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Book Review: Traces of the Trinity

Book Review: Traces of the Trinity

Author: Peter Leithart

Publisher: Brazos Press

Reading Level: Moderate

Pages: 176

...irreducibly different things mysteriously inhabit one another, pass into and out of one another, penetrate even as they are penetrated, envelop the very same things that envelop them. (pg. 97)

Have you ever thought about how your entire existence depends on the “outside” world getting “inside” of you? Think about it. You must breath in air, eat in food, drink in water, and take in light and sound in order to exist. At the same time you must get what’s inside of you out into the world in order to survive. All that air and food you took in also needs to go back out otherwise things might get messy. Further, ideas and desires need to go back out into the world if you to communicate any of your needs.

What about your relationships? Have you ever thought about those? You didn’t choose your parents, siblings, aunts, or uncles. All of these relationships existed before you were ever conscious of them. But this is a two-way street. When you were born you made all these people your parents, siblings, aunts and uncles. Furthermore, your existence entirely changed and shaped the lives of those most intimately connected to you. Likewise, their existence entirely shaped your life.

Individuals are utterly unique. No individual can be reduced to another, nor are individuals simply a sum or product of others who have influenced them. Yet I'm the unique me that I am only because of those others who have molded me. Without those particular social others, I'd be a different me, and without me they'd all be different thems. (pg. 24)

Let’s keep going.

What about lovers? Ever thought about your husband or your wife? In a very physical way husbands and wives indwell one another. They take up each other’s space, eat the same food and even share the same bed. “The two shall become one flesh.” But this mutual indwelling between husband and wife can only happen if husbands and wives are distinct from one another. The mystery of their indwelling and “oneness” is based on the fact that they are different. They are unique, but they are also one.

To truly love, one must not only move ecstatically out from himself to dwell in another, must not only open up a home in himself for the beloved, but must do so in a way that preserves the irreducible otherness of the beloved. Lovers penetrate one another only when they do not eradicate the individuality that makes their love possible. Love must ingest without digesting the other. Love only exists as a union of mutual indwelling, signified by the kiss that is the kiss of the mouth, by the folding of each into the other that is signified in sexual communion. (pg. 46-47)

Are there any other aspects of our world that display this “mutual indwelling” that I’m trying to display? You betcha!

Think about time. You’ve got past, present and future. Are past, present and future distinct from another? Can you distinguish between them? Of course you can. But past, present and future must also inhabit each other for us to understand time at all. Unless the past and the future inhabit the present there is not present at all.

Without the habitation of the past in the present, there is no present, no present as we actually know and experience it. Similarly without the future indwelling my present, I’m stymied. I have nothing to do because I have nowhere to go, nowhere I even want to go. Past, present, and future are irreducibly different. But they exist as the distinctive times that they are only because of their relation with other times, because each inhabits the other. (pg. 62)

What about words? Do words also display this “mutual indwelling” that we’re seeing in relationships and time? Well you know the tune by now, of course they do! Again, each word in this sentence that I’m writing is distinct from all the others. Each word takes the stage of your mind and then humbly exists stage left to make way for the next word. Unless each of these words that I’m writing indwells the others these words would make absolutely zero sense.

Words leave their mark on other words; traces of prior texts mark each new text; the world inhabits the word just as much as the word inhabits the world. (pg. 67)

I promise we are nearing the end of the tunnel just hang with me for a few more!

What about music? Many philosophers have bestowed a metaphysical weight to music. Think about it. If you’re in a room where music is playing, all of the music is everywhere in that room at the same time; in a way it's omnipresent. Music is much like time and words. Like time music can only be understood in its finitude. Unless music is transient like time there could be no music. Likewise, musical tones and notes are like words because they can only be understood in light of each other. Middle “C” can only be understood in and through its relationship with all the other notes.

