At the heart of Catholic identity lies a dormant doctrine, asleep in books of theology and the new Catechism of the Catholic Church. I am convinced that an active living of this doctrine may yet emerge from the unlikeliest of places: the post-baby boomer generations in the church. Those born after the 1960s may well be in a position to restore the Trinity--as a way of life--to its centrality in Catholic identity. If post-boomer generations accept the sort of life to which the Trinity invites us, we may save this doctrine from being the Loch Ness Monster of Catholic doctrine, surfacing only annually on Trinity Sunday, then sinking beneath the surface for another year.
The royal road to a spiritual identity for many post-boomers is through personal experience, not doctrine. And if there is one great trust that Christians have, it is that God as Trinity is not just a doctrine. God as Trinity is above all an experience of God's saving presence. All of us have experiences of being made whole, of wanting to fully accept and love others and to be fully accepted and loved. We have experiences of wanting to relate rightly and responsibly to others in society. We have experiences of personal hurt and outrage at violations of our dignity and the dignity of others. We have desires for healthy relationships with family, friends, lovers, creation, and God. All of these are little experiences of salvation, experiences of being a little more fully human and a little more fully divine.
The language that Catholic tradition has developed for these experiences is the language of Trinity. When we say Trinity we mean that these experiences of salvation are offered to us in three ways: from the depths of a mysterious all-pervasive presence that we have called God the Father, through the presence with us in history of our brother Jesus Christ, and in the power of the comfort, fire, and zeal of the Holy Spirit.
But these words have become so rote and empty. In inviting my post-boomer peers to reconsider the Trinity, I offer seven ways that young Catholics can live the Trinity today.
1 Take seriously the holiness of the life-giving relationships that make you who you are.
When we speak of God as Trinity, we are saying that God is God because of God's relationships. God's relationships are often described as Father, Son, and Spirit in relationship with each other. This three-personed relationship makes God uniquely God. Just as you would be absolutely unrecognizable to anyone else without the relationships that have formed you, God would be absolutely unrecognizable to us without God's own three-fold relationships.
In our culture and sometimes in our religion, we tend to talk a lot about how unique each of us is. But living a Trinity life changes our focus from the uniqueness and holiness and dignity of ourselves to the uniqueness and holiness and dignity of our relationships.
We can better understand God as Trinity by thinking about our own relationships. What have been the most important relationships in your life, that have helped make you who you are today? In those relationships that bring you the most joy, your joy reverberates in the very heart of God. Each of us must ask what needs to change in our lives in order to really value the holiness of our life-giving relationships.
2 Live as young mystics, aware of the mystery of God present in all of life.
If I ask you to imagine the person to whom you are closer than anyone else--your most important relationship--who would that be? If you had an hour, could you totally describe everything about this person? If you had a day, could you describe everything you love and hate about them? If you had a week, could you describe everything about that person's history, relationships, passions, complexities, motivations, heart?
It seems that for our most important relationships, even a lifetime is not enough to learn everything about that person; a lifetime is not enough for us to reveal ourselves entirely to any one person, no matter how much we love them and want to know them, or want them to know us.
This teaches us a profound lesson: the deeper your relationships to another person, the less you can ever capture them with words and the more they appear as mysterious. After all, it is only people we relate to superficially that we can describe in a few words and be done with it.
Even more than our oldest friends who are mysterious to us, and as Catherine Mowry LaCugna emphasizes in her book God for Us (Harper San Francisco, 1993), God is mystery to us because God is always with each of us so personaly:
* In the person of God the Father, creator of the universe, who fashioned every single tree that provided the paper on which you are reading this essay, and who loves every single person in the world with infinite depth.
* In the person of Jesus Christ, present in the flesh in our world, the Jesus who shed tears at the death of Lazarus, the Jesus who so freely spoke with women and lepers and tax collectors and others deemed religiously unclean or socially unworthy. This is the physical Jesus whose body was anointed with oil by Mary, who enjoyed food and drink so freely that he was branded a glutton and a drunkard, who experienced the injustice of denigration, humiliation, and punishment from the state-enforced death penalty.
* In the person of the Holy Spirit, constantly aflame in our hearts, the Spirit who nurtures our growth in the divine image, the Spirit who shook the rafters at Pentecost, the Spirit who attends closely Pope John Paul II in his fragile body and vibrant heart. It's the same Spirit who in Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus.
