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Trinity and religious pluralism.

This is hardly the first essay to address the topic of a Christian theology of religions from a trinitarian perspective. (1) Frequently, the adoption of a trinitarian purview yields a constitutive Christology whereby all salvation is ultimately constituted by the grace of Jesus Christ and, thus, an inclusive theology of religions involving some form of anonymous Christianity. The question then is this: Can the doctrine of the trinity (2) open the Christian imagination to a recognition of genuine religious pluralism? Or, is it the final obstacle to such because of an inherent Christocentrism? This essay is a proposal for a trinitarian theology that supports a pluralistic conception of the religions. My goal can be more pointedly stated in this way: I want to understand the doctrine of the trinity in such a way that it supports our experience or conviction of the autonomous validity of other religions. And, I want to understand the religions, abstractly, in such a way that, as phenomena, they do not undermine the church's doctrine of the trinity.

The discussion is in three parts. The first deals with the doctrine of trinity. So much--practically speaking, everything--depends on how we understand the logic and content of this doctrine. I will propose a conception of trinity as a narrative doctrine that I will formulate as a result of a dialogue with Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Karl Rahner (1904-84). In the second part I will develop the way the doctrine of trinity as a symbol reveals the nature and character of God and also of human existence as it stands before ultimate reality. I will try to answer the question of how this doctrine is universally relevant: It has something to say to all human beings. In part three, I simply draw some conclusions relative to the initial question from the foregoing analyses.

I. Trinity as a Narrative Doctrine

I begin by developing the idea of trinity as a narrative doctrine after a pattern of thinking drawn from a conversation with Schleiermacher and Rahner. Why Schleiermacher and Rahner? Several reasons recommend it. They represent Protestant and Catholic theology, respectively. Both are quintessentially modern theologians who have embraced a turn to the subject. Both can be called transcendental theologians, although Schleiermacher is not usually so designated. Both can also be appropriated as doing trinitarian theology from below. In Schleiermacher's case this refers to the fact that he wrote a life of Jesus, understood the doctrine of Christology as rooted in the experience of the Christian community and a product of development, and interpreted the doctrine of trinity as derivative from and dependent upon Christology. Even though Rahner is not generally understood as a theologian operating from below, his work allows such a point of departure, and, as a modern theologian, he appeals to experience. The two theologians, despite differences that are substantial, share much in common. In what follows I enumerate several major aspects from first Schleiermacher's and then Rahner's trinitarian theology. I will then hold up and appropriate three features that they represent in their own way. With these ingredients, I will propose a way of understanding trinity as a narrative doctrine. (3)

A. Schleiermacher

Schleiermacher is probably better known for his lack of a theology of the trinity than for constructive interpretation, but he wrote about the trinity and made a significant contribution to trinitarian thinking. Although his theology is undeveloped, it is not so in principle and could have been drawn out. My aim here is not to reproduce Schleiermacher's trinitarian theology but only to raise four significant notes or characteristics of his approach. (4)

To begin, according to Schleiermacher the doctrine of the trinity is derivative. By that I mean that the doctrine developed, so that it depends in the order of knowing on the doctrines of the divinity and redeeming work of Jesus Christ and the Spirit. The history of doctrine and the debate at Nicaea contradict the idea that the doctrine of trinity is prior to the doctrines of Jesus Christ and salvation. Citing Schteiermacher, it is simply not true "that acceptance of the doctrine of the Trinity is the necessary precondition of faith in redemption and in the founding of the kingdom of God by means of the divine in Christ and in the Holy Spirit." (5)

Second, the content of the doctrine of the trinity for Schleiermacher lies in the doctrines of the divinity of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. These two doctrines, after the doctrine of creation, define the essence or substance of Christian faith. Schleiermacher deeply and exhaustively developed his explanation of the incarnation. The union of true God with humanity in the person of Christ and in the church "are the essential elements in the doctrine of the Trinity," on which "the whole view of Christianity set forth in [his] Church teaching stands or falls" with these two essential doctrines. (6) In other words, the doctrine of the trinity does not add anything essential beyond what is already contained in the doctrines of creation, Jesus Christ, and the Spirit in the church.

Third, Schleiermacher insisted on the defensive and protective function of the doctrine of the trinity. Both historically and in its logic it is decisively anti-Arian; it was formulated to protect the essential and radical divinity of Jesus Christ against any subordination. This is also the logic of its formulation, that is, as a negation of the Arian understanding. Both the aim of the doctrine and the origin of the doctrine go precisely to the content of the true divinity of Jesus Christ and the Spirit in the church. (7) The doctrine as Schleiermacher construed it also protects monotheism against any implication of tritheism in Christian language. Schleiermacher, for example, generally steered away from arguing the doctrine of Christ's divinity on the basis of John's prologue.

