In honor of the feast day of Jeanne d’Arc, here’s a random woman on YouTube performing a monologue from Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan.
Over at Patheos Evangelical, Kermit Zarley asks “Is Trinitarianism Monotheistic?” and comes to a negative conclusion. My main reaction to this is a healthy helping of apathy: certainly there is a sense in which Trinitarian Christianity is monotheistic primarily because we have defined our terms in such a way as to make it so. If Zarleyt wants to use a different definition of monotheism, one which requires not only unity of being but also unity of hypostases, then obviously there’s nothing that you or I could possibly do to stop him.
Nor would I argue that Trinitarian monotheism is the same thing as the strict monotheism of Judaism. It clearly isn’t, although I would point out that the oldest parts of the Hebrew scriptures seem to draw from a henotheistic worldview rather than a strictly monotheistic one. I’m also curious how such a strict monotheism makes sense of passages such as Proverbs 8. But these are sidebars; I’m not arguing that the Hebrew scriptures teach Trinitarianism in any direct sense. Heck, I’m not even arguing that the New Testament does so.
However, it’s unequivocally incorrect to say that orthodox Trinitarians believe in three gods. No matter how you parse it, that’s just false. Maybe there’s something subtle I’m missing to the distinction Zarley wants to make between a “unity” and “numerically one,” but it seems to me pretty clear that in orthodox Christian Trinitarianism God is not only a unity, but numerically one. There is only one God. Period. Anything else is heresy (from an orthodox Trinitarian perspective).
Zarley seems to be taking advantage of a confusion between our ordinary language use of the word “person” and the specialized theological usage as a translation of the Greek hypostasis. The Trinity are not (in orthodox Trinitarianism) three separate people who together make up God, the way three members of a family might make up that family. Instead, the hypostases of the Trinity share a unity of essence: they are all, quite literally, the same metaphysical entity, in a way which is avowedly paradoxical and mysterious. The “persons” of the Trinity are not their own separate gods—on this point, Trinitarian theology is absolutely and unrelentlessly unequivocal.
And this isn’t just true of abstract theology. When actual Christians get confused about the Trinity and fall into heresy—which, admittedly, happens fairly often—it’s almost always either modalism or partialism, and hardly ever tritheism.
Now, I suspect that Zarley would take this as evidence of us either being disingenuous (because we’re not using his definition of monotheism) or, more charitably, that Trinitarian Christians are confused about what they actually believe. (And of course, given the abysmal state of catechesis in the Church today, the latter is almost certainly true!) But given the utter clarity with which orthodox theology teaches that there is no division in being within the Godhead, I don’t see how one can argue that Trinitarians understand God as being even “numerically three.”
I suspect Zarley might argue something along the line that Trinitarians cannot simply declare by fiat that a distinction between separate persons doesn’t require a belief in different gods. But if Trinitarians cannot define what our own theology is, who can? One can argue that the Trinity as a doctrine is incoherent—and I might even agree with one; there’s a reason why we call it a “holy mystery”—but saying that Trinitarians believe in three gods is just flat-out incorrect, and seems to willfully misrepresent what orthodox theology teaches.
In many ways, the Trinity is a good example—indeed, I would argue that for the Trinitarian Christian it is the prime example—of the sort of reason-defying doctrine that Theo Hobson quite rightly defended in the article I posted about yesterday. (And note that the Trinity is not a claim about “the supernatural” as I define it!) Indeed, I fear that Zarley’s antagonism towards Trinitarism on some level stems precisely from the sort of modernist hyperrationalist theology—the attempt to “iron out” Christianity and to make it “make sense”—of which both Hobson and I despair. (And note that such hyperrationalism finds a comfortable home in evangelicalism, which already eschews the ritualism of so-called “liturgical Christianity.”)
This man, James Verone, robbed a bank for one dollar. Why only one dollar? Because he knew that in prison he could get the medical care he could not afford with his part time salary as a convenience store clerk. He was approved for food stamps, but they did little to help his finances. Between his back problems, carpel tunnel, and arthritis, he simply couldn’t handle the pain any longer.
On June 9th, he sent a letter to his local paper, the Gaston Gazette, that stated: “When you receive this a bank robbery will have been committed by me. this robbery is being committed by me for one dollar. I am of sound mind but not so much sound body.”
He then took a cab to the RBC Bank, and handed the teller a note asking for one dollar and medical attention. He quietly took a seat in the lobby and waited for police to arrive.
Since Verone only stole one dollar, he was only charged with larceny. His bail, which he doesn’t plan to pay is set at $2,000, reduced from the normal $100,000. He’s scheduled to see a doctor this Friday, and hopes to get foot surgery, back surgery and to have a protrusion on his check treated.
To me, this is the perfect example of how disturbingly corrupt and unjust our health care system has become under HMO’s. For this man, or any person for that matter, feels that he needs to be imprisoned just to see a doctor, is ridiculous.
This is exactly what I hate about America. Why is it that you can buy an entire house with money you don’t have, but still can’t apply for health care if you don’t meet the requirements? That’s messed up.
