Wednesday, October 2, 2013


God of Our Silent Tears is a sustained argument that a Patriarchal God Image makes the problem of evil intractable, leads inexorably toward atheism and cuts us off from the Trinitarian image of God that changes our understanding of God's response to suffering, which can equip us to live better in the face of so much wrong. Why then do we cling to the patriarch and resist, even dismiss, the ancient mystery of early Christianity. This excerpt from Chapter 6 offers a possible explanation. God Of Our Silent Tears is now available for order on line from The Cathedral Bookstore in Los Angeles and from Amazon.

 You can learn a lot while drinking coffee in the student lounge of Harvard Divinity School. I was reading there one day, when I overheard a conversation at the next table. Two young women, both on the verge of graduation, were discussing their futures. The first wanted to be a Congregationalist minister, but she didn’t think the ministerial board would approve her. They would, she feared, expect her to believe in the Trinity – and she was not going to say that, no way, no how.

            The other agreed that it was unjust and oppressive to expect her to affirm something like the Trinity. The first shook her head at the waste of her theological education and the cutting short of her ministry over such a thing. The second then said, “It’s so seductive though, isn’t it?”
             “What do you mean ‘seductive’?” the first asked.
            “Well,” the second said, “the way Prof. Coakley explains it, it’s just so beautiful. It’s about relationship instead of power as the heart of everything. It’s really beautiful and so good, so moral.”

            The first student nodded and sighed, “Yes,” she said, and when you read St. Basil and St. Gregory, and St. Thomas Aquinas, it just makes so much sense. It really seems true.” There was a pause in the conversation. Then the first student continued. “It’s hard to sacrifice all I’ve worked for on principle. But there’s no way I’m going to say I believe in the Trinity.”

            “Of course not,” the second student said. “It would be corrupt and absurd.”

            These are exceptionally bright people in their third year at Harvard Divinity.
They know full well that God is infinitely beyond any doctrine or description, that all doctrines are ways of using poetic language to reach into the dark, grazing the face of mystery with our fingertips. Why is this particular language about God, this particular sacred imagery, such a taboo that they recoil against it no matter how beautiful, how good, and even how true it may seem?

            There is a deep resistance to the Trinity. And it does no good to explain the Trinity, as long as this resistance is in place. So, let us start with the resistance. Most modern believers and unbelievers have the same definition of God, “the Supreme Being.” AA members call this being “the Higher Power.” Note what is implicit in this kind of language. First, God is a being. Second, he is supreme because he is supremely powerful. The Supreme Being is the cosmic patriarch. Some believe in this being. Others do not. But they agree on what it is they disagree about. The God they either believe in or do not believe in is a super-being with absolute power, who may be persuaded to do what we want if we will do what he wants.

            That definition of God as a Superman Master of the Universe is so widely and unquestioningly assumed, that orthodox Christianity does not even make it into the conversation. I once watched an ECU-film program featuring six contemporary Christian leaders speaking on the question “What Do We Mean By ‘God’?”Neither the Trinity nor the Holy Spirit were mentioned – not even once in passing, and the Son was referred to only as the historical Jesus, not the eternal Word who St. John and the Nicene Creed identify as God. Six out of six of the supposedly divergent viewpoints assembled by Ecu-film were stuck in the patriarchal god-image, even though they were all ostensibly “liberals.” Cambridge theologian Nicholas Lash says,

            Under the dominant influence of modern theism, the doctrine
            of God’s Trinity has . . . largely ceased to function as our Christian
            frame of reference.[i]

In my experience, and in the experience of many theologians and pastors, when most people say “God” they mean the patriarchal dominator. Even academic theology in the West often misses the Ancient Doctrine of the Trinity and lapses instead into a heresy which has a distinctly patriarchal tenor.[ii]