Fourth, the doctrine of the trinity plays an integrating role in the Christian imagination. The doctrine of the trinity is the keystone of Christian doctrine. It consists in equating the union of God with human nature in Christ and of God as Spirit in the church with the Divine Essence in itself. This represents what is essential in the doctrine of the trinity. (8) Paul DeHart has commented on the image of the keystone: "[I]t does not form the substance of the arch but it does anchor its structurally crucial point, enabling it to maintain its shape." (9) The doctrine thus assumes a combining and connecting structure that "allows it to bring into synoptic coordination the assertions dispersed throughout the dogmatics concerning the divine essence itself and its modes of 'presence' in the world." DeHart continued: "Thus three sorts of dogmatic utterance about God's essence or being (first in the world as its creative source, second in Christ and third in the church) are to be aligned with one another in order to show their intelligibility and convergence upon a common divine referent." (10)

More can and will be said about Schleiermacher on trinity, but I move now to a commentary on Rahner.

B. Rahner

Unlike Schleiermacher, Rahner's work offers a careful and extensive systematic theology of the trinity. My intention here falls far short of representing that theology; I intend simply to characterize Rahner's doctrine, that is, to speak about it, in a way that runs parallel with the presentation of Schleiermacher and is implicitly comparative.

First, then, although I would surely hesitate to call Rahner's own theology of the trinity a trinitarian theology from below, he did allow that one could develop trinitarian theology from below in parallel with Christology. It would follow the history of the development of the doctrine. Also, Rahner's use of the axiom, "the Trinity of the economy of salvation is the immanent Trinity and vice versa," (11) allowed him to read the doctrine in the context of soteriology and the experience of salvation. I have not read where Rahner was as decisive as Schleiermacher in calling this doctrine dependent on other doctrines, but neither is the sentiment alien to his thinking.

Second, the content of the doctrine of the trinity entails precisely the doctrines of the missions of God as Word and Spirit in the one mystery of God's self-communication with humanity. Although the languages of these two theologians seem quite different here, the central content of what they are saying is remarkably analogous. For Rahner, the identity of the immanent and the economic trinity meant that the doctrine enshrines the twofold communication of God in hypostatic union and in God's justifying and sanctifying self-communication as Spirit in and through the church. "What Jesus is and does as [a human being], is the self-revealing existence of the Logos as our salvation among us." (12) The Spirit represents a real, personal self-communication of God to each human being who responds. (13)

Third, Rahner's doctrine of the trinity is also defensive and protective, but in a different way from Schleiermacher's. Whereas Schleiermacher set forth his trinitarian theology in an anti-Arian context, Rahner's for the most part is set in an anti-Sabellian context. The major difference between Schleiermacher and Rahner lies here: Whereas Schleiermacher understood the distinction and plurality of persons within God as the source of the problem of the doctrine, Rahner strongly emphasized the distinction of persons, so much so that at places his language appears, against his own intentions, as tritheistic. (14) Yet, at the same time, Rahner also rejected tritheism and tritheistic language in strong, explicit terms. He maintained that tritheism is deeply embedded in the Christian imagination and "is a much greater danger than a Sabellian modalism." (15) He recognized the problem entailed in the use of the word "person" as suggesting three centers of consciousness. (16) Rahner's solution to this problem was to keep the doctrine of the trinity connected to the history of salvation: "Indeed, the more boldly the treatise is aligned with the economy of salvation, the more likely it is to say the needful about the immanent Trinity, and make the truth really part of an understanding of the faith which is at once theoretical and existential." (17) This theme of the salvific point of the doctrine is not far from the logic of Schleiermacher.

Fourth, for Rahner, too, the doctrine of trinity functioned as a kind of summary of the heart of Christian faith.

C. Commonalities

I turn now to certain commonalities in these two theologies of trinity. One should be aware that these are asserted in the context of significant differences. The single most important difference, already mentioned, lies in the acceptance of and even stress on the distinctions within the Godhead on Rahner's part and the way these distinctions are made by Schleiermacher. Rahner's trinitarian theology bears a certain tone of apologetic defense of those distinctions, whereas Schleiermacher did not need them to guarantee the realism of God's self-communication in Jesus and the church. Across that wide divergence, at least as stated, three themes are shared by these theologies: the primacy of salvation, a realism of the two-fold communication of God to an already created humanity, and the anti-Arian point of the doctrine.

First, both theologians understood the doctrine of the trinity within the context of the history of salvation. It is the doctrine of God's saving outreach to and encounter with human beings. In this insistence, both theologians reacted against the role of speculative reason as a support of the doctrine. Speculation here refers to a conceptual attempt at coherently reconciling the numbers one and three within the Godhead.

Second, both theologians, in keeping with the context of a history of salvation, share a striking realism in their understanding of God's self-communication in both Jesus and the church (Schleiermacher) or as Word and Spirit (Rahner). This is also an existential realism: This doctrine corresponds with what Christians experience in their religious lives.

Third, both theologians, therefore, sustained the anti-Arian character of the doctrine: Schleiermacher more centrally than Rahner, because of Rahner's seemingly equal antipathy to Sabellianism. But, despite the different accents on this point, the two theologians read the doctrine as an overarching protection against minimizing the real salvific unity of God with humanity in Jesus Christ and in the Spirit in the church.

