Klaus Hemmerle: Theses Towards a Trinitarian Ontology

Theses Towards a Trinitarian Ontology Book Cover Theses Towards a Trinitarian Ontology
Klaus Hemmerle. Foreword by Dr. Rowan Williams
Angelico Press
Paperback: $14.95 / Hardcover: $25

Reviewed by: Elisa Zocchi (University of Münster)

After many years of waiting, Klaus Hemmerle’s Thesen zu einer trinitarischen Ontologie finally finds an English translation. Written in 1975 on the occasion of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s 70th birthday, this short essay is considered one of the richest expressions of Hemmerle’s thought, particularly important for the recent rebirth of interest towards trinitarian ontology. Little known in the English speaking world for many years, in recent times Hemmerle’s trinitarian reflection has in fact gained the attention of more and more scholars, as fully expressed in the conference on “New Trinitarian Ontologies”, first held in Cambridge in September 2019 and holding in 2021 its third edition. This renewed interest certainly must have played a role in the decision of translating this essay, on which scholars can finally work directly. What is, though, trinitarian ontology, and why is it so important today?

To answer this question we have to look at Hemmerle’s major inspiration in thinking trinitarian ontology, the man to which the Theses are dedicated. In the preface to the book Hemmerle introduces the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar as “an alternative to a theology with a merely anthropological approach” and, at the same time, “also an alternative to a static and deductive theological thinking”. Trinitarian ontology is for Hemmerle exactly the alternative to these two approaches to theology, so common in the second half of 20th century. Between an utterly deductive, analytic approach and one that can only stay within anthropological limits, Hemmerle recognized the necessity for post-Conciliar theology to find a third way, that same third way so often invoked by Balthasar in his many works. What was needed was not only a new way of thinking theology, but rather a new way to approach the whole of reality, of life. Hemmerle sketches this new approach in 33 theses, divided into four chapters.

In the first chapter, ontology is clearly defined as that which became superfluous, when compared to disciplines more interested with the “needs and practical consequences” of facts. This superfluity directly affects theology: the problematic Hellenization of Christianity is something that has to be fixed by “getting back behind ontology”, to a pre-metaphysical and pre-theological thinking, as suggested by Heidegger and many others. Hemmerle, although agreeing with the necessity of a “conversion”, disagrees with the method to achieve it, suggesting that the way for shaping a true ontology might come exactly from theology. In order to articulate this claim, Hemmerle starts by listing some basic elements of theology.

The first is  what he calls a “double a priori” of theology: if God has to be understood by man he has to speak a human language, but at the same time, for the human language to grasp revelation, man has to be open to God’s speaking.

Secondly, he classifies two types of theology: theology of translation and theology of witness. In the first, the content of revelation is “translated” thanks to the use of “a human, historical, philosophically pre-formed mode of questioning and understanding” (18); this is the case of Aquina’s use of Aristotelian thinking. Theology of witness instead, exemplified by Bonaventure, implies man’s abandonment to “God’s radical beginning”, acquiring new “possibilities of thinking and speaking” (18).

In both theologies the double a priori comes into play, as it did in the conciliar formulations of Christological and Trinitarian dogmas. As an example Hemmerle brings the so called Hellenization of Christianity: if it is true that Christianity took its shape on a Greek background, it is also true that it maintains its originality, resisting a complete submission to Greek categories and developing fundamental concepts not previously available, like the doctrine of the Trinity. Among these doctrines developed by theology however we do not find, for Hemmerle, a fully comprehensive meaning of Being: there is no proper Christian Ontology, and Christianity was always “a guest among multiple philosophical projects and systems, the sources of whose formation lay elsewhere” (21). This deficiency and lack of a common ground became even more profound in the modern time, with the multiplying of approaches and models.

In the second chapter Hemmerle delves into the characteristic that a Christian ontology should have: as per the title of the chapter, he opens an “Entry into the Distinctively Christian Element”. To understand what is distinctively Christian Hemmerle asks the core question of the book: “in what way are the fundamental human experiences and fundamental understanding of God, the world, and human beings altered when faith in Jesus Christ breaks in upon them?” (23).

To find an answer Hemmerle introduces two categories. First, the phenomenon of religion, i.e. the experience of displacement: the comprehension of reality is not anymore from the point of view of the human subject, but rather from the point of view of an Other, an Other upon which man and the world “are most intimately dependent” (24). Secondly, the experience of the Logos, of the inter-connectedness of every aspect of reality graspable by man.

Hemmerle applies these two categories to the Ancient Covenant, from which comes a first answer to the question on the proprium of Christianity; in it these two categories are included but somehow overcome, surpassed. In the Old Testament we discover that the experience of displacement is that of an Other who, although transcendent, “stands on the side of human beings” (28) and provokes a change in every aspect of life; the experience of the Logos is seen in the fact that God is transcendent but not in competition with human wisdom.

