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Mask Without Face


Old Testament Reading: Psalm 33:1-9

New Testament Reading: John 16:12-15



    "How do you see your role?" a black student asks me.

    "I don't have a role," I reply. "I'm tired of all roles. I

    simply want to be myself. I don't want to wear a mask. I only

    want a face."

                        --Malcolm Boyd,                 


    "You once said that you were always changing masks, so that

    finally you didn't know who you were. I have only one mask. 

    But it is branded into my flesh. If I try to tear it off--"

                        --Ingmar Bergman, Fanny and Alexander


    Camilla: You sir, should unmask.

    Stranger: Indeed?

    Camilla: Indeed it's time. We all have laid aside disguise

    but you.

    Stranger: I wear no mask.

    Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

                        -- Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow


Today is Trinity Sunday.  It is the day when the Church gathers to commemorate, if not to understand, the doctrine of the Three Persons of the Godhead. This doctrine emerged gradually in the late second century and came to flower in the fourth. It is never stated as such in the Bible, much less explained there. I would like this morning to draw brief attention to the ideas of three Early Church theologians on the Trinity, and the relevance they may have for certain persons we know a bit better than the divine Persons of the Blessed Trinity, namely you and me.

Let me begin with St. Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyon in Gaul, originally a Greek speaker from Asia Minor. He wrote about 180 AD. As with other early Christian thinkers on the Trinity, he was very reluctant to say anything about the Godhead that might imply there was more than one God.  Jews had complained (and still do, along with Muslims) that Christians were not very successful, despite their best efforts, at being monotheists. Don't Christians worship three different Gods?

Irenaeus understood the Father as the only deity. The Son Irenaeus identified as the reason possessed by the divine person of the Father. The Spirit, on the other hand, was the wisdom of the same Person. Of course you cannot draw any hard and fast line between a person and his or her reason on the one hand and wisdom on the other.

Son and Spirit, Irenaeus thought, became differentiated for the first time during the "economy" of creation and salvation. When the Father created the world he did this through his word or reason and his wisdom. When the Father appeared to humanity, he did so in the form of the Son Jesus Christ. When he came at Pentecost to indwell his people, he did so in the form of the Spirit.

So Irenaeus appears to say that the threefoldness of the Godhead was merely potential, possible, before the acting of God in creation and salvation. We only know the threefoldness of God as it is revealed in the actions, the divine economy. What God may or may not be in his inner essence, we poor mortals can not know.

Here is a teasing paradox: Irenaeus seems to be saying that what is revealed does not exist as such until the moment of its revelation. Now this is exactly the opposite of what we should ordinarily expect! Doesn't the very notion of revelation imply that a thing is already there, only hidden? The unveiling of it should make us able to see what was, but was invisible to us previously.

But, no, implies the ancient Church Father, it is only in the moment of the revelation of the threefoldness that God becomes threefold.

This is what Derrida calls the strange logic of the supplement. That is, it first seems as if a thing is adequate and complete. Then the thing is "supplemented" by a surplus, something in excess of the original: icing on the cake. But in fact, Derrida explains, the new added factor turns out to have filled an unperceived lack in the original, which is thus revealed as having been rather different from what we thought it was. So to supplement is to supplant, to replace. Even so, in Irenaeus' speculation, when God reveals what he is, he becomes greater than he was. He is therefore not revealing what he is but becoming something else.

Tertullian, a Carthaginian theologian writing in Latin about 20 years after Irenaeus, described the threefoldness of God as three personae. Persona, of course, is the word that gives us our word "person." But originally persona meant the mask worn by a Greek stage actor depicting his character--like the symbols of comedy and tragedy we still use.

To speak of the three personae of the Godhead carried the implication that, as in Irenaeus, the threefoldness of God lay in what we see, not in the inner being of God. From this the step is a short one to saying that God is one but plays three roles. This became known as Modalism, and was condemned as a heresy.

But I think it may be quite a helpful view, once one makes one modification. The fathers debated whether God was one in his primordial divinity, or three. Modalism said God is really, interiorly one, but externally acts in three ways.