D. Trinity as a Narrative Doctrine

Let me now take a constructive step beyond, but building upon, the three qualifications of the doctrine of trinity shared by Schleiermacher and Rahner. Those common marks are, first, that it is not a speculative doctrine but is to be understood in the context of the salvation from God experienced by Christians. Second, the central content of the doctrine is the realism of God's self-communication to humanity in Jesus Christ and the Spirit. Third, the genesis and the point of the doctrine are defensive; its main function is to preserve the anti-Arian conviction that nothing less than God is operative in Jesus and the church. Granting that these three points are central to the meaning of the doctrine allows, in turn, a narrative interpretation of its basic logic. More than that, the ongoing experience of true God's being mediated by Jesus in and through the church seems to urge that a proper way of understanding trinity would be to construe it as a narrative. What does it mean to say that trinity is a narrative doctrine, and how does such an interpretation draw these central points into itself?

At a fundamental level all human experience has a narrative quality; it has a beginning, and it endures. Experiences can always be situated within a larger temporal context. Experiences occur in time: They always have a before and an after, the time and series of events that led up to a significant experience and its aftermath. A given experience's resulting in a conviction may easily dissolve into slow, incremental change within any given life, or it may rise up as life-changing and amount to a new beginning. Experiences always fit into a narrative, so that, in order to explain their significance, one has to tell the story of what happened. What led up to the experience, and where in turn has it led the one who had the experience? Thus, truths that are learned or discovered, taught or stumbled upon, when they are significant truths, always become caught up in the larger story of the person or group holding them. As a result, the significance of a given truth may be defined as the part it plays in the human narrative of those who share it. The marker of the importance of any given truth lies in the place it holds in the larger story of a person or group.

Beyond their location within a given story, some experiences and truths may be said to create their own stories. Depending on their importance, certain experiences define particular stories by culminating the series of events that led up to them. Other experiences or truths, once they are learned, may remain significant because they permanently effect a specific future. A life-changing revelation, or a series of events that force a major decision, or the opening up of one's consciousness by a comprehensive religious truth--such events can become an eradicable part of the stories they produce and then sustain. The narrative character of experience and truth consists in their being a defining element within the consciousness of a living historical being or group. Experience and truth are in their first moment responses of human beings to reality; as temporal and socially historical beings, these truths always have a temporal character that, when verbalized, becomes a narrative.

To call experience and truth narrative, therefore, effectively calls them back to the existential life forms that generated these experiences and truths, which they in turn carry because they define their subjects, both as individuals and as groups. To call the trinity a narrative doctrine is to place the doctrine firmly within the existential historical life of the community and underline the fact that this doctrine, like all doctrines, emerged in history out of a set of experiences that led up to the formation of the doctrine--and that it continues to shape the ongoing life-story of the community. Trinity, as a narrative doctrine, defines the essential character of the Christian community by naming the experiences and truths that constitute the community in time. Trinity certainly does not represent a doctrine that is static because preserved on paper in a glass case to be admired and continually to provoke analytical dissection of its elements. It is actually preserved as a religious truth only insofar as it shapes the continuing life-story of the community. This it does in three ways.

First, the doctrine of trinity recalls or tells the Christian story. This is no fictional story but the history of the specifically Christian experience of God. The idea of "economy" in the phrase "economic trinity" refers to the history of God's dealing with human beings. This story of God's dialogue with human beings in this religious tradition depicts God's being revealed as creator, redeemer in Jesus Christ, and divine presence to the Christian community over an extended period of time.

Second, as a narrative doctrine it also serves as a summary of the core of Christian beliefs, in God, creator of heaven and earth, in the saving appearance of Jesus whom Christians interpret as the Christ, and in the encounter with God in the Christian community. As a summary, this doctrine also integrates and holds together these principal parts of Christian belief. These are the elements that Schleiermacher and Rahner agreed constitute the essential and existential salvific point of the doctrine.

Finally, as a narrative doctrine, trinity recalls the Christian story and places it before our imagination so that we may remember it. Johann Baptist Metz has shown how important memory of its narrative is for any community: Recalling the community's story instills its basic identity. (18) The realism of the story and the experience it reflects compound its power. The story energizes the community and directs it into the future with purpose and hope. Trinity is a central and centering doctrine of Christian faith precisely because it recalls in summary fashion the story that constitutes Christian identity and being.

II. Trinity as Revelatory of God

I move now to another level of this discussion of trinity and religious pluralism with this question: How is the Christian doctrine of trinity universally relevant? Universal relevance, of course, does not mean that all peoples actually share this doctrine but that, in the measure that it is true, it has implications for the whole of humanity. Christian doctrine cannot be reduced to truth-for-a-certain-group. Rather, it transcends tribalism and is proposed in the public arena. What is the content of this doctrine that should be of interest to all people, including people of other religions? More importantly, what does it tell Christians about other religions?

