Thursday, July 1, 2010

Trinitarian Theology as a Spiritual Discipline

French Dominican theologian Gilles Emery, O.P. argues that the Trinitarian theology of both St. Augustine and St. Thomas is presented as a spiritual exercise in which the practitioner of theology is a pilgrim seeking wisdom and, ultimately, union with God. In other words, all Trinitarian theology from the early Fathers to St. Thomas, including those parts which are often derided as "rationalistic" or "abstract" is actually spiritual theology, not mere speculation. A short presentation of his argument is found in his essay: "Trinitarian Theology as Spiritual Exercise in Augustine and Aquinas" in Aquinas the Augustinian, edited by Dauphinais, David and Levering (Catholic University of America Press, 2007).

The classical tradition of Christian theology that is rooted in the creedal orthodoxy of the first five centuries and which flowers in the Augustinian-Thomistic tradition has come under fire in the modern period for many reasons. One of those reasons has to do with the modern obsession with individual autonomy, which begins systematically with Descartes although it is foreshadowed in Renaissance humanism. This autonomy is not merely the self-assertion of the individual over against the state, tradition or law, but has is roots in a metaphysical decision to claim that the true view of the universe must begin with the individual reason and situation of the individual thinker rather than with an understanding of our situation as one of God and man in relationship. Emery's interpretation of the thought of St. Thomas as continuing a type of theology that typified the early Fathers and flowered in the writings of St. Augustine helps us see why the starting point of modern philosophy (and the theology - mainly liberal Protestant - which has adopted its anthropocentrism) is inadequate for understanding reality.

In this post, I want to describe how Emery interprets St. Augustine and in a subsequent post I will discuss his argument for reading St. Thomas as continuing the same kind of theology.

Emery points out that, the purpose of St. Augustine's De Trinitate, can be expressed as (1) to show that whether one searches for the substance of God through God's creature or through the Scriptures, the same nature of God can be discovered, (2) to show the conformity of Catholic faith to Holy Scripture and (3) to show that the end result of believing in order to understand is, in fact, an enhanced understanding of faith. For St. Augustine, faith is the beginning point of intellectual or scientific inquiry because it is only from the standpoint of faith that insight into ultimate reality can be attained. The purpose of Christian theology is to demonstrate that greater understanding does in fact arise from such a starting point.

It is in this last result that theology contributes to the evangelistic and apologetic task of the Church by increasing knowledge of the universe and man and not merely of God. Emery points out that the so-called "psychological" analogy is misnamed because the modern sense of the term does not connote what was central in St. Augustine's intentions: namely the ontological truth of the analogy of the soul to God. He says: "in turning toward God, whose image it is, the soul attains what it is, its proper nature." (7) We might think here also of the arguments of David Bentley Hart and T. F. Torrance about how it was Christianity which made the rise of modern physical science possible. Christianity "works" and this should commend it to all unbiased minds.

Emery shows that the analogy between the image of God in the human soul and God is not a one-way analogy, but rather a back and forth process of eliminating errors, exploring dead ends and finding one's way forward gradually and only by much effort. Emery writes:
So one discovers that the interminable detours, repititions, and digressions of the De Trinitate are on purpose and are part of Augustine's deliberate intention: to exercise the spirit of his reader, to lead it to the ascension toward God the Trinity by sharpening the tip of his soul (acies mentis). This objective is recalled each time Augustine glances retrospectively at the preceding books. It is formulated very clearly, for instance, at the beginning of book XV: 'We wanted to train the reader [exercere lectorem] in the things that were made, so that he might know Him by whom they were made.' In this Christian setting, the spiritual exercise takes on a specific aspect. It is performed on the foundation of revelation, through divine grace, in the adherance of faith to the Triune God.
Here we see arguments against "natural theology" decisively refuted. For one thing, the knowledge of God is not limited to what nature can say. Rather, nature must be read in the light of revelation and can only point to what is beyond its scope. For another thing, the back and forth of the soul suggest the interplay of the grace of the Holy Spirit interacting with the human mind leading the sinner to greater and deeper knowledge of God step by step. Human capability is insufficient both in the beginning point and at each step along the way. Finally, there is no hint of the human mind grasping or comprehending God; in actual fact, much of the point of the exercise is that the mind needs to become aware of its possibilities and its limitations.

Theology done in this way is prayerful, humble and intellectually rigorous. It is a path of purification and a way of wisdom. We distort it when we project our modern lust for power and domination (which has so distorted and debased scientific inquiry in modernity) backwards in time on to thinkers whose purpose in intellectual analysis was much different than our own. Instead of being motivated by a desire to control, manipulate and use, it was motivated by a desire to see and submit to the ontological reality we inhabit.

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