Thursday, November 10, 2011

Book Review: God For Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life by Catherine Mowry LaCugna

Here is another book review I wrote for a seminar this semester. The book is rather dated, but it is an important work for contemporary theology, especially theologies of the Trinity.

Catherine Mowry LaCugna (1952-1997) was a Catholic feminist theologian who taught systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame from 1981 until her death in 1997. She earned her Masters and Doctorate degrees at Fordham University. LaCugna’s only book-length works are God for Us (1991) (winner of the Catholic Press Association’s First Place Award for Theology) and Freeing Theology (1993), the latter being an edited collection of essays on feminist approaches to systematic theology. For those familiar with the landscape of contemporary theology, LaCugna’s God for Us will be somewhat dated. A number of the points she makes are taken for granted in today’s theological discourse. Moreover, God for Us is interesting in that it is not an explicitly feminist work (though she engages with feminist theology at points). Perhaps the fact that she is a feminist accounts for LaCugna’s concern for a Trinitarian theology “from below,” her willingness to embrace a theology of God’s passibility, and the apparent ease with which she calls into question much of Trinitarian theology since the Council of Nicaea.

In the Foreword, LaCugna says that her goal for the book is twofold: (1) that people will pause to think about the doctrine of the Trinity again, and (2) that they will think about it in a new way. Ultimately, she wants the reader to see that the doctrine of the Trinity is not simply an esoteric theory about the “internal self-relatedness” of God, but “an effort to articulate the basic faith of Christians.” Moreover, her contention is that the doctrine of the Trinity is infinitely practical for the Christian life. As she will say multiple times and in various ways throughout the book: “the divine life is our life.” The doctrine of the Trinity is “a teaching about God’s life with us and our life with each other” (1).

Undergirding LaCugna’s entire project is the theological principle (now something of an axiom in contemporary theology) that the “immanent Trinity” cannot be separated from the “economic Trinity.” LaCugna is following in the footsteps of Karl Rahner, who famously asserted that the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity (and vice versa). Although LaCugna nuances Rahner’s position and moves beyond it in some respects, this is the fundamental assumption of the book and LaCugna’s “norming norm,” for evaluating the relative strengths and weaknesses of classical Trinitarian theology. God as God (immanent Trinity) is God for us (economic Trinity). Thus, any ontological distinction between God in se and God pro nobis is deemed to be inconsistent with biblical revelation, early Christian creeds, and Christian prayer and worship. In opposition to the countless theologians who have considered the Trinity “from above” (majoring on metaphysical and ontological discussions of divine persons, processions, etc), LaCugna is proposing a Trinitarian theology done “from below,” focused on the economy of salvation as the arena of God’s revelation as Triune.

To this end, God for Us is divided into two parts. Part One is titled, “The Emergence and Defeat of the Doctrine of the Trinity,” and Part Two is titled, “Re-Conceiving the Doctrine of the Trinity in Light of the Mystery of Salvation.” Despite these two parts, in terms of methodology, LaCugna’s project proceeds in three movements. First, she deconstructs a variety of ways the doctrine of the Trinity has been articulated in the past, arguing that all of them (post-Nicaea) sever the theology of God (theologia) from the economy of salvation in Christ (oikonomia). Second, she retrieves aspects of the ancient tradition and considers it in relation to the works of some contemporary theologians. Third, she reconstructs the theology of the Trinity, revealing the implications of the thesis that God’s being is inseparable from God’s action. In this way, Part One is the deconstruction of classical Trinitarian theology and Part Two is LaCugna’s retrieval and reconstruction of the same.

In Part One, LaCugna provides substantial engagement with the Trinitarian theology of a variety of figures and texts including the Cappadocians, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Gregory Palamas. In each discussion, she attempts to show how their theological projects ultimately fail to maintain the relationship between theologia and oikonomia--hence, they unwittingly represent the “defeat” of the doctrine of the Trinity. Central to Part One is the initial claim that when the Council of Nicaea opposed Arianism by theorizing about the being of Christ (as homoousios with the Father’s being) they were unwittingly dividing theology (considerations of God as God) from salvation history (God’s work in time and space). Before the challenge of Arius, the economy of salvation was central to Christian speculation about God; after Arius, speculation on God “in God’s self” was not only deemed possible but also distinct from reflection on God’s revelation in Christ. In her discussion of Nicene christology, LaCugna specifically indicates the question of God’s suffering as the turning point among the anti-Arian theologians. Because they would not allow that Christ’s real experience of suffering also applies to the Logos (and thereby to the being of the Godhead), they separated theologia from oikonomia.

Issues of space prevent me from detailing the specific ways in which LaCugna engages and evalutates the theologians in Part One. Needless to say, however, LaCugna’s narrative is ultimately a declension, digressing to the point that the theology of God has little to do with the economy of Christ and the Spirit, the themes of Incarnation and grace, let alone the daily Christian life. It is this theology gone awry that LaCugna blames for a contemporary situation in which most Christians are practical monotheists (quoting Rahner; 213). In response to this situation, in the first chapter of Part 2, LaCugna recalls the contributions of Karl Rahner to contemporary Trinitarian theology. She considers anew his assertion of the inseparability of the doctrine of Trinity and the doctrine of salvation and reaffirms his work with some qualifications. At this point, Rahner’s work serves as the fulcrum at which her project pivots away from deconstruction and into retrieval and reconstruction.

