I’m getting used to being a pastor in the United Church of Canada. This denomination is clearly much more liberal than the Christian Reformed Church I spent most of my life in. My particular congregation, Lawrence Park Community Church, sort of puts an exclamation mark behind the “more liberal,” by describing itself on its webpage as “united, unlimited, and unorthodox.”
Being “un-,” has had a bit of traction for a while now—at least since 7 Up branded itself as the Uncola, I suppose. I’m reading a book, now, entitled, “Unmarketing: Stop Marketing, Start Engaging,” by Scott Stratton. Still, before I joined the United Church, it was a stretch for me to think of myself as unorthodox.
Then, a few weeks ago, someone asked me about the Trinity. What did I think of the Trinity? How would I explain it? And—a bit to my surprise—I answered her, “Well, I’m not sure anymore. I guess I’m a Unitarian with Trinitarian tendencies!”
I’m not sure where that came from. The person who asked me wasn’t having heart-to-heart conversation. We were playing at theology. But there it was. Very unorthodox. Maybe my church’s billboard fits!
I don’t mean to be flippant in my comments about the Trinity, even though I do think that theology ought to have something of a playground feel to it. But usually, people take getting it right when it comes to theology much too seriously. Or they want to get it right for questionable motives. Take, for example, Constantine, the Emperor of Rome, on both counts. He convened one of the earliest worldwide councils to settle the question of the Trinity. Christians had been talking about the concept for three hundred years, and had not come to a consensus. The discussion got a bit heated and threatened to split the church into competing camps. Constantine, who became a Christian in large measure in order to unify his empire around religion, didn’t want to see a schism lay his plans waste. So, to keep the peace in his empire, he insisted on a single definition. Constantine then used his political power to force the answer he liked best and got the political result he wanted. Most of the church has held that answer sacrosanct ever since, even though the Empire for which the answer was crafted declined and fell sixteen hundred years ago!
Anyway, as I was driving home after my friendly discussion about the Trinity, another related question occurred to me. Why, exactly, is it so critical that we get this concept right? The church got by just talking about it, rather than insisting on an answer, for more than 300 years. And what could it matter to God—especially a loving God, if we didn’t get it exactly right? To use an analogy (talk about God is mostly analogical, after all), if someone mistakes me for the father of a young man who is actually my nephew; or if I mistake someone I’ve just met at my Rotary club for another person altogether when I meet her on the street, what real harm is done? None. In both cases, having made a mistake about someone’s identity, we act like adults. We smile, correct each other, make small talk, and go our separate ways.
What is more, we’re talking about God, here. Mistakes are expected. I learned early in seminary that even if the word isn’t very familiar to us, God is, in important respects “ineffable,” or unknowable. Considering that humans are a single species of life among as many as eight million other species on earth; given that the earth is a tiny speck of a planet on the edge of an unimaginably large cosmos; given that that cosmos is some ten or twelve billion years old and God has presumably been here and there the whole time; given that by most accounts God set all this in motion, and is eternal and omnipotent and omnipresent and on and on, how are we ever going to “get” God "right" anyway?
So we speak about God using analogies we find in scripture or make up ourselves. He is like a rock, or a mother, or a shepherd, or a burning bush. Or we know something of God on account of the things that scripture tells us God has done.
But let’s face it. Scripture doesn’t take a keen interest in helping us understand who God is in and of himself. We don’t get much by way of divine ontology. In philosophy, ontology is the study of “being.” It is a big deal. Ironically, most philosophers can’t agree with each other on human ontology. Makes trying to understand divine ontology seem like aiming high.
Nevertheless, we insist that God is three persons, but only one God. Like a church is many persons but one church. That, at least, is the “social trinity” explanation. There are many others, most judged heretical: monarchianism, adoptionism, Arianism. Even a brief description of these views would involve saying much more about them than the Bible says about the Trinity in any one place (or altogether).
The Bible, however, doesn’t spend much time on any of this. When it comes to whom he or she (both are anthropomorphic analogies, of course) is, God says, enigmatically, “I am who I am.” Or something like that—the Hebrew is hard to translate.
So perhaps we ought to take a hint from the Bible on this. It isn’t that important that we get it right. If it was, God would have given us more than sporadic clues—God might have actually given us a book or two or at least several chapters that nailed the matter. But God didn’t.
So, I’ve given up trying to convince people that the Trinity is exactly this or that. I’ve not given up on the Spirit or on Jesus or on God. But when I talk on how they are related to each other I’m going to give the dearth of scripture and its ambiguity on this topic a lot of respect; I’m going to take a hint from scripture’s lack of interest in the matter. And I’m going to go easy on strong assertions; I’m going to enjoy my conversations rather than pick a fight. I’m going to reread Boethius and Augustine for the fun of it. I’m going to smile at assertions, based on otherwise outmoded classical philosophy, that God consists of substance or essence. I’m going to wonder aloud rather than define terms.
And when people ask me about it, I’ll say I’m playing at being an unorthodox Unitarian—that is, a Unitarian with Trinitarian tendencies.