Trinitarianism and Gospel Narrative

Today is Trinity Sunday and I decided to read some passages from David Bentley Hart’s massive ‘The Beauty of the Infinite‘ which has some wonderful reflections on the infinite beauty of God, who is in His Triune being infinitely peace and beauty. In part 2.1 of the book, Hart discusses Karl Rahner’s simple formula, which Hart claims should be regarded as “axiomatic for all meditation upon the Christian doctrine of God: The ‘economic’ trinity is the ‘immanent’ trinity and the ‘immanent’ trinity is the ‘economic’ trinity.” (p.155) He goes on to lament that liberal Protestant theology’s “dogmatic wasting disease” of abstraction, spiritualization and moralization of the doctrine of the Trinity and in turn made Christ the unique ‘bearer’ (as opposed to unique content) of the Christian kerygma (dogma). (p. 156)

I’ve began to notice this myself, especially in the more analytically driven parts of Protestant theology (even the most conservative). Doctrine has been abstracted from the historical narrative of the Gospel, and in turn becomes improperly understood. I thought some of what Hart has to say here is of extreme importance, and is fitting for the day:

“Trinitarian thought uninformed by the Gospel narratives results, inevitably, in an impoverishment of both that thought and that narrative; hence the importance of the affirmation is that the Trinity as economic or immanent is the one God as he truly is, whose every action is proper to and expressive of His divinity.” (p. 156)

“God does not require creation to ‘fecundate’ his being, nor does he require the pathos of creation to determine his ‘personality’ as though he were some finite subjectivity writ large, whose transcendental Ego were in need of delimitation in an empirical ego; God and creation do not belong to an interdependent history of necessity, because the Trinity is already infinitely sufficient, infinitely diverse, infinitely at peace; God is good and sovereign and wholly beautiful, and creation is gift, loveliness, pleasure, dignity, and freedom, which is to say that God is possessed by the loveliest “attribute”.” (p. 157)

“…as the infinitely perfect reflection of the divine essence that flows forth from the Father, fully enjoyed in the light of the Spirit.. Thus God indeed loved us when we were not, and that he then called us to be (Rom. 4:17) and to participate in the being he pours into us is an act of generosity wholly fitting to, but in no way determinative of, his goodness.” (p. 158)

Finally,

“The maxim stands then as a guard against any kind of nominalism on the one hand, and on the other, any tendency to forget that the dogma of the Trinity is required and defined-and permitted-by the narrative of Christ.” (p. 159)

On a previous post, I made the claim:

“Theology is done from the ground up, and is the language of the church. It is not merely some lofty, dry academic pursuit done in abstraction but is done within the context of participation in the community of believer’s where the Spirit of the Lord is.”

This goes right in line with what Hart is getting at. Theology cannot be done by abstracting and spiritualizing out of the context of Church worship and communal participation in God’s being.

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Counterformational Apologetics

Last year I did a three part series for the Solid Reasons blog on working towards a new type of apologetic approach.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

I’m hoping to devote some time to this subject again, and have some posts on Reformed Epistemology soon.

Death, Suffering, Identity & The Will to Power; A Philosophical, Theological look at Batman V Superman (SPOILERS)

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

-Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

In the previous post we looked at this newest version of Superman, in which he has become a product of our modern secular age. We are haunted by transcendence. Our world has been flattened, disenchanted. He is conflicted, as are we, about what the right thing to do is because we ourselves have thrown off the transcendent grounds to which “the good” is grounded. The “good” is a conversation, not transcendental truths in which we are aimed. It should come as no surprise this is how Superman would be portrayed in the modern age. No identity and conflicted about what is “good” and whether or not its worth it to do good.

Towards a New Batman

As we move to look at this newest inception of Batman, I want to say how much I enjoy this version Ben Affleck is portraying. He is as close to a comic book adaptation as we have ever seen, and he is far and away the best part of the film. I wish the studio would have opted to do a solo Batman film prior to this one. They could have explored the depth and complexity of this Batman, this would have given Batman V Superman much more grip emotionally for the critics and audiences.

What is obvious is the source material for this Dark Knight is essentially right off the pages of Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’. Even Jeremy Iron’s ‘Alfred’ had some lines that were word for word from a panel in DKR.

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The differences are the worlds in which these Batmen, so to speak, are placed and exist in. Affleck’s Batman is essentially thrown into the world started by Man of Steel, and he is blinded by his rage and is going to kill Superman because of the possible future threat he could pose to the world. Miller’s Batman is even older than Snyder’s version, and is very close with Superman since they worked together for years. Superman, in the Dark Knight Returns, is essentially a government pawn who does the bidding of politicians who have outlawed superheroes all together outside of Superman. Gotham is getting worse and worse with crime getting more violent, Batman returns to bring justice back to the city against the will of the Gotham City police and United States government. Their are significant similarities between the two versions of Batman, but also significant differences remain since they are telling different stories.

An Identity Rooted in Death & Suffering

In Batman V Superman, we meet a Bruce Wayne who is broken. He has lost nearly every one he has gotten close to and loved, and is weary from his time wearing the cowl. The introduction of Batman in this movie is a frightening one. You get the sense that people are terrified of the Dark Knight, as the women who he rescued from sex trafficking refuse to leave their cell because of how scared they are of “it”. The opening scene of the movie is the funeral of Wayne’s parents, and subsequently a scene of his parents death. We get the sense that Bruce still finds himself trapped at the scene of his parents death. He has, whether intentionally or unintentionally, rooted his identity in death. His identity as Batman is grounded in the death of his parents, every time he stops a crime or fights a criminal, he is essentially chasing an echo which emanates from the moment his identity was formed.

It is not only his parents death Bruce seems to be haunted by, but the death and corruption of the good guys around him. He remarks to Alfred “20 years in Gotham, how many good guys are left? How many stayed that way?” He is beaten down, cynical and is in constant agony over what has happened to him and those around him. All of this pushes him towards his complete lack of trust in Superman (not to mention the destruction that happened because of the events in Man of Steel), and why he feels the need to kill Superman before its too late and Superman turns on the world.  He has rooted his whole identity in suffering and death, this is what defines not only Bruce Wayne, but Batman as well.

The Will to Power

Toward the latter portion of the movie when we find our heroes duking it out, Batman remarks to Superman:

“I bet your parents taught you that you mean something, that you’re here for a reason, my parents taught me different lesson: dying in the gutter for no reason at all. They taught me the world only makes sense if you force it to.”

Here we see what Bruce has come to believe about the world and existence. We find the post-modern understanding of the existence of being as “primordial and inevitable violence” (Hart, 2003, p. 5). Suffering is random, and life only makes sense if you force it to. Life for Nietzsche:

“Here we must beware of superficiality and get to the bottom of the matter, resisting all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation…not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power.” (Nietzsche, 1886, p 203)

We find this narrative to be exemplified by this inception of Batman.

Moving from this view of life, we also see this Batman participating in gruesome violence. We view him actually killing criminals, how many is not certain. While this is not a big departure from the character since other inceptions of the Dark Knight have killed (yes even Bale’s Batman killed), it is startling and really sets the tone for this version. They attempted to show the change Batman incurs from (SPOILERS) the death of Superman, and he seems to be turning back towards the character we have known historically who is principled and does everything in his abilities not to kill senselessly.

Some Final Thoughts

What interests me with superhero/comic book movies is how much these heroes represent our cultural times. Whether that’s our confusion about moral truth, and if its binding on all humanity, or if life is essentially the will to power;

While Superman can be seen as the exemplar of the modern societies moral and spiritual dilemma, Batman represents the post-modern rejection of even the confusion about these things. Life is appropriation and at the bottom primordial and inevitable violence. Life only makes sense if you force it to, you are not here for a purpose. Life is summed up by dying in a gutter for no reason at all. Batman has gotten to this place from his identity being shaped and rooted in the death of his parents and those close to him; participating in liturgies of violence which only further form and shape the kind of “hero” he has become.

Works Cited:

Hart, David Bentley; 2003, The Beauty of the Infinite

Nietzsche, Fredrich; 1886, Beyond Good and Evil

The Secular Age; A Philosophical, Theological look at Batman V Superman (Part 1)

“God is not an object of desire; he is the end that makes desire.” 

-David Bentley Hart

Batman V Superman is, by my estimation, one of the most divisive films I’ve ever seen. The critics overwhelmingly hate it, a good majority of the fans love it. I am one who really enjoyed the film, albeit not without some major critiques of narrative, structure and the over all plot trajectory. This movie had so much potential, but it at once had too much going on within it, and at the same time didn’t have enough to satisfy.

My goal in here is stated within the title of the post: a philosophical and theological look into Batman V Superman; Dawn of Justice.

I want to mainly explore the two main heroes in the film: Batman and Superman.

A Secular Superman

What I find so interesting about this film is how utterly modern it is, especially when it comes to the debate of what constitutes ‘the good’. Holly Hunter’s character Senator Finch has a line that sums up the message Snyder and company are seeking to convey when they speak of the ‘good’ in our modern context: “The good is not a unilateral decision…the good is a conversation.” She makes reference to what the good is in a democratic society, but I think this applies much more broadly to our current modern, ‘secular age’. (in a Charles Taylor fashion)

Taylor in his monumental work ‘A Secular Age‘ seeks to understand how within 500 years our society has gone from atheism being somewhat of an impossible position to take, to atheism being basically the default position. Jamie Smith sums up Taylor’s take on our secular age:

“Ours is a “secular” age, according to Taylor, not because of any index of religious participation (or lack thereof), but because of these sorts of manifestations of contested meaning. It’s as if the cathedrals are still standing, but their footings have been eroded.” (Smith, p.12)

Our age is “haunted”, and we cannot escape the call and knocking of the transcendent. This is evident in the way Snyder and company has approached the Superman character, they employ the comparison of Kal El and Jesus Christ. In Man of Steel it is beyond obvious this is the case.

