As I have journeyed through seminary, it seems that the doctrine of the Trinity, while shaping almost every other doctrine within the Church, is the single most difficult doctrine to explain to a person that comes from a non-Trinitarian background. Even in my attempts to explain the Trinity to those within the Episcopal Church, I stumble on my words and fail to paint a clear picture of why the doctrine of the Trinity is helpful in everyday life. In contrast to myself, Kathryn Tanner has achieved a very clear, grounded explanation of the Trinity in her book Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity. Thanks to her very clear and provocative outline of a system of faith, Tanner succeeded in not only helping me to understand the Trinity from a theoretical perspective but also in how we, the Body of Christ, are an active part of sharing the truth of the Trinity with the world.
When I started seminary, one of the key phrases that I heard during my first year was “non-competitive transcendence.” (To be honest, I still hear it; I think I stopped noticing it because I have also started saying it!) The notion of non-competitive transcendence is not something that is abstract, theoretical, or simply applicable to the scholarly writing of theology and/or dogma. Instead, as Tanner lays it out in her book, it is one of the very principles upon which Christians are called to adopt as a way of living life. It is a teaching that can truly help us to understand precisely what community is supposed to be in our shared lives in faith. It is an idea that actually can help us to answer the question, “What is community?”
The question seems to be an innocuous one. Surely, by this time in human history, we can provide a precise definition of community, and yet, I find that in today’s world we lack a thick description of community that calls us to be in relationship with another – with a person that holds very different perspectives on life. The modern understanding of community is one that defies what the Christian model of community is supposed to be. I see “communities” in today’s world that engage in a particular point of view and invites only those that can agree with all of the views held by the community. Let’s be clear on this point. I am suggesting that “community” in the modern sense is stated in a way that communicates harmony on ideas political, theological, practical, etc. Community is meant to be a word that gives us security, and I think community is meant to give that but not through a harmony of voices on all ideas, thoughts, notions. I would argue that Christians need to reclaim the word “community” in order to provide a thicker definition to the word so that it no longer is simply holding the same beliefs in secular ideas but an invitation to share the gifts of the self with others in order to build up the full Body of Christ. As Tanner says in her book,
“…our lives should be constituted and enhanced in their perfections as we share our lives with others in community, identifying ourselves thereby as persons in community with others and not simply persons for ourselves. We perfect one another in community as our operations to perfect our own gifts and talents enter into and supplement the operations of others in a combined venture for goods otherwise impossible.”
In order for us to engage in such activity, I believe that we must welcome a person that holds a different perspective than our own. Further, I believe that, as Christians, we are called to listen to what the other is saying without using the time to create a rebuttal. Instead of looking for what we find wrong, I think it is necessary to find what is true, and in finding the truth, we are to highlight the truth in an effort to separate it from that which is incoherent with the Christian faith. We are called to be silent in our listening to another and to seek to understand the gifts of the other while offering our own gifts for the building up of the Body of Christ. For us to engage in such an activity, Tanner’s explanation of non-competitive transcendence is required to become something other than merely a scholarly idea.
If I am able to understand God in such a way that God continues to be God even in assuming humanity (and therefore providing for humanity’s salvation), I am also called to hold my beliefs while allowing a different perspective on the same without also perceiving the difference as a threat to the self. In understanding God as being active in our lives and still being the God that offers love to all of creation, I am able to engage in relationship with others and to offer my gifts in such a way that builds up the rest of the body of Christ. I am not called to offer my gifts for the good of the self. When I give my talents to the broader community (the broadest sense of community being creation), I am called to give them for the benefit of the other. When I offer those talents, those gifts to the Body and when I receive the gifts of another within the Body, the exchange of the gifts between the members of the Body help to bring the reality of the entire Body of Christ into view. I become something bigger than myself; I become a part of the body.
All of this points to a de-centering of the self in relation to community and creation. If I am to offer my gifts and talents to the Body in such a way that also invites others to offer their gifts and talents, I must engage with another through a logic of relations that puts the self outside of the center and places God at the center. (For more on this topic, I recommend Peter Ochs’ article Morning Prayer as Redemptive Thinking. Although dense in the writing and based in the tradition of Jewish Morning Prayer, Ochs gets at the heart of the matter.) In like-minded fashion, Tanner invites us to engage in community in a way that does not place the self (and thus the affirmation of all that I may hold as true) as the sole reason for being in community. In fact, the way that Tanner paints the relationship between Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, the sharing of love through relationship with the Trinity requires us to let go of the self as the primary concern in order to be in community. We are called to engage in dialogue with each other, and through the gifts that we share with the community in dialogue, we begin to feel the truth offered by the Scriptures. We begin to engage in a new life, a new creation that pushes us beyond the doors of the Church and out into the world in service to all of creation as the Body of Christ.