Conversations in the Trinity
Ethan explores how the Trinity gives us a guide for constructive conversation, for unity rather than uniformity, and for modeling the inner life of God within our discourse.
Over the last few months, our church family has gathered to discuss and renew our vision. In a season of transition we want to hold onto the continuities and dream of the possibilities. What is God stirring among us as a church family that we are equipped to do? Well, here’s how we articulated that stirring, our hope for the future:
“Attempting to create vibrant spaces of hope and healing where Christ’s love is put into action.”
We believe that spaces of hope and healing become possible when people come together around God’s Word. Could we be so bold as to enter spaces where hope seems thin and further wounding seems more likely than healing? In order to stir hope and to experience healing, we must enter the spaces that cause pain with an eager belief that God's Word, indeed God himself, will heal and guide us.
Given the climate of discourse in the American church, it seems there are many topics that have risen to this kind of crisis level. Maybe you’ve noticed that Christians go to war with each other over many issues? There is such as thing as good-spirited and healthy debate, but what often occurs is closer to debasement than debate. Why do Christians often behave so poorly when discussing hot-button topics? Why do Christians seem to be at least as factious as the world around them? Why do Christians often have a harder time having constructive conversations than destructive ones? This grieves us. That's why we started Table Talks.
On Monday night, November 15 at the Valle Crucis Conference Center (and on Zoom as well) we gathered together for Constructive Conversations. There was some preparation involved for the group that convened. But why did we watch a 40-minute video on principles learned through the Council of Nicaea? Why did we take some journaling prompts to God in prayer? Because we believe constructive conversations take 1) deep listening to become informed on any particular issue and 2) deep listening to God and our own hearts so that we may show up in spaces of controversy with an awareness of ourselves and God. We need these formative preparations to instill a centered and non-anxious presence that is committed to fellowship with our fellow believers who may not see things the way we do.
The event was our first and maiden voyage, building a frame for discussions in the future. We laid out these guide posts for how we bring to controversy to the table. We believe these touchstones will help us build spaces for meaningful conversation in pursuit of God.
1. We must embrace that the mystery of God is at the center of our faith
2. We aspire to dialogue with the global Church for mutual benefit
3. We aim for clarity of thought/speech when discussing challenging issues
4. We will cling to the whole counsel of Scripture when forming our views
5. We will converse with active hope for God is here as we speak
Why are we hosting these Table Talks? Why do we want to wade into controversy? Why go through the lengths of posting videos, hosting an event, and getting our church together to pursue these conversations?
The raison d'etre of Table Talks is to respond to the cultural needs of a polarized society. Our vision of attempting to create spaces of hope and healing necessitates that we arrive at exactly at the places of despair and harm. This is all for the mission of God. Missiologist Andrew Walls reminds us of
“the important but often neglected fact that the stimulus or creative force in making theology is Christian mission. Indeed it is Christian mission that most often creates the need for fresh theological activity. The true matrix of theology is not the study or the library. Theology arises from situations - social situations, intellectual situations - where one must make Christian choices, and previous Christian experience offers no clear precedence.”
- Andrew Walls, Foreword of Theology in the Context of World Christianity
The situation we find ourselves in is a polarized American Church among a polarized people in a polarized world. What is the “Christian choice” in the "land of broken talks"? (I am paraphrasing Switchfoot a bit, of course). What theology is up to the task of shaping our mission in such a challenging climate? It is not the first time that polarity has shaped church life, nor will it be the last. But we believe that our “social situations” require us to model a faithful commitment to one another in dialogue that we might embody God’s diversity-in-unity character and that in doing so we might better serve the mission of God here in our place. This is why we want to renew our focus on the Trinity as a guiding principle for constructive conversations.
As explored in the Constructive Conversations Study Session video, the Trinity can help us find and redefine unity amid contrast. We are not seeking uniformity here, where the goal becomes sameness. Nor are we seeking division, where the goal becomes entropy.
But those are the options most often modeled for us. Christians who believe in and so wish to reflect the image of our Trinitarian God have the theological resources to reconcile difference and unity. The Trinity. Any attempt to illustrate this divine mystery falls short, but let's try to illustrate what theologians have done to describe the inner workings of God that we wish to use as a conversational model.
