This past term I had the opportunity to teach courses on the Christian doctrines of Christology and Trinity. My first inclination was to approach these doctrines from the perspective of their historical development. For, I find the historical study of doctrinal development to be a fascinating and liberating approach to theology because it delivers the searcher from the illusions of ubiquity and universality, even in matters of the most central tenets of faith. When people can see doctrine in its political, polemical, and posited guises, we can be free from absolutization of belief in past expressions as well as in present permutations.
Yet, as much as I enjoy tours through the historical development of faith formulations, I found myself unable to really commit to this approach this year. I was more concerned with allowing students space to think about Christ and to think about God. I wanted to introduce the problems and tensions that have dogged Christian logic and practice for millennia, but I wasn’t interested in arriving at conclusions or teaching modern experts’ answers. I wanted to create occasion for my students to answer for themselves questions of justice and mercy; theodicy; particularity; scandal; and more.
Now, it is my pedagogical practice to do whatever I ask my students to do so that I have something genuinely constructive to add to our class conversations. As such, my problem was set for me: I had to battle the Nietzschean critique that genuinely bothers me, and I had to determine with Dostoevsky whether the Idiot was really an idiot. I forced myself to address the excesses of ethical self-door-matting and internalized injustice that can masquerade in Christianity as the moral high ground, knowing fully from the outset that as a purposefully kind woman I had been at historical risk and actual failure of distorting concepts such as meekness, humility, and sacrifice. I had always wanted to be “good,” but perhaps for the wrong reasons. Good was so often easier than honest, and it fit a pleasant girl such as myself much better than fair or right. It is tricky business to turn one’s profession into an occasion of authentic, naked dialogue; to lose the prestige of station; and to share what scares oneself about one’s own mind in the mix. But, it was what I was asking my students to do, so I felt I needed to bring at least as much honesty to the process as I was asking of them.
The payoff was remarkable, where insights subtle and giant were freely offered. I am still processing many of them, but one that dawned on me has become a new sort of ethic that is helping to guide my actions these days. It comes from considering the doctrine of the Trinity, that is, the Christian assertion that God is three-in-one. It took three courses over two semesters to make the argument, and the conversation, which is worth longer discussion, obviously cannot be rendered here due to limits of space and form. Distilled, my insight was that the Image of God in people can and perhaps ought rightly to be, for Christians, Trinitarian. I had always surmised that the idea of the imago dei had something to do with rationality or fundamental human dignity, but it had never occurred to me before that it might also be understood to suggest that in each human being is the existential, diachronic, trifold function of creation, incarnation, and inspiration.
The more I consider(ed) this, I see in it a modality for living. In this, creation involves speaking into being truth and idea. Incarnation involves not merely the assumption of humanity as a given of our nature but the intentional “earthing” and “embodying” and humbling self-pouring for the sake of being present to others. Inspiration involves hope, setting things forward, sustaining futurity. As I considered and consider this more and more, I see endless possibilities for transformation in my conduct every time I ask myself what/how am I creating here; how I am incarnating here; how am inspiring here? In light of such questions, the doctrine of God became not a study of the celestial two men and bird of the past but a moral engagement in connecting beliefs with being in an urgent and life-giving way for my own life.
Trinity may be a helpful tool for operationalizing and honoring the divine in the human, which of course only works within the context of those for whom Trinity is a persuasive model of the Divine. For me, at this point in my journey, it has become an important experiment in informing my decision-making and behavior as well as experiencing “salvation.”
In light of my musings, it came as little surprise to me that I began to see Trinity where I cast my eyes and where my mind wandered in the spaces between waking and slumber. In one foggy afternoon dream, I saw three beautiful women laughing: a mother, a daughter, and an aunt. They came around me and hugged me, welcomed me, rejoiced with me. They were loud and full of life and love. Their smiles and colors were huge, and their song of laughter was the most palpable quality of their presence. As I woke, I said to myself, that was the Trinity. A few days later, I saw three men, each named Bob. They were almost a comic trio, as they introduced themselves as father, son, and uncle. In my waking, I knew again, this ordinary Trinity was plain and simple in these unassuming gentlemen. In a final dream, I saw nothing but the clear spoken-word-truth that all this life, its ups and downs, everything I was struggling with, even the greatest losses in my life, were merely occasions to know the being of Being. I laughed at this strange thought and said in my mind, “what is your name?” The answer. “I am the Triune God.”
I tried to capture my dreams in a painting over the weekend. I worked outside in the sunlight with oil pastels and spray paint. An Amazon Prime delivery man approached me from behind while I was working and saw my painting in progress. To my great surprise, he said, “Ah, that’s deep. That’s the Trinity.” I was quite surprised by his interpretation. A little while later, my boys came outside to check on me. The youngest said, “what are you making, mom?” Val, now fourteen, said, “It is the Fates. Or, no, it is the Trinity. The woman on the left is the Father. She, in the middle, that’s the Son. And the drag queen is the Holy Spirit. Right, mom?” I laughed and answered, “yes,” although I didn’t know there was a drag queen in the mix. Nate, 10, then said, “Oh, I see. The one in the middle is transgender, right?” He was quite serious, even though I had no answer to that query. We just talked, and conversation that followed was an occasion of grace about what we see; where and how God manifests; and what creation, presence, and hope can mean.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.