Dying For the Triune God by Esther Nelson

esther-nelsonLast week, the Catholic Studies Chair in the public university where I teach sponsored an event that brought Monsignor Kevin Irwin from The Catholic University of America; School of Theology and Religious Studies, Washington DC, into our midst.  His hour-long talk was titled, “Pope Francis’ Teaching on the Environment.”

The monsignor couched his talk in the Latin American proverb, “We drink water from our own wells.”  In other words, our life experiences (to a large extent) give us a prism through which we see the world.  We construct a “reality” from that view–a view that in turn shapes us.  Pope Francis, according to the monsignor, was shaped by the huge unemployment rate and resultant poverty that happened (and is still ongoing) in his native country–Argentina.  In addition, he saw first hand how large corporations had taken over the country, laying claim to resources not belonging to them.  Furthermore, environmental destruction has taken a heavy toll on the Amazon in Brazil–an area “beloved” to the current Pope.  These are some of the waters from the well which Pope Francis has drunk, shaping his worldview.

The Pope’s encyclical on the environment is a response to the global environmental crisis.  Pollution, climate change, the issue of water (flooding and drought as well as who gets access to potable water), and the loss of biodiversity (extinction of many species of animals and plants) are “issues” that have come to a head in the last few decades.   Globally, we face challenges today unheard of in centuries gone by.  As culture moves forward, “issues” take shape that we could not have predicted.

At this point, the monsignor interjected, “We are Catholics.  We believe in a triune God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We are prepared to die for the truth of the Trinity.”  Other things are not so “set in stone.”  The eating of fish on Friday, for example.  “Who does that anymore?” he asked.  (The Church no longer considers eating fish on Friday essential for Catholics.)  Finding effective ways to eradicate pollution and save the biodiversity of the planet is not always clear, he noted, but regarding the Trinity, we can be sure.

I find it interesting that religious institutions–especially those claiming to have revelation from God–find ways to stay relevant (sort of and only at times) with some issues (abolishing compulsory, Friday fish eating, for example, and more recently climbing on board with the environmental issues of our day), yet remain staunchly entrenched with and adamant about their ideas of the nature of God.  The monsignor was sure that God expressed HIMSELF in Trinitarian form.

Even though I did not grow up in the Catholic Church, my fundamentalist, Protestant upbringing expected me to hold onto and vehemently defend certain doctrinal “truths” such as the Trinity.  I’m familiar with the monsignor’s “dying for ‘truth'” mentality.  Conceptualizing God as a Trinity is one way (of many) that faith communities understand the “ultimate.”  The Trinitarian image of God is a symbolic effort to capture what the monsignor’s faith community understands to be “ultimate.”  How does a symbol become something that people are willing to die for?  Sadly enough, there are those (history bears this out) that are willing to kill the monsignor (and those who believe like him) just because the Trinitarian conception of God clashes with how others understand what they call God.

Over time, I’ve come to see that God is a word (symbol) used to convey “ultimate truth,” something which we cannot apprehend, but only approximate.  Since we (humans) cannot effectively or completely express what is ultimate with our human tools (language, music, sculpture, painting, drama), we use symbols such as the beautiful, lush paintings displayed frequently by contributors to this blog that point us in the direction of the sacred, divine, holy, ultimate.  Call it what you will.

If God (a word/symbol) is a shorthand for the human expression of what is ultimate, why do we (at times) insist the symbol is “set in stone?”  Some of us think that God is first and foremost a triune being.  Others say God is “one.”  Even others profess that “self” is God.  What do these images look like when they play out in our day-to-day lives?  Could a Trinitarian conception of the divine reflect the variety of tasks carried out by divinity, much like the many arms/hands depicted in Hindu mythology?  Might the “oneness” expression of divinity reflect the unity our human spirits/souls have with one another?  Perhaps focusing on the “self” as sacred shows our intimate connection with the divine as we become “perfect”–ridding ourselves of violence and anger, eventually merging with the divine?  Often, though, our assertions about the nature of God become concrete, dividing us one from the other, siphoning off our energies.  How does a Trinitarian expression of God restore the biodiversity of our planet?  How does it help with animal conservation, equitable water supplies, and other environmental concerns in the Pope’s encyclical?

Environmental activism has become increasingly deadly.  Dian Fossey, an American zoologist, paid with her life (Rwanda 1985), defending her beloved mountain gorillas against poachers. Her work was subsequently captured in a book and motion picture, “Gorillas in the Mist.”  There are others who shared Dian’s commitment to the environment and they, too, were murdered protecting our planet.  See: http://www.care2.com/causes/10-environmental-and-animal-activists-who-were-killed-for-taking-a-stand.html  These people did not die for a symbol.