I propose a response to this question that goes beyond Schleiermacher and Rahner. Both theologians were typically modern in their conviction that Christian belief and their explanations of it transcended all other religious beliefs, so that what was true for Christians was intended to be accepted by all. Christianity is the highest or the absolutely true religion. Both Schleiermacher and Rahner were Christocentric in their thinking, although in different ways. Schleiermacher thought of Christianity as the highest and truest religion, the apogee in the development of religious consciousness, because the absolute incarnation and revelation of God occurred in Jesus. Rahner thought of Christianity as the absolute self-communication of God, so that the saving grace found in other religions was ontologically the grace of Jesus Christ, and the religions themselves were oriented toward Christianity as their fulfillment. In contrast to this intrinsic superiority and metaphysical inclusiveness, a postmodern historical consciousness is sensitive to the contextual particularity of experience and knowledge. In Christianity, this new cultural awareness tends toward theocentric thinking, involves an appreciation of the absolute transcendence of ultimate reality, the contextual limits of all experience and of reasoning itself, and a reluctance to project a particular experience on those of other cultures, along with a desire to learn more about ultimate reality from other true and truly different experiences of it. (19)

This sets up a tensive context. On the one hand, Christians believe that the doctrine of trinity is true, and, if it is true, it cannot be reduced to a private experience, so that the doctrine reflects no more than Christian feelings. It "corresponds," however inadequately, with reality. On the other hand, this reality is subject to different interpretations according to different historical experiences of it. These differences do not need to be declared competitive or exclusive at the start. The intention of the question of universal relevance, therefore, does not envisage a conversion of non-Christians to an acceptance of the Christian doctrine of trinity concerning God, that is, according to the Christian story. Rather, it asks whether the doctrine of trinity unveils a dimension of reality, including human existence as such, that can generally be understood precisely without conversion and thus reflect the doctrine's universal relevance and truth.

As I formulate it, this postmodern approach does not imply relativism, but it does imply pluralism. Relativism means that there exist no common field for understanding and no criteria or norms for making judgments of truth. The human can best be understood as the lost and rudderless ship, out on the deep and adrift in the cross currents of a storm, with absolutely no markers of a right direction. By contrast, pluralism, as I understand it, involves real differences within a common field or matrix of perception and knowledge. That common field of participation consists in the human situation and project, within an increasingly unified world, that allows for dialogue among different perspectives in a desire to increase our knowledge of who we are as a single race and what we share in common. In this context an affirmation of the universal relevance of the Christian doctrine of trinity has to be more subtle and nuanced than a simple proposal that one's own story is the norm for others. Rather, we have to find the deeper dimensions of the doctrine that will draw others into it precisely in terms of their own experience. With that as my goal, I take up each of the three aspects of the Christian story of our encounter with ultimate reality that all people could share within the framework of their own experience. This does not mean that they will affirm them to be true. More modestly, I propose that these aspects can appear meaningful as possible interpretations of experience.

A. God, Creator of Heaven and Earth

The doctrine of God, creator of heaven and earth, affirms that the universe is embraced by a power suffused with intelligence. The universe is indeed unimaginable time and space, filled with fire and freezing cold, rock and empty space. But, behind and within it all is personality; the real impersonality and materiality of being are not all there is. Being is not ultimately impersonal, not ultimately blind, does not add up to no more than an empty abyss, for creation precisely calls being into being out of nothingness and into meaning. Within matter spirit quickens life, and within evolutionary patterns there operates intentional freedom. Human beings experience it, at least in fragmentary ways, in the present, looking back, and hoping for the future.

Creation gives being and the human existence in it the autonomous value and meaning that most people presuppose. The doctrine of the creation of the universe by a personal, intelligent God who transcends it means that the world is disenchanted: The world is not God, and human beings are not subject to divine powers that control their history. Creation is not the subjection of the human but the setting free of human freedom to be human in the world. Creation does not negate the world, but it affirms the world as free to be world. The religious doctrine of creation does not negate human freedom but precisely releases it from the false gods that too often actually rule the world. (20) This doctrine is universally relevant.

B. God Revealed within the World

The Christian doctrine of Jesus Christ, Son of God, says that God is not only present in and to all creation as creator but is also present to the world in special ways by incarnation. The doctrine of creation out of nothing entails God's being present equally in all creation; there is nothing between the creature and the creator. No presence can be deeper or closer than the power of being itself. Thus, both Schleiermacher and Rahner went to some length in trying to explain how a more intense, personal, and revealing or self-manifesting presence of God in Jesus might be understood. (21) Schleiermacher explained this special presence on the basis of the being and level of activity of the receiver of God's being. In other words, the three "persons" of the trinity are not present within the God-head but are determined by that in which God is active and that responds to God. These are all creation, Jesus, and the church as community. (22)

On the assumption that Schleiermacher was sympathetic to Sabellius, so that his interpretation of Sabellius represented in some measure his own appropriation of trinitarian language, one can read his position in several texts. Sabellius could use trinitarian language; Schleiermacher noted that Sabellius "could admit three [prosopa], but not three hypostatic ones." (23) The "persons" thus referred to the union of the one God with various things outside God. Sabellius could refer to a trinity or use trinitarian language, but the system of predication did not consist in referring to three distinct hypostases or "persons" but to the distinct unions of the one God with creatures.

