I think this is *potentially* a slippery slope argument, which leads towards pure monotheism and blind submission to the incomprehensible laws of an inhuman (and inhumane) and incomprehensible god.

    But of course not necessarily so! – plenty of exceptions of people who did not descend this slide. But it can get hard to hold the line once one gives-up on understanding.

    The way I think of it is God is like us, only much more so – e.g. God loves us like a (good) Father his children, only much more so. It is a matter of (extreme) extrapolation, but not of God’s love being a qualitatively different (and therefore utterly incomprehensible) thing.

    This has implications. Very strong ones, in fact. If, for example, a good Father would never under any circumstances torture his own child for a prolonged period – no matter what ‘benefits’ might come from doing so – then neither would God; therefore prolonged suffering of the innocent (for example) is *never* God’s will, but something that happens despite God’s will and despite God’s burning compassionate desire to alleviate the suffering. (How this specifically works in a specific situation may be, usually is, incomprehensible – but this is the *kind* of explanation which is correct.)

    But if God is incomprehensible in a fundamental sense, then people can and *will* say things like – yes, we feeble humans may deplore torture of the innocent, but in some incomprehensible way it must be for the best, and if we knew more then we would realize that it is better in the long run and overall that this particular innocent child be tortured. In other words, humans may become callous or even sadistic in emulation of their (supposed) understanding of God’ incomprehensible subtlety.

    Yet I don’t see anything of this kind of behaviour in the Gospels, and I’m sure it is not what Christ’s teaching implied.

    Now I *know* that *you* would not say such a thing! but I think that is the kind of perspective which is implied by allowing God too much in the way of incomprehensibility – I think we must always look for human/ humane explanations for God’s actions, even when that means that God is portrayed as having limitations on His (nonetheless vast) power.

    This is particularly important in talking with children and simple folk who think dichotomously (probably we all do think dichotomously; deep down). When it comes to an apparent conflict between God’s goodness and His power – and we need to make a quick choice – for Christians it should always be God’s power which makes way, which takes a step back in the explanatory model and God’s goodness (His love) which is preserved, at any cost.

    • CS Lewis has given four analogies for the divine love. As an artist to his creation, as a man to his pet animal, as a husband to his wife and as father to his child.

      The love of an artist is inexorable.
      The love of a man to his pet is despotic.
      The love of man to his wife is jealous.
      The love of a father is venerable and provident.

      “a good Father would never under any circumstances torture his own child for a prolonged period.”

      “Prolonged period” is redundant. The word “torture” itself carries the moral impermissiblity.

      The error here is reading the modern notion of fatherhood and of not appreciating the ancient standard of fatherly love. There are still fathers left in backward countries that care more for righteousness rather than comfort for their children. They would kill their daughters rather than let them dishonor themselves. This is the kind of fatherhood Westerners have forgotten about.

      The book of Wisdom says:

      But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and
      there shall no torment touch them. In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die: and their departure is taken for misery And their going from us to be utter destruction: but they are in
      peace.

    • It’s a slippery slope in both directions. Take it too far in the direction of, “God is just like us except he’s tons better in every way,” and you end up with Zeus the All-Father – who was a creature, that needed a father (who was himself a creature and needed a father …). I.e. you end up with a god, rather than God.

      The genius of Christianity is that it straddles that divide without sliding down either slope. That makes it more difficult. It’s a price worth paying, because in the bargain you get both God the ultimate absolute, “in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,” *and* you get the Logos who is, not just the King and Creator of the stars, but is also incarnate in Man.

      The Absolute in himself is before and beneath and above all worlds, and as such is utterly incomprehensible. He is manifest *to us* as a loving Father, Shepherd, and friend – a “soft, self-wounding Pelican” who gives his own blood to succor his young.

      • Be satisfied with ‘So it is’, O Man,
        For if you could have known the whole design
        Mary would not have had to bear a son.

        Dante Purgatory

  6. Pingback: Thinking rationally about the Holy Trinity | semel traditae sanctis

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