As we celebrate our 50th Anniversary, Bearings Online is highlighting profiles of persons closely associated with Collegeville Institute’s history—that great cloud of witnesses who have accompanied us since 1967, and will journey with us into the future.
“What are you working on?” “The doctrine of the Trinity.”
When Catherine Mowry LaCugna was a 32-year old resident scholar at the Collegeville Institute 1985-86, she reported that her answer usually stunned the questioner into silence. Even many professional theologians reacted with embarrassment at the mention of this “most venerable” and “most crucial” of Christian doctrines.
In her scholarship, LaCugna asked why the Trinity had become marginal in much contemporary Christian thought when it was clearly the vehicle for vital religion in the early Christian centuries. She traced the problem to a shift in emphasis from God’s relationship to the world to a specifically philosophical (and fundamentally inaccessible) focus on the inner life of God.
LaCugna makes clear that Trinity is not weird math, but a clue to the wonder and challenge of the world and our life. She wrote: “The doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately a teaching not about the abstract nature of God, or about God in isolation from everything other than God, but a teaching about God’s life with us and our life with each other.”
In the ensuing three decades, “working on the doctrine of the Trinity” has moved to the center of sustained theological activity. Across the spectrum of traditions and denominations, LaCugna is given major credit for this paradigm shift. Her book, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (1991), is cited frequently. She is not alone, but she is unquestionably preeminent.
Her research took her into some complicated regions of the history of Christian thought, but her aim was neither specialized nor esoteric. LaCugna believed that recovering the original insight of trinitarian thought would help make trinitarian faith real and accessible, with major impact on spirituality, community, and ethics. Getting the doctrine of the Trinity right, she insisted, would go a long way toward authentic renewal of theology and church. Implications of this trinitarian view extended to the role of women in the church. LaCugna was a leading feminist theologian, believing that the “doctrine of the Trinity insists that relationality, not solitariness and least of all biological sex, is at the heart of what it means to be a person.”
Many resident scholars at the Collegeville Institute have found theological companionship with Fr. Kilian McDonnell, OSB, the Institute’s founder. No affinity has been stronger than LaCugna’s. McDonnell has been another fashioner of revitalized trinitarianism, especially in his pioneering work on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. McDonnell and LaCugna wrote a joint article, “Returning from ‘The Far Country’: Theses for a Contemporary Trinitarian Theology,” published in the Scottish Journal of Theology in 1988.
LaCugna died of cancer in 1997, at age 44. She fought the disease hard but didn’t dwell on the unanswerable: “Why does God allow senseless suffering?” “Why is this happening to me?” Rather, she asked a question only she could answer: “How can I cope with this illness so that I remain faithful to God, myself, and others?”
These words from God for Us are chiseled on her gravestone at the University of Notre Dame cemetery: “We were created for the purpose of glorifying God by living in right relationship as Jesus Christ did, by becoming holy through the power of the Spirit of God, by existing as persons in communion with God and every other creature.”
The excerpt below is from a speech LaCugna gave to colleagues when accepting the Charles Sheedy Award for Excellence in Teaching at Notre Dame in 1996, the year before she died. In her talk, she began with a succinct yet thorough discussion of the via negativa, then posited that it is important not just to give students information on a subject but also to “teach and demonstrate the scholarly discipline and art of unknowing.”
Speech by Catherine Mowry LaCugna as she received the Charles E. Sheedy Award for Excellence in Teaching on October 18, 1996 at the University of Notre Dame.
Every great religion in the world has its own answers to the question, who is God? Within Christianity it is axiomatic that God is incomprehensible, that God, though revealed, is not fully known. How, then, can theologians speak of God?
