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A while back I read Has God Only One Blessing? by Mary C Boys. A professor at Union Theological Seminary, Boys explores the person of Jesus and movement he started and attempts to place both in their Jewish contexts. At one point she examines the historical context which lead to the development of trinitarian theology. This theology arose out of attempts to explain the person of Jesus in relation to God in the context of monotheistic Judaism. The formalized theology of the trinity explained in the Nicaean Creed was the work of several centuries of a minority group (believers-in-Jesus) wrestling with questions as it sought to define itself in relation to (and more often than not, against) others Judaisms. A result years of philosophical debates, the creed was a theological statement that firmed up theological boundaries between believers-in-Jesus and (other) Jews and “heretics.” In this way it also unified a majority of perspectives held by believers-in-Jesus, offering a strengthened identity in a fractured movement.
Yet for the earliest believers-in-Jesus, this formal theological statement didn’t exist. It wasn’t fleshed out in specific philosophical terms. Early believers-in-Jesus hadn’t yet developed the theological language to express ideas about the trinity. As such, understanding of the trinity necessarily derived from spiritual experience. As language developed to define the Triune God (as though God could be defined), the necessity of the spiritual experience was supplanted by philosophical understanding.
This loss has had profound implications for how Christians relate to one another and to the earth. We have not understood the triune God as a symbol of mutuality, of radical equality, and of community in diversity. Rather we have imaged God as a divine monarch whose sovereign rule certain people on earth emulate through structures of domination, whether of the one group of people over another or humans over the planet The nontrinitarian God, moreover, tends to take on the characteristics of the “quintessential macho man, unmoved and unfeeling in the face of human suffering.” Having lost sight of the Trinity–a communion of persons–as the model par excellence, the church has instead structured hierarchies that privilege one class of persons over another.
This doctrine of the Trinity resonates with me: the Triune God is the perfect model of mutuality, equality and community in diversity. These should be the ideals that we pursue as seek holiness. For the earliest believers-in-Jesus who were without formal trinitarian doctrine, these ideals flowed from personal spiritual life-experiences rather than a hereditary intellectual dogma. As such–as a personal, spiritual experience, the Trinity is radical, not because it exceedingly logical (for indeed it is not) nor because it is original or unique to Christianity (for even this is dubious), but because its ideals are a powerful formula for challenging the status-quo of our culture.
Divorcing the Trinity from personal experience, as Boys points out, is not only antithetical to the Christian movement, it’s potentially harmful. Creating power structures of domination over others diminishes our connection with them and makes it more difficult to experience the image of God in them. We lose our ability to empathize with others. We lose site of the very things that make us beautiful.
The Trinity, therefore, is a powerful theological concept only when it is embodied in personal experience. Divorced from personal experience, the Trinity becomes a meaningless dogma. Coupled with personal experience, the Trinity has the potential to be a powerful, revolutionary force.