From God to Humans

The major complication for trinitarian political theologies is to determine how to move from a discussion of God to a discussion of human relations when drawing political implications from the Trinity (see Volf 1998a: 191-200; 1998b: 403-7). How exactly does a description of the Trinity apply to us? Three main problems arise here.

First of all, what the Trinity is saying about human relations is unclear because the meaning of the terms used of the Trinity is unclear. Divine persons are equal to one another; but in what sense? The persons are "in" one another; but what does "in" mean here? Divine persons are distinguished from one another in virtue of the character of their relations; but who understands exactly what that character is? So, Hilary of Poitiers: "Begetting is the secret of the Father and the Son. If anyone is convinced of the weakness of his intelligence through failing to understand this mystery... he will undoubtedly be even more downcast to learn that I am in the same state of ignorance" (1899: 55, following more felicitous trans. in Boff 1988: 174). What, indeed, does even the language of "person" suggest, if with Augustine we have to say that "the formula three persons was coined, not in order to give a complete explanation by means of it, but in order that we might not be obliged to remain silent" (1956: 92, following more felicitous trans. in Boff 1988: 143). Because God is not very comprehensible to us, and certainly not fully so, discussion of the Trinity, all by itself, seems unable to offer any very specific directives for human relations.

Some theologians would say that the problem here is too great a focus on the so-called immanent Trinity. One can try, it is true, to give a more definite sense to terms used of the Trinity in light of the Trinity's workings in the economy of salvation. One could say, for example, that the unity of the Trinity means the sort of dialogical fellowship enjoyed by Jesus and the one he calls Father. But unless one purports to know much more about relations among the trinitarian persons than is probably warranted, one is still left with very vague recommendations - about the social goods of equality, a diverse community, and mutual relationships of giving and receiving. All the hard, controversial work of figuring out exactly what any of that might mean - What sort or degree of cultural uniformity is required for community? How far can differences in a unified society go? - seems left up to the ingenuity of the theologian arguing on other grounds. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, to the extent it means that the Trinity cannot give answers to political questions without sociohistorical mediation -that is, without the need for study of the causes and consequences of present political circumstances using the best social, political, and economic theories available. But dangers remain. Should, for example, the theologian try to narrow down the senses of terms used of the Trinity following what he or she thinks those terms mean (or should mean) when used of human persons and societies, the account of the Trinity loses its critical edge on political questions, and seems to have been constructed simply to justify the theologian's prior political views. If one is not to be left with vague generalities, the critical question, again, is how one goes about drawing out the implications of the Trinity for human society.

The second problem is that much of what is said about the Trinity simply does not seem directly applicable to humans; human society could take on the very shape of the Trinity only if people were no longer human. So, for example, it seems bound up with the essential finitude of humans that they can only metaphorically speaking be in one another or have overlapping subjectivities (meaning by that, that when one person acts the other is also acting in virtue of that very fact) as trinitarian persons are said to (Volf 1998a: 209, 211). Human finitude also seems to entail that humans give of themselves so that others may gain, in ways that often bring loss to themselves. In the case of trinitarian persons, to the contrary, their perfect equality is usually thought to involve giving without loss and receiving without increase - the first person of the Trinity does not give all of itself to the second at any cost to itself; and the second does not receive from the first what is not already its own. Finally, human persons cannot be constituted by their relations with others in the strong senses affirmed of trinitarian persons (see Weinandy 2000: 115, 119, 128, 134-5, 140, 207-8). Thus, trinitarian persons do not exist prior to the relations among themselves that make them what they are, as humans do vis-a-vis the relations with other humans that shape their characters (so that, for instance, I exist prior to those relationships with duplicitous significant others that make me a distrustful person). Trinitarian persons would not exist were the relations among themselves that make them what they are to end; human beings do - I remain despite the deaths of the people and communities who have most contributed to my character. Trinitarian persons do not become more themselves as their relations with others are extended beyond relations among themselves to the world. When various human beings come into contact with persons of the Trinity they therefore come into contact with all that such trinitarian persons are, with those persons in their fully realized character. Human persons, to the contrary, have characters that are progressively shaped as they relate to different people; any one person to whom one relates therefore sees one only in part. For much the same reason, trinitarian persons relate to one another immediately - without any externality or media that might disguise their true selves. Finitude prevents this in the case of human persons.

Direct translation of the Trinity into a social program is problematic, in the third place, because, unlike the peaceful and perfectly loving mutuality of the Trinity, human society is full of suffering, conflict, and sin. Turned into a recommendation for social relations, the Trinity seems unrealistic, hopelessly naive, and, for that reason, perhaps even politically dangerous. To a world of violent, corrupt, and selfish people, the Trinity seems to offer only the feeble plaint, "Why can't we all just get along?"