Developing this further, Schleiermacher wrote: "In governing the world in all its various operations on finite beings, the Godhead is Father. As redeeming, by special operations in the person of Christ and through him, it is Son. As sanctifying, and in all its operations on the community of believers, and as a Unity in the same, the Godhead is Spirit." (24) He continued: "With [Sabellius] it was a peculiar union of the Godhead with something else; easily and simply to be distinguished, which defined the province of each member of the Trinity. In accordance with this, the Unity might be glorified as Father, Son, and Spirit; and in this glorification the whole of Christian piety might be concentrated, as believed both in the [monarchia] and the [oikonomia]." (25) In this system of understanding, the unity of God is favored, but the particular distinct presences of God outside of God's self, distinct from each other by virtue of the subject's receiving God's presence, allow one to differentiate trinity: "The Son was not, in his view, the same as the Father, because he was united with something different from that with which the Father was united, and acted in a different sphere ... But the real Godhead in the Father and in the Son was, in his view, one and the same." (26)

Rahner explained the presence of God beyond creation from different points of view. On one level he wanted to explain how God is present to human beings in the operation of salvation, that is, action on a supernatural plane distinct from God's creating activity. This he explained in Aristotelian and Thomistic terms of distinct kinds of causality. God is present to all creation by the efficient causality of creation. Beyond this, God is present to the freedom of the human spirit by way of a personal self-communication to which a human person can respond in freedom. This manner of presence on God's part Rahner called "quasi-formal causality," that is, in a manner roughly analogous to the way form is present to the potency that receives it--but not in such a way that the form determines matter. (27) By this quasi-formal causality God floods the human person with God's presence, and Rahner translated this into personalist categories. On this level one can say that God addresses human being as a free personhood that can receive God's personal self-communication. This divine offer of self-communication is distinct from the presence of God by way of efficient causality. (28) Hypostatic union in Jesus and the communication of grace to human beings generally are this presence of God as a personal offering of God's inner free self. On another level, that of the doctrine of trinity, the two modes of personal self-communication by God--to Jesus on the one hand and to all other human beings on the other--are assigned to the two persons of the trinity, Word and Spirit. (29)

In sum, both constructs--of Schleiermacher and Rahner, respectively--provide a rationale for the distinctive experience of Christians and the doctrine of the trinity that corresponds with it.

What is the relevance of this theology and doctrine for a Christian theology of other religions? How can it be appropriated in a postmodern, theocentric context? On the premise that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is a revelation of the nature and character of God, of the way God really is, one must say that the Christian story reveals the way God acts generally. It is according to God's nature to self-manifest to and enter into dialogue with human beings. If God is to be known with any specificity, not merely as the vague object of an impulse or desire on our part, God must be revealed in particular contexts, symbols, places, events, and persons. At the very least, the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ means that God is such that God can be and is revealed within the finite symbols of this world. This reading of the second element in trinitarian doctrine leads one to appreciate God's being active in other religions traditions, as God was active in Judaism in the laws and the prophets and analogously as God was revealed in Jesus. (30) This is the way God relates to human existence. Therefore, other persons, other books, and other histories provide vehicles for God's "appearing to" and thus defining a people religiously. Other religions do not have the story of incarnation in Jesus, but they have stories and figures analogous to it.

C. God Present, Empowering Religious Life

Turning to the doctrine of the divine Spirit, both the Jewish and the Christian portions of the Bible bear strong witness to the experience of God's being operative in the lives of individual persons and communities as a whole. This doctrine seems to be reflected more generally in other religious communities. When religious people bond together in community, they give witness to the transcendent power that unites them to each other and that unites them with an ultimate reality experienced within. This immanent presence and energy Christians call God as Spirit. Schleiermacher insisted on God's being in the Christian community as a whole as a common Spirit in which people participate by membership. Rahner explained the self-communication of God to each individual person, but his theology did not neglect the common Spirit in the church. Both Schleiermacher and Rahner saw the Spirit at work in the Christian community in a unique and superlative way. But, opening up the Christian imagination to recognize a genuine effective presence of God in other religions does not in any way undercut or minimize Christian confession. It seems more reasonable, on the basis of Christian experience, to postulate that God is also immanent and operative in an equally superlative way in other religions as well.

The meaning of the doctrine of the Spirit, then, is that God is present to the world and continues to operate in the world in a personal and loving way, inviting people and communities to self-transcendence. God's presence to the world cannot be limited to the revealing events of the past that founded communities. God is present to human beings, in a more intense and thematic way in the religions, as a push toward self-transcendence and a pull toward an absolute future.

In these straightforward ways the narrative doctrine of trinity that sums up Christian experience by telling the story of how Christians have encountered God in history does have a meaningful and universally relevant bearing on religious experience generally.

III. Trinity and Religious Pluralism: Some Consequences

In this final section I will draw some conclusions from the first two parts of the analysis. What sort of attitudes follow from a consideration of trinity as a narrative doctrine, and what does it say about the character of God as God is revealed in Jesus Christ and the Spirit? I want to emphasize that in these reflections I am doing what may be called confessional theology as distinct from comparative theology. I limit myself to a Christian perspective and use Christian language to speak about other religions. Obviously, this is not the only way a Christian may proceed. Remaining within this perspective simply reflects my own limitations. I will make three points that roughly correspond with the character of God confessed to be creator, redeemer, and sanctifier of humankind, respectively.

