Thursday, May 30, 2013

Analogies of Faith

In which St. Patrick, trying to explain the Trinity to some simple Irish peasants, runs into difficulty:

In case you're like me and don't like pausing your music to watch videos: St. Patrick presents multiple analogies to describe the doctrine of the Trinity, each of which is promptly shot down for being tantamount to  heresy.
  • The Trinity is like the three different phases of water, which are all the same substance: Modalism (Sabellianism); God is all three persons simultaneously.
  • The Trinity is like the Sun, a star that also produces light and heat: Arianism; it makes the Son and Spirit out to be creations of God.
  • The Trinity is like the leaves of a clover: Partialism (tritheism); the persons of the Trinity are not three parts of a whole.
  • The Trinity is like a man who is a husband, father, and employee: Modalism again.
  • The Trinity is like an apple with three layers: Partialism again.
Finally, exasperated, St. Patrick breaks out a highly technical and theological definition of the Trinity, which satisfies the peasants. The video highlights a difficulty I see in discussing theology, especially pertaining to loftier subjects like the Trinity: our language just doesn't seem up to the task. We can speak in terms of human analogies or we can define/import more abstract, technical terms like "procession" (more on that below), perichoresis and hypostasis to try to get our point across better.

But neither of these options is quite suitable. As the video aptly shows, human analogies for spiritual realities always seem to carry baggage that can make them inaccurate and misleading. I don't think this is just because we need better analogies: rather, it's because we're attempting to describe something metaphysical (meta, the Greek prefix meaning "beyond") by analogy with something physical. This is no small task. Could it be that something like the Trinity is so other to our own physical reality that every analogy we make inevitably falls short of describing it in some way?

Using more technical "theobabble" doesn't work much better. We can describe the Trinity as "a hypostatic union in perichoresis" and clarify that "the Son is begotten of the Father while the Spirit proceeds from Him", but what on earth (or in heaven) does that mean for anyone who hasn't been through seminary? It's more confusing than trying to wrap my head around group theory! Even if these terms are based on Biblical language, it becomes hard to believe that we're recapturing the original meaning of the Bible by using them and not constructing something new.

The Trinity highlights the fact that the connection made by words between our understanding and concepts is not always clear or simple. There seems to be a wide gulf between our ability to understand and the true nature of God that words cannot bridge for us. Either we define them on our side and make analogy after analogy only to have them all fall short, or we define them on the far side and make doctrinally "true" statements about God while struggling to understand (much less apply) what they mean. This gap in understanding is, I think, what is meant in theology by a "mystery". Not a wall beyond which we aren't allowed to ask questions or follow implications, or where what seems wrong to our most sanctified understanding is actually right to God, but simply the limitations of our own capacity to understand.

The Filioque

For a more concrete example of this dilemma, I'll use the debate over the Filioque as a case study of sorts. For those unaware, the Filioque is a short clause in the Nicene Creed stating that the Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father. It may sound innocuous, but believe it or not, this phrase is one of the primary causes of the division between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. I'll try to (greatly) simplify the history of the conflict.

In more detail, the conflict has to do with the translation of the Nicene Creed from Greek to Latin. The original Greek creed stated at the first ecumenical council of Nicaea in 325 simply ended with Καὶ εἰς τὸ Πνεῦμα τὸ Ἅγιον, "and in the Holy Spirit". The second council at Constantinople in 381 confirmed the Nicene Creed, but changed the ending to speak of the Holy Spirit as ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἐκπορευόμενον, "from the Father proceeding". This has scriptural support in John 15:26 which speaks of the Holy Spirit as "the Helper...the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father". The third council at Ephesus in 431 quoted the 325 version of the creed and declared anathema anyone who tried to change it. Nonetheless, the 381 creed was adopted into the liturgy of the eastern church, and later a Latin variant into the western church. The fourth council at Chalcedon in 451 quoted the 381 creed and treated both versions as valid, and despite being anathematized, the 381 version became the standard throughout the church.

