The Immanent Trinity Only Incestuous Homoerotics

How is one to stage the inner life of God? To attain this near impossible task Balthasar employs gender terms, deriving from but transforming Aristotle. And in case we forget that analogy operates within an always greater difference, Balthasar uses the prefix uber - translated variously as "over," "above," "supra" or "super" - to signify that when supramasculine (ubermannlich) and suprafeminine (uberweiblich) are used of God, they are not to be literally or directly related to the "masculine" and "feminine" in the human realm - whatever these terms might mean (see further Gardner and Moss 1999: 98 n. 59). However, the use of these gendered terms does denote something specific about the inner life of God, otherwise there would be no use in employing them. What do they say about the divine life?

Balthasar's Trinity is an ecstatic eternal circle of overflowing love, reciprocally given, received, and shared between the three persons. However, the persons are distinguished by "processions," and in these processions we find the gendered analogical language by which the distinctiveness of each person is secured. We need to recall that in much of the Scholastic tradition, following Aristotle, the "feminine" is related to "matter" and thus understood as "potency." Potency, as possibility, is imperfection. The "masculine" is related to "form" and is thus understood as "act." Act represents perfection in that it is realized. This results in two further implications. First, it leads to a sense in which the feminine is imperfect - like potency - until it is related to act, the masculine. The receptivity of the feminine/matter to its shaping and determination by masculine/form in Aristotle's biology and metaphysics was central to certain misogynistic strands in the vision of the relation between created men and women found in Augustine and Aquinas (on the Aristotelian background see Borresen 1981 and Allen 1985). Man was master, the clear thinker, the active principle and the need of man for women was an asymmetrical completion; the asymmetry deriving from biology. Aquinas puts it thus: "We are told that woman was made to be a help to man. But she was not fitted to help man except in generation, because another man would have proved a more effective help in anything else" (Summa Theologiae, 1.98.2 sed contra).

Balthasar daringly transforms this gendered metaphysics in two very important ways. He queers Aristotle's and Aquinas's biology and also their metaphysics. First, Balthasar realizes that in the act of love within the Godhead, there is not simply "pure act," as Thomas envisages it. For Thomas anything other than "pure act" would impute imperfection to the Godhead. However, Balthasar, given the drama of the cross, sees that feminine receptivity, previously alien to the (Greek) Godhead, is constitutive in the very life of God.

Where absolute love is concerned, receiving and letting be are just as essential as giving. In fact, without this receptive letting be and all it involves - gratitude for the gift of oneself and a turning in love toward the Giver - the giving itself is impossible. (Balthasar 1988-98: V 86; corrected)

This metaphysical claim surpasses both Aristotle and Aquinas in the sense that what was previously viewed as an imperfection (feminine/matter/receptivity) is now, in the light of the incarnation, seen as perfection. There is no divine love without giving, receiving, and letting be. And this development allows Balthasar to move away from defining gender in terms of a defective biology embedded within a natural theology (as in Augustine and Aquinas). Instead, gender is now constructed within the biblical narrative. While I will criticize Balthasar's particular reading of the biblical material, the important point is that gender is generated within Christian discourse and not located at a primary, prelinguistic level, on which Christian language is subsequently pasted. In this sense, Balthasar's theology is queer.

When we turn to Balthasar's depiction of the inner life of God, we find that the so-called "reactionary conservative" daringly employs both male and female terms analogically within the divine life, surpassing much (though not all) of the tradition before him. It is this breakthrough that makes Balthasar's theology so important in gender politics. The processions which distinguish each person of the Trinity are given thus:

In trinitarian terms, of course, the Father, who begets him who is without origin, appears initially as (super-)masculine; the Son, in consenting, appears initially as (super-) feminine, but in the act (together with the Father) of breathing forth the Spirit, he is (super-)masculine. As for the Spirit, he is (super-)feminine. There is even something (super-)feminine about the Father too, since ... in the action of begetting and breathing forth he allows himself to be determined by the Persons who thus proceed from him; however, this does not affect his primacy in the order of the Trinity. (Balthasar 1988-98: V 91; emphasis added)