What I am suggesting is that one’s willingness to die for the concept of a triune God will not accomplish the healing of what Pope Francis has called his “beloved” Amazon.  It’s good that the Church is addressing our environmental crisis.  I would like to see the Church put the needs of all living things in the forefront of dialogue, not “the immutability of the doctrine of the Trinity.”  Does it really matter if we symbolize the “ultimate” as a Trinity, Oneness, or anything else when we go about healing the earth and all that dwells therein?


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

14 thoughts on “Dying For the Triune God by Esther Nelson”

  1. It seems to me ironic for any Catholic to voice concern about environmental problems without acknowledging guilt for contributing to those problems by refusing to endorse the right of women to control all aspects of pregnancy (i.e. whether it starts and how it ends). Overpopulation seems to me by far the single greatest environmental problem and in South America in particular there is only one institution to blame for that.


    1. Yes Stuart, I agree that people (especially in industrialized countries) put a huge strain on the planet’s limited resources. To value “life” by assuming the institution “knows” what’s best and not giving much thought to the context/environment that “life” needs to sustain itself seems naïve and misdirected. The Church (to my way of thinking) doesn’t seem to have put the pieces of the environmental puzzle together in a way that fits. Thank you for your comment.


  2. When a leader in any faith group says they are willing to die for their belief, you are just a few steps away from saying you will kill for your belief and your belief becomes evil. I think that the Monseigneur needs to be reminded that the Christ died FOR US because the Creator LOVED us. He did not die because of anyone’s interpretation of who or what GOD is.


    1. Good point, Haddon. The Christian story has as its focus this “substitutionary atonement” fueled by love. When humans make themselves martyrs (or even potential martyrs) for a doctrine (interpretation of story), it somehow misses the mark. As I note, Dian Fossey (and others) did not die for a doctrine or an interpretation. Thanks for commenting.


  3. Using a different well analogy, I heard Matthew Fox, many years ago, explain that Deity is an underground river into which there are many wells. Using this image would lead to a very different conclusion.


    1. Great “well” analogy, Judith. Whatever we call the ultimate (God/dess, Deity, Source) never can apprehend the concept completely. So often we get stuck in the metaphor/symbol of our own making. I like the imagery that Matthew Fox uses. Thanks.


  4. I just did a tiny bit of research on Argentina. Francis was ordained as a priest in 1969, during one of the military dictatorships between Juan Peron’s second and third presidencies. No doubt the future pope saw a lot of misery in his land! I’m not surprised, given this background, that he’s trying to push and pull bits of his church into the 21st century. But how do we get his bishops and cardinals to leave behind some of their “set in stone” doctrines and come along?


    1. Thanks for your comment, Barbara. To a large extent, I think the bishops and cardinals remain ensconced because “we the people” don’t challenge our own selves appropriately. We often give away our power to those with some kind of “authority.” BTW, I grew up in Argentina, but left before Francis was ordained a priest!


  5. Who can claim to know all there is to know about the great Mystery? I agree with Haddon and think we also need to use more awe and less dogma in thinking and speaking of the one we call “god”. Maybe this is why Jesus said that we need to become like little children, filled with awe, a sense of adventure, and a certain fear-less-ness.


    1. I like your little children approach. Most small kids I know ask direct, embarrassing questions- the Emperor’s New Clothes kinds of queries.


  6. I love this post and the comments as well. When I see someone strongly identifying themselves with the martyr role it often seems like an “ego thing” to me — a great way to make yourself important. Note that Dian Fossey was murdered and did not make a conscious choice to die. She was so deeply engaged in her amazing work, and I suspect she would have fought hard to stay alive in order to keep working and keep enjoying this beautiful, beautiful world we live in. Maybe her dying did help bring attention to the plight of the gorillas but we slip into dangerous territory when we start accepting death as a useful “tactic.” As was mentioned, dying for a cause valorizes death, and so can give credence to killing for a cause.


    1. I think you articulate a great point, laurabusheikin. “…dying for a cause valorizes death, and so can give credence to killing for a cause.” I certainly don’t believe Dian Fossey made a conscious choice to die, but I do believe she knew she was risking death with her work. She was willing to risk her life for living beings, not a construct of somebody’s thinking about just who/what a gorilla is. People such as the monsignor are willing to die for a construct of somebody’s thinking regarding the “ultimate,” something that cannot be apprehended.


      1. I agree that being willing to risk your life for others (human and other than human) is courageous. This is not the same as choosing to become a martyr. Thus while I was still Christian, I came to the conclusion that Jesus’s death could not have been foreordained (in any theology I could accept) but rather that it was a consequence of choices made by others in response to his preaching/life/activism. It could not have been ordained by God or required for the salvation of (hu)mankind.


Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: