Discovering the Feminine in the Triune God

Martin Luther once asked, “Of what help is it to you that God is God, if he is not God to you?” (Migliore 232) At the heart of this and most other theological questions sits these two: ‘Who am I to God?’ and ‘Who is God to me?’ Many of us are compelled by these thoughts to seek within and outside of ourselves for answers that provide clarity and vision for our life and future. In Genesis 1:27 (NAB) it says, “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” (Bible 19) Both sexes were created by God in God’s image and yet the female is rarely represented in the triune God when we look within the walls of the church. Mary Daly once said, “if God is male, then the male is God,” (Johnson 99) and while our behavior as an overall faith community reflects this, we need to ask ourselves if this is truth. Women of faith are asked to find themselves in the Bible through the women in it’s narrative, yet men are not only dominantly represented within the stories recorded in the Bible, they see themselves reflected in the very persons of our Triune God. This pneumalogical paper will explore how history shaped our understanding of who the holy Spirit is, identify several key characteristics for who the Bible says the holy Spirit is and reveal how women who were systemically excluded from representation within the Godhead can come to recognize themselves within the holy Spirit.

The importance of the Holy Spirit cannot be overstated. Jesus himself emphasized the tremendous value that such a Helper would have to humanity in John 14:26 (NAB): “The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name-he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” (Bible 1610) Although Jesus asserted the value of the Holy Spirit, it’s uncontrollable nature made it a challenge to the hierarchy the church eventually formed itself into: often the Spirit was treated more as a problem to solve or a question to answer than an opportunity for deeper relationship with God. In fact, the holy Spirit wasn’t always understood as a person. “It was the Cappadocian Fathers in the fifth century who fortified the notion of the Holy Spirit as a person. Basil the Great became known as the ‘theologian of the Holy Spirit,’ thanks mostly to a desire to establish the tri-unity of God against attempts at tritheism…” (Clouzet 15) There ought to be a point of clarification around the term person, particularly as we consider the individualistic lens through which Western civilization operates. The personhood of the Spirit does not negate the truth of God as one. “…both mimetic theory and modern psychology teach us is that the “person” is not autonomous — we are in fact interdividuals rather than individuals… non-consciously interconnected far more than we consciously realize. And so, if we are going to even attempt to label the Trinity as three “persons,” we need to acknowledge that the person is a person only because s/he is in relationship with an ‘other.’” (Distefano) Thus, as the Church sought to understand the Godhead, or the triune God, it necessitates that it is not as individual persons but as persons in relation to one another.

This is, in part, the very thing which challenged the inclusion of the person of the Holy Spirit into the Godhead. One major contention was the origin of the Spirit. In fact, the controversy over its origin lead to a division in the Church that is considered by many to be the greatest disagreement in the Church’s history: “…the Eastern Church discovered the now famous filioque clause in 1014. To the Nicene Creed had been added the word filioque-Latin for ‘and the Son’-now stating that the Holy Spirit proceeded ‘from the Father and the Son.’…leading to the permanent rift between the Eastern and Western Church: the Great Schism of 1054.” (Clouzet 16)

While the holy Spirit was eventually understood by many, through doctrine, as both a person and component of the triune God, the very nature of the Spirit ran against the grain of the rising influence of rationalism. Industrialization further hindered our ability to embrace the unknown that is the Spirit. The world was usually understood to be more like a machine than a wonder, ruled entirely by laws and able to be understood through cause and effect. This left little room for the Spirit to operate in through the 18th and 19th century. “Protestant scholasticism with its ‘rechte Lehre’ (correct doctrine), produced ‘a more mechanical view of the role of Scriptures,’ and ‘as a result the witness of the Spirit tended to be bypassed.’ The Word alone, without the Spirit, was regarded as the basis for authority.” (Clouzet 16-17) Those who did focus on the doctrine of the Spirit tended to focus on the work rather than the nature of the holy Spirit’s person.

Regardless, there has been what some might term a revival. “Nowadays, it will not do to speak about the Holy Spirit as the theos agraptos- the God about whom no one writes-as did Gregory of Nazianzus in the fourth century.” (Clouzet 11) As this revival has occurred though, many tend to focus on what the holy Spirit can do for us rather than who the holy Spirit is to us. The danger of this approach is perceiving the Spirit less as a person who is the triune God and a bearer of wisdom and truth and more as a genie who grants wishes if we ask the right way. Furthermore, “…the doctrine of the Spirit became the concern of individual and corporate praxis, or experience, rather than dogma, or theology.” (Clouzet 17)

