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Sunday, June 7, 2020

A Theological Legacy Without Substance | Trinity Sunday 2020

The Trinity, by Kelly Latimore
"Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." Matthew 28:16-20 NRSV 

The doctrine of the trinity is the central piece of evidence that the Christian faith went off the rails very early in its history. 

In the first two centuries of the Common Era there were several different understandings of the nature of God and of Jesus in circulation. Some held the rudiments of trinitarianism, while most were arguably more straightforward, having God as a unity, and Jesus as the adopted son of God. His adoption was said variously to have occurred at baptism, the resurrection, or at some other point. As time progressed the gnostics came along with their rather complex interpretation, to which some of the later, forged works included in the canonical New Testament attempted to respond. 

Based solely on the Gospels, Letters, and Book of Revelation found in the canonical New Testament, I think that God as trinity is fairly easily inferred. It remains strange to me, as a post-theistic Unitarian Universalist, that Unitarians of previous generations actually thought those same writing supported their position instead. I just don't see it. That said, the books we have as 'canonical' were only formally listed as such a few centuries after the time Jesus was said to have been alive. In the meantime, many other writings circulated, espousing numerous viewpoints. Some sided with a form of trinitarianism, and others expressed other understandings. 

Once the basics of trinitarianism were established, early church leaders didn't stop. With each generation they debated and elaborated on the 'correct' understanding of the Trinity, getting into finer and finer detail. Looking at the records of their debates, carried out over years, it's apparent that the orthodoxy of one generation quickly became the heresy of the next. Bishops had to keep up with the latest views, lest they be considered anathema. 

All that effort spent building a belief system out of thin air, based on nothing but ideas without evidence. 

Once a more-or-less 'final' understanding of the nature of God was established, it became considered the norm for centuries. Anyone who spoke against it was subject to social censure, trial, and possibly execution if they failed to recant. At the same time, the commoners weren't really expected to understand the doctrine of the Trinity; they had only to say that they believed in it, and all was well. This is rather like how it is now with conservative evangelicals, many of whom know painfully little about the Bible beyond some treasured passages (often ripped from their proper context), and are expected simply to always affirm that the Bible is the inspired word of God, without error. 

Take what the theologians and the pastors say, built on nothing but the beliefs of ancient people, and claim to accept it. That's much of what conservative Christianity depends upon. 

In the meantime, there were Crusades, Inquisitions, witchcraft trials, colonization, genocide, and other forms of oppression and violence carried out without much self-reflection. Christianity failed to show the power claimed in the New Testament, either for its own beliefs or for the God it says reigns over the universe, with people using it to crush others under their heel, exploiting them practically without limits. 

So much time and energy should have been spent on understanding what it means to be human, and how we should best act as individuals and as a society to encourage human flourishing. Efforts could have gone into improving sanitation, researching genuine medicinal practices, and so forth. Instead, until the 19th century the white civilization of the West largely focused on the nature of god, the sinfulness of humankind, and the question of who gets into the good side of the afterlife. Other nations beyond this scope also bogged down in religious debates and practiced oppression as well, but nowhere is it clearer to me than in white Christendom. 

There are far more important matters than ideas without direct reference to this life. Issues such as immigrant justice, ending the school to prison pipeline, black lives matter, women's rights, lgbtq+ affirmation, and more. What we think about a deity in a world that is exactly as one would expect it to be without a personal god, there's no use contending over what one or the other person thinks about god or any other purely hypothetical, esoteric subject. Rather than celebrating or debating a 'trinity,' let's be about our real business, that of countering oppression and fighting injustice. Let's think hard on what will improve human life in real, measurable terms. Let Trinity Sunday be Humanity Sunday instead.