Lossky: Our Doubled Nature

About six months ago we were looking at Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, where its author, the Catholic cardinal Henri de Lubac was arguing that the purpose of humanity is to come together again as one people. He argued that sin separates us, makes us individual, and that the ultimate goal of humankind is to be united as one – within the bounds of the Catholic church. And there’s always a bit of back and forth on this sort of question – we had this whole thing with Maximus the Confessor, for example – if we really are united as one, can we continue to talk about our individuality in any meaningful way? Doesn’t individuality imply difference or separation? What does unity mean for our sense of self, our sense of identity? De Lubac acknowledges these problems at the opening of his fourth chapter, ‘Eternal Life’: “Does not a certain amount of individualism come back here into its own? How can we go on talking of the social character of a doctrine which teaches the survival of the individual soul?” He offers a couple of solutions, but they’re not really worked out at great length – it’s almost as if he offers them and then rejects them as insufficient.

The first solution is the idea of the heavenly city, where “the saints dwell in fellowship and joy in common … their joy is derived from their community.” That’s a nice image – there’s distinctness and togetherness, we’re all in the same city but we have our individual homes – you can get a sense for what he means. But, he says, “the analogy of an earthly city is too weak to express this [idea]. Among those who are received within this heavenly city there is a more intimate relationship than subsists among the members of a human society, for among them there is not only outward harmony, but true unity.” So he’s not totally comfortable with that analogy.

The second solution is the image of the church as image of the Trinity. This one’s a bit more interesting – it’s brief, again, but there are some intriguing ideas. Our unity in this instance is “like the unity of God Himself … true unanimity, the very consummation of unity, both the image and the result of the Divine Persons among themselves.” De Lubac suggests that “the Christian mysticism of unity is trinitarian,” and quotes Tertullian, who had “a whole series of somewhat clumsy expressions which are in labour with the idea, but fail to bring forth … a trinitarian conception of the Church.” Again there’s a sense of dissatisfaction – in fact, de Lubac ends the section with a Latin quote that really seems to move away altogether from the idea of church as an image of the Trinity: “the end at which we aim is summed up wonderfully in these words: erit unus Christus, amans seipsum [there will be the one Christ, loving himself].” This closing phrase drops the conceptual balance of Trinity – of one and three, of singular and plural – in favour of the singular Christ. In terms of our analogy, it abandons our individuality in favour of unity, tending only to one end of the pole and treating humanity as one undistinguished mass, summed up in the singularity of Christ. It was an unsatisfying section – the ideas are tentative and half-rejected, meaning the basic problem remains unsolved.

However, this idea is also addressed in today’s text: The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, by Russian Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky. In the ninth chapter, ‘Two Aspects of the Church’, Lossky states that “the church is an image of the Holy Trinity.” He offers an enthusiastic endorsement of ideas that de Lubac only seemed to step around: “For the highly concrete sense of the word ‘catholicity’ comprehends not only unity but also multiplicity … the miracle of catholicity reveals in the very life of the Church that order of life proper to the Holy Trinity.” Our mode of existence, Lossky says, is analogous to the life of God. As the divine is one and three, so are we both single and multiple. We are – or rather will be – both individuals and in perfect unity, such that we can speak of humanity as one without devaluing each person’s individuality. The conceptual difficulties that we’ve been facing all drop away – or rather are subsumed under the broader category of conceptual difficulties with the Trinity, which we’re arguably more comfortable with. We’re accustomed to the idea that God is one and three – it’s maybe not more comprehensible, but we are accustomed to it.

This whole conversation also reopens some of our earlier discussions about the nature of perfection. We’ve talked about this previously, again with Maximus the Confessor – but it also came up when we were talking about Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy – it’s been a recurring topic for a while now. There is this pervasive idea that perfection is singular – that there’s only one way that we’re properly supposed to be, and that in the afterlife we’ll all be drummed into place. It’s something you mostly hear from bitchy conservatives talking about our corrupt society and all the rest of it. But this Trinitarian approach offers another line of thought – maybe in our state of perfection we’re supposed to be distinct, albeit connected – both three and one. As Lossky says, “The Incarnation is the foundation of this unity of nature, Pentecost is the affirmation of the multiplicity of persons within the Church.” The second part of that I think often goes neglected – but really we’re probably supposed to have different views, different ways of being. From that view, pluralism and multiculturalism are features of perfection, and not mistakes. What’s implied here is that discussions about ‘perfection’ are never really just pure metaphysics. They are also political projects, about who we’re supposed to be and what type of society we should advocate for. Lossky’s Trinitarian view offers a strong model for defending diversity in all its forms: “This is the unfathomable mystery of the Church, the work of Christ and of the Holy Spirit; one in Christ, multiple through the Spirit.” We are made in the image of one and three, multiple and single. We’re meant to be both.

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