Although the nature of the Spirit may seem elusive in the Bible due to the biblical focus on its works, that does not mean we are incapable of discerning its nature through what is given to us. It is as Paul writes in Romans 14:4 (NAB) “For whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” (Bible 1709) We can be assured of three things regarding the Spirit: first, that it is understood to be part of the Godhead. A few examples of how we know this include 2 Corinthians 13:13 (NAB) which frames them together: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the holy Spirit be with all of you.” (Bible 1765) I Peter 1:2 (NAB) also blesses through the triune God, “…in the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctification by the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling with the blood of Jesus Christ: may grace and peace be yours in abundance.” (Bible 1903)

Second, that the holy Spirit is equal to the Father and the Son, not a lesser component. Jesus makes this known at the Last Supper, recorded in John 14:15-17 (NAB): “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept…But you will know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you.” (Bible 1610) Jesus referred to parakletos, (often translated as the Advocate or the Helper) as another parakletos. This means that Jesus, already acting as an advocate for us, would ask the Father to send another like him to us in his absence. He promises not to leave them as orphans. “Just a few minutes earlier Christ had referred to Himself and His Father as equals (vv. 9,10). If the Comforter is equal-or parallel-to the Son, and the Son is equal-or one-with the Father, the Comforter, or Holy Spirit, is equal with the Father.” (Clouzet 20)

Lastly, we know that the holy Spirit is in possession of attributes unique to God. I Corinthians 2:10-11 (NAB) speaks to the intimate relationship and knowledge shared between the Father and the Spirit: “…this God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God. Among human beings, who knows what pertains to a person except the spirit of the person that is within? Similarly, no one knows what pertains to God except the Spirit of God.” (Bible 1721) The Spirit is not merely a messenger sent by God but one that scrutinizes the depths of God and all God’s creation.

What, though, do we know about God when it comes to gender? It is a popular framing, particularly within modern churches built on the foundations of an androcentric patriarchy spanning back millennia, to understand the relationship of the Godhead as primarily that of the Father, the Son and the Spirit (the Spirit being an it or a he). God as a Father serves as the primary means of understanding Elohim or Adonai (or any of the other various other names for God) in churches, most notably because Jesus referred to Elohim as a Father so often (hardly a surprise if one is trying to establish one’s divine origin). The ascribing of exclusive gender to Elohim based upon the words used by Christ rather than the entirety of the Bible is outside the scope of this paper but worth noting, as it indicates a bias towards the masculine. Additionally, I recognize that Jesus was certainly born a man. However, the assertion of the Spirit as a neutral person (it) or a male (he) is highly questionable.

This masculine assumption does not accurately depict the historical language of the books in the Bible and therefore creates the opportunity for a fundamental misunderstanding of God’s nature: it associates power with an entirely masculine God rather than a Godhead whose power manifests in both the feminine and the masculine. This is a problem not only because it is inaccurate, but it leads to a flawed living-out of the gospel. Rosemary Radford Ruether once wrote, “Whatever denies, diminishes or distorts the full humanity of women is appraised as non-redemptive;…what does promote the full humanity of women is of the Holy, it does reflect true relation to the divine, the authentic message of redemption and the mission of redemptive community.” (Johnson 94) Feminist theology isn’t about displacing or minimizing the value of men or the role they play; men are also created in the image of God and the masculine images used to depict the Godhead are accurate and invaluable for providing insight into the character of God. However, equally important is restoring women to the role that that Elohim, Jesus and the holy Spirit called women into. It works to reveal the places where we lack alignment as a Christ-center community with the will of God. “Sallie McFague summarizes the feminist critique of patriarchy and its legitimating theology by contending that the heart of our most pressing issues today is the misuse of power…exploitation of the natural environment, or of political, economic, racial, cultural, and gender oppressions…the fundamental problem is ‘the question of power; who wields it and what sort it is… Is power always domination?’” (Migliore 68)

This leaves many wondering if the feminine can be found within the Godhead. In most modern translations, the holy Spirit is predominantly referenced in either masculine or neutral terms. But why? When we look back into the grammar of the early languages used, we can see an implied relationship between the rise of the church patriarchy and the disappearance of the feminine holy Spirit. “Although the New Testament was written in Greek, Christianity was born in a Semitic milieu and Jesus himself will have spoken Aramaic (of which Syriac is a dialect).” (Brock) This means that the New Testament was not written in the spoken language of Christ but translated from Aramaic (also the language common to many of the early communities) to Greek. “…when these communities spoke of the Holy Spirit they naturally used the standard Aramaic word for ‘spirit’, ruha (also ‘wind’ as pneuma), which, like Hebrew ruah, is grammatically feminine.” (Brock)

A pronoun in the Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac languages are necessarily either feminine or masculine, and thus, up until around 400 AD, it was always treated as feminine grammatically. However, in Greek translations a word like pneuma becomes, through its translation, neuter (still not masculine). “From the early fifth century onwards…in defiance of the grammatical rules of the language, they treated the word ruha as masculine whenever it referred to the Holy Spirit.” (Brock) This mattered, because early on it was understood that something truly revolutionary was being taught by God: “an ancient, unassailable truth with new clarity: God loves women and passionately desires their flourishing. When violence is done to women, to their bodies or their spirits, it is an insult to the divine glory.” (Johnson 96) Yet this idea was subversive to all dominant cultures at the time. Some hypothesize that shift from feminine to masculine is the influence of the Greek language but others, particularly considering the Greek translation is still not masculine, hypothesize that it is the disapproval of the Spirit as feminine that causes the shift.  By the 6th century, that practice becomes normalized although occasional outliers can be found in poems or liturgical texts.

A major indicator that these changes were made based on the issues around gender roles is found in the Peshitta, a revision of the Syriac New Testament made in the early fifth century. “Rather surprisingly there are only two places in the Gospels where the revisers who produced the Peshitta chose to alter the feminine of the Old Syriac to the masculine; it so happens that both are passages where the Holy Spirit ‘teaches’ (Luke 12.12 and John 14.26).” (Brock) The fact that the feminine was maintained in other parts of the text speaks to their belief that the gender of the holy Spirit was originally only an issue in spaces when the holy Spirit served in a role that was culturally only acceptable for men; She could no longer be a she.

This same shift is visible in the treatment of Logos and mellta and compels us to push beyond the assumption that the gender change was only due to the role the holy Spirit was serving. If the femininity of the holy Spirit were not an issue for the Church what reason would it have had to alter the texts that serve as the foundation and support for their faith? The collective community would be unlikely to systemically shift the holy Spirit from feminine to masculine unless the femininity was considered a problem and/or the shift to masculinity was an opportunity.

“In Syriac Logos, ‘Word’, is translated by another feminine noun, mellta. Accordingly in the Prologue of the Gospel of John the Old Syriac treats Mellta, the Logos, as feminine, and this usage is reflected, not only in the fourth-century writer Ephrem (which is to be expected); but also very occasionally in texts of the fifth, or even later centuries, even though in the Peshitta revision the gender had already been altered to masculine.” (Brock)

When we contrast this change to words we find in verses like Galatians 3:28 (NAB), where an equal, mutual love is held up as the goal, we can see an incongruity begin to reveal itself. The early Church was a body of people who were all one in Christ Jesus, who saw themselves equal in their relationship to the Godhead.   “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Bible 1776) Yet this aspired-to state has a relatively short-lived existence over the lifetime of the Church. “…despite the irreplaceable participation of women in the founding and spreading of the church, women were marginalized once the community became somewhat established…Banned from the pulpit and altar, their wisdom has not been permitted to interpret the word of the gospel nor their spirituality to lead the church assembled in prayer.” (Johnson 91-92)

Rather than maintaining the roles originally given to them, a shift began in the male body of the church on their view of woman. Thinkers of the time began to focus on the female body as a gateway to the enemy rather than a person made in the image of God. Instead of operating as ‘one in Christ,’ women were reframed as temptresses of men and came to represent the reason that men fell from favor with God. “In the third century Tertullian viewed women as a second Eve…and because of their sin the Son of God had to die. Augustine, while affirming that woman is equal to men in her spiritual capacity, taught that in view of her body and social role, ‘she is not the image of God,’ but can be considered so only when taken together with man who is her head.” (Johnson 92) While Augustine could see the image of God in man alone, the feminine was only redeemable through her relationship with the masculine. Thus, man was independent while woman became interdependent: her access to the divine could only be found through the opposite sex, thereby becoming the secondary, less desirable gender not only in church but in society; ironically, this suppression of women was propelled by the very faith that once lifted women beyond the stature of chattel to equal standing with men in relationship with Christ.

To understand the true obstacles faced by Jesus in transforming the world, consider the account in Luke 13:12-16 (NAB) of Jesus healing a woman on the Sabbath: note the response that religious men in power have for a woman crippled for 18 years and the way that Christ responds not only to her, but to that man:

When Jesus saw her, he called to her and said, “Woman, you are set free of your infirmity.” He laid his hands on her, and she at once stood up straight and glorified God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant that Jesus had cured on the sabbath, said to the crowd in reply, “There are six days when work should be done. Come on those days to be cured, not on the sabbath day.” The Lord said to him in reply, “Hypocrites! Does not each one of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger and lead it out for watering? This daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years now, ought she not to have been set free on the sabbath day from this bondage?”