This is a key passage and I shall refer to it often. In this radical restaging of the Trinity we see that all three divine persons are dual-gendered, each being both supramasculine and suprafeminine. The feminist critique of the male God/Trinity, so forcefully made by Mary Daly (1973), apparently evaporates in Balthasar's hands. The Son is envisaged as first suprafeminine in his receptivity to the active supramasculine gift of the Father's self. And this suprafemininity is the context from out of which the Son responds, supramasculinely, to the gift of the Father. We should recall that since these "moves" within the Godhead are eternal, one cannot give any chronological priority to the various processions, even if they nevertheless require sequential telling, for how else are we to tell stories except in time?8 (See Rowan Williams 1999: 177.) So, not only is the Son bisexual in ontological terms, but so also is that most worrying of potential patriarchs, the Father. The Father is not purely supramasculine, for in always receiving from and being defined by the Son and Spirit he too has an eternally suprafeminine dimension.

At this point it is worth noting the immense fertility of Balthasar's Trinity in being able to represent three forms of erotic and ecstatic relationship, even if thinly (given the under-determined senses of "giving," "receiving," and "letting be"). Balthasar's Trinity symbolizes divine love in terms of interpenetrating and reciprocal relationships between supramascu-line and suprafeminine, suprafeminine and suprafeminine, and supramasculine and supramasculine (analogically: heterosexual, lesbian, and gay relationships); but only in so much as these relationships are self-giving for the wider community, as endless outpourings and sharings. And this should remind us that the Genesis account of heterosexual relationships is just one account of how human sociality analogically reflects God's love as covenant fidelity, and it does so along with other ways of incarnating loving practice, ecclesially and bodily: through celibacy, virginity, and permanent gay and lesbian unions. David Matzko McCarthy has included the latter relationships within the two goods of marriage: permanent loving union and procreativity.

McCarthy makes a strong case for permanent lesbian and gay relationships as "anomalies" within the Catholic theology of marriage, for that theology is not an exclusive sanctification of heterosexual love, for "[m]ale-female complementarity does not produce the goods of marriage but is produced by it" (McCarthy 1997: 384). He thereby criticizes the prioritizing of Genesis 1.27, using Vatican II to argue that "[c]reation as male and female is used as the paradigmatic example, but the example does not exclude other ways of imagining humanity's social nature" (McCarthy 1997: 382; see also McCarthy 1998 and Rogers 1999a). In this respect, the medievalist Marilyn McCord Adams rightly extols and at the same time questions the same-gender models of trinitarian love within the trinitarian symbolics of Richard of St Victor and Aelred of Rievaulx. She questions them on the grounds of their exclusion of women-women relations (going back to Cicero's exaltation of male-male friendship as the highest and most noble coupling). She extols them in so much as "Richard's picture of the trinitarian love affair combines with Aelred's account of Christian friendship to suggest how homosexual love can serve - as much as heterosexual couplings - as an icon of godly love, a sacramental participation in Love Divine" (Adams 2002: 336). This avenue is clearly in need of further research.

A further avenue opened by Balthasar's trinitarian symbolics is the rich suggestion that the name "Father" analogically includes both male and female, for the Father is both supra-masculine and suprafeminine, and likewise the Son. This would mean that traditional patriarchy is challenged at its metaphysical roots, finally going "beyond God the Father" (as Mary Daly urged us to do). And more significantly for my present argument, the Son can be represented analogically by both male and female, for he too is both suprafeminine and supramasculine. But we shall see that Balthasar excludes this possibility for the ministerial priesthood precisely because he does not take his own trinitarian symbolics with full seriousness.

While acknowledging that the Father is suprafeminine, Balthasar still asserts - in an almost unintelligible manner - that this is so without it affecting the Father's "primacy in the order of the Trinity" (Balthasar 1988-98: V 91). How can this be? Despite everything - utter reciprocity and utter self-giving in eternal ecstasy - the primacy of the supramasculine originless Begetter is suddenly prioritized and kept intact. The Father's primacy will not be touched by real ontological reciprocity. Male giving, male activity, male definition, suddenly resurfaces as more primary, more ontological. Balthasar fails to entirely rethink Aristotle by still identifying masculinity with activity and femininity with passivity, and he does so because of a distorted biblical reading whereby Jesus is made "active" and Mary "passive." Balthasar's insistence that the Father's primacy remains untouched by his suprafemininity has the effect of returning us to an untransformed Aristotelian metaphysics, where pure act/male/form is finally more real, more primary, than the relations that actually co-constitute the Father. This regression, which is now a repression, will surface again to mark all of creation. For in Balthasar, the shape of God's Trinity determines the shape and ordering of creation. It is as if Balthasar freezes a frame from an unfinished movie and this frozen frame - the primacy of the supramasculine originless Begetter - is made the dominant frame within which the entire movie is to be viewed and interpreted.

