Reimagining Adventism, Part 5a: The Trinity and Absurdity

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Reimagining Adventism, Part 5a: The Trinity and Absurdity

If God is Trinity and Jesus is the face of God, then it is indeed a benevolent universe. God is not someone to be afraid of, but is the very Ground of Being and is inherently, objectively, and concretely on our side. – Richard Rohr

 

In the last few articles, we went on a tour through the doctrine of God, approaching it from the angle of posture. Posture, we discovered, is the overarching way in which we relate to and consequently introduce God to the culture. In that conversation, I suggested that the traditional frameworks of God as necessity—a perspective in which God is approached as a needed product in order to secure a favorable outcome—and God as claim—traditionally associated with authoritarian “worship God or else” narratives—are overdue to be discarded.

 

Not only are these notions theologically inaccurate but the secular language of being clashes with them because they are built on an ethic that is fundamentally opposed to, and threatens, the values modern/western post-church culture holds: values such as altruism, autonomy, self-determination, social justice, tolerance, and anti-authoritarianism.

 

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However, the conversation over God has not yet ended. As we move from God as necessity/claim toward God as inherent/virtue we find ourselves in the position of having to explain how the God of scripture is truly who we say he is. Thus, while the previous two articles focused on the overarching approach to the idea of God, this present article will focus on the specific revelation of God in scripture, which Christians affirm as the Creator’s self-disclosure to humanity. In this part of the conversation, there are three elements I have found necessary in order to arrive at a meaningful conclusion of God that interacts with the absurdity of life. Those three elements are God’s ontological self-abandonment, his essential community of being, and his inherent narrative of virtue.

 

God’s Ontological Self-Abandonment

 

When exploring the narrative of scripture with the secular mind, I have found it best to begin—not with Daniel 2 and how it proves the Bible is unique, reliable or eccentric—but with the simple declaration that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). There is a strong sense, regardless of the secular man’s approach to absurdity, in which we all recognize that, in the words of Soren Kierkegaard, “unhappiness is written into the script of life”.[1] And yet, to borrow from Kierkegaard again, this reality is one at which we “laugh defiantly”[2]—an unavoidable human response which German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer referred to as “the will to life.”[3]

 

However, this love of God cannot be approached from a surface level. After all, we live in the midst of a cultural mantra of love which threatens to nullify the very importance of love at worst, and at best–diminish it to a mere cliché.

 

The tolerance war-cry, for example, is founded on the idea that we ought to love the marginalized and accept them regardless of how different they might be. The vegan activists likewise fight in the name of love for the animal kingdom. The LGBTQ+ community and its supporters want to liberate love and grant to humanity the freedom to love whoever, whenever without the imposition of government. The rising popularity of democratic socialism and identity politics are both rooted in a new vision for a society that exemplifies love to all, not just the privileged. And of course, none of this is new.

 

The mid 19th century saw the free love movement raging against the oppressive social conventions that stood in the way of love, incarcerating its individual and collective beauty within the cages of governmental power structures and arbitrary religiopolitical codifications. Thus, to a large degree, the call to love is all around us. In a sense, this is to be celebrated but also feared. Celebrated because love is always worthy of our contemplation. Feared because that which the culture focuses on at length tends to lose its depth and significance over time. In short, it becomes a mere colloquialism devoid of any real, practical meaning.

 

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Love has also become the unique selling point of popular Christianity replete with its self-help books, motivational speakers, and large conventions all declaring to the world that God loves them and wants them to have their “best life now”. This commercialized Christianity has become the laughing stock of the culture, what comedian Nick Thune ridiculed as “cool” Christianity.[4]

 

Atheist Hemant Mehta comments on Thune’s observation as “perfectly [capturing] the lofty-but-empty rhetoric common to so many churches.”[5] And Christian blogger Cassidy Robinson affirms this view in her article “American Christianity is Shallow” when she states that our western religion is one in which “[s]aying you love Jesus… is like saying you love coffee.”[6] This consumerist Christianity, in the eyes of a culture navigating absurdity, is nothing more than a marketing ploy designed to get the people to forget or overlook the fact that this same “best life now” Jesus who wants to “be your boyfriend” has also prepared a place of eternal torment for those who exercise the autonomy he so lovingly gave them to say “no thanks.”

 

Thus, while the conversation must begin at the love of God as the only foundational perspective capable of interacting meaningfully with the incompatibilities, incongruities, and angst of life it is not enough to approach love like a cozy sentimental vision of God. For the secular mind, God cannot be a teddy bear in the sky, neither can he be a permissive grandfather.

 

This is a danger that we need to guard against, that in our attempt to rescue God from the oppressive, patriarchal and toxic masculinity which historic Christianity has wrapped him in we do not relegate him to a mere “nice guy”, a “mate” who is pleasant yes, but incapable of confronting the suffering of life with potent resolve and righteous indignation. Thus, from the onset, love must be defined—not as the Disney sort of love: sentimental, airbrushed, demanding no costly sacrifice—and neither as the love of the insecure: toxic, exclusive, misguided and violent self-preservation—but as an altogether different and alien kind of love which scripture aptly defines as total self-abandonment.

 

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And at this place, I have found, the journey can begin with meaning. God is love means he is ontologically self-abandoning. Love in this sense is not some theological ruse for a divine ego which ascribes fragility to humanity and then offers the chivalrous God as the solution (God as necessity). To the contrary, God is in his very nature a self-abandoning being. His self-abandonment is not a romantic reaction by which he resolves the fall of man, but is ontologically who he is—that is his virtue.

 

Thus, love is introduced biblically as self-abandonment or other-centeredness—authentic altruism. God is, in this sense, a philanthropist in his very being. This is not a sentimentally driven love but a love built on principle—a costly love that demands all and costs all. It is this love which gives us a glimpse into the being of God in his most natural, naked pre-creation state.

 

I have found this approach to the ontology of scriptures’ God to be very meaningful. On the one hand, it allows us to understand love from a holistic perspective. It strips away the cheap barriers we place on love and presents it as the very ground of being which is, ontologically, the very heart of God. Not a teddy bear God on the one hand. Not a chivalrous God on the other. But a God who, in love, can rage against injustice on the one hand and honor humanity’s contextual sovereignty on the other. We are not little weaklings with holes in our hearts desperately in need of our knight in shining armor God. To the contrary, God has made us resilient, capable of self-directing, finding meaning in the meaninglessness and governing our own affairs for, as the poet wrote,

 

The heavens are the Lord’s… but the earth he has given to the children of man” (Psalm 115:16).

 

He has made us intelligent and strong so that even the atheist can live a morally upright life and the man who accepts responsibility discovers the capacity to repair and construct a valuable existence. This vision of God interacts meaningfully with what philosopher and author Ayn Rand referred to as “man as a heroic being”.[7]

 

RELATED ARTICLE: The Trinity in the Old Testament

 

Thus, the love of God, in this sense, emerges not as the missing piece of the puzzle or ingredient in the dish of life (though it certainly is) but as the foundation for everything that makes life interesting and meaningful. It provides the tension and release, the foundation and building blocks, the up and the down—all are rooted in the self-abandoning nature of God who created all of reality to operate and thrive off of the same principle of costly self-sacrifice. Love, in conclusion, is far from sentimentalism and exclusive application—it is the most counter-cultural, anti-conformist, and beautifully demanding fountain of life—the spring from which meaning flows.

 

God’s Essential Community of Being

 

Once God is explored from the biblical perspective of love, a few natural questions arise. One of the questions is the age-old Epicurean dilemma, that is:

 

Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

 

This question has reemerged throughout history in differing forms and by diverse thinkers. For example, the philosopher David Hume used this dilemma as the basis for his conclusion that God is, essentially, “not good”[8] and through it, Woody Allen could conclude that while God isn’t necessarily evil, if he exists he is, at worst, “an underachiever.”[9]

 

These questions and tensions are certainly valid. And when discussing God’s ontology of love we are forced to contend with the very real presence of suffering in the world. How can we hold these two apparently inconsistent ideas in harmony? However, when studying with seculars I have concluded that such a question is premature at this stage of the journey. We have not yet arrived at a place where we can address it holistically or with any real sense of meaning. Therefore, I steer them toward a more fundamental inconsistency in the ontology of God—his singularity.

 

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God is love. This is what the Bible declares. It does not say “God is loving” but more, he “is love.” That is, he is love itself. To be loving would mean that at some point in eternity God decided to start loving—perhaps when he created angels. It could be said, at this point that God began loving because he now had an object of desire upon which he could exercise other-centered relational energy.

 

But the Bible doesn’t say God is loving. It says he “is love” which means that before anything existed God, in his singular state, existed in an eternal and ontological state of other-centered agape-love. But the question then arises, if God is inherently love and love means self-abandonment or other-centeredness, then who was the “other”? Who was the “other” upon whom God lavished his love before creation?

 

Here we approach an apparent incoherence—one which I present undressed to the seeker and ask him or her to resolve. The tension is immediately apparent. The eyes squint. The mind gets to work. If God is love he is centered on the “other” before an “other” even existed. How then can he be love? It makes sense to say he began to love or became loving after creation. But what was he without creation? If he was truly ontologically love—then upon what “other” was this other-centered love bestowed in the absence of an “other”?

 

I often let the proposition sit long enough for all potential solutions to be exhausted. God is love, yes but scripture also declares that he is “one”—a singularity. And a singularity assumes a solitary state in which no “other” exists. In this state, one could argue that God loved himself, but that would not be other-centered love. One could argue that God loved the creation he was going to make, but that would assume that love is sentimental—that God held feelings toward potentiality, but love is other-centeredness. It is self-abandonment in the face of an active other. And this is the point of the biblical vision of love—not that sentimentalism is bad but that true love transcends it. True love is active.

 

There is a difference between a parent loving their child before they arrive, when the child is potential, and loving the child after they arrive when the child is an active other that occupies space, demands attention, and calls upon love to be more than mere feelings but an active, real-time act—especially when that act costs you something. Thus, for God to be love cannot simply involve his love for potentiality because of the very biblical definition of love rejects this. God is love, ontologically, meaning he is actively focused on others. He did not begin to actively focus on “other” after creation (God is loving) but he is, in his very nature, actively so. Pastor and author Ty Gibson summarized this well in his article, “Seeing the World Through Love-Colored Glasses” when he wrote that “God has never existed in an ontological state of isolation, in which no other-centeredness was flowing”. To the contrary, he is “love within the parameters of the divine reality itself…”[10]

 

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This leaves us with only two possible conclusions. Either the God of scripture is self-contradictory and we accept the proposal that he is love despite the fact that it clashes with basic logic or we accept that perhaps there is something we are missing. It is at this juncture that I journey with the seeker through the Biblical hints and, ultimately its declaration, that God is a singular-plurality or, to put it differently, an essential community of being.

 

In this sense, the Trinity is more than a doctrine that doesn’t matter either way. Rather, the Trinity arises as the essence through which we grasp the ontology—if God is an eternal community, then he has always existed, even before the act of creation, in community. He is, in himself, a community of “other” and consequently, has existed throughout eternity in an eternal relationship of other-centered, self-abandoning love—what Genesis 1:26 refers to as the creative “us” and John 1:1 as the eternal “with.”

 

Now of course, this is a mystery. How can he be a singular-plurality? How can he be an eternal community? And what does this look like? How can three centers of consciousness coexist as one being? However, what I have found in my interaction with secular people is that they are amazingly comfortable with this mystery. They understand the difference between something being illogical and something being mysterious and I have never had to spend much time trying to help them embrace the mystery of the Trinity.

