The Differences Between Differences

My first introduction to serious theology was a graduate seminar on the Trinity with Craig Keen. In retrospect, it was a turning point in my life. Previously I had assumed that I would be heading to graduate school in literature, but I found that academic theology grabbed me in a way that no other discipline could. Up to that point, I was likely on a trajectory that would lead me away from Christianity altogether. That engagement with the Trinity — which included Barth, LaCugna, Tanner, and Jenson, among others — set my life durably off course.

As with so many things, my interest was piqued by a certain irritation. I didn’t have a positive alternative, but I couldn’t help but think that everyone was somehow missing the point. They reached for mystery too early, they equivocated about the relationship between God-as-revealed and God-in-Godself, and — the issue that motivates Tonstad’s book — they jumped to strange conclusions about the implications of the Trinity for human community.

I found the possibility of reaching those latter kinds of conclusions appealing for the same reason many people do: it’s great to have a transcendent ground for your normative claims. Tonstad’s great service in God and Difference is to have subtly, gently, but definitively demolished that characteristic gesture of 20th-century trinitarian theology. That she has done so from a perspective that is in so many ways deeply traditional — embracing divine transcendence and the reality of the resurrection — renders it all the more powerful. If subsequent trinitarian theology does not start out in the ground that Tonstad has cleared, then we will have no choice but to conclude what we already suspect (and more than suspect): that mainstream academic theology prefers sentimental moralism to genuine theological rigor. A field that cannot recognize that this is quite simply the best book on the Trinity to be written since Barth revived this theological locus in Church Dogmatics I.1 deserves to be ignored.

The fundamental move in God and Difference, it seems to me, is to remind us that there is a difference between differences. The qualitative difference between God and creation is different from the difference between infinity and finitude, between creation and sin, between man and woman. This may seem obvious, but the easy move of “corrective projectionism” forgets this, installing an analogy among differences that inevitably results in hierarchy — including even within Godself. This leads not only to the bizarre sexualization of internal trinitarian relations, but to the at first seemingly edifying — but, on reflection, utterly horrifying — installation of the cross into God.

Perhaps, as Bonhoeffer famously claimed, “only a suffering God can help.” But a theology that tells us that torture and death are an inescapable necessity, inscribed into the eternal divinity itself, is not good news but the very opposite. “Only a suffering God can help” in the face of human sin — but a suffering God very emphatically does not help if we are thinking even of human finitude, much less the eternal self-enjoyment of God. That sets us down a road where suffering is good for its own sake, a sick and disturbing inverson of God’s salvific intent.

We may do well to revise Bonhoeffer: “Only a resurrected God can help.” And that brings us to an odd inversion: contemporary theology is not scandalized by the cross, but by the resurrection. Or more precisely — since the resurrection has been a site for asserting theology’s relevance to the academic fetishization of “the body” — it is scandalized by apocalyptic. It is the apocalyptic break that, in my reading at least, enables Tonstad to see the radical difference among differences and breaks her account free from that insidious invention of the Antichrist, the analogia entis.

It is the radical apocalyptic perspective that enables her to find a theology symbol as scandalous and offensive as the cross can never again be for us: abortion. What is great about God and God’s salvation (those two inextricably identical yet crucially distinct realities) is not the ways that they reinforce and continue what we are doing. It is not worth having a God if all God does is reflect what we already know and are — up to and including the worst violence and violation we are capable of, world without end. God is great because God stops the cycle of reproduction, making all things new.

It is that cross of apocalyptic that contemporary theology, in its family-friendly and redemptively-suffering modes, cannot bear. And that’s why the gesture of the divine abortion is so absolutely necessary. In a way, it’s analogous to the offense that inevitably arises when the story of the Good Samaritan is retold in modern terms, with an atheist, or Muslim, or LGBT person taking on the role of the Samaritan who helps the man that the good Christians ignore. That this preacherly move is so obvious only highlights the depth of the complacency it punctures when it inevitably ruffles feathers. Similarly, if the cross is an inert symbol for us, a decorative shape suitable for jewelry, the divine abortion lets us grasp the depth of the scandal of the cross for a society that crucified. The analogy is imperfect — on some level, the electric chair might be closer — and yet it seems necessary for our era of Christian family values, to remind us that the apocalyptic hope announces a break in human lineage and reproduction.

This brings us to Tonstad’s most radical move: the rejection of the relations of origin as a way to understand the immanent Trinity. It works on so many levels, but I would trace its root to the apocalyptic horizon of Tonstad’s entire project. The only way to keep us from imagining a God who reproduces our familiar hierarchies is to recognize the God who does not reproduce, full stop. From this perspective, apocalyptic goes “all the way down” — what from our perspective is a disruption to our sinful economy, to our comfortable dwelling in the analogia entis, is from another perspective what God just is, with no need for contrast and exclusion.

Hence, perhaps, the title which juxtaposes without identifying God and difference. That “and” is the apocalyptic break, wherein God stands above, disrupts, and renders radically different all our familiar, all-too-familiar differences.

4 Responses to “The Differences Between Differences”

  1. Daniel Says:

    “The only way to keep us from imagining a God who reproduces our familiar hierarchies is to recognize the God who does not reproduce, full stop.”

    Reminds me of the Koranic emphasis on God as being “neither begotten nor begetting”. Curious to see the same image being used to promote trinitarianism.

    These have been interesting posts. I am enjoying this book event.

  2. Joshua Ralston Says:

    As you might know Daniel, the Arabic verb/root (wa-l-d) in Sura 112 has clear implications of a physical or biological act. Dr. Tonstad’s book and Adam’s reflections on it seem to be important starting points for articulating what Christians do and do not mean in our speech about divine (tri)unity. The turn to light in Tonstad’s work is one promising avenue, and has been explored a bit by early Arab Christian theologians, as has language of breath and speech. Adam’s own response is also vital in challenging those Christian theologians that turn to the Trinity, and some speculative notion of unity in difference, to try to account for religious diversity. All of that to say, there’s many directions to think with and after Tonstad’s work.

  3. Dominic Fox Says:

    “on some level, the electric chair might be closer”

    “If Jesus lived today, we’d all be wearing electric chair necklaces” – Bill Hicks.


Comments are closed.