Traces of the Trinity

Matthew Levering
Peter J. Leithart, Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015. ix + 165 pp. $15.99/£10.99

In this extraordinary book, Peter Leithart's starting point comes from New Testament revelation about God: namely, the indwelling of one divine Person in another (see John 14-15), which Leithart terms "perichoresis" or "reciprocal penetration" (p.vii).  His goal is to guide us to embrace a robustly "trinitarian 'worldview'" (p.viii).

The first chapter begins with René Descartes's separation between the thinking "I" and all external things, including one's own body.  This separation, Leithart shows, does not correspond to reality.  We dwell in the world as embodied creatures, and the world dwells in us.  It does so by entering into us in the form of air, water, and food, as well as through what we hear, smell, and see. It also enters us through our memories, as well as through our dependence upon our world for the language we speak and the ideas that we take in. Furthermore, atoms themselves are porous, and things made of atoms are porous.  We are affected by the mere presence of things outside us; and we make things what they are, at least partly, by the use to which we put them.  Each and every thing is what it is because of other things.  In short, all things are distinct only in being relational.  

In his second chapter, Leithart again begins with modern philosophy, this time with John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, who conceived of humans first and foremost as solitary individuals. If we consider our infancy, however, we see that from the outset our identity depends upon a number of social and hereditary factors. Is this social contextualization fundamentally negative, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau feared?  Leithart suggests that much depends upon the leader's influence upon the group, since a bad leader can poison a whole society. He ends the chapter by underscoring that he is not proposing a mere balance of individual and society; rather, the two are completely interpenetrating.  There is no pure society or pure individual; rather there are individuals in societies.

In chapter 3, Leithart treats sex as a further instance of mutual indwelling. This form of mutual indwelling is creative, in the sense of generating new human life.  In marriage, the partners inhabit each other in such a way as to become more and more bound up with each other's lives, while at the same time preserving "the irreducible otherness of the beloved" (p.46).  

Chapter 4 explores time, showing that past, present, and future indwell each other through memory, through the effects of the past, and through the anticipation of the future. Influenced by Robert Jenson, Leithart spends a good bit of energy critiquing what he perceives to be Greek philosophy's effort to find an unchanging point on the ever-changing river of time. Even in Augustine, he finds "too much of the ancient disquiet with time" (p.57). For a better approach, he turns to Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy's view that "[t]ime is molded by what takes place within it," so that it is appropriate to speak of a "body of time" and of the present as being formed by the meeting and mixing (the reciprocal habitation) of past and future (pp.57, 59).  This habitation of the past in the present is evident in cities and houses that have been built up over time, in bodies that bear the marks of the passage of time, and in the guiding thread of memory. Similarly, the habitation of the future in the present is evident in the way in which we do things in anticipation of the future.  Our own present has been built up by the (anticipated) futures of past humans.

Chapter 5 addresses language. Leithart suggests that Augustine tends to conceive of words as mere labels, in hopes of getting behind these labels to the unadulterated idea. But without words (and thus without the making of publicly accessible arguments), ideas would disappear without a trace.  Furthermore, words fit within the concept of a thing, and they exhibit the historical development of a language. The play of metaphor especially shows how words inhabit other words, and how world and word inhabit each other.  Every literary text exhibits the pattern of mutual indwelling or reciprocal habitation, as a new text both echoes earlier texts and shapes how we read those earlier texts.

In chapter 6, Leithart observes that sound inhabits many spaces at once, and we hear many notes at once. Sound enters us and thrills us, so that "we envelop the sound that envelops us" (p.87). Each sound exists in relation to other sounds. No wonder, Leithart observes, that Pythagorean philosophers (followed by Christians such as Augustine and Boethius) found in musical harmony the key to the universe's orderly motion. Music also strongly supports time's goodness, because to hear a piece of music requires allowing for the passage of time.  In singing, multiple singers become one without losing their individual voice. Each voice inhabits the other voices, and opens up space for the other voices to inhabit.  

The seventh chapter moves from ontology to ethics. No one ethical approach suffices by itself; rules are important, but so are situations and dispositions. Indebted to Gabriel Marcel, Leithart emphasizes the importance of "availability" to others, beginning with the members of our own family. He gives the example of parents, who cannot merely provide physical space for children in the family home, but must open up their hearts to children.  Love requires availability and vulnerability. No healthy family (or neighborhood or nation) can remain enclosed within itself. Indeed, love is at the center of ethics, and ethics too displays the pattern of mutual indwelling.

In chapter 8, Leithart attends to how we think about the world.  Certainly some judgments are true while others are false. But Leithart points out that often there is more middle ground in reality than we like to recognize. For example, a father and a son are different, but "they are in a reciprocal relationship"; we cannot simply cordon them off as utterly separate ideas (p.116). Likewise, presence is not absence, but when someone is physically present he can be emotionally absent, and when someone is physically absent he can be spiritually present. Again, as Jacques Derrida showed, an origin cannot solely be an origin; it must be (relationally) the origin of something. Everything has a context, and this context itself has contexts. Here Leithart advocates instead for supple argumentation or "jujitsu" that seeks to uncover areas of agreement from which to lead one's opponent toward one's own view.  In short, rationality not only involves making sharp distinctions, but also consists in appreciating relationships.

Leithart's ninth and final chapter summarizes and extends his case in theological terms. We cannot understand creation rightly unless we appreciate that the divine Persons, while remaining distinct from each other, perfectly indwell each other. We also need to appreciate the Trinitarian mutual indwelling or "perichoresis" in order to understand the nature of the Church, which is one "because it has become a participant in the mutual indwelling of Father and Son" (p.140). Whereas all created things exhibit the perichoretic pattern of reality, the Church actually participates, in Christ and through the Spirit, in the perichoretic dance.  In the new creation, the entire world will be caught up in Christ in this way (see Eph 1:23). Examining the multiplicity of images used by the New Testament for salvation--mutual indwelling, adoption, a wedding, the new age--Leithart notes that the Spirit's transformative work in believers wondrously deepens their mutual habitation and availability to others.  

In a brief postscript, Leithart takes up a possible criticism: since the relationality of the Trinity is unique and unfathomable, perhaps the Trinitarian relations should not be so easily compared with the relationality of this-worldly things. Leithart's response is twofold: Jesus' words in John 17:21 justify the move from the Trinity to the Church, and in Scripture God freely uses this-worldly terms to describe himself. Since God made created things, created things should be expected to display God, however partially and insufficiently.  There is certainly deep mystery when we speak about God, but created realities can and should be expected to enable us to "honor, praise, and tell of him" (p.153)--and the perichoretic pattern found in all things is a marvelous instance of how this expectation is fulfilled.

Many theological books advance their claims by means of tense and tight argumentation against various interlocutors.  But in this book, Leithart is mainly just showing us the things of the world, and inviting us to seek the meaning of their consistent pattern of mutual indwelling (or, as C. S. Lewis's friend Charles Williams put it in a somewhat different way, their "coinherence"). We cannot help but be enriched by Leithart's magnificent vision, presented with such broad erudition and winsome prose. If, in dark moments, we wonder whether the world has really been created by the triune God, we can remember what Leithart has shown and be strengthened in faith. In its fundamental fabric, this world is exactly as Scripture's teaching about our triune Creator would lead us to expect.

Matthew Levering is the Perry Family Foundation Professor of Theology, Mundelein Seminary