The Catholic Thing
The Modern Amputation Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Thursday, 29 March 2012

A few years ago my family and I attended a Trinity Sunday Mass at a parish that isn’t our own. On the way over, we bet on whether at least one of the four hymns sung would have anything to do with the Trinity. My wife, who pegged the odds at precisely zero, turned out to be correct.

I expected that the priest would say something about the Trinity during his homily. He did, but I wish he hadn’t. All he said was that the Trinity was something that we could never understand – which is true enough, but not at all helpful. He did mention that the Trinity had something to do with love. In general, he left the congregation with the impression that the Trinity was one of those odd holdover doctrines that we believe, but aren’t really central to our worship.

How far, how terribly far, from the great prayer of Dante in the Paradiso: 

          O Light that dwell within Thyself alone,
             who alone know Thyself, are known, and smile
             with Love upon the Knowing and the Known!

It is crucial that we understand why Jesus commanded His disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Baptism initiates us into the Christian life, by incorporating us into the Church, the Body of Christ. But that cannot be, unless we are also welcomed into the life of the Trinity.

If we believe that we have been made in the image and likeness of God, and that we find our human fulfillment in that supra-human power and wisdom and love, then to mistake that we are meant for the Trinity is to mistake how we are meant for God, and that, as Christians must hold, is to mistake what we are as human beings.

The danger of monotheism without the Trinity is that it will eventually shade away into the abstract and impersonal. Judaism is the obvious exception to this rule – an exception, however, clinched by the intense personalism of the revelation of God in the Old Testament.

Even the sacred name given to Moses, “I am Who am,” which rightly appears to be the name beyond names that such philosophers as Aristotle and Plotinus were searching for, may also be taken to mean, “I am with you always” – in other words, “I am that personal God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who have adopted you as my own people.”  

But those forms of Judaism that efface the chosenness of Israel eventually lose the personhood of God and degenerate into mild ethical systems; as neo-Platonism loses the personhood of the mind by attempting to attain union with the impersonal One; as Islam loses the personhood of Allah, and confuses God with fate or with bald unreasoning power.

         The Holy Trinity by Antonio de Pereda, c. 1650

Our own secular monotheism without the Trinity has its source, and its sad end, in an amputated anthropology. We bow down in worship of liberty, which for us means non-interference, doing as we please, like miniature Allahs, with a vast legal tangle to keep one Allah from stubbing his feet against the solitary dreams of the Allah next door.

Thus do we misunderstand both God and man. We mistake the individual for the person, and we mistake the collective for the community. We would do neither, if we kept the Trinity firmly in mind.

The essential mistake of liberalism – of whichever political flavor  – is the refusal to admit that an “individual” is an abstraction. We are persons, and personhood implies relationship. We are born into a web of relations that not only form us but exert just claims upon us: I am a son, brother, husband, father, student, teacher, friend, citizen.

The liberal sees the relations as essentially restrictive; but they are so in the sense that having legs is restrictive. My bones delimit me, but they allow me to walk across the room. Having one mother and one father is delimiting also; but by them I came into the world, and learn what it is to love – which is to say, to be truly human.

I am to honor my mother and my father, to love my home and my neighbor. Moral laws are not No Trespassing signs erected arbitrarily by a Great Forbidder. They are personal and loving guides, revealing to us where joy is to be found – joy proper to persons.

The inability to distinguish between the individual and the person is reflected in an inability to distinguish between a collective and a communion. The Trinity is not a collective. In fact, it is just because of the persons that the Trinity cannot conceivably be a collective.

For a collective is an abstraction. It implies no personal affection, no special duty or love owed to this person rather than that; it cherishes no traditions handed down from one generation to the next; it is, like the individual, strangely ahistorical and incorporeal. It operates not from deeds of love and wisdom undertaken by one person for another person, but rather by procedures, like the levers and pulleys of a great machine.

In education fit for a collective, the “right” objects of study are determined by the “right” educrats and are decreed universally, without regard to distinctions between country and city, or one way of life and another. Such education will typically coexist with forms of libertinism.

The amputated person is “free” from interference by those to whom he should be most intimately bound; free, then, to be corralled into that desiccated community, the collective, which must be established if for no other reason than to contain the libertine disorder.

When we see families and neighbors united in prayer to the source of all personhood, we are witnessing something that the would-be directors of the collective, who grant us an enslaving license and call it liberty, despise.