The late German theologian Father Karl Rahner, S.J. remarked that in the 21st century Christians will have to become mystics to remain Christians in any meaningful way. What needs to change in our lives before we honor the mystery of God present in all of life? Before we dignify all of life: not just the wealthy or the healthy, but the stressful and the unsuccessful; not just in our parking lots but in our parks and in nature; and not just those of us who can afford a cell phone or a laptop, but those who stand with a cardboard sign at the intersection and ask for food and a confirmation of human dignity?
Taking radically seriously the mystery of God present in all of life has perhaps never been more difficult than it is today, because mystery, unlike almost every other aspect of our identity, cannot be purchased, styled, accessorized, or exchanged. It is not produced by the poor in Latin America for a wealthy U.S. corporation. Only God has the copyright and the trademark on the mystery of all human life.
3 Be open to learning about new names for God.
Young Catholics are in a position to respect a diversity of names for the triune God, just as we are likely to accept diversity in friendships, school, and work relationships. Even when using the name "Father" to talk about the first person of the Trinity, many intuitively sense that of course God is not literally a Father. Many realize that for God to really be God, God must be beyond any sex or gender. Nor can God ever be restricted to one tradition or one culture. As absolute mystery, God cannot be contained by any single name.
And yet let us return to the closest relationships in our life. Isn't it true that even though we experience our oldest and closest friends as mysterious, we still give them nicknames? In a similar, though sometimes more reverent way, we all give names to the God that we try to understand more fully, even though we will never fully understand our mysterious God.
We most often refer to the Trinity as Father, Son, and Spirit. These are extremely important names for God as Trinity. But they are not the only ones. Too often Christians presume that the Trinity is literally male, a Trinity of three men circling somewhere out there in space. Even though many young Catholics do not believe this, they are often reluctant to speak of the triune God using any other names.
In Christian tradition, God was first named Father because Jesus apparently called God that, using a term of personal endearment, abba.
God was also called Father because in the culture of the early church, fathers were thought to be the ones whose seed was solely responsible for the identity of the child. So if Jesus was the "son" of God, if Jesus somehow came "to" us "from" God, then God must be, in the ancient understanding, the "father" of Jesus. But we know now that procreation doesn't quite work that way, and that mothers have as much to do with the child's identity--if not more--than fathers.
Even before we had this biological knowledge, Catholics over the past 2,000 years have addressed God with titles other
than Father. Have we forgotten that just called God "mother"? This is not just modern trendiness. The fourth-century Greek theologian Gregory of Nazianzus said that even the name "God" cannot adequately express or capture or fully define who God is. His contemporary, Gregory of Nyssa, said that as humans we cannot wrap our minds around what is infinite. No single name is ever fully adequate to who God is.
And so our tradition has given God many names. Elizabeth Johnson has catalogued some of these names in her book She Who Is (Crossroad, 1993), including one second-century theologian who imagined God as light--as a Trinity of sun, sunbeam, and point of light; or God as water--as a Trinity of spring, river, and channel; or God as plant--as a Trinity of root, stem, and flower. In the 11th century, theologian and mystic Hildegard of Bingen called the triune God a brightness, a flashing forth, and a fire. In our own day, Johnson names the Trinity as Holy Wisdom, Jesus Christ, and Spirit Sophia.
Appreciating different names for the Trinity does not mean Catholics must simply accept every name that is proposed. There are some names for God that simply will not mesh with our experiences of being
redeemed by this triune God, with our experiences of reconciliation, healing, and dignity. But when we really honor God as mysterious--and when we take seriously our identity as young mystics who will no longer try to box God into one religious tradition or one way of speaking--then we must always be open to the search for new names for our God.
4 Reach across differences to create communities and families where they did not previously exist.
To say that God is Trinity is to say that our God is a living relationship of three persons who are eternally there for each other. It also means that God cares deeply about our own relationships, our own "being there" for others, and understands more deeply than anyone else how important they are to us.
Indeed, we could even say that the triune God is a community, or even a family, as Pope John Paul II has said. Our God is a family of three persons who are not self-enclosed, isolated individuals. Rather, God is a family of three unique persons constantly reaching out to each other and to us.
If God truly is family, this means that every time the church or people try to persuade us about God but do not offer us an experience of family, then they are not fully talking about God as Trinity.
