It’s the most astounding answer I have received in all my years of teaching.
The topic at hand was the Trinity and my question was something like “What sort of real world implications might the Trinity have?”
Students offered some answers found in the text book. To understand God as inherently social might cause humans to see themselves similarly, not as solitaries. Perhaps the Trinity assisted the rise of democracy since authority was held in community not a lone potentate
This coming Sunday, one week after Pentecost, is called “Trinity Sunday.” And every year, I can’t resist the same lame comment, “This is the Sunday we read our favorite Trinity stories from the Bible.”
“Perhaps the Trinity can help us with the whole postmodern thing,” said the student. “Like the Trinity, truth is complex and flowing, yet behind it all, there is a unity that we just can’t quite perceive.
Wow! That definitely didn’t come from the textbook. Sure, he was one of the brightest students in the class. But a college junior coming up with that? I still find it helpful when trying to think about truth and postmodernism and all that.
The question of Truth. It was the question back when I was in grad school. “Truth with a capital T” we called it. Is there such a thing? Universal truth? Unvarying truth? Truth not dependent on culture or history? That newfangled postmodernism said “No!” Truth is socially constructed and contextual. Instead of Truth, we have stories, according to postmodernism.
(If we were calling it postmodernism back then, shouldn’t it have its own name by now? But modernity is resilient, unwilling to go away easily. Postmodernism can’t seem find that stake to the heart or clove of garlic to finish it off.)
Lots, maybe most, western Christians have been pretty suspicious of postmodernism. “It will lead to relativism. It undoes Christianity’s truth claims,” they fret. I’ve never read Jamie Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? but I wish I had come up with the title.
Using my student’s metaphorical connection between the Trinity and postmodernism might help allay those Christian fears. Truth and God are both dynamic and in motion. There is some mysterious unity, a oneness somewhere deep. But we shouldn’t be too glib about it, or too quick to make assertions based on it, acting as if we understand what we don’t. This is not to affirm relativism or nihilism. We’re simply reticent to say much about that unity, as if we have some master blueprint that shows how all that is true converges into The Truth.
Christianity, in the thrall of modernity, tended to have too many answers, too many truths. We weren’t content simply to have our story. We wanted to have a universal, basically provable, Truth. Staying with the Trinity metaphor, modern Christianity stifled or calcified the Trinity—taking what is active and mysterious and making it solid and comprehensible. (Historians, care to expound on the rise of Unitarianism in the modern period?)
Warning: you can’t have these conversations with average pew sitters or college students without someone whipping out “I am the way, the truth, and life” as Jesus says in John 14. Some of you will then attempt carefully to unpack that passage. You will try to do things like examine how John uses the notion of truth, or other sound interpretative methods. But in the midst of these kinds of conversations, this is a dud, a romance killer. It only confirms their suspicion that you are a relativist or that you’re pulling some sort of trick on them.
Instead, I’ve learned to say, “Indeed Jesus is The Truth—with a capital T.” And I really do believe that. In Jesus of Nazareth we have our best access to The Truth. A Jewish peasant hanging on a Roman execution device, gives us our best glimpse of The Truth.
Trouble comes when our nasty modern habits kick in. We start extrapolating too far and too much from that Jesus. We want so badly to do it, to have keen insights and relevant comments about all sort of cool stuff, to construct elaborate systems, to bring Christian Truth to all topics at hand.
A few practices I keep to make me more nimble and humble. I talk about things that are true, but not truth. I reserve Truth for Jesus. That scientific discovery is true. So is this bit of music theory. But as a follower of Jesus, I’m not especially gifted at making a profound connection between those true things or referring them all back to Jesus. Talk “true” not “truth,” adjective not noun.
Second, I try to talk more about Jesus than Christ in these discussions. Of course, I’m not denying that Jesus is the Christ. But throughout history, when Christians talk about Christ more than Jesus, their discussions tend to become more abstract, more systematizing, more overreaching. Sticking with Jesus keeps things tangible and compact.
One other habit, I find helpful. I try to imagine what those early Christians were saying as they spread across the Mediterranean basin. It wasn’t “We’ve got Truth for you!” Nor was it “We have a really good book you should read.” It was more along the lines of “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” They trusted their story.
This is the invitation of postmodernism. Tell your story. And trust that people will find it compelling and life-giving. Postmodernism gives us the space to tell stories, rather than trying to win the Truth Game.
So this Trinity Sunday, part of what I’ll be doing is giving thanks for the Holy Trinity and how our relating, loving, dynamic God might help us find our way in postmodernity, or whatever name it finally receives. And also giving thanks for wonderful students and their sometimes stunning answers.