Perhaps they understand the Trinity – its promise to us, and its threat to them – better than they know.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College.
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written by Achilles, March 29, 2012
Fantastic essay! A little sad and scary too. But so much explanitory power.

"We mistake the individual for the person, and we mistake the collective for the community."

Not just an excellent line, but excellently unwrapped and clarified. You shine bright light on dark places and it is unsettling becuase it is so true. Pax et bonum!
written by Brian A. Cook, March 29, 2012
How do you explain liberals who say that we must take care of one another? How do you explain liberals who appeal to human love? How do you explain liberals who say that government needs to lend a helping hand instead of lording over the populace like the Taliban? How do you explain liberals who say that we must preserve the environment for future generations?
written by Jacob, March 29, 2012
I smell a book title:

America: Nation of Allahs
written by jsmitty, March 29, 2012
I normally am among the critical commenters when your pieces appear Tony...which is why it's only fair to tell you that I think this piece actually hits the nail on the head..Good job!!!.no sweeping baseless generalizations, little polemics and wild mischaracterizations of those who disagree with you, no nostalgia for the lost world of classics ....just some solid analysis of the importance of the core truth of our faith.

As I reflect on this, I wonder if the current problem of our society vis a vis God has much to do with a misunderstanding of who God really is...when a person says "I don't believe in God" maybe our response should not be "Damn...another bloody atheist, one of Dawkins' minions...." but rather, "Really....what God is it that you don't believe in?" How often will the answer be some non-Trinitarian, monotheistic christianoid caricature of the God of the Bible.

In which case, we should say, "I don't believe in a God that's anything like that either..I Believe in Jesus of Nazareth; if we see him we've seen the Father!"

In other words, maybe alot of secularism is not so much a rejection of CHristianity at all, but a rejection of a bastardized pop-CHristianity that elides the most central mystery of all--who GOd really is!!!

written by Tony Esolen, March 29, 2012
Manfred: We were going to that Mass because on that particular day we had no better choice. Our own parish is splendid. I assure you that at our own parish, on Trinity Sunday, there is always a great celebration of the Holy Trinity, and we sing Trinitarian hymns.

I am annoyed by liturgical stupidities, and since I teach poetry for a living I am acutely conscious of the sheer awfulness of most of what passes for hymn-writing these days. And yet Jesus deigns to be present at Masses with awful music, celebrated by liturgical blockheads. I try in such cases to keep my mind on that fact. That's not to excuse the stupidities or, far from it, to excuse catechetical treacheries...
written by Achilles, March 29, 2012
Dear Brian A,

Msgr. Charles Pope’s blog today has the title “Kindness can kill if love is unwilling to wound.” This line would seem to cover much of what you apparently have trouble understanding.

The gospel message compels us Catholics to “take care of one another.” However, this has been turned on its head by the leftist liberal agenda and looks more like enabling other’s addictions rather than taking care of one another in the Catholic sense.

When you talk about “appeal to human love”, I don’t know what exactly you mean, a woman just married herself, another married a warehouse and stranger and more perverted unions are taking place under the false banner of “love”. The love we strive for is divine love. We strive to love others and Christ loves us, not as our appetites and desires would dictate. Dostoyevsky said in Brothers Karamazov something like “love in real life is a terrible and awful thing when compared to the love of dreams.” If you mean to justify or legitimize homosexual relationships, that is a very unloving thing to do where tolerance is confused for love.

You comment that “government needs to help instead of lording like the taliban” is very strange. We in the Catholic Church believe in the concept of subsidiarity and recognize the traditional family unit as the building blocks of civilization. When a govt. does things a family should do, that is a sign of an unhealthy society. The closest thing to the Taliban this country has ever seen is the Obama Administration that encourages all of us to see ourselves as “little allahs” while trying to force us to be genies in bottles.

The environment? Let’s not get started on that.

The leftist liberal mindset is untenable for many reasons and much ink has been spilled on the subject by Popes and scholars alike. The main problem with this mindset is that it does not square with reality. It drastically reduces the human to scientific unrealities. Please reread Professor Esole's excelent essay.

