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."
"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.
Camilla: Indeed it's time. We all have laid aside disguise
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
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
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
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
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.
Copyright©2009 by Robert
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