“Music depends heavily for its meaning on finitude at every level. Tones give way to tones. Music is constantly dying, giving way.” But transience doesn’t make music futile; music has its integrity, beauty, order, glory “in and through this very transience.”  Musical notes have to withdraw and make room for one another for there to be music at all. If they refuse to fade to memory, the sound will be cacophonous rather than harmonic or melodic. (pg. 93)

Could something as “theoretical” as ethics also display this theme of mutual indwelling? Again the answer is yes. The reason is because ethics is made up of distinct parts that must inhabit and indwell one another to form an ethic. Ethics must consist of the mutual indwelling of rules, situations and dispositions. To be ethical one must embody the correct action (rules) at the right time (situations) with the right disposition of the heart. If these things do not dance in harmony with one another you do not have an ethic.

Ethical concepts and ethical authorities have to indwell each other to be truly ethical. If we extract rules from the intricacies of situations and the motivating power of dispositions, the rules are useless. If we siphon off situations from rules and dispositions, we will find ourselves justifying horrors. If we reduce ethics to dispositions, we can defend any action, so long as one’s heart is in the right place. (pg. 100)

By this point you have no doubt noticed that this book review is departing from the normal modus operandi here at Torrey Gazette but I’ve done that for a reason. Peter Leithart’s book Traces of the Trinity is no normal book. To be entirely honest I teared up at one point while I was reading it. It is a truly phenomenal book.

Leithart’s main aim throughout is to show the reader that our world is infused with traces of the Trinitarian God who created it. Moreover, Leithart desires that his readers begin to see these traces and conform their lives to the Trinitarian mold of the universe.

As I’ve tried to show thus far in the review, Leithart wants to show that there is a pattern of “mutual indwelling” to the created order. This mutual indwelling is seen most clearly when we understand that the vitality of the way objects and people relate to one another is through their inhabiting of one another. This co-inhabitation does not blur the lines of difference between objects but rather is created by the distinct differences inherent to the objects. The following quotation relays this idea thorougly:

Things are irreducibly different. Things cannot exist at all unless they are distinct from other things. At the same time, these irreducibly different things mysteriously inhabit one another, pass into and out of one another, penetrate even as they are penetrated, envelop the very same things that envelop them. And we have found that, while things cannot be at all without being irreducibly distinct, they also cannot be at all without this mutual penetration. I can’t exist unless the world I inhabit comes to dwell within me. I cannot have relationships with another person, most especially those whom I love, unless we pass into one another. Time exists only because past and present and future ineffably and simultaneously take up residence in each other. Words don’t mean unless they occupy other words and are open enough to be occupied. Each note of music is different, but each note is what it is because other sounds resound through the sound it makes. (pg. 97-98)

Throughout the book Leithart speaks as though he is leading a trek up a mountain. Each chapter serves as a type of breadcrumb leading to the next trace. In leading upward, Leithart’s goal is to bring the reader to the final chapter where he expounds on the mutual indwelling of the Trinity.

Theologians speak of both the transcendence and immanence of God. Leithart’s Traces of the Trinity brings this reality to the fore in two ways. By showing that the world is, as Hopkins would say, “charged with the grandeur of God,” Leithart takes our immanent surroundings and infuses them with transcendance. Likewise, by showing that all our relationships and even the objects around us are infused with traces of the Trinity, Leithart opens the reader’s eyes to the immanence of God in all things. Here is one final quotation that can serve as a summation to what I have been trying to say:

Because the Father is in the Son, we live in a world where I am in the world as the world is in me. The Father-Son-Spirit relation is the archetype of all human relationships, including sexual and romantic relationships. The Father is the source, and so linked with the past; the Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son, and so is the Spirit of the future; and the Son indwelled by the Source and Spirit is the “present” of the divine life. The Father is a speaker who indwells the eternal Word by the breath that is the Spirit, and that Breath who is the Spirit is the music of God who lends melody and rhythm to the Father’s Word. The Father, Son, and Spirit live in a harmony and love that is a model for human life: the Father makes room in himself for the Son, the Son for the Spirit, the Spirit for the Father and Son, and so the Trinity is the perfect and eternal communion reflected in dim and distant ways in families, churches, and peoples. The Trinity is the uncreated original or perichoretic rationality, for the Father knows himself in the Others, the Son and the Spirit, and the eternal Word understands himself as the One indwelled by the Father and Spirit. None of the persons seeks his own; none seeks to know himself in isolation. Irreducibly different as they are, they are entangled in an eternal knot of perfect communion. (pg. 136-137)

Food for thought.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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