Tracing the Trinity: a book review.

Peter Leithart is a fun theologian. As professor of theology and literature at New Saint Andrews College, contributing editor for Touchstone and president of Theopolis Institute, his books often wed theology with cultural, literary or historical connections. Traces of the Trinity showcases the kind of creative theological thinking I’ve come to expect from Leithart as he probes creation and the human experience to see signs of the Triune God.

Leithart picks up on the tradition of looking for vestiga Trinitatis–traces of the Trinity–clues to the Triune life, the imprint of perichoresis (vii). He is not trying to  argue compelling evidence for the Christian concept of God apart from special revelation. Leithart takes special revelation as his starting point, affirming that the God revealed in scripture is revealed as Trinity. He then works backwards, and seeks to trace God’s presence in His creation.

The themes of perichoresis and mutual interpenetration runs straight through this book. In chapter one, Leithart picks up on the Cartesian distinction between the Self and the outside world and shows how though these realms are distinct, they overlap and penetrate one another (i.e. our bodies are outside our mind but part of the self, we need to consume matter and eliminate to remain alive in ourself, etc).  Chapter two describes the individual and her relationship to society. As with Cartesian dualism, Leithart affirms the distinction between individuals and society but shows how each domain contributes to and defines the other.  Chapter three discusses the visceral interpenetration of sex and the accompanying physical, spiritual and psychological intermingling. Chapter four examines the way the past and the future inhabit the present (the past through memory, through structures and culture making, the future through possibility and the telos of things).  The inter-textual nature of words and languages also evidences an interplay between shared language and individual expression (chapter  five), as does music (chapter six). Chapter seven implies an ethic of hospitality–making room for the other–which underlies human community and chapter eight probes concepts, logic and relationship further. Chapter nine is where Leithart speaks specifically about Trinity and also the perechoretic unity in the thing called church.

This brief summary points at the breadth of Leithart’s survey (all within about 150 pages) but the beauty of this book is in the details:

The world is not patterned by mutually opposing things that need to be kept in “balance.” Things are much more intricately interlaced. The world is designed according to a pattern I’ve called “mutual indwelling” “reciprocal habitation” “interpenetration.” I’ve used words like “intertwining” and “interleaving” and “twists” and “swirls, whirls, curves and curls.” I’ve written of how things circle back on themselves, of Mõbius strip and Celtic knots. I claim to see the pattern everywhere–in physical reality, in language, sounds, sex, personal relations, ethics, and the concepts we form to understand the world. (129).

This romp through philosophy, politics, culture, music, sex and ethics highlights the interconnection between the alleged poles. This is poetic theology and an enjoyable read. Leithart is at times concrete and in other places abstract, which makes this book somewhat complex in its execution, but it is tightly argued and well thought through. It is worth tracing Leithart’s argument all the way through.

Leithart is careful to call these instances of perichoresis ‘traces.’  Leithart’s project doesn’t appear to be another Thomist attempt at ‘analogy of being’ (at least how I understand it). This seems far less ambitious than that. Leithart starts with the Divine life (as described in the Bible and the theological tradition) and argues that the inter-relationship between Father, Son and Spirit gives us a window into the nature of creation.  That creation images God is discernible only to those who know the God whom they seek.  I give this book four-and-a-half-stars and recommend it for anyone interested in the nature of revelation.

Notice of material connection, I received this book from Brazos Press in exchange for my honest review.

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