The man in power showed no compassion for the woman, nor did he celebrate the miracle that was her healing. Instead, he focused on the violation of the Law. Jesus points out the man’s hypocrisy and elevates the status of the woman. Unlike the religious man who saw her as a broken Law, Jesus described her as a daughter of Abraham: Jesus’ treatment of her wasn’t because of her actions as an individual but rather because of her general identity as a woman of God’s chosen people. Indeed, the men Jesus addressed had greater compassion for a thirsty ox or ass than they did for a woman crippled for nearly two decades. Jesus asks, “…ought she not to have been set free on the Sabbath day from this bondage?” Jesus takes issue with her bondage and desires freedom, something that honors God more than honoring the Sabbath. There is a tremendous lack of alignment in values between the men and Jesus, particularly regarding the value of women.

Diving into biblical accounts like these and recognizing what they reveal about the society in which Jesus walked, demonstrates how necessary discernment is in recognizing what is of man and what is of God. This discernment given to us by the holy Spirit, who not only scrutinizes everything but also reveals truth to us, can lead us down a path of deep relationship and greater reconciliation between each other and God. This is critical; in fact, the Kingdom of God is not even available to us if the Spirit isn’t with us. It says in John 2:5-8 (NAB)

Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (Bible 1588)

This kind of relationship with the holy Spirit can sound weird, but the ramifications are profound. Cath Livesey is a leader within what she calls a prophetic church, which means (in its simplest terms) that they listen to God for each other. Prophecy in this context is understood as something given by the Holy Spirit that points towards Christ. While most churches like hers understand the holy Spirit as a he or an it, the notable difference of a church operating in relationship with the Spirit is a shift of power. The Church is not threatened by their inability to control the Spirit but celebrate operating in its fullness; the gender of the follower being moved by the Spirit is of no consequence. “…prophecy is about hearing God for other people. When we look at the Bible we see that prophecy involves the process by which the thoughts and intentions of God are communicated to his people via a human vessel. It origins are… divine revelation.” (Livesey 35) They see the power given by the Spirit as the primary means by which they can bring freedom and transformation to the church and the community, not as means for domination. This is certainly progress, but it still does not take us to a place where the feminine is inherently recognized in the Godhead. Do communities like this demonstrate that the gender of God doesn’t matter if you operate in the Spirit?

“While language reflects our world, it also shapes the way we construct our experience of the world. As hallowed by tradition and currently used, all-male images of God are hierarchal images rooted in the unequal relation between women and men, and they function to maintain this arrangement…Instead of evoking the reality of God, they block it.” (Johnson 96) We still aren’t knowing God as fully as we could because we limit how God can be understood. And while language and power are neither good nor evil the way those two things are applied and used by humans can be alter our trajectory greatly. When we look at how power is used by what is a vastly androcentric world, we discover a systemic marginalization of women:

While women make up one-half of the world’s population, they work three-fourths of the world’s work hours, receive one tenth of the world’s salary, own one one-hundredth of the planet’s land, and constitute two-thirds of the worlds illiterate adults. Together with their dependent children, they comprise 75 percent of the worlds starving people and 80 percent of homeless refugees… they are also raped, prostituted, trafficked, and murdered by men to a degree that is not mutual. (Johnson 91)

This same imbalance of power exists within many religious organizations. Within the Catholic Church, only men can serve as priests, and only men have authority over many of the rites Catholics understand as being critical to their entry into the kingdom of God.  “Exercising public authority in the church, men assume the right to speak of God; their own privileged position then served as the chief model for the divine. As a result, verbal depictions of God in liturgy, preaching, and catechesis, along with visual representations in art, have forged a strong link in the popular mind between divinity and maleness.” (Johnson 98) Human history teaches us that when one group holds all the power, it effectively subjugates or oppresses those that are not of that group (examples include apartheid, ethnic minorities in Europe during WWII, the current crisis in Syria, etc.). While some might consider such comparisons to be dramatic, the point is to emphasize the disparity of power and the inevitable lack of freedom it creates. In effect, the patriarchy becomes a barrier to people better knowing God.