This repression surfaces at other moments in the immanent Trinity, which is perhaps a sign of what is to follow at the economic level. I note two disturbances. First, the female images that Balthasar employs to speak of the Father (as a womb, for example), while radical and important, are at the same time potentially regressive. When speaking of God's "fatherhood" - a term that "bursts all analogies" - one way in which Balthasar bursts the analogy is to say that "such 'fatherhood' can only mean the giving away of everything the Father is, including his entire Godhead ... it is a giving-away that, in the Father's act of generation -which lasts from all eternity - leaves the latter's womb 'empty'" (Balthasar 1988-98: III, 518; emphasis added). But note that suddenly the Father's suprafeminine passivity or receptivity has disappeared: active giving-away is the only mark of the first person. Later, Balthasar speaks of Christians who acquire ecclesial traits by virtue of "being born with Christ from the Father's womb" (Balthasar 1988-98: III, 527). The symbolic construction is radical in employing biological imagery from women's bodies to speak of the Godhead, and specifically the first person. Men do not have wombs, so speaking of the womb of God means that women can symbolize the deity. As I noted earlier, it would seem that Balthasar sides with radical feminists who have long argued that patriarchy's God crumbles once women are able to represent/image the divine. However, it is only in an unintended sense that this is so for Balthasar, for his use of female images appropriates woman, removes the womb from her body, so as to express the creative power of the supramasculine originless Begetter, the Father who cannot be called Mother.9 Women are represented as the unimaginable formless Real of both Lacan and Aristotle, requiring phallic (Lacan) or male (Aristotle) definition to gain symbolic (Lacan) or bodily (Aristotle) presence.

Luce Irigaray, the French psychoanalyst feminist philosopher, points out how the womb is often constructed as a passive receptacle within patriarchy, whereby the woman has no claims on its workings, becoming the container for the product made in the father's name, "possessed as a means of (re)production" (Irigaray 1985a: 16). Elsewhere, Irigaray has written what might be a commentary on Balthasar's specific ontological taxonomy:

The problem is that, by denying the mother her generative power and by wanting to be the sole creator, the Father, according to our culture, superimposes upon the archaic world of the flesh a universe of language and symbols which cannot take root in it except as in the form of that which makes a hole in the bellies of women and in the site of their identity. (Irigaray in Whitford 1991: 41)

It is important not to push Balthasar's texts too far. As we have noted, he is well aware of the problems of language and he constantly calls for a reversal of images and metaphors. But patriarchal primacy stops him from going all the way. Does his inability to allow for the ontological implications of full reciprocity - which would have obliterated the primacy that he wants to retain for the supramasculine originless Begetter - mean that his immanent Trinity ends with a male biological cross-dresser: a Father with a womb? It would seem so. If Balthasar allowed his doctrine of analogy to come into operation, and thus fully reciprocal trinitarian relations, his Trinity would indeed open up to a remarkable generation of gender representations - as I have already intimated and elsewhere developed (D'Costa 2000). In this sense there is much to commend Balthasar's Trinity.

Another example reveals the unconscious homoerotics within Balthasar's Trinity - the workings of what Irigaray calls "homosexuate language," whereby the feminine/woman is excluded from the symbolic order.10 I am not wanting to call into question homosexual covenanting relations - or heterosexual couplings - except insofar as they exclude other forms of covenant relationship. Balthasar writes that the suprafeminine Son, in first receiving the gift of the Father, "allowed himself to be led and 'fertilized' by the Father" (Balthasar 1990b: 78). This homoerotic incest leads to the spiration of the third person, the Spirit; and this prioritizing of "male" giving or self-giving is, as we would expect, also replicated at the level of the economic Trinity, to which we now turn.

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