Some thoughts on a polytheist Trinity
The first part of this is a comment to a friend on Facebook about my thoughts on what the Trinitarian Hypostases are. There was a second question she asked, concerning how this works for the Holy Spirit, but my response is too long for thecomments section, so I decided to compile them here along with the first part. These thoughts are still developing, but this is where I am, at the moment, on this issue. I realize I am coming at this from another angle entirely, but my guard rails are in the Christian tradition, particularly Bonaventure (as interpreted by Jordan Daniel Wood), so I would ask for the reader to bear with my possible excesses and unclear statements. The responses have been edited to fit a blog post style rather than a comment.
A heavily simplified difference between modalism and Trinitarianism would be that:
Modalism: One person, three modes
Trinitarianism: One Essence, three persons
But, to be clear, hypostases do not mean “individuals” in Christianity. So, even for trinitarianism, there are not three “persons” in the typical modern sense.
In many ways, trinitarianism is a sort of “reverse” modalism. One essence, three persons is a kind of modalist language, if we are being honest. The difference between this and the heresy, in my opinion, is that the persons are not illusory manifestations of the one essence. There’s also the fact that God is not really an “essence”. The language notwithstanding, many people take “essence” here in ways that befit universals. But, God is not a universal, or a “form” in that usual sense. One of the reasons I like the Monarchian model is its antiquity and the fact that it makes the most sense. There is no universal “separate” essence from which three persons then derive their Godhood. There is the Father who gives all he is to the Son in the unity of the Spirit. In Cutsinger’s words, “It is the Father that is the One God”. We do not worship essences. So, in my reading (I need to expand on it one day), due to divine simplicity, there is no real distinction between the Father’s person and his essence. Remember again, “hypostases” are not “individuals”, lest we become tritheists. The Father is his own Gift to the Son without ceasing to be the Father (this is not a temporal gift where one ceases to exist for another, nor is it essential causation where a form gives itself to a lesser image). His essence is his person, such that the Son is Father to Us (In Isaiah he is called Everlasting Father). “Hypostases” names the content of the Son’s revelation of Himself. There is no “Father” we know independently. We only know ever know, cataphatically, the person of the Son, and only through his deified human nature and never his divine nature as such. We then name the “Absolute principle” of the Son (His Father) through the Son Himself. One might say the Son “personalizes” the Father without being the Father as such. I can’t say much more than this (It requires more than one essay to be honest), but the gist here is that “hypostasis” in Christianity names God’s “relationship” with Himself (and creation) through the fulcrum of the Son, who we understand as the intersection of the divine and the created.
The Spirit, here, is probably the most controversial part of my thesis, that’s why I wrote vaguely on it. It’s hard enough to accept the “non-hypostatic hypostasis” of the Father. It’s even harder to accept the “hypostatic non-hypostasis” of the Spirit. If the “Father” names the absolutely unknowable “nature of Unity” of the Godhead, defined only in non-definition and negation, even negation of negation, as the Athanasian Creed says “NOT-begotten” and “NOT proceeding” (Which means the “monarchy of the Father” cannot be in the manner of the “emanation” of intelligible essences, lesser from greater, since those imply that the Father is an individual above the individuals “Son” and “Spirit”); the “Spirit”, then, names the manner in which this “nothingness” of the Father is “iconic” in the Son. “Spirit” is the power of the Father in the Son, and through the Son. This is going to be hard to explain without some background to my thoughts. I’ve been immersed in the pagan philosopher Proclus for the past year. I found his polytheism extremely useful for helping me understand the Trinity. I follow the interpretation of Edward Butler.