In summary, what the current Church perspective creates is a decision point for women. The first option is to receive relationship with God only through male bodies; that they are her intercessor, her priest, her path to Elohim, Jesus and the holy Spirit. The second is that, “As Carol Christ astutely observed, a woman may see herself as created in the image of God only by abstracting herself from her concrete bodiliness. But she can never experience that which is freely available to every man and boy in her culture of having her full sexual identity affirmed as being in the image and likeness of God.” (Johnson 99) The risk of these two options is that our community continues moving forward with God as a male icon, resulting in a failure to reconcile relationships between women and God, women and men, and God and men. The Church also continues to limit the triune God: “…it reduces the living God to an idol. Exclusively male language leads us to forget the incomprehensibility of holy mystery and instead reduces the living God to the fantasy of an infinitely ruling man.” (Johnson 98) By embracing the holy Spirit in her feminine identity as she was spoken of by Jesus, by remembering that she is equal to the persons who form the Godhead and by walking in the truth that not only does she possesses the attributes of God but that women are made in her image, we gain a richer and deeper answer for the questions we seek as individuals as well as a fulfillment to our calling as the Church. For the Church, “…to call for justice in the world the church must itself first be just. If church structure is in service of mission, then without just internal structures the church’s mission in the world will not be credible.” (Hines 167) Ultimately the femininity of the Spirit expands who God is to us, who we are to God and who we are to one another, thereby transforming the Church.

Works Cited

Bible. Saint Mary’s Press College Study Bible. Winona, MN: Christian Brothers Publications, 2006. Book.

Brock, Sebastian. “The Holy Spirit as Feminine in Early Syriac Literature.” Ed. Soskice, Janet Martin. After Eve. Collins Marshall Pickering, 1990. http://www.womenpriests.org/theology/brock.asp. Electronic.

Clouzet, Ron E. M. “The Personhood of the Holy Spirit and Why It Matters.” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society (2006): 11-32. Electronic.

Distefano, Matthew. “The Holy Spirit is not a Male, Conservative Evangelical.” 25 April 2016. Patheos. Blog. 25 April 2017.

Hines, Mary E. “Community for Liberation.” LaCugna, Catherine Mowry. Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective. United States of America: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1993. 161-184. Book.

Johnson, Elizabeth A. Quest for a Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God. United States of America: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2014. Book.

Livesey, Cath. My Sheep Have Ears: Exploring Prophecy with Discipleship and Mission. United Kingdom: 3DM Publishing, 2015. Book.

Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014. Print.

 

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Is Your Identity in Your Brokenness or Your Wholeness?

Some find their identity in their brokenness, their failures, the mistakes that they made. It’s true, when we stand on our own, when we choose isolation, we are broken and seeking wholeness, fulfillment, happiness. We seek and seek and seek and inevitably grow weary. Perhaps you never quite feel satiated, or maybe the satisfaction you occasionally achieve only lasts for a short time.

But there is truth in this: we are meant to know wholeness, but wholeness as it comes through relationship with the Creator, the Advocate, the Savior: “And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col. 1:17) It is the triune God that holds us together; that brings fullness, meaning and purpose to our lives. When Paul writes to the Ephesians, he calls this out to them and explains that God is limited to neither Jew nor Gentile but rather to all of creation.

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. -Ephesians 3:14-19

Reflection on Love

“…A bad person can receive the sacrament of the body and blood of the Lord, for is said, “All who eat and drink unworthily, eat and drink judgment on themselves.” [1 Cor. 11:29] A bad person can have the name of Christ and be called a Christian. Such people are referred to when it says, “They polluted the name of their God.” [Ezek. 36:20] To have all these sacraments is, as I say, possible even for a bad person. But to have love and be a bad person is impossible. Love is the unique gift, the fountain that is yours alone. The Spirit of God exhorts you to drink from it, and in so doing to drink from himself.

Excerpt from St. Augustine’s Love Sermon, italics added for emphasis

I haven’t figured out much of anything, but I feel like if someone were to ask me what God called us to as his children, I would summarize it thusly: Let love overflow from you; let love be the foundation of your words and your actions. Have every step be a movement born out of love.

This does not mean things like grace, truth, justice, etc. aren’t important. They surely are and we know they can co-exist; in fact to love is to be honest rather than deceive, to show grace in the face of injury, to seek justice for the oppressed and marginalized. But if we lead with justice, we often miss opportunities for grace. If we lead with truth, we sometimes lack compassion. The foundation must be love. If it is not built on love, what will lead you?

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” 1 John 4:7-8

“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.” 1 John 4:16

Reiterated, perhaps because it is so hard for humanity to fully understand, is the fact that God is love. It is not saying God feels love but rather that God’s very nature is that of love; that to love is to be in relationship with God and to be unloving is to not know God.

How are we to love? This is perhaps the hardest part, because we are not called to love just the people we like. Not to limit it to only our family and friends. Jesus was perfect but he didn’t love only perfect people. He spent a tremendous amount of time loving those who were seen as untouchable, despised, neglected, marginalized and cursed. What is Christ’s response to these people? To all people?

