GIORGIO BUCCELLATI is the director of IIMAS — The International Institute for Mesopotamian Studies, co-director of the Mozan/Urkesh Archaeological Project, director of the Mesopotamian Lab of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, and Professor Emeritus of the Ancient Near East and of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. This is all part of a much larger piece that has most recently been published in Communio and is available here. In these sections Professor Buccellati contrasts the monotheistic Trinity with polytheism and the significance of both, how they contrast and complement each other.
“The Trinity is inevitably present in seed form wherever God is sensed.”
Non chiederci la parola che squadri da ogni lato l’animo nostro inform: …
Don’t ask of us the word that might our shapeless soul squarely and neatly frame.
The Central Concept
One way to approach the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is to explore the experience through which the reality behind the dogma came to be apprehended in the New Testament; and that the Old Testament experience of Yahweh, already essentially Trinitarian, was as if a catechumenate that ultimately made such apprehension possible.
By way of contrast, I have also argued that the polytheistic stance towards the divine is essentially non-Trinitarian, because it emphasizes the aspect of control and ownership vis-à-vis the monotheistic stance that sees an interpersonal sharing within the absolute as fully real without implying fragmentation.
I will argue here for a converse point of view that will complement the considerations made in the second paper. While a pagan, or polytheistic ethos is indeed essentially non-Trinitarian in the articulation of its sensibilities and thought processes, it cannot, at the same time, escape from the deeper Trinitarian dimension of the divine reality.
A Polytheistic Opposition
The explicit polytheistic opposition to a monotheistic dimension is dramatically complemented, in my view, by a deeper, inescapable apprehension of what is ultimately the only proper configuration of the divine, i.e., the Trinity. The Trinity is inevitably present in seed form wherever God is sensed.
The Church Fathers spoke of a lógos spermatikós referring to the inevitability of Christ being present as seed in the human experience of the divine even when not so recognized explicitly. But recognizing the Logos as seed implies, inevitably, a seed-like Trinitarian apprehension — a Trinity spermatiké. The equivalent Latin term, semina verbi, “the seeds of the word” is also central to the understanding of the commonalities among world religions. We should then ask: what, if any, is the difference between the Old Testament catechumenate and such a veiled polytheistic perception of the Trinity?
And in turn, how does the fuller disclosure, as offered by Jesus, impact our human experience of divine reality? In other words, how is our basic human confrontation with God enriched as a result of being, through Christ, more explicitly Trinitarian?The thrust of this article aims to give an answer to this question.
Monotheism and Trinitarianism
Semantically, it would appear sufficient to say that Trinitarian is not three-theism: the three persons are not three gods. But there is a more subtle conceptual dimension that may easily hide behind the semantic veneer. It emerges when, in a converse (vocab: All S is P, the converse is All P is S) sort of way, monotheism comes to be understood as “one-theistic”: there is only one god, but with the emphasis on the numerability of the “one.” He is still subject of counting.
This means that conceptually he is seen as one in a series of units, a series that belongs to a broad set where everything is numerable. “One-theism” is not very different from henotheism, a term which refers to the process of rarefaction whereby pre-eminence is given to a single deity out of a pantheon of many, to the point where the other gods almost disappear. In such a perspective, the characteristic of oneness remains one of superiority rather than of utter otherness.
It is such utter otherness that is, instead, the hallmark of monotheism. Oneness means, in this case, a one that is not so much above a multitude of other ones as it is, rather, wholly set apart. The semantic trap to which I was alluding lies in assuming that the one is opposed to the many. Where polytheism admits many deities, monotheism is assumed to admit one.
It comes down to a matter of scale: the one is of the same order as the many, except that it is numerically limited. But it is a trap. The insight of monotheism lies in proposing an altogether different scale, a different plane of reality where, we might say, one is opposed to one. The “one” of polytheism is a mononumerical set, but remains a set within a series of numerical sets. The “one” of monotheism is outside any such series of sets.
