Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Leon Wieseltier on [Not] Understanding the Trinity:

In this article Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, attacks Andrew Sullivan relating to some beef that traces to Sullivan's leaving TNR (where he was the editor) some 14 years ago, about which I could care less.

Rather, Wieseltier's ruminations on the Trinity interest me. He writes:

“Trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity to readers of The New Republic is not easy.” On June 2, 1944, W.H. Auden penned that sentence in a letter to Ursula Niebuhr. On January 26, 2010, Andrew Sullivan posted it as the “quote for the day” on his blog. Displaced and unglossed quotations are always in some way mordant, and bristle smugly with implications. Let us see what this one implies.

Auden was at Swarthmore when he wrote his letter to his friend. He began by thanking her for her admiration of a piece about Kierkegaard’s Either/Or that he had recently published in The New Republic, and then reported that he had just finished, “after writing it four times,” a review for the magazine of Charles Norris Cochrane’s book Christianity and Classical Culture, which had in fact appeared four years earlier. His trouble in completing the piece to his satisfaction was what prompted the remark that Sullivan finds so pleasing and repercussive. Auden’s intense and idiosyncratic theology was flourishing in those years, not least owing to the impact upon his thinking of the friendship and the teaching of Reinhold Niebuhr, Ursula’s very remarkable husband. The Cochrane piece, which barely mentions Cochrane at all, is a fine example of Auden at his most philosophically grandiose and amateurish. “The distinctive mark of classical thought is that it gives no positive value to freedom and identifies the divine with the necessary or the legal.” “A monolithic monotheism is always a doctrine of God as either manic-depressive Power or schizophrenic Truth.” And so on. On metaphysical themes, Auden’s original formulations could sometimes be very obscure. Perhaps that was why my predecessor at this magazine held the article for many months, until late September. “At last, The New Republic has printed my now months’ old piece on Cochrane’s book,” Auden wrote to Ursula in October, “—they’ve cut it about a bit but I’m really quite pleased with it.”

The striking thing about Auden’s discussion of the Trinity in his piece is that, notwithstanding his complaint about the difficulty of explaining it, he fails to explain it. Instead he concedes that it is inexplicable. “The formula,” he declares, is “a foolishness to the reason,” because reason is convinced only “by logical necessity, like the timeless truths of geometry,” and so could not “grasp … the doctrine of three persons” in God. Auden is not be chided for his failure. He followed in a long line of Christian intellectuals who despaired of explanations for this belief. That line included some of the greatest thinkers in the Christian tradition. Augustine, whose treatment of the Trinity was discussed by Cochrane in his book and by Auden in his review, began his influential treatise on the subject by declaring that the aim of his work was “to guard against the sophistries of those who disdain to begin with faith and are deceived by a crude and perverse love of reason.” Aquinas, in the first part of the Summa Theologica, was more direct: “It is impossible to attain to the knowledge of the Trinity by natural reason.” For this reason, he asserted, “we must not attempt to prove what is of faith, except by authority alone, to those who receive the authority; while as regards others, it suffices to prove that what faith teaches is not impossible.” Indeed, the despair of explanation goes all the way back to the Fathers of the Church, who afflicted themselves with the most extraordinary mental contortions–hypostasis, ousia, and the rest–to make the idea of the Trinity seem plausible. They were right, finally, to call it a mystery. To regard a concept as a mystery may be a spiritual triumph, but it is an intellectual defeat.

I wish to confirm Auden’s–and Sullivan’s–suspicion that New Republic people cannot comprehend the Trinity; or at least those New Republic people who are not (in Aquinas’s terms) among “those who receive the authority,” but are the logically minded “others”; or at least this New Republic person. The idea of plurality in the deity, like the idea of corporeality in the deity (Auden would not have had an easier time with the Incarnation!), represents nothing less than a retraction of the monotheistic revolution in thinking about God, a reversal of God’s sublimity, a regress to polytheistic crudity. It is completely inconsistent with everything that my mind instructs me to believe about God’s essence. (I leave aside what my mind instructs me to believe about God’s existence. We are in the realm of theology here, not the realm of philosophy.)

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