            To think of God as Trinity is to reject “modern theism.” If God is the Trinity, God is not a powerful individual dominating creation. Rather, God is a web of relationship, and this web does not dominate anything. It loves creation into being. This image of God is nothing short of revolutionary. So, in order to get beyond modern theism, we have to outgrow our childhood picture of God.
            There are no doubt various reasons that people may object to the Trinity on a conscious level. They may never have heard the doctrine explained beyond simplistic metaphors to elucidate a metaphor. They likely do not know how Trinitarian doctrine developed.  Many people take religious language at the concrete literal level where the Trinity is simply non-sense. They do not know that doctrines are metaphors pointing toward infinite mystery, and that all religious metaphors are at best mixtures of truth and fiction. But beneath those conscious snags lies a cultural taboo. It is simply impossible to live in Western Culture without soaking up the mistaken definition of God as “the Supreme Being.” That definition is a patriarchal culture’s roadblock to grasping the Trinity.[iii]

            Remember our two Harvard Divinity School seniors who praised Trinitarian doctrine in every way – it is good, beautiful, and even true – but they refused to believe it. Why would sophisticated theology students, who have studied these deeper meanings of the Trinity, who decidedly know better than to think the Trinity is a silly polytheism, and who acknowledge that this poetic description of God is true, good, and beautiful, nonetheless resist it? Stop and consider this statement: “I know it’s a metaphor, not a literal fact. I find this metaphor to be true, good, and beautiful. But I refuse to believe it.” Something deeper is going on.

            Sigmund Freud’s great contribution to religion was explaining the primary way we get this superman image of God stuck in our heads. It comes out of early childhood experiences of dependency. The God image we get as children is of God the patriarch, God the monarch, God the supreme boss, the dominator-god. We learn it psychologically in the family; then children’s church school curricula and some patronizing clergy teach it as doctrine. It is doctrine – just not Christian doctrine – not Christian because the God image we get from early childhood experiences is not the Trinity.

            If our parents were benign, we will feel safer with this dominator God. If our parents were frightening or neglectful, our attitude may be less positive. But either way, the universal condition of children is dependent and subservient. So we all get the image of God the dominator. It is the rare modern Westerner who does not have the patriarchal image entrenched in their assumptions about the definition of the word “God” either consciously or unconsciously. If Freud is right – and I believe he is on a cultural level – we all have the patriarchal God imprinted on our psyches.  Certainly, each individual has his or her own personal history which shapes his or her own inner image of God, but as for the cultural norm which defines words, Freud was absolutely on the mark in describing the psychological foundation of a patriarchal culture’s image of a patriarchal God.[iv]

            In a patriarchal culture, people will resist an anti-patriarchal God image and then generate conscious pretexts. Liberating one’s religious imagination from the culturally imposed patriarchal God trap is long, slow going. Reading this book will not be sufficient. But I hope it will help.

            To be fair, we must acknowledge another reason for discomfort with the Trinity. We are deeply attached to thinking of God as an individual because it is easier to think of an individual as personal. It is easier to imagine an individual as caring, having opinions. It is easier to be friends with an individual.

            When we say God is not an individual, people are apt to leap to the conclusion that God is not personal. That is 180 degrees opposite to the point of the Trinity. The Trinity image of God is the opposite of impersonal. It is more personal than an individual autocrat dominator-God could ever be. Personhood (feeling, thinking, hoping) occurs in the context of relationship. The Trinity shows God as essentially “interpersonal.”[v] One might say the Trinity is at least three times as personal a God image as God the individual.

            Granted, we cannot pray to a relationship.[vi] But the Trinity itself, the godhead itself, the innermost being of God itself, is not the object of our prayer. It is the nameless, imageless God beyond our reach. The three divine persons of the Trinity are, however, quite accessible in prayer. Jesus taught us to pray to the Father – not the godhead, not the divine nature. We pray to and through the Son. And we pray in the power of the Spirit. Trinitarian prayer is decidedly personal.

            Encountering the Triune God through Communion and Community is the original Christian way of salvation. “Salvation,” (as the word was actually meant in the New Testament) does not mean to be pardoned for our sins, but rather to be made whole, to become fully human, to become a complete person. The first Trinitarians discovered that “to become fully a person... is to break through the isolating boundaries of individualism into a life of inclusive communion with persons valued for their uniqueness and differences . . . .  Arriving at full personhood in this way . . . is what it means to be saved.”[vii]

            A final objection to this way of imagining God is that when we feel weak, we need someone to be strong. Being beautiful, good, and true may be very nice. But when we are about to hurt, we want a cosmic Rambo to break down the door and save us. A cosmic dance of love may not seem strong enough. But the Trinity does not deny God’s power. It changes the nature of God’s power. It challenges us to rethink the kind of salvation that works and it might change how we go about trying to address the suffering in our own lives and the world around us.   

            When we contrast “love” with “power,” we mean the power of dominance, the power to oppress, coerce, and dictate. God’s renunciation of dominating power does not prevent God from participating powerfully in our lives in ways that are both consistent with God’s nature and responsive to our need. When we speak of “God’s power” it is important to remember several things: God’s power is not the same as any other power we know. It is not the power of dominance, but rather the power of creative love. God’s power is exercised in relationship, personally, not oppressively – honestly, not manipulatively. God’s power is restrained by God’s own nature and by God’s faithful commitment to allow the existence of that which is not God.

            Trinitarian language for God isn’t perfect. It suffers from regrettable gender bias.[viii] But despite that clear problem, leading feminists theologians[ix] vigorously defend the Trinity because it saves us from God as an individual – the big guy (and it is invariably a guy) in the sky. God as an individual is easy to understand – but the individual God usually becomes an autocratic power symbol – a king or a warrior. The Trinity makes God relational rather than domineering, interpersonal rather than abstract, egalitarian and mutual rather than oppressive. The Trinity makes God into something like a spiritual force field in which the force is not dominating power but interpersonal longing.[x] The Trinity is not an adequate image for God. It needs to be supplemented by all the other metaphors from ancient tradition and new metaphors arising out of our culture. The Trinity is not adequate but it is helpful, especially when we consider the problem of evil.

            The Trinity makes God, not a dominant individual, but a web of loving relationship. The Trinity means God is not a thing that might or might not exist. Calling God “Trinity” is describing the innate essence of Being as a personal relationship. To believe in such a God is not to believe that a particular being exists, but to say something about the nature of Reality itself – that Being is relational, generous, abounding and overflowing with procreative love, that it is deep, mysterious, and paradoxical. To describe God this way is to betray the power system religion.[xi]

            The Trinity is not a literal taxonomy of God. It is a metaphor pointing toward a mystery. The metaphor preserves the Jewish insight of the one-ness of the divine nature, but also insists that God is not a dominating individual. God is more like a web of relationship. This metaphor plays out paradoxically in the form of our two models or ways of thinking about the Trinity – Family Trinity and Job Description Trinity. In the coming chapters we will see how each of these models will be helpful to us in dealing with suffering. When we address the realities of evil, suffering, and affliction, both the Family Trinity and Job-Description Trinity images of God make a world of difference.

            Part of our difficulty in making meaning out of our suffering has always been that suffering truly is mysterious. But modern people are utterly at a loss in the face of suffering because our modern concept of God is inadequate to the task. It is inadequate precisely because the Trinity has been supplanted in our religious imagination by an individual monarch.       When we try to understand suffering in light of God, and God in light of suffering, it is this Trinitarian Communion of Love we are seeking to understand, not the mind of a Cosmic Puppet Master.

[i] Nicholas Lash, Easter In Ordinary, p. 277. Jurgen Moltmann argues that Western theology even at its best it predominantly heretical in terms of the Early Church statements on the Trinity. He examines Karl Barth as a representative Protestant theology and Karl Rahner as a representative Roman Catholic theology, and contends their views of the Trinity both amount to Sabellian modalism, a declared heresy essentially saying God is one individual performing three functions – the Job Description Trinity taken to the extreme. If this is true of our great theologians, it is much more true of pastors in the pulpits and people in the pews. Western Christianity is out of touch with the richness of our traditional view of God. It is the feminist and liberation theologians who are reminding us of it.
[ii]Treating the Father as the real God, and the Son and Spirit as different ways in which the Father manifests, is essentially the heresy of Sibellian Modalism. Moltmann rightly charges leading Western theologians including Schleiermacher, Barth, and even Rahner with being essentially modalist.  Sabellian Modalism.  It treats the Father as God the Commander, with the Son and Spirit as being either joint First Officer or more often as the First and Second Officer. They do not understand the Godhead as a network of relationship and so miss the feminist values of mutuality and compassion the orthodox Trinity represents.