That is all background. Over time, councils and church fathers began to write about the Spirit as proceeding from the Son as well as from the Father, or from the Father through the Son. So Tertullian, at the beginning of the third century, writes of the Trinity:
As if in this way also one were not All, in that All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
This is a prime example of what I mean by abstract theological speech: the members of the Trinity are said to be three in degree, form, and aspect, but one in substance, condition, and power It is far from clear what this is supposed to mean, or how these words are supposed to be contrasted with each other when, say, form, aspect, and substance are normally considered to be near-synonyms. And, in more length, he describes the Spirit as emanating from the Father through the Son like the fruit from the roots through the tree:
This will be the prolation, taught by the truth, the guardian of the Unity, wherein we declare that the Son is a prolation from the Father, without being separated from Him.  For God sent forth the Word, as the Paraclete also declares, just as the root puts forth the tree, and the fountain the river, and the sun the ray. For these are προβολαίor emanations, of the substances from which they proceed. I should not hesitate, indeed, to call the tree the son or offspring of the root, and the river of the fountain, and the ray of the sun; because every original source is a parent, and everything which issues from the origin is an offspring.  Much more is (this true of) the Word of God, who has actually received as His own peculiar designation the name of Son. But still the tree is not severed from the root, nor the river from the fountain, nor the ray from the sun; nor, indeed, is the Word separated from God.  Following, therefore, the form of these analogies, I confess that I call God and His Word—the Father and His Son—two. For the root and the tree are distinctly two things, but correlatively joined; the fountain and the river are also two forms, but indivisible; so likewise the sun and the ray are two forms, but coherent ones. Everything which proceeds from something else must needs be second to that from which it proceeds, without being on that account separated.  Where, however, there is a second, there must be two; and where there is a third, there must be three. Now the Spirit indeed is third from God and the Son; just as the fruit of the tree is third from the root, or as the stream out of the river is third from the fountain, or as the apex of the ray is third from the sun. Nothing, however, is alien from that original source whence it derives its own properties.  In like manner the Trinity, flowing down from the Father through intertwined and connected steps, does not at all disturb the Monarchy whilst it at the same time guards the state of the Economy.
Gregory Nazianzen clarifies (if that word is here appropriate) that the Son is generated from the Father while the Spirit proceeds from the Father:
The Father is Father, and is Unoriginate, for He is of no one; the Son is Son, and is not unoriginate, for He is of the Father. But if you take the word Origin in a temporal sense, He too is Unoriginate, for He is the Maker of Time, and is not subject to Time. The Holy Ghost is truly Spirit, coming forth from the Father indeed, but not after the manner of the Son, for it is not by Generation but by Procession (since I must coin a word for the sake of clearness); for neither did the Father cease to be Unbegotten because of His begetting something, nor the Son to be begotten because He is of the Unbegotten (how could that be?), nor is the Spirit changed into Father or Son because He proceeds, or because He is God—though the ungodly do not believe it.
Over time, this generated tension between the western and eastern churches. This was underscored by the different implications of the Latin verb procedere and the Greek εκπορευεσθαι in their respective versions of the Nicene Creed. Both translate to "to proceed", but the Greek verb had come to mean the Spirit's unique form of being immediately from the Father while the Latin verb had no such connotations. This controversy came somewhat to a head around 860 when Patriarch Photius declared that the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, which was a new statement at the time. Nonetheless, the eastern church rallied around this statement, while the western church held that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and or through the Son.

The disagreement continues to this day; the Roman Catholic church holds that "The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, is God, one and equal with the Father and the Son, of the same substance and also of the same nature... Yet he is not called the Spirit of the Father alone,... but the Spirit of both the Father and the Son." (Catechism 245) It accommodates the eastern view by explaining that "By confessing the Spirit as he 'who proceeds from the Father', it affirms that he comes from the Father through the Son...for the eternal order of the divine persons in their consubstantial communion implies that the Father, as "the principle without principle", is the first origin of the Spirit, but also that as Father of the only Son, he is, with the Son, the single principle from which the Holy Spirit proceeds." (Catechism 248)

Meanwhile, the Orthodox church is split between rigorists who continue to hold to Photius' strict statement that the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, and more liberal theologians who are open to the Spirit proceeding at least from the Father through the Son. The doctrine of the OCA states that "The Son is born from the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father—both in the same timeless and eternal action of the Father’s own being."

