Inflated Claims for the Trinity

Many contemporary theologies overestimate the progressive political potential of the Trinity. Monotheism, it is alleged, supports monolithic identities and authoritarian forms of government in which power is held exclusively by a single leader or group; while an internally diverse triune God, whose persons share equally with one another, avoids these dangers (Peterson 1935; Moltmann 1991: 192-202; Boff 1988: 20-4). Overlooked in such a simple contrast are the complexities of theological claims, their fluidity of sense, and complications in their application for political purposes. Thus, contrary to the charges against it, monotheism (particularly when understood to deny that divinity is a general category of things differing from one another in degree) can suggest that no one shares in divinity and that no one can therefore stand in as God's representative. Or, where representatives are permitted, these might be identified with the whole of a people and not simply with their leadership. Moves like these were probably historically instantiated among some ancient Israelites (Assmann 1992: 75-6). Trinitarianism, moreover, is not often - to say the least - historically associated with an egalitarian politics and respect for diversity within community. Among the many possible reasons for this is surely the ambiguous political potential of many aspects of trinitarian theology.

Thus, the Trinity easily suggests the appropriateness of rule by three absolute co-rulers, or (more likely, given the historical paucity of triumvirates) the propriety of a single absolute ruler identified with the Word, the person of the Trinity associated with cosmic order and stability. Both ideas occurred, for example, to Eusebius in his "Oration in Praise of the Emperor Constantine" (1890). While Eusebius subordinated the Word to the Father, these particular political inferences do not depend on that idea and would only be exacerbated by a more "orthodox" doctrine. In the more "orthodox" case the emperor would simply be identified, not with a subordinate principle executing the Father's will, but with a Word equal to the Father himself.

Moreover, many aspects of orthodox trinitarianism apart from those emphasized by political progressives seem politically awkward on their face. Thus, contrary to respect for difference, divine persons are equal to one another because in some very strong sense they are the same: "The Son is everything that the Father is except that the Son is not the Father" - that is, all the predicates assigned to the Father in virtue of the Father's divinity can also be assigned to the Son, just not those like "Father" that specify a distinction of person. (The oneness or unity of the Trinity is often given the same sort of basis - i.e. identity of substance, concretely rather than generically understood - although there are other ways of making that point - e.g. perichoresis, indivisibility, and the priority of the Father in the generation of the other two persons.) Short of tritheism, it is difficult to argue that divine persons are as different from one another as human persons are. Moreover, the various biblical and liturgical taxes or orders among divine persons, no matter how complex they are - the classic order of generation and mission (Father-Son-Spirit), along with return to the Father (Son-Spirit-Father), now commonly joined in contemporary theology by Father-Spirit-Son - still differentiate persons by their place within the order. They are therefore ripe for justification of hierarchy: for example, they easily support claims that people are equal despite the disparity of their assigned social roles. The traditional ideas that divine persons are constituted by their relations, and are indivisible in being and act, are also hard to square with a politics fostering the agency of persons effaced in relations with dominant members of society.

While all the views just mentioned are associated with the so-called immanent Trinity, the turn by most contemporary political theologians to the Trinity in its workings with respect to the world as biblically recounted - that is, a turn to the economic Trinity - has its own downsides. Thus, New Testament accounts of Jesus' relations with his Father are much more subordinationalist in flavor than accounts of the immanent Trinity usually are (see e.g. John 14: 28; Mark 13: 32, 10: 18; Luke 18: 18; Matt. 19: 16): Jesus prays to the Father, subordi nates his will to the Father, defers to the Father, seems ignorant on occasion of what only the Father knows, etc. This sort of hierarchical relation between Son and Father very obviously suggests the propriety of human hierarchy (as it did, infamously, in Karl Barth's treatment of relations between men and women in the Church Dogmatics III, 4 [1961]). Moreover (in contrast to the immanent Trinity), the biblical account of the economic Trinity easily promotes a politically problematic characterization of the nature of the relation between Son and Father: as one of obedience (to the Father's mission, under orders from the Spirit) and of self-sacrifice (death on the cross), if not outright self-evacuation (see von Balthasar 1992: 183-91; Ratzinger 1969: 132-5).

