More thoughts on the Holy Trinity...

So, I've been reading a few anthologies about contemporary Trinitarian theology of late and... No, really, I have!

In fact, I am coming to believe that a return to a radical encounter with God as Holy Trinity is essential for the soul of Christ's church in America. To be sure, I wrestle with the challenge of inclusive language - I embrace it fully - because it is a matter of justice to move beyond the constraints that our gender limitations impose upon our imaginations, our politics and our spiritual commitments. And at the same time, I ache for an inclusive form of language that points us towards the relational truths embedded in the old language. There is simply something missing from the contemporary Trinitarian construction - Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit - that the traditional words - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - grasp.  Better than most,  Sarah Coakley best expresses the problems and possibilities of this challenge in her essay, "Trinity and Gender Reconsidered" where she notes:

How do we speak of "gender" at all in relation to God, given the God, qua God, has no body? How does the human (male) body of Jesus, as hypostatically conjoined with the Word, the second person of the Trinity, relate to or give substance to the question of gender in God. How are we to negotiate the difference between gender stereotypes in a fallen world and "gender" as it might potentially be construed in some perfect form in God? More fundamentally, how are we to define - or think of gender - in the first place, especially in relation to, or in distinction from the physiological or chromosomal differentiations of "sex"?

Coakley does not offer new language - oh, that I wish she did - so the wrestling continues, yes? What she does provide, however, is a way of thinking that moves beyond and through our language limitations by paying careful attention to the importance of the Holy Spirit. (The whole essay in God's Life in Trinity ed. Miroslav Wolf is worth consulting, but here is the heart of her insight.)

If we think of the Trinity, then, not as a set of perfect mutual relations into which the (known) gender binary somehow has been interposed in a cleansed form, but rather as an irreducible threeness that always refuses a mere mutuality of two, then we reemphasize the importance of the Spirit precisely as Moltmann has urged, yet with a significantly different theological outcome for gender. Here we do not allocate the binary of "masculinity" and "femininity" to different "persons," or even to their relations, but instead step into a circle of divine desire (the sighs too deep for human words that signal the Spirit's gift of loving plenitude, drawing us to the "Father") which is necessarily beyond our comprehension and categorization, but is drawing us by degrees into the "likeness" of the "Son."  And since the Son himself, in the very act of incarnation, has transgressed the difference between the fundamental metaphysical binary of divinity and humanity, we may rightly see the incarnation, also, as a destabilization of other basic binaries...Christ is the very mingling of divinity and humanity. (pp. 140-41)

Coakley's bold insistence on the threeness of God is the key, yes.?  Her attention to the Spirit is unique in Western theology, too.  She doesn't resolve HOW we use gender-infected words in new ways, but rather points to how the Spirit - call it grace - radically interrupts our dualistic limitations.  This is one new insight that I trust is essential.

Another comes from the writings of Eugene Peterson who is much more traditional but no less helpful.  His emphasis on is rooted in the ancient orthodox metaphor of God in Holy Trinity as a sacred and mystical dance from the word perichoresis (peri = around and choresis = dance.) He writes of the Divine in a community of dance...

Our Greek theologian ancestors used a metaphor to refer to the Trinity. Perichoresis, writes Karl Barth "asserts that the divine modes of existence condition and permeate one another mutually with such perfection, that one is as invariably in the other two as the other two are in the one".  Imagine a folk Dance, a round dance, with three partners in each set. The music starts up and the partners holding hands begin moving in a circle.

On Signal from the caller, they release hands, change partners, and weave in and out, swinging first one and then another. The tempo increases, the partners move more swiftly with an between and among one another, swinging and twirling, embracing and releasing, holding on and letting go. But there is no confusion, every movement is cleanly co-ordinated in precise rhythms (these are practised and skillful dancers), as each person maintains his or her own identity. To the onlooker, the movements are so swift it is impossible to distinguish one person from another; the steps are so intricate that it is difficult to anticipate the actual configurations as they appear.

Again, no new language and yet this notion of Trinity is deeply counter-cultural: it challenges the core of our hyper-individualized culture - the kingdom of Self rather than the kingdom of God - and calls into question the values of the contemporary American church. Peterson continues in an extended quote:

By insisting that God is three-personed, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - God inherently relational, God in community - we are given an understanding that God is emphatically personal. The only way that God reveals God's self is personally. God is personal under the personal designations of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and never in any other way: never impersonally as a force or an influence, never abstractly as an idea or truth or principle. And so, of course God can’t be known impersonally or abstractly.

We are not used to this. We are schooled in institutions that train us in the acquisition of facts and data, of definitions and diagrams, of explanations and analysis. Our schools are very good at doing this. When we study persons, whether God or humans, we bring the same methods to the work: analyzing, defining, typing, charting, profiling. The uniquely personal and particular is expunged from the curriculum; and that means the removal of the most important things about us - love and hope and faith, sin and forgiveness and grace, obedience and loyalty and prayer - as significant for understanding and developing of persons. The fact is that when we are studied like specimens in the laboratory, what is learned is on the level of what is learned from an autopsy. The only way to know another is in personal relationship, and that involves at least minimal levels of trust and risk.

Because of long training in our schools and an unbaptized imagination, we commonly bring these reductionist, depersonalized methods to our understandings of God. But when we do, we don’t come up with much, for God is totally personal, interpersonal, relational, giving and receiving, loving and directing. There’s nothing in Father, Son and Holy Spirit that is not communal. and so there’s nothing to be learned of Father -Son- Spirit except by entering the communion, entering the company of the Trinity: praying and listening, being quiet and attentive, repenting and obeying, asking and waiting.

Trained as we are in the schools, it is the easiest thing in the world to use words abstractly and to treat the gospel is information. But Trinity prevents us from doing that. Trinity warns us against supposing that we can lock ourselves in a room free of all people and distractions and just read, study, and meditate and then expect to know God. Trinity is our defense against every soul destroying venture into the Christian life that depersonalizes the Gospel or God or other people. 

Peterson, of course, posits this as an antidote to what he calls the NEW Trinity - my holy Wants, my holy Needs and my holy Feelings - and his critique resonates deeply. "We live in an age in which we have all been trained from the cradle to choose for ourselves what is best for us. We have a few years of apprenticeship at this before we are sent out on our own, but the training begins early. By the time we can hold a spoon we choose between half a dozen cereals for breakfast, ranging from Cheerios to Corn Flakes. Our tastes, inclinations, and appetites are consulted endlessly."  Isn't that part of what the Occupy Wall Street movement has discovered?  Isn't that a part of the historic Church's commitment to community, too?  Born of the sacred dance, God offers us an intimate alternative to the addiction of always having to decide

... what clothes we will wear and in what style we will have our hair cut. The options proliferate: what TV channels we will view, what courses we will take in school, what college we will attend, what courses we will sign up for, what model and color of car we will buy, what church we will join. We learn early, with multiple confirmations as we grow older, that we have a say in the formation of our lives and, within certain bounds, the decisive say. If the culture does a thorough job on us – and it turns out to be mighty effective with most of us – we enter adulthood with the working assumption that whatever we need and want and feel forms the divine control center of our lives.

As I sit back today dealing with a low grade but annoying stomach flu, I am reminded of a comedian who once summarized the old TV show, "Thirty Something" as a 60 minute improvisation on different people whining, "What about MY needs?" The Trinity is the alternative: God as the joy of "dancing around." It is about living beyond our obsessions in unity and integrity with God and one another.  And it is about NEVER, ever seeing any one or thing as a means to an end:  everything is relational - NEVER just business - ALWAYS deeply and powerfully personal. In the mean time, I still use both the old/new language - Creator as well as Father - and trust that in the dancing new light will be revealed in the old darkness. 


Black Pete said…
I like the Trinity as a description, not a prescription: in other words,a way for us to get a handle, as it were, on God, but in no way reflective of the true reality of God.
RJ said…
I resonate with that... an imperfect, playful, in-motion poem about a mystery, yes?

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