Crossing the border from Austria into the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, one is immediately overwhelmed by the standardized high-rise apartment blocks, badly aging holdovers from the Communist era. They now seem like a postmodern punchline amid thickets of billboards on which scantily clad women push casinos, liquor, and cars. But as these monuments to Communism and capitalism jostle for space, they are both alike overshadowed by the medieval castles and churches and monuments to the Holy Trinity.
For a religious believer, this cacophony is of course a tremendous improvement over the ideological terror that came before it. Relative freedom and peace have been achieved, for the moment. Yet even this freedom is not the defining characteristic of our times; liberalism is losing potency, and alternative options proliferate. With European liberalism’s signature eschatological project of unification now in serious jeopardy, the Danube region has become a laboratory for political experimentation. Witness the contrast between the Czech Republic’s staunch secularism and Hungary’s public re-embrace of its Christian roots in its new “Easter Constitution.”
In the years since the fall of Communism, some of the most common animating forces of human history have resurfaced: Nationality, ethnicity, and other drivers of identity politics are more potent today than they were twenty—and certainly forty—years ago. The Church, having reacquired much of the property it lost in the twentieth century, remains somewhat unsure of its public mission.
But about those Trinity monuments—as a rule, they appear in the centers of towns across the region, and become more opulent the larger the population of the locale. At street level, human witnesses fan out in all their difference: priests, nuns, locally popular saints, and even plague victims are just some of the characters often posed at the feet of these iconic pillars. What’s most striking, though, is their insistence on explicitly portraying the Godhead as three persons in one. The intent is to do more than make a reference to Christ’s sacrifice or communicate the importance of religion in the literal public square.
The monuments remind us that even the internal, ontological life of the Divine involves the interplay of personal relationships among three distinct persons. The Godhead is a model community, not a unitary executive, and God is not a monolithic, abstracted ruler in a palace, some celestial tyrant who imposes irrational and impersonal orders on his subjects at whim. Yes, Christians believe that when God acts, he acts with one will, and certainly any discussion of the Trinity must take pains to delineate that we are of course not proposing polytheism. But ours is a complex monotheism.
What does this vision of Divine governance mean for politics? First, it disqualifies an analogy sometimes invoked to defend totalizing state power. For whatever else might be said about the limitations of earthly rule, a government that appropriates theology to itself, that holds itself out as divine, misunderstands not only its own nature but also the nature of the Divine.
Second, while recalling the nuances of the Trinity’s interior life by no means presents a clear-cut, alternative Christian political “plan,” it does suggest some imperfect analogies. In any form of governance, divine or human, power ideally proceeds through mediators, rather than unvarnished fiat. There’s a reason virtually every papal encyclical dealing with Catholic social teaching has stressed the necessity of fruitful cooperation between authorities and citizens through groups like the family, the guild, or other societies-in-miniature.
But is ‘totalitarianism’ really a threat today, and need we invoke our complex monotheism against its analogies? Even if the twentieth century’s versions of totalitarianism lie entombed for the time being, there’s no guarantee they won’t be revived in some form given the economic and social churn Europe (and the world) continues to undergo. But perhaps there’s a more immediate challenge. Democracy, through its own methods, can also be led to an oppressive reduction of reality that challenges (and ultimately even persecutes) Christian believers. The three specific, physical figures arrayed in communion on top of the pillars offer a reminder that a truly vibrant society must consist of more than individuals and politicians, consumers and managers.
In a footnote to his epoch-capturing article, “The End of History?,” Francis Fukuyama observes that today’s elites have trouble understanding the religious passions of the past for what they were. Referring to the monophysite controversy in Justinian’s Byzantium, he observes: “Modern historians . . . tend to seek the roots of such conflicts in antagonisms between social classes or some other modern economic category, being unwilling to believe that men would kill each other over the nature of the Trinity.” But if Charles Taylor and other observers are correct, even the “supernova” of alternatives we face today involves a kind of discrete reprogramming of theological language. So like all other forms of rule, democracy is not without its own pretentions to theology. In that case, it’s still appropriate—essential, actually—for Christians to make sure the wider world again understands the importance of arguments over “obscure” or allegedly dead disputes like the nature of the Trinity.
Since at least Augustine, Christian political theorists have had to keep in mind that time and circumstance happen to all earthly regimes, and that, in the long run, the joke’s on the state when it forgets its penultimate place. But there’s another aspect of this long view, too, which should turn Christians against triumphalism or quietism—against a neglect of the active life and work of community still on display in the center of many European towns. 1989 represented a stunning eruption of the Spirit, to be sure, but it did not usher in the Eighth Day. If anything, both the regimes it ousted and the tumult which is filling the vacuum should point to the renewed importance of questions once written off as literally and metaphorically Byzantine.
Matthew Cantirino is an associate editor at First Things. He was also a participant in the 12th Annual Free Society Seminar, a program hosted in Slovakia that was founded by Michael Novak and is now sponsored by the Faith and Reason Institute.
“Dogma’s Defender,” Reinhard Hütter (April 2012)
“Political Theology versus Theological Politics” György Geréby, New German Critique (2008)
“The End of History?,” Francis Fukuyama, The National Interest (1989)