The Best Systematic Theologians Become Ascetics & Mystics!

The existential leaps entailed in our liturgical & devotional practices and dogmatic & doctrinal formulations can be normatively justified by foundational theologies – philosophical, historical & exegetical.

Most believers appropriate such norms w/a subconscious competence.

Theologians, as practical more so than speculative scientists, first, consciously appropriate & explicate those foundational & doctrinal disciplines, then craft systematic expositions that might best foster pastoral communications & complement pastoral practices.

At one level, such expositions, while yet vague & commonsensical and trafficking in contemporary idioms, can still be eminently efficacious in fostering ongoing conversion & in integrally applying a faith outlook to every sphere of human concern.

I say this because, at another level, systematic expositions properly aspire to go beyond our vague & idiomatic expressions, which rely more so on successful “references to” than on robust “descriptions of,” to more rigorously define reality’s entities & precisely specify their relations.

The more speculative a metaphysic, however, the more tentative will be its ontology, hence, the more modest one should be in urging its de-ontological implications.

Metaphysical idioms aid apologetics, deepen understandings & help us locate the theological tensions within dogmatic & doctrinal canons.

We can’t expect metaphysics to resolve any tensions, dialectically, but they can help us dissolve some, paradigmatically &, when unable, otherwise, can still open new horizons for us to exploit them, creatively.

Christianity remains in search of a metaphysic, as does any philosophy of science (due to manifold & multiform aporetic causal joints).

When theological opinions diverge, eg trinitarian, their impasses might be found at any number of methodological loci, but, among coreligionists, presumably not in foundational & dogmatic disciplines.

If impasses are located in such a choice as between substantive & relational ontologies, we can too often expect them to prove too much, theologically, especially since such idioms have done very little to adjudicate so many other aporiae, whether philosophically or commonsensically, eg quantum interpretations, philosophies of mind, in/determinist freedom, etc.

When systematics cum metaphysics do locate tensions we can exploit creatively, beyond apologetics & deepened understanding, what forms might such exploitations take?

It’s here that our systematics serve – not only the missiological & epistemic, but – the ascetical & mystical!

Good systematics foster intellectual, affective, moral, sociopolitical & religious conversions, instill humility & expand horizons on our journeys to authenticity. They integrate with our prayer, mortification & unitive ascents. They transform us from otherwise hopelessly & aimlessly wondering wanderers into hope-filled & purpose-filled worshipful wonderers!

The best systematic theologians become ascetics & mystics!

A Semiotic Phenomenology toward a more Ecumenical Trinitology and Trinitophany

If one breaks open a new category, semiotically, for an actus purus, such as with Peirce’s Ens Necessarium, one could, for example, apophatically negate such conceptions as temporal priority in trinitarian relations, even while kataphatically affirming that such relations are onto-logically fundamental (note below). Similarly, one could negate the conception of creativity vis a vis intra-trinitarian entities, while affirming an eternal generativity.

This semiotic move doesn’t force one into either a relational or substantive ontology, a theistic personalism or classical theism, Palamism or Thomism. It’s not trying to explain, much less prove, that much!

Its apophatic negations, metaphysically, would be literally true, saying, in essence (wink): “I know you’re familiar with conceptions of act & potency, but dis ain’t dat!”

Its kataphatic affirmations would be more trinitophanic, Biblically, than trinitological, systematically and/or philosophically.

Trinitophanic affirmations refer to intra-trinitarian eternality, generativity, relationality, koinonia, hypostasis, prosopon, ousia & physis.

However, prior to (though not without) their rational & intellectual apophatic metaphysical implications, they invite a more robustly mystical & experiential apophaticism.

Semantically, while such concepts may be vague & their full meaning elusive, that situation is, perhaps, less due to the limitations of our modeling power, epistemically & methodologically, and much more so due to the intra-trinitarian nature, ontologically & metaphysically.

We generally don’t a priori assume that any reality is necessarily permanently occulted, ontologically. Rather we suppose that we are otherwise being only temporarily thwarted, methodologically (e.g. principle of sufficient reason).

Still, the last aporiae we’d ever pass, in principle, due to sheer epistemic distance, will not be “what it feels like to be a bat” or “how to reconcile gravity & quantum mechanics” and such. If, with all due epistemic humility, we must nurture a healthy aporetic sense regarding quantum interpretations, philosophies of mind, and biologic & cosmogonic origins, how much more so, then, regarding divine energeia, much less divine ousia?

It often seems that the most we can aspire to rationally with such trinitarian affirmations & negations is a demonstration that, taken together, they aren’t logically contradictory, and that, while incomprehensible, they aren’t unintelligible. There’s sufficient rationality here to avoid fideism and sufficient mystery to avoid rationalism.

Historical & exegetical foundations (and general revelation) demonstrate the reasonableness of our creedal trinitarian affirmations & trinitology vis a vis the cognitive map-making of our epistemic modeling power (including our rational via negativa & positiva as well as our sustained authenticity via secular & kenotic conversions).

The ascetical, mystical & liturgical experiences (and special revelation) of our participatory imaginations foster our trinitophanic human value-realizations (truth, beauty, goodness, unity & freedom) via both connaturality & grace (including our mystical vehicle negativa or relational apophaticism as well as faith via our religious & theotic conversions).

The best theological anthropologies will primarily model Biblical theophanies not trinitarian ontologies.

Faith and mystical experience – not metaphysical understanding (via either philosophical or systematic theology) – ground our understanding of divine unity, which is not purely substantive but relational.


