TWO MODELS OF
TRINITY: FRENCH POST-STRUCTURALIST VERSUS THE HISTORICAL-CRITICAL ARGUED IN THE FORM OF A DIALOGUE
Theologians have long taken heart from St. Paul's encouraging words,
"Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is
from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God" (I Cor.
2:12), and "the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God"
(2:13). Nowhere in theology has this search been more exciting but also --
necessarily -- more intimidating and awe-inspiring than in studies of the
Blessed Trinity. As a professor teaching and researching in Asia since 1983, I
have been touched in particular by the Buddhist emphasis on what -- in western
terms -- can perhaps best be called non-entitativeness.
Simultaneously, involved in Buddhist-Christian dialogue as I am, I have come to
the conclusion that whatever `samenesses' exist between Buddhism and
Christianity are founded on differences between the two religions, and
not on `common ground.' Indeed, in our dialogues, we have found that whenever we
Buddhists and Christians agree on a value -- on the importance of
loving-kindness, for example -- our rationales justifying the value always
reduce down sooner or later to purely differing `grounds'. Here, as on many
occasions, a French post-structuralist claim, indeed, specifically a claim of
Jacques Derrida, comes to my aid: `samenesses' are appointed, raised,
`constituted' (in the philosophical sense) by `differences', not `common
But how then to work out a Trinitarian model, and an orthodox one at
that, which purely differs from Buddhist non-entitativeness yet influenced by
the notion of non-entitativeness? The solution eventually came to me and became
one of the main theses of my recent book, On Deconstructing Life-Worlds:
Buddhism, Christianity, Culture (Atlanta: Scholars Press,
1997) (hereafter ODLW). Its characteristic is marked out in the following
Surely we should not expect that Christianity's deconstruction of holism imitate
Buddhist deconstruction. Indeed, `pure negative reference', a key thought motif
of this very section, means that the religions erect their `samenesses' by way
of their very differences. What I have found, rather, is that pure negative
reference has been `crypted' into Christian theology for a long time, perhaps
from the beginning, crypted into Christian theology in ways purely differing
from the Buddhist ones. For me the topic of Buddhist-Christian dialogue becomes,
then, an intersection of Buddhist devoidness and Christian devoidness, two
intersecting lines that necessarily have no `common ground'(183).
[The analogical reference is to mathematical lines, which do not have
width and thus have no space in common even when they cross each other].
In short, influenced and inspired by the Buddhist appreciation of non-entitativeness,
I have come to find a Catholic non-entitativeness which has been there in the
Catholic tradition, perhaps there all along: it purely differs from Buddhist
non-entitativeness, but has been covered-up. Covered-up not by design, of
course, but by western entitative thinking. On Deconstructing Life-Worlds
introduces the Derridean notion of `glitch' to the theology of Trinity,
developing further the Catholic non-entitative theory of Trinity which I first
proposed in an earlier book, Derrida on the Mend (Purdue
U. P., 1984; 2nd ed. 86) (hereafter DOM). Derrida argues that the
irreconcilable clashes between formulae which are valid in their own contexts
often `mark' the most productive and fecund points of `truth'. In my recent book
I apply this notion of glitch to the equivocal status of the `Active Spiration
of the Holy Spirit' in Conciliar declarations about the Trinity, where
definitions, on the one hand, of the `oneness of God' and definitions, on the
other hand, of the hypostases or Trinitiarian persons, seem to
leave `no place' for the Active Spiration. This is an old conundrum
recognizable to Trinitiarian scholars, of course, as are the `synthetic'
solutions proposed by the scholastic tradition; but my Derridean approach
reworks this famous `crux' into a fertile site, not a vexatious dilemma. Much of
the fertility arises in terms of non-entitative thinking, deploying `negative
overlap' and other maneuvers, derived from Derrida but which I appropriate in
what I insist are orthodox Catholic ways, that is, ways not incompatible with
Life-Worlds includes many other topics besides theology, and the
book has already elicited a number of reviews, most not in American journals.
Yet, it is the private letter from a Catholic theologian friend which has most
provoked me. He is a Biblical scholar, and enthusiast of the
`historical-critical' method which now dominates Catholic Biblical scholarship
and is becoming increasingly popular in dogmatic theology and the other
theological disciplines too because it extends its claims as `founding' in
relation to the other disciplines. As was to be expected, he excoriated me for
my deference to the papal and Conciliar magisterium, which he considered
slavish; and at the same time he excoriated me for my `distortion' of
magisterial declarations on the Trinity according to the principle that if one
is going to have recourse to the magisterium, the relevant magisterial
texts must be read according to the `historical-critical' method. Our
correspondence extended over several months, and was interesting enough, maybe
even arresting enough, in my own opinion, to be published in its own right. In
the course of the pages, scholastic intricacies were indeed engaged, very
engaged, but what came to head were even more elemental questions roiling the
Church today. What should theology do? How should the Scriptures be read? What
are the roles of Church authority? What are the roots of religious experience?
What seemed to be several meaningful ironies came to light, ironies to the
extent that they would confound -- I believe -- the expectations of most
mainstream Catholic academics. For example, it proves to be my position as post-structuralist
which acknowledges and affirms Buddhist influence, whereas the `liberal'
position represented by my friend excludes the possible pertinence of Buddhist
thought to the Trinitarian project. Yet at the same time, it is my
post-structuralism which positively matches the re-interpretation of Trinity to
Church Council documents and even to Aquinas, whereas my historico-critical
friend downplays the traditional magisterium of Pope and Councils and
affirms the `magisterium of theologians' as an integral and real part of
the Teaching Office (and not just as advisory periti).
In any case, the result was that my theologian-friend refused permission
to publish his side of the epistolary exchange. Convinced that the debated ideas
were worth publishing, how could I continue my plan ethically, then? What
I decided was (1) to extract the principles of the historical-critical position,
idealizing and universalizing them so they stand as almost a generic historico-critical
response to my post-structuralist position, and then (2) to create a fictional
`interlocutor' who can in no way be tallied to my friend's identity. Through
this device I would express the abstract arguments concretely, putting them in
said fictional persona's mouth. My friend is not compromised and I am not
compromised, yet the arguments are served. The resulting `dialogue' appears
below, immediately after the précis of my Trinitarian thesis (condensed
from the Trinitarian chapters of my two relevant books). The précis
which is necessary, of course, if the reader is to make sense of the dialogue
which follows. The dialogue itself is cast in the form of epistolary debate
between me as `author' and an `interlocutor'.