Metábasis Eis Állo Génos
The notion of transcendence refers to just such an understanding. The monotheistic God transcends human concepts in the way described by Kierkegaard as a metábasis eis állo génos, a “rising to another genus,” using language borrowed from Aristotle. The “other genus” is not something higher within the same range. It is rather a distinct range altogether. Nor is it a truly parallel order of being, because it is wholly outside our concept of order, related to ours only analogically.
If we take seriously transcendence as metábasis, and parallelism as analogia entis, then the point made above, about the importance of considering the oneness of God outside of any notion of numerical sets, will become clearer. So will, also, the realization that there is no contrast between monotheism and Trinitarianism. The Trinity is not a set any more than the One God is a set.
We may think of the Trinity as the inner articulation of the altogether different order of being which we call absolute. An excessive conceptual reliance on the notion of oneness may easily work against the very impetus of monotheism, as if the reductiveness of the single count could give us control on transcendence, as if transcendence could in effect be imprisoned in the immanent function of the numeric concept.
If transcendence implies transference to an altogether different plane of reality, an állo génos, then how is it possible for humans to rise to this other level, how does the metábasis (vocab: a passing from one thing to another; transition.) take place? In particular, within our present context, what kind of basic human understanding is possible of the Trinitarian mystery?
Is the Trinitarian állo génos (other kind) so alien that there are no footholds in normal human experience on which to stand in order to reach for some kind of plain and simple human comprehension? Are we called to love what we can- not possibly understand? But if our love is to be genuine, how can it not be human, how can it be directed to what is alien to experience, to understanding?
These considerations are valid for any attempt to reach the divine sphere, but they are especially pertinent when reflecting on the Trinity. If revelation is seen as merely the acquisition of information, then we may develop the wrong feeling that knowing about the Trinity means that we can “explain” God. But we would be wrong in equating understanding with explanation.
Understanding = An Inner Disposition Of Love
Understanding does not mean explicating in the sense of dissecting, analyzing, breaking down a composite into its constituent parts. In the traditional sense of wisdom, understanding means to apprehend the whole as meaningful apart from, or rather beyond, its being the sum of its components. When reflecting on the Trinity, we must, accordingly, relate to the mystery as a whole, without the tacit pretense that by describing it as a triadic sum we have exhausted its inner significance. Knowing about the Trinity is not a call to acquire and exchange information, it is not an explanation. It is, rather, a call to develop a relationship.
Ultimately, this means that “understanding” the Trinity entails an inner disposition of love. We cannot love without understanding the target of our love, nor can we understand without the inner thrust of a full and genuine human love. Not, however, as though love were an irrational feeling. True, it would be a sad day when we could “explain” why we love someone, for explanation would entail love as a necessary consequence.
But it would also be a sad day when we felt love to be irrational, i.e., wholly divorced from reason. Rather than in conflict, love and reason are in a mutual relationship of harmony, and it is through reason that we, lovers, “understand” our beloved.
The Role of Apologetics
It is in fact valid to say that explanation plays a propaedeutic [vocab: (of an area of study) Serving as a preliminary instruction or as an introduction to further study.] role in nurturing understanding, hence love. We cannot convince someone, through argument, that he or she must love someone else. On the other hand, arguments can direct the inner movement of souls to where, beyond the dissecting arguments, the whole explodes in its own clarity.
Analogously, no amount of analytical criticism can force you to enjoy a poem or a painting; but the same criticism can predispose your sensitivity so that it is trained to accept modalities and styles that might at first have seemed alien. It is in this sense that we can bridge the gap between positive and negative theology, by seeing the first as preparing the ground for the second, by seeing argument and explanation shaping our consciousness and preparing it for the explosion of understanding.
Knowing And Understanding
There is an analogous distinction between knowing and understanding. “Knowing” relates to capturing information, “understanding” to an inner disposition of apprehension and readiness. Thus it is that when we seek to do the will of God, we do not properly seek explicit orders or a clarification of situations, wherein we are told do A rather than B.