Brian, I hope you find what you are looking for. Achilles
written by Tony Esolen, March 29, 2012
Smitty: Thank you for the kind words. I've written before that Dawkins and his fellows pride themselves on not believing in Mr. Apollo. Well, I don't believe in Mr. Apollo, either. I could only wish that he'd condescend actually to find out what Christians do believe.
written by Bill Patenaude, March 29, 2012
This is an excellent piece to reflect on as Holy Week approaches. Thanks much!
written by Eric Bergerud, March 29, 2012
Liberalism is a very tricky term and I've watched it redefined in my lifetime. In the 19th century "liberal" was a term that exalted the individual. That is why today's "libertarians" are the true heirs to people like Smith or Bentham. This view was rightly, in my view, attacked by JPII among others. The Darwinian world of the Herbert Spencer, Ayn Rand or Grover Gardner has no place in Christianity. New Deal liberalism was a different animal. It presupposed that society was greater than the sum of its parts and that a benign government had a place to play in mitigating the individual's freedom to fail. In a world conditioned by Christian ethics, this view, I believe was valid. In a world without them, the state can menace. But I do not want 21st century Catholics to become apologists for Ayn Rand (an atheist and a miserable author) because they have profound misgivings of secular society. Ultimately the secularism that threatens the faith is based just as firmly on the love of money by the winners in the market jungle as it is by the arbitrary desire for power pursued by the secular state's political organs.
written by Manfred, March 29, 2012
Tony Esolen: Thank you for your reply. My comments focused on two points:
1. Marks points out that 80%-90% of Catholics live in an objective state of mortal sin.
2. Benedict's remark that he knows the Church is Divinely guided because It has survived the millions of homilies given on Sundays.
Your focus is hymns, while mine is words. It is largely the words which have led Catholics into believing they are living in a state of grace while in reality they are living in sin. It won't be academic when we die and we are consigned to Hell because we believed in the spirit of Vat. II and other heterodox and heretical teachings.
written by lotr, March 30, 2012
Of course, the Tridentine Mass is explicitly Trinitarian right down to its core, so I would heartily and charitably recommend that the author and his wife begin attending them...
written by Nancy de Flon, March 30, 2012
You don't mince words, do you, Tony? "Liturgical blockheads" indeed! Unfortunately, the church is infested with them and with far too many "composers" who trivialize the word of God by setting it to unbearably trite music--or worse yet, by providing trite and trivial words of their own, almost inevitably with not a little touch of narcissism. I look forward to meeting you, Tony!
written by Tony Esolen, March 30, 2012
Thanks, Nancy!

To Eric: I try to use the term "liberal" to refer to the libertarianism of both left and right; I use "leftist" to refer to the hard statism (and sexual revolutionism) of the current crop. I've written a good deal about the difference between liberty and autonomy -- and believe, with my friend David Hart, the orthodox theologian, that Ms. Rand is just appalling...
written by Gail Finke, March 31, 2012
I really enjoyed this commentary. It's true, today we do not think of people as whole persons -- a combination of body and soul, who live in relationship to others. We think of people as sovereign individuals who are ultimately free to do whatever they want to do, without reference to anyone else or anything else. And this is reflected in most modern hymns and church songs, or at least the ones I hear in my parish.

The first time I ever heard some of the more traditional hymns that addressed the Trinity, I was in my late 30s. They blew me away. I could not have said why, then -- they simply told me that there was much MORE to things than the simplified, "be nice to the poor, you selfish, oppressive person" songs I was used to. There is more to God than that, there is more to people than that. The current reductionist "do whatever you want" philosophy profoundly trivializes people. It says nothing matters. People are not capable of much, there is nothing to them but whims and none of the whims are objectively different from any others. When society and the Church tells you that you really can't do anything THAT bad, it also means that you can't do anything THAT good. You are mediocre, and in fact, everything and everyone is mediocre.
written by Grady, April 01, 2012
Brian, there is no answer to the questions you pose because they do not match what is in the heart of the liberal. I am saying this with empathy and understanding for I grew up in a household of liberal bitterness. It wasn't until I had children of my own that I decided I did not want the same for them. To rid myself of the bitterness I had to do a great deal of praying and soul searching. I also had to overcome the strong feeling of betrayal to my family. In my own journey I discovered the liberal was not journeying toward any of the things they claim to care about but in reality were attempting to destroy and run from the things that caused discomfort to their own self worth. In essence they despise the mirror provided by the things of higher calling no matter what form it came in I.e., music, liturgy, personal responsibility, great historical figures of virtue, non-negotiable truths, etc.. Hence the environment, the self, the government and anything else that can "level the playing field" and bring about "fairness00" becomes the new god. I see in your many post much of what I grew up with and what I have fought for years in myself. I do not wish to change your politics but the anger you seem to have and what I fully relate to. I found it by following the Church in the way she describes herself as opposed to the way I had described her. Once I did much of what I was angry about went away. God bless you and your search for the Truth.

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