Spirituality, Trinity, and Tradition

A bit of visual heresy for you

I recently had a job interview with a small Christian liberal arts college, and when talking about my ‘faith journey’, the phrase I came up with was ‘historic orthodoxy’. I am committed to historic orthodoxy, having had my faith formed in my Anglican charismatic upbringing to have a live expectancy for God to show up and do stuff, a sacramental and liturgical orientation for worship, and a firm trust in the Bible as the authoritative revelation of God to the world. Sort of: charismatic, catholic, evangelical.

For some, the idea of ‘historic orthodoxy’ speaks of dry, barren traditionalism, of dusty doctrines, of incomprehensible theological jargon, of moralism, of a faith devoid of life, of a belief in mere intellectual abstractions and a form of Christian rationalism. For some, historic orthodoxy is a reductionistic attempt to tame the untamed God, to produce mystery-free religion with (so-called) accurate doctrines and a scientific approach to faith. It is fundamentalism. It is about controlling people’s minds and actions. It is dry. It is barren. It does not have the juices of the life of the living God coursing through its veins.

Not for me.

I think of this in light of Fred Sanders’ review of Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance. I admit that I have not read the book, so I dare not criticise it directly. But what Sanders accuses Rohr of doing is using some traditional language of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity to slip in a novel doctrine, mostly about something called ‘Flow’, and saying such things as each of us is the fourth person of the Trinity, and seeing Flow as circumscribing everything, including the Trinity. This view of the universe is, indeed, a bit New Agey, but also not surprising in light of the base doctrine of ‘god’ that most of us work with, as described by Matt Milliner in his splendid Byzantine art history lecture ‘Visual Heresy.’

Anyway, what I’m thinking is that the view that Sanders’ review claims the book upholds (which, not having read the book, I cannot verify as accurate or not) is one that would consider ‘historic orthodox’y as promoted today in the way described above. Rightly, Rohr wishes to reinvigorate our understanding of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity and connect the Christian doctrine of God with our own spirituality. But, again according to the review, in the process there is a statement that between the Cappadocian Fathers and William Paul Young’s The Shack, the Trinity was not really alive in the thoughtlife of the church.

Take it here, of course, that ‘the church’ means Latin, western, Catholic and Protestant. Nevertheless, it is shocking to see St Augustine’s wonderful writings on the Trinity excluded, as well as a Franciscan leaving out Bonaventure’s Trinitarian mysticism. It must be an erroneous representation of Rohr, either in the book or by the review.

Anyway, where I want to go is this: Mystery and Trinity and contemplation and mysticism and transcendence are part of historic orthodoxy, and historic orthodoxy is richer than its caricature.

To take an example, I am reading Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination right now. Here is a book that seems, so far, entirely ‘orthodox’ in outlook, reading various English poets for their theological insights. I’m not far into it, but Guite rightly observes that pre-Enlightenment Christianity was very happy with the poetic mode, that the ambiguity and fraught edges of language are exactly what we need when we encounter the utterly transcendent yet immanent God. You could look at poetry theologically in the entire tradition of Christian verse, from the Phos Hilaron (not that he cites this poem, it just came to me as one of the earliest Christian poems) to T.S. Eliot (Guite draws our attention up to Seamus Heaney, in fact). Guite’s investigation of theology via poetry, or poetry as a medium for theological thought, begins with The Dream of the Rood, on which I’ve blogged before in relation to the Ruthwell Cross, and then does not stop in the pre-Enlightenment poets such as George Herbert and John Donne (both of whom I love) but goes through Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Seamus Heaney.

Poetry and the visual arts (and, I guess, novels, music, architecture, drama) can bring us to places that strict propositional theological thought does not. Guite, thankfully, does not reject the endeavour of reasoned, critical theology, but sees the two modes of theological thought as happily co-existing. This is proper; Ambrose and Aquinas both wrote propositional theological treatises and poems. But we have neglected the poetic, the evocative, the ambiguous — the mystery of God needs to tread these borderlands of our consciousness. I would argue that this is why we need liturgy, symbol, ritual.

So let me come back to the doctrine of the Trinity. Our spirituality and our theology are healthy if they can embrace story and song, philosophy and proposition. Romanos the Melodist is important; so is Bonaventure. Gregory of Nazianzus wrote powerfully philosophical theology; he also wrote poetry. The tradition of Evagrius, Cassian, and the Cistercians is important. The tradition of Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin is as well.

I think that a simple and sound understanding of the historic doctrine of the Trinity, outlined in the Nicene Creed, Apostles’ Creed, and Athanasian Creed, is the foundation of a healthy spirituality. In God we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). He is transcendent and beyond all creation, therefore immanent and everywhere in creation. He is an incomprehensible mystery of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, every analogy of which probably gets us into heresy.

But understand this: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God and God is love. That is why God exists in Trinity, for therein can be found the fulness of love (I’ve blogged on this before). By his triune essence, God is perfectly fulfilled and perfectly love. When we come to the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity in prayer, we are approaching Someone(s) Who Is richly, deeply, and powerfully love, Whose outflowing and expression of that has manifested itself in creation, in redemption, in salvation — and in indwelling our own hearts.

We meet the King of Love in our own hearts, a Deity Who is beyond all our longings yet found at their centre. As John Zizioulas arges in Being As Communion, an exegesis of the Cappadocian Fathers, God is Communion, and He is the ground of all being, all existence. Thus, we are meeting with a real person, not a superhuman in divine form like Zeus, but a person nonetheless (Zizioulas also demonstrates that our understanding of person lies in the history of the doctrine of God), who loves us, who is Communion, and who chooses communion with us out of His/Their Own outpouring of divine love.

And then we realise that we are ourselves richly blessed with love when we enter into communion with others. Yet others are themselves impenetrable mysteries. And so we find ourselves at the frayed edges of existence and consciousness in seeking God wherever He might be found, whether in contemplative prayer, the Eucharist, or fellowship with other humans. He is there, and the simple doctrine of the Athanasian Creed can help us remember his characteristics, while the verse of John Donne or Ephrem the Syrian, or the mystical theology of Evagrius Ponticus can bring us to approach him not as a list of characteristics but as a real person.

We do not need to jettison historic orthodoxy to have an encounter with the Divine or a rich experience and love for God. This is what my Anglican charismatic upbringing taught me, and I continue to see it as I study the history of Christ’s church here on earth.

The unimaginability of God

In my wanderings, I recently encountered a very lovely Romanesque crucifix, pictured below in an image from Tripadvisor.

cattedrale-di-sant-eusebio

I prayed in front of that image of my Saviour from ca. 1000. How could I not? I’m fond of Romanesque art.

The next day I encountered a Renaissance fresco of the Most Holy Trinity, not unlike this one:

Luca_Rossetti_Trinità_Chiesa_San_Gaudenzio_Ivrea

Committed as I am to the Ecumenical Councils, I believe that the logic of the Incarnation makes the first image acceptable, but the logic of the Trinity and the logic of Deuteronomy 4 preclude the second. As 1 John 4:12 says, ‘No one has seen God.’ If the subject of images of the Trinity interests you, I recommend Matt Milliner’s lecture ‘Visual Heresy: Imaging God the Father in the History of Art‘ as well as the chapter on the subject in Sarah Coakley’s book God, Sexuality, and the Self.

God is not a being among beings, despite what philosophers since the 13th century have been trying to tell us. He is not simply a god-pigeon to us pigeons. He is utterly unlike us. God is not a man. God is Other. God is holy, and as such, wholly other. Thus, we aren’t authorised to make images of God the Father or the Holy Trinity.

People have long had difficulty with this, of course. In late fourth-century Egypt, there was an Anthropomorphite Controversy. St John Cassian tells us that when one of the desert Abbas (one Serapion, I think) was told that he was not allowed to imagine God in the image of a man, he declared in despair, ‘They have taken away my God, and I do not know what to do.’

William of St Thierry (1085-1148), in the aforementioned meditation, writes:

when I fix my inward gaze full upon him to whom I turn for light, to whom I offer worship or entreaty: it is God as Trinity who comes to meet me, a truth which the Catholic faith, bred in my bones, instilled by practice, commended by yourself and by your teachers, presents to me. But my soul, which must always visualize, perceives this given truth in such a way that it foolishly fancies number to reside in the simple being of the Godhead, which is beyond all number, and which itself made all that is by number and measure and weight. In this way it allots to each Person of the Trinity as it were his individual place and, praying to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, pictures itself as passing from the one to the ther through the third. And thus the mind, baffled by the one, is diffracted among the three, as though there were three bodies that must be differentiated or united. (trans. P. Matarasso, The Cisercian World, p. 113)

I find that crucifixes have helped me in my devotions (my Reformed friends will disagree with my subjective experience, of course!) — carved ones as well as painted ones as well as cast metal as above. They serve as visual reminders of that His precious death that wrought life for me. They can fill me with joy for salvation or compunction for sin.

Images of the Trinity simply annoy me.

The reduction of the Trinity into an old guy, a young guy, and a dove is the most absurd idea in the world. Now, I know that no crucifix can show the glory of Christ Our God — but the actual crucifixion didn’t, either. Not supernaturally. So that’s my out. (Besides, I always have Fra Angelico.) As Kierkegaard said (I paraphrase), to gain the full import of the Incarnation, you must point to a man in a crowd and say, ‘That is God.’ That is the visual ordinariness of Christ Incarnate.

The Trinity is unimaginable. There is no visual ordinariness of that which is beyond images.

The use of equivocal language about God that enables artists to produce such blasphemous images on church ceilings means that we have an impoverished view of God. The circumscribability of these images is wrong. The visible divisions of the Persons is wrong. We start to think of God as a man, only bigger. As I say, a god-pigeon amongst us pigeons. Transcendence has been compromised and needs to be rediscovered.

It is central to theology.

To quote another Cistercian from the same book as William of St Thierry, Blessed Amedeus of Lausanne (d. 1159) writes:

What part is the finite of the infinite, the measurable of the immeasurable, the moment of eternity? As the result of what multiplication or addition will the creature be comparable to the creator? If you were to project thousands times thousands to infinity, you wouldhave laboured in vain, and not in the remotest degree could you compare human knowledge to the wisdom of God. Hence, if God is contemplated in his essence, the substance of man will not be found … (Fourth Homily on Mary, the Virgin Mother, p. 142)

When people become disillusioned with the shallow devotionals we thrust at them, or when people are dissatisfied at never going beyond ‘Justification by faith’ or ‘substitionary atonement’ Sunday after Sunday, or they tire of Christian rock, what will they find? Will they find a circumscribed Trinity of heresy, or a God who died for them on the Cross?

The Great Tradition has much to offer, including the riches of Trinitarian theology. Let us not allow bad images and falsely equivocal language ruin that.