A. Religions Are Autonomous

The first consequence concerning the religions entailed in the doctrine of trinity as I have outlined it here is that the religions, by which I mean the great world religions, appear to be autonomous. They do not depend on other religions for their validity, even if they depend on another religion for their historical genesis and a good deal of their content. This follows from the doctrine of creation by God out of nothing, which leaves no space between God and the creature. God is immediately present to all creation and thus to all human beings individually. Even though one can become consciously aware of God's presence only through some historical mediation, God as creator is immediately present to all human beings. This immediacy of God's presence to creation is the primary ground of a given religion's autonomy.

This realization does not negate the doctrine of incarnation, but it may influence the way it is construed by the religious imagination. In other words, for some, the incarnation revealed in Jesus may be generalized and understood to constitute the radical condition of created finitude itself. Jesus would represent a more intense form of a general condition, making him a new Adam or representative of humanity. However, we have seen that both Schleiermacher and Rahner argued for a distinctive meaning and different kind of presence of God to humanity in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Be that as it may, the point being emphasized here with the autonomy of religions is that the immanence of God to creation and history breaks the hold on the Christian imagination of the view that other religions depend for their validity on Jesus Christ. The case for a so-called constitutive or inclusive Christology, meaning that the saving union with God found in other religions is ultimately caused by or dependent upon Jesus Christ, is weakened by an analysis of the implications of the immediate presence of a loving creator God to all human beings.

B. Religions Are Noncompetitive: Dialogue

Religions are ultimately noncompetitive and should enter into dialogue with one another. I draw the second conclusion from attention to Jesus Christ and Christology. How does it follow from the incarnation of true God in Jesus that religions are not competitive with each other but should enter into free and open dialogue with each other?

As far as I can see, this consequence is entailed in the conviction that Jesus reveals God to be as God really is. This logic is quite prominent in trinitarian theology: The economic trinity is the immanent trinity so that the one is not different from the other. In the Christian story, God is revealed as God really is. From this I understand that God is such that God desires to be present to all human beings in a conscious way; God wills the salvation of all. This means that God self-communicates through many cultural media, so that God is encountered in many historical symbols in a way analogous to the mediation of Jesus Christ. If Jesus reveals the very nature of God, there is no intrinsic reason for limiting God's action in Jesus to the person of Jesus. Christian theology has frequently depicted the immanent activity of the Word of God in the persons, events, and writings of the Jewish Scriptures; analogously, the Word or Spirit of God is operative in other religions. I want to stress that this particular conviction is presented here in the name of Jesus Christ. On the basis of the specifically Christian story, should we not expect that God will be operative in other autonomous religions?

With this conviction I am not saying that all religions are equal, that all mediators are equal, or that all express the truth about ultimate reality in the same degree. All of this makes up the material for interreligious dialogue. I am simply mounting a trinitarian argument for an a priori expectation on the part of Christians that true God is operative in these other religious faiths independently of Jesus Christ.

C. Religions Should Be Responsive to a Common Humanity

On the same axiom that the Christian story reveals the way God really is, something may also be said on a broad level about what should be expected of the religions, including Christianity itself. The Christian experience of God present and immanent within the community acts as a bond between the individuals in the community and God, between and among the individuals themselves in forming community, and between the community as a whole and God. The mark of the power of God as Spirit within the human is self-transcendence in knowing, in willing, and in acting, and these qualities should characterize the whole community. These effects are, as it were, signs of the Spirit that appear against the background of self-assertion and communitarian self-absorption. On the principle that these are the effects of the efficacious presence of God as Spirit in any given community, they bend back and become a criterion for a self-critique of the religions. This criterion would become especially operative in open dialogues among the religions. The religions appear authentic and valid by this criterion in the degree to which they engender self-transcendence and openness to other religions and actively nurture coherent hope in a human fulfillment for all.


This analysis of the Christian doctrine of trinity has been an attempt to wean the Christian imagination away from a mathematical framework of three and one and to reshape that imaginative vision with what I call the Christian story, which is really the history of the genesis of Christian faith. This story binds together in a narrative way the distinct elements of the Christian encounter with ultimate reality as personal God. The Christian narrative collects these three elements and holds them together so that, more than an assembly of pieces, they are the dimensions of a community's integral experience of God. The dimensions of this story disclose aspects of God as God really is; the way God really is should inform how Christians understand all reality, including other religions and their place and function in human history. In responding to what the content of this appraisal might be, I have suggested that, from a Christian perspective, other religions appear to be autonomous, analogous to Christianity in being mediations of God's real personal presence in the world, and authentic in the measure in which they mediate self-transcendence in and of their own communities.