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” 1 John 3:16-18

We are not meant to love from a distance because God does not love like that; God is relational and personal. It is worth noting that God is love because our God is Triune. A solitary God before creation could not be love without having another to love. Love is communal; it requires plurality. We cannot truly love in solitude and although our God is one, our God is also three.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” John 1:1-3

“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'” Genesis 1:26

So we see that they were together from the beginning; that they were one but also separate (I know, it can sound confusing and we can’t fully comprehend it but think of it more as 1x1x1=1 instead of the more confusing 1+1+1=1). Most often we can understand God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit more easily through their relationship. Described by St. Augustine through the lens of love, the Trinity can be discerned through seeing God as the lover, Jesus as the Beloved and the Holy Spirit as love.

“And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.'” Mark 1:11

“And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Romans 5:5

Love is such a big part of this story; in fact I would say the entire story is about love. Jesus even told us the two most important commandments were to LOVE God with all our hearts, soul and mind and to LOVE our neighbor as we LOVE ourselves. To know God is to love the way God loves. It is a reckless sort of love, a love the abides even in the midst of rejection, disappointment, failure, and disobedience. It is love at a cost to oneself. A sacrificial love; an abundant love. It is a love that whispers in the darkness, “You are loved and you can love.”

 

Book Review – Discovering Trinity in Disability: A Theology for Embracing Difference

“We focus on disability and our Christian tradition because we have learned that disability is an enduring, fundamental aspect of humanity that has been manipulated and wronged by society… We searched our faith tradition for signs of disability and, indeed, we found the divine Trinity.” (Tataryn, 7) This statement is the crux of this book, helping readers move from a space where disability is at best, just a burden the person is meant to bear or at worst, a result of sinfulness or God’s wrath to a space where they recognize the Trinity in the embodiment of each person and our call as a community to be inclusive.

They start by examining what disables those in our community: our marginalization of people different from socially acceptable “norms” and the point of view that they are, “objects of pity and recipients of charity.” (Tataryn, 15).  What disables people is less often their different embodiments but rather the exclusion of them from the rest of society; of being viewed as not entirely whole, of having something missing, of being lesser. “By perceiving and treating disabled people as Other, we accept societal taxonomies of gradated human value, thereby rejecting the fullness of humankind and limiting our spiritual growth, both personal and collective.” (Tataryn, 15) It is necessary that we work to shift from the medical model of disability that views various embodiments as a tragedy that we strive to fix to the social model which instead says that disability is rooted not in the person but in the society that disables them.

Next they begin explaining what this inclusive community looks like. While the social model uncovers the root of disability, the Trinitarian Paradigm, as a supplement, “emphasizes the vital, universal need for human relationship.” (Tataryn, 22) They walk us through this by examining the conflicting perspectives throughout Christian history which skew us toward a viewpoint that frames an individual’s value in predominantly economic terms. Starting with the Hebrew Scripture, we start to understand the difference between seeing a person’s body as possessing divinity or demonic traits based on their embodiment.  When we examine Genesis, we see it points to a God who is a Creator and fond of diversity; to the fact that community is not built on similarity but on difference. “By ordering, that which has been created ‘man’ has created hierarchy, which produces in ‘man’ a further need: a relationship of equality, a ‘partner.’ …Human community is based in the difference between ‘man’ and woman.’” (Tataryn, 29) It is sin that divides us, not our differences. It is sin that creates the antagonistic, hierarchal attitudes of one group towards another. Ultimately, we reach Leviticus, whose purpose was to address sin. “Leviticus’s purpose is order, ritual, and the authority of the priestly caste, not complicated by human diversity.” (Tataryn, 32) They also walk us through some of the reasons why it is supposed that disability and ritual impurity are linked to one another, ultimately leading to the conclusion that if read through the social model we can see that the liminality is most often an outcome of life processes more than sin or God’s wrath. “But the prophets distinguish between those who are vulnerable or weak and those who are faithless and suffer as a result.” (Tataryn, 38)

Next examined is how Jesus disables the idea of institutionalized disability within society. “Jesus’ action is one of nullifying the established norms that have disrupted community. By approaching and engaging with individuals who have been rejected by the cultural and ritual codes of community, Jesus subverts the taboos of exclusion and practices radical inclusion.” (Tataryn, 43) It walks through various examples of this, noting how Jesus highlights human dignity, personhood and faith as well as the repentance from sin. It even notes the writings of Paul and Luke that strive to counteract the trend of physiognomy in their time (the belief that one’s physical traits reflected the character of a person). There’s considerable coverage of Paul and his encouragement of others to rejoice in their weakness because that is where God shows up. “In context with the day-to-day living of Jesus of Nazareth, the Resurrection instead signals a celebration of divine love known through the fullness of being human, without margins.” (Tataryn, 50)

