Wednesday, June 28, 2017

"Trinity Schminity" by Mark Sandlin, "points to our need for community and each other"

“…the doctrine of the Trinity so easily appears to be an intellectual puzzle with no relevance to the faith of most Christians.”- Karen Kilby, Head of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Nottingham and Vice-President of the Catholic Theological Association of Great Britain
"From “extreme monotheism” to “homoousion” to “partialism” to “modalism,” Christianity has a wide and wild variety of understandings of the theory of the Trinity. Frankly, that reality should not be too surprising. After all, the Trinity is in fact a theory and it is a theory that one must be fairly creative with to fit into all the necessary theological perquisites it comes burdened with. That is not to say it is too convoluted to have meaning, but I certainly don’t bestow upon it the meaning that most mainline theologies would like for it to hold.
As a Christian, I’m a follower of Jesus. Jesus was a Jew. (I assume no one is surprised to hear that.) As a Jew, Jesus was a strong monotheist (as opposed to the Trinitarian view of Christianity.) You just have to look at the first line of the Shema (which is the oldest fixed daily prayer in Judaism) to recognize that Judaism is monotheistic: “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”
Now, admittedly, it’s been a long time since I’ve played “Follow the Leader.” But, it seems to me that the basic idea of following is to imitate the person you are following or, at least, to follow their instructions. As a Christ follower, frequently referred to as Christian, I have this need to actually follow Christ.
As I’ve said, Jesus was a monotheist.
Even the Bible predominantly practices monotheism. Biblically, God is predominantly addressed with a singular pronoun, not plural. Not only that, but biblically there is no mention of the Trinity.
There are a few places where the Spirit and God are mentioned somewhat closely together but they are few and far between – and even then, the text is far from clear if it is talking about a “Trinity” of some sort. If anything, it seems to be talking about three distinctly different entities.
God did not inhabit human skin in order that he might sacrifice himself and then abandon himself on the cross. Jesus even tells us that the “Father” knows more than he does. If they were of “one substance” does it not make sense that Jesus wouldn’t see himself so separately from God?
Furthermore, Jesus does not promise the disciples that when he leaves them he will send himself back to help them; he says he’ll send someone different, the Advocate (the Paraklete, one called alongside of.) It is clear that Jesus sees himself as distinctly separate from the Spirit.
Not only did the Bible have no concept of the Trinity, but early Christianity also had no concept of the “Trinity.”
Over a few hundred years a small group of Christians started speaking of how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were “one,” but at the same time distinct from each other. It could be that this was a counter-reaction to Pagan beliefs in “many gods and many lords.” In pursuit of defining themselves over and against paganism and in trying to hold on to the Jewish theological heritage of monotheism, Creator, Christ, and Spirit needed to be harmonized with the concept of “one God.”
At the Counsel of Nicaea, in the year 325, the Trinity was presented as a minority theory. The then emperor Constantine, a worshiper of the Sun god, oversaw the Counsel for political reasons. He squashed the majority opinion that God and Jesus were separate entities. The minority view prevailed and set the foundation for the Trinity becoming an “essential” doctrine.
The deal was done, so to speak, at yet another convened counsel 56 years later in Constantinople where due to key members either resigning or falling ill, a popular city senator who just happened to not be a Christian, was put in charge of the Counsel of Constantinople where the Trinity essentially became the Church’s official teaching on the nature of God.
Admittedly, the Trinity is an interesting theory and it certainly quelled some of the early Church’s division on the nature of God, but it is just that – a theory. (A somewhat politically motivated theory at that).
And it’s a theory that the Bible puts absolutely no energy toward explaining.
I’m not saying the theory of the Trinity is wrong. I’m just not saying it’s definitively right, which is exactly what many of its adherents do when they say that if you don’t believe in the Trinity, you can’t be Christian.
Here’s the thing: if the Trinity is that important, doesn’t it seem like Jesus or the book of Acts or Paul or James or Peter or John would have talked more directly about it?
The lack of biblical witness leaves me to believe that either there simply was no understanding of a Trinitarian God at the time books of the Bible were written or that the concept was so unimportant to their faith that it mostly wasn’t mentioned.
So, why do we make it so important? Why is it a dividing line of who is in and who is out?
Frankly, I am not deeply interested in the answers to those questions. I’m much more interested in the validity of those questions. They point to the reality that the concept of the Trinity, right or wrong, biblically should not be a defining position of whether or not a person is Christian.
It’s no surprise that after some 2000 years tradition and dogma have built up in the institution that grew around the followers of The Way, but that is also no excuse for allowing the dogma to divide the community – particularly when you recognize that it isn’t necessarily biblical and that Jesus, the leader of The Way, really didn’t have much to say about it.
“Absolutely nothing worthwhile for the practical life can be made out of the doctrine of the Trinity, taken literally.- Immanuel Kant, German philosopher
All of this is not to say that I find no value in the Trinity. I actually do find value in it. However, I do not see the Trinity as an essential belief in being a Christian.
As Kant alludes, I find value in the Trinity when I stop trying to make it a literal understanding and begin to see it metaphorically.
In the Trinity, Creator, Christ, and Spirit are understood to exist in relationship. How that specific relationship takes place has long been debated and probably always will be which, in my opinion, leaves it to be somewhat uninspiring and unproductive when taken literally, but the relationship part, when taken as metaphor is inspirational and informative.
For those of us who turn, at least in part, to Christian scriptures to guide our spiritual journeys, the relationship between Creator, Christ, and Spirit points to our need for community and each other. After all, it is in the Trinity that God is most fully realized. And, as the scriptures tell it, we are to think of ourselves as being formed in the image of the Divine.
Might it be then, that we find our truest self when we are in relationship? Particularly as we learn how to do so in harmony? Perhaps the Trinity’s true value is in showing us that the fullness of life is in finding a balance between individuality and relationship.
After all, relationship that allows for individuality and yet affirms the importance of balancing it with the importance of relationship and community requires a truly loving spirit.
And, if there is one mainline, theological doctrine that I can completely buy in on, it is: God is love.
~ Mark Sandlin
About the Author
Mark Sandlin is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) from the South. He currently serves at Presbyterian Church of the Covenant. He is a co-founder of The Christian Left. His blog, The God Article, has been named as one of the “Top Ten Christian Blogs.” Mark received The Associated Church Press’ Award of Excellence in 2012. His work has been published on “The Huffington Post,” “Sojourners,” “Time,” “Church World Services,” and even the “Richard Dawkins Foundation.” He’s been featured on PBS’s “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” and NPR’s “The Story with Dick Gordon.” Follow Mark on Facebook and Twitter @marksandlin

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