What Shall We Say?

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Well, this is just fantastic. The dean decides to take Memorial Day weekend off and leaves me stuck attempting to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. Oh sure! No problem! It’s only the most complicated and contested doctrine in the history of Christian thought. Piece of cake! Nothing we can’t get sorted out in the next twenty minutes.

May we pray? Holy God; Holy and mighty; Holy and eternal. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer.
Oh dear. What exactly are we supposed to do here? Or more precisely, what shall we say? After all, to declare with the ancient creeds of the Christian church that divine life is one God in three persons is precisely that, a declaration, a form of speech.

To speak of God is always difficult, if not outright terrifying. What if we get it wrong? If we say something out of line, will God smite us where we stand? More importantly, what if someone believes us? If we are wrong, might we have sent them down a dangerous path? That there is so much at stake in our speech about God is hardly made easier by the fact that the object of speech, God, often seems so inaccessible. It is not like describing a stone that we pick up at the beach, washed ashore by the crashing waves. We can describe the stone to a friend and the friend can look and see whether or not our description meets up with their experience of the stone. But God does not fit in our hands. Saint Anslem said that God is “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” One of the implications is that God is so great that the power of human speech to be meaningful in describing God is compromised.

So, why bother to say anything at all? Why not just remain silent in the face of God, who we can barely comprehend? Is it not sheer hubris to attempt to speak of God at all? As a matter of fact, yes, it is sheer hubris to speak of God. Not that pride has ever been a particular deterrent to people going ahead and doing whatever it is they are determined to be about anyway. But there is more to it than pride. It seems that there is a human compulsion to speak. The very first lines of the Tao Te Ching say that “A way that can be walked is not The Way; a name that can be named is not The Name,” but it then immediately goes on to say that “Tao is both Named and Nameless. As Nameless, it is the origin of all things; as Named, it is the mother of all things.” Similarly, with regard to the Trinity, Augustine notes: “Yet, when the question is asked, What three? human language labors altogether under great poverty of speech. The answer, however, is given, three “persons,” not that it might be [completely] spoken, but that it might not be left [wholly] unspoken.” To fail to speak, it seems, is as great a sin as the pride of speaking.
This should not be entirely surprising to us. We gathered here in the nave of Marsh Chapel and listening over radio waves and internet signals are a community, and communities are formed out of shared experiences that are then shared again and again in common patterns of speech, in the telling and retelling of stories. Without speech, we would not be. This is the truth of the beginning of the Gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the word.”

All right, so we can’t speak well, and yet we must speak. But what exactly are we doing when we speak? To speak is not simply to state a fact. Yes, there are what philosophers of language and linguists call locutionary aspects of speech. When we speak we make sounds that are strung together in patterns that comprise words, which are in turn strung together in sentences with grammar and syntax and thus have meaning. However, this is not all that is happening when humans speak. In addition to locutionary aspects, human speech also has illocutionary aspects, in which meaningful words and sentences are spoken in a context so as to bring about some outcome. Human beings speak with intent. Sometimes that intent is merely to describe. “It’s really hot outside.” More often, however, the intent is to more than merely descriptive. After service, if you find yourself standing on the plaza chatting with a fellow congregant, and that person says “it’s really hot outside,” it is more than likely that they are suggesting that the two of you should continue your conversation in some nearby shade. You can tell this because if your response is simply to agree, “yes, it is really hot outside,” your conversation partner will likely roll their eyes and make the request more explicit, “why don’t we go sit in the shade and chat?” Under the illocutionary aspect, we do not merely make intelligible sounds, we ask, request, promise, greet, warn, advise, challenge, encourage, deny and otherwise initiate actions. In speaking, we expect a response.

What kind of action are we undertaking when saying that God is Trinity? And to whom are we speaking? There are two primary contexts in which we speak of God. The first is in the context of worship. It is traditional in the history of Christian worship that following the sermon and leading into the celebration of Holy Communion the congregation would recite together a creed, often the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The creed usually begins, “I believe.” This identifies the creed as what philosopher John Searle identifies as a declarative speech act, one that commits the speaker to the truth of what is said. Entering into a common action of committing to a common truth is a powerful way of drawing people together under what all affirm as the same experience of the same God. This is one way of overcoming the difficulty of the inaccessibility of God to easy perception and thus description.

The other context in which God is spoken of as Trinity is in the context of theological explication. In this context the theologian is enacting what Searle calls a directive speech act that seeks to cause the hearer or reader to do something, usually in this case to believe in God as Trinity as the theologian has laid out the case. Trinitarian theologians seek to make the case that believing in God as Trinity allows for a coherent, consistent, adequate and applicable understanding of God, the world, and our place in the world. Because the account provides coherence, consistency, adequacy and applicability, categories I am borrowing from Alfred North Whitehead, then the hearer or reader is justified in assenting to the theologian’s claims.
These then are the two contexts in which we speak of God: worship and theological explication. In the first our speech is declarative, and is addressed to God and to each other, binding us together in a common community. In the second the speech of the theologian is directive, and is addressed to us, calling us to believe in God as Trinity because such belief is justified. At least, these are the ways that talk of God is classically understood. I would like to suggest that limiting ourselves to these two understandings of God-talk is missing an important active dimension in what we are doing when we speak of God.

