Monday, January 17, 2005

Gratry on Trinity and Mystery

Alphonse Gratry (1805-1872), Logic, tr. H and M. Singer (Open Court, 1944), p. 336:

What does Catholic theology have to say about unity in the Trinity, and of the Trinity in unity? It teaches that the unity and the Trinity are not expressed in the same respect but in two different respects: absolute unity of nature; absolute trinity of persons. The nature of God, which is one, is not triple; that would be a contradiction in terms . . . ; the nature is purely, simply, and absolutely one. The persons, in their turn, which are three, are not one at all; they are purely, simply, and absolutely three. Doubtless the mystery still remains, but reason . . . is completely maintained here, veiled, it is true, but unimpaired: indeed, instead of unimpaired, I might say that it is divinely sustained.

BV: Gratry, who C. S. Peirce describes as "A writer of subtlety and exactitude of thought as well as of elevation of reason," is here employing the tried-and-true method of philosophers everywhere and everywhen: threatened with a contradiction, they draw a distinction. If a sophist argues that change is impossible because coffee, say, cannot be both hot and not hot on pain of violating the Law of Non-Contradiction, then you say: it is hot and not hot at different times. And similarly in other cases. A ball can be both red and green (not red) by being red in its northern hemisphere and green in its southern. Interstate 10 can run both East-West and North-South since it heads south from Phoenix to Tucson while other stretches are East-West. A man can be both tall and short if he is taller than his son and shorter than his father. The way up and the way down can be the same (Heraclitus the Obscure, Fragment 60 ) if they are different legs of a round-trip peak-bagging expedition. Or consider just an ascent. How could it be both one and three? Well, it is one ascent in three distinct pitches: Pitch One takes me to Jackass Ridge; Pitch Two takes me from Jackass Ridge to Desolation Saddle; Pitch Three brings me to the top.

The above distinctions between times, places, directions, respects, and terms of a comparison are straightforward and unproblematic. But is it unproblematic to say that God is one in respect of his nature (or substance) but three in respect of his Persons?

It is unproblematic if one is preaching to the choir. But if one is neither a choirboy nor a scoffer, questions remain. (The naive believer is too quick to think the problem solved; the scoffer thinks the problem obviously insoluble and proof positive of the absurdity of the doctrine.) Gratry’s distinction between nature (one) and persons (three) is not helpful unless we understand what he means by ‘nature.’ And here is the rub.

Either the divine nature is an individual entity or it is not. If it is an individual (unrepeatable) entity, then each Person can be God only by being identical to God. But this implies that there is one person, not three. If, on the other hand, the divine nature is a multiply exemplifiable (repeatable) entity, then each Person can be God only by exemplifying the divine nature. This, however, implies that there are three Gods.

So Gratry’s facile distinction does not bring the Trinity doctrine into the clear. He does admit, however, that the mystery remains even after his distinction is drawn. But what exactly is a mystery? Is a mystery a proposition that cannot be known to be true on the basis of unaided human reason, but can only be know by divine revelation? Or is a mystery a proposition that is unintelligible being only a string of words which, taken singly have meaning, but when concatenated have no meaning?

I have no problem with mystery taken in the first way. But if it is taken in the second way, then to what is one giving one’s intellectual assent when one assents to the Trinity doctrine? I cannot accept or believe a proposition unless I know what it is I am accepting or believing. I can repeat a verbal formula without understanding it, but that is not to accept a proposition. I don’t see that Gratry has given us a good reason to think that the classical formulations are not just mumbo jumbo.

Perhaps I will be told that a mystery is a proposition that is partially intelligible and partially unintelligible. I'm open to that; but then I need some sort of account, presumably resting on one or more analogies, whereby I can be brought to apprehend the partial intelligibility of the Trinity doctrine.