Next we examine the role of community, or koinonia, in being a space where love and relationship for all people is lived out side-by-side. Examples from the prophets as well as Abraham and Sarah emphasize the importance of an inclusive community. “The Suffering Servant embodies the stigma linked to disability: causing disgust, shame, and sorrow. Yet the Suffering Servant embodies most completely the relationship between God and humanity, challenging us to look beyond our prejudices in building a new, fuller community than previously imagined.” (Tataryn, 53) In order to better understand what this call looks like and how we got to where we are, the authors dive into a wide variety of theologians from both Eastern and Western orthodoxy. This helps us to see how we get to our understanding of the Trinity today: one of relationship to one another. Operating out of this knowledge is a challenge that the church continues to struggle with. “Unconsciously, our church communities tend to conform more to the tyrannical societal norm than to the dictates of Christ. But with conscious awareness, we can become communities of love that drew people so compellingly to follow Christ in the nascent Christian Church.” (Tataryn, 71)

Next examined are the various models of Christian community: understanding that caring means having relationship with others, that caritas is a necessary outcome of faith and not the exercise of charity as we see today: we potentially give charitably to have others love our neighbor for us. It also looks at the relationship with God in the context of solitude (like the monastic tradition) or service (where oftentimes acting out of pity is confused for loving our neighbors). Amongst several other models, they also examine what is termed a Holy Fool, where “…the Christian (not necessarily a monastic) acts contrary to social norms, shunning public approval, creatively embodying Christ’s radical transformation of the natural world.” (Tataryn, 78)

Following this they engage in an examination of the sacraments: “…we exist in relation to God, to each other, and to the cosmos. Thus, our faith is rooted in our materiality, and this sacred substantiality, as it were, is manifested sacramentality.” (Tataryn, 84) By understanding that all creation is laced with divinity, because the Divine touched all of creation, we can recognize that God is present through creation. Early in the church moments of time that were viewed as particularly imbued with divine presence were called mysteries. As more and more structure was built around these things, societal prerequisites became linked to being able to engage in the sacraments. This attitude has been examined by the church in recent decades.

The last few sections examine miracles, true hospitality and being icons.  The section on miracles looks in depth at the story of a family with children of different embodiments that faces a disabling and exclusive society which they are excluded from participating fully in. “Miracles are associated with faith, sin, cure, prayer, and the power of God over nature to perform the impossible… In our time, we have created disability as a deviance rather than understanding it as an ordinary human occurrence… a miracle presents a quick fix.” (Tataryn, 97) Ultimately, the point is made that rather than viewing the healing miracles as a path to a quick fix perhaps we should understand it as Jesus’ engagement in the Trinity as well as his living out caritas on the Sabbath with people rejected by society. Hospitality examines the church (and all the people that make it up) and asks why we are allowing our hospitality to be defined by society. If you truly care about somebody, that means we also care for them, and if there should be any place that defines inclusiveness and hospitality it ought to be found in Christ’s community.  Lastly we have icons, which some see as a form of idolatry. When more closely examined, “Iconographic style implicitly conveys a transfigured reality and elicits… a recognition of their participation in its meaning… The Eastern Christian does not bow before an icon to worship the wood, but rather venerates the reality recognized through the material substance.” (Tataryn, 109) This allows an extension of one’s self to the Other, in truth, to create a connection not just between those we live with in community today but to tie all humanity through all time together.

In summary, the authors effectively walk us through disability via the lens of the Trinitarian Paradigm as well as the social model, helping readers to gain a more thorough understanding of the Christian faith and what it means to those whose embodiment is different from the accepted norm. It reveals the ways in which our views of humanity are distorted and how it wrongs all of society; that being present and living out caritas with all humanity in an inclusive community is where we find a greater presence of the Trinity and what we are called into as followers of Christ.

Works Cited

Tataryn, Myroslaw & Truchan-Tataryn. Discovering Trinity in Disability: A Theology for Embracing Difference. United States of America: Novalis Publishing, 2013. Print.

Social Disability and the Trinity

Seeing disability through the lens of the social disability paradigm and the Trinitarian paradigm as opposed to the medical model of disability is critical in understanding what our role as Christians is within all of society, both personally and professionally. By understanding and applying what we learn, we are able to move towards a mature spirituality that reflects the Gospel more fully and enables a deeper relationship with God.

