Thursday, January 8, 2009

God, World, Church

Theology matters. And everyone does theology. Might as well be good at it. Especially if you want to do anything connected to the word missional.

What you think about God is inescapably connected to what you think about the church and the world. This is obvious in some ways. If you think of God as a wrathful judge, than you tend to treat your neighbors one way. If you think about God as merciful and loving, you treat your neighbors another.

What is less clear is that how you think about God as Father, Son, and Spirit is connected to how you treat your neighbors. But it is connected, and because its less obvious, may be far more powerful and determinative. The things we take for granted are the things that control us the most. And because the Trinity is a complex matter, it tends to be something we assume.

Making this tougher is that Scripture nowhere uses the term Trinity and is not interested, it seems, in defining the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit. And because it seems to have little interest in defining these relationships, the various pieces don't always fit that well together.

Further complicating matters is the fact that once the church did become interested in defining these relationships, finding agreement proved to be a problem. There are two things, at least, that have to brought together in any doctrine of the Trinity--unity and personhood. The Western tradition (think Roman Catholic, Augustine, Aquinas) tends to emphasize unity, while the Eastern tradition (you can't even think about this, but if you want to try, think the Orthodox church and the Cappadocians) emphasizes the three persons. This is a complicated deal. Its enough to make you throw up your hands and give up, which is precisely what churches in my tradition did.

But here's the deal. We have been profoundly influenced by the Western tradition, like it or not, and it has influenced our understandings of mission. This is a complicated story, but let's just begin by saying that the challenge of seeing something as a unified subject is that it turns the everything else into objects. And mission practices tied to a subject-object view of the world tend to be imperialistic. One can't tell the story of Western missions apart from words like imperialism and colonialism (aka, the White man's burden).

Trinity is important in defining mission. In fact, the birth of the missional church conversation coincides with a rediscovery of sorts of Trinitarian theology. (Trinity had fallen on hard times under the rational gaze of the Enlightenment). The roots for the term missio Dei (mission of God) are often traced to Karl Barth who begins his theological writings with a return to Trinity. The conversation has moved beyond Barth, but he demonstrated again that the way forward in mission depends to a large degree on what we think about the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit.

I hope to spend some time the next few weeks inviting you into this important conversation.


Richard Beck said...

Hi Mark,
I'm going to be asking you some things here, but not in an attacking way. My tone here is curious.

First, I agree with you about the Trinity as the most hospitable location to do theology, particularly missional theology. I start there myself.


I start from that location because, for a variety of reasons, I like the view of God it provides. However, I tend to think people overreach regarding the doctrine's importance. Basically, I think the interface between Church and World, at root, is an ethical interface. Not a theological one. The Golden Rule and the Parable of the Good Samaritan seem in force regardless as to if you are a Trinitarian or and adoptionist or just a plane old humanist. The relevant issue is if you do or do not follow the Imitatio Christi.

True, various theological formulations might provide different theological backdrops or warrants for the Imitatio Christi, and those are very important, but at the end of the day the connection isn't a necessary one between Trinitarianism and the Imitatio Christi. And if it isn't necessary then I consider it one among many formulations one might adopt.

Mark Love said...


Happy to have the push. Let's see if I can push back a bit.

I agree that the engagement with world is ethical. How could it be otherwise? I would push further and say that it is social. It is a certain kind of social enactment, a deeply embedded social enactment, which is a larger category than just ethics. And this is precisely what the Trinitarian discusion is about these days.

Fact is, the missionaries of 17th-19th centuries took the golden rule with them and undoubtedly taught it to their converts. But there was a larger frame in which that rule was enacted, an imperial/colonial one. And there was a view of God that stood behind that.

I wonder if the golden rule is as neutral as you suggest. I wonder, in other words, if the golden rule is immune from the perspective of the user. Words like love, neighbor, yourself have some wiggle room and it might very well matter if you bring a Trinitarian, adoptionist, or humanist perspective. That would be interesting to determine. And I suspect that a decision to define the church-world relationship beginning with a theory-less ethics (as you seem to be using that term) is a pretty significant theological grab.

I guess I'm not sure how you are drawing the line between theological and ethical. Are you viewing theology as a purely mental exercise? This is not an unusual view, the effect of the Western psychological tradition which is often associated with Augustine's trinitarian views (to round out the irony). Anyway, I'd need to hear more about how you think ethics is related to theology.

I wonder also if a certain kind of Trinitarianism is lurking as the concern of your comments. The thing with trinitarian theology is that is has been associated with what is referred to as the immanent Trinity, that is speculation about God's inner life as Father, Son, and Spirit, which we have little access to. It features a certain kind of ontology, one we learned from the Greeks, one that pushes ontology into essentials/accidents and therefore abstract characteristics.

This removed Trinity from discussions about ethics, made it seemingly irrelevant, and laid it open to the withering contempt of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment theologians and philosophers. This did not, however, make it a-ethical. It was still pulling a lot of strings.

But if, like Moltmann, you begin your trinitarian theology in the Garden of Gethsemane, then you are immediately into ethics, social location and theodicy. But I'm ahead of myself.

So, I may not have hit on any of your curiosities. Let's see.

Anonymous said...

I'll be fascinated to see where this is going, as I have become very interested in lost meaning within the Trinitarian understanding myself (particularly with reference to and with a developing understanding of Cappadocian thought) and its link to missiology and to objectification. Fascinating stuff that has been the subject of our conversations here lately too (as we try to take the wonderfully esoteric and turn it into the "profoundly practical" and provocative [or pro-vocational]). I'm adding you to my favourites.

Richard Beck said...

Hi Mark,
Let me ask the question like this:

What facet of the missional church is off limits to, let's say, an adoptionist?

Mark Love said...

Thanks, Adrian and welcome.

Richard, none of it is off limits. However, the question would be how an adoptionist view would work itself out in relation to God and world.

And since I don't begin with that set of assumptions, I'm not sure. I'm not sure, for instance, what meaning sacraments would have, and in turn why you would even need a church. It's not obvious to me.

I do think that Trinitarian options make a difference. So, let's see.