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Snyder has spoken at length about Superman’s mythology being linked to Christ. This incarnation, so to speak, of Superman represents the very thing Taylor is showing about our current age. We are haunted by transcendence, even though we have attempted to throw off all things pre-modern. There are problems attempting to link “God” and Superman together, since theologically speaking:

“God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being.” (Hart, p. 30)

Superman, on the other hand, is not anything like God. Maybe some demi-god fashioned in our own image, but surely not the God of the theistic traditions.This is the issue of Lex proclaiming “God vs. man”. It becomes all too illuminating. It speaks to the modernist tradition (enlightenment period) of our attempt to overthrow God and conquer the universe by objective rationality and show that we are autonomous and have no need for “fairy tales” and hokey religion (in the words of Han Solo) to fill in the gaps when we do not understand something in reality. Not to mention the remark of “If God is all loving, He cannot be all powerful, and if He is all powerful he cannot be all loving” speaks to the new atheist (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris) monumental ignorance when it comes to understanding how the metaphysical categories of God are understood in the theistic tradition. We won’t delve into that now, but one thing to be said is that to put anthropomorphic categories onto God is a failure to grasp the fundamental nature of God. His distinctness from the created order. He is not constrained to our finite capabilities, and is not bound one way or another by finite human categories.

Superman in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman speaks to our modern secular age being haunted by transcendence. Our secular age is one of the contestability of every belief, not by the amount of religious participation (or lack thereof). What is even more striking is the conflict Superman still feels now, even though he has been doing it for about 2 years. This conflict speaks to the heart of our modern age: an attempt to deposit meaning within the thing itself, rather than the object as a pointer towards the meaning outside of itself. We desire justice and truth, but we have abandon the very thing in which these things have their ground (God). Superman wants to do what is right and good, but what is right and good is not merely ontological truth’s to which we are aimed, but as the Senator would say they are a “conversation”. They are decided by the consent of the governed. Hence Superman has no real identity outside of what others say he is. This is conflicted as well, and this is where I think Snyder has really failed to give the character of Superman justice (no pun intended). Superman does what is good not because of what others decide is good, but because good is an end in itself.

What interests me about this movie, and others in this age of comic book movies, is how much our culture is represented by these characters. In the next post we will take a philosophical look into the other main character in Dawn of Justice: Batman.

 

References:

Hart, David Bentley (2013-09-24). The Experience of God. Yale University Press.

Smith, James K. A. (2014-05-01). How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Hope.

“Will it really be all men who allow themselves to be reconciled? No theology or prophecy can answer this question. But love hopes all things (1 Cor 13:7). It cannot do otherwise than to hope for the reconciliation of all men in Christ. Such unlimited hope is, from the Christian standpoint, not only permitted but commanded.”

-Hermann-Josef Lauter

The Sojourner

“…the Word of God in the human being; for he was not bound to the body, but rather was himself wielding it, so that he was both in it and in everything, and was outside everything, and at rest with the Father alone. And the most wonderful thing was that he both sojourned as a human being, and as the Word begot life in everything, and as Son was with the Father. Therefore he himself did not suffer when the Virgin gave birth, nor by being in the body was he defiled, but rather he sanctified the body also. Nor, being in all things, does he partake of all, but rather everything bore life and was nourished by him. For if the sun, too, made by him and seen by us, circling in heaven, is not polluted by touching bodies upon earth, nor is destroyed by darkness, but rather itself enlightens and purifies them, by so much more the all-holy Word of God, the maker of the sun and Lord, when being made known in the body was not polluted, but rather, being incorruptible, vivified and purified even the moral body.” -St. Athanasius, On The Incarnation, p. 67 

‘The Revenant’, Suffering and the Ethics of Beauty

“…he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” -2 Peter 1:4

“Who and what is the God who is to be known at the point upon which Holy Scripture concentrates our attention and thoughts?” -Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline

“…the good is an eternal reality, a transcendental truth that is ultimately identical with the very essence of God. God is not some gentleman or lady out there in the great beyond who happens to have a superlatively good character, but is the very ontological substance of goodness. The good is nothing less than God himself, in his aspect as the original source and ultimate end of all desire: that transcendent reality in which all things exist and in which the will has its highest fulfillment.” -David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, p. 253-254

It’s always interesting when two separate interests collide and speak to one another. I’ve been slowly and deliberately making my way through David Bentley Hart’s ‘The Beauty of the Infinite’, and I have recently viewed the movie ‘The Revenant’ and was struck a heavy load unto my heart and mind after viewing it. Reading Hart’s work informed a lot of how I interpreted the movie, mostly from a philosophical and theological position and not so much a historical or sociological interpretation. This isn’t really going to be a review of the movie either, just a discussion on various themes that came to my mind as I watched.