Almighty God, you created us and our world and taught us to call you Parent. We praise you and we bless you.
Incarnate God, you redeemed us by sharing our suffering as our loving Sibling. We praise you and we bless you.
Everliving God, you comfort and sustain us and are always with us in Spirit. We praise you and we bless you.
Mysterious God, Three in One, we praise you and we bless you.
|—||Slavoj Žižek, Living In The End Times, p. 5. (via humanformat)|
The pursuit of a philosophical metaethic which simultaneously manages to be postfoundationalist and non-relativist dominated much of 20th-century thought, and has continued (and no doubt will continue) to do so into the 21st century. Of the major thinkers associated with this project, one might not think first of Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose remarks on ethics were admittedly both rare and brief. Still, I think it’s worthwhile to use this post to quickly sketch a portrait of Wittgenstein’s metaethical position, because his thought has been such a heavy influence on my own philosophy and theology, and because I think its explicitly mystical character ought to make it of particular interest to the metaethicist who is also a theologian.
Wittgenstein’s most sustained enquiry into the metaethical was his 1929 “Lecture on Ethics”. I recommend you follow the link to read the whole thing—it’s pretty short—but the upshot is that Wittgenstein finally comes to the following conclusion:
I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men [sic] who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language.
This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.
This is a further development of the line of thought on ethics found in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:
6.41 The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value—and if there were, it would be of no value.
If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental.
What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental.
It must lie outside the world.
6.42 Hence also there can be no ethical propositions.
Propositions cannot express anything higher.
6.421 It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed.
Ethics are transcendental.
(Ethics and æsthetics are one.)
6.422 The first thought in setting up an ethical law of the form “thou shalt …” is: And what if I do not do it? But it is clear that ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the ordinary sense. This question as to the consequences of an action must therefore be irrelevant. At least these consequences will not be events. For there must be something right in that formulation of the question. There must be some sort of ethical reward and ethical punishment, but this must lie in the action itself.
(And this is clear also that the reward must be something acceptable, and the punishment something unacceptable.)
6.423 Of the will as the subject of the ethical we cannot speak.
And the will as a phenomenon is only of interest to psychology.
Obviously, there is not much here to satisfy the typical analytical philosopher, who is likely to reject it as so much mystery-mongering. But we need to place Wittgenstein’s metaethics into the context of his broader metaphysical project and his deflationary metaphilosophy, a project my understanding of which I have tried to sketch out in my previous posts on Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein’s mysticism about ethics is, of course, not a specific refusal to address the ethical, but rather simply a subset of a broader mystical approach to the relationship between reality and language in general.
A potentially damning criticism of Wittgenstein’s metaethics is that his mysticism doesn’t provide any real insight into how we ought to actually go about the activity of ethical reflection. Mystical notions of transcendental good and evil don’t necessarily provide all that much help in, say, determining the morality of drone warfare—or even whether one should cheat on a test. However, I think this understates the usefulness of Wittgenstein’s guidance. It is of course true that Wittgenstein never took up these issues directly (and only rarely even indirectly) and that the following is thus of necessity somewhat speculative. That said, I think it should be possible (and not even difficult) to imagine what a Wittgensteinian ethical approach ought to look like from extrapolating from the work Wittgenstein did do on metaphysics, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind.
Imagine if Wittgenstein were to have written an Ethical Investigations alongside the Philosophical Investigations, in which he applied the PI’s quasi-phenomenological method to moral reasoning. Just as PI enquires into philosophy of language by examining the real-world ways in which human beings actually use language, this hypothetical EIwould look at the actual ways we go about the process of reasoning morally—a phenomenology of morals, if you will. (It’s been a while since I read the book, but I suspect that an argument could be made that Nietzsche had already done precisely that in his Genealogy of Morals—although I also suspect that, given Wittgenstein’s known Tolstoyan sympathies, the Austrian philosopher would have come to very different conclusions had he undertaken the project than had the German.)
Ethical Investigations might even go on to speak of “ethics games” just as Philosophical Investigations does oflanguage games. Just as Wittgenstein wanted “”to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life” (PI §23), in EI he would want to similarly focus on the way in which ethical discourse represented a human activity and way of life. This would not be moral relativism (remember that for Wittgenstein, there was some sort of “bastard sense” in which transcendent notions of good and evil still held reign) but rather a faith in the power of our ethical discourses as they take place “on the ground” to encourage moral behavior and discourage immoral behavior—a sort of critical moral realism coupled with a skepticism that philosophy (at least as the discipline has been practiced for the the last couple of centuries or so) represents the best tool for coming to moral conclusions.
Richard Rorty famously said in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity that if one took care of freedom, truth would take care of itself. I think there is a sense that for Wittgenstein, ethics ought to be similarly capable of “taking care of itself.” I think that Wittgenstein might have agreed with Rorty’s subsequent comments in CIS:
If we are ironic enough about our final vocabularies, and curious enough about everyone else’s, we do not have to worry about whether we are in direct contact with moral reality, or whether we are blinded by ideology, or whether we are being weakly “relativistic.” (176-77)
No doubt there is plenty in the above paragraphs which would be perhaps somewhat less than totally persuasive to our hypothetical analytic interlocutor. So it goes. However, I do think there are many reasons why a Witggensteinian metaethical mysticism ought to prove especially attractive to the Christian moral theologian—and in particular, to the progressive Christian moral theologian—and I hope to discuss those in my next post.
My thoughts during and after the election of the 12th Bishop of the Diocese of New Jersey. Praise be to the Holy Spirit for making Godself known to us at the convention today, and congratulations to Bishop-elect William H. “Chip” Stokes!
I know this: No one — not the Jews, not the Romans — was responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. God was was ultimately responsible. That blood is ultimately on God’s hands. God could have stopped it; God didn’t. And so we’re all left to wonder about God’s responsibility for that act of evil, and for all acts of evil.
First off, I find Tony’s disavowal of human responsibility for the crucifixion perplexing. It doesn’t follow obviously from anything else he says (as far as I can tell) and, at least for me, seems to me to undermine the power of the Incarnation, the entire point of which was for God’s Begotten One to enter into our human suffering and become vulnerable to human evil. Even if we were to agree that God were ultimately responsible, it’s not at all clear to me how that absolves Judas of Jesus’ betrayal or Pilate of Jesus’ condemnation.
The question of God’s responsibility, however, is much more interesting and challenging. Here’s some more of Tony’s logic:
God is ultimately liable for the evil in the world. On my theory, God could reclaim omnipotence at any moment, step in, and stop evils and horrors. The fact that God doesn’t, implicates God.
Does this make God less than perfectly benevolent? Maybe. Maybe God also abdicated “benevolence” at creation, or at least perfect benevolence. Or maybe God’s all-in-allness means that our conception of “goodness” and “benevolence” is swallowed up in God’s fullness.
I think much of this is at least partly right. Certainly it is probably a mistake to think of God’s omnibenevolence as just like human benevolence, only better. But I think a lot is also caught up in the word “could.” Could God step in and stop evils and horrors? At first glance, it seems like to deny this is to deny God’s omnipotence; of course, God could, because God can do anything and, being the highest authority, answers to no authority higher than Godself.
But God is answerable to Godself, to the perfect goodness of God’s own nature which requires God to respect the dignity and free will of God’s creatures created in God’s own image. This is no more to speak of a limitation on the part of God than it would be to say that God “cannot” create a stone so heavy that God “cannot” lift it. In both cases, the true limitation resides in the ability of our language to describe that which lies past its limits. Instead, to speak of God’s “inability” to act contrary to God’s nature is actually to speak of the very perfection of divine freedom; there is no division in God’s will and thus no force which could possibly coerce God into acting against Godself.
Of course, without getting needlessly metaphysical, the above does assume there is some sort of enduring character to God’s goodness, that God cannot and would not simply decide today that respecting human dignity and free will is a good thing and decide tomorrow that it is bad. This, then, is against what Roger Olson calls “nominalistic voluntarism,” the claim that ““Whatever God does is automatically good and right just because God does it”:
[The nominalistic voluntarist believes that] God does not have an eternal nature of character; he [sic] is pure power and will. God is whatever God decides to be. The result is that the “good” is whatever God commands and God does not command anything because it is good. It is good only because God commands it.
This makes God truly monstrous because God, then, has no virtuous character. “Good” becomes whatever God decides and does and, ultimately, becomes meaningless because it has no essential connection with anything we know as “the good.”
Drawing then on the scriptural truth that “Ever since the creation of the world, the eternal power and divine nature of God, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made” (Romans 1:20), I affirm that the enduring nature of moral goodness is discernible, if imperfectly, by human beings through the dialectic of human reason and history, as I note in my blog post on Liberalism and Moral Absolutes and perhaps most fully in my essay History and Christ. While our understanding of what is good and evil is always evolving and improving through history as it is led by the Spirit, good and evil themselves do not change, and certainly not at the whims of a capricious deity. So when the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia asserts
As to whom we are to obey, there can be no doubt that first we are bound to offer an unreserved service to Almighty God in all His [sic] commands. No real difficulty against this truth can be gathered from putting in juxtaposition the unchangeableness of the natural law and an order, such as that given to Abraham to slay his son Isaac. The conclusive answer is that the absolute sovereignty of God over life and death made it right in that particular instance to undertake the killing of an innocent human being at His [sic] direction.
I simply cannot go there with it. If God had allowed Abraham to kill Isaac at God’s direction, God would have revealed Godself to be a moral monster unworthy both of worship and of obdeience. Following a line of throught I encountered (if I remember correctly) in Elie Wiesel’s Messengers of God, I tend to assume that Abraham knew this too. By going ahead and carrying out God’s outrageous command, Abraham was calling God’s bluff, so to speak—putting the Lord God Almighty to the test.
Does this understanding of the relationship between God and goodness require us to posit some independent existence for goodness in some Platonic heaven in order for God to perfectly embody it? Of course not, and I plan soon to write a post on Wittgenstein’s metaethical mysticism to gesture towards how we can talk practically about enduring good and evil without getting needlessly caught up in metaphysics.