Me, Stanley Hauerwas, and the Puzzlement of the Trinity

Since I pointed you to Ben Myers' Faith and Theology blog you may have seen that they have been discussing the Trinity over there. Also, a few days ago Ben posted a quote on education by Stanley Hauerwas, one of the most influential theologians alive today. Finally, we've been talking a bit about Tillich on this blog. All of this--Hauerwas, the Trinity, and Tillich--reminded me of an incident here at ACU a few years back.

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, 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. I think we can all agree that this was an excellent point to make. Science and religion don't have to fight.

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. Thus, Tillich should be ignored, theologically speaking."

And I start thinking, "The Trinity? Who is this nut job? The Trinity? I mean, there is a good chance God doesn't exist. Further, there is no convincing means to determine how many gods--should they exist--there are. There could be 1 or 1,000. How could you possibly know? And this joker is going to interject a comment about the Trinity--a wildly controversial and far from clear doctrine (see Faith and Theology)--into a science versus religion conversation? Has this guy lost his marbles?"

Well, I find out later from Fred (after I ask my "Who is the nut job talking about the Trinity?" question) that that nut job just so happened to be one of the most influential theologians in the world today. One Stanley Hauerwas.

Don't get me wrong. I love the doctrine (idea? symbol? notion? schema? myth?) of the Trinity. If God is love from all eternity then God has to be ontologically communal, right? So I get it. I like the idea.

But Tillich didn't make a mistake. Hauerwas did. Tillich was trying to talk to everyone, scientist and Christian. His might have been a fool's errand, but I think it was a legitimate attempt. But the doctrine of the Trinity, as powerful as it is, isn't trying to talk to everyone. It's a shibboleth for an insider conversation. Which is fine, but to utter that shibboleth in a room full of scientists trying hard to take religion seriously is, well, a mistake.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

11 thoughts on “Me, Stanley Hauerwas, and the Puzzlement of the Trinity”

  1. On a plane yesterday, headed to Rhode Island, I began re-reading "The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church". It's written by two Aussies. In the preface they say

    "Australians are used to being in the U. S./U. K. world, but not of it. It affords us some level of critical, objective distance."

    I think one raised the churches of Christ has an analogous perspective with respect to the rest of traditional Christianity. This is one of those traditional Christian doctrines that from our vantage point does not appear to be absolute and necessary. The phrase repeated often in my youth was not "Trinity" but "Godhead". When I was growing up, "Trinity" was the term used by the denominations and so was therefore suspect to me. It was never clearly explained that the doctrine of Trinity was "ours". Nowadays it is assumed and occasionally defended in CofC pulpits. Actually, we were quite right to be skeptical of it. Barton Stone, from what I've read, is not to be considered an orthodox Trinitarian. The doctrine of Trinity does not immediately jump out at one from a common sense reading of the New Testament. And that is because it resulted from an evolution of ideas and thought that didn't become solidified until the fourth and fifth centuries. That alone doesn't mean it is wrong but it takes away from the impression that many have that is was there at the beginning. We should not accept it on the basis of tradition only.

  2. 1) Hi-freakin-larious story. Stan the Man can be a jackass sometimes, especially when it comes to conversation with folks who don't yet buy the Christian story.

    2) On the other hand, I think the doctrine of the Trinity is pretty stinkin' central to Christianity as we have it now. It is ridiculous to suggest that it might be accepted on "tradition alone" since it's only in tradition because it makes sense of what's in the Bible. That the trinity is how the early church was able to negotiate between the extremes in the Christological debate makes it "ours", I think.

    The only Christians I'll grant have a legitimate right to reject the trinity are grad students doing MA's in Old Testament.

    (That was tongue-in-cheek... I think anyone can question whatever they like, but I think COC's are impoverished if we take such a low view of the history of the church as required to hold the doctrine of the Trinity in lower esteem than some other doctrines, like the meaning of baptism or weekly celebration of the Lord's supper).

    Great story! Keep on bloggin' brother.

  3. Another great post. I disagree on two counts.

    1) as spaceman said above, the Trinity is more than just a tentative aspect of our tradition, or a "shibboleth for insider conversation" as you put it, it is the primary witness of the Church for most of its life. For 1,500 some years (at least) a majority of Christians have witnessed to a relationship with, and belief in a trinitarian God. I don't disagree that it's speculative in the same way that the existence of God is speculative, but it isn't MORE speculative than the existence of God. Christians witness not to the existence of a god in the abstract, but to a specific God. It is no different to say that God is trinitarian than to say that Jesus was God or that God is the one who chose and delivered Israel. They are all statements about WHO we mean when we say God. To not talk about these things when in dialogue with non-Christians would be like me trying to describe you to my friends without mentioning that you're a professor, or male, or a human being.