A PRÉCIS OF A TRINITARIAN THESIS
The Council of Florence (1438-39) affirmed that "everything is
one" in God "except where an opposition of relationship [relationis
oppositio] occurs," so that each of the three Persons as a
Person is constituted (i.e., defined, established) only by oppositional
relations among the Persons. Most theologians have always taken relationis
oppositio in the Thomist sense (though this is by no means strictly
necessary for the case I am making), namely -- the `opposition of relation' is contrariety
rather than contradiction. The only `functions' that are applied uniquely
to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit respectively in Scripture are the
following: `Paternity' to the Father, `Filiation' (Sonship) to the Son, and
`Passive Spiration' or that which is `breathed-out,' to the Holy Spirit.
Because such is the case (among other reasons), Karl Rahner rejects the
`psychological' theories of Trinity which define the Father as Knower, for
example, and the Son as the Known (i.e., Truth): Scripture in one place or
another identifies Knowing with each of the three Persons all told. Which is to
say, according to the relationis oppositio clause, Knowing (in our
example) does not define the Persons at all, but the Unity of God instead.
(Scripture's attribution of Knowing to any one Person at any one time is said to
be just `appropriated' to the Person: it does not really belong to that
This operation is mind-bending in a very `postmodern' way. All
that the Persons would share is sacrificed, is preempted or is always already
`gutted out' of them, so that it belongs to the Unity.1 This
`syncopation' in the midst of God involves kenosis, but -- since the
Personal contrarieties `remain' -- it is `devoid' not `void' kenosis (I
derive the void/devoid distinction from Derrida 2). Furthermore, we
should speak in the plural of kenoses, rather than kenosis, since
the `opposition of relation' between Paternity and Filiation, say, is not the
same as that between Active Spiration and Passive Spiration, and thus what is
preempted out of them is not the same. (As for the special problematic of
Spiration, I shall address it momentarily.) Finally, apropos of the
Personal contraries, there is at least one other point to be made here, one
which jibes with a Post-Structuralist notion in a startling way: While it is the
case that the kenoses are devoid, Persons relate in terms of pure negative
reference (i.e., the two comparata are absolutely not like each
other, yet are somehow linked anyway: they `belong together'3). The
Father, for example, is purely, absolutely not the Son, recalling
that what they `would' share has gone over to the Unity.
To summarize, the relationis oppositio clause necessarily
describes a Triune God wherein the three Persons raise the `sameness' of the
Unity by way of their emptyings-out: This Unity is constituted indirectly
by the `lateral' contraries of the Persons, and these contrary relations are
themselves `pure negative references'. The kenoses raising the Divine
Unity are devoid, and the Unity and the Three Persons are not
interchangeable in the strict sense.
The problematic of the Holy Spirit and its `procession' (Processio)
from the Father and through the Son also can benefit from the application of
post-structuralist, specifically Derridean stratagems of thought. The Holy
Spirit is said to proceed from the Father/Son as from one principle.
Given that even in (what is called) the Eastern Church's formula, that is,
"through the Son," it is not a question of the Father transferring
Himself or a part of Himself to or through the Son this would vitiate the relationis
oppositio clause. The question opens up: How does the `one principle'
work? I argue that the Derridean deconstruction of Signifier-Signified dyads4
can supply us with a clue. In Derrida, the representation, or Signifier,
boomerangs back as different from the Signified, as its cause
(while the Signified also remains as cause); so the model of simple dyad
breaks down. One plus one make at least three. The inescapable `addition' of the
Third requires the interaction of the `initial' Signified and Signifier and
requires that the interaction involve infringement. I use the word, `initial,'
advisedly because what Derrida is doing is a deconstruction. In other
words, Derrida is learning/showing `sequentially' where the traditional
Occidental logic of Signification really must lead. I use the word
`infringement' advisedly, because the Signifier usurps the causality of the
Signified. What we learn from the deconstruction is that the Signified-Signifier
dyad is `always already' three, and that the Third of these three
proceeds perpetually from a transgressive yet singular interaction of the other
two. Finally, we learn that this `alternative solution'5 and the
workings of the two that are three, must also necessarily come sous rature
(`under erasure', a Derridean term meaning that an `alternative solution' in
turn must undergo deconstruction because it violates the normative
strictures of a yet larger frame).
I argue that this Signified-Signifier dyad Which-is-always-already-Three,
operates mutatis mutandis as the best clue towards
understanding the Processio that the 20th century has hatched. (I
appropriated the term, clue, and ask for patience with a post-structuralist
idiom which can `sound' harsh [e.g., `infringement', `transgression',
`disruption', etc.6]). Mutatis mutandis, I go on to
insist that the Derridean account can indicate how the Father and Son `infringe'
each other and still `as one principle' spirate the Holy Spirit. As we have just
seen , Derrida's Signified and Signifier split to make a Third, and a split is
of course `disruption'. `Disruption' in the sense that the Signifier does not at
all close around into the Signified (does not do so even though this `circle' is
conventionally expected,7 indeed, most expected). In short,
the Signifier does not somehow mediate the Signified. In Conciliar
theology, (which I mean, the theology insofar as it is set forth explicitly by
the magisterium), it turns out that a like `disruption' is necessarily in
How so? The theology strictly distinguishes between the `one principle'
that spirates the Holy Spirit and the Father's Generatio that begets the
Son. The Generatio is unilateral (the Son cannot beget the Father in
turn); but the `aspiration from one principle' involves the Father and Son in a
kind of mutual transgression,8 in a kind of disruption. Which
is to say, in short, there is no mediation between them. The Holy Spirit
proceeds "from the Father and at once from the Son [simul
et Filio], and from both (ex utroque)
as from one principle."9 While remaining `one principle', the
Son is considered the `principle,' and the Father is considered the `principle'.