[iii] Harvard Prof. of Systematic Theology, Sarah Coakley tells the story of a young woman studying for ordination in the U. C. C., perhaps the most liberal and least patriarchal denomination in the Christian tradition. She had grown up only minimally churched in that liberal tradition and had never heard of the patriarchal image of God until seminary. She found the notion odd. But as she approached ordination, her dreams were filled with images of submission to patriarchal figures. Professor Coakley’s  point is that even those who do not consciously believe in such a picture of God are still subject to unconscious cultural influences.

[iv] Anna Maria Rizzuto’s research in the psychology of God images showed that individuals form personal God images in more complex ways. Rizzuto, Birth of the Living God. But as a culture when we speak of God we necessarily adopt the culture’s definition of God. Here I think Freud’s understanding of our common God image is apt.

[v] “The God who is a person is transcended by the God who is the Personal itself . . . “ Paul Tillich, Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955) pp. 13, 16, 24-26, 333-34, 59, 74, 82-84 generally explaining his thesis that God is personal without being an individual.
[vi] Notre Dame philosopher Robert Audi rightly observes that there is a problem God’s identity as relationship from the standpoint of religious practice and from the standpoint of Scripture. “One cannot pray to a relationship.” The response to this problem is in terms of the two complementary albeit paradoxical models of the Trinity, which we will call the Family Trinity and the Job Description Trinity. God in Godself is more like a personal relationship than an individual. But God, being relational, engages us in the personal manner we can be engaged. That is to say, God engages us in the form of persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Scripture is not a theological treatise on the nature of God. It is an account of God’s interaction with people. So it tells the story in terms of the Divine persons whom we have met.

[vii] The words quoted are Patricia Fox’s apt summary of Zizioulas, Being As Communion, pp. 49-50. Patricia Fox, God As Communion (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2001) pp. 42-43.
[viii] Feminist theologians such as Elizabeth Johnson offer restatements of the Trinity in less patriarchal terms. On the other side, Robert Jensen defends the use of masculine language and argues it neither reflects nor supports patriarchal culture. Robert W. Jensen, The Triune Identity (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1982) pp. 13-16.
[ix] For example, Sarah Coakley, Elizabeth Johnson, and Kathryn Tanner.
[x] The objection to talk about God in terms like “force field” (remember this is just an analogy) is that we don’t think of a force field as personal. Actually, a force field may be more personal than we think. But to the extent that image connotes something impersonal,  that is just the other half of the analogy. God is like a force field in size and energy, but unlike a force field in that God is personal.

[xi] The Trinity is not the only way to liberate ourselves from the dominator God. Nothing in Islam or Judaism, for example, preclude them from developing theologies that see God in a better way. Martin Buber and Abraham Heschel are examples of such a better view within Judaism. In Islam, the God of Rumi and al-Halaj  is no dominator. But the Trinity is Christianity’s way of saying God is loving rather than domineering. The point in emphasizing the Trinity in this book is not to challenge non-Christian religions, which may have other ways of saying something similar about God. The point is to challenge a Christianity that, without the Trinity, has no effective way of saying that God is, at the core, relational rather than domineering. The relational, as opposed to domineering, nature of God is essential to a Christian understanding of how God and suffering fit in the same reality.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

Love this! It's so interesting taking a fresh look at the ancient doctrine; the great thing about faith is that we can continually do this, perhaps thinking in new ways about old (yet always current) ideas and concerns. I think we always need to rediscover what faith is actually for.

Thanks for footnoting and references, too - I'd definitely like to do more reading in this area, and you've given me a start on that.....