A Cartoonist’s Guide to the Trinity
This Sunday is Holy Trinity Sunday. I love thinking and teaching about the Trinity. It was the core theological framework of my PhD dissertation. If you would like to get an introduction to the Trinity, I invite you to CLICK HERE to view my guide to the Trinity at my website. I’ve reproduced a portion of that page below for your convenience. It is full of visual resources that you are free to use. Blessings on your Holy Trinity Sunday!
- They believe in the Trinity–you know, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- They don’t really understand it…at all.
The Christian scripture mentions three people and gives them each divine qualities: the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. They all showed up at Jesus’ baptism at the same time, so they are distinct from each other. Yet, the Bible is pretty clear that there is only one God. Thus, the problem. Are there three gods, or one? Who are these three characters and how do they relate to each other and to the world?
These are questions that have always fascinated me. They captivate me so much so that I worked them into my Ph.D. dissertation. This page is the home base for all my studies and doodles revolving around the trinity. I like to think about the Trinity in terms of Social Trinity. Allow me to explain…
The following playlist of four short animations will walk you through the basic introduction to the Social Trinity.
This is an illustration I created to depict Augustine’s language around the interplay of the three persons of the Trinity. Notice how each section of the celtic knot shows the evolution of the universe in the days of creation.
Flip through these slides to get a visual introduction to the Trinity. Use the button below to download the PowerPoint and Image Pack for your own study, preaching, and teaching.
A More Academic Introduction…
Deep in the Burbs is a story of the Triune God. The research question asks “How might an increased awareness of the social Trinity impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations?” It might be easy to think of this as if the social Trinity was a chunk of knowledge that could be presented to the Research Team for objective evaluation and ultimate acceptance or rejection. This idea is (a) not congruent with my pedagogy, ((I will posit a communicative pedagogy in the Spiritual Formation Frame.)) and (b) contrary to the nature of the Triune God. The research was conducted in the understanding that God is not an object that can be studied or a concept to be considered, but that God is the ground of being itself from which all life springs forth. ((David Kelsey posits that all knowledge of God is secondary knowledge, and that, to understand God truly, the researcher must observe the activities of the local congregation in its specific context. Thus, the participatory action research methodology used in this research is, in itself, a theological inquiry into the mystery of the Triune God.)) All human speech about God is, at best, an analogy, metaphor, or simile. All theology is a human construction of symbols—models—that point to the unknowable God, but can never define or explain God. ((William C. Placher, The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 40-41.; see Peters on symbol. Ted Peters, God–the World’s Future : Systematic Theology for a New Era, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).and Grenz on the use of model.Grenz and Olson, Who Needs Theology? : An Invitation to the Study of God.)) Therefore, this is a question that wonders (a) whether the models of the Triune God that we have inherited from our Western Theological predecessors are adequate and helpful for the current context in which the church finds itself, ((Here I am referring to the much rehearsed history of Athanasius’ victory over Arius at the Council of Nicea in which he demonstrated that God is three in person, but one in essence. His Immanent model of God as three-in-one within Godself has been reduced, over time, to monarchial modalism, at best, in Western, modern theology. The Immanent trinity, then, is the transcendent God of divine substance that is separated from the material world in the tradition of Platonic dualism.)) and (b) if an alternate model of the Trinity might provide more space for a missional imagination of spiritual formation in the local congregation.
Reframing the Model
What then, is the alternate model that I proposed to the research team? I named this model the social Trinity in the research question. It was my attempt to present a model that was true to the contemporary conversation about the Trinity. Western theologians have wrestled with the Trinity question throughout the twentieth century. Stanley Grenz offers a helpful schematic to help us map out the landscape of this conversation. He articulates three major types of Trinitarian thought in the twentieth century: (1) those emphasizing the historicity and futurity of God—Moltmann, Pannenberg, Jenson; (2) those emphasizing the relationality of God—Boff, LaCugna, Zizioulas; and, (3) those emphasizing the transcendence, or otherness of God—Johnson, Urs von Balthasar, Torrance. ((Stanley J. Grenz, Rediscovering the Triune God: The Trinity in Contemporary Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).))
Each of these theologians contribute important aspects to the conversation. The term social Trinity, however, is most readily associated with Moltmann and Volf. I must confess that my language has changed since the initial crafting of this research question. I no longer find the term social to be the most helpful label for this model of the Trinity. This became apparent to me early on in the research project. The first indication came when I had the initial meetings with my pastoral contacts in the congregations. Whenever I got to the term social Trinity I could tell that there was pensive hesitation. They shuffled in theirs seats, and eventually asked the awkward question, “What do you mean by social Trinity?” This was a helpful experience for two reasons. First, it affirmed my assumption that the terminology was not commonplace, even among clergy. Second, upon further conversation, I realized that the term social was a trigger associated with one of two prejudices. One prejudice was the immediate association with the term social Gospel that harkens back to the liberal/fundamentalist schism of the early twentieth century. The other prejudice was the immediate association with the issue of social justice which signals work projects and activist movements.
I found myself immediately using the terms relational and relationships in order to explain the meaning of the social Trinity. One pastor suggested that I simply change the question to read “the relational Trinity.” This was a valid suggestion, but I opted to leave the language as it is because it is associated with a certain body of theological literature, whereas the term relational Trinity is not as widely used. My language has expanded through the course of my research and I have found another term that is, perhaps equally foreign, but slightly more provocative and interesting. The term is entangled and is borrowed from Quantum Physics. ((see Simmons.; Polkinghorne.))
I would like to append the question to read, “how might an increased awareness of the social, relational, entangled Trinity impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations?”
