Practicing Trinity

22 May 2016
Trinity Sunday
Year C
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

The doctrine of the Trinity developed over the course of a couple centuries (or longer) of reflection on what happened in the events of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The Christians of those first centuries came to be convinced that what had transpired in the Jesus event was nothing less than the reconstitution of the human being and indeed of the whole created order; it could only have been accomplished by the same God who had created the world in the first place. They developed an entire theological vocabulary (ousia, hypstasis among the more technical terms) to express the idea that God was at work in Jesus the Christ, and yet maintain the unity of the Godhead.

This Trinitarian vocabulary and grammar has not translated well into modern European philosophy. The historical, critical bent of recent thought has very little room for contemplative thought. Perhaps even more important, the Enlightenment (and after) understanding of the self as an isolated rational entity (think Descartes and Locke) has left us with an impoverished understanding of the category of Person which is so central to Trinitarian thought. We are left thinking of some kind of divine “stuff” or essence (which is our poor translation of the idea of “ousia” – being), expressed in three different forms (our poor translation of “hypostasis”): we are basically modalists. Or, we think of God as distant from the created world, and of Jesus as only a quasi-divine messenger: this is Arianism.

What the early Christian theologians developed was the idea that the “being” of God, the ousia, is in fact the divine self-gifting of each Person (hypostasis) of the Trinity to the others. The Trinity is “relationship without remainder.” The Father eternally gifts the divine self in the begetting of the Son, and the Son eternally returns the divine self in gratitude to the Father. The Spirit is the gift of the divine self to creation (through the Son). The Incarnation is the expression of this mutual divine gifting in history, our invitation into the divine life.

The passage from Romans comes very close to capturing this idea: God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, so that we have the hope of sharing in the divine glory (participating in the divine life). As the Spirit was active in creation, brooding over the waters of chaos, and in the Incarnation, brooding over Mary, so the Spirit is active in the Church, brooding over the world, and making us the Body of Christ (we invoke the Spirit on both the elements of bread and wine, and on the Church in the eucharist, transforming both to be the Body of Christ). Through the Spirit’s agency, we are transformed to participate in the divine life. What Jesus was by nature, we become by grace. This is the “pay-off” of Trinitarian thought. Without the idea of relationality at the heart of the divine, the work of God in our redemption makes no sense.

In order to learn to live in a trinitarian way, we have to overcome our understanding of the self as an isolated, rational individual agent. In our age, this is precise the situation from which God redeems us. We are who we are only in so far as we participate in mutual self-gifting relationships. We owe our very being to that gifting. To think otherwise is to live and die apart from God.

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