Next, there is a wonderfully Divine `glitch' in the Church's
Conciliar theology of the Triune God. (Not that the `glitch' is in God;
but that it marks a disconnection in the magisterial theology, sort of like a
postmodern version of the Kantian antinomies: and an `otherness' of God is
situated at that `blind spot' where the conceptual machine `jams'. In short,
this `jamming', the how of a particular `glitch', is its own special kind
of negative clue. It is a Clue in the peculiar Lack,10 one might even
say. It does not at all mean the magisterial theology in its own context
and insofar as it goes, is wrong.) Given that the `one principle' of
Father and/with Son is in `oppositional relation' to the Holy Spirit it
establishes, the `one principle' would appear to be a fourth Person. But
a fourth Person is deemed Biblically impossible. Thus theology has long insisted
that this Actve Spiration (of Father and/with Son) which `breathes out' the Holy
Spirit (Who is the Passive Spiration) is virtual, not real. (`Virtual' is
taken to mean `of only functional validity'). But the Councils have long
declared that the Passive Spiration is real. Otherwise, the Holy Spirit
would not be real, and thus not a Person.
I argue that the `equivocating status' of the Active Spiration behaves
much like a Derridean `double-bind'. To wit: (1) The Active Spiration overlaps
with the definition of a Divine Person because it is in oppositional relation (relationis
oppositio) to the Third Person, the Holy Spirit, and thus would be a
Person too, but (First Bind) this is negative overlap because the
Active Spiration is virtual, not real, and thus not a Person. (2) The
Active Spiration overlaps with the definition of the Divine Unity because
`as one principle' the Father and/with the Son are transgressive of each other
but are not oppositional to each other, and "everything is one in God
except where relationis oppositio occurs." But (Second Bind)
this is negative overlap because the `one principle' cannot
belong to the Unity: it is locked instead into a singular oppositional relation
with the Holy Spirit, who is a real Person. The Active Spiration, as neither
Personhood nor Divine Unity, is thus a privileged clue to the Difference
between them, that is, to what we can call from our human side the Difference
`within' the Triune God. We can say from our human side that `in negative
overlaps and non-holistically does the happening of God perpetually go-on'. (Of
course, all this must come necessarily sous rature, in this case,
God's own erasure. To put it another way, God `puts an X' over our clue; this is
how the `clue sous rature' survives for us in this world -- as a
clue with an X over it.)11
Lastly, the postmodern deployments described above can help the Church
develop a theology of the impersonal in God (Rahner and Panikkar both
agree that we already have a developed theology of Divine personalty, but not of
Divine impersonality). In my case, Asian appreciations of impersonality have
been a further influence (not that I duplicate these unique
appreciations, however). Keeping in mind that Conciliar hypostasis as a
term is meant to avoid identification with either the Unity, which would be `modalism,'
or human personhood, which would be anthropomorphism, we can go on to propose --
according to the postmodern but orthodox protocols limned above -- the following
scenario, and here I distinguish between `Person', as in the Trinitarian
Persons, and `person', as in human personhood. (1) the Divine Unity is devoid
and impersonal, (2) the Trinity -- because of its internal voiding oppositions
-- is Personal, and (3) the Triune God is `impersonal' (except for the Son,
insofar as the Son is incarnate in Jesus Christ, who in His human nature has
`personal consciousness'). Moreover, figured into the Triune, God, is the
dislocation (of the conventional human formulae of `unity') represented by the
anomalous status of the Active Spiration, so the Triune God would seem to loop
forever from the elegant double-bind at the Divine (Personal/imPersonal) core.
It goes without saying that all this scenario, of course, in turn comes under
erasure, God's X over our fragile, feeble human thinking. Recall St. Thomas
Aquinas in mystic vision: ". . . all that I have written is as straw
compared to what I have seen!"
AN EPISTOLARY DIALOGUE
(1) There is first of all an `external' problem with your discourse, both
in Derrida on the Mend and in On Deconstructing
Life-Worlds. There are at least two potential readerships who are
not going to understand what you are arguing. Both the Buddhologists and the
Derrideans are not trained in the disciplinary modes nor in the long and complex
history of Catholic Trinitarian doctrine. As for the third readership,
contemporary Catholic theologians, they will foreclose on reading your book
because your kind of Trinitarian speculation has been superseded: the last of
the important scholastic types was Lonergan.
Now I go on to the `internal problems'. Your treatment of magisterial and
scriptural authorities is proof-textish: you don't make necessary distinctions,
and you disregard historical context. Your study of the trinity focuses on
medieval trinitarian logic and ignores the early but founding history,
especially the slow and twisting path from Philo to Augustine. If I may hark
back to your earlier book involving Derrida, Buddhism and Catholicism, Derrida
on the Mend, you say that there are scriptural texts which
announce the co-equality, co-eternity, and co-substantiality (pp. 137-38).
Actually, read in their own historical context and the Biblical contexts
themselves, the scriptural texts you quote do not support the Nicenic
interpretations. "I and the Father are one," for example, is a
phenomenological statement: it expresses Jesus's experience of non-duality; and
insofar as it deploys the Old Testament motif of the `unity of sender and sent',
it is a very Jewish statement.
(2) Aquinas represents medieval theology at its best. Perhaps his
greatest real contribution to the theology of his epoch was his foundational
methodology: whatever the speculation, he consistently referred back to the data
of scriptural revelation and used these data to mark the limits of how far
theological speculating can actually go. He does not put the cart before the
horse. Thus, Aquinas functioned in the argumentative economy of his day so that
most of his work is clarification: he studies and applies the rules of medieval
theological language and logic in order to ascertain whether a given theological
`position' is accountable to the scriptural data. He refutes heretical formulae
precisely by measuring them in terms of these data. You say in your work that
Derrida's "differential mode" allows us "true progress" in
apprehending the manner of the Trinity; but Aquinas did not add to
revelation, and the whole thrust of his work is to signal the limited scope of
speculative `progress'. You want to replace entitative by non-entitative
speculation, but the latter is no less accountable to Biblical data. There is no
room for Buddhist influence here.
(3) Aquinas is faithful, throughout, to the rule of faith. The one divine
essence is identical with the Father, from whom the Son and the Holy Spirit
receive it (the Son and Holy Spirit are thereby the same divine essence as the
Father, God from God). The very process which constitutes Son and Spirit as
`persons' or `supposita of the divine essence,' also constitutes them as
God. There is no expropriation of the divine essence, as you seem to suggest.