Explicit Divine Requests
Explicit divine requests are the exception. Consider the three fiats (vocab: a command or act of will that creates something without or as if without further effort):
- Only the first is Mary’s response to an explicit “word”: fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum (Luke 1:38).
- The second is the Our Father, where we are asked to accept a will that does not necessarily translate into any explicit word: fiat voluntas tua (Matthew 6:10).
- The third is Jesus’ own Our Father, when, in the agony at Gethsemane, he contrasts his own instinctive desire to avoid the Passion with the will of the Father that the Passion should take place, a will that is perceived but is not confirmed as an articulate command: fiat voluntas tua (Matthew 26:42) | non mea voluntas sed tua fiat (Luke 22:42).
A Christian Epistemology I
This last fiat is especially tragic and meaningful. It is preceded, in each of the two gospel narratives, by an if-clause that projects uncertainty. Jesus does not seem to “know” for sure what the Father’s will is: “Father, if it is possible, let this chalice go away from me — except, not as I wish, but as you do… . If this cannot go away unless I drink it, let your will take place” (Matthew 26:39.42); “Father, if you wish, remove from me this chalice — except, not my will, but let yours take place” (Luke 22:42).
It seems as though part of the agony is the obscurity that involves uncertainty about the Father’s precise intentions. Jesus’ surrender is more important, it would appear, than his acceptance of any specific marching orders. The will of the Father is not information to be articulated in words that one can “know,” but rather a creative power to be adhered to with understanding. The if-qualifications of the last fiat do not seem resolved as, in his agony, Jesus cries from the height the cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46 | Mark 15:34). No direct answer is forthcoming. No explicit explanation. No spoken word of comfort. Instead, the final understanding of the Father’s will comes to the dying Jesus, extraordinarily, through a fellow human being: one of the two men who have been crucified alongside him — Dismas, as tradition calls him.
There is a startling dimension to this episode (Luke 23:39–43), one that can nurture much awed reflection. Think about it: Jesus finds the strength to accept his final collapse (Luke 23:46) through the unexpected support of an unknown criminal. It is, mark well, the lowliest human on the social scale, one who had never received anything from Jesus, one whose name was unknown to even the few bystanders (Dismas being a later appellation).
It is this very man who is called to give the Father’s answer to the Son, to give Jesus the courage to die. Remember: Jesus had been asking for help from the three apostles he took near him at Gethsemane, and they fell asleep; there, he had asked the Father for direction, and had met with silence; as he is led to the summit of the skull, he sees his closest friends disappear (except for his mother and a young disciple), and it is the outsiders who then begin to rally around his loneliness.
In this darkness we can see how Jesus’ own fiat, his “understanding” of the Father’s will, is not rooted in the acquisition of a specific, overt, articulate command that might confirm his mission, but in his fundamental posture of availability and openness, ready to accept whatever sign may come his way. Any source, even the most unexpected, may be the effective conduit to an understanding of what we are to be available for. For Jesus, it was, first, a foreigner along the way (Simon of Cyrene, Matthew 27:32 | Mark 15:21 | Luke 23:26), and then, at the top, an unnamed confessed criminal.
Jesus lives a profoundly human situation as he seeks through uncertainty the will of the Father.
A Christian Epistemology II
So did his mother when facing the behavior of her adolescent son. Having found him in the Temple after an anguished search, and having heard his explanation as to why he had not alerted them regarding his whereabouts, we are told that Mary and Joseph “did not comprehend the spoken (explanation) (ou sunē’kan tò rē’ma)
[In the Annunciation, the “word” to which Mary assents is lógos in Greek. The term used here instead is rē’ma, which has more the connotation of “saying, speech, statement,” hence “explanation” and then even “event, fact.” The same term is used in the plural in what follows immediately in the text, where it is said that Mary pondered in depth “all the spoken (events) (pánta tà rē’mata).”] which he had spoken to them” (Luke 2:50).
