John Shuck, a Presbyterian pastor, asks a potent question. When one reflects on doctrines in church history, like the Trinity, why should we feel compelled to take those doctrines on today? Is it simply because of the age of the doctrine? A good number of ideas throughout church history from views about women to anti-Semitism are best left behind despite their age. Other doctrines were developed in such a different period of time that the presuppositions behind them hardly relate to what we believe about the world today.
But I think it is still possible for religious progressives to re look at certain doctrines, like the trinity. If a doctrine has had a commanding influence over a period of time and a range of communities it suggests that it may touch on something about human life and experience. Doctrines which fail to do that largely can’t survive. Those that do, even if the language is not what we would use today, whether it is about redemption and sin, heaven and hell, and even the trinity, speaks on some level to human experience.
So it becomes our responsibility to wrestle with this, to find what is being attended to. One does this because whatever that is, could be important for us, even if we would need to reconstruct the language for today. For instance with ancestor worship, one could dismiss this as supernatural, as entailing beliefs about some “spirit realm” or we could imagine why a society would want to revere it’s ancestors, imagining how those that came before us provided for the context that is our world today.
So one is engaged in an imaginative project to imagine how those doctrines spoke to a group of people and if the language was reconstructed could still have power for us today. So while we may speak of God as creator differently post Darwin, there is still a connection with other periods of time who have known God as creator.
Sometimes this imaginative move happens to learn what we want to avoid, such as anti-Semitism and how communities are often built through an alienated other and the ways we need to be attentive to that in our own context. Sometimes it can be positive, in imagining how human meaning or justice or sense of self might be preserved in the language religious communities have spoken about the after life.
The idea is that whatever achievements in wisdom and knowledge has been had throughout a given tradition, ought to be retrieved if even reconceived so the language can speak to us and our time and place, given what we know of the world. For instance, we still need a world redeemed even if how we would speak to this need could have forms of connection and disconnection with how this has been related to in the past.
Bob Cornwall, a Disciples pastor, makes such a move by looking at how the idea of the trinity, provides a means to speak of both God as internally related and how that is played out in the world. We get a bit of this in John 17, imagining how we can be interrelated with each other. Trinitarian metaphors about God highlights this in a potent way.
If I was to extend this metaphor a bit, it might start by asking what is it that allows us to be interrelated to each other in ways that serve as a blessing for each other and our world?
There would need to be a form of individuality which allows people to be themselves and bring their unique histories, sense of things, gifts, and experiences to the table. Often communities exist to squelch difference, to make us one by leavening out what makes us us. But the Spirit of God in the Bible seems to highlight the role of difference. In Genesis the spirit separates the elements in the creation story. Abraham is separated out from the place of his birth. In Pentecost the church is given a unique identity. Naming often happens, Jacob to Israel, Saul to Paul, which highlights this new identity.
If we try to squelch differences in the name of unity, we may ignoring what God would have for us as expressed in the very things which make us as individuals. Of course if we were content to just be individuals, then we’d be isolated. And communities can do this as well, separating themselves from the wider world, and one could tell a story of American individualism and gated communities. Abraham is separated out, but this is done to be a blessing to the nations.
Christ may be a way of speaking of how one moves from self to the other, interrelating in ways which are transformative for both. So that individuals and communities can creatively engage each other. Christ is the name for what allows us to bring out unique gifts to a table. And any number of stories of Jesus crossing barriers could highlight this. The communion table is an apt symbol of this move. And the church could be a visible representation of bringing people together.
The result of such a move could be the expansion of the divine commonwealth. God might be made more real, evident, when people are able to develop themselves in ways that can in relation to each other build communities. This would, like the trinity, be impossible to cut up this process except for analysis. That is, we become individuals in communities, and yet communities can be transformed by the individuals so created, in ways that can make God more incarnate. Remove community and this falls apart, remove individuality and communities are dead in the water.
I won’t pretend this is what the crafters of the classic creeds were after. But it does connect with a vision of relationality that one finds in the tradition, one which bears on the question posed by Plato which has haunted the west of the One and the Many. I probably borrowed from Charles Sanders Pierce to make some of my moves but I think that is what reconstruction is about. It’s taking ideas, doctrines, notions from the past and reworking them, hopefully keeping faith with their genius, but refitting them in a more fitting manner today, so that they can do transformative work in the world.