Making Sense of the Trinity
Thomas Oord's Open and Relational Approach
Not three distinct Persons but three Forms of Love:
other-creation, relationship, and inclusion
Triune but not Tritheistic
How can we "make sense" of the Trinity in open and relational terms? Can we imagine it without falling into tritheism? Might it "make sense" even to people who do not identify with Christianity?
Thomas Oord, one of the leading open and relational theologians in the world today, offers significant guidance. His is not the only piece we have on the Trinity in JJB. See also Teri Daily's sermon The Space within the Trinity: All Beings Included and also Can the Trinity Flow Again? The Haden Triplets, Cynthia Bourgeault, and Process Theology. There are many ways to think about the Trinity in open and relational terms. There's no need to limit Trinitarian thinking to one option.
Still, Thomas Oord's approach hold special promise, especially to those with philosophical interests, because he builds upon the systematic and rigorous way or thinking about God developed in his landmark theological work, The Uncontrolling Love of God. This book is having a powerful influence in Christian circles today, offering special hope to people who might not otherwise believe in God at all. We have offered an appreciation of it in JJB: see A Different and More Loving God: Imagining God with help from Thomas Oord.
Let's be clear about one thing first. Open and relational theology is a multi-religious option available to people of many religions and no religion. You do not have to be believe in a triune God to be an open and relational thinker; the very idea is a uniquely Christian idea. Bradley Artson is an open and relational Jewish theologian, and Farhan Shah is an open and relational Muslim theologian. Neither of them espouse a doctrine of the Trinity. Moreover there are open and relational thinkers who lean in the direction of non-theism: emphasizing an organic interconnectedness universe with an open future, and the primacy of love, without speaking of an agent-like God in the first place. In the house of open and relational thinking there are many rooms.
What might the Trinity mean, at least for Christians? Some Christians interpret the idea to mean that God consists of three persons, each with distinct centers of consciousness, distinct freedoms, distinct responsibilities, distinct wills, and distinct relations with one another. We might call this the "Social Trinity."
Thomas Oord rejects this way of thinking as unblibical, implausible, and inappropriate to a genuine understanding of God's love. In responding to a book by another Christian theologian, Keith Ward, Tom offers what we might call an "open and relational" approach to the Trinity. Click on the links below and see his four0part response to Ward. Scroll down for excerpts which give you a sense of Tom's unique perspective. For those of us influenced by process theology, Oord's form or triune thinking will make good sense.
Thomas Oord's Blog on Keith Ward
Excerpts from the Blog
God is not three persons but God's love has three forms: other-creation, relationship, and inclusion.
"Christian theology would make better sense if Christians did not say God is comprised of three persons, each with distinct centers of consciousness, distinct freedoms, distinct responsibilities, distinct wills, and distinct relations between one another. This formulation of the Trinity is more tritheistic than monotheistic....The Trinity makes better sense if we say one God instantiates in three forms that includes other-creation, relationship, and inclusion. A doctrine of the Trinity expressed in these terms should prove more winsome for most 21st century contexts."
God's does not create "others" out of nothing, God creates them out of already existing creations, in a spirit of love. The universe has no temporal beginning and neither does God. When God creates out of what already exists, some creaturely causation is also always at play.
Of course, accepting that God everlastingly creates out of creation in love would mean rejecting creatio ex nihilo. But I don’t think Ward would worry too much about foregoing creatio ex nihilo. There’s no explicit reference to the doctrine in the Bible. And many in the Christian tradition has embraced it for reasons that, as I mentioned above, Ward would not likely think legitimate. Besides, Ward could embrace an alternative view, something like what I have propose: creatio ex creatione en amore (God always creates out of creation in love).
Saying God always creates out of creation and has been doing so everlastingly also provides Ward a way to avoid saying that God is the source of evil. Ward rightly says the possibility for evil emerges by necessity. But affirming a God who necessarily and everlastingly creates from what God previously created means that the possibility for evil is necessary among creaturely action. After all, some creaturely causation is also always at play when God creates.
As God creates, the future is open (not yet decided) even for God.
On this point, open and relational theologies offer a crucial part of an explanation for how a necessarily creating God can also be free. If the future were complete and settled, a necessarily loving God would have no freedom whatsoever. But an open future not divinely foreknown means that God chooses freely among loving options when creating. God cannot “crunch the numbers” to know with certainty which option will ultimately produce well-being to the greatest extent. Consequently, God freely chooses among the best available options in any moment.
Summary by Thomas Oord
"A number of contemporary Christian theologians argue that the idea of the social Trinity can help Christians today embrace relationship and include others. We should imitate the three divine persons who love within the Trinity, they say.
These theologians also typically insist that relationship and inclusion among the social Trinity tell us something about God's nature. But God's relationship and inclusion of creatures outside the Trinity is wholly voluntary for God. God could simply love within the Trinity for all eternity. God's nature does not include relational inclusion of creatures, only relational inclusion for the divine members."
"But how much more powerful is a view that says God's relationship with and inclusion of creatures is a necessary aspect of God's nature!? In this view, God necessarily includes us in the divine experience. God necessarily relates to creation. And God necessarily loves. The Trinitarian view that says God necessarily embraces creation tells us something profound about God's "heart." This necessary love for and inclusion of creatures is an important part of what it means to be "love divine, all loves excelling," to quote Charles Wesley."
-- Thomas Oord