Saying that intra-trinitarian relations are onto-logically fundamental is a trinitophanic affirmation grounded in historical & exegetical realities of special revelation. As such, it invokes only vague, commonsensical (heuristic) conceptions and not robustly metaphysical specifications, e.g. re-ordering entities & relations, indicating substantive vs relational ontologies. The take-away is that we are somehow dealing with a mystery involving loving relationships. That stance has normative significance (ontological implications & suggestions of a heuristic) for any subsequent systematic expositions (ontological definitions of a theory) of doctrine, which different metaphysics will try to further articulate.


When I refer to what I (likely idiosyncratically) call my semiotic phenomenology, I am talking about the basic categories most often applied to entities & relations, including general realities like act & potency, Aristotelian-like causes, modal temporality, modal adequacy, various types of concepts, predications & distinctions, various evidentiary standards that impart different levels of normative impetus, triadic inference, types of triadic ellipsis, a plain vanilla emergentism (e.g. w/o supervenience) and a meta-heuristic architectonic with anthropological, epistemological, ontological, axiological (evaluative & normative), theological & mythological categories.

I engage the grammar of those categories & distinctions prior to choosing a root metaphor & w/o prioritizing either relations or entities. As such, this phenomenology is but a meta-heuristic of meta-metaphysical placeholders, which mostly brackets specific metaphysics, epistemologically modeling value-realizations prior to elaborating a metaphysic. The premise is that there are many values to be shared & realized inter-ideologically, inter-religiously & ecumenically, metaphysically & really, even while we all remain in search of a metaphysic. Good thing, huh?

See also:

I commend the article, below, for the best direction to pursue that search.

Wesley J. Wildman, “An Introduction to Relational Ontology,” in John Polkinghorne and John Zizioulas, eds. The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010): 55-73

Simone Weil – patron saint of the religious Nones?

A wise nephew once told me that families are often like a fire. At the proper distance, we can warm ourselves, while, being too close can get us burned.

Simone Weil could not bring herself to approach the hearth of the institutional church — not only for the fear of getting burned, herself, but — out of a genuine fear of others, whom the church excluded, getting burned even more. She chose to remain outside, beyond the institutional margins, travelling as a pilgrim in a noninstitutional vehicle, an unmarked ecclesiological car of the Mystical Body.

For its part, the institutional vehicle was too often (not to say either exclusively or always) being steered (both hierarchically & by many infantilized laity) by those whom I would call People of the Lie, those whom Scott Peck generically referred to whenever he encountered persons caught up in efforts to preserve sick identity structures, whether of themselves or of their institutions.

It wasn’t the mysteries entrusted to the Church but the institutional evils encrusted on it that Simone rejected.

Noninstitutional vehicles are manifold & multiform. Sometimes, they’re the only viable means of traveling. Returning to the first part of this mixed metaphor, they’re the only form of community by which some can warm themselves without getting burned or possibly burning another.

Every time that a man has, with a pure heart, called upon Osiris, Dionysus, Buddha, the Tao, etc., the Son of God has answered him by sending the Holy Spirit.

And the Holy Spirit has acted upon his soul, not by inciting him to abandon his religious tradition, but by bestowing upon him light — and in the best of cases the fullness of light — in the heart of that same religious tradition. … It is, therefore, useless to send out missions to prevail upon the peoples of Asia, Africa or Oceania to enter the Church. (Simone Weil, Letter to a Priest, 1951)

I am heartened by some recent papal admonitions against proselytizing.

The phrase “with a pure heart, called upon,” to me speaks of – not just an intentionality, but – a profoundly relational intentionality. In reading and encounter, I have come across this type of devotional dimension in all of the world’s great traditions, as well as both indigenous and even nontheist religions.

Intertwined with (yet largely abstractable from) these devotional intentionalities, which are creedal or propositional in the way that they point toward specific “targets” of intentionality, e.g. cosmos, others, God or even self, are all manner of practices, disciplines, rituals, asceticisms and exercises, which, without being essentially propositional, foster our growth in human authenticity (a dispositional reality wherein our intellectual, affective, moral, social & relational dimensions take on postures of humility).

Humility presents in other domains beyond the intellectual, including affective, moral, social, political and relational. I elaborate on that elsewhere on this site, where I distinguish between the dispositional trajectories of Lonergan’s conversions and the developmental trajectories of the human growth theories of Piaget, Erickson, Kohlberg, Fowler and so on.

In my view, our Spirit-inspired traditions all share the same soteriological trajectory, that growth in authenticity that Bernard Lonergan called secular conversions, which I like to refer to as the love of wisdom. That’s what ortho-doxy or true glory means to me.

That’s why we can appropriate certain practices from other traditions and integrate them into our own, eg. Christian Zen.

Our traditions may otherwise diverge to various extents, taking distinct sophiological trajectories, growing us as “beings in love” with specific “targets” and dimensions of intentionality, e.g. cosmos, others, God or even self. That’s what poly-doxy means to me, many-gloried, and even nonbelievers can participate.

Folks like Maslow, Viktor Frankl and Lonergan all, each in their own way and time, eventually came to recognize that authenticity, in order to be sustainable, required self-transcendence, which I like to refer to as the wisdom of love.

I don’t deny how our getting our creedal propositions right can help us journey more swiftly and with less hindrance, enjoying a spiritual superabundance. So, I’m not suggesting some insidious indifferentism. But I do believe that these soteriological and sophiological trajectories, as I have come to understand them, can be realized ubiquitously, yielding human value-realizations in abundance, across traditions. Some folks have even co-inhabited traditions, although that’s rare because, anthropologically, religions’ cultural embeddedness present major challenges to converts, often requiring deep participatory immersions for both creedal inculturations as well as moral & sociological enculturations.

Simone, I believe, was in touch with such a profound pneumatological (Spirit-inspired) optimism and inclusivism as I have tried to describe. That may be why she saw no need to proselytize as evangelizing, itself, was sufficient, and why she also felt safe abiding beyond the margins, journeying in a noninstitutional vehicle.