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A Feature Review of
Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience
Paperback: Brazos Press, 2015
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Reviewed by Andrew Stout
Trinitarian theology can often seem more confounding than illuminating, a matter simply of creedal affirmation rather than practical living. In Traces of the Trinity, Peter Leithart, president of the Theopolis Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, upends this impression by examining the world through a trinitarian lens. The goal of the book is “to point to the traces of what theologians call ‘perichoresis’ in creation and in human experience” (vii). He defines perichoresis as the “mutual indwelling,” or “reciprocal penetration,” of the three persons of the Trinity. The term originates in patristic theology and has seen a revival among contemporary theologians. Leithart characterizes his task as “an exercise in trinitarian ‘worldview’” (viii), working from the assumption that “Christians believe that the Triune God created the world, and that should have some implications for the kind of world that it is” (ix). This is Trinitarian theology that goes all the way down.
The first six chapters of the book lay out an ontology of perichoresis. Leithart begins by meditating on the various ways that the physical world displays this mutual indwelling. Western philosophy has trained us to think of ourselves as unbreachable individual units, perceiving a world that is entirely exterior to us. Our bodies, however, are permeable in all kinds of ways. Our skin is porous, we take in and expel food to live, and our minds absorb and dispense information. We are also familially or relationally perichoretic in the sense that the individual members of families and societies necessarily shape and define one another. Human sexuality reveals, both physically and emotionally, that “The mutual indwelling of lovers is a kind of mutual possession” (46). Noting that sex, especially in religious thought, is often believed to offer insight into the very nature of the world, Leithart goes on to deal with the nature of time, language, and music. The world is chronologically perichoretic because the present is indwelt by the past and the future. The past shapes and lives in the present in various ways while the future creates expectations and directs the activities of the present. Language is perichoretic in the sense that the ideal and the sensible mutually indwell one another. Music, one of the most interesting and vivid of Leithart’s examples, is audibly perichoretic: “Sound fills space without taking up space. It proudly occupies the room but at the same time humbly yields the space entirely to whatever else is there” (86).
Having established the contours of a perichoretic ontology, Leithart moves to question how such an ontology informs ethics. If the world bears this character of mutual indwelling, then we should expect ethical deliberation to follow this pattern. We can see this displayed in the family as new members are added and each makes room for the other, mutually indwelling the same house. This pattern focuses ethical actions on loving openness to others rather than reducing ethics to a matter of rules or situational deliberation. It extends from the family to every level of society, prompting Leithart to point out that “Making room for others is as much a demand in international trade as in the home” (110).
In a chapter entitled “The Supple Imagination,” Leithart argues that rationality itself is perichoretic in shape. He recasts perennial issues like the relationship between state and economy, liberal and conservative political stances, and God’s foreknowledge and human freedom in terms of mutual indwelling rather than binary oppositions. Leithart shows how these concepts define themselves in relation to one another. A perichoretic ontology does not solve this puzzle, but it realizes that “it’s the right puzzle” (126). This is the most original and creatively argued portion of the book. Leithart’s “supple imagination” offers a truly paradoxical view of intellectual engagement that sees the depths behind an issue, not merely the surface divisions. Ethical, political, and theological thinkers that catch hold of this imagination will be equipped to handle their disciplines at more profound and subtle levels.
Leithart’s theological interests have always been wide-ranging, and his varied books have brought theological insight to all kinds of subjects. However, he is an exegete at heart, and that hasn’t changed in Traces of the Trinity. Throughout the book, Leithart has used the imagery of Möbius strips and celtic knots to illustrate the nature of the universe – constituted by distinct yet interpenetrating elements. In the final chapter, he transitions to theology proper to see how this worldview is rooted in Scripture. For this, he provides a reading of John 17, the biblical passage that provides the rational for perichoresis. He claims that, for John, “The good news that the Father has shown himself depends on the good news that the Father is in the Son. This is the perichoretic gospel” (139). The “reciprocal habitation” of the Godhead is not an abstract truth or a matter of giving simple mental affirmation to a creedal formulation. It is part and parcel with how the world is shaped and how the world is saved.
It could be said that Leithart makes the Trinity easier to understand by showing how trinitarian relationships are part of our everyday reality. However, that would be to shortchange Leithart’s achievement. In fact, he takes the deep mystery of the Trinity and shows us just how mysterious it reveals our everyday reality to be. Rather than a naturalizing of the supernatural principle of perichoresis, Leithart reveals that our “natural” world is actually structured by and participates in the divine supernatural.
This is a difficult book to classify. It is written in a popular style with footnotes kept to a reasonable number. That said, it is anything but a popularization of the basics of trinitarian theology. No, the theological propositions here are bold, far-reaching, and endlessly suggestive. Leithart creatively and entertainingly illuminates the traditional concept of perichoresis at the same time that he extends the scope of its application. He deftly intertwines, philosophical, theological, and literary allusions as he articulates a vision of the world that is given shape by Scripture. The book could perhaps have been written as a more scholarly monograph, and yet, the subject matter – the tracing of a theological principal through everyday human experience – lends itself to a more straightforward style of writing. Leithart convincingly and attractively sketches the curving, twisting, intertwining nature of reality as it is created and sustained by the Triune God.