One Progressive Christian Takes on the Trinity
by Dwight Welch, United Church of Christ, Oklahoma.
Mark Sandlin, a Presbyterian pastor and blogger at The God Article, came out with a recent post questioning the trinity and the way it’s been used as a litmus test to determine who is out and who is in the church. It’s a sort of a “the emperor has no clothes” post in that it acknowledges publicly what many lay people have thought but never hear pastors say; the trinity is not to be found in the Bible, it was involved with historical debates and political power plays in the early church that may or may not be relevant to what it means to follow Jesus today. So I wanted to express my appreciation for his post and his naming something that I think has troubled many in the church.
Suffice it to say that I agree with him that the trinity should not be a litmus test. In fact, I think most litmus tests should be suspect. They shut down the possibilities of questions, they often operate as power plays, and they suggest that the arguments for a religious ideas are not sufficient so some external force is needed to produce conformity. When that happens, there is reason to doubt the claim. And something happens to a community which has to fear the use of such tactics. They don’t produce space for honest searches, for questions, for religious inquiry in general.
But as a progressive Christian pastor, I will admit, that the trinity has proved to be too important in the making of my own religious ideas to let it go. While it should not be the test of orthodoxy (even the World Council of Churches require for membership), I think of the trinity as the one of those undiscovered treasures when one finally cleans out the attic or basement. You dust it off and you have a new found appreciation for a very old idea. That’s what happened to me in any case.
Like many old ideas it’s had a battered history. Some have taken the trinity to be a “mystery”, an example of how our language gives out when seeking to describe the “ineffable“. Others take it as a contradiction, an example of religious communities requiring belief in the unbelievable as a basis to secure loyalty. It forms our creedal and liturgical language for centuries but its not clear that many members of the church could explain why. And if they could, would those reasons be compelling?
I know my attraction is not because I believe Jesus was God. I don’t. I believe he was a first century Jewish teacher. Nor do I believe that some percentage of Jesus was God and some other percentage was human, as if you cut someone up like that. My thinking of the incarnation is most influenced by Rita Nakashima Brock who speaks of the incarnation as grounded in relationships, not in a single individual, but in the interactions and connections that are had with one another. No person as an individual is so removed from society that you could make a plausible account of incarnation apart from society and those wider set of relationships, including Jesus.
So what compels me to pick up the trinity again? Some of it is history. To me, any religious doctrine that has had sway over a significant period of time and with a broad array of communities, suggests not an esoteric doctrine, a puzzle that can’t be solved, but instead suggests an idea that touches on something important in human experience. That is, religious doctrines that have some staying power, like most kinds of language, disclose something about our world. So I have an interest in what that might be. I’m a language junkie in that way. It’s why I worry about dying languages because something about human life is about to be lost with its passage.
That something Shailer Matthews, describes in terms of patterns discerned about our world and ourselves. What pattern does the Trinity point to? There are a number of good candidates. One that interests me is the inner relationality of God as the pattern of relationships which constitutes communities and human life in general. God never acts alone but is in constant mutual love and reciprocity between the persons of the trinity. From this, we have a model for living. For example, Bob Cornwall finds in the “unity between Father and Son…our unity as church”
But then he writes “can’t we go even further to understand the unity of creation itself to be found within this fellowship? Jürgen Moltmann advocates that God is present in all things, and all things are present in God. Pushing further, he speaks of our existence within this fellowship in soteriological terms of salvation or wholeness.” I’d like to take that insight and run with it in this piece.
The first time the Spirit makes an appearance in scripture is in Genesis. There the Spirit of God, hovers over the deep, and begins the first act of creation by separating water and the land and the light from the darkness. That is, the Spirit separates and makes distinctions which makes for individuality. Abram is driven out from his people into the desert, and like Jacob, is given a new name to express the creation of something new, a new people, a transformed individual. It is the Spirit which names who Jesus is in the waters of his baptism and it is the Spirit which drives Jesus into the wilderness to take stock before his public ministry.
So the Spirit is intimately involved in the creation of the new, of the individual, of uniqueness, and of identity. The Spirit names things, separates people out, and creates new individuals. If anyone remembers the process of adolescence, the separations involved, in the growing up years, especially from parents, this provides the context for an individual to emerge, with a unique set of gifts, ideas, and personality to give to the world. If you watch the movie Boyhood, which just came out, you get to see that process unfold over many years.
The key part to the previous statement is to “give to the world”. The point is not simply to be an individual but to take that individuality and put it in the service of others. That is what makes it a gift. Paul identifies Christ as the power that makes for salvation. To the degree that our gifts can be put into the service of others, the encounter, the exchange that occurs, can become transformational and therefore salvific. In that, Jesus represents the Christ not in the waters of baptism but when he leaves the wilderness and begins his public ministry.
When we share who we are with each other, what HN Wieman identifies as creative interchange, it can transform individuals. They have a shared experience and the result is a different kind of relationship, one marked by growth and change, where new values emerge that are inclusive of those involved in the interaction. Because the moment you invite others into your community, you are inviting them to transform you as much as you will transform them. A new community emerges as individuals add their gifts and individuality into the mix. The act of creation which follows is what I understand when I affirm God as creator.
In this, there appears to be a three folded process. The first is the act of creating individuals and individuality, the Spirit. The second is taking the gifts of individuals and sharing it with others, the Christ. The third is the deepening of relationships, the transformations of individuals and communities, God the creator. All three presuppose each other. You can’t create individuals apart from other people in community. You can’t create growing communities apart from individuals adding their uniqueness to the mix. You can’t deepen relations apart from the encounter with others. All three are necessary, all three need each other, and all three become the creative workings of God.
This three fold process, when separated out, produces problems though. If you have individuals who have no relation or responsibility to others, you don’t have a society nor can you build community. Think Ayn Rand. Think the United States and what fruit that has born. Now if you have communities which seek to squelch individuality, they are digging their own graves. They do so, because they remove the possible gifts that diversity can bring and because the problems inherent in these communities have no means of correction. Think any authoritarian system. It is only when individuality and our relations with others work to build communities which sustain both that you can produce the creative good in life, that is when the act of creation becomes divine.
That three folded movement of God then becomes a way to get a hold of reality in some measure, to understand it and respond to it. That’s what I take the task of good religious doctrine. So when I say I believe in the trinity it is not because I am claiming orthodoxy. I’m pretty sure I’m not. It’s not because I want to make Jesus God. I understand Christ to be bigger then Jesus as much as he represents God’s saving acts for us as a Christian community. That is Jesus, points to something about our world in his life, he gives us a face to represent this reality but the reality is bigger then him or anything else in our tradition.
Of course reality is bigger then our words and our doctrines too. But they can open us up to our world, they can be maps as I noted in my last column. In that there are a treasure trove of ideas, doctrines in our Christian tradition. Some which may need to be put aside. Others which need to be reclaimed. I’m interested in reclaiming the trinity but I have no use for scapegoats and blood atonement. So I’ve done both, dropped ideas and reclaimed them and I believe the freedom to do just that must be accorded to everyone in the church. In that I thank Mark and his blog for his ideas, the conversations they spur in the church, and for anyone who is seeking to live out their faith in a way that humanizes us all.
Dwight Welch is the new pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma