By Corrine Winter
Trinity Sunday again, and since Trinitarian theology is a major interest of mine, I find myself thinking of the best and worst homilies I have heard on the subject of the Trinity. I also find myself re-thinking one of my most common complaints about Trinity Sunday homilies.
The complaint I have heard myself making has to do with the suggestion that believing in the Trinity serves as a major testament to our faith because it amounts to accepting the impossible, that three are one.
That assertion about the doctrine has seemed to me a dismissal of Trinitarian theology because if the doctrine is simply and entirely incomprehensible, then why think about it? It also seems to me to reduce faith to unthinking assent. The Catholic catechism tells us that while faith involves the “submission of the intellect and will to God,” it is “by no means a blind impulse of the mind,” and moves us to desire knowledge of the one in whom we believe and deeper understanding of the truths that are revealed (CCC 154-158).
Moreover, the Catechism itself suggests an analogy between the trust we place in God’s revelation and the trust we place in other human persons as they reveal themselves to us. Now, of course, we need to remember the rule that analogy involves both likeness and difference. Humans can, sadly, deceive one another either deliberately or through misunderstanding, while God’s self-revelation is utterly dependable. Nonetheless, reflecting on the act of trusting one another’s self-disclosures can lead to some worthwhile insights into the significance of the doctrine of the Trinity and vice versa.
The doctrine of the Trinity, rather than asking us to store the formula, “three in one,” in the same mental closet that contains the multiplication tables, invites us to enter into a relationship in which we let God be God, recognizing that God is utterly transcendent and incapable of being captured in human words; but is also personal, inviting us to accept the self-disclosure and to learn what it means for the relationships we have with God and with one another.
The process of getting to know another human person generally involves spending time, conversing with one another, checking and re-checking our understanding of one another, and often making and correcting mistakes in the process. It can be frustrating, but it’s worthwhile because those relationships are a treasure. We can’t enter into that process in the same way with God, but God has given us a community of believers. Together we read and reread the Scriptures, the prayers, the teachings of the Church, and engage in dialogue about their meaning. That process led to the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth century in terms supported by but not drawn directly from Scripture. Dialogue about our understanding of God continues today and is vital to our growth in faith.
As we engage in dialogue, we need to proceed above all in charity. While we may disagree with one another even to the point of thinking one another dangerously mistaken at times, we must make condemnation an absolutely last resort. And if condemnation is made at all, it must be of ideas and never of persons.
It is interesting to reflect on the idea that if, after the early councils of the Church, those who opposed the formulation “homoousios” (“one in being,” or “consubstantial”) with the Father had stopped insisting that the conciliar decisions were wrong and had concentrated on exploring their significance, they would not have been called heretics. We have evidence of that in the fact that other theologians who wrote before the councils used formulations that were later rejected, but the works of those theologians are not thrown out but are read as part of the history of development of doctrine.
As Catholics today, we can learn from the history of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. There are many issues in the Church today on which we are inclined to engage in heated debate. Among the liturgical options offered by the Church’s guidelines, is one way better or more authentically Catholic than another? Do the Church’s moral teachings require certain choices at the ballot box? Do changing demographics and world cultures call for re-examination of some of the ways in which the Church engages in its mission? What does it mean to acknowledge God as both incomprehensible and self-revealing?
How we proceed in those discussions may make the difference between growth and separation within the Church. Let us pray for growth.
(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)