Mysterium Tremendum: A Review of “The Holy Trinity: In the Beginning There Was Love”
If I were to teach an RCIA class, and tell those coming into the Church why the reality of God as Trinity was so important, the first thing I would do is show them a clip from a film. That film was called Into the Wild, directed by Sean Penn of all people. In the film, a young trust fund kid, recently graduated from college, throws everything away and goes off to live by himself, all alone in the wilderness of Alaska. At one point, he mistakenly eats some poison berries, and knows he is going to die. Before he does, he writes in his journal that “love is only real when it is shared.” The scene ends with a sort of dreamy image of the young man running into his parents’ arms, as he passes out of existence.
That particular image sums up pretty much what I have learned as a Catholic, through listening to homilies, reading theologians, and in discussions with friends, about the Trinity. God is three personed, because love is something that can only be shared, and that is how God reaches his creatures, by sharing his eternal love with us. The belief in the Trinity, along with the incarnation, is major doctrine separating Christian faith from that of Judaism and Islam; in those traditions, God is, as Islamic belief has it, “al-fard,” aloof, isolated completely from his creatures. There can be no real intercourse between a completely monistic God, since he is not already a sharing of love between persons. There is only His Will, revealed as Law–whether that of the Torah or that of the Qur’an–and our wills can never be commensurate in any way with his. God is alone, and we merely his followers. Only when he is revealed as Trinity–as the divine sharing of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit–can God truly make himself know to us, by letting us share in that love. That, at least, would be my own clumsy way of trying to explain to someone why belief in the great mystery of the Trinity is so important.
That is the basic understanding I brought to my reading of a book by a noted Orthodox theologian, Dimitru Staniloae, whose The Holy Trinity: In the Beginning There Was Love, was written in his native Romanian in 1993, and published in 2012 in English. The book was recommended by Adam de Ville on his Eastern Christian Books blog, and so I read it with great hopes of learning something more about this mystery of the Trinity. I was hoping, in short, to add something to the picture of the Trinity I painted above, and perhaps gain some more wisdom to share with those who doubt the importance of it.
I admit to being disappointed with the book. I can recommend it as a basic introduction to the topic, with certain reservations. Staniloae affirms the basic connection of the Trinity with the idea of God’s love (17, 33), and he makes clear the connection between the Trinity, the Church, and our deification, the Spirit being the necessary bearer of God’s divine love to us after Christ’s Ascension (87). As one would expect of an Orthodox thinker, he makes use of the liturgy to drive home the role of the Spirit in bringing us into communion with God by looking at several liturgical texts in the final chapter (77ff). He echoes several of the point I have made above, saying at one point that “a solitary being cannot even be human, let alone God.” (33) On the whole, if one wants to start with a short book on the Trinity, this could be a place to start.
But there are several drawbacks to this work, in my opinion. First, I’m not sure what kind of translation this is, knowing nothing of Romanian, but I found his writing style turgid, a bit repetitive, and often hard to follow. Secondly, and this is more a matter of my expectations than a fault of the book, but for the most part, I don’t really think I learned anything I didn’t already know, at least that made sense to me. This is perhaps the fault of my expectations as well, as one would think there is a limit to how much clarity one can have with regards to something that is a mystery, after all.
But the last and most disappointing aspect of the book for me, is that Staniloae felt compelled to disparage Catholic beliefs about the Trinity. According to him, Catholics “erase the distinction between the Father and the Son” by having the spirit proceed from them, and claims that “Western Christianity gives almost no weight to the Holy Spirit’s work in men after Christ’s Ascension.” (62, 71) I won’t belabor the point, but sufficed to say, I have never found Orthodox objections to Latin theological formulations compelling, nor their insistence on the incompatibility of Latin trinitarian theology with that of Orthodox ideas on the Trinity. Neither do I find a lack of reference to the work of the Holy Spirit in the Catholic Church. And in a book such as this, in which Staniloae’s main purpose (I presume), was to lay out the basic understanding of the dogma of the Trinity, it seemed gratuitous. I very much wanted to like this book a great deal more than I did, but to me its faults outweigh its merits. Obviously, this is not a problem if one is Orthodox, and perhaps I am getting too sensitive as I get older. But I think Staniloae could made his points without engaging in that kind of polemic, and I’m sure his advocacy of Orthodox beliefs about the Trinity is not helped by it.