By Stephen Platten
Review: Peter J. Leithart, Traces of the Trinity. Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience (Brazos, 2015)
This is an intriguing book, almost to the point of eccentricity. That is both its merit and to a degree its frustration. In a volume of nine chapters plus a postscript, only part of the ninth chapter and the postscript engage explicitly with theology. The aim of Peter J. Leithart’s approach, however, has much to commend it, albeit with some significant caveats.
Leithart takes us into his discourse through an encounter with Descartes and the fragmented philosophical world for which he is now frequently criticised. From Descartes, he moves to Thomas Hobbes and John Locke; he sees both these philosophers as polarising society and the individual in a different mode of fragmentation to that of Descartes. David Hume’s concept of sympathy receives a more positive review. Leithart moves then into interpersonal relationships, indicating how, in a variety of ways and culminating in sexual union, humanity is made for mutual indwelling. No blushes are spared in this exploration that ranges across reproductive patterns in the animal kingdom.
Following on from this, Leithart addresses the question of time, beginning with Plato, Aristotle and Augustine. Again the plea is to recognise a necessary mutual interpenetration — this time of past, present, and future. His next foray is into the nature of language. Once again the critique is of an unsustainable separation between what is signified and the language that signifies it, so he notes: “Language is a complex, an entangled union of sensible and intellectual” (p. 73). In Leithart’s remarkably wide-ranging analysis, music is now brought into the equation. Music is ideally suited to support the notion of mutual indwelling. No chord exists without each individual note, but equally the chord can only exist by the interplay of the chosen notes: “Music’s form is a trace of the form of the whole cosmos” (p. 94).
In the succeeding chapter, Leithart investigates the “ontology of ethics.” This analysis is highly dependent, as Leithart notes, on the work of Gabriel Marcel and his concept of availability. This concept requires human beings, as individuals and as societies, to “make room” for each other. He notes that the universe thus described encourages an ethic of self-giving love. Perhaps predictably (Leithart admits to predictability) the next focus is upon thinking and imagination, which is to be supple, recognising the variety of contexts within our experience and allowing for blurred edges and curved lines, and not the right angles and straight lines of black-and-white thought patterns.
Now is the moment when this broad analysis is allowed to bear theological fruit. Initially and rather irritatingly we are treated to one more summary of what has been argued, but then follows a lucid and concise exploration of the patristic concept of perichoresis in relation to our understanding of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and its effect on human lives.
Leithart’s argument is that all that has gone before in his exploration is perichoretic in nature, and the patterns discovered offer an insight into our experience of “the traces of the Trinity that are hardwired into the creation, [and which] come into their fullness in our entry into new creation” (p. 145). The postscript faces putative criticisms of his thesis.
Leithart’s argument is spiced with vivid images that can over-intrude on the reader. However, as the book proceeds, there is an inexorable, perhaps overly inexorable, logic to the argument. Nonetheless, Leithart’s aim is laudable. How many opaque and apparently pointless addresses have been given on the Holy Trinity? By the end of his thesis, we realise that we live in a trinitarian universe. The three criticisms he postulates are answered crisply. The deficit ultimately is that insufficient space is allowed to link these “traces” of the Trinity to its theological roots. One might hope for a second volume?
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Stephen Platten is rector of St. Michael’s, Cornhill, in London and chairs the board of the Anglican Centre in Rome.