Overcoming Epistemology

Trinity Sunday

Psalm 8

…one God, the one beginning of all things, the wisdom by which every soul is wise, and the gift by which all things blessed are blessed…the Trinity of one substance…the beginning to which we return, the form (or pattern) we follow after, the grace by which we are reconciled…the one God whose creation gives us life, through whose re-forming we live wisely, by the love and enjoyment of whom live blessedly.” – Augustine, Retractions

The doctrine of the Trinity can present itself as quite an intellectual puzzle, perhaps especially to the monotheistic believer, and it is therefore rightly called a “mystery.” However, attending to Trinitarian orthodoxy and its implication of us and God can bring spiritual renewal, when we first make ourselves aware of certain habits of thought we moderns possess that render the Trinity a moral and intellectual “problem.”

Challenges to Trinitarian orthodoxy have frequently been motivated by a desire for theological rigor and accuracy, especially with regard to preserving God’s oneness. Thus, the pattern of thought associated with Arius has outlined a hierarchy in which the Son is subordinated to the Father and the Spirit to the Son. Yet Christian faith and practice could not be made to fit with such a project. The “good news” of the gospel we celebrate in communion is not that God has sent to us very venerable, but finally creaturely, representatives. It is his presence with us, Immanuel.

The debates at the council of Nicaea confront this ‘heresy’ through articulating co-eternality and co-divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit with such technical jargon as ousia (substance) and hypostasis (person). Perhaps the technical nature of these important theological debates explains in part why, for the last century and half, the fashion has arisen of associating Trinitarian orthodoxy with the “Hellenization thesis,” or the notion that Greek philosophical ideas invaded and corrupted our sense of the biblical God.

The spirit of the Hellenization thesis rears its head in a more recent form of the temptation to make orthodoxy, particularly the Trinity, a problem. This form places a wedge between the doctrine and the Bible. Like other heresies, its theological motivation stems from a deep desire for a consistent monotheistic logic. What is new is the epistemological picture which juxtaposes the individual with her intuitions alongside a scriptural text conceived as a source of ‘information’ transparent to the reader. The duty of the reader is to hold fast to her internal intuitions about God unless the evidence of the text contradicts them. The readings of others, passed on in tradition, can then seem as prima facie intrusions into the integrity of theology.

Why, then, might the Trinity present itself as a “problem”, not just in general, but for us as ‘modern’ selves? Philosopher Charles Taylor notes a feature of modern intellectual culture he dubs “the primacy of the epistemological.” He defines this as “a tendency to think out the question of what something is in terms of how it is known.” Yet this tendency itself presupposes a conception of knowledge as the representation of some external object to us by some ‘thing’ internal to us. We have simply our ideas, properly ordered, on one hand, and empirical data, on the other. Further, he argues, this picture of knowledge, and of the knowing agent, is based upon a certain ideal, a portrait of the excellent human agent. Let us call this ideal related to human agency “individualism,” for it has ramifications for how we understand the social and material world in which we live. As Taylor goes on to show in the essay, the spirit of individualism is a form of skepticism which tends to discount much of human social and spiritual life (e.g. morals) as unreal or mere projections because it doesn’t conform to its own frame or self-understanding.

Christians in the developed west have deeply incorporated the individualist ideal into our lives. That is, we are often tempted to think it truly excellent to be author of our own stories, to confide in no one’s understanding of God but our own, the one we validate by looking within ourselves (intuitive ideas) and comparing what we find there with the external objects (empirical “data”) of the text.

Our psalm for this week, together with Genesis’ description of the human agency “in the image of God” whose spirit it invokes, tell us: “This deal sells us short! Way short!”

In Psalm 8 we find human agency presented as both divine and a puzzle (to itself). We are made “a little lower than the angels, adorned with glory and honor.” We are demi-gods or lords within the marvelous ecology of creation. And we are also a question for ourselves, “What is man…?” Yes, we forget ourselves, wall ourselves off from the divine life for which we are made (for what other purpose would God be ‘seeking us out’ (vs.5) than to join us with to himself?); we invent epistemologies!