(1) Examples of some trinitarian theologies of religion are Fredrick E. Crowe, who represents the thought of Bemard Lonergan in "Son of God, Holy Spirit, and World Religions," in Michael Vertin, ed., Appropriating the Lonergan ldea (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1989), pp. 324-343; S. Mark Heim, Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion, Faith Meets Faith Series (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995); Jacques Dupuis, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997); idem, Christianity and the Religions: From Confrontation to Dialogue, tr. Phillip Berryman (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002); and Gavin D'Costa, The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity, Faith Meets Faith Series (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000).

(2) Note that "trinity" is not capitalized because I take it as the name of a doctrine, not of God.

(3) I have to presuppose a general familiarity with the theologies of Schleiermacher and Rahner. Lack of space and a sense of proportion forbid any full exposition of how these theologians develop their trinitarian theologies. The points I will draw from a conversation with them, although schematically stated, are fairly clear, not polemically reported, but intended as points of reference for locating by similarity and difference the position that is proposed here.

(4) I draw this representation of Schleiermacher's theology of the trinity from the following sources: Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, tr. H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart, intro. Richard R. Niebuhr, 2 vols. [vol. 1 includes [section][section] 1-85; vol. 2, [section][section] 86-172] (New York and Evanston, IL: Harper Torchbooks, Harper & Row, 1963 [E.T. of Der christliche Glaube nach den Grundsatzen der Evangelischen Kirche im Zusammemhang dargestellt, 2nd ed. (Berlin, 1830); E.T. originally published as one volume in 1928 and in paperback in 1999 by T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh]); and idem, "On the Discrepancy between the Sabellian and Athanasian Method of Representing the Doctrine of the Trinity," The Biblical Repository and Quarterly Observer, vol. 5, no. 18 (April, 1835), pp. 265-353; and vol. 6, no. 19 (July, 1835), pp. 1-116 (orig. in Theologische Zeitschrift, 1822), tr. and commentary M. Stuart. I am greatly indebted for this interpretation to the paper of Paul DeHart given at the 2006 American Academy of Religion meeting Washington, DC, titled "The Keystone of the Arch: The Logic of Incarnation at the Heart of Schleiermacher's Trinitarian Doctrine."

(5) Schleiermacher, Christian Faith, [section] 172, p. 749.

(6) Ibid., [section] 170, p. 738. The content of the doctrine of the trinity that is drawn from Schleiermacher's portrayal of the Christian economy of salvation reinforces its derivative character. Schleiermacher stated the derivative character of the doctrine this way: "Hence it is important to make the point that the main pivots of the ecclesiastical doctrine--the being of God in Christ and in the Christian Church--are independent of the doctrine of the Trinity" (Schleiermacher, Christian Faith, [section] 170, p. 741). "Independent" here entails being prior to and subsumed into the synthesizing doctrine of trinity so that they are the essential ingredients of it. I have developed Schleiermacher's Christology in my Jesus Symbol of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), pp. 303-309; his ecclesiology, in my Christian Community in History, vol. 2: Comparative Ecclesiology (New York: Continuum, 2005), pp. 316-336.

(7) Schleiermacher, Christian Faith, [section] 170, p. 739.

(8) Ibid.

(9) DeHart, "Keystone," p. 20.

(10) Ibid., p. 21.

(11) Karl Rahner, "Remarks on the Dogmatic Treatise 'De Trinitate,'" in his Theological Investigations, vol. 4, More Recent Writings, tr. Kevin Smyth (Baltimore, MD: Helicon Press; and London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1966 [orig.: Schriften zur Theologie, IV (Einsiedeln: Verlagsanstalt Benziger & Co., A.G., n.d.)]), p. 87; emphasis in original. See also Karl Rahner, Trinity, tr. Joseph Donceel (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1997).

(12) Rahner, "Remarks," p. 94; emphasis in original.

(13) Ibid., p. 95. "It is only through this doctrine that we can take with radical seriousness and maintain without qualifications the simple statement which is at once so very incomprehensible and so very self-evident, namely, that God himself as the abiding and holy mystery, as the incomprehensible ground of man's transcendent existence is not only the God of infinite distance, but also wants to be the God of absolute closeness in a true self-communication, and he is present in this way in the spiritual depths of our existence as well as in the concreteness of our corporeal history. Here lies the real meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity" (Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, tr. William V. Dych, A Crossroad Book [New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1994 (orig. E.T., New York: Seabury Press, 1978)], p. 137).

(14) Occasionally, Rahner so emphasized the distinction of persons and their roles in the economy of salvation that the language appears anthropomorphic. E.g., he referred to "each" of the persons, "each single person," "one" person as distinct from "the others"; the persons have "their personal properties" and are implicitly referred to as selves; the free communication of God to us is a personal communication "from person to person"; the persons relate "to one another" (Rahner, "Remarks," p. 95). Rahner of course dealt with this language much more extensively in his Trinity, but it is important to be aware how easily the imagination can work against the basic idea of the integral oneness of God.

(15) Rahner, "Remarks," p. 101.

(16) Ibid., pp. 100-101.

(17) Ibid., p. 99; see pp. 98-99.

(24) Ibid., p. 70; emphases in original.

(25) Ibid., p. 72.

