Trinity

While I hold fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association, and formerly held unitarian theology, I am a trinitarian Universalist. I can (and have) said the Nicene Creed without bursting into flames or rueing my hypocrisy. There are a few of us, and perhaps to the scandal of the UU rank-and-file, more than would be guessed.

Today is Trinity Sunday and I suppose I should say something, though the emphasis put on the day in Anglophone Christianity is disproportional in a way reminiscent of Channukah celebrations among American Jews. What’s next, God Sunday?

Plus, for a doctrine that is so key to Christian faith, it is notoriously hard to break down according to the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds without straying into one heresy or another. I suspect most Trinitarians are really Sabellians, from which it is a short bus ride to thorough Unitarianism, or more frequently, functional polytheism. (Sabellianism does quite nicely in the gender-inclusive trine formula of “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer” which is one good non-misogynistic reason for avoiding it. In case you wondered what the fuss is in places that have brought up the issue.)

In the pulpit, Trinity Sunday tends to take on one of three manifestations in the trinitarian churches:

  1. Ignore it, and pray Mother’s Day falls on it. Remember to buy roses. No dice this year.
  2. Use every iota of Greek you have — there’s an Arian joke there for the initiated — and abuse the congregation with how smart you are.
  3. Get the assistant or a supply preacher to deal with it.

Rare and glorious is the public teacher who treat the people and the matter with respect.

If you’re gung-ho about learning more about the Trinity, might I suggest Catherine M. LaCugna’s God For Us? It is not beach reading.

Failing that, I think the Wikipedia article on the Trinity is very well-crafted, and since Wikipedia falls under the GNU General Documentation License, it can be used quite easily in classes.

So read that.

Trinitarian theology evokes this though now (and just in time to get to church): It mitigates against the unfairness of the crucifixion though not the cruelty and gives Jesus Christ a cosmic meaning.

Non-Christians (and most Christians really) need to know that atonement theory — which has gotten some recognition lately in Unitarian Universalism — has ever been a matter of opinion and dispute. There is no single orthodox option for one to rebell against; little wonder that Hosea Ballou began there in his program of Universalist theology.

Even so, in a unitarian system, Jesus comes out as a schmo who was unfairly whacked at the hand or in the service of an indifferent or unfair God. He becomes the martyr above others, but this always has begged “why?” to me. Psychologically, the remedy is to minimize Calvary and make Jesus’ mission (“his teachings”) primarily moral. From there, Christianity rests on an exclusively moral foundation, and that’s easily coopted by dominant-culture ethics. Jesus becomes the flagbearer of the Good, who is easily accepted or dismissed.

(Evangelicals, however orthodox, do little better when treating Calvary as a near-mechanical way of getting their ticket stamped — but that’s for another time.)

Jesus Christ is not Hektor defending Troy, Polydorus betrayed, or young Polyxena slain in sacrifice upon Achilles’s tomb. (At this point I should mentioned Hubby, Peacebang and I spent a too-brief night at the Kennedy Center watching the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hecuba. Vanessa Redgrave played the lead of this new version by Tony Harrison. Watch it if you can.) He is not a tragic figure subject to fate and indifferent divinities.

Jesus Christ is God, and by endowing our humanity with his deity, we share with him the mutually-enveloping relationships with the Father and the Holy Spirit, leading to communion and everlasting life.

Author: Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

13 thoughts on “Trinity”

  1. I always knew there was something suspicious about you! :-)

    You are so right about most Trinitarians being Sabellians.

  2. Jesus Christ is God, and by endowing our humanity with his deity, we share with him the mutually-enveloping relationships with the Father and the Holy Spirit, leading to communion and everlasting life.

    This is such a loaded statement. Trinity depends too much on incarnation … incarnation depends too much on the belief that humanity is plagued by and passes original Sin through the male seed … which depends too much on a seriously uniformed 1st century gynecology which rendered females as mere incubators … blah, blah, blah … It’s quite an onion, and I am only nicking the surface.

    Which leads me to ask … “Why does one need Jesus of Nazareth to be God anyway? What purpose does it fulfill? Is it for eternal life? Eternal life where? In heaven? Heaven is not where the Bible says it is. So where is it? And did you change the location? Eternal life with what God?” Is this the ONLY reason one needs Jesus of Nazareth to be God?

  3. I don’t know about Scott, but as a Universalist who has considered the Trinity, the Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth does give me something compelling to consider. Such an incarnation would mean that God has been made manifest in human terms. Such a conclusion even lends itself to certain forms of theological Humanism (in the old Dutch Reformed sense). An incarnate God is a God that chooses solidarity with human beings, by sharing in our experiences. And I have wondered at times if I have me this God, in all “His/Her” humanity.

    I don’t see how gynecology has anything to do with this, unless you think that incarnational theology is limited to theologies of the immaculate conception. With regards to God as a mere psychological need, unsuported by religious experiences, that is a straw man to argue against. YOu may not share in my experiences, but I see no reason to question your intellectual or spiritual integrity if we do not share the same experience. A bit more humility is in order. I simply would agree to disagree.

  4. I won’t debate a peeling onion; indeed, I’m not going to debate at all. Not that there’s much room when when one states an objection and then supplies the answer to the objection. You’re whole first paragraph is a hasty strawman.

    I’m hearing the beginning of a deck-of-cards argument, with the Virgin Birth (or some other doctrine) at the foundation. Remove the foundation and it falls. I’ve been there and used to do that, but all you prove is what jerks your chain the hardest. Theology is an art of approximation, held together by the best means of understanding we have. Aristotle’s biology isn’t correct — the Virgin Birth cannot be read as biological fact — but the theology that affirms Christ’s organic interrelation with the other person of Godhead do heal themselves.

    I left unitarianism for trinitarianism precisely because the latter has a cohesive metaphysics based on relationship — which is almost exactly the piece you quoted — and the former satisfies itself with being right only to discover it cannot prove the thing it defends. Or more: Arianism does have a metaphysics of relationship but I hinted at that already and others have written about it. Back to the last few generations: little wonder insititutional Unitarians enter a perpetual hunt for the Next Right Thing and becomes either very confused or very smug. This plagues many communions.

    In short, I don’t need Jesus Christ to fulfill a purpose: he’s either done something or he hasn’t and my need won’t matter a jot either way.

    Since I’m sensing something more than curiosity here, I think you need to take it up with a formation advisor. If it is simple curiosity, and if you’re in an ecumenical seminary, you can take it up with classmates. This kind of in-depth sparing doesn’t translate well in print.

  5. I’ll pick on Derek for a moment because he said something that proves a point.

    First, a correction. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception concerns Mary’s lack of sinfulness — it was her conception, not Jesus’ referenced — making her a kind of “clean room” for the birth of Christ. I don’t believe it, but mention it because it is the way the theology filled in the gaps and took Mary’s full role as Mother (not incubator) seriously. Why? Were she only an incubator or passive vessel, Jesus wouldn’t have been really human.

  6. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was created to address the fact that women co-created children. If Mary co-created Jesus then the Original sin that she would have inherited from her biological father would have been passed to Jesus … thus making all of this conversation sorta meaningless. The ancients who drafted the doctrine of original sin believed it was passed through the male seed; this is all through both Testaments. Later, when “they” were drafting up doctrine to superimpose onto Jesus, they saw fit to replace Jesus’ biological father with God, thus breaking the link he would have otherwise have to Original Sin. They were, however, basing this all upon the false idea that women did nothing more than incubate the male seed. When, in around 1500 A.D., gynecological truth was revealed, the Church went into damage control mode and later whipped up the Immaculate Conception. Mary then became free from the link to this imaginary Original Sin, and Jesus remained sinless too. Trinitarian doctrine was preserved.

    Cosmology is only important as Heaven – and Hell – are concerned. The world is not flat, and there aren’t three tiers to it.

    Science is only important … everywhere else.

    I feel the Kingdom Jesus pointed to was the point, not himself. Trinitarianism, for me, is a distraction.

    Also, Scott, I just asked a question and provided a personal statement. There is no strawman … I assure you of that much. If you care to go on with this I’ll prove it. Also, my formation is going just fine, thank you. I, however, take serious issue with generalizations levied in my direction (Unitarianism), which you did do with your whole “schmo” remark. I’m done here. I’m off to my ecumenical seminary…

  7. I fail to see what’s unfair about sA’s question(s) about the necessity of the Trinity. Personal necessities aside, what’s necessary about the Trinity?

    My personal beef with the doctrine, since no one’s asked, is that it’s based on Greco-Roman metaphysics and cannot be explained without them, short of a LaCugna-esque effort. Hence, the pulpit dodges and the Sabellianism you mention. I personally find the doctine’s synthesis of Greco-Roman metaphysical problems to be beautiful, but that’s after two religion degrees. That inaccessibility is hardly incarnational, IMO.

  8. I didn’t say Shawn’s questions were unfair, but internally argumentative and I’m not biting. “The neccessity of Trinity” isn’t how I would put it. I think holds up better to the various truth-claims of the Christian faith. Plus an observation: Unitarian Christianity doesn’t hold equilibrium well. Viewed in decades or generations, either the Unitarian or Christian part falls off. It can survive, but just barely.

    While the late Catherine LaCugna’s work is very, very difficult, hers isn’t the only way to understand the Trinity. She was an academic and used the language of her vocation for her peers and those who wrestle to get some of the nuances. (Hers is also classified a feminist work on the divine economy, so it is hardly a generalist work.) I suspect an intuitive, narrative approach would work well too. (And it would be interesting if kinesthetic learners get perichoresis better than others.) Catchy slogans cannot, for instance. But above all is a respect for the laity to engage in a richer and deeper understanding of all theological matters than has historically been known. That work will almost certainly be the work of the church, and not blogs.

  9. I’m a plain Jane Unitarian (mon)theist, so Scott was righ (at least with regards to me) about the Unitarian or Christian bit falling off (for me obviously it was the Christian part). I also think that Unitarian Christianity can be hard to maintain, which is why for me it’s logical destination is the Unitarian theism to which I subscribe. But I don’t want to deny that others may have a different experience, nor do I want to start labeling who is and isn’t a Christian based on my little opinions.

    While I obviously do not subscribe to the idea of the Trinity, I think Scott makes some good observations. I think most Trinitarians are Sabellians, if pressed to explain the Trinity. I also think that the ideas focusing on the relationship of the persons of the Trinity makes more sense than most descriptions of it.

    In any case, I don’t find the arguments for the Trinity compelling; it appears to me to be the result of philosophical attempts to make sense of Jesus’ connection to God. That’s not necessarily the evil thing that some make it out to be, it’s just not an idea that I can buy. But I respect that God is bigger than my mind can contain, and if people approach God differently than I do, so long as there’s no harm in their approach I try to curb my objections.

    Having said that, I also don’t buy into the “but that’s not what the original Church really believed” arguments either. It’s hard for me to accept that any of us, Trinitarian or otherwise, can really grasp the range of beliefs amongst those Jesus left behind after his death. We have what we have in terms of literature, in the New Testament canon and the works that didn’t make the cut and the writings of the early church leadership; but there is not in my opinion a clear roadmap of what the Apostles really believed, or what people in general believed regarding Jesus in those first 100 or 200 years.

    And this is why I think the church developed as it did-an institution with a great deal of hierarchy and organization. Somebody had to make sense of the theological choices out there.

    Sorry for rambling…

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