This mystery, the revealed nature of God, gives us the language, the mindset, and the goal. If God himself is not sameness nor entropy, then we must aspire to the unity of differences in God. We don’t all have to think the same thing - that’s the embrace of difference. But there are some things that just aren’t true - that’s the embrace of unity. If we let our conversational ethic be shaped by this, we believe we can have constructive and productive conversations that glorify God in the process!
This church family has people from all kinds of backgrounds. The early Church did as well. And those background differences were not totally dissolved by the cross, though all of them were transformed. God’s Church is a big family and for any of us who have or grew up in a big family, we know that things are never boring. Timothy Tennent paints the picture.
“... we must recall that the church is pictured not as a corporation or business, but as a great family or household, with Christ as our head. As with any household, it can sometimes be a raucous place that exhibits both unity and diversity in many surprising and unexpected ways.”
- Timothy Tennent, Theology in the Context of World Christianity
If the Christian family is a place of "unity and diversity" that means we may not interpret everything the same way. Is that a problem to be solved? Or a feature to be celebrated? Aren't there some interpretations that are just bad reads of God's Word? Yes! (For example, see how Scriptures were used for the Doctrine of Discovery, the Crusades, or the 2021 Capitol Riot. There are many more bad reads to choose from!). But what if there are multiple healthy meanings? Can we hold them together?
Here I find Kevin Vanhoozer’s work dialoging with postmodernism so helpful. Personally, I find his way of reconciling diversity and unity incredibly compelling and timely. He calls the healthy approach “interpretive Trinitarianism” where there is a “limited plurality.” This is not the hubris of saying there is one right way to see something. Nor is it the inverse hubris of saying there is no right way of seeing something. As he puts it,
“... trinitarian theology enables us to conceive of interpretive plurality in terms of harmony (three-in-one; one-in-three) rather than conflict.”
- Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?
My church family, if God the Father, the Spirit, and the Son is at the core, then let me quote Kevin again to drive home the implication...
“Christians believe that reality is ultimately a matter of interpersonal communication and communion.”
“Interpersonal communication and communion” as “reality,” as what is really true. Returning to our illustration of the Trinity, the Father, Spirit, and Son model the interpersonality of truth by indwelling one another. Notice the Celtic knot, an attempt to convey this idea. Theologians call this indwelling, this dance - perichoresis. Let me pull on the words of Daniel Migliore to clarify this concept.
"... this ineffable communion of the triune life has been expressed by the Greek word perichoresis, 'mutual indwelling' or 'being-in-one-another.' The three of the Trinity 'indwell' and pervade each other; they 'encircle' each other, being united in an exquisite divine dance; or to use still another metaphor, they 'make room' for each other, are incomparably hospitable to each other."
- Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding
May we be in one another's stories. May we make room for one another with incomparable hospitality. May we indwell one another’s discourse, participating with each others’ perspectives, hearts, and minds. Could we do that here at theHeart? Would we model the inner workings of God and experience perichoretical discourse? You see, it's not just where the conversation lands (though that is important!) but how we arrive - both are key to constructive and God-honoring discourse.
Let me add one word of caution: We aren’t capable of doing this perfectly like God does, like God is. There are few people positioned to do more harm to you than those you love. This is a delicate thing that requires commitment, conversationally, relationally, and spiritually. If we are to indwell one another’s discourse, we must do so clothed in Christ. But I believe we can, because I believe Christ shaping us as a Church family to embody Triunity.
Discourse in difference is an expression and embodiment of Christian unity. If the previous illustration is still unclear or these concepts are still muddy or the attempt to build language around it hasn’t quite struck a chord with you (pun-intended), in closing, let us demonstrate Triunity in another form.
What you heard in that video was the most basic building block of all music, a chord. Made of three tones working in harmony. It is no threat to the root that we added the third. In fact, it was augmented. And it yet the chord was not complete until the fifth came in.
Can we view dialogue this way? Can we see the wisdom and the ballast and the beauty in a Trinitarian ethic of discourse?
I believe rooting our conversational imagination and ethic in the nature of God - in the Trinity - we stand to find unity in difference, three-in-oneness with each other.
We believe when we root ourselves in the nature of the Triune God we will indeed have constructive conversations.