Friday, 9 March 2012

What makes a thing a thing?

One question that has bothered me since I can remember is ‘what makes a thing a thing?’  That is, does merely existing at a certain time, in a certain space, make a thing a thing?  This probably seems an odd place to start a discussion on the Trinity, but hopefully it will become clearer as I go on. 

In my doctoral studies I have spent a great deal of time thinking about what it is that makes a given object an art object.  Obviously, there are almost as many answers as there are people who have ever looked at an object and thought, ‘Ooh, I like that!’  The point is though that there are a recognisable class of objects which we more or less collectively describe as being art.  The history of art has led to various challenges as to who or what is authorised to say whether such and such an object has the status of a work of art, not least Duchamp’s famous upturned urinal, (1917) Fountain.  In this sense, the thing-ness (to mimic Heidegger’s vocabulary) of art, that which is most essential to it as what it is, is not as simple as saying that it just is.  We could say then that what makes an art object the thing that it is are the network of institutional discourses that work to legitimise certain types of objects over and above other objects: art is what certain authoritative people say that it is. 

That cannot be all to be said about the matter though, because along with being institutionally constituted art enacts a play of the conceptual and the material which resists whatever discursive networks may have to say about it.  It is because of this base materiality that the thing-ness of art is more than just what we can say about it.  Where we would like to see a stable category (i.e. ‘art’), we find an elusive fluidity that slips away from even our power to name; we know that it is, but we don’t always know how it is.  And this point about stable categories is pivotal, because if post-Enlightenment modernity is about anything it is about the obsessive categorisation of the world according to what Foucault called the will to knowledge.  The inevitable collapse of this project into a post-modernity that threw a de-centred subject adrift in a world of rickety foundations is more revealing of humanity’s own nihilistic assumptions about reality than existential meaninglessness. 

So what bearing does any of this, as riveting as it no doubt is, have on Trinitarian theology?  So far postmodern and post-structural philosophy seems to head in the direction away from categories of thinking which suggest a grounded ontology, away from thinking that our categories have any basis in reality (whatever that is).  Nietzche’s so-called death of God brought to an end the cultural and scientific delusion that there was a fixed basis for anything, as he knew it would.  In order for something to be real, so the thinking goes, it needs to be grounded in something ultimately real, which in philosophy has always been more or less guaranteed by the Aristotelian first cause (AKA God).  Not to be confused with the God who rescued the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, this ‘God’ functioned essentially as a kind of quilting point in reality, tying up all the loose ends and making sure that everything ultimately always made sense.  Without a stable point of fixed reference it was only a matter of time before someone, Foucault, pointed out the obvious that ‘man’ as a category was also effectively dead: no God = no man.  All that is solid, wrote Marx, melts into air. 

In all this, a ‘light bulb moment’ came for me when I read the first section of Orthodox theologian, John Zizioulas’ influential Being as Communion, 1985.  For Zizioulas, God is not best described as a kind of fixed ontological substance at the basis of reality, but is himself a communion of persons in a relation of love.  He writes: ‘The being of God is a relational being: without the concept of communion it would not be possible to speak of the being of God.’  ‘The substance of God,’ he continues, ‘”God,” has no ontological content, no true being, apart from communion.  In this way, communion becomes an ontological concept in Patristic thought...God exists because of an event of communion.  [...] it is communion which makes things “be”: nothing exists without it, not even God.’  In a sense then, to plunge as far down as possible into reality in the hope of hitting a fixed point of reference, a stable ultimate reality, is as futile an endeavour as modernity has proven it to be.  God, according to Zizioulas, is an event of communion; the being of God is here best described not as a static entity, but as a movement of relation.  Moreover, this movement of relation does not pre-exist those involved in the dance of love it enacts; the Father, Son, and Spirit do not spring from this movement, just as they cannot be said to pre-exist the movement: they are the movement; they are this movement of relating love.  Zizioulas quite strongly posits the Father as the ‘cause’ or origin of this movement, but the Father Himself is only constituted as Father by the simple fact of being a Father.  Thus, while He precedes the Son in terms barely describable, the Father’s fatherliness is constituted precisely by the Son as son.  Just as a human father only exists as a father once he has been relationally constituted through siring a son or daughter, there never was an ultimate being out of whom sprang another identically ultimate being, the Son.  The Father is only insofar as He is father to the Son.  God as ultimate reality has the character of relation.  And I haven’t even mentioned the Holy Spirit in this dance of love.

Getting back then, what is it that makes a thing a thing?  While Trinitarian theology opens up a space for conceptualising being as communion, it must be admitted that there is no direct or easy analogy between human being and God’s being.  As image bearers we are not wholly other to God, but neither are we identical.  For Zizioulas, and I am reducing him enormously throughout this entire piece, it is in our personhood that we carry the image of God, not, that is, in our capacity to exist relationally, but in the fact that it is only in relation that we exist at all.  Like God’s, our being is in communion, in ties that bind, in being sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, employers and employees, citizens and rulers, communicants, etc.  The ‘truth’ about ourselves is not to be found in the intricacies of our individual conscious and unconscious fantasies, as so much popular thought (following Freud) seems to imagine, but in who we are in, to, and with others.  Ultimately, Christianity, it seems to me, is about preparing the way for drawing humanity into the movement of loving relation that is God the Father, Son, and Spirit.  We exist in our physical and institutional relations with one another, we exist in our relations with one another as the church body, and we exist finally (and completely) in the wider church’s partaking of the movement of loving relationality that is Father, Son, and Spirit.                   


  1. As ever, relationally insightful and Trinitarianly centered. A very good article for so few words.

  2. You may be interested to know of this Christian philosophy group of which I am secretary: You can contact us through the Web site.