 

In fact, it is often religious folk who get caught up in this. But the emerging secular, western mind tends to have, at the least, an elementary exposure to the mysteries of quantum physics and difficult to explain scientific theories such as the theory of quantum entanglement and the theory of superposition—both respectable theories that defy the laws of physics as we know them.[11] If such oddities can exist within the created realm, what limitations can possibly be placed on the being who not only transcends this realm but who himself scripted the very laws we struggle to comprehend? In other words, it makes no sense that humanity cannot comprehend the very laws that govern our dimension and yet pretends to comprehend the God who wrote those laws and to whom those laws do not apply.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: The Love of God –A Canonical Model

 

The doctrine of the Trinity, therefore, emerges as the essence through which we justify the ontology of God. We find within its mysteries, what Franciscan priest Richard Rohr described as a “benevolent” God. This God, Rohr continues, is not “someone to be afraid of” but “the ground of being” whom is “inherently, objectively, and concretely on our side”.[12] This, in turn, opens up the final element of God’s inherent narrative of virtue which allows us to confront the cultural pluralism in a way that does not automatically repel the pluralist or relativist. We will turn to this in the next article.

 

For now, I would like to conclude with the following observation. In our evangelistic preaching and teaching, I have seldom seen much emphasis placed on the Trinity. If it is even mentioned, it is treated as a doctrine of trivial importance. But most of the time, we don’t even touch on it. For example, a look at the evangelistic sermons on gcevangelism.net (an official online resource for evangelism in the Adventist context) presents us with two sermons: “Who is God?” And “If God is Good, Why So Much Suffering?”—both of which are excellent opportunities to introduce God’s ontology of love and tie it to his essential community of being. And yet, neither sermon even touches on the doctrine of the Trinity. As a result, its exploration of God’s love remains shallow and it fails to provide the culture with the most foundational building block for understanding who God is and what he is like.

 

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I would like to challenge our evangelistic culture to emphasize the Trinity in its proclamation—not as a dizzying exercise in “heavenly math” (as I heard one preacher put it) but as God’s essential community of being giving us the grounds for embracing his ontology of love. This, I contend, can give the doctrine a level of meaning that interacts beautifully with the absurdity of life. For here, in this strange Hebraic idea, we find a relational origin to the cosmos and consequently, a relational purpose to all that life is.

 

Thus, in the midst of agony and perplexity, as we meditate on the seasons in which suffering knocks on the door of our lives and on the nights in which the universe mocks our desire for something more—in those moments best captured in what Bob Bennet referred to as “dancing” in “the middle of this madness… though I’m not sure why,”[13] we can pause and consider the fact that maybe all begins and ends in an eternal heart of communal love.

Click here to read the rest of this series on Reimagining Adventism.

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Notes.

[1] The School of Life, “Soren Kierkegaard.”

[2]Soren Kierkegaard.”

[3] Steven Gambardella, “The Power of Schopenhauer: A philosophy for life that prizes beauty and compassion.”

[4] Nick Thune, “Nick Thune Standup.”

[5] Hemnant Mehta, “On the Tonight Show, Comedian Nick Thune Joked About What He’d Say As a Christian Youth Pastor.”

[6] Cassidy Robinson, “American Christianity is Shallow.”

[7] William Thomas, “What is Objectivism?

[8] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Hume on Religion.”

[9] Paul O’Donoghue, “If God is an underachiever, should we try to help out?

[10] Ty Gibson, “Seeing the World Through Love-Colored Glasses.”

[11] Phillip Ball, “Will We Ever … Understand Quantum Theory?

[12] Richard Rohr, “Love Needs a Face.”

[13] Bob Bennet, “Madness Dancing.”

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About the author

Marcos Torres

Marcos Torres is a pastor in Western Australia where he lives with his wife and children. He loves talking about faith, culture and Adventism. You can follow his blog at www.thestorychurchproject.com.