Proclus elaborates the Neoplatonic Triad of “The One”, Intellect, and Soul in interesting ways. For example, he posits “Henads”, “Ones”, “Units” (“hen” = “one” or “unit” in Greek), which are the pagan Gods, who are all absolutely simple (no essence/existence distinction) and are the cause of being, starting with the being of intellect. The mainstream interpretation sees these “Henads” as somehow “between” the One and Being in a “non-hypostatic” way. Keep in mind there is a difference between the “standard” (I need a better word) understanding of Neoplatonic “hypostasis” and the Christian use of the same word “hypostasis”, and that will be important in this explanation. The former means something like “reified object”, “self-subsistent reality”, something like “individual” thing but not exactly, which makes perfect sense. But the Christian use is very vague, especially since it has come to mean “person” for us, however that word is interpreted. In the “normative” interpretation, henads are “between” the One and Being (or Intellect). They are somewhat “dependent” on the One, and yet “are the One”, but “The One” is taken to be a real hypostasis. A real singular (even if unknowable) and separate entity to which henads are attached. Butler disagrees. He takes the One to be a “nominal” placeholder for a henad, any henad, in its capacity as a henad (a “one” or Unit), and not an entity above the Henads. He reasons that if the “Normative” interpretation were true, it would make this “One” (or Unit) above the henads a “superhenad”, and defeat the point of Plato’s radical “apophaticism” (if we can call it that) concerning “the Unit”. If Henads are to be Henads, they have to be “One” and nothing else. “The One” then names the nature of these Henads to be what they are, “all in all” (Sound familiar?) and “all in each”. Every Henad is “the One” that unites every other Henad without them ceasing to be Henads, and is “the One” to the cosmos it constitutes in acting. It is a radical kenosis that is also unitive, both “vertical” and “horizontal”.
It is from here that many thoughts concerning the Trinity have taken shape for me. Jordan Daniel Wood has a paper on Bonaventure’s Trinity that looks almost exactly how Butler describes the One. I made a Twitter Thread explaining the similarities:
“The Father (Dr Wood) or The One (Dr Butler) is not an entity above and against the Son (Dr Wood) or the Henads (Dr Butler). Instead, the very “causative power” of the Father (Dr Wood) or the One (Dr Butler) is to give itself entirely to the Son (Dr Wood) or the Henads (Dr Butler). For Dr Butler, the only alternative is to posit “the One” as an entity “above” the henads, which would mean they are not henads since the usual logic of cause and effect applies. For Dr Wood, the only alternative would be to consent to the “Proto-Father” charge, which posits the Father as an independent entity above the Son like an essential cause to effect. Both reject this alternative. Instead there is “consubstantiality” (Dr Wood) or “connascence” (Dr Butler) of Father and Son (Dr Wood) or the One and the Henads (Dr Butler) respectively.”
Keep in mind that “The One” is still each Henad, in an “unparticipated phase”, now gifting itself existence as the Unique individual “icons of being” that ARE being, Henads manifest in the Monad. This explanation will become clearer later. There is a common thread between Proclean polytheism and Christian theology. This is the priority of person to essence, and the truth of person as “Unity”. Henads are themselves a Unity that straddle many natures in manifest being, just as Christ straddles many natures, iconized in the hypostatic union.
This is where I find the convergence of Proclus and Christianity, despite the former’s hatred for the latter. In henads we find a perfect aid to describe Christian Hypostases. Every Henad is in each Henad, and so it is perfectly correct to describe every Henad as incomparable, the Only God, while acknowledging other Gods. Indeed this is how many polytheisms function. It’s an inclusive unity, one that exclusive monotheism has tried and failed to emulate. It would be a mistake to reduce the various Gods to aspects of a single God, since this is introducing the languages of universal essences (whats) into the logic of persons (whos); the latter by definition must admit plurality, the former functions in a sort of exclusive singularity, definitions of which must involve limitation (a cat is not a dog). Such language does not admit in persons. A person is not defined by what it is not. A person is unique, defined by itself in things that manifests it, and yet in itself defined by nothing, and yet there are multiple persons, otherwise the language of “who” is lost into “whats”. Why can’t “who” be defined by “whats”? Because “whos” unite “whats” together. A person can unite many contradictory things in themselves. “Whats” do not have such power. “Beauty” is related to “Love”, but “Beauty” does not unite “Love”, only a person unites both in themselves without discord, and without itself being united by another higher who, since this reduces the proposed “lower who” to a “what”. And yet, all “whos” contain each other. I am what I am in relation to others, but this relationship does not define “who” I am, the irreducible “I” beyond the accidents of forms and universals. The only way we can reconcile the presence of multiple “whos” to the uniqueness of each “who” is exactly the way Henads are said to function, “all in each”, “all in all”. A person contains every other person in itself without ceasing to be itself and the persons “contained” ceasing to be what they are. Persons are prior to nature, and their relationships in being are determined by the beings they manifest as. This manifestation is never alone. Every God acts with every other God. Creation is the playground of the Gods. This is “Lila”, “Divine Play”. The Gods “power” is not an object beside the Gods, but simply what the Gods can do, and what they do is manifest. This will also be important in my explanation. The emergence of every Henad from non-being to being can be seen from the vantage of one Henad, one God. We can use ours, Yahweh. Remember, this can be said of any God, and yet does not entail that the other Gods are “whats” that are aspects of Yahweh’s “who”.
Yahweh, the One God, incomparable in majesty and beyond majesty, is beyond being, unknowable and inscrutable, as the “One” of all ones. Unbegotten and Proceeding, He is the principle of his own individuation, and as the principle of his own individuation in being. Thus his “hypostasis” (in the Christian sense) is a non-hypostasis. His “non-hypostatic hypostasis” is to give himself completely, to the other Gods and to Being. We are focusing on Yahweh alone, so we look to the latter result of his self-giving person (although we will use the former in the process). Yahweh’s self-gift can be described in Jordan Daniel Wood’s words:
“If the highest vertical act of causality manifests the most intense power of the First “to inflow” the first effect precisely as that effect’s particular (and so lesser) power — and here Bonaventure simply absorbs the Liber de causis — then the Son’s reception of the whole paternal substance and power ineffably fuses, in the Father’s primal power and act, vertical and horizontal structures of act. The fiercest inflow, which is a downward and vertical movement, becomes a total inflow. The power given to the First effect is the entirety of the first Cause’s own power, so that the actualization of this effect is also in a sense the actualization of this cause. This harmonizes with what Bonaventure incessantly chants: “The Son expresses the whole Father.””
In Proclus, the first effect of the One (or Ones) is the Monad of Being, the “icon” of the One, the cause of the essential “ones” (the superessential ones are causeless). The monad of being is the “mixture” of “Limit” and “Unlimited”, or “existence” and “power”. Basically, the fact of the Gods existence and the ability of that God to act. The fact of the God’s existence is the “Limit” of all it creates. Limit here is, in my reading, “end” or “telos”. Christ is the Limit of creation. “Limit” names the Son quite well. I would say “Limit” describes the Son’s unique hypostasis (in the Christian sense). I say this because “Limit” is the existence of the God that “does not exist”. Yahweh gives all He is. But, this is not a temporal loss of being, it is Kenosis. The self-gift of the Father that makes him “nothing” is the simultaneous affirmation of the Son as “Something”, a something manifest in the monad of being, the “icon” of the God according to Butler. The nothingness of Yahweh (Father) manifests as the something of Yahweh the Icon (as Son). “Limit” is “beyond being” (as Proclus says), but not separable from the monad of being. It is the “principle of unity” for the monad, the “participated phase” of the Henad, and therefore “is” that monad in “person” (Christian hypostasis). “Limit” straddles the “nothingness of Yahweh”, what we call the “divine nature” and the “somethingness of being”, what we call the created nature, which is not a nature except as constituted by person (another point JD Wood makes concerning Maximus Confessor’s theology). But “Being” is a “mixture” of both “Limit” and “Unlimited”, “existence” and “power”. Based on the symbolic associations in the history of Christianity and Pre-Christianity, “Unlimited” or “Power” is then that which names the “Spirit”, the hypostatic non-hypostasis. “Limit” cannot straddle the uncreated and created without “Unlimited”, the Son is not the Son without the Power that is the Spirit. But, remember, “power” is simply the Gods in act. But, again, God is his own act, the Father cannot be distinguished from his act without denying simplicity and ending in Tritheism. Here is where the magic occurs, literally.