With the New Covenant the question finds a definitive, more radical answer: as for the phenomenon of religion, man is called to put aside the old age and exchange it for a new one, the age of Christ; as for the experience of the Logos, God enters now physically in history, in a specific time and space. God is not anymore playing a role in history with sporadic intervention and episodic revelations; with Christ, “our history becomes His epiphany”, “history becomes the word spoken by the God who is revealed in it” (30). This is the core of what is precisely Christian, what Hemmerle has been guiding us to: in Jesus Christ, “God shares all of what is ours and all of what is His”. In Jesus, God comes into history and yet remains above history. Christianity’s uniqueness is therefore the experience of “a God above us who encounters and answers the God who is among us”: transcendence and immanence are maintained in a unique tension,  they are united by unconditional love – the Holy Spirit. What is uniquely Christian is, therefore, the trinitarian doctrine experienced by men when they believe in Jesus Christ; if God is threefold, human thinking experiences a radical conversion [Umkehrung]. It will not be enough to simply reformulate a previous ontology, and a new ontology is needed – indeed, a trinitarian ontology, that can no longer take Being for self-subsistence or independent. Hemmerle is clear: if God is Trinity, the whole structure of being is involved.

The third chapter is the most intense and complex one: here Hemmerle lays the foundations of a new trinitarian ontology. First of all, Hemmerle makes it clear that the Trinity is not a new formal principle from which everything is logically inferred, in Aristotelian fashion. Thinking the Trinity is rather the beginning of a phenomenology in which everything is interpreted from the standpoint of the core element of the Trinity itself: the act of self-giving. What remains, for Hemmerle, is not a speculative principle, but the element that draws the Trinity together: love, agape. This love is what  “articulates the original self-showing of Being and beings” (36). In this phenomenology the main role is played by the verb rather than the noun: an object can for Hemmerle be understood only in its action, which is a “communication, a delimitation, and an adaptation to an overarching context” (38). The unity of each object is only preserved in the process, which involves a plural origination, as Hemmerle explains using the example of language. Each word has three origins that “spring up mutually: I, language, and you”. Exemplar are also cases like identity and time: they all remain themselves exactly in virtue of their process of becoming “more”. Their internal unity comes from their plural origination. This new approach to the object, from the standpoint of process and of the plural origination, causes a radical revolution in our way of thinking.

Hemmerle faces then the foreseeable objection: what about the ineliminable resistance of things? This objection would subsist for those philosophies in which process and plural origination are taken as principles of deduction, blocks of a system. But in Hemmerle’s trinitarian theology the thing plays a different role, “giving itself over into what takes place in self-giving” (43). Self-giving is therefore the pivotal element of this ontology, not as an added element to an object, but as the fundamental structure that allows an object to be what it is. Only by bringing itself to the other does something arrive at itself; Hemmerle gets to the point of saying that “substance comes to transubstantiation, to communion” (44). The main examples are once again given by language (“when I say something, I bring it to light in what is proper to it”, 46) and thought (“when something gives itself to be thought, it comes into its own brightness”, 45). In the same way, Being “is” only as the fulfillment of passing-over, of communion of self-giving, only as for-each-other. Everything finds itself in the midst of a play with multiple origins: the play between being, thinking, and speaking; everything owes its existence to the game, and yet we are responsible for our actions and answers.

Hemmerle seems then to acknowledge that in multiple occasions the philosophical tradition has seen attempts to modify and replace the classic ontology of the static substance: Aquina’s analogy, Bonaventure’s ars aeterna, Nicholas of Cusa’s mereology, Descartes’ system, Schelling’s late philosophy, the eucharistic understanding of the world of Baader, Rosenzweig’s reflection about language, Heidegger’s Being and Time, Rombach’s structural ontology. These, however, were all approaches “from below”, and could not reach the very depth of “the threefold mystery of God, which is revealed to us in faith” (50). It becomes clear that for Hemmerle a new ontology can only be based on revelation, the very mystery of self-giving itself. This has its ground in Jesus’s death and resurrection, a gift that transformed the whole world. In this way, the analogy of Being becomes the analogy of the Trinity: the way to fulfillment is nothing else than entering into relatedness.

Finally, Hemmerle analyses the “levels of trinitarian happening”. The access is given by the event of the economic trinity, which is not an external supplement to the internal being of God, but rather his deepest mystery: the economic trinity reveals the immanent trinity. This way, the economy of creation is included in the trinitarian life, as an anticipation of the trinitarian fulfillment, and the believers live their life in the awareness of being-in-Christ. This originates a new way of living, dictated by the very ethos of Jesus’s relation to the Father.