That the three persons, in your words, are "Perpetually and mutually and
totally abrogating each other" (DOM 140), does not fit the Thomistic
understanding of the trinitarian oppositions. The only differentiations allowed
are those occurring "ubi obviat relationis oppositio" (where an
opposition of relation occurs). The divine essence which the Father is, the Son
is, and the Spirit is, is one and the same.
"Thus it is manifest that relation really existing in God is really
the same as His essence and only differs in its mode of intelligibility; . . .
in God relation and essence do not differ from each other, but are one and the
same" (STh I.28.2).12 The `real distinction' in God is
"secundum rem relativam" (28.3). In other words, the relations
are the essence, and differ from it only in reason. A trinitarian person is a
`relation as subsisting,' and this hypostasis subsisting in the divine
nature is nothing other than the divine nature. Indeed, Aquinas says although
"the name `person' signifies relation directly, and the essence
indirectly," the word `person' can likewise signify "directly the
essence, and indirectly the relation, inasmuch as the essence is the same as the
You say "the three persons are not the self-same -- they do not
share or hold in common the divine unity, simply because, qua persons,
anything they would share in common belongs to the divine unity instead' (DOM
144, 146; ODLW, 184-85). No orthodox theologian, as you claim to be, can
deny that the three persons have in common the divine essence. "The Father
is good, the Son is good, the Spirit is good, yet not three goods but one
good," and so on. The persons differ only as relationally opposed
subsistences of that essence, (and `opposed' here is to be taken to mean `across
(4) Your discussion of the problematic of the active spiration obfuscates
what should be clear. In reference to `subsistent spiration', Aquinas says:
"Although there are four relations in God, one of them, spiration, is not
separated from the person of the Father and of the Son, but belongs to both;
thus, although it is a relation, it is not called a property, because it does
not belong to only one person; nor is it a personal relation -- i.e.,
constituting a person" (30.2 ad 1). Paternity, filiation, and passive
spiration are person-constituting relations; but active spiration is not because
the Father and Son are constituted before (sit venia verbo) they spirate,
so spiration cannot constitute them.
(5) Because it is a mystery, the logic of the trinity is flawed from the
start. History shows that the scholastic kind of discourse is limited and
impractical. I agree with Cardinal Newman's recapitulation, setting forth nine
simple propositions in regard to trinitiarian dogma. These nine safeguard the
dogma, and even these nine lead only to headaches if one attempts to build a
metaphysical basis for them.
In God everything is one except where an opposition of relation occurs.
The applications I had in mind were primarily to the `essential attributes' and
`personal properties'. The essential attributes are represented in your letter
to me by the reference, for example, to the famous `The Father is good, is wise;
the Son is good, is wise; the Holy Spirit is good, is wise; yet not three goods
and wises, but one good and wise', etc. Since your letter draws so much from
Aquinas, I shall try to explain myself here in terms of his Summa Theologiae,
though in point of fact the Summa Contra Gentiles (SCG)
works quite well for my purposes too. In Aquinas the essential attributes are
only `appropriated to' the Persons (39.7). For example, because
"truth" belongs to the intellect, "It is appropriated to the Son,
without, however, being a property of His. For truth can be considered as
existing in the thought or in the thing itself. Hence, as intellect and thing in
their essential meaning, are referred to the essence, and not to the Persons, so
the same is to be said of truth" (39.8 ad 5). In other words, essence is
identified with God's `unity' or `common nature', not with Persons qua
Persons. These three `personal properties', paternity, filiation, and procession
(30.2 ad 1) are "really distinguished from each other" (30.1. ad 2),
whereas the "absolute properties in God, such as goodness and wisdom, are
not mutually opposed; and hence, neither are they really distinguished from each
other" (ibid.). "The very nature of relative opposition includes
distinction. Hence, there must be real distinction in God, not, indeed,
according to that which is absolute -- namely, essence, wherein there is supreme
unity and simplicity -- but according to that which is relative" (28.3).
Given that there are three Persons in/of one divine nature, the
adjudication of terms such as essence, supposita, and subsistence (hypostasis)
becomes, needless to say, extremely delicate, so Aquinas warns "if we wish
to express ourselves correctly, we must take into account not only the thing
which is signified, but also the mode of its signification . . ." (39.5).
"To express unity of essence and of person, the holy Doctors have sometimes
expressed themselves with greater emphasis than the strict propriety of terms
allows" (ibid., ad 1). "Although God and the divine essence are
really the same, nevertheless, on account of their different mode of
signification, we must speak in a different way about each of them" (ibid.,
ad 3). "The word `essence', however, in its mode of signification, cannot
stand for Person, because it signifies the essence as an abstract form.
Consequently, what properly belongs to the Persons whereby they are
distinguished from each other, cannot be attributed to the essence. For that
would imply distinction in the divine essence, in the same way as there exists
distinction in the `supposita'" (39.5). [In the SCG we have
the same teaching, e.g., "The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and
receives from the Son (John xv, 26; xvi, 14): which cannot be understood of the
divine essence" (4.18).]
God and the divine essence are really the same; "since this word
`God' signifies the divine essence in Him that possesses it, from its mode of
signification it can of its own nature stand for Person" (39.5). The
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each of them the one God, so how to retain
their co-essentiality (STh's term, e.g., 30.2 ad 2) while still retaining
the aforesaid strictures pertaining to the `supposita'? Aquinas answers,
"The divine essence is predicated of the Father by mode of identity
by reason of the divine simplicity [likewise it can be predicated of the Son and
Holy Spirit]; yet it does not follow that it can stand for the Father [or Son,
or Holy Spirit], its mode of signification being different" (39.5 ad 4). I
take this to mean that the essence is predicated of each Person by virtue of the
unity or oneness, not the `supposita'. To regard the three
`supposita' as the divine essence in its three hypostatic related
modes-of-being can suggest some sort of modalism, as if the essence were the
foundation and the hypostatic oppositions some kind of overlay. Indeed, this would
be an entitativeness in the derogatory Derridean sense! When the Church
speaks of `one God in three Persons', each Person is understood as `God whole
and entire' because of the oneness, not because of the `hypostasis' or
subsisting personhood. This is what I mean when I say in ODLW that
"All that the Persons would share is sacrificed, is preempted, is already
`gutted out' of them, so that it belongs to the Unity" (ODLW 184).
I grant that the language of Basil and Augustine which was the
underpinning for my reading of Aquinas can evoke a kind of modalism. In order to
avoid offending Jews and Moslems, I have tended to emphasize the oneness of God,
not the trinity of God. Granting this, I still think that you are turning
distinctions into oppositions. You say the essence is predicated of each person
by virtue of the unity or oneness, and "not by virtue of the supposita
themselves." But that the supposita are at all is by virtue of the
essence! Each person is a suppositum of the essence. The essence belongs
to hypostases because the essence is communicated to the hypostases
in their very constitution as hypostases. "It can be said that [the
Father] is the principle of the whole Godhead, not because he generates and
aspirates it but because by generating and aspirating he communicates it."
(36.5 ad 6). The Father does not generate the essence, but by generating He
communicates the essence. We cannot say the essence generates or is generated,
but the essence is that whereby the Father generates and the Son is generated,
-- we can perhaps call it, in less technical terms, the `substantive content of
the relations.' The essence is the substance of Godhood but can only be found as
subsisting in the three supposita.
When I was researching Derrida on the Mend, I
developed a very extensive library on the problematic of the `common spiration'
-- it has not been dismissed as a non-question. Aquinas when treating the
`common spiration' (in 40.1 ad 1) supplies two reasons whereby the properties
can be identical to the Persons, the first reason applying to `personal
properties' and the second to `non-personal properties'. Both reasons can be
argued from the divine simplicity. The first reason is: "Since the divine
simplicity excludes the composition of matter and form, it follows that in God
the abstract is the same as the concrete, as `Godhead' and `God'." In God
the abstract is the same as the concrete, so the paternity is the same as the
Father, the filiation the same as the Son, the procession the same as the Holy
Spirit. The second reason is: "And as the divine simplicity excludes the
composition of subject and accident, it follows that whatever is attributed to
God, is His essence Itself; and so, wisdom and power are the same in God,
because they are both in the divine essence." As the attribute is the
essence Itself, so the "common spiration is the same as the Person of the
Father, and the Person of the Son; not that it is one subsisting Person, but
that as there is one essence in the two Persons, so also there is one property
in the two Persons, as above explained" (explained in 30.2 which you, my
interlocutor, quote). Since Aquinas assigns the `common spiration' to the kind
of identity belonging to essential attributes, a problem opens up -- essential
attributes belong necessarily to all three Persons because "the divine
essence is not only really the same as one Person, but it is really the same as
the three Persons" (39.6). Aquinas is placing the `common spiration' on the
side of attribute because he must eschew the first reason for identity, which
necessitates subsisting personhood; but the second reason for identity,
according to Aquinas's own definitions, comports its own impossibility, viz.,
that the `common spiration' is the Holy Spirit, too.
This kind of bind happens in other places also because Aquinas feels
obliged to show that the common spiration, while not being a suppositum,
must nonetheless remain correlative as `active spiration' to the procession
(passive spiration). Later in history the need (on the part of theologians) to
justify a very special status is further sharpened when the Council of Florence
underscores both `oppositional relation' and procession from Father and Son as
from `one principle'.
The bind recurs in 28.4. We are told the procession of the Word has a
proper name, viz., generation, and that therefore its opposing relations have
proper names -- the relation of the principle is `paternity' and the relation of
the Person proceeding from this principle is `filiation'. But the procession of
Love, we are told, does not have a proper name, and so neither do the ensuing
relations have a proper name of their own. In the case of the procession of
Love, the relation of the principle is called `spiration' and the relation of
the Person proceeding is called `procession'. Whereas the names `paternity' and
`filiation' are self-reflexive, that is, name the relations, the names `spiration'
and `procession' do not name themselves, but refer back to the `processions or
origins themselves'. Aquinas here sends us to 27.4 where he says that the
procession of the Word is consistent with the order of intellect, i.e.,
"The intellect is made actual by the object understood residing according
to its own likeness in the intellect." The procession of Love is consistent
with the order of will, i.e., "The will is made actual not by any
similitude of the object willed within it, but by its having a certain
inclination to the thing willed." Thus, Aquinas argues, there cannot be a
proper name for the procession of Love. This is a most unconvincing rationale.
The real reason that Aquinas says the procession of Love has no proper name is
because (1) the procession is equally from Father and Son, and -- more
importantly in the immediate context -- because therefrom he can argue that the
spiration, the `relation of the principle', cannot have a self-reflexive proper
name. If it did, it would `constitute a Person'.
Controversies over such material are important for me, and not trivial,
because my understanding of their function differs from yours. To me, a `glitch'
refers to a point of disconnection between magisterial statements which must be
taken as true. I give solemn statements of Church Councils the full weight of magisterium,
and accept them as definitely true (at least insofar as they go, expressed in
human language as they are). Also, I do not tie these statements as absolutely
to immediate historical context as you do. In the case of magisterial statements
about the Trinity, for example, of course I recognize that they are mediated, at
least from the Middle Ages onward, through the language of scholasticism (and
indeed must be understood as they operate in such a context). But for me this
does not mean that their truth cannot transcend local context. (Any calls for me
to forsake `Nicenic shortcuts', for example, really ask me to give up how I
understand developmental theology works. For me the Nicenic interpretations of
the Johannine texts, for example, supply a fuller divine meaning than the
Johannine writer(s) may not have humanly intended. In terms
borrowed/adapted from the (early) Heidegger, one could say, I privilege the als-Frage
of the Council fathers and the resultant als-Struktur which is the
Theologians are those whose métier is prudent speculation, and
for me they properly operate according to the magisterial parameters. I think
that those points, where officially-defined statements leave gaps that
speculation cannot close, are Divine `markers.' The workings of the `failure' to
close or `link-up' consistently are a clue to that which is most
mysterious. I am not at all here suggesting the `glitches' are in God.
Rather, the glitches, mark those points which -- because of our human inadequacy
-- we especially cannot understand. They can be clues, however, in
a sense analogous to how Ch'anist kung-an [Zen koans] are clues. A
genius like Aquinas (of whom I have always been in awe) functions to `mark'
these glitches, even while trying rationally/systematically to patch them (which
it is his duty as a theologian to try to do).
