I was about to visit one church last Sunday when a bit of internet research indicated that it was going to be one of the churches celebrating the day as Trinity Sunday. Some additional research allowed me to find a church that did not celebrate Trinity Sunday, and yes, amazingly, I went there and actually walked in the door. (Because I announced my presence at that church, it could blow my pretense of anonymity if I indicated which church it was.)
In avoiding Trinity Sunday, I managed to avoid a clash with Trinitarianism, a dogma that has frustrated me for a long time.
One of the things that has fascinated me about early Christianity was the way that its diversity and intellectual vibrancy was squashed and molded into a homogenous "catholic" faith. The Trinity is a doctrine that emerged out of that process--in a way, it was the culmination of that process. For those who consider Trinitarianism essential to the Christian religion, it is worth considering that there was no doctrine of Trinitarianism as such until the Cappadocians (Basil and the two Gregorys) formulated it late in the fourth century CE. That is to say, there was no Trinitarian Christianity for the first three and a half centuries or so of the faith. The Nicean creed, for example, was formulated before the existence of Trinitarianism.
The doctrine of the Trinity was a tool; it served a means of consolidating victory by Nicean forces in the Christian power struggles of that century. It lent a much needed theoretical foundation for the victorious side, one that various factions could coalesce around. The doctrine of the Trinity, as formulated by Gregory of Nyssa, actually made for an interesting and sophisticated theology. Unfortunately, whereas it should have served as a jumping off point for further free inquiry into the nature of God, the opposite is instead what happened; it became a tool with which to bludgeon dissidents. This is because the various factions that coalesced around it colluded with Roman state power to stamp out Arianism or any other free thinking doctrine.
Where I think Gregory of Nyssa was brilliant was in his suggestion that God had an ineffable essence, and that this essence could only be known through certain means (hypostases) by which God made himself available to us as onlookers. So far, so good. Of course, the devil (no pun intended) is in the details. Gregory described just three hypostases, which of course we know of as the Holy Trinity. Karen Armstrong, in her book A History of God, summarizes Gregory's views this way:
Thus the hypostases Father, Son and Spirit should not be identified with God himself, because, as Gregory of Nyssa explained, "the divine nature (ousia) is unnameable and unspeakable"; "Father," "Son" and "Spirit" are only "terms that we use" to speak of the energeiai by which he has made himself known. Yet these terms have symbolic value because they translate the ineffable reality into images that we can understand. Men have experienced God as transcendent (the Father, hidden in inaccessible light), as creative (the Logos) and as immanent (the Holy Spirit). But these three hypostases are only partial and incomplete glimpses of the Divine Nature itself, which lies far beyond such imagery and conceptualization. The Trinity, therefore, should not be seen as a literal fact but as a paradigm that corresponds to real facts in the hidden life of God.This is more subtle and interesting than one might have imagined. I would argue that, if the Trinity is only a paradigm that does not really describe God's nature, and if it forms only a partial and incomplete glimpse into the Divine, then the Trinity cannot in and of itself be seen as the last word in describing the nature of God.
Do we only know God through transcendence, immanence, and creativity? What about love? What about justice? Are these not also ways that God reveals herself to us? Why restrict God to three hypostases (or persons, as the Latin West refers to it)? Why not 17? Why not 258? Why not an infinite number of hypostases that corresponds to the infinite diversity of the universe? And if God has an infinite number of ways of revealing herself, then are there not possibly other ways of describing the unity within diversity besides a strictly Trinitarian theology? Such as panentheism?
If the Trinity is just a paradigm, then surely we know from Thomas Kuhn that paradigms change. To elevate a religious and philosophical paradigm into an immutable dogma that must be accepted by all Christians is surely the wrong way to go. Unfortunately, that is just what Christianity did in the centuries that followed. Gregory of Nyssa offered interesting ideas about the nature of God and how we understand the Divine; but rather than using that as a starting point, Christianity took it as a kind of end point that no one could question (although some who followed, like Augustine, did their own riffs on Trinitarian theology.) The whys and the wherefores of Gregory's philosophy were ignored; all that seemed to matter was his conclusion.
But the Niceans who triumphed over the Arians in the fourth century managed so successfully to stamp out any diversity or freedom of inquiry that questioned Trinitarianism, that even during the Protestant Reformation, Trinitarianism remained off the table for reconsideration by the reformers. Thus the heroic martyr for religious freedom, Michael Servetus, was executed by Calvin for promoting a unitarian doctrine. The result today is that the mainline Protestant denominations continue to promote a Trinitarian doctrine to this day.
I consider myself a unitarian. To me, God is the single Ultimate reality, certainly ineffable as Gregory of Nyssa suggested, but embodying the entire diversity of the universe in all its multitudes. This multitude within the unity represents quite simply the fact that God's immanence embodies the universe, which is infinitely diverse. My take on God is certainly a paradigm, just as Gregory's Trinity was a paradigm. My concept of God could easily be wrong, and in fact probably is--because we can never know God's nature directly, but only through paradigms. What bothers me about Trinitarianism is not just that it seems so arbitrary and limiting, that it has become a kind of idol in how it expresses the Divinity; but also that it limits our ability to conceive of God in novel ways. It freezes the world of faith into the fourth century. Maybe we need to unfreeze the Christian faith.