In Part Two, “Re-Conceiving the Doctrine of the Trinity in Light of the Mystery of Salvation,” LaCugna’s provides a theology of the Trinity that retrieves the union between the theology of God and the economy of salvation, so that soteriology becomes the starting point of theology. She explicitly denies reducing the Trinity to something that only exists in our experience, but instead wants to revise Trinitarian theology such that there is neither an economic nor an immanent Trinity, but only “the oikonomia that is the concrete realization of the mystery of theologia in time, space, history, and personality” (223). For LaCugna, this is not new, but a return to the biblical and pre-Nicene pattern of thought. She sums up her approach in Chapter 7, “The Self-Communication of God,” as follows: "Oikonomia is not the Trinity ad extra but the comprehensive plan of God reaching from creation to consummation, in which God and all creatures are destined to exist together in the mystery of love and communion. Similarly, theologia is not the Trinity in se, but, much more modestly and simply, the mystery of God. As we know from the experience of being redeemed by God through Jesus Christ, the mystery of God is the mystery of God with us (224).

Elaborating upon her own theological proposal, in Chapter 8, “Persons in Communion,” LaCugna then develops a thorough and detailed ontology of relation, explaining what it means to be a person and to exist as persons in communion. To this end, she engages with a host of theologians, philosophers, and ethicists, including the Cappadocians, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, John MacMurray (a personalist philosopher), John Zizioulas, Patricia Wilson-Kastner (a feminist theologian), Leonardo Boff, Margaret Farley (Catholic moral theologian), and Stanley Harakas (Eastern Orthodox ethicist). LaCugna concludes from engagement with these thinkers what she calls five “notes” of personhood (288-292) and then measures the merits of these notes against “the revelation of divine personhood in the face of Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit” (293).

From this engagement with contemporary reflections on personhood, LaCugna concludes, “When we affirm that the ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity and vice versa, or that God’s energies express the divine essence, we are saying that God’s way of being in relationship with us—which is God’s personhood--is a perfect expression of God’s being as God...God for us is who God is as God” (305). She qualifies this by saying that, in the end, the term “person” applied to God is not a description of God’s essence as it is in itself, but using a term that points beyond itself to God’s ineffability. The proper focus of theology is upon God’s personal reality revealed in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. What matters, ultimately, is holding onto the truth that God is personal and, as a result, “the proper subject matter of the doctrine of the Trinity is the encounter between divine and human persons in the economy of redemption” (305).

The final two chapters in Part Two consist of the practical outworking of her proposed reconstruction of the doctrine of the Trinity. (Doubtless, her emphasis upon the infinitely practical nature of the doctrine of the Trinity would mean her dissatisfaction that I am giving these final chapters such short shrift!) Chapter 9, “Trinity, Theology, and Doxology,” argues that the form of language that best serves and illumines God’s economy is “theology in the mode of doxology” (320). Here, she emphasizes the unity of a life of worship with a life of ethical practice, the entire creation as the fruit of divine love and freedom (she juxtaposes creation ex nihilo with creation ex amore or ex condilectione; 355), and the liturgy of the Church as the “originating context of theology” (such that systematic theology is second order reflection on the worship of the Church; 357). Chapter 10, “Living Trinitarian Faith,” expounds on the human life that enters into the life of God by entering into the life of Jesus Christ, the life of the Holy Spirit, and the life of others. She makes suggestions for “Trinitarian politics” (denouncing patriarchy and proposing “communion among equals”), as well as the ways the doctrine of the Trinity can be envisioned applying in ecclesial life, Christian ethics, sexual ethics, and the spiritual life. Above all, the last chapter advocates the union of orthodoxy and orthopraxis: “The doctrine of the Trinity is orthodoxy, right perception of the glory of God, and it calls for orthopraxis, right response to the glory of God” (410).

It seems that this book review is already exceeding reasonable bounds, so I will attempt to bring it to a close. In Part One, LaCugna shows herself a careful and capable interpreter of the classical Trinitarian tradition. Certainly, I imagine specialists will quibble with the ways she interprets this or that point. Still, I find her account of the post-Nicene division between theology and soteriology (theologia and oikonomia) convincing. Furthermore, I find her constructive work in Part Two to be both intelligent and compelling. Perhaps the fact that her ideas resonate in familiar ways suggests the influence of LaCugna’s work: twenty years later, perhaps many theologians are taking her conclusions for granted. As can be seen from the difficulty I have had condensing the material for this review, God for Us is a very dense and deep work. Yet, I think LaCugna shines in it as an exemplar of feminist theology that is deeply rooted in and engaged with the Christian tradition. Her early death robbed feminist theology, in particular, and Christian theology, in general, of a gifted and winsome scholar.

1 comment:

Randy Stanton said...

Great summary. I am just scanning the book for class and am pleased to see what you pointed out. Thanx