Orthodox Trinitarianism said that, no, even in his inner being, God harbors threefoldness. Not only, to use the language of scholastic theology, must we speak of the economic Trinity, but also of the immanent Trinity.

I am treading deep waters here, I know, but please bear with me a moment or two more. We cannot do justice to Trinity Sunday unless we try at least for a few moments to penetrate into the Deep Things of God, the Celestial Arcana.

There is a great problem, from my viewpoint, in speaking of the ultimate Godhead as the immanent Trinity. To speak thus implies that God in his true presence to himself, his immanence to himself, is threefold. And this cannot be. As Derrida would say: to import threeness into the heart of supposedly ultimate Presence, the supposedly self-evident and foundational truth of all things, is to discover even in the God-Presence what Derrida calls "internal spacing."

That is, a Godhead which is already threefold in its first moment, which gains its meaning from each divine Person differing from both others, is already a derivative composite being, the end result of a hidden process of relation. The result is that there is no ultimate or fundamental Ground of Being.

To take this back to Irenaeus, he whom you found so abstruse until I got to Derrida, what I am suggesting is that there is no inner presence of God to himself. There is no  immanent essence. God is what he is only in the moment of revelation, not before. There is no divine self prior to divine acts. No divine entity standing behind his revelation and somehow different from it.

Irenaeus, I have said, compared the Son and the Spirit to aspects of the human person, his or her own reason and wisdom. A couple of centuries later, St. Augustine of Hippo would use a similar analogy. For him the Trinity may be compared to the intra-human trinity of memory, understanding, and will. Augustine defended the use of such analogies on the grounds that if the triune God had made human beings in his own image, then each of us must be trinitarian in some sense as he describes.

Good point! And I would like to suggest that what I have speculated concerning God, that he exists only in his actions, only in his revelation, applies equally to us humans. I think the sociologists Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann, and Erving Goffman would back me up here.

Berger and Luckmann (in their book The Social Construction of Reality) point out how you and I only firm up a stable identity in the process of social interaction. It is difficult to know yourself by introspection alone. Indeed that is probably impossible.

For one thing, certain traits and attitudes presuppose interaction. One's character is in many ways a matter of whether one treats others well, how one responds to the good or bad actions of others. I can only know how good a Christian you are if I see you blessing those who curse you, praying for those who despitefully use you. You cannot be a Christian, even a person, in a vacuum.

For another thing, I can only form a self-identity, an estimate of myself, if I can react to myself and observe myself as I can react to and observe you. How can I do this? Simply by observing myself act, hearing myself speak. I objectify myself insofar as I act or speak. And here is Irenaeus' paradox again: I have no self behind my actions. Instead of my actions and words revealing the real me, they actually constitute the real me in the moment of speech or action.

Haven't you often enough found yourself accommodating your moral standards to your most recent behavior? This is what you are doing when you rationalize actions you once felt guilty for: the result is that not only do you not feel guilty for having done it, this time; you will not feel guilty for doing it next time either! Your actions took the lead, and your convictions follow in tow.

Haven't you committed yourself to something, perhaps rashly, and then felt bound to follow through? You became what you said.   Watch what you say! Think before you act or speak! For when you act or speak, when you reveal yourself, you are in that moment creating yourself.

Since social life is to a huge extent a set of prescribed ritual interactions and roles, for you to become a person in social interaction (the only way you can become a person) means that you must choose to perform certain roles. You cannot simply create a new way of being human. You express your individuality by your choices among various available roles.

For instance, Sam, our sexton, and Tony DeLorenzo, have both chosen to play the role of artist. The role of artist has certain concomitants, not all of them pleasant. Artists suffer much. They have to: it's part of the job description, of the role. And it's somehow comforting to remember that in the bad moments: "This is as it should be, it is part of the role I have chosen."

I have chosen several roles, those of husband and father, pastor, scholar, writer. And the things that delight me the most are the things that are typical to the roles, not something that might be unique in my exercise of them. I rejoice in playing the role as it has been prescribed for me.




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