Every time we bring people together, every time we help to create family where it did not previously exist, reaching across the lines of black and white and brown and yellow and red, female and male, Catholic and Protestant and Jew and Muslim and Buddhist and Hindu, gay and lesbian and straight--every time we reach across those lines and create community, we are not only like the Trinity, we are indeed already a part of God's very life here on earth.
5 Humbly relate to people of other religions.
As young trinitarian mystics seeking to live a Trinity way of life, the more mysterious other people become to us and the more mysterious we allow God to be-- and the more we admit that God's family is the whole human race--the more we realize that we cannot control who is "saved" and who is not.
Most young Catholics today have friends from other religions or with no explicit religious background at all. They should be encouraged to know that when they encounter these people, the Trinity way is to love them rather than to judge them; the Trinity way is to learn from them rather than to badger them.
At Vatican II, a generation ago, our church declared that we as Catholics reject nothing that is true in other major monotheistic religions. As Catholic Christians, who are beginning a new century of walking with this trinitarian God, we do not have the authority to say that God is not at work in our friends, schoolmates, and our fellow workers of other religions.
This does not mean we should refrain from sharing our faith with others. Indeed, Pope John Paul II has said that we need a new Catholic evangelization of the world, to let people know of the power, the beauty, the goodness of Catholic Christianity. If we are a living trinitarian family, being God's family to each other and to the world, others will be attracted to us and want to know more about us, our faith, the mystery at the center of our lives, our God.
6 Advocate for the well-being of others.
Respecting the mystery of God in the salvation experiences of others does not mean simply letting the world be as it is. To live a trinitarian life is to always exist in relation to a community, to a family--and that means not just passive existence, but active work for the well-being of others in your family and community. It means advocating especially for those in trouble, those in danger, those at risk, those in need. This means that living a trinitarian life requires us to be politically active people.
Every time you take responsibility for a relationship--whether a political relationship or a family or friend relationship--that is the triune God happening there. These experiences are not simply "like God," or what the Trinity is "about." These experiences are the very life of the Trinity moving in the depths of your life.
As LaCugna reminds us, "The cardinal sin ... is whatever binds us to ... impersonal... existence: the denial that we are persons from and for God, from and for others." Thus political apathy is a sin, and it is a sin of which young Catholic generations are too often guilty.
God as Trinity calls us to a life that unites the best of who young Catholics are today: not only spiritual seekers nurturing an interior life of mystery, but also service-oriented workers who volunteer our lives for the world.
7 Commit yourself to reform issues in the Catholic Church.
Political work should not be restricted to work outside the church. The community of the church is not optional for us; it is one family for whom we are all responsible. We do not have to approve of everything this family does, but we each have a part to play in making sure it is as healthy as it can be.
Many young Catholics are mindful that not all have an equal voice in the family of the church--especially women. The torch will soon enough pass to today's younger generations to work to change this. Our children may well ask us, a generation from now, what we did to make the church a better family, a more fitting home for God, a more welcoming home for all of us. Let us not be known as the generation that did not care enough to attend to our universal family, the church.
If God as Holy Spirit is indeed personally present and alive in each of us, then we have a responsibility to bring our spiritual gifts and insights to our church, to reform the sin that still remains within it. Living a trinitarian life means we must be active laypeople, not passive.
We must be critically faithful, not the church's couch potatoes. We must be willing to think for ourselves, as adults, and not pretend that God is the big Pez dispenser in the sky who doles out little tablets of faith or grace or truth when we need it. God's Holy Spirit is alive and present and stirring within all of us this very moment. We only need to be more careful and patient in listening to it.
LaCugna put it bluntly: "Trinitarian life is also our life." The doctrine of the Trinity is "not ultimately a teaching about 'God' but a teaching about God's life with us and our life with each other ... God in us, we in God, all of us in each other."
Taking stock of what we each must do to live the Trinity more fully is our task as we begin a new century, a century that is thirsty for the creativity, vibrancy, hope, faith, and justice of young Catholics. Let this new century happen, and through the charisms of young Catholics, let the Trinity happen in it.
TOM BEAUDOIN is a doctoral candidate at Boston College and the author of Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (Jossey-Bass, 1998). This essay is dedicated to the memory of Catherine Mowry LaCugna.
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|Title Annotation:||the Trinity in Catholic theology|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2000|
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