    2) I think you have the wrong approach to dialogue. When approaching other people from outside your frame of reference for dialogue, the best tactic is NOT to dilute your message, or attempt to come to some kind of common denominator, but to hold up your differences honestly and appraise them. Genuine dialogue is based on respect and even appreciation for uniqueness not aiming toward homogeneity. Why should theologians make apologies for their discipline to scientists or try to frame the discussion in terms acceptable to scientists? Why shouldn't we presume equal footing and enter the conversation as though our areas of expertise, like the trinity, might actually have something to ADD to science, just as science has continually reshaped our theological presuppositions.

    Basically, I think Stan was right to be a bit pugnacious. Scientific respect for religion isn't something we should court or even need. And it certainly isn't something they'll give us if we just do our best to make theology sound like a science. The best way to get respect for the discipline of theology is to be unapologetically theological.


  4. Trying to figure out the "trinity" is probably one of the most difficult doctrines out there. I have a hard time understanding it and I'm not a scientist. (Not sure what I meant by that... :) ) But who's apologizing here? I didn't here any apologies being said by anyone. I think it is redicoulous to think that if someone doesn't approach a method we have become acustomed to in sharing our faith means we have some how watered it down. In my opinion, words are just words until they take some action anyway. Our life and how we treat eachother says way more about our faith than our preaching and our methods, and even our beliefs. Just because one is open to new ideas or one who is just trying to figure things out (like the trinity) doesn't mean they are apologizing for anything. I am sick and tired of how we quickly judge others on the basis of the labels we tend to carry around. I sometimes wonder what all the fuss is about anyway, I mean, in the end of the day, does God love me any less or any more than before based on my beliefs? Does God really care what I believe about the universe and the trinity? I know He cares about what I think of Him and those around me, and I sometimes wonder why we spend so much time debating about these issues, is it because it's easier to debate than to love those around us? Is it easier to live in our own little world and continue to shut the door to anyone who threatens it and challanges it? I am sick and tired of a religion who thinks that because they BELIEVE the right things means they are right with God. (damn that!) I think anyone who has skimmed through the OT knows how much God detests religion where they supress people and take advantage of them. Who do you think the prophets were talking to anyway? Not the world, they were talking to the religious Jews! Who do we think we are anyway? I mean, cut some slack and let people be who they are and love them the best you can. I think if we continue in this self righteous attitude of knowing more than the next person and trying to shove our beliefs down people's throats is nothing but shutting the door on their face when they were trying to take a peek of something that caught their interest in the first place....

    Yes, I am in a mood this afternoon!!

  5. Roxanne,

    *grin* your mood comes across loud and clear. No offense intended on my part, and none taken, though I do think you've misread my comment.

    By "apology" I meant it in the more technical sense of "an argument in defense of" not so much saying sorry. I didn't mean to suggest that anyone here was acting conciliatory (in a weak or undesirable fashion) but that Tillich and his approach to dialogue involve constructing a defense for Christian theology by using the terminology of science and culture to explain theological concepts.

    I'll have to politely disagree with your assertion about words being meaningless. I agree that God care principally about our actions and justice, but our words ARE a kind of action, our Beliefs are the root of our action, and out ethics are nothing more than the outworking of our beliefs. Words are, in my estimation, very important.

    It isn't at all about being self-righteous or insisting upon some kind of rigid orthodoxy or controlling the thoughts of others, it is about inquiring into the nature of God - the whole project of theology.

    Let me put it this way: the Trinity is one of the great masterpieces of Christian theology. Properly understood it is majestic, infinitely revelatory, full of surprises, and as convoluted and complicated as you've described. If I want someone to appreciate art, I don't hid from them the works of Michelangelo and Monet and Caravaggio. Why then would I expect scientists or anyone else to come to an appreciation of Theology by avoiding the Trinity?

  6. Aric,
    I appreciate the feed back, more than you know. I get blown off way too many times, I guess if I passionatley say what I need to say then maybe I'll finally get some attention! :) Just kidding. I like your metaphore of the trinity being like art, and I did not mean to suggest to "hide" the theolgoy of the trinity when talking to someone about Christianity, however, I find it arrogant beyond measure if we think for an instance that we have the trinity figured out and then try to "make" others see it our way. Keeping with your metaphor of art, everyone sees a piece of art from different perspectives, and from different angles-- seeing God and the trinity is no different. People come from different areas of life, being brought up in certain circumstances and being taught by certain people and cultures, and therefore, their views will be different, especially when trying to figure out God and his existence. All I was suggesting is that we need to be senstive to that very fact. Being sensitve to where people are at is not trying to avoid certain areas of theology or trying to water down the message. The biggest problem I have noticed is that we fail at taking the time to really know where people are at. Not all scientists think the same, and not all religious people think the same, and we need to be aware of that. Otherwise our conversations end up sounding like an automated message, which is something to be avoided.