But reflect on it they did, after the fact, and intensely so: “His mother was watching-and-guarding-through-and-through (dietē’rei) in her heart all the spoken (events) (pánta tà rē’mata)” (Luke 2:51). She accepts and basically understands her son even when, offered an explanation, she does not fully comprehend it. At the root, and in a nutshell, this is the Christian epistemology, particularly when facing the Trinity.
It is also, in a way, the common Trinitarian epistemology, i.e., the non-Christian confrontation with the Trinity. The central question we are asking here concerns precisely the way in which, however veiled, the Trinity may be sensed outside of the framework unveiled through the Incarnation of the Logos. If even in the wake of that revelation our “understanding” is at once piercing and obscure; if even Mary and Joseph “did not comprehend the explanation” explicitly offered by Jesus; how then do the countless humans who are not privy to the same revelation face the inescapably Trinitarian dimension of the divine?
The phenomenological concept of “intentionality” is helpful in this respect. On the analogy of planets held in orbit by the pull of their sun, so are we tending towards objects that exert their attraction regardless of how explicit our perception of their precise identity may or may not be. We are, in other words, conditioned by the identity of the object towards which we tend. If so, it stands to reason to say that, God being the Trinity, every human relation to the divine sphere is “intentionally” Trinitarian . But how?
There is, in the first place, a universal apprehension of the divine: in other words, the divine commands our attention, our intention. Reduced to its most universal common denominator, such intentionality is found in facing that which we cannot control but which de facto conditions, and limits, us. The recognition of such uncontrollable external conditions is and has ever been an objective factor in the life of every single human being.
There is, however, a fundamental difference in how we articulate our perception of this reality, a difference that comes down to two basic alternatives. Common to both is the realization that we can progressively gain an ever greater measure of control over what could not previously be controlled — for instance, control of the outer spaces through astronomy, of disease through medicine, of our own remote past through paleontology and archaeology.
Peculiar to the first mode of thought is the belief that this “progress” is, itself, unconditional. In other words, nothing will ultimately condition progress because progress will achieve full ultimate control on whatever external conditions seem to limit us now (see in the next installment, 4.3).
Peculiar to the second mode of thought is instead the belief that there is an ultimate “beyondness” that conditions us in ways that escape all possibility of control on our part. The intentional aspect is the same: in both cases the existence of conditioning factors that cannot be controlled is undeniable, and un-denied. The difference is in the perceptual resolution, both positions being a matter of belief.
We either believe, in the polytheistic frame of mind (the first mode of thought), that full ultimate accretion is possible (there is an ultimate explanation of everything, the last bit of which will come from the ultimate accumulation of all previous knowledge). Or else we believe, in the monotheistic frame of mind (the other mode of thought), that accretion is itself conditioned, that our own ability of control is framed by uncontrollable conditions. Neither belief can be demonstrated. But both are the result of an objective, “intentional” confrontation with a reality which we experience: a conditioning that is beyond our control.
The point I wish to stress in this context is that there is a Trinitarian dimension even to the polytheistic perception of the “beyondness.” Therein humans face, “intentionally,” a dynamics at work in the divine reality, through the very paradox of progress understood as the ultimate goal. The paradox lies in the notion that a never ending progress may in some way end. Progress entails the capturing, along the line, of fragments of a dynamic absolute, yet progress will, by necessity, come to an end when there are no more fragments — at which point the dynamics ends.
The paradox, then, is in the belief that stasis is the final outcome of forward movement, that this dynamics can be seized — do we not, in fact, gradually appropriate an ever greater share of the universal progress? In this light, the death of god appears in an even more tragic light: at the very moment that we appropriate the dynamics of the absolute, we nullify the absolute. The death of god (as in Nietzsche) is the final stasis: what we presume to kill is, in reality, the dynamics of the absolute. We kill, in fact, that veiled perception of a Trinitarian reality wherein we saw the absolute as endowed with an inner vitality and particularity. The death of god is, in fact, the abrogation of the Trinitarian dimension within the absolute.