The fourth chapter is an appendix, “Consequences of a Trinitarian Ontology”. Hemmerle draws three types of consequences: philosophical, theological, and practical. In the end however, he states that these three levels are deeply united.

The philosophical and theological consequences concern especially the unity of freedom and necessity; in God, necessity is an interpretation of freedom. Jesus’s freedom to obey the Father is the most incomprehensible act of self-giving, and therefore the moment where God is most himself. As for the practical consequences (“for how we think, speak, and exist”), Hemmerle insists strongly on the idea that every individual performance is deeply united with the performance of partners: society is not utterly the sum of individuals, but a unity, a single common life in which every person is “the point of departure, the goal and the middle of a movement” (63).

When talking of society, Hemmerle claims that trinitarian ontology allows one to step beyond the profound modern separation of theory and praxis – its contemplative spirituality naturally points out towards “the We”, towards the others. The most profound moment of contemplation is in fact the Cross, which also coincides with the greatest act of self-giving, the most revealing and opening instant. For this reason, it is a spirituality that in being contemplative is also active, a communitarian spirituality of service, and so is the theology that results from this new ontology: both traditional and contemporary, communitarian and of service.

The first question that emerges when closing this book is very simple: are these 33 theses enough to shape the Christian philosophy that Hemmerle wishes for, and to present the new life generated by discovering the centrality of the trinitarian self-giving?

The answer has to be negative: it is Hemmerle himself that defines this work “fragmentary and incompletely demonstrated in its argumentations and conclusions” (8). Multiple thinkers are now continuing the work of Hemmerle; as for the foundational work, we could say much lies already in Balthasar’s trinitarian thought, as Hemmerle himself acknowledges. What do we gain, then, in engaging a detailed reading of this work, rather than a more inclusive manual on the discipline? What Hemmerle is uniquely able to express in this short essay is more and more necessary, with the multiplying of voices talking about trinitarian ontology: a focus precisely on what is at stake. Why is a new way of thinking ontology so important? And why do we need to re-think Being not merely in light of the categories of relationship (as many thinkers in the last centuries did not fail to notice), but first and foremost in light of the trinitarian relationship?

From Heidegger onwards, it has become normal to think of ontology as something to reshape, something “gone wrong”. Heidegger was certainly an important influence, but Hemmerle takes a position that is the complete opposite to the Heideggerian accusation of ontotheology and of the forgetfulness of the ontological difference. Trinitarian ontology is precisely about the non-difference of being and beings. This non-difference is not identity, but rather the being-in-God of every being. Every being is originated from the intra-trinitarian love. This love, as Balthasar will later say, is not the absolute Good beyond being, but rather the depth, height, length and breadth of being itself. Trinitarian ontology does not therefore imply a triadic structure of reality, as one might think, but rather that the totality of reality has its origin in the self-giving of the trinitarian love. This movement of self-giving is therefore the rhythm of being, without turning movement into a principle: the only principle is agape. This makes it clear that what is at stake, for Hemmerle, is not only the possibility of a Christian philosophy, that has so vehemently been denied in the first half of the century by many philosophers, but also life itself, our way of living. Communal life is the main place where trinitarian life can be experienced in this world, to the point that Hemmerle claims that “the sky is among us”, as per the title of another of his works (Der Himmel ist zwischen uns). A Christian ontology does not merely change the way we think, but is a true revolution of the way we live. “It is play and process that once more interest human beings, at the end of modern age, and at the end of objective metaphysics: life, for example, freedom, meaning. Such processes are about me – but not about me alone; are about the whole – but not about a whole from which I can abstract myself, are about society – but about a society which may not once more become a Subject devouring the individual” (42). For Hemmerle it is clear that a trinitarian God changes our entire way of living, because our history is His history, so that we see and form everything in the image of the Trinity.

This takes a concrete shape in the experience of the Focolare Movement, whose history is profoundly intertwined with the life and thought of Klaus Hemmerle. The profound unity of contemplation and spirituality is just one reflection of the central role played by the notion of unity for the Focolare charisma. It is not of minor importance to notice how the two men involved in the foundation of a trinitarian ontology, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Klaus Hemmerle, had a profound friendship with two mystics: respectively, Adrienne von Speyr and Chiara Lubich. Lubich’s mystical experience of the unitive presence of Divine Love influenced Hemmerle from 1958, date of their first meeting, and Hemmerle will claim that “Chiara has conveyed to us a school of life. This school of life, however, is also a school for theology. The result is not so much an improvement of theology, as a living theology that originates from revelation”[1]. This is a pivotal element of Hemmerle’s thought: there is no real barrier between the mystical experience and the theological reflection, between experience and thought, between philosophy and theology. This can happen because all these elements are originated by the one and only principle at the core of the Trinity, the act of self-giving.

