Picking up from last week’s post, I want to explore how individualism deeply distorts what it means to be created in the image of God and how our understanding of the Trinity should inform how we embody theology.
The Triune God is complex, transcendent, and allusive but there are also simultaneous notions of comprehensibility. To quote the proverbial aphorism, “deny the Trinity and you will lose your soul, try to understand the Trinity and you will lose your mind.” This adage has explained my awareness of God in past seasons; but as of late, I am learning that the Triune God can be known, indeed, wants to be known. Having critical theological reflections about the personhood of God is necessary in our pursuit of understanding fully what it means to be human. Epistemological or intellectual insight leads to the ontological (as things really are) nature of the church and our interpretation of the Imago Dei, that is, the image of God. In other words, what we know about God informs how we live within that understanding. We become our vision of God, for better or for worse.
Author Clark Pinnock suggests that the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity. He says, “Trinitarian insight into the life of God derives from revelation in history, not from philosophy.” This means, “God as he is revealed in the economy of salvation corresponds to God as he is in his inner being” (Pinnock, Flame of Love, 32). We can understand the inner life of God by recalling his behavior throughout history. Important to our understanding of God is a robust pneumatology, or, doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is and has always been an active member of the Godhead. Plainly, the Holy Spirit is God. Dating back to the third century, Christians have been disoriented around the mutual relationship and distinction between the Spirit and the Son. Around the development of the Niceno-Constantinople Creed, confusion about the deity of the Holy Spirit predominated. Many theologians reflected upon the filioque clause, a Latin term meaning “and the son,” a subsequent addition to the Niceno-Constantinople Creed that ultimately subordinates the Holy Spirit to the Son. Most Eastern Fathers rejected this addition, suggesting it compromises the integrity of the Godhead. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen presents alternative wording, “from the Father through the Son” (Kärkkäinen, The Holy Spirit: A Guide to Christian Theology, 30) which preserves the monarch of the father while leaving the Spirit unsubordinated to the Son. We affirm that the Spirit is of the same substance and is equally God. This is important to note because in many circles we have placed emphasis on the Father and Son over the Holy Spirit, losing sight of the mutuality displayed within the Trinity. Implicit in our understanding of the Holy Spirit’s role within the Triune God is the remarkable continuation of Divine community. Kärkkäinen boldly states, “communion and relationality are ontologically primary about God,” concluding that “God, too, lives from and for another” (Kärkkäinen, 35). This expression gives way to the truth that relationality is essential to personhood. This vehemently resists Descartes’s view of the individual; he defined the human being as an individual substance of rational nature, not as a person related to other persons essentially. This posture accounts for the saturation of individualism within much of our society, as expressed in my previous post. Craig Van Gelder suggests, “An operational individualism still lives deeply within [even Canadian] culture and continues to inform much of American church life” (Van Gelder, Participating in God’s Mission, 27).
We have bolstered ourselves into a subject-object world. Jürgen Moltmann says, “If the immediate self-conscious is constitutive for the space of all possible experience, then narcissism is the logical and practical consequence of this anthropocentric view of the world.” (Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 31). We are, consequently, social beings because God is a social God. Intersubjectivity is quintessential to our existence; this gives new meaning to the term Imago Dei. Clark Pinnock adds, “Persons should rather be defined as that which enters into relationships and does not exist apart from them” (Pinnock, 36). Hospitality, relationality, and mutuality, then, are all enduring attributes of the Triune God. “God is the ideal community to which humans aspire” (Pinnock, 41). If God is a Divine community, three persons, one Godhead, and if humans are made in the image of God, this means we bear God’s image together. One individual is not the fullest representation of the image of God; one people group or race, despite historical opinion, is not the fullest representation of the image of God. We, collectively, are the fullest representation of the image of God. This is why Jesus said, “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me” (John 17:21 NLT).
The ultimate beauty, though, is that God is not only a divine community, but he makes room for us; God extends hospitality towards his creation. Pinnock accurately depicts, “Human community was created in the first place to reflect God’s own perfection, and its destiny is to participate in the very life of God” (Pinnock, 41). Many theologians suggest the goal of salvation is theosis, union with God. John would use the word κοινωνία, the English transliteration is koinonia, meaning participation, deep communion, and fellowship. The triune God is inviting us into a divine dance, into union. God is also inviting us into reconciliation with one another. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 3:18 says, “So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image.” We, together, are being transformed into his glorious image. We bear God’s image as we sing the songs of Zion together, as the stories of our brothers and sisters flood our imagination, as we seek justice for our communities, speak hope to those in despair, love our enemies and open our doors to the other.
I recall stories of togetherness from the church I grew up in, the Historical Black Church. A sort of centred belonging was cultivated through communal listening. They didn’t have one person leading the singing; the pastor would stand up and say, “Testimony service is now open.” The community, then, was responsible for anything experiential on Sunday morning. A deacon in the corner would rise and exclaim adulation, reminding the congregation of the goodness of God; an old church mother would retort with demonstrative singing. The choir would be invited to share one or two songs, the saints would respond with dancing, all would embody worship. This would go on until the preacher stood to perform the sermon. He would weave the struggle of the community into the text while anticipating crowd participation.
Sunday, however, was not the end of togetherness. I remember hearing stories of would-be-preachers answering the call to ministry during living room prayer meetings, while bean soup was on the stove and corn bread in the oven. Community. The pastor was more than a preacher; he was a lawyer, a counsellor, a civil rights activist. The church was more than performative consumerism; it was a foretaste of the Kingdom of God. God is not a reflection of us, but we, together, are a reflection of God.
I find myself longing for the communal practices of centred belonging located at the heart of the Historical Black Church, wondering if it is simply nostalgia or if missional practices exist best when individualism finds no expression. I find myself wondering if we should depart from the “superstar” model. Individualism, then, is an assault against the primary function of the church; it is a distortion. Assimilation, segregationist mentality, and self-preservation all flow from this foundational misunderstanding of personhood. There seems to be an abominable fear that festers at the core of an individualist society, a fear that funded missionary conquest, colonialism, and imperialist impulses. A fear of allowing others to appear on their own terms. This fear, might I suggest, finds its greatest manifestation within congregational ministry. We’ll explore that next week.