G. K. Chesterton writes somewhere that “the Christian has a Triune God, ‘a tangled trinity,’ which seems a mere capricious contradiction in terms.” Christians believe “as an avowed mystery what the Determinist calls nonsense,” but for Christians this apparent nonsense at the heart of things makes sense of everything. The mystery of the Trinity “by its darkness enlightens all things.”
That Chestertonian paradox was the overarching assumption of the participants in the New Trinitarian Ontologies conference held at Cambridge last month. It was a star-studded affair featuring Lord Rowan Williams, John Milbank, David Bentley Hart, Catherine Pickstock, Emmanuel Falque, John Betz, Graham Ward, Giulio Maspero, Thomas Joseph White, and many others. (I didn’t attend; I watched videos of the lectures, available here.)
A handful of speakers raised caution flags about the program. Durham University’s Andrew Louth said there is scant support for Trinitarian ontology in the work of Maximus the Confessor and John Damascene, and Christophe Chalamet of the University of Geneva questioned whether the return of metaphysics was a gain for theology. Others worried about the “New” in the conference title.
In the main, the speakers explored how the Trinity shapes the way we understand God, his relation to the world, and the nature of created reality. In a Q&A panel at the end of the first day, Milbank defended the project by appealing to the traditional axiom that all the divine Persons are active in every external act of the Trinity. If that’s true, and if creation exists and is sustained by God’s ongoing gift of existence, then God’s diversely unified action should be discernible in the structures of this world. We know God by his effects, Thomas said, and the effects bear the stamp of their Triune origin.
Milbank’s proposals were among the most wide-ranging and innovative, though rooted in a fresh reading of a classic text, Augustine’s De Trinitate. According to Milbank, Augustine’s treatise doesn’t introduce “psychological analogies” for the Trinity as artificial illustrations of the doctrine he derives from Scripture and creed. Instead, Augustine aims throughout at a Trinitarian understanding of all reality, in which time, motion, and event take on a significance they didn’t have in earlier metaphysical systems based on the priority of stable substances. Creation comes to be by God’s speech, his “uttering forth,” which recapitulates the Father’s eternal utterance of the eternal Word. Augustine uses linguistic and musical illustrations to express the character of time, which he views as a constant uttering-forth. Elsewhere in Augustine, time is stretched out between memory and anticipation, but Milbank argued that this isn’t a psychological but an ontological claim. It’s not merely our consciousness that’s distended between memory and hope; things themselves exist as a response to the past and in anticipation of the future. There’s an incarnational dimension to this line of thought: God discloses himself in time and space, and so we come to know God more deeply not by ascending out of time and space but by deepening our grasp of the finite world.
The Triune God is a mystery beyond the grasp of human thought, and not merely because we cannot conceive one God who is also three. As we contemplate the Trinity, mystery meets us around every corner. There is, for instance, motion and derivation within God, the Son and Spirit coming from the Father. And yet the origin, the Father, cannot be prior to the Son; the Father is Father only because he generates the Son, and so the originated Son becomes a co-origin of sorts with the Father.
Milbank suggested that aporetic tangles arise just as much when we try to understand created reality. We can’t fully comprehend anything. Motion seems logically impossible, as Zeno showed millennia ago. The idea of a “thing” makes no sense; everything is what it is in relation to everything else, and so things appear to vanish other things. This seems to leave us teetering on the edge of nihilism, but it’s a pointer to creation’s origin from nothing and a sign that creation’s mysteries echo the mysteries of the Creator. As Milbank put it, the world doesn’t conform to logic and our engagement with reality has more to do with feeling than with rational theorizing.
The Trinity has further epistemological implications. Thinking, Milbank argued, cannot be separated from feeling, producing, imaging, speaking, communicating, associating. Thinking itself is a variety of feeling. Few of our thoughts are clear and distinct, and reason must be qualified and elevated by “obscure glimmerings of historical revelation.” Rowan Williams focused on the epistemological import of the Trinitarian claim that “God repeats God” or “God corresponds to God.” This self-correspondence of God with God is the basis for a full-formed notion of truth and reason. God is Word; hence God is rational. God creates through his Word, giving rational form to creation. We know the world when the rationality of the thing known harmonizes with the logos of the knower. To know is to resonate with the logos, and this resonance first sounds out within the Triune communion itself.
Several contributions pushed Trinitarian ontology into the political and cultural realm. Milbank’s opening remarks commended the work of Comenius, a seventeenth-century Czech educator whose program of “Pansophy” was both a Trinitarian encyclopedia and a proposal for the reunion of post-Reformation Europe. Milbank contrasted Comenius’s plan for an “integral Enlightenment” with the rationalist, Socinian, and Arian Enlightenment of Locke and Newton, which separated reason and faith, nature and grace. Several speakers invoked Klaus Hemmerle’s letter to Hans Urs von Balthasar, published in English as Theses Toward a Trinitarian Ontology, in which Hemmerle traces the malaise of modernity to a failure to think our ontology on Trinitarian grounds. Like Benedict XVI, Hemmerle hopes for a civilization built on the faith that love is the inner truth of all things.
Whatever one makes of the specifics of the ontology or politics, whatever remains to be developed, the conference was an important laboratory for experiments in what the late Robert Jenson called “revisionary metaphysics,” the effort to know the Triune tangle who untangles everything.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.