This also answers the second question that can emerge while engaging this reading: how is this ontology any different from the many “relational ontologies” blossomed in the 20th century, ontologies that see the “other” as the pivotal element? What is the difference between a relational ontology and a trinitarian ontology, and why shouldn’t we just talk of relation?

Hemmerle is clear that relationship and process are not to become “some new principle from which everything would once again be inferred in a lonely deduction. Only one thing remains: active participation in that movement which agape itself is” (35). Against the deductive method, Hemmerle shapes an ontology which does not begin from invariance, but from self-giving, and not every relation is a place of self-giving. Ontology can only start from the most original self-giving, that of the Trinity itself – from the kenotic event intended in its radical sense, thus not limited to the Cross but including the whole self-giving of the Trinity. That being is self-giving cannot in fact be disclosed from below, claims Hemmerle: it needs a revelation. Ontology needs therefore to be trinitarian, and not simply relational, because, to quote Balthasar, “only love is [a] credible” answer to the question on Being.

Hemmerle might not be particularly original in some of his reflections ­– the description of the process of the world as a play, or the idea of a  reciprocity without beginning, had already been described by the first volume of Balthasar’s Theo-Drama a few years before. Hemmerle himself mentions in the Theses the many names that attempted a reflection on trinitarian ontology. And yet, the sharp and clear focus on “what is distinctively Christian” is unique of this work. The major strength of this essay is the clarity with which Hemmerle expresses the need for his time (and, we could say, for our times) of a renewal of the relationship between theology and philosophy. Ontology is for him the fundamental place where to set this renewal into movement. Not always as clear is however the way in which this capsizing of ontology has to take place – these Theses are the first stone of a project that Hemmerle himself didn’t pursue, at least not in a clearly systematic form. Hemmerle is in fact not exhaustive in his arguments – Balthasar rightly describes the Theses as “highly concentrated and aphoristic”. Especially the third chapter, where Hemmerle exposes the core of his trinitarian ontology, is particularly intense and not always easy to follow. This is however not to be seen only as a flaw of the work itself. On the contrary, it becomes one of its major virtues: it allows scholars, as it did in recent years, to draw from it in order to open new paths, as witnessed by the many conferences and publications on trinitarian ontology. These are not limited to scholars belonging to the Focolare movement, and involve thinkers of multiple origins and backgrounds. Examples are to be found in the reflections of Thomas Norris in Ireland and Klaus Kienzle in Germany, but especially in Italy, where Hemmerle has been known and translated already in 1986 and where he is at the center of the speculative work of the Sophia Institute of Loppiano, especially with the work of Piero Coda. Coda draws from Hemmerle and expands on the theological elements of his reflections, those that did not receive in-depth analysis in the Theses; central in Coda’s reflection is the crucified and abandoned Christ and the role of “non-being” within the Trinity. Italy hosts also the fruitful  reflection of Giulio Maspero, who thinks trinitarian ontology especially in relation to the Church Fathers. The availability of Hemmerle’s texts in the Italian language (together with the influence of Chiara Lubich’s movement) certainly plays a pivotal role in the abundance of reflections on trinitarian ontology in Italy, and shows how precious this English translation can be for future outcomes in the English speaking theological and philosophical community. The recent increase in interest in trinitarian ontology functions itself as a sign that Hemmerle’s intuitions are correct and require time and attention to bare their fruits. The conference on New Trinitarian Ontologies, which will see in 2021 its third edition, is enriched by contributions that stretch from ancient to modern philosophy and theology, but also to economic, political, and ecological ontologies. This is the power of this work, defined by Elmar Salmann as the most important book published in the post-conciliar years: not only are Hemmerle’s Theses potentially able to open multiple paths and include a variety of Denkformen, enriching therefore the contemporary debate on the relation between theology and philosophy; they also invite theology to draw from metaphysics and ontology, after the long lasting prevalence of a stale analytic approach. Trinitarian ontology is certainly open to criticisms, more or less original – those same criticisms moved to almost every theory based on an analogical approach. Similarly to Balthasar however, Hemmerle’s strength is to insert the analogical approach into a bigger picture, that of the profound unity of metaphysics and mystic, of thought and prayer. Lived in this profoundly symphonic unity, metaphysics is not at the end, and Hemmerle’s Theses can be one of the starting blocks for its new beginning.

[1] Klaus Hemmerle, “Tell Me about Your God”, Being One 1 (1996): 20.

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