Speaking of God is not merely declarative, committing ourselves to the truth of what we say, nor merely directive, asking others to believe as we do. To speak of God is to enact a type of speech act that Searle distin
guished as declaration. A declaration does not merely commit the speaker to the truth of what is said, but changes reality to accord with what is said. In a criminal case, when the judge hands down the sentence, the reality of the defendant is no longer ‘defendant’ but either the one who committed the crime, ‘guilty,’ or the one who did not commit the crime, ‘innocent.’ At a wedding, such as the one at which I will officiate this afternoon, the words “I now pronounce you…” are what make the marriage legal, and so are a significant part of what makes the marriage real.

While I identified the declarative and directive classes of speech acts as the classical interpretations of the nature of God-talk, they are so only in terms of a modern western conception. The idea of speaking of God as a declaration that changes reality is actually quite old when we turn to south Asian religious traditions, and also to some very early Christian sacramental theology, some of which survives to this day. In both cases, the understanding that speech has the power to make reality as it is arises in the context of ritual. In south Asia, it was believed that enacting rituals, and particularly speaking the right words in the rituals, maintained the very existence of the world. This belief was crucial to the religious heritage of the region and speech remains central to Hindu theologies. For Christians, the idea of anamnesis is that in reciting salvation history in the Eucharistic prayers, time collapses together to make the ritual expression of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus one with its first occurrence in first century Palestine and with every other anamnetic retelling past, present and future. Thus, the Eucharistic prayer is not simply a retelling of what happened, but the actual happening of salvation history, the enactment of the reality of salvation history. The declaration of the story makes it so.

Of course, it is one thing to say that declaration makes socially constructed realities so, but it would seem to be nonsensical to believe that simply saying that “the sky is chartreuse” could make it so. Indeed, there is a significant difference between social reality and brute reality. And we run into trouble if we say that the declaration of God as Trinity makes God Trinity because most of us would like to believe that God is a part of brute reality, something given to be experienced, not a projection arising out of common affirmation. But this is indeed what South Asian and early Christian theologies claimed, that the very being of the brute world is dependent upon ritual. Today we may wish to dissent from this strong claim about the capacity of declaration. But perhaps we need not protest too much.

Recent work on ritual by Boston University professors Adam Seligman and Robert Weller make the case that ritual, broadly understood, creates subjunctive, as-if spaces that allow us to cope with the broken, disjunct, fractured experience of life. Ritual gives us the ability to draw together the strewn about pieces of our lives and our experience of the world into something resembling a unified whole. The fact of the matter is that our experience is not normally coherent, consistent, adequate or applicable across the many arenas of life in the world, and we ourselves are not coherent, consistent, adequate or applicable. This is why in religious life we acknowledge the deep chasms and fissures of the human condition. As Stephen Prothero, another BU professor, so carefully points out in his most recent book, God Is Not One, different religious traditions make different claims about the contours of those chasms and fissures, and therefore prescribe different ways of unifying them. Nevertheless, it is fundamental to religious life that there is something wrong with the world, that we ourselves are not well suited to overcoming those wrongs, and that it is only by acknowledging and giving ourselves over to the ultimacy of ultimate reality that we can get by. As Paul says, “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.”

To speak of God is to create a ritual, subjunctive, as-if space in which all of the chasms and fissures of our broken lives and experience fit together coherently, consistently, adequately and applicably. But our speech about God must in some way acknowledge the subjunctive character of the space. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity does this, as do other conceptions of ultimate reality. The doctrine of the Trinity insists that God is one, thus creating the subjunctive space of wholeness. But the doctrine of the Trinity can only understand God to be one in terms of three persons, three expressions, thereby acknowledging that the reality of God can only be coherent, consistent, adequate and applicable to us in our brokenness and our disjunct lives in a fractured world insofar as God is not one. This is to say that God participates in our desire for unity and God participates in the reality of fractured existence. How God can do this, how God can be both transcendent and immanent, is not something that we can speak as a fact but is something that God speaks as a declaration. The unity of God, how it is that these three are one, is not something that we can bear; it is a mystery. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” The declaration of God is that ultimate unity – ultimate coherence, consistency, adequacy and applicability – is not for us now, except in the glimpses of grace we experience when we make our own declaration of God the Trinity. Amen.

~Br. Larry Whitney, LC+
University Chaplain for Community Life


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