    As far as words are concerned, I agree to an extent to what you are saying, but at the same time too much emphasis on words could lead to disappiontment with a lot of people, ourselves, and possibly God. The old cliche of actions speak LOUDER than words ring very true in this case. After all, does not the devil himself, use articulate words to pursuay his audience? A lot of times I just hear a bunch of sales men trying to sell their religion, promising things that God himself never even promised just so that the church will grow in numbers. (and then scratch their heads why so many people end up an "apostate!") Words are truly empty unless they are accompanied with action. My guess is that a lot of the religious disease we have been talking about here begins with empty words...

  7. Ya'll might be interested in a Trinity Blog Summit by some blogging scholars. I found it at Metacatholic's site:

    I followed some links and came across you, Aric, over at Halden's site.

  8. Hi All,
    Thanks for all the comments. Steve, thanks for the link. Roxanne and Aric, thanks for your exchange, for its depth, honesty, and tone.

    Aric & Spaceman,
    I understand what you both are saying. But just to push back a little bit...

    I do understand that Christianity does not need to justify its categories or discourse to "outsiders." But this just isn't about modernism and science. Hindus, Jews, and Muslims don't recognize or understand the Trinity. And although we don't need to "justify" our discourse to all these groups, it does point out that the Trinity is an "insider" term. Which means that the Trinity and theology generally becomes just for us.

    But I don't think theology is just for us. I think theology can, and should, talk to scientists and Jews and Muslims. And, if I'm right about this, the insider terms of one group should not, indeed cannot, define or trump the conversation.

    But if theologians treat the Trinity as a kind of "play by my rules or I'll take my ball and go home" move--as Stan clearly threw down the term--then doesn't theology become increasingly insular, simply a speciality in arcane insider debates disconnected from all other conversations?

    Phrased another way, Stan's move just leads to a kind of epistemic Balkanization, where Christianity claims and protects its fiefdom. That may indeed be that case, but as someone interested in conversation with everybody I cringed at the "take it or leave it" flourishing of the Trinity by SH in the conversation I witnessed. SH may have protected theology from some relativizing bugaboo, but at what cost to Christianity and his own intellectually credibility?

  9. Richard,

    I'm all about dialogue and interdisciplinary work, but it seems to me that the best way to do that is not to leave behind your particular discipline's greatest strengths in the search for some kind of Esperanto between disciplines or traditions.

    I'll speak from direct personal experience. I spent time living in a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan, Chung Tai Chan. While I was there I spent a lot of time trying to engage in "interreligious dialogue" with the monks. I spent weeks trying to understand them and find commonalities between our backgrounds, translating my Christian faith into their terms as best I could and doing what I thought was a genuine meeting of cultures. After weeks of this, one of the monks asked me if I actually believed anything at all. He said that they were all having a hard time figuring me out because it seemed like I had no religion of any kind and I was just using their language and abusing it badly. After a year of visiting other sites like this and having similar experiences I eventually got what my dialogue partners were trying to tell me - I was a more interesting and effective conversation partner when I came with my own baggage fully loaded, ready to share it.

    I'm not saying I think you or Tillich advocated something as simpleminded as I was early in my experiences, but the point is it's ALL insider language. When we search for language which translates we just end up with unusable mush which no one really understands. Instead, lets use our theological heritage with all of its richness, all of its complicated intricacies and, yes, all of its "insider" valances and lets try to use it to be in dialogue with other traditions who approach with the same frame.

    Would you want a Buddhist monk to withold the richness of Dependent Origination from you because he thought it was too complicated for an outsider?

    Would you want a theoretical physicist to teach you newtonian physics because he didn't think you'd be able to grasp quantum mechanics?

    When Christians talk about God we're talking about the Trinitarian God. We might be able to generalize the concept of God to the point that we could reach agreement with Muslims and Jews and Hindus, but then would we even be talking about the Christian concept of God at all?

  10. Hi Aric,
    I see what you are saying and I think it is a good point, a great point. The only think I fear when you say it's ALL insider language is that faith, in all its guises, just becomes a collection of epistemological ghettos. But I see your point about the consequences of trying to throw it all into a blender and what gets lost in the process. (Because, we know, the blender must have some assumptions built into it and who gets to choose those?)

    But in a post-9/11 world, I just worry so much, as a psychologist, about the violence latent in in-group/out-group psychology that I push very hard to make faith groups and theological conversations epistemologically permeable. I don't think this goes against you point, but it explains the angle I'm taking in these kinds of conversations.

Leave a Reply