Thursday, 11 October 2012

Trinitarianism and unity

John Wright Died 1742
" the hopes of the Blessed Resurrection...
Saint Andrew - Little Snoring[Link]
© Godric Godricson

The Trinity is a complex doctrine at the core of the Christian faith; requiring study and reflection to be fully understood. 21st Century denominations often have distinctive views of ‘The Trinity’ and often those denominational views are mutually exclusive and the object of intense rivalry. We can see a continuing development of the doctrine over time from a fairly limited statement of belief by the 4th Century Church at Nicea to a much more developed statement of  belief during the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council. How a Trinitarian perspective would impact on the afterlife and faith in the resurrection remains a quiet point. Are we, in effect, being lead into doctrinal error by contemporary Catholicism?

Many people initially hear their first account of ‘The Trinity’ from Church services in the Nicene Creed which exposes people to the doctrine and emphasises the central importance of the doctrine. The Trinity is developed as an idea in the Athanasian Creed.

“I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who together with the Father and the Son is to be adored and glorified, who spoke by the Prophets”.

Wilhelm, Joseph. "The Nicene Creed." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 15 Nov. 2009

The Nicene Creed sets out the very basic and unelaborated tenets of the doctrine without explaining that doctrine in detail and this ‘vagueness’ allows debate, confusion and conflict. The creed also fails to define what it would be like to integrate a Trinitarian perspective into life and also into death.

The traditional power of Catholic theology
Saint Mary - Great Snoring [Link]
© Godric Godricson

 The Roman Catholic Church tried to explain and codify the doctrine as part of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church”. Emphasising that the doctrine is a core  ‘mystery’; the Catechism teaches the doctrine in a ‘pithy’ style that draws upon the historical teaching and cultural traditions of this particular denomination. The Trinity  is a mystery that relies upon God to reveal the mystery to others and cannot, in isolation, be understood by humanity with reference to human reason alone. Equally, the Trinity cannot be understood without reference to the Incarnation. The catechism is a succinct  (although sometimes legalistic) statement of doctrine that tries to free the denomination from perceived doctrinal error. The Catechism also introduces  specific Church terminology such as "consubstantial Trinity"  which are explained; although,  the explanation is sometimes so highly refined that it is inaccessible as a means of  informing Christian life. There is a gap in logic in the that we may expect the Trinity to encourage a greater relatedness on Earth between humans and between the living and dead to mirror an eternal, heavenly,  integration

Building on earlier explorations of the doctrine (and acknowledging that some Protestant denominations totally refute the doctrine); Karl Rahner (SJ) has written extensively in this area such as “The Trinity” (1967). Rahner  developed earlier Creedal statements and catechism towards a  further refined perception and enhanced an understanding of this doctrine by exploring themes such as the “Economic Trinity”  and the “Immanent  Trinity”. Such developments are intellectually complicated and sometimes esoteric although, ultimately, Rahner encourages thinking about the doctrine without reaching an ultimately satisfying conclusion.

"Tradition" filling in the gaps
within Catholic theology
Saint Mary - Great Snoring [Link]
© Godric Godricson

The doctrine of The Trinity is at the heart of the Christian faith and yet the doctrine is one of the hardest to conceptualise and teach for both for clergy and  the laity. The doctrine tries to say something about the nature of God and to reconcile a simple monotheism  with a more complex  ‘Triune deity’.  The doctrine also fails to be a ‘theory of everything’ and sometimes remains an attempt to explain God. The doctrine refutes any assertion that we have three distinct Gods within the Trinity, instead, we have the proposition that within the Trinity we have three distinct personalities; all of which are co-equal and indivisible within a mystical union. Causing much controversy; the doctrine did not become accepted until the 4th Century at the Councils of Nicea. Some non-creedal Protestant denominations have abandoned the doctrine altogether. A stumbling block for some Protestants; the Trinity is a conundrum whereby any discussion about the ‘one’ inevitably becomes a discussion about the ‘three’ and a discussion about the ‘three’ becomes a discussion about the ‘one’.  In explaining the Trinity It has often been argued (in simplistic terms) that God the father is ‘love’; Jesus as the son is that  Incarnate ‘love’ sent to the world and the Holy Spirit is how that divine ‘love’ is communicated to humanity. There is no attempt to explain how humanity and the history of humanity would be different if we truly understood the Trinity and incorporated Trinitarian beliefs into faith. 

The language surrounding the Trinity is specialist and exclusive; almost  legalistic. In discussing the Trinity, the theological term ‘person’ can be seen as being outside of common English usage. ‘Person’ may be conceptualised in terms of a separate and  unique. Person in this sense is not like a ‘human person’ or an individual. However, we cannot define ‘person’ simply by reference to what the ‘person is not. Instead, we may use our imprecise language to say that we believe each person of The Trinity to be perfect and whole and co-equal to the other persons of The Trinity.