Finally, in both the immanent and the economic Trinity, gendered imagery has enormously problematic political ramifications. Even in perhaps the best-case scenario, where absolutely equal trinitarian persons of unassigned gender are the basis for political conclusions, the essential relatedness of those persons can lead to heterosexism. The importance of differences between male and female for the identity of human persons is presumed and simply substituted within a trinitarian account of the essential relatedness of persons to suggest that the identity of woman is essentially constituted in relation to a male counterpart (Volf 1996: 187).

Clearly, then, trinitarianism can be every bit as dangerous as monotheism; everything depends on how that trinitarianism (or monotheism) is developed and applied. Insisting on the inherent privilege of trinitarianism inclines one to overlook the progressive political potential of Judaism and Islam, and promotes an oddly sharp distinction between Christian trinitarianism and monotheism. It also prompts a highly restrictive sense of what trinitarianism is: trinitarian positions that are not associated with a progressive politics must not really be trinitarian, or their trinitarianism has somehow been severely vitiated. (Moltmann, I think, drifts in all three directions [1991]; LaCugna in the last [1991].)

Ignoring the point that trinitarianism can be every bit as dangerous as monotheism lulls politically progressive trinitarian theologians into lazy platitudes and a false sense of complacency. The point is not that a politically progressive trinitarianism is impossible (or even inadvisable relative to non-trinitarian alternatives), but that such a theology is hard work to produce and must be vigilantly maintained against the ineradicable possibility of nonprogressive uses. The only trinitarianism that is clearly more politically progressive than (some forms of) monotheism is trinitarianism within a very specific range of interpretations and modes of application. Indeed, those lauding the political merits of trinitarianism over strict monotheism eventually make clear that this holds only for trinitarianism when properly understood and employed - in other words, for the sort of trinitarianism they are actively trying to construct. These theologians systematically try to modify as many as possible of the politically problematic aspects of trinitarianism I have identified. Thus, Moltmann and Volf argue that the persons of the Trinity are not simply constituted by their relations without remainder. Following Moltmann, politically progressive trinitarian theologians tend to downplay the taxes among the trinitarian persons by highlighting the perfectly reciprocal perichoretic relations among the persons: the Father is in the Son just as the Son is in the Father, etc. And these perichoretic relations, instead of identity of substance, are made the basis of the Trinity's unity.

The theological merits of these political theologies therefore hinge on the strength of the arguments for such theological moves, a challenge which I think, so far at least, progressive trinitarian theologians have not often adequately met. Inflated confidence in the progressive potential of trinitarianism per se might be doing some damage here, too. Claims for the inherent progressive potential of trinitarianism can amount to a kind of a priori protective strategy, deflecting attention from the fact that progressive theologians are required to assume such a burden of proof for the specific accounts of the Trinity they offer.

These moves in trinitarian theology cannot be primarily based, moreover, on the fact that their espousal would favor a progressive politics, without incurring the complaint of ideological pandering. Indeed, the more arguments for a trinitarian position have such political grounds, the more trinitarian commentary on political matters becomes uninformative as well: that is, what the Trinity tells one about politics is no more than what one already believes about politics (see Kilby 2000: 442-3). While few trinitarian theologians would admit as much, the political advantages of certain views of the Trinity still seem to make up for weaknesses of argument more than they should. Inexplicably to my mind, for example, no one has adequately addressed how the heavy load that perfectly reciprocal perichoresis carries in these theologies is compatible with their equally strong emphasis on the biblical economy, in which Jesus seems clearly to be acting in a non-mutual relation of subordination to the Father (the Son prays to the Father, but the Father doesn't pray to the Son; the Son does the will of the Father, but the Father doesn't do the will of the Son, etc.).

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