Kathryn Tanner

Theologians have license to talk about everything in relation to God, their proper subject matter - including politics. Most theologians therefore comment at some point on sociopolitical issues: for example, the propriety of empire, or usury, or established social norms in relations between men and women, free men and slaves. But theology does not wait for such topics to become political theology. All theology is political - it concerns how social relations should be ordered - for two reasons.

The first reason stems from the fact that Christianity is not just a body of beliefs, suitable for abstract intellectual discussion, but a way of living in which beliefs are embedded (see Tanner 1992: 9, 19; 1997: 70, 97). Those beliefs help make that way of living seem meaningful and motivated. Thus, love-filled relations with others make sense if one believes the world is created by, and destined to show the influence of, a loving God. And such relations are well motivated should one believe they are a sign of, or condition for, attaining the highest good imaginable - salvation. Argument over Christian beliefs, for example, over their meanings, associations, and connections, has therefore everything to do with the social relations that seem right - the Christian way to behave. For this reason, political controversies among Christians tend to be fought out over cultural matters - that is, in and through arguments over the meaning of those beliefs with which Christians most identify and in which they are, accordingly, most heavily invested (Tanner 1992: 20; 1997: 56, 74-5, 121, 135). The familiar way in which struggles today over the direction of the national will bring with them fights over the connotations of national values and founding commitments - for instance, in the United States, fights over the meaning of family, fairness, freedom, and equality - finds its Christian analogue: Theology amounts to the cultural politics of Christian communities. Thus, Christians make charitable works the mission of their churches because of what they think Jesus is all about, in much the way Americans give their nation's military exploits unquestioned support because of what they think patriotism is all about. Efforts to undermine popular support for either policy have therefore to be as concerned about the meaning of Jesus or patriotism, respectively, as about the wisdom of such policies in and of themselves.

The second reason theology is political is that, no matter how far the topic seems to stray from it, theology is always making a commentary on the political whenever it incorporates social and political imagery for theological purposes (see Tanner 1997: 93-110, 120-1). The most basic theological claims, of a seemingly strictly theological sort - for example, about who Jesus is, the character of God's grace, etc. - are commonly given sense through the employment of such imagery. Thus, Jesus is often said to be "Lord," to have worked for God's "kingdom," and to have gone to his death to restore "justice" by "paying a debt" or suffering the "punishment fit for the crime" of our sin. The sense of theological claims trades on the associations of their social and political imagery in the historical context of the times. Those associations say something about these theological matters - in the above example, about the way we are to address Jesus in prayer, about the character of God's plan for the world, and about the means by which Jesus saves. But the reverse is true as well: the theological employment of such categories says something about them. The simple fact of use in discussion of divine matters, for example, may give the stamp of approval to the social and political practices to which reference is made: thus, talking of God's status in terms of kingship may be a way of making kings into gods. Or, as in the anti-monarchy strains of the Hebrew Bible, it may be a way of deflating the very notion of human kingship by reserving legitimate kingship to God alone. The manner, moreover, in which the associations of such terms are altered in theological use provides a critical commentary on what is problematic about the social and political practices of the times. If Jesus is Lord but, unlike human lords, he humbly serves others at dire cost to himself, that says something about the true character of lordship and about why we should be disappointed with every human lord we know.

Contemporary theologies of the Trinity exhibit both these general reasons why all theology tends to be political theology. Theologians are enlisting support for particular kinds of community - say, egalitarian, inclusive communities, in which differences are respected - through arguments over the Trinity. They are enjoining a political fight on cultural grounds: the meaning of the Trinity is where political disagreements over the shape of church life, and over the social and governmental policies Christians should endorse, are engaged. The Trinity seems an apt site for such engagement not simply because a Christian way of life is highly invested in how this belief is understood. (Indeed, many theologians think they first have to demonstrate, against the likes of Kant and Schleiermacher, that the Trinity is a matter for such practical investment.) The Trinity is an especially apt site because of the ease with which its meaning might be developed by incorporating the terms of present political debate. These debates (e.g. between liberals and communitarians, between egalitarians and those favoring a more hierarchical diversity of roles in social organization, and between advo cates of economic democracy and those of free market policy) have at their root questions about the relationship between a community and its members, and about the sort of relationships among members that make for community. The unity and diversity of the Trinity might be explicated in such terms - especially when the meaning of "person" in traditional trinitarian discussion is pushed in the direction of modern senses of person - such as a conscious subject oriented to others (Boff 1988: 89, 112-13; O'Donnell 1988: 10-15). The relation between one substance and three persons in the Trinity can be unpacked in terms of a relation between a community and its members; relations among the three trinitarian persons, in terms of the internal constitution of community; etc. As a result of these efforts of interpretation, the Trinity becomes, in turn, a way of commenting on common, very basic political questions of the day. Does community emerge from relations among all its members, rather than from top-down imposition? Are such relations, ideally, among equals? How are communal and personal identities reconciled? Is the individual nothing more than its relations with others in community? Can genuine community be formed out of self-enclosed, atomistic individuals? Or does community, at the other extreme, require a monolithic, closely guarded cultural identity and the suppression of differences among its members?

What the Trinity says about all this is not entirely clear. Although theological judgments here seem quite simple - for example, egalitarian relations among the triune persons suggest the propriety of egalitarian human relations - figuring out the sociopolitical lessons conveyed by the Trinity is a task fraught with complexities and perils. The rest of this chapter systematically discusses these complexities and perils, and suggests how best to meet their challenges, in hopes that here, too, the case of the Trinity might be exemplary, to the benefit of political theologies generally.

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