As for the cart and horse, I agree with those many historians who say
that -- from a strictly scientific point of view -- the most that can be
inferred from the `data' is that a faith-community arose in the first century,
which believed in a savior-figure it came to name the Christ. (The failings of
the `Jesus Seminar' point up once more the futility of questing for the
`historical Jesus', and I do read Crossan and the others.) Gradually over
the next century these Christians assembled, what came to be called, the
`official' written New Testament. Which texts belong to it, and how they can be
understood, was thrashed out in a long historical process, as was the structure
of the church. The structure of the church evolved through the first millennium
-- in terms of historical `power-structure' -- into the `Catholic
church', eastern and western. This power structure was often overweening and
overbearing; and it often ground minorities of one kind or another into
oblivion. It was and is hated by many people. I still accept it because I
believe it houses the Christ and that down through the centuries it is being
purified into His Mystical Body. (From this point of view, even the Protestant
Reformation was a terrible, but necessary purification that the sins of the
Church brought down upon itself.)
The biblical texts are by nature so ambiguous that so-called scientific
efforts to `nest' their meanings comprehensively in terms of the first
and second century faith-community are doomed to failure, as are scientific
efforts adequately to describe that community itself.13 The
claim of the Catholic Church became that it had from the beginning at least in
embryo -- the charism to interpret Christian belief, including the
Scriptures, in order to deliver the faithful from what would otherwise be
a very precious but inchoate collection of potential confusions. I accept on faith
this claim of the Church; and the Christ I believe in is the Christ
nesting in the Church today, whose image is the ongoing result of a messy and
torturous history. I proclaim the special presence of Christ in His Mystical
Body which nourishes me today. When I read Scripture, it is in the light
of this Body that I read it and not by the sterile light of `objective'
scientism. I do not put the cart before the horse or the horse before the cart.
The horse, or -- if you permit me to alter the metaphor -- the Lion (the Lion of
Judah, of course) is in the cart and master of the cart.
The problematic of the active spiration may have excited much attention
once, as you say, but nowadays it sounds like no more than a case of out-dated Problemstellung.
In my view, any debate over it was really a problem of rules of language, not
trinitarian ontology. The scholastic style of debate chased after every issue to
the extreme and demanded an exactitude which we really cannot have about God.
I do not want to tie magisterial statements absolutely to context;
but I do want to stress that these statements are very `situated' in history:
their truths can be passed on to later ages (and epistemes) only insofar as
these truths can be translated into the theological languages of
the later epistemes. As Karl Rahner said "the age of `dogmatic
formulations' is over." In my view, the very fact that Vatican Council II
did not issue doctrinal definitions signals the new emphasis on `Biblical
proclamation.' This is the primary duty of the Church, but one long ignored by
You speak of the points of disconnection between various authoritative
statements of the magisterium, and you tend to mystify these `glitches'.
The `points of disconnection' stem -- in my opinion -- from a hermeneutically
unsophisticated reading of conciliar utterances, and can be dissolved by way of
proper historical contextualization. Also, you should keep in mind that
conciliar statements binding de fide definita do not
include the argumentation used to arrive at these statements. When one faces the
apparent blank contradiction -- on the status of non-Catholics -- between the
Council of Florence and Vatican Council II, it becomes clear that the
reconciliation of conciliar dogmas must be necessarily a flexible and complex
As for the `glitches' that beset Judaic and Christian theism, and have
from the beginning, such as the disconnection between a benevolent omnipotent
God and the rampant triumphs of evil, or between God's omniscience and human
freedom, I maintain that a return to the Biblical sources allays these issues.
My remarks on the `Nicenic shortcut' -- an unfortunate shortcut which
elides both Biblical context and the first three centuries of dogmatic
development -- were intended to mean that the Johannine utterances should
instead be taken as contemplative ones perfectly sufficient in their own Judaic
setting. When John leads the reader up Christ's ladder to "The Father and I
are one," it is a `saturated phenomenon' in Jean-Luc Marion's sense. The
topic is not the `consubstantiality' of the Logos and the Father. Nor, for that
matter, is revelation of the dogma of the trinity the prime purpose of the
Incarnation, as some theologians seem to suggest. An Easter encounter with
Christ and his Spirit is the prime purpose.
You say that theologians should "operate according to the
magisterial parameters," but this is misleading. While respecting the magisterium,
theologians should operate according to scripture (the `soul of theology', as
Vatican Council II says). In fact, there were times in the history of the
Church, at the Council of Trent, for example, when theologians were regarded
explicitly as part of the magisterium. You say the métier of
theologians is "prudent speculation." But I say their calling is to
`interpretation', and the more Biblical their theology, the less speculation. It
is dogmatic theology that tends to be `speculative'.
You say "the most that can be inferred [in terms of scientific
history] is that a faith-community arose which believed in a savior figure . . .
." If you are so sceptical about historical research, how can you then rest
your case so squarely on Church councils that are in the `historical past'?
Besides, historical-critical study of the conciliar texts reveals as much
fuzziness and ambiguity as do the Biblical texts.
I can appreciate your confusion over the scattered and reckless
conclusions of the Jesus-seminar: its `seminarists' are misled by a-historicism
and gullibility. There is now a third wave of questers after the historical
Jesus (Meier, Freyne, etc.) who are doing a more responsible job.
You say that from a socio-anthropological point of view, "Religions
are ongoing constructs of the collective imagination of their believers,
cultivated by the power-structures which the believers agree to affirm." I
think this contradicts what you hold about the solemn definitions of the magisterium.
I would say that religions are authentic insofar as they express objective
truths which can be stated propositionally. Christianity cannot allow Christ to
dissolve into legends, no matter how legendary a figure Padmsambhava is.
Besides, in Buddhism Padmasambhava serves just as `expedient means' to
Permit me two addenda, as I close. First, the Fourth Lateran Council
declares against Joachim "that reality does not beget nor is it begotten,
but it is the Father who begets and the Son who is begotten; he [the Father]
gave him [the Son] his own substance, nor can it be said that he [the Father]
did not retain the substance himself" [Denz. 432]. Surely your thesis of
hypostatic `gutting-out' or expropriation is excluded here. Second, the
Pontifical Biblical Commission emphasizes the priority of biblical over
patristic and medieval language: "Les langages `auxiliaires' utilisés au
cours de l'histoire de l'Eglise n'ont pas pour la foi une valeur identique à
celle du langage référentiel utilisé par les auteurs inspirés: celui du
Nouveau Testament qui plonge ses racines dans le Premier" (126.96.36.199).