The ‘Beauty of the Infinite’ is a densely breathtaking essay on “theological aesthetics.” Hart’s concern and objective for the essay (in his words) is:

“…a defense of the suasive loveliness of Christian rhetoric, as the coincidence without contradiction of beauty and peace, can be undertaken according to the opposition between two narratives of infinity: one that conceives of the infinite in terms of a primordial and inevitable violence, and one that regards the infinite as originally and everlastingly beautiful.” (p.5)

What struck me about ‘The Revenant’ was the overwhelming commitment to the idea of the infinite, or being, is to its core just inevitable violence. Along with the gratuitous beauty that surrounds the overwhelming suffering in these scenes. This is where the post-modern metaphysical critique comes into play, and most specifically the work of Frederich Nietzsche. Especially in his idea of “the will to power”, in which Nietzsche attempts to show that every absolute statement is a power grab of sorts, a type of control from one person over another. It’s more complex than how I just stated it, as Nietzsche himself proclaimed:

“Here we must be aware of superficiality and get to the bottom of the matter, resisting all sentimental weakness: life is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest exploitation… life simply is will to power.” (Beyond Good & Evil, 203)

This is a theme throughout the entire film, the will to power. It is a brutal and grueling sight to behold as Glass (DiCaprio) seeks to have vengeance against a man in Fitzgerald (Hardy) for the wrong he has done to him. Coming back around to the problem at hand, the ethics of beauty and the will to power are pervasive themes and struck a deep nerve with me as I watched the film. Hart puts it eloquently:

“There is, moreover, an undeniable ethical offense in beauty; not only in its history as a preoccupation of privilege, the special concern of economically and socially enfranchised elite, but in the very gratuity with which it offers itself…its anodyne sweetness often seeming to make the most intolerable circumstances bearable: a village ravaged by pestilence may life in the shadow of a magnificent mountains ridge…Cambodian killing fields were often lushly flowered…” (p. 16)

This is utterly undeniable in the case of The Revenant. Not even just this film, but of life in general. If we take Nietzsche’s ontological claim seriously, it is striking and hauntingly prophetic. What leaped at me was my seeming flippant attitude towards these ideas; how much I was struck by the suffering not only historically of various groups of people, but of the suffering of creation and how much death and brokenness is to be found. This had not sat well with me, and I could do nothing but ask that inevitable question: “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps 8:4) and “How long, O Lord will you hide your face?” (Ps 13:1)

This is where Hart seeks to offer an alternative ontology of being, one that is not inevitable violence but one of beauty and peace. This is the uniqueness of the Christian rhetoric, and the triune God is from which all being subsists and finds its origin. His being is eternally beauty and peace. Hart’s thought is heavily indebted to Gregory of Nyssa, and towards the end of the book gives a thought about the conclusion to be drawn from Gregory’s thought about Christian eschatology (to quote at length):

“A conclusion can be drawn from Gregory’s thought is that Christian eschatology…must inevitably subvert every kind of presumptuous discourse that would strive to put an end to the deferrals of difference. The eschatological -which remains a word of hope, a paschal evangel that denies death its tragic splendor- functions as a promise that the verdict of God is on the side of the particular, the name and face of the one lost, that his justice is not a transcendental reconciliation between chaos and order,violence and rest, but a reconciliation of the infinitely many sequences of difference. Which is to say that the promise that justice will never forget the other, that the other will always be blessed with an infinite regard and charged with infinite worth: not because the other belongs to an abyss of the ethical, but because the other belongs to the infinite beauty of the surface; because, as this eschatology insists, the entire weight of the infinite in which all things share, this infinite and infinitely various music, rests upon each instance, requires every voice.” (p. 411)

We as Christians do not own ourselves or our being but “belong from everlasting to Christ” (p. 411), and are freed from death by His work (life, death & resurrection), and are in wait until His return. Until then, we must, as Hart puts it so beautifully:

“…until that unending end that we await, though, our words may speak of him, invoke him on others, beckon others to him peacefully…” (p. 411)

As we beckon others and speak the Word, we must do it in the cadence of the infinite, as Hart puts it:

“…eternally beauty and peace…” (p. 411)