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[Chalice] A Thought Experiment in Trinitarianism [Chalice]
for Unitarians at Easter

Presented Easter Sunday, March 23, 2008, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

A few weeks ago, Doug Muder talked about Unitarianism and about how we assemble our own religion out of our own experiences and the various religious traditions. And that is certainly what we do in this church. One week we talk about Mary Magdalen and the Gnostic Gospels, another we talk about Emerson, another we may talk about Confucius and Buddhism. On Easter, every year, every Easter, we talk about the old familiar, Christianity. As if we had not heard enough about that already.

Talking here about Christianity reminds me of talking to my youngest niece Christy in Arizona. Whatever topic you mention to Christy, it is quite likely she will respond with one word: Boring! Some of us in our congregation were raised as Unitarians, but most of us, including me, were raised in some version of American Christianity. We are raised in it, familiar with it, surrounded by it, maybe even can't get away from it. For many of us, we are very interested in Buddhism, or Taoism, or so many of the things we talk about in this church, but Christianity is the same old same old. Boring!

Boring and wrong. American Unitarianism has for the past nearly 200 years said over and over again that Christianity is both boring and wrong. We know the old story American Christianity tells. Humans are sinful and need to be saved. God rescues us from this predicament by sending his Son to suffer and die for our sakes. God then raises him from the dead on Easter, and as long as we believe that this Jesus is God's Son, then we too will be saved and go to Heaven. Unitarians in the 19th and 20th centuries over and over again rejected the very foundational thesis of Christianity: that human nature was sinful and in need of redemption. Great Unitarians like Emerson and Channing and Theodore Parker and Edward Everett Hale and so many others and found that insulting. Unitarians have rejected the whole story, the whole mythos of Christianity. That God is angry about sin and so requires the sacrifice of His Son was not just wrong but disgusting to Emerson and Channing and to so many other Unitarians of then and of today. If this is what Christianity is, we do find it boring and the same old same old and wrong and maybe even disgusting, though we might not want to go that far.

While Unitarians today are in agreement with Unitarians of the past in not accepting the notion of the depravity of human nature and the need for the blood of the redeemer, I still think in some very important way you and I and other contemporary Unitarians are in a very different relation to Christianity than was the case for most 19th and even early 20th century Unitarians. Most of the at least famous Unitarians of this earlier time seemed to have a very clear and direction connection to Christianity. They knew what was of greatest value in Christianity: the person of Jesus as the embodiment of human perfection. Unitarianism in the 19th and at least early 20th centuries was not Christ-centered for sure, but it was Jesus-centered. I think we can safely take Edward Everett Hale's 1888 sermon titled "The Unitarian Principles" as exemplary when he states that the Unitarian Church takes Jesus as the Most Real Being in History while the Christian Church has made him the most Unreal. He says Jesus shows us in his "energy, his purity, his tenderness, and his unselfishness the fullness of very attribute of life" (p. 11).

Are we contemporary Unitarians connected to Christianity in this way? Do we model ourselves after Jesus and try to pursue the human perfection realized in Jesus? Do we take his life, his nature, his teachings as the model for our life? Do we try to emulate Jesus' energy, his purity, his tenderness, his unselfishness? Maybe some of us do, but for most of us that spiritual effort and goal to be like Jesus is not really where we are today as Unitarians, and this fact does make us very different from Unitarians of an earlier era.

But I am not talking about this change to a different form of Unitarianism with regret or out of nostalgia. I'm not wishing we could go back to the earlier form of Unitarianism and model ourselves on Jesus. I like, I prefer the way we are today, partly because I think today we Unitarians-if we can get beyond out attitude that Christianity is the same old same old-can approach Christianity more from the outside, the way we approach Buddhism or native American spirituality. We can ask of Christianity the same thing we would ask of Buddhism or native American spirituality: What is interesting about this? What does it have to say to us that is challenging, enlightening?

If we did approach Christianity the way we do the other religious traditions of the world, I do think there is one aspect of Christianity that we might well find most interesting. This aspect is the same aspect 19th century Unitarianism was quick to dismiss. This aspect of Christianity we may well find one of the most interesting today is, I would argue, Trinitarianism, though it may seem odd, contradictory, or even heretical for a Unitarian to say that.

Why do I say that Trinitarianism may well be for us contemporary Unitarians today one of the most interesting aspects of Christianity? Trinitarianism in Christianity tries to get our thinking about God beyond God as a Being, as the Supreme Being. Christianity in its popular forms may be very responsible for, and very much to blame for, our traditional conception of god as a great Being up in the sky, but the doctrine of the Trinity insists we have to think of God not as a Being but as a system of relation. God is not just the Father God, but God is the Father and is the Son and is the Father's relation to the Son and the Son's relation to the Father. This is a concept of God that goes far beyond our normal conception of God as the great being up there in the sky. God is intrinsically relational, and God's life is to live out these relations within God's self.

The concept of God as this intrinsically relational Trinity gives meaning to the events that culminate in Christianity at Easter. God the Father experiences the death of God the Son. The Father has the Son's life taken away from Him, and the Father becomes bereft of his relation to the Son. In this inner Trinitarian way, grief, loss, pain, mourning become fundamental aspects of God's own history, God's own inner life. What Antigone feels at the deaths of her brothers that causes her to defy the law becomes in Trinitarian theology part of God's own life. And the Son on Good Friday experiences abandonment by God the Father. The Son literally dies alone and forsaken, friendless, Godless, and this experience of being forsaken by God then becomes through the events of Good Friday an aspect of God's own inner life. A/theism, the experience of living without God, without God's help or a sense of God's presence, becomes God's own inner experience.

There is a lot more to life than striving after human excellence and perfection. If that is all human life was, it would be less than human, almost robotic. As we all know, and some know far too well, human life is not just trying to be morally perfect but involves failure, frustration, loneliness, estrangement, love, connection, the loss of connection and love, grief, pain, mourning, etc. Christianity-at least when it becomes profoundly Trinitarian and detaches itself from the notion of God as the Supreme Being-is an attempt to say theologically that all these human experiences are not separate from God's own inner life. Trinitarianism tries to say that these experiences we normally think of us as purely human and outside of God's infinity and God's perfection are central aspects of God's inner life because God is not a Being but is a life of relation. God is the life of the relation the Father has to the Son and the Son has to the Father and they both have to that ever mysterious Third, the Holy Ghost, who goes who no where and who does who knows what. Could we say this mysterious third quickens our minds and opens our spirits when we learn about Buddhism or native American spirituality or Trinitarianism? Could we say this mysterious Third makes us deeply appreciative not only of the beauty of the snow this Easter morning but of the fact that this snow is awfully good for Easter egg hunts? This too could be considered genuinely Trinitarian speculation.

My point, of course, is that Christianity this Easter as every Easter is awfully familiar to us. We know all about it, this story about sin, the need for sacrifice, etc. The best thing we can say about is that it is boring. But there is always so much more to religious traditions than we know, even the ones most familiar, most boring to us. With Christianity there is the too familiar story about blood and sacrifice, but there is also Trinitarian speculation about the inner life of God as relation, something I hope that is genuinely interesting even to those of us who call ourselves on Easter as on every other Sunday Unitarians.

Happy Easter

©2008 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob. 2008. A Thought Experiment in Trinitarianism for Unitarians at Easter, /talks/20080323.shtml (accessed July 16, 2020).

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