As noted in my first post, I used the Apostles' Creed to structure my psychological and theological review of the Christian faith for my chapter in the forthcoming APA handbook on psychology and spirituality.
Structurally, both the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds have a Trinitarian structure. Each has three sections devoted to one of the three persons of the Trinity:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty...Consequently, my chapter had a Trinitarian structure, with three separate sections devoted to the Christian experience related to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
I believe in Jesus Christ...
I believe in the Holy Spirit...
But before I started into these sections I was curious to see if there was any psychological research regarding Trinitarian belief, experience, and practice. Concretely, I wanted to know if there was any social-psychological research which had examined the correlates of Trinitarian belief. In short, socially and psychologically, does believing in the Trinity make any difference?
The reason I was curious about this question is that the Trinity is a highly contested doctrine. Even those who strongly believe in the Trinity often disagree sharply on what the doctrine means. From a theological and doctrinal perspective these debates are understandable. However, as a psychologist I wanted to know if Trinitarian belief has any practical impact. Do Trinitarian beliefs affect the experience and life of individual believers? Do Trinitarian beliefs affect and shape the experience of Christian communities?
To be specific, imagine two Christian communities. One community is strongly Trinitarian. The other is not. Given this theological contrast, are there reliable differences in the lives of these communities? Is the Trinitarian community more peaceable? More Christ-like? Or not?
Again, I was curious about these questions because the Trinity is considered to be vital in the formation of Christian community. You can't get very far into contemporary theology without quickly running into the claim that loving and peaceable Christan community must be grounded in the self-giving love and community of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. My question, as a social scientist, was simply to see if anyone had ever attempted to empirically examine this claim. Is loving and peaceable Christian community correlated with strong Trinitarian belief?
Beyond research, this question also held some personal interest. My experience with the doctrine of the Trinity has been rapidly evolving over the lifetime of this blog. Back in 2006, when I started this blog, I had little use for the Trinity. The faith tradition I grew up with--the Churches of Christ--was only weakly Trinitarian. That is, while we recognized the preexistence and divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit we rarely used the Trinity to structure or regulate our common life. More, many within my faith tradition believe that the Trinity is a false doctrine. This isn't the dominant view in the Churches of Christ, but you run into some vocal Unitarian members from time to time. In short, I didn't grow up with the Trinity and, if anything, I was skeptical about it.
To illustrate this phase of my life, here's a funny story I shared in 2007 that illustrates my earlier skepticism regarding the Trinity and general theological cluelessness:
ACU was hosting a conference on theology and the academy and two very good friends of mine, Paul Morris and Fred Aquino, were doing a talk on Paul Tillich and Albert Einstein. Paul is a theoretical physicist and Fred is a systematic theologian. Their talk concerned the conversation between faith and science through the lens of a correspondence about God and God's existence that took place between Tillich and Einstein.Needless to say, I now know who Stanley Hauerwas is (I also just finished his recent memoir Hannah's Child) and have come to understand his point about the Trinity being the starting point in Christian theology. Succinctly, I've come to be convinced that the Trinity is critical to understanding the notion that "God is love." Consequently, if this is true, Christian communities shaped by Trinitarian belief should be better poised to understand and live out Christian agape.
Needless to say, if you know Tillich and Einstein, the two were able to find some common ground about their conceptions of God. Paul and Fred used this rapprochement as a talking point to note that science and religion can have fruitful exchanges between them.
However, during the Q&A right after the talk this older guy across the room raises his hand and says something like this:
"But Tillich was mistaken. Tillich didn't take into account the Trinity."
And I start thinking, "The Trinity? Who is this guy talking about the Trinity? We're trying to find common ground between faith and science and you want to insert highly speculative metaphysics into the discussion? You really want to talk to physicists starting with the claim that 3 = 1?"
So after the session I find Fred and ask, "Who was that crazy guy going on and on about the Trinity?"
Fred responds, "That was Stanley Hauerwas."
I say, "Who is Stanley Hauerwas?"
But is this the case? Are Trinitarian Christian communities more loving and peaceable? Having correctly understood the nature of God, has this realization had any tangible effects?
So in preparation for my chapter I searched and searched the literature looking for research on this subject. And what I found was...zilch. Nothing. As best I can tell, no empirical research has ever been conducted examining the correlates of Trintarian belief in Christian communities.
This is shocking for two reasons. First, exploratory research in this area shouldn't be too hard to conduct. For example, you could assess how strongly Trinitarian a particular faith community is and then assess, let's say, how many pacifists were in that faith community. Pacifism isn't the only criterion/outcome of Trinitarian belief, but many Christian pacifists ground their beliefs in Trinitarian notions (see one Stanley Hauerwas). Plus, self-reported pacifism is easily assessed. In short, studies like this (picking concrete variables believed to covary with Trinitarian belief) could slowly map out the correlates of Trinitarian belief. For example, it might be shown that Trinitarian communities produce more pacifists. In this, Trinitarian belief would matter. It would be making a difference in the faith community. (And there are clear alternative hypotheses available. For example, pacifism might simply be produced by a strong reading of the Sermon on the Mount. For example, Quakers seems to be agnostic on the Trinity but they take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. In this, one's reading of the Sermon on the Mount is more predictive of peace than Trinitarian metaphysics. No doubt, the metaphysics can support the practice of peace, but Trinitarian doctrine might not be a necessary or sufficient predictor of peace.)
And this brings me to my second reason for shock regarding how social science has ignored the Trinity. Given how critical the Trinity is in theology, it is strange that the social sciences have failed to examine what many consider to be the most critical belief in the Christian faith. Further, this is a doctrine that is supposed to make a difference. For many, the Trinity is not an idle exercise in metaphysical speculation (like I used to think). Trinity matters. And if it matters, social scientists should be able to see some things. But, to date, we've failed to look.