A Brief Summary of the social/relational/entangled Trinity
The social/relational dimension
My use of social/relational draws most heavily on relational ontology as presented by Zizioulas. ((Zizioulas and McPartlan.)) To summarize, Zizioulas proposes that humanity, both as particulars and collectively, has the imago dei of the robust Trinity ((I have introduced the term robust into the conversation. This is Shults’ term to distinguish the relationality and futurity of God from the transcendent/Immanent Trinity.)) imprinted on/in us ontologically. The image of the relational Trinity is this: God is three-in-one and one-in-three. God is transcendent, immanent, and relationality. God’s transcendence is the immanent Trinity that is constituted by relationality. This relational union is wholly other from its creation. God is also immanent in the economic Trinity. The Father is arche, the Son incarnate is the demonstration of God’s love and the great victor over death. ((I will agree with Volf and not go so far as Zizioulas to warrant patriarchal authority in the church based upon the arche. Volf, bringing Moltmann into conversation with Zizioulas, calls for an egalitarian power structure based upon a flattened perichoretic power structure. Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity.)) The Spirit is the animator and mediator of life and relationality. God is also relationality that constitutes all being and out of which human particularity is formed. Humanity is created in the imago dei. We are homologues of the robust Trinity described above. ((I am intentionally hinting at the Augustinian use of “vestiges of God.” A fascinating sub-conversation within the larger Trinitarian conversation is that of Augustine’s culpability for the demise of the Economic Trinity in the modern West. LaCugna, et alia, blames him for the problem. Barnes disagrees and notes that LaCugna’s argument is built upon a resurgence of de Regnon’s claim in the 19th century, which, Barnes argues, is unfounded. I agree with Barnes and follow Sheldrake’s assessment that Augustine understood relational ontology inherently, since he did not breath the air of Cartesian dualism. Michael R. Barnes, “Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology,” Theological Studies 56, no. 2 (1995).Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality and Theology: Christian Living and the Doctrine of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 75-83.)) We are many-and-one and one-and-many. We are individual selves constituted by the relatedness to each other, to nature, and to God, the transcendent other.
Relational ontology connects to the theoretical lens of Robert Kegan’s fifth order of consciousness, as mentioned in the Spiritual Formation Frame. Here it is enough to mention how the social/relational Trinity is connected, not only to theological language, but to ideas about and formation of the human self-in-relation to the other. ((both Groome and Farley emphasize this as essential to the practice of formation in the congregation and in any theological inquiry. Groome names the individual as “Agent-Subjects-in-Relationship.” Farley names it as “being-together” in the reciprocity sphere. Groome, Sharing Faith: A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry: The Way of Shared Praxis.Edward Farley, Practicing Gospel: Unconventional Thoughts on the Church’s Ministry, 1st ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003).)) Zizioulas proposes that it is not only our eschatological hope that is connected to the social Trinity, ((Eschatological hope is central to the “historicity/futurity” grouping that Grenz noted: Moltmann, Pannenberg, and Jenson. Zizioulas does not deny this dimension, but simply emphasizes the ontological aspect of this Trinitarian conversation. Here, to, I argue that we must abandon substance dualism in light of relationality and entanglement.)) but it is our very essence, our ontological essence, that is constituted by the relationality of the persons of the Godhead. The use of communicative action as the research methodology in this project assumes that the congregations might discover the reality of their interdependence with the other, both within the congregation and within the suburban and metropolitan community as a whole.
Entangled Trinitarian Panentheism
I have added the term entangled to my Trinitarian model based upon a growing body of research that explores the interface of Theology with Quantum Physics. ((Polkinghorne.)) Simmons provides a helpful metaphor with his proposal of Entangled Trinitarian Panentheism. He borrows the term entanglement from Quantum Physics and attaches it to the ancient Greek term perichoresis. ((This term was used by the Greek Fathers to describe the relationships between the three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It means to move in and out of each other, or to dance around. It brings with it the image of a mutual, equal interpenetration and indwelling of all three persons. It, however, existed within Godself, thus was not helpful for how God related to the world.)) He finds this helpful for discussing the apparent dualisms in the theological debates about the Trinity, namely (1) is God one or three persons, and (2) is God the Immanent Trinity or the Economic Trinity? ((the debate made famous by Karl Barth and Karl Rahner.)) Simmons proposes that “perichoresis entanglement can be understood as the energy of the divine Trinity through which the creation is expressed. The immanent Trinity exists in superposition with the economic Trinity and evolves within the entangled life of God with the creation, thus supporting a panentheistic model of God.” ((Simmons, 144.))
Simmons claims that his proposal of Entangled Trinitarian Panentheism may:
- Through phase entanglement and non-local relational holism provide metaphors for the perichoretic activity of the Trinity immanently and economically in sustaining and sanctifying the creation from within a scientifically consistent panentheism;
- Through quantum indeterminacy, affirm the freedom and openness of the creation in relation to divine self-limitation and the problem of suffering;
- Provide a conceptual bridge between creation and the Trinitarian character of the divine life;
- Contribute to the mutual understanding and interaction of theology and science;
- Assist interested persons in deepening their understanding and appreciation for the divine mystery of the Trinity; and
- Help provide a basis for interfaith dialog and cooperation as we collectively address the global issues of our time.” ((Ibid., 187-188.))
The Trinity and the Research Team
It is the assumption of this research that the suburban, ELCA congregation is the product of the dominant Western, immanent Trinitarian view mentioned above, and that its ideation and praxis of spiritual formation has been heavily influenced by it. The introduction of the social/relational/entangled Trinity, to the congregations through participatory action research methodologies will both expose the congregations to a, presumably, new way of thinking about God, and will allow them to experience the relationality of God through the communicative action inherent in the process itself.