Because of these problems with directly translating the Trinity into a recommendation for human relations, theologians often propose the Trinity as only the "utopian goal" (Boff 1988: 6) or "eschatological destiny" of humans (Volf 1998a: 405). If such a proposal means that human society, short of the escha-ton, can only ever approximate the character of the Trinity, that seems right. But this is nevertheless a very odd goal or eschatological destiny if it means, as it still seems to, that we must leave behind what essentially makes us human if we are ever to get there. The proposal also seems to imply that the Trinity as goal or ultimate destiny helps direct transformations of society in the meantime; yet left unanswered is once again the critical question of how the Trinity is to do so given the differences between God and us. How is one to move to bridge the gap? For the same reason, the goal of trinitarian community that we are offered seems almost cruelly quixotic: a treasure is dangled before us with no clue as to how we might get to it from the desperate straits of social relations marked by violent conflict, loss, and suffering.

One strategy for bridging the gap is to supplement the move down from the Trinity, when envisioning human society, with a move from below (Volf 1998a: 200; 1998b: 405-6). That is, using one's understanding of human beings as creatures, one can try to figure out the extent to which human relations can imitate trinitarian ones. The Trinity tells us what human relations should be like ideally; the understanding of humans as creatures tells us what sort of approximation of the ideal we are in fact capable of. Thus, the closest approximation to the perichoretic relations among trinitarian persons is the mutual conditioning of personal characteristics among humans (Volf 1998a: 211-12). I take on my character as I am influenced by others, just as they take on their character through relations with me. As this example suggests, the danger of such a strategy is that the Trinity fails to do any work. We do not need the Trinity to tell us that human beings condition one another by way of their relationships. We do not even need the Trinity to tell us that persons are catholic in their conditioning by others (Volf 1998a: 212): there is nothing especially trinitarian about the idea that individuals are a microcosm of the whole world's influences. These ideas are platitudes of the philosophical literature and recourse to the Trinity does not seem to be doing anything here to move us beyond them. Presumably, it might, if one asked what sort of relations with others should condition personal identity - e.g., loving relations, relations in which the other is concerned for one's own good - but the focus here simply on whether and to what extent human identity is relational deflects attention from that more substantive and less formal question. This oddly formal focus is also a problem for another strategy of bridging the gap between divine and human relations, and has a broader cause, to be addressed in the next section.

This other strategy for bridging the gap is to look at the economic Trinity (Moltmann 1991; LaCugna 1991). The theologian does not have to try to figure out what trinitarian relations would be like with human beings in them by bringing an account of the Trinity together with what he or she knows about the limits of human life. The economic Trinity - how the Trinity acts in saving us -is itself the way that the Trinity is brought closer to what humans are capable of. In other words, in the economy the Trinity appears as a dialogical fellowship of love and mutual service - the kind of Trinity that human beings could imitate. The same goes for sin. The economic Trinity is the Trinity entering a world of sin and death. Apart from any theological speculation, the economic Trinity itself therefore gives a clue to how trinitarian relations should be lived out in a world of sin: those relations have the broken and sorrowful character of a Father losing his own Son by way of a death undergone for the sake of others.

However, because it seeks to close the gap by thinking of trinitarian relations as more like human ones, this strategy has a built-in problem: The closer trinitarian relations seem to human ones, the less the Trinity seems to offer advice about how to move beyond them. We all know what dialogical relations of loving fellowship are like; and that is what the Trinity is too. We all know about the way death severs relationships and about how obedience often comes at the price of sacrifice in troubled times; and now the Trinity also seems intimately familiar with all that. Pushing imaginatively beyond those experiences to something better - something more than a unity of mere will and love, something more than sacrifice - would seem to require the Trinity to be something more too. Without being more, the Trinity's potential for critical, informative commentary is simply deflated. But to the extent the Trinity is more - for example, a perichoretic unity and not one of mere will and love - the usual problem of bridging the gap between human and divine simply reappears unaddressed.

This strategy, curiously, also tends to be insufficiently economic. The focus on relations among trinitarian persons in the economy tends to displace interest in what the Trinity in the economy is trying to do for us. The very point of the economy, in other words, tends to become the character of the relations among the persons of the Trinity as they figure in the economy. So, as Moltmann never tires of emphasizing, one should concentrate on the difference that the economy (e.g. the Incarnation) makes for God. In Moltmann's case this is closely tied up with soteriological concerns: What happens among the trinitarian persons creates a place for the world of suffering and sin to enter the divine life and so be overcome. But this focus on relations among the persons of the Trinity themselves in the economy fuels the temptation to see those relations as the very meaning of salvation. In other words, the idea that human relations should take on their character becomes an end in itself, apart from consideration of what such relations among divine persons are doing - bringing about the end of death, sin, and suffering in human lives.

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