“The disability rights movement has identified the standard naturalized perception of disability in Western culture today as framed within a medical model of disability, which has pathologized unconventional bodies and has individualized disability as a personal tragedy.” (Tataryn, 19) This view of one’s embodiment as personal tragedy rather than the perspective of it being the natural outcome of living life causes society to view the person as incomplete or not fully human. This is exacerbated by an environment of hierarchies and competition; a race up the corporate ladder or an accumulation of prestige and respect in your personal life. In a society that values particular types of beauty, wealth and abundance, it necessarily creates a lower caste of people who disgust or struggle in poverty and with scarcity. This effectively disables groups of people, as described by the social disability paradigm.

“The social model of disability locates disability within society rather than in an individual… what we presume to identify objectively as impairment in a person may depend more on social factors than anatomical facts; we may be judging rather than simply observing.” (Tataryn, 19) In effect, it recognizes that what disables people isn’t often their embodiment as it is their exclusion from society and participating fully within it. This comes at a cost to all of society because we do not reap the benefits of the gifts given to every individual. Jesus was one who wanted to dismantle this hierarchy and he calls those who follow them to do the same. This can be exceedingly difficult when society teaches the opposite. “When you have been taught from an early age to be first, to win, and then suddenly you sense that you are being called by Jesus to go down the ladder and to share your life with those who have little culture, who are poor and marginalized, a real struggle breaks out within oneself.” (Vanier, 19)

A hierarchy within society that places those that do not conform at the bottom is best described as elitist; an accumulation of power and wealth in one group at a cost to another. They “win” at the cost of the rest of humanity suffering. “Elitism is the sickness of us all. We all want to be on the winning team. That is the heart of apartheid and every form of racism. The important thing is to become conscious of those forces in us and to work at being liberated from them and to discover that the worst enemy is inside our own hearts not outside.” (Vanier, 20) Embracing the trinity within the social disability paradigm encourages us all to relinquish our egos in order to engage within an inclusive community.

Jean Vanier, a man who did this in part by establishing communities where those disabled by society could have the freedom to live and grow together described the experience thusly: “And I come here to tell you how much life these people have given me, that they have an incredible gift to bring to our world, that they are a source of hope, peace and perhaps salvation for our wounded world, and that if we are open to them, if we welcome them, they give us life and lead us to Jesus and the good news.” (Vanier, 9) To experience this in our professional lives calls us to engage with all people, to consider the needs of all rather than most and to facilitate the growth and respect of every individual. Privately, this could look like being inclusive in those you invite to your home, who you develop friendships with, and how you raise your children to engage with others. Finally, from a spiritual perspective, this kind of engagement with others helps us to grow more mature and surrender our ego as we encounter the Trinity more fully.

In fact, by engaging with people different from ourselves, we encounter not only the person but the divine within them. “Those with whom Jesus identifies himself are regarded by society as misfits. And yet Jesus is that person who is hungry; Jesus is that woman who is confused and naked.” (Vanier, 25) We do not need to be at the top of the ladder or compete against one another to “win” at being Christian but rather, learn to value the differences of others without coming against it. “Just as Christ, the God-Human (theanthropos), has united the divine and the human, so now humanity, through love, can reconfigure that which has been seen as opposite and recognize difference without opposition.” (Tataryn, 64)

To take it even further, we should look at the people God chose above all others as his people. They were not chosen because they were physically or mentally superior, more faithful or purer. “Israel is the people of God not because of their own actions or merits, but by the graciousness of the Lord. In other words, it is a community called into being by the One who has loved Israel since before its birth. The Christian community is likewise a community that is called into being, not constituted by its own actions or decisions.” (Tataryn, 52) We exist, and our community exists, not by our own merits but due to a gracious God who calls us into deeper relationship with him through deeper relationship with each other.

Thus, the Trinity and the social disability paradigm reveal the call away from disabling, competing and subjugating one another and into a relationship with all creation at all times. By doing so, we understand the expansiveness of our family and the value of inclusiveness even at a cost of not putting ourselves first. “More and more people are becoming conscious that our God is not just a powerful Lord telling us to obey or be punished but our God is family. Our God is three persons in love with each other; our God is communion. And this beautiful and loving God is calling us as humans into this life of love.” (Vanier, 35)

Works Cited

Tataryn, Myroslaw & Truchan-Tataryn. Discovering Trinity in Disability: A Theology for Embracing Difference. United States of America: Novalis Publishing, 2013. Print.

Vanier, Jean. From Brokenness to Community. United States of America: Paulist Press, 1992. Print.