Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The One, the Three and the Many

I am now only 16 years behind the theological world thanks to my recent read of Colin Gunton's 1992 The One, the Three and the Many. Though by now its best and most original points have made their way through to other theological works, this remains a very important book.

The subtitle says it is about God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity but it might more helpfully be described as How Trinitarian Thought Speaks to the Constant Back and Forth Between Individualism and Collectivism That Has Been Perpetuated by Modernism and Postmodernism Alike.

But that would be a long subtitle, and still doesn't help much. So here are some of the lines that typified the book and stuck out to me the most.

First, and most simply: "Freedom requires otherness" (37). The idea that freedom is one individual being able to do whatever one individual wants completely ignores our social construction as individuals and drastically undersells the slaverys a person can be under even when one is alone. This short and simple statement points to an important truth, I think, which is that whatever freedom is, it is experienced only as part of a social dynamic. Which leads to a critique of modernism, including modern Christianity:

"The Christian tradition itself tended to take an individualist direction, locating human particularity in the possession of a soul or some qualification of inwardness. It maintained one dimension of human relationality, the vertical, but not the other, the horizontal. To be was to be in internal relation to God, but not, essentially, to the neighbor or the world. So it is with modern doctrines of the human. The thought that our freedom comes to us from God is not inconceivable for the modern mind; the thought that it also comes from each other, as a function of our relationality, almost is" (65).

Gunton goes on to explain that in this mindset "freedom is almost invariably freedom from the other . . . . The other becomes the person or thing from which one must escape or over which one must rule if one is to be human" (71). And "when individual self-contemplation becomes the basis of the self, rather than the relation to the divine and human others on which our reality actually depends, [tragically and ironically] the self begins to disappear" (117-118).

This book isn't just a push for postmodernity, however. Mere pluralism and tolerance are no strategy for the freedom to be found in real communion. "Whereas modernism tried to come to grips with the ‘other’ by excluding it, postmodernism simply seeks to render it irrelevant. The underlying fear of it continues unabated" (69). So Gunton asks: "Is there no mean between the [individualistic] kind of ethic of self-fulfillment – the quest for relations by the essentially unrelated – which is so dominant in the liberal democracies, and the subordination of the many to the needs of the collective that still marks many political systems in the world?" (151-2).

As one might expect, Gunton finds resources for an answer in the doctrine of the Trinity; resources which no other concept seems able to supply: The one and many are brought together in the three-in-one. Indeed, if the perfect union of three persons is what makes up the Godhead, it can be understood that from this might be derived the concepts that give fabric to a human community beyond our wildest dreams.

More could be said, but that gives a pretty good taste of what the book had to say. It was a provocative book and succeeded in driving Trinitarian theology even more to the forefront in the years to come, for good reason. It made some very insightful critiques of our modern individualism on one hand and our postmodern pluralism on the other, while showing how the biblical revelation of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the self-giving love shown in Christ just might offer the best foot forward.

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