So we have three different views on the origin of the Spirit: the western view that He proceeds "from the Father and the Son", the accommodation to the eastern view that He proceeds "from the Father through the Son", and the rigorist eastern view that He proceeds "from the Father alone". Each of these statements is speaking of a spiritual reality (the origin of the Holy Spirit) through a spatial analogy, which I have brilliantly represented below:
In literal spatial terms (think plumbing), these three modes of being are obviously incompatible. Of course, the relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit is not directly analogous to plumbing setups. But no matter how much we insist on a precise, technical meaning for "proceeds" in this case that actualizes this distinction, the fact remains that its meaning is conceptually very hard to grasp in the mind, so our cognition about the relationship of the Trinity often slips back into the analogical thinking connoted by words like "through", "alone", and "proceeds". There seems to be no escape from analogy in theological thinking to some greener pasture beyond where we are able to directly speak and think about spiritual truths like physical objects, at least not in a subject as lofty as the Trinity.

For an example, let me use my imagination to give another direction in which the Filioque debate could (feasibly, I think) have gone. Suppose the Catholic church further split on the question of whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son together, or separately. Again, each of these possibilities translates analogically into a simple flow chart:

I don't think this distinction is unreasonably finer than some of the ones made in the church father quotes above. And yet it is quite a wall-banger: what on earth (or in heaven) does it really mean for the Spirit to proceed from the Father and Son together or separately? And what difference does it make for Christian faith and practice? The fact that each of these possibilities is based on a simple, easily distinguished spatial analogy belies the fact that they are conceptually very hard to grasp and distinguish clearly--this last example especially, but also the three real positions regarding the Filioque. By trying to look beyond the analogies to the "real nature of things" being signified, they lead us ultimately to places our minds are unable to follow and our minds, needing to latch onto something to reason about, fall back to thinking in terms of the spatial analogy.

I am growing increasingly suspicious of attempts to "peer behind the curtain" of the mystery of the Trinity--again, not to access understanding that is forbidden for some reason, but understanding of the spiritual nature of God that is simply beyond us. We cannot define or analogize our way into this understanding. Let me propose something that may be radical or obvious: despite being inspired by the Spirit while writing it, John did not have some kind of amazingly precise, transcendent understanding of the origin of that Spirit while he was writing John 15:26. In other words, he was in the same boat that we find ourselves in, trying to grasp at sublime things of heaven with earthly analogies that always seem to fall somewhat short. His statement was true, but incomplete.

If this is the case, we don't need to discern the exact, technical theological meaning of ἐκπορεύεται; we instead simply believe that John was speaking about the Spirit analogically using the everyday speech of his time. Does this mean our best bet for practically understanding, say, the Trinity is heretical analogies like the ones St. Patrick tried? I think so, as long as you realize the limitations of the analogy--what it does and does not connote. The water analogy is accurate in its depiction of the Trinity as three manifestations of the same basic substance, but falls short in that they aren't simultaneous. The Sun analogy is accurate in its depiction of the Father as (in some mysterious way) the source of the Son and Spirit, but falls short in that He did not "create" them. And so on. Better an imperfect/incomplete analogy that gives us some understanding than attempts to speak precisely that give us none.


In a helpful AMA (Ask Me Anything) session on r/Christianity, I learned that the reason for the church split over the filioque was not so much a matter Trinitarian theology as of ecclesiology. The clause was added to the Latin version of the Nicene Creed without an ecumenical council, which the eastern churches refused to accept. The western churches retorted that the Pope did have the authority to do it, and papal supremacy remains one of the biggest disagreements between the churches today.

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