Substance tries to unify confused human thinking and the imprecise vocabulary used in describing ‘God’ so that ‘Substance’  describes the state whereby the three persons within ‘God’ are unified into one and humanity comes to know God as a unified reality rather than a confused mélange.  The three persons of the Trinity are comprised of the same material or ‘substance’ with no differences between them.

Rather than dealing with the human idea of financial economics,  the Economic Trinity is a theological term that describes the aspects of The Trinity that are revealed to humanity and which are part of and involved with the ‘Economy’ of salvation. It has often been believed in the Latin rite Churches that Jesus is particularly involved with Salvation and Redemption through His Incarnation, Passion death and Resurrection.

The Immanent Trinity is that way of perceiving the  Triune Deity, as having an ‘essential existence’ that is outside of the comprehension and understanding of humanity and which is ‘unseen’ by humanity and which is essentially unravelled to humanity.  In accepting the ‘Immanent Trinity’, humanity has another way of conceptualising ‘God’ who was revealed to humanity through the Economic Trinity. 

Perichoresis; is a term from the Greek language used in English to try and describe a particular situation where the three ‘persons’ of The Trinity are unified together and are sometimes seen to be ‘in community’ or be an intimately close and shared/ inter-related state of existence. Whilst the English language may be blunt and imprecise when dealing with theological concepts first addressed in Greek; perichoresis as a concept attempts to render into a coherent form the idea of a Deity that is  “three personned” and indivisible rather than being three separate ‘persons’ who act in isolation from each other.

The practical implications of the doctrine of the Trinity for Christian life in the 21st century is immense. The Trinity is clearly expressed in the work of Roman Catholic theologians and the Roman Catholic Church and has reference to the West and I wonder what Orthodox Christians would make of The Trinity and especially with the unity of the living and the dead.  I suggest that  the doctrine of The Trinity was ‘simplified’ in the 4th century CE to make the teaching of essential Christian doctrine easier for Christians to understand and this’ simplification’ was redressed from the 1960’s onwards.  I will suggest that that a developed understanding of the ‘Holy and undivided Trinity’  places a greater emphasis on Christians to understand ‘diversity’, the liturgy and particularly the Eucharist as part of Christian life and community. I would also suggest that The Trinity also encourages humanity to consider the unity of all forms of life and the link between the living and the dead.

I suggest that we need to recognise an inconsistency in Latin Rite Christianity before exploring the practical implications of The Trinity for Christian life.  This inconsistency can most clearly be perceived in the documents of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council (1962-1965) which give the impression that the Trinity is at the heart of Christian life and doctrine. However, the documents are formed within a religious and cultural tradition which is largely “monotheistic”  in outlook and which finds it difficult to incorporate the Trinity. As a result it is often difficult to define what Catholic Christians actually understand about ‘God’ and what Christian communities would be like if a community of believers  embraced more overtly Trinitarian perceptions of God and implemented such perceptions into society.  History and liturgy points towards a monotheistic faith rather than a Trinitarian faith

One problem seems to be that Christian communities have; from the witness and ministry of Augustine of Hippo in the 4th Century, been taught to view God as a rather monotheistic Deity or as ‘a unity’ and that minimises the ‘triune’ qualities of God.  In effect, the complexities of a ‘triune’ deity have been ‘ironed out’ and ‘simplified’.  A renewed emphasis on the Trinity  would set the church free from any Augustinian perception that stressed the ‘unity of God’ and effectively strip away the Trinitarian qualities from an essentially ‘triune’ deity.  It is unclear what a Church would look like if ‘set free’ from confines that have been in place for so long. In effect, we recognise that The Trinity is confusing, complicated and challenging to understand although it does open up to the Human experience to the concept of ‘diversity’, ‘mystery’ and co-operative endeavour as opposed to individualism.

‘Lumen gentium’, promulgated by Pope Paul (1964) as part of Vatican II, clearly moves on a little from Augustine’s simplified statements and acknowledges  that the doctrine of the Trinity is at the heart of the Christian community.  Lumen gentium’ is a document set within the historic epoch of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960’s and acknowledges that the Church has been made one with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  In effect, the modern ministry of the Church is officially and formally identified with the ‘ministry’ of the Economic Trinity without which Christian life and community is devalued. As part of the process of change within the Church; the ideas of the French ‘Nouvelle Théologie’ often focused and amplified the 16 documents of Vatican II  and concerned itself with renewing Christian life and Catholic expressions of worship.

An intellectual, academic and hierarchical  ‘re-discovery’ of the Trinity  became possible in the 1960’s. Catholic ‘intellectuals’ in the widest sense  began  the process of re-discovering The Trinity and also re-conceptualising humanity's relationship with a Triune God. Rather than simply seeing God the Father as a remote and distant figure; Latin Rite Christians are now more easily able to perceive God ‘in community’ or in ‘perichoresis’ with the other personalities of the Economic Trinity. A strengthened emphasis on the Trinity paradoxically informs humanity’s own relationships with each other, the living and dead. The worldwide Church is potentially offered the option of moving away from hierarchical and domineering structures based on ‘power’ and move towards patterns of behaviour that are inherently more collegiate. If we see the Latin Rite tradition as re-discovering the Trinity from the 1960’s;  we may also suggest that the Church  has the possibility of contemplating the more perfect interaction of the Church (as the mystical body of Christ on Earth)  with the Triune Deity.  It is probably in the hands of the laity how long they will allow the ‘formal Church’ to take in this reflection on purpose and direction before deciding to press the matter by either their action or increased indifference.

Whilst the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and a well educated Catholic elite has been able to re-discover a Trinitarian God hidden behind monotheistic ‘overlays’; it is not always clear that official teaching has effectively been communicated ‘downward’  to Catholic Christian communities. It is not apparent that parishes understand what a more Trinitarian God would mean for a Christian life in the 21st Century or their own relationship with God or participation in The Eucharist.  There always remains a question about the resources that are given over to the training and education of the laity in parishes. In an age when people perceive a shortage of priests it seems convenient to train the laity.

For contemporary parishes and communities; It is in the Eucharist that they collectively come into the Presence of God in the most meaningful way. This is a very real although undeclared problem for Catholic Christians. That problem seems to relate to the question, “Is  it just Jesus that I receive at the Eucharist?”. For many Catholic Christians; the answer to this is “Yes!”. The common sense  perception being that the words of institution were delivered by Jesus and that Jesus alone is present in the Eucharist.  However, this cannot be correct.   Rather than the common sense perception of Jesus alone being present at the Eucharist; a restatement of the Trinitarian dimension is required whereby the Eucharist sees us  unified with all the consubstantial persons of the Trinity joined in ‘circumincession’.  The Trinity also re-states an idea of reintegration that is hard to accept from a monotheistic standpoint.

Despite reforms in the 1960’s. the present celebration of the liturgy may be characterised as being monotheistic in nature; even if the actual words reflect the Trinitarian formula. We perceive the current Eucharist as  a “fragmentation” of God into constituent  parts and this is unhelpful.  Christians should arguably  “Live the life of The Trinity” within the Eucharist and this is perhaps the direction of travel as a logical consequence of Vatican II; post conciliar theologians and even the development of alternative and diverse theologies such as “Liberation theology” and even “Queer Theology”. Humanity may begin to see ‘Diversity’ and ‘Freedom’ as a major outcome of a re-exploration of ‘Trinitarianism’. Rather than the rather false and self conscious ‘sign of peace’ given in English parishes at the Eucharist are we being directed towards a real and more perfect unity as Christians that reflects the unity of the Trinity?

The modern Church forgetting
old knowledge
© Godric Godricson
One  area of Christian life to be addressed as a result of  Vatican II is the collegiality of the Church and in I do not simply mean the Collegiality of the Episcopacy. Instead, the Church itself seems to require a degree of change that leads to a ‘real’ diversity being developed. Just as Jesus is not present in The Eucharist in isolation; then no one group in society can be seen as being dominant or the sole representative of humanity within the Church. Can humanity  collectively aim to form  individual societies on Trinitarian principles of perichoresis? In effect such unity would require the diminution of  social distinction and a situation whereby social class is less important than it was and whereby other divisions of status and rank are erased in our collective service to a Triune God. This will be extremely painful for organised religion which often works within the frameworks of society. I hesitate to use the term ‘the Priesthood of all believers’, although the idea of a unified Trinity does perhaps communicate something to us of the unity that God sees as being both natural and part of that Immanent Trinity that remains mysterious. I also believe that a Trinitarian view of faith allows humanity to integrate the living and the dead.

In considering the practical implications of the doctrine of the Trinity for Christian life, it is evident that humanity is heir to a diverse Christian heritage  which requires hermeneutics to fully determine. Society is very far from the unique perfection inherent in the Trinity. However,  from the 1960’s and the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council we may question whether or not we are experiencing a process whereby the Holy Spirit is directing Christian life as a whole and Catholic theological study in particular towards a more reflective position. It is the case that if the Latin Rite Churches are to survive that they must change radically and it may be that ‘et Unum Sint’ (that they may all be one) is the direction in which the Trinity offers to humanity as a model for Christian life?

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