Trinitarian Spirituality, 4: A Third Modern Approach

Trinitarian Spirituality, 4: A Third Modern Approach April 19, 2012

In our travelogue thus far, Anatolios has been laying some groundwork for our understanding of the Trinity by pointing out some very common perspectives that he thinks are defective in some way. (And if you notice, on the right hand column of these posts, there is a menu of earlier posts for your rereading reference.)

First, we considered the idea that the truth that God is mystery means we can know nothing, really, about him except what he has done in human history; Anatolios calls this a trajectory of discontinuity—a radical break between what God has revealed and who he is. We don’t embrace this perspective because it shortens our vision of God to our own experiences and leaves the ‘heart’ of God beyond human knowledge. While this perspective offers us mystery—a good thing—it also leaves us without real relationship. How can you have a relationship with someone whose very being is unrevealed?

Second, we considered the idea that the truth about what God has done in human history is not only a genuine revelation about who he is, but is the sum total of who he is; Anatolios calls this a trajectory of conflation—a collapsing of our experiences and God’s being. This perspective offers us another very vital truth–that what God has done in history says something essentially true about who God is. It really does reveal God so that we can have relationship with him. But we don’t embrace this perspective either, because God is greater, more wonderful “inside” than he is “outside.” (I’m fairly sure that’s very untheological language.) But we must be careful, in our desire to understand, not to reduce God; though God’s works are glorious, and they are full demonstrations of his heart, we cannot say that they ‘capture’ the totality of who God is.

There is one more inadequate model in Anatolios’ sights: this one will, I think, be easier. The picture above is a give-away.

Anatolios calls this third approach the dominant one in Western Christian spirituality. He calls it analogical. Think in terms of metaphors, “creaturely” metaphors. The method here is to look around us at things we do understand and use them to ‘grasp’ Trinitarian language in some way.

And once again, there are strengths to this position. How else can we talk about something so profound without using metaphor or analogy? It is really a lot like a love poem. Love sweeps through our being, and our hearts are undone by ‘non-rational’ feelings; really good poets use analogies of a seemingly odd assortment of creaturely things to express love:

Your mind is water through an April night,
A cherry-branch, plume-feathery with its white…

At first you coalesce entirely with the brightness
The elusive angle of a curtain…

Leaning into the afternoons I fling my sad nets
to that sea that beats on your marine eyes…

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune…

So, we do the best we can—we speak of the Trinity in ways that can come as close as possible to things that seem to compare. Burns’ lover is like a red, red rose only because its depth and beauty and fragrance and delicacy (and maybe thorns?) remind him of her.

You know where we’re going with this. We’ve heard many such comparisons, some of them concrete, like shamrocks or ice-water-steam, and some of them less concrete, like relationships (my multiple identity as a daughter, wife, and mother). Some of the more famous, but less concrete analogies, have been used by really great theologians, like Augustine and Aquinas.

For instance, there is the “psychological analogy,” which takes its metaphor from the inner working of a human being. In this version, we see God’s inner being compared to ours. We have memory, understanding, and will—three aspects of our self that work together intimately to create our identity. (This is one of Augustine’s favorite models, and we will return to Augustine later in our journey.)

There is also the “social analogy,” another non-concrete metaphor, that explores Trinitarian language in terms of relationship. So, for instance, we read of the Trinity as a lover, the beloved, and the love that they share.

Anatolios gives an example of a metaphor I’ve never heard (with good reason)! He writes, “I recall a sermon on Trinity Sunday in which the preacher suggested the analogy of a father, a mother, and their baby sleeping in the same bed, the bed corresponding to the one essence!” Good grief.

The problem with analogies is that, once again, we’re starting with ourselves—they’re anthropomorphic models, human handles on something far greater. Any time we start with ‘me,’ we don’t really get to the whole truth about God. Some truth, yes; all truth, no. Analogies are so limited, and how can limits suffice in pondering the Great Mystery of Three-in-One?

The other problem with this model, and I think this is the far more dangerous one, is that they’re so easy. It’s easy to say, “Sure, I believe in the Trinity,” and have a shamrock or some other image in your head, and then feel like, check, got that doctrinal bungee cord in my Christian backpack. After all, certain doctrines just need to be packed away and hauled through life, like equipment you might need someday on the journey, just in case… We never take our belief in the Trinity out to examine it; it never comes in terribly useful; and since it’s problematic, it’s best kept in a little side pocket. Keep it simple, baby. Maybe I’ll need that doctrine someday; maybe I won’t. But when we get to those pearly gates, we can pull it out and demonstrate to that seraphim with the flaming sword that yes, indeed, we have “believed” that… see, here it is… no, I never really thought about it much… it made my head hurt… I didn’t think it was that important… the thief on the cross never gave it a second thought, now did he?

But when we do that, we can actually end up “believing in the Trinity” and yet living without any connection whatsoever to the Triune God. We become what I call “serial monotheists”—that is, we definitely only believe in one God (at a time), but sometimes it is the Father, sometimes it is the Son, and sometimes it is the Spirit.

Anatolios is adamant that the Trinity is the heart and soul of Christian faith and practice. I want to know what that means.

Analogies are helpful in thinking and talking about the Trinity, but ultimately we must conclude that they’re inadequate. And it’s okay to use them, ponder their usefulness… as long as we do, in fact, understand that they are not explanations, correlations, or summations of the truth about God. They are only doorways into the conversation.

Next up, an interlude about the Nicene Creed, a space for the conversation.


Note to Reader: This series on Trinitarian Spirituality explores the history and spirituality behind the shaping of the Nicene Creed using Khaled Anatolios’ Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011) as guide and inspiration. It’s best to begin at the beginning: An Introduction.


Browse Our Archives