The bulk of the readership of ODLW is either Buddhist or secular
and postmodernist. My realization of this conditioned my rhetorical and
argumentative strategies. You are right to say that neither secularists nor
contemporary theologians will be attracted by what sounds like `out-dated' Problemstellungen
and proof-texting; but here I draw the line -- there are some things
I sense I must say, regardless of indifferent (or hostile) reception.
Actually, I treat the pertaining Scholastic Trinitarianism in terms of Derridean/Lacanian/Deleuzian
maneuvers which belong to a very contemporary episteme. Derrida, for one,
says he inserts himself into traditional systems and finds internal fault-lines
in the systems, fault-lines which -- ironically for some -- mark the special
`truths' of these systems. Much as in George Herbert's poem "The
Altar," the hidden cracks and interstices in the body of the text -- quite
apart from the semantic -- are crucial clues to what the poem is most
about. In terms of an ecclesiastical readership, if just about all of these
readers would foreclose on me in advance, then so be it. I have nothing to lose.
What I say about the Trinity for me is not a speculative game, but is intimately
involved with my prayer life, and flows out of it (though necessarily in
`translated' form). Nor is this `gnosticism' on my part, as you have sometimes
privately implied to me, since my intention is always to subject whatever I
write -- in the most loyal fashion -- to the scrutiny and jurisdiction of the
You say, in the matter of our debate, that Aquinas is really just
treating (in the passages we discussed) a problem of `rules of language'. I
answer that St. Thomas certainly did not think so, because he ascribed to a
theory of language much akin to what we call nowadays a `correspondence-theory'
of language. The references/notes to the 1947-48 Benziger Bros. Latin edition of
the Summa are very good on language-theory in Aquinas, and make my point
throughout. See also this same edition's citation to H.-F. Dondaine in his La
Trinité, "[For Aquinas] metaphysic, logic and language are
inseparable,"14 etc. The preponderance of late-20th century
post-phenomenological French language-theory must necessarily agree with me,
though surely not because of St. Thomas's reasons. Rather, it would agree
because it affirms that language and referent are inextricably entangled in each
other: that is, it would agree as a result of the deconstruction of
As for other possible `points of intersection', the sectors where my
deconstruction could prove fruitful are (1) controversies over grace and free
will and the magisterial guidelines generated as a reaction to these, to use the
term, glitches, here could mark the problematic of so-called `inside' and
`outside' and possibilities to which the western tradition has been blind, and
(2) controversies and the resulting magisterial guidelines concerning God's
`fore-knowledge'; glitches here could point to supernatural tracks through the
problematic of what humans call `time'.
I don't want to wax polemical; but it is Marcus Borg et al. who
fall for a hermeneutic of transparent circularity between ancient and modern
interpreters, not I. Apropos of the limited nature of magisterial statements, so
that they do not extend to the "arguments used to arrive at them," of
course I concur; but you are the one who initially shifted the ground and
made Aquinas bear the brunt of our discussion.
You are probably familiar with Philip S. Kaufman's Why You Can Disagree
and Remain a Faithful Catholic (Crossroad, 1994) which is a history of
`apparent blank contradictions' between magisterial statements, and which I read
upon its publication with great interest. In re, you point out the
discrepancy regarding the status of non-Catholics. My intuition is to examine
this `glitch' as meaningful in its own right, rather than to dissolve it away
via `historical contextualization' (though I first am willing to give studies of
historical contextualization which seek to accomplish this feat `their day in
court'). Just as you approach research with fore-questions, so do I. My sense is
that the aforesaid feats of contextualization can easily be `sophisticated' (as
in sophistic) sleights-of-hand. I prefer the `fudges' of the Councils themselves
(because I can be sure God's hand is in them). For instance, Vatican Council II,
in the wake of "Mystici Corporis" and the "Letter to
Cardinal Cushing," extends the applicability of `implicit desire' to people
outside the Catholic historical orbit. According to my way of thinking these
fudges -- given their provenance -- can be holy fudges of sorts: that is, they
can be epiphanic, the opening up of a Divine Site. (`The epiphany that the magisterium
is fallible!' a soi-disant wit might want to interject here. But I
believe reason sous rature in my Derridean sense is in play at
this point and Derridean double-bind, and it should not be belittled by a wit's
stimulus-response rationalism nor by banal polemics.)
The point I was making about Scripture and the Jesus Seminar is made by
Luke Timothy Johnson in his own way (where is not mine) in The Real Jesus
(Harper Collins, 1996), where he argues that "the writings of the New
Testament are too few, too fragmentary, and too lacking in chronological and
geographical controls to enable a truly comprehensive reconstruction of
Christian origins" (p. 172). Instead, he proposes: "Within an
ecclesial hermeneutics that begins with the premise that God's spirit is working
in the world to transform people into the image of the `real Jesus', the
discernment of the complex texts of human experience are brought into
conversation with the complex and often conflicting voices of the
normative texts of the tradition" (p. 176). Moreover, "Contradictions
in the scriptural texts can be exploited to provide new insights into the `mind
of Christ' by which the Church seeks to live" (ibid.)
Regarding the relative ambiguity of Biblical texts and the clarity of
Conciliar texts, you know as historian as well as theologian that Biblical texts
are considerably older than Conciliar texts; and in almost all cases their
archival data much more tenuous. Additionally, you know that Biblical genres in
almost all cases do not employ the "propositional statements"
(expressive of "objective truths") which you so admire; but on the
contrary employ concrete polysemous language. There is the further consideration
(which given your definition of the role of theologians, you would not agree to)
that if the contemporary Church has substantive doubts about what the
declarations of a long-past Council mean, it is assured in the last analysis
that it has the charism to make these judgements. (In my view, the magisterium
can give a full hearing to the presentation of historical evidence, but does not
`rest its case' on this presentation.)
Regarding your quotation from the Fourth Lateran Council, you splice
together several Conciliar assertions and truncate the initial one. The first
assertion in your quotation goes on to say what you omit -- " . . . , the
Holy Spirit who proceeds; thus there are distinctions among persons and unity in
nature." What I say in ODLW is that what the Persons would share
belongs to the unity instead. I purposely do not ever mention `substance' or
`nature' (because of the prejudicial slants of my majority readership). In our
dialogue we have been discussing `substance;' and I can say here that
`substance' or `nature' (the Council in this context equates them15)
belongs to the unity and not to the Persons qua Persons. Each of the
Persons is each of them the whole substance, but each of them is the whole
substance by virtue of the unity, not personal subsistence.
