The Space within the Trinity:
All Beings Included
a process exploration by Jay McDaniel
with gratitude to Joseph Bracken *
All Beings Included
The Space within the Trinity
I have a friend who thinks that the Trinity looks like the woman in the image above: a woman who embraces the whole of the earth. Or, to be more precise, she thinks that the feelings evoked by the image are examples of what it means to live within the Trinity.
As she sees things, the woman's heart carries a spaciousness, an openness, a wideness, that includes all things. It is the space within the Trinity. I ask her about this space and she quotes the pediatrician turned priest, Teri Daily. "There is a space within the Trinity so vast that it holds all the suffering of the world, all our pain, all of who we are." My friend agrees with Teri Daily. She, too, finds God in the open space.
On Sunday I go to church with my friend. Reverend Daily prays "in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." When my friend hears these words, she does not picture three men dancing in a circle within the godhead. She quietly whispers to herself: "in the name of the Mother and the Daughter and the divine Breathing."
My friend is interested in a post-patriarchal understanding of the Trinity: that is, in a way of thinking about it that moves beyond the patriarchal mindset which approaches everything in terms of binaries: order over novelty, predictability over surprise, control over mutuality, reason over feeling, agency over receptivity, humans over earth, men over women, unity over diversity, spirit over flesh. She knows that many aspects of trinitarian thinking are helpful in moving past these binaries. We can well imagine "the Father" being surprised by "the Son" and "the Holy Spirit" surprising both of them. But she also feels that the imagery itself has become too static, too predictable, too routine, thus stifling the spirit behind the imagery. That's why she sometimes whispers alternatives. including Mother and Daughter and Breathing. She thinks the freedom to explore comes from spirit itself. "The Spirit is all about freedom of speech."
A friend criticizes her, worrying that she is not honoring Jesus enough. She knows that Jesus was a male and she thinks that's kind of good. "He invites men into post-patriarchal forms of masculinity, where vulnerability replaces control." But she also feels that the essence of Jesus was his open heart not his gender. For her his heart can be described on the analogy of a daughter's love as well as a son's love. And she knows that God is not male either. She says that the words are chants and that there is no need to imagine the Trinity in exclusively male terms. "I'm a good translator," she says..
My friend is a schoolteacher. She is influenced by Howard Gardner's idea that children and adults have different kinds of intelligence: mathematical, verbal, musical, spatial, bodily, introspective, and empathetic. She says that she knows the trinity through empathetic intelligence and thinks that this is the kind of intelligence Jesus was best at. "He probably wasn't so good at calculus and he may not have carried a tune, but he could feel other people's feelings."
Her ideas remind me of the philosophy of Whitehead, which is also receptive to the idea that there are many forms of knowing, of which verbal knowing is but one. Whitehead further emphasized that the most important ideas in life are vague, because they pertain to what truly motivates us in life. He is famous for saying that an overriding concern with clarity is the bane of little minds and, so we might add, small hearts.
My friend gets irritated when she hears theologians presenting "arguments" for the Trinity as if truth is restricted to verbal propositions. She thinks that truth is not limited to verbal propositions, and thinks that Jesus himself might have been perturbed at people trying to reduce his love to doctrines.
The Community in God
Even as my friend finds truth in feeling, I am curious about her attitude toward verbalized and visualized beliefs. I show her the diagrams below and ask her if she really thinks the godhead consists of three distinct persons, each eternal and each fully divine, who exist in relation to one another.
The Problem of Trinitolatry
She doesn't. The one on the right is too pointed for her, even as it includes a circle, She likes the one on the left a lttle more, but says that she would replace the phrase "is not" with the word "loves." But even with such changes she has serious reservations.
She does not think that God exists as three distinct persons and that each one is fully God. She knows that the early church fathers interpreted the Trinity in these ways, but she interprets it differently. "The idea of the Trinity is evolving," she explains. "It is not yet fully defined and probably never will be."
Here again, I sense the spirit of process theology. She does not think of Christianity as an already-defined tradition to which nothing new can be added, but rather as a living tradition -- ongoing community of people -- who rightly remember the past but also sing new songs. "I believe in new births," she says.
It irritates her that some Christians make a big thing out of diagrams like these and insist that trinitarian language must be exclusively male. She senses that these Christians -- dogmatic trinitarians -- are making little statues inside their minds and then calling them God. She calls it trinitolatry. She says that these little statues function like fortresses that Christians hide behind, making them feel special and superior to others -- Muslims and Jews, for example -- who believe that God is One but not Three.
The Wisdom of Threeness
Nevertheless, as I gradually realize, she kind of likes the idea of Threeness. For her the number Three is what Whitehead would call a lure for feeling, a proposal that life is not limited to Twoness. "What is it a metaphor for?," I ask her. She utters a very simple word: Community.
A lot of people think about God as a reality that stands over the world like a lord (One over Many) and some also think about God as a reality that resides within each person as a spark of love and creativity (One inside Many). But she was saying that she experiences God in family and friendships, in shared journeys, and in what Teri Daily calls the grittiness of love. She finds God in living relationships on earth, local and global, human and ecological (One between Many). Let's call it God in community.
Threeness is a metaphor for community. We all know that relations between two people can be gritty. All numbers have wisdom, and Two is among them. The Yin-Yang diagram in Chinese philosophy is a wonderful invitation to appreciate the dynamic and mutiple ways that Two can be enjoyed.
Still, something happens in Three that is not the same as Two. Whenever three people are gathered together a space emerges for multiple forms of surprising interaction which cannot be reduced to two entities. There is an element of multiplicity that is not quite controllable by any party and that has an identity of its own. The multiplicity can be healthy or harmful, violent or loving. When it is loving we call it Community.
My friend believes that Community is part of God, too. It is not that there are three distinct persons in the godhead, each fully divine and eternal; rather it is that God is incomplete without the multiplicity of being related to a world of diversity. Without a world of diversity divine Oneness is mere homogeneity, kind of like a soup of a single color. The good news, says my friend, is that God is not God without being in community with the hills and rivers, plants and animals, trees and stars. And of course the people, too. God is Three, says my friend, and this Threeness is the the Oneness.
I get it. She is not making claims about the inner being of God but rather about the heart of God. The heart is an open space that is filled with the world's multiplicity. In the language of Whitehead, it is the many of the universe becoming one in God, again and again and again, forever received
Can we feel gritty love for the whole of it? I'm not sure. But we can try. We can try opening ourselves to the beauty and the needs of all other people as best we can, in a spirit of world loyalty. And we can try opening ourselves to the beauty of other living beings, too. We can live in Trinity.
Can people who are not Christian and not trinitarian live in the Trinity, too. Of course they can. The trinity includes all living beings in all circumstances, those of pain and pleasure, laughter and suffering. And it includes living beings on other planets and in other dimensions, too. It is wide indeed.
The Trinity in Process Theology