From the very beginning, Christianity was heavily influenced by Greek thought, and developed its own version of what is called the via negativa, the path of negation or unknowing. In order to know God we must “unlearn” what we think we know of God. When we are in communion with the true, living God, often we are quite surprised by how different God truly is from all our expectations and designs. The experience of God’s utter nearness to us manifests God’s “Godness,” if you will – God’s transcendence or “otherness.” Whether we experience God as intimate to our hearts, or as frustratingly absent – and indeed God’s apparent silence can be agonizing in both cases we learn that God is forever beyond our grasp. The attempt to describe these experiences teaches us the impossibility of doing justice to God or to our experience of God. Words, images, and similes are not quite up to the task. The Inexpressible One is exactly that.
Despite our confidence that we truly encounter God, the human capacity for self-delusion in this realm is well-known. Religious traditions steady us, give us a point of reference. In order to make certain that we know the true, living God, and not the God of our fantasies, or philosophical projections, or political manipulations, or psychological needs, or false pieties, we submit ourselves to various forms of discipline, including constant prayer, various ascetical practices, and the discipline of the path of negation. This journey entails denying that any statement we make of God, or any image or name of God, can stand on its own as all-encompassing and entirely true. […]
The whole point of the via negativa is to lead us into the presence of God, by leaving behind all obstacles: images, psychological needs, concepts, or any others. Even the desire for God, Teresa of Ávila says, must be let go. To “see” the God who dwells in light inaccessible our hearts must be purified and our minds enlightened. The path of negation shows the thoroughly limited character of human language, of human concepts and images. Indeed, the very enterprise of “defining” God is revealed to be not just impossible but also idolatrous. The series of negations bring us to what is called apophasis: phasis, speech, apo, away from. In other words, the path of unknowing brings us into silence and adoration before the ever-greater mystery of God.
The combination of negative and positive knowledge of God is a persistent and profound theme in Christian theology. Contemporary Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware compares the via negativa to the work of a sculptor: the artist removes the chunks and fine shavings of marble to reveal the form hidden in the marble block. The sculptor does not leave us with only a heap of marble on the floor. The mode of negation is not a downward spiral into emptiness but an ascent; the darkness of unknowing is not disbelief but a type of knowing. The via negativa leads not into absence or nothingness but into the presence of God who surpasses thoughts, words, and images for God. The discipline of unknowing – and it surely is an asceticism of mind and heart undertaken out of love for God – frees us to let go of every controlling concept or image for God so that the living God may enlighten the darkness of our minds.
While theologians must participate in a real way in utter silence before God, theology is ultimately a form of speech. (Though some wish it would end in silence!) The invisible God becomes visible in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Negative theology thus leads to positive speech about God: God is good; God saved me through the healing miracles of Christ; the Holy Spirit inspired the prophets; God wants me to make this decision; and so forth. But positive affirmations cannot go forward without our first having glimpsed the God hidden in “brilliant darkness,” as the oxymoron goes. Silence leads to halting speech, which leads to deeper silence and adoration, to chastened speech, to silence, and so forth. Theology, and indeed the Christian life, is a matter of knowing God through unknowing.
But the analysis does not end here. The further insight is that knowing through unknowing applies not just to theology but is a cardinal feature of the human mind. All forms of human knowledge participate in the dynamic of knowing through unknowing. It is not just God who is both known and unknown; everything that exists is known through unknowing. While there is truth to the old saying that “the more we know, the more we know that we don’t know,” I am suggesting something further: Unknowing, though it appears in the form of negation, is a positive way of knowing. One hurls oneself into the heart of mystery enshrouded in darkness, and there is found the resplendent light, the brilliance of God’s glory. […]
Our students already know that none of us knows everything. But we also want students to learn to unknow. In my view, this would be the most valuable lesson of all.
Why? Because ultimately, the discipline of unknowing is the root of compassion. Compassion makes it possible to overcome otherness, to bridge the gap between our ideas and someone else’s very different ideas. I cannot see any other way to teach others to become sympathetic readers of texts, or open-minded and generous hearers of others’ views, or loving critics of others’ thoughts, except by helping them leave behind themselves, their ideas, their fixed notions, the many forms of intellectual egotism from which we all suffer, all in order to truly understand. […]
Excerpt courtesy of University of Notre Dame Archives, PNDP 2100-1996.