Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sacramental Perception and Pure Nature: Thoughts on Trinity Sunday

I'm beginning this blogging exercise on Trinity Sunday, which I think is an auspicious day for an Anglophile like me. This exercise is meant to help me write a little everyday, to establish more regular writing habits during this summer, and to help me write on topics other than those I'm currently writing on professionally. I hope some of you will read along with me, and offer your own thoughts on what I say here. I'm starting with what will probably be a longer post that what I'll normally write, but I wanted to get some thoughts out here about some directions I think I'll be taking my thoughts on this blog.


Over the last year, I've become involved in an ongoing research project on spiritual perception--that is, the sense-like perception of God and other spiritual things. It seems obvious to me that many people spiritually perceive--that is, that many people see or hear or taste God, whether in Himself or in created things. But I'm currently perplexed about what it is that I sense when I sense God, and I've for most of the past year been thinking about how I do this sensing. Today, on Trinity Sunday, I'm wondering about whether we sense the Trinitarian God when we sense God in creatures, or whether, when I sense God in nature, I merely sense God in His unity, God inasmuch as He is One rather than God inasmuch as He is Three Persons. This opens up a number of issues that I hope to explore on this blog, and in other writing elsewhere.

This question of what I sense when I sense God in the world is not just a question of abstract philosophy; it's a question of deep existential import. What am I supposed to see when I look out at the external world? The question doesn't have an obvious answer, no matter what common sense might dictate. Are there real beings out there? Mere sense data? An intersubjective immaterial construct? I can train (and have trained) myself to see the world in each of these ways. It's not implausible to think that Christianity (which gives us the true gnosis) is, in part, a training of perception, coming to see the world as it really is. Unless I see the world as it truly is, I cannot accomplish my task of making every part of this world an altar, a sacrifice for the worship of the Trinity.

So the question then is what I ought to see when I look at the world. My wife and I frequently discuss the sacramentality of the world. The world makes present that which it signifies. We can only reach our fulfillment as human persons if we come to see and respond to this signification. Hence our desire to teach our children to view the world primarily as sacrament--and to see all other aspects of the world (the world of everyday perception, the world of scientific analysis, the world of artistic perception) as facets of the world that reveals and leads us to God by making Him present.

But the question then is how God is made present in things. St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of there being in all creatures a trace, a vestige, of the Trinity: as substance, each creature is like the Father; as having form, each creature is like the Son; as having a relation of order, each creature is like the Holy Spirit. St. Bonaventure even more so finds vestiges of the Trinity all over the place in the created order. Yet these thinkers (and, Adolphe Tanquerey, my dogmatic manualist of choice, tells me, all scholastic theologians) agree that we cannot naturally reason from these traces back to the existence of the Trinity; rather, we only perceive these traces under the influence of faith.

Over the least year and a half, I've been slowly making my way, as time allows, through Hans Urs Von Balthasar's mammoth Trilogy (The Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, Theo-Logic). I expect I'll be discussing my reading of this Trilogy quite a bit this summer. Currently, I'm in the midst of the second volume of the Theo-Drama, Dramatis Personae: Man in God. I just recently finished the section "The Stage: Heaven and Earth". Among other things, Balthasar argues that this heaven and  earth--that is, this universe, this created order--are "designed for the one drama that is to be played on it" (p. 173), that is, the drama of this salvation history. Given that God has made this universe in this way, things were going to unfold in this way. To properly perceive nature is to perceive it as oriented to and facilitating and being transformed by this drama of salvation, the only one in which I am really caught up. To properly perceive nature is to see it as "from the Trinity" and moving back toward the Trinity, revealing those Persons, and caught up into them in Christ.

There's a lot to recommend that view. And yet I balk at it. This view is defended by reference to the Book of Scripture, and seeing nature through that lens easily lends itself to this sort of perception. But what if we look at the world not primarily through how God has revealed Himself in Scripture, but through how He has revealed Himself through that other great source of revelation, the Book of Nature itself? There, it's not so clear to me that nature reveals itself as oriented in a Trinitarian way, or towards this and only this drama of salvation. Couldn't this world have been made in this way and some other drama taken place in it--that is, some drama other than this drama of Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and so forth?

I don't want to entirely go down Balthasar's path, because I think nature reveals itself as both sacramental and subsisting in its own right. The world reveals God. But there's a danger in that phrase, that things will be "overcome" by God, that things in themselves will be emptied of significance, having  their being, their meaning, only in God. I see this in discussions of beauty (which I am interested in more than anything else): that, like Plato said, the beauties of this world exist primarily (or even only) to bring us back to the Form of Beauty, Who is God. As much as I often feel that (and this is no criticism but the highest praise) Christianity is in large part Platonism for the masses, I think that we must learn to see not only God in things, but things in themselves, subsisting and beautiful in their own right. A beauty given to them, but truly theirs no less for all that.

I feel caught between the view that "everything is grace", that all things are here for and in this drama of grace, and (the view I prefer more often) that there is a genuine place for natural happiness, for the dramas of this life, apart from but not in opposition to grace--that is, a place for the old notion of pure nature. We human persons have a nature in ourselves, apart from grace, not in opposition to grace, and able to be super-naturally fulfilled by grace--but a nature, with its own, God-given orientations. And these orientations are operative in our political struggles, our everyday lives, our history, and so forth. These things have value: not eternal value, perhaps, but real value nonetheless.

 Here's what I want to see if I can work out: to see nature as both sacramental and pure nature--but not only that: to see nature even inasmuch as it is pure nature as sacramentally revealing God, but also to see nature in this current, post-Ascension, post-Pentecost, pre-eschatological state, as engraced, divinized, sharing in the divine energeiai though not perfectly yet. And, to go beyond others, to see pure nature as both subsisting and meaningful and valuable in itself, not in reference to God, and as revealing and having meaning and value from God sacramentally, both as the One cause and (if I can dare to think this) as revealing the Trinitarian God in a way knowable even naturally. I long for supernatural fulfillment, of course, but I also long for natural happiness, both contemplative and political: to contemplate God inasmuch as I can by my nature, and to join with others in civic life. I want to work out whether I can have it all.    

1 comment:

  1. A beautiful reflection that I have myself been pondering. I've been reding Bl. (or is St?) Henry Newman's "Grammar of Ascent" which deals precisely with this question of Trinitarian knowledge. Is it merely one of notional assent? An abstraction out of inferences? Or can it have what he terms "real" assent. The kind that deals with sensory apprehension.

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