Apropos of your quotation from the Pontifical Biblical Commission, do you
really mean that I should endow with authority a statement from one Pontifical
Commission, but not declarations from the Nicenic Fathers in solemn Council?
What authority should I give the other Pontifical Commissions and the
Congregations of the curia which also must have their say, in matters
pertaining to "thèses christologiques"? Now you are
being far more authoritarian than I. (Aside: your invocation of Marion's
`saturated phenomenon' does not relate to the argument. His
saturation-phenomenon means that the phenomenon exceeds the capacity of either
Kantian or Husserlian intuition -- and presumably by extension, of `human
cognition in general' -- to `take it all in'; `saturation-phenomenon' does not
exclude the possibility that the phenomenon's logical dimension can be partially
expressed through logical `propositions' [sic].)
Your thematic of scientific `objectivity' and `ongoing progress' casts
doubt on your claims to `contemporaneity'. In my view, your hermeneutical
assumptions and those of your like-minded colleagues seem positivist or at best
modernist (i.e., `modernist' in the wider cultural and methodological sense: I
do not mean here the ecclesial heresy of Modernism); and the rhetoric of
19th century meliorism further serves to `date' them. It is as if you were a
Catholic Habermas, trying to sustain for Catholicism the `projet' of the
18th century Enlightenment which he tried to retrieve for Marxism (in the face
of post-structuralist Marxism's Louis Althusser, etc.).
There are no doubt many sub-texts to this concluding dialogue. I
suggest some are described by Carl Jung, the `modern' psychiatrist and
`postmodern' psychiatrist ahead-of-time, and who is out of fashion nowadays. I
have written elsewhere of the `postmodern' Jung, the `Other Jung' (as
deconstructionists like to say) who writes between his own lines:
According to the syntax of symbols which Jung found to be so necessary
for psychic transformation, the [spiritually] richest span in the Catholic
Church's history is that in which it achieves a balance between right-brain cultus
(the form matching that of synchronic Nature Religion) and left-brain cultus
(the form matching that of diachronic, teleological religion). I would be
willing to argue that the role of the right-brain [intuitive] cultus in
this historical mandala [+ intersection of left-brain and right-brain activity]
is perfectly defensible in Catholic terms. (244-45)16
According to Jungian psychodynamics, we can say that if, when the Church
puts a check on left-brain colonization of the right-brain, and reinforces a
viable syntax of symbols, a contribution shall have been made to East-West
relations too [e.g., by reducing the aggressive need -- in this age of
globalization -- for finding so-called `common-ground' with the East]. (245)
1. In the On Deconstructing Life-Worlds (ODLW) text, I here
and later introduce comparisons with Masao Abe's proposed model for the Trinity,
which he adapts in part from the void-plenum dialectic characteristic of Japanese Buddhism's Kyoto School. I argue that Abe's model disregards the Trinitarian kenoses
unique to the Christian Trinity, and replaces them with Buddhist kenosis.
See ODLW, pp. 184-86, and also pp. 157-65.
2. See ODLW, pp. 118, 140, 142, 184-85, 189.
3. See references to `negative reference, pure' in Index, ODLW.
4. See Derrida on the mind (DOM), pp. 9-17, 134-36, 140-44;
ODLW, pp. 175-77, 186-88.
5. See DOM, pp. 15-20, 35, 38-9, 42-3, 105, 147-8; ODLW,
pp. 71-2, 139-41.
6. Familiarity with these usages reveals that post-structuralists are in
fact manipulating the Latin etymologies of these words as heuristic tools, and
not literally describing hostile action at all.
7. "Logocentrically expected," in the Derridean idiom.
8. In the etymological sense, i.e., the Father and Son `cross' each
other's (logocentrically expected) `defining borders'.
9. Mediation as such is also excluded by the Eastern formula: see ODLW,
10. Lack is not a derogatory term here, nor is it in most post-structuralist
thought. Note the affinity that
post-structuralist `fecund lack' can
have for Asian appreciation of absence.
11. Note that the `negative overlap' and `non-holism' described in this
paragraph can represent a Christian devoidness that intersects (but does not
share common ground with) Buddhist devoidness.
12. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, trans. English Dominicans
(N.Y.: Benziger Bros., 1947).
13. An anthropologist would say that religion doesn't work this way in
any case. Religions are ongoing
constructs of the collective imagination of their believers, cultivated by the
power-structure(s) which the believers agree to affirm.
The constructs are constituted by the inside-and-outside (interlaced
`subjective' and `objective' worlds) of the believing community.
(Indeed, this is how I think God works through them, and there is a whole
line of Jungian Catholics who would agree with me.)
Whether Padma Sambhava was
the factual figure that the legends around him describe is not really all that
important to a Tibetan Nyingma Buddhist, for example.
And if a deconstruction of historical research shows anything, it shows
the breakdown of efforts to `objectively retrieve-and-reconstruct'. Not that historians should therefore stop their research.
Rather, what happens is that their mind-set changes: many contemporary
historians continue their project all the while incorporating an awareness of
the inevitable objective breakdown into how they write/do history.
This does not mean that they abandon themselves to `subjectivity'
-- indeed, they continue to try to be as `objective' as possible; but at the
same time they acknowledge their own inescapable historical sedimentation
and cultural embedding: they are self-aware enough to acknowledge their own vor-Struktur,
their own fore-structure. And the
post-structuralist Jacques Lacan
goes so far as to remind us that when a human knows a thing, this very knowing
necessarily blinds one to knowing some other thing.
14. La Trinité, I, p. 64, cited in STh, Benziger
ed., 1a.29.2. ftn. p. 47.
15. Denz. 432: ". . . each of the Persons is that reality, namely,
the divine substance."
16. Magliola, "Transformation Theory and Postcolonial Discourse:
Jung by Lacan by Derrida (bar Sinister Descent)," in R. Lumsden and R.
Patke, eds., Institutions in Cultures: Theory and
Practice, vol. 5, Critical Studies series (Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi
B.V., 1996), pp. 239-60.