In the end, there are very sparse depictions of “the Spirit”, as a separate “individual” from Christ, speaks to anyone. It is the “Spirit of Christ”, who is very ambiguous in the text (despite our impositions of Nicean categories on the past). It is Christ who speaks, with the voice of the Spirit. Infact, the Spirit is Sevenfold, and has been identified with an angel, or all the angels, in the past; and angels are logoi, “lesser Logos”, lesser principles of unity. There is a link between the Spirit’s “unlimitedness” and its “multitude”. “The Spirit of Truth” is often Christ Himself speaking. Here, again, it is in the fulcrum of Christ that we distinguish hypostases. Christ is the visible icon of the invisible God, the intelligible icon of the superintelligible God, the something God of the nothing God. Christ cannot be this if his person is not eternally in act. Yahweh, in the “existence” Christ’s hypostasis (in the Christian sense) is eternally “acting” as man, dog, tree, earth, star, stone, etc. This “act” is their very being, their “form” (an ingenious way of seeing the word “act” in metaphysics is as stage acting, the Gods act as this or that, and therefore these things exist. To be lost in illusion is to mistake the act for the person to confuse “what” and “who”, to reduce Christ to the nature and forget the person). This “act” is also the act of every other God, every other individual. It is here the other henads enter our story, although, if you have been following, they were always there. Gods always act together, even if their act in being is first unique, inclusive of all others. Yahweh’s self-gift from non-being is also the self-gift of every other God from the perspective of Yahweh. Being is Yahweh’s playground, and his “uniqueness” must manifest with other Gods. This is also the “Spirit”, the act of other Gods in Yahweh’s story. One of Butler’s piercing statement is that “A God in person is every God in Power”. “Power” is not the property alongside a God reified into an object beside another. “Power”, “Dunamis”, is the act of all the Gods, first through the person of the God in each individual uniqueness, then the Gods as a whole, and finally the Gods as “All” (that three-fold division, one-whole-all, is fundamental in Proclus, and is almost trinitarian on its own. I can’t expand on it here, however). The acts of Gods are ineffable, but these acts, considered as belonging to one God, and yet the acts of many, is the “Spirit” and is unknowable except in the manifestations of being, the “residues” or “glory” of these eternal Gods in act.
In summary, Yahweh gifts himself (without ceasing to be Himself) to being, the existence of which is the Son’s hypostasis (Christian sense), and the acts (power) of which, through the Son’s existence, is the Spirit’s hypostasis. Both “Limit” (Son) and “Unlimited” (Spirit) are beyond being, and yet inseparable from being. To repeat and paraphrase my words from another essay, the Father is the originator and “principle” of the Godhead of persons, the Son is himself the lynchpin by which the persons (Christian hypostases) are differentiated, and the Spirit is “herself” the link of “consubstantiality” between persons” and the link of “identity” between natures in the Son.
Here is the justification for Gerard Loughlin’s claim that changing the sex of the Trinity does not change the metaphysics of the Trinity, because this applies to every God and every Goddess. Here is another side of the doctrine of deification, because every individual is first a Henad, not just the worshipped Gods. “Deliverance” is to realize the Henadic self that transcends created nature. In Christian language, it is to “become Gods”, to be lifted into hypostatic union, to be truly “incarnated”. Because the Spirit is simply the act, or “Possible acts” (potentiality) of the Gods viewed through the hypostasis (Christian sense) of the “Son” (any God as the monad of Being), the “Spirit” is then every single God, including our Henadic selves. All our acts are the acts of every God, differentiated only “through” the Son, but hidden and unknown in him. Thus the “Spirit” does “proceed” from the “Father” and “Son”, because the Father only acts through the Son.
I don’t think I have explained this satisfactorily, and I’m sure this is confusing as hell to those reading, but this is only a commentary I will expand on later, a way to collect my thoughts over the past few months on the topic. Here, I have used the Monarchial Trinity because I think it is the most coherent, and the most in accordance with metaphysics the world over. My understanding of the Spirit aims to unite what is often known as “heresy” with orthodoxy today, mainly because orthodoxy is supposed to unite what on its own would be error or heresy. Here, also, is a framework for a sort of “Polytheist Christianity”, one that takes be best impulses from my perennialist leanings and the best of Christian theology to interpret and understand Proclean polytheism on its own terms. I find here a non-totalitarian way of dialogue with the more thoughtful modern pagans and the many other religious traditions that resists the more infernal impulses Christianity has cultivated in its two millennia of existence. Hail Mary, pray for us now and at the time of our death. May these words be yours and your Son’s to sanctify.