Trinity: the divine dance

6 Sep

The Christian idea of the divine trinity is, I think, the most valuable idea in all the world.

I have to give a talk about this idea next weekend. I have been reviewing some of the images of Trinity, in Christian art. These are so insightful.

Yet most people think this idea is just nonsense.  And it seems irrelevant.
Many churches teach nothing at all about the life of God as Trinity.
Or what they have to say seems just a sterile idea.
Little wonder that people switch off, or regard it as simply mumbo-jumbo.
The maths don’t even work!

For me, though, this is the one idea that is worth really promoting to all the world, if we could really get a grasp of it.
We need this vision of trinitarian life and love, more than ever before.

This is the vision of a community in which there is genuine difference but without division.
There is mutual relationship, not hierarchy, not subordination, not control, not domination.
Rather, there is love, self-giving and receiving, there is mutual inter-dependence.
Differences don’t have to divide.

This quality of community is also creative: it is not centred on
itself. It creates a world, a community of beings who are also
inter-dependent. This community, the earth and all its creatures, is
related to its creator, God.
The community of creation is invited into life with God, and a life like God.

The idea of God as Trinity emerged in the ongoing story of Christian thinking. That’s important. it is part of the story of faith, for Christians. To understand their experience, they told a story.

From the experience of Jesus as a person in whom God is immediately present with us, yet who was also a real human person like us, and from the experience of God with us as the mysterious spirit, people  formulated the idea of God as a community, in which there is both difference and identity.
So we need to think of this doctrine most of all through the category of story: it is the Christian story of God.
I have found the theology of Jürgen Moltmann very helpful here. He sees the doctrine of the trinity as the Christian story of God. It is a story seen in the life of Jesus, and Moltmann explains the idea through various aspects of Jesus’ own experience of and with God (whom he called ‘the Father’).

Moltmann’s theology opens up ideas of how God relates to the whole of human history. He speaks of the trinitarian history of God’s dealings with the world.

Central to these ideas of the trinity is a concept of personhood, developed first by the ancient thinker Gregory of Nazianzus. The crucial element here is the idea that identity is not derived from separateness: I am not a person as an individual, self-subsisting in my separateness. Rather, identity is derived and developed and enjoyed through mutual relationship. I am because I belong.
The ‘persons’ of the divine community do not exist without each other. They are, in relationship. For them, to be is to belong.
This is the Christian understanding of ‘person’, in terms of God, and in terms of human persons.

Over against rampant individualism, in Western culture, this idea is a major challenge.
For sure, let us value individual human personhood. I am not for eroding human rights, for individuals and groups.
But our ‘rights’ do not constitute our lives. Rights are possible only within community.
We need to recover an image of persons in community.
We need this vision of life together, which derives most helpfully from the image of the divine life.

The whole point of the Jesus story is that this communal life of God  is an open community, a community that includes us: and Jesus worked hard to show that it includes all kinds, all sorts, and perhaps especially the people who thought that they didn’t fit, that they weren’t God’s people.
This community, the community of God, invites us to be part of the same life, the same community.

  One of the oldest images of the trinity pictures the life of God a circular dance, in which the dancers move, swapping roles and sharing parts, and each becomes a part of a much bigger unity, a whole, a life together.
    British theologian Paul Fiddes speaks of our life as ‘participating in God’, the title of his wonderful book on a ‘pastoral doctrine of the trinity’.
    The cover of his book uses the picture The Dance,  by Henri Matisse,  (1909). 

This is a picture, a story, a dance, worth sharing.

(When I work out how, I want to post some of these images and offer reflections on them!)

8 thoughts on “Trinity: the divine dance

  1. I remember when I began to think about how the idea of the Trinity was of anything other than metaphysical confusion value.
    I read Colin Gunton’s _The One, The Three, and the Many._ It has one of my favorite quotes of all time, when Gunton quotes Robert Pippin saying, “modernity promised us a culture of unintimidated, curious, rational, self-reliant individuals, and it produced … a herd society, a race of anxious, timid, conformist ‘sheep’, and a culture of utter banality.”
    This, of course, points to one of Gunton’s central points. He argues (something like – it was a while ago!) that when a group believes a transcendent reality that does not relate unity to plurality, it manifests in wild swinging between alienating individualism and herd like unity. That looks a lot like what we see in western society. It has an (implicit) transcend idea of the individual who is free to do whatever they want, and promises us that true freedom which people strive for, but in reality, we see the exact opposite happening as people more often seem to behave in a herd-like manner.
    Anyway, I know it really started me thinking about how whatever our vision of the transcendent, whether it be a divine being or even humanistic ideal, can influence how we are in the world. For me, that the Christian trinity establishes a transcendent that revolves around personhood, is an amazing thing.

  2. Frank, thanks for your post on jm, and for starting this blog. Your words about the central importance of the Trinity for Christianity in every aspect is so true! I look forward to getting to know you better in this forum. Thanks for stepping out of the lurker-fog, and into the posting-light! 🙂

  3. I tried to say exactly this (though perhaps not as eloquently) on Trinity Sunday at my previous church, and it was met with cries of derision…I’m still not sure why. But the whole idea is what I still strive towards in terms of faith community.
    In my explanation of Christianity to my group a couple of weeks back, this was a major theme – that to be Christian is to belong to an alternative community of resistance. While I didn’t specifically cite the Trinity as the reasoning behind this, I think it’s essential to understand our relationship with God in a communal sense rather than an individual one.

  4. Well said Frank, and congratulations on the new blog!
    I managed to spend 25 years in the church before having any notion that the idea of a Trinitarian God had any relevance to the world, to our worship, to my life… I’m not sure how or why we let go of it – but I remember being blown away and having one of those remarkable “a-ha” moments when the idea of God as inherently relational, and inherently embracing of difference was first articulated to me.
    Another blogger, the great Maggi Dawn, wrote a fantastic post on the Trinity and worship a while ago (quite a while actually) but it’s one of the best and most accessible pieces of writing I’ve come across.
    Check it out at http://maggidawn.typepad.com/maggidawn/2004/07/ten_minutes_on_.html
    Meanwhile I might just grab Catherine LaCugna’s “God For Us” off the shelf again for reading number 6 (or is that 7?)

  5. Thanks for your post Frank. Indeed, one of the most exciting developments in theology in the past 50 years has been this return to trinitarian thinking. Thank you KB! The challenge, of course, is to allow the Scriptures to continue to shape that discussion for the temptation is to go beyond where the Scriptures are prepared to take us. Have you checkout out http://www.perichoresis.org and http://www.perochoresis.org.au where Matisse’s image of the dance is broadened. Also, relying heavily on the work of Baxter Kruger and Kruger’s PhD supervisor James Torrance, Australian theologian Graham Baxter has offered us much in his latest book ‘Dancing in the Dark’ where he applies the rich insights of perichoresis to a model of pastoral ministry. Though I am not uncritical of the book, it is certainly well worth the read. LaCugna’s ‘God For Us’ is also a great read. As always, enjoy the dance! Jason

  6. thanks Frank for the contribution on Sunday night about the Trinity… Enjoyed the pictures very much and the question time.
    My 7yo daughter was actually listening for about 15 minutes and enjoying the pics too.
    One guy had assumed there was a hierarchy within the trinity… so it has got him asking. Also the youth group just happened to be discussing the Trinity, so two of that group asked qs.
    It was probably one of the biggest groups we have had since the nightchurch started 2 years ago. And the music was loud…

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