(26) Ibid., p. 67; emphasis in original.

(27) This construct is intended to protect the then-fairly-rigid distinction of double-gratuity (of creation and grace) and the language for this of "natural" and "supenatural" agency. It is quasi-formal causality because predicated of God and thus only by rough analogy. "Such a new "relationship' of God to the creature, which cannot be brought under the category of efficient causality but only of formal causality, is ... a concept which transcribes a strictly supernatural mystery ... It transcribes in the mode of formal ontology the concept of supernatural being in its strictly mysterious character; for all the strictly supernatural realities with which we are acquainted (the hypostatic union, the visio beatifica and ... the supernatural bestowal of grace) have this in common, that in them there is expressed a relationship of God to a creature which is not one of efficient causality ... and which must consequently fall under the head of formal causality" (Karl Rahner, "Some Implications of the Scholastic Concept of Uncreated Grace," in his Theological Investigations, vol. 1, God, Christ, Mary, and Grace, tr. and intro. Cornelius Ernst, 1st ed. [Baltimore, MD: Helicon Press; London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1961 (orig.: Schrifien zur Theologie, I [Einsiedeln, Zurich, and Cologne: Verlagsanstalt Benziger & Co., A.G., 1954])], p. 329).

(28) Personalist philosophy distinguishes a bodily or physical presence of one human being to another from a bodily presence in which, through gesture and symbol, one communicates one's interior subjectivity to another, a communication that can only be given and received in freedom. This correlates with a personal mode of being present on God's part beyond the causality of creation.

(29) See Rahner, "Remarks," pp. 94-98. These different modes of self-communication on the part of God can be codified in scholastic terms in this way: God's efficient causality (Father-creation), and God's quasi-formal causality (Son-hypostatic union, Spirit-personal self-presence to all, and received by the justified).

(30) Terence E. Fretheim, "Christology and the Old Testament," in Mark Allan Powell and David R. Bauer, eds., Who Do You Say That I Am? Essays on Christology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), pp. 201-215.

Roger Haight, S.J. (Catholic), has been a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary, New York, since 2004, where he is presently Scholar in Residence. He has been a visiting fellow/professor scholar in residence for universities and colleges in Nairobi, Pune (India), Lima, Toronto, Paris, Manila, and Washington, DC. He was on the faculties of Loyola School of Theology and Ateneo de Manila University, 1973-75; of Jesuit School of Theology, Chicago, 1975-81; and of Weston School of Theology, Cambridge, MA, beginning in 1990. He served as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, 1994-95. A Jesuit since 1954, and ordained in 1967, he holds an A.B. and an MA. from Berchmans College (Philippines), an S.T.B. from Woodstock (MD) College, an M.A. and Ph.D. (1973) from the University of Chicago, and an S.T.L. (1981) from Jesuit School of Theology in Chicago. His eight books include Jesus Symbol of God (Orbis, 1999), three volumes of Christian Community in History (Continuum, 2004, 2005, 2008), and The Future of Christology (Continuum, 2005). His well-over 100 articles have been published in professional journals or as book chapters around the world, most recently "On the Dynamic Relation between Ecclesiology and Congregational Studies" (with James Nieman), in Theological Studies (2009).

(18) Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, tr. David Smith, A Crossroad Book (New York: Seabury Press, 1980 [orig.: Glaube in Geschichte und Gesellschaft: Studien zu e. prakt. Fundamentaltheologie (Mainz: Matthias-Grunewald-Verlag, 1977)]), pp. 205-218.

(19) Once again, I presupposed a phenomenology of postmodern consciousness as a context for this discussion. I do not regard postmodernity as a set of doctrines to be defended but as a kind of culture; people who share such a culture constitute the implied audience of this essay. Also, I am less interested in whether the proposal that I offer here can itself be labeled "postmodern" and more interested in affirming an understanding of trinity that does not reduce other religions to a subordinate status relative to Christianity, while at the same time remaining faithful to the essential logic of Christian revelation. It is the reappropriation of the doctrine that interests me, not whether such an interpretation is "postmodern."

(20) See Johann Baptist Metz, "The Future of Faith in a Hominized World," in his Theology of the World, tr. William Glen-Doepel (London: Burns & Oates; New York: Herder and Herder, 1969 [orig.: Zur Theologie der Welt (Mainz: Matthias-Grunewald-Verlag, 1968)]), pp. 56-77.

(21) Schleiermacher wrote that theology needs a distinction between "how we are to conceive of the divine Being, as existing in union with a particular Being (Jesus), and as universally present and existing everywhere" (Schleiermacher, "On the Discrepancy," vol. 18, p. 349). One has to determine "how the existence of God in Christ stands related to that indwelling of his in all [human beings], which is essentially connected with his omnipresence and universal agency" (Schleiermacher, "On the Discrepancy," vol. 19, p. 23).

(22) Explanation of Schleiermacher's position here occupies a major portion of DeHart's attention in "Keystone," at pp. 4-13.

(23) Schleiermacher, "'On the Discrepancy," vol. 19, p. 69; emphasis in original.
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