We have been fashioned for union with God. As Augustine has written in On the Trinity, it is the work of grace, through the means of Christian practice based on faith in the historic incarnation and redemption, to awaken our minds to God’s image in us. And ultimately, in the world to come, to perfect that image in us through the vision of God. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3.2). Augustine explored the doctrine of the Trinity through expounding on a “trinity” of memory, reason and will in the human soul. Even now, the Trinity reminds us that God creates us, illuminates us with his Word, and catches up into his eternal life through love.
Modern epistemology instructs us to trade all this in for something meager in comparison: the assurance that we retain control of the impoverished reality that can fit through its logical filters. The burden it places on each of us, now as solitary individuals, is great. We grow tired of being responsible for what we allow ourselves to “believe” and are led toward despair.

Orthodoxy, in contrast, offers an opportunity to be caught up in God’s knowledge and love so that our deepest truth (nature), the image of God, is reformed, elevated and perfected in love.

“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

5 Responses to “Overcoming Epistemology”

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  1. The “primacy of the epistemological” is one of the hallmarks of modernism; the “primacy of the metaphysical” is one of the hallmarks of premodernism, which includes both Hebrew and Greek thought.

    The idea that the Greek contribution to Christianity is to corrupt it is symptomatic of modernistic either/or thinking. Psalm 8 celebrates the fact that we have both a right brain and a left brain, having been made in the image of God. Modernism idolized the left brain (discursive reason, “ratio”) and dismissed the right brain (intuition, “intellectus.” Let us not commit a similar sin by refusing recognize the left brain, as we engage our right brains. If we are either/or people, we remain imprisoned within the bonds of modernism. Premodern people are both-and people: people who are formed after the Logos, Who bridges all divisions and unifies even Hebrew and Greek thought.


    • Mark Ryan says:

      Your description of the “either/or” thinking as behind the Hellenization critique sounds just right to me! Your warning about not going in an opposite direction–dismissing the “left brain”–is intriguing. I’m wondering whether you see signs of that happening, and if so, in what contexts. I appreciate the comment.

      • Thanks, Mark. Yes, I do see signs of dismissing the left brain whenever I hear my students complain about “logic” and exult “passion.” We saw it years ago when Data replaced Mr. Spock on Star Trek: The Next Generation and when Luke Skywalker was told to shut his eyes and “feel the force.” I see it whenever Christians believe they have to pit faith against reason, when they put heart over head, and claim God to be unknowable and totally mysterious.

        But I also see signs of dismissing the RIGHT brain whenever students believe that the only route to academic success involves majoring in STEM or finance. I see it wherever nominalism has captured people’s minds. I see it in Christians who emphasize right belief but neglect virtue; who belittle mystery and act as if they know everything.

        We live in polarized times. The balance of faith and reason, right brain and left brain, God and creation, male and female, has been overturned, with partisans pitching their camps on each end. I have to keep reminding myself of Josef Pieper’s wise words:”Things are intelligible because they are created. Things are mysterious because they are created.” Perhaps it is also true that “God is intelligible because he has revealed Himself in the Living Word; God is also mysterious because he has revealed Himself in the Living Word.” If we are to live out Luke 10:27, we need to be intellectually humble, but not intellectually inert.

  2. Gary Lynch says:

    Beth, maybe the Trinity could be looked at as left brain, right brain and whole brain, refusing to engage either the right or left brain means negating the purpose of the whole; as neglecting either Christ or the Spirit negates the wholeness of God.
    Trinity-mystery- orthodoxy/orthopraxy/life.
    Enjoyed the read.

  3. Just as the left brain can work independently from the wright brain vise-vesa, the brain knows the other side is not important or bigger than the other! The whole brain works simultaneously to achieve its purpose on human body! So does the Trinity, God does work alone, from the Son, so does the Son work alone from God, so does the Holy Spirit works alone from the God the Father and Son, but each know they can’t exist alone! So the left brain or right brain knows its never complete without the other!

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