In his recently translated essay Theses Towards a Trinitarian Ontology, Klaus Hemmerle (1929–1994) writes that Christian theology has long been an “almost unnoticed” guest at the feast of philosophy. Theologians have always had ontological interests and have sometimes made creative contributions to the study of ontology, but they’ve often depended on premises borrowed from non-Christian systems. As a result, Christianity hasn’t shaped ontology as a whole or thoroughly reconceived ontology on a distinctively Christian basis. With modern philosophy in disarray, Hemmerle argues, it’s a propitious time for Christianity to take “a leading or epoch-making role in thinking.” That is the ambitious aim of his brief, programmatic essay, first written in 1975 as “an extended birthday card” to Hans Urs von Balthasar.
“Ontology” sounds forbidding, but what Hemmerle has in mind is fairly straightforward. A Christian ontology asks, “In what way are the fundamental human experiences and fundamental understandings of God, the world, and human beings altered when faith in Jesus Christ breaks in upon them?” Suppose the gospel is true. How does that good news affect our beliefs about who God is, what kind of world we live in, and what human life is all about?
In a move reminiscent of Karl Barth, Hemmerle begins by reflecting on revelation. God’s word precedes human words, since he creates speaking beings by his word. Yet God’s word also follows human words. If God wants to make himself known to human beings, he must speak humanly. By speaking our language, the God who spoke first humbles himself, takes second place, and even allows his word to be mangled and distorted. But God’s word couldn’t reach its hearers at all without passing through this humiliation. God’s word communicates—God’s word is God’s word—only as it passes through a process of “both relinquishment and elevation.”
The form of revelation unveils its content. A God who humbles and elevates himself in revelation is a God who glorifies himself in humility, a God “identical with Himself in going beyond Himself, in giving away.” The self-revealing God is a God of self-giving love. God gives himself to us in his Son, and this self-gift isn’t a mere role God happens to play. His self-gift reveals the eternal life and being of God as Father, Son, and Spirit. In the light of this disclosure, we discern that self-gift is the basic reality of everything else, too: “Everything fulfills itself and brings that which is its ownmost to perfection by entering into its relatedness, into its being-beyond itself, into its self-having as self-giving, into its character as to and for each other.”
Thus, from the viewpoint of Trinitarian ontology, Being itself has to be reimagined. Ancient ontology assumed that Being is what persists in a world of change. Trinitarian ontology insists instead on the primacy of love; love endures. Love is action, an out-going from the self to the Other. Within a Trinitarian ontology, the verb becomes the “new substantive.” Things aren’t most fully themselves when they’re at rest, unchanging, alone. Being isn’t isolated stasis. Beings exist and fulfill themselves not by holding back, but by giving. For created things as for God, “self-having [is] self-giving.” Things are what they are, they possess themselves, in action, in motion, and in relation, in the movement of love. Love is the very “rhythm of Being.”
That rhythm is triple. Language provides an apt illustration. Language exists only in the action of communicating, and communication is a process with a triple origin: The speaker initiates speech and is responsible for it, yet he couldn’t speak without language and he wouldn’t speak unless there were a listener to hear and respond. The “poles” of speaker, language, and listener don’t exist at all outside their mutual relationships in the process of conversation. Speakers don’t exist independently of the language they speak and the hearers they address, nor does language exist without speakers and hearers, nor hearers without speakers speaking language. Yet the poles don’t collapse into each other. Speaker, language, and listener remain distinct.
Hemmerle discovers the same triadic structure in play: I am fulfilled as a player by playing, but I can’t play without a game and other players. Relationship and process aren’t eddies on the surface of an immutable underlying substance. In a Trinitarian ontology, process and relationship go all the way down and all the way up, because God himself is the original rhythm of eternal love.
Within a Trinitarian ontology, Hemmerle argues, some perennial dilemmas of philosophy can be dissolved or resolved. Take the opposition of inner and outer, a fundamental crux at least since Descartes. How does the inner mind connect with the world outside? If being is the rhythm of self-giving love, the dichotomy disappears. Mind comes to its perfection as mind not by isolating itself but by reaching beyond itself into the external world and accepting the outer world into itself. In the happening that is the rhythm of being, the seemingly polar opposites of inner and outer are in a mutually dependent relationship, yet without being absorbed into each other.
Trinitarian ontology teaches that creation dances to the same rhythm as the Triune communion of persons. But Hemmerle emphasizes that he’s not suggesting we could arrive at Trinitarian insights from a purely immanent investigation of creation. The Trinitarian shape of reality is revealed, and it can be seen only by those who enter into the rhythm. A Trinitarian ontology of love implies an epistemology of love, for reality is known only to lovers.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?