Contemplation of the Trinity often leads to discussion about language. Can we refer to the Spirit as "She"? What about God? Do we have to say "Father"? The following is a reflection around some nuances of that discussion.
Whenever I consider the changes to worship, theology or language, I think first about Luther’s understanding of the first commandment. Luther said, “Anything on which your heart relies and depends… that is really your God.” It is too easy for change for change’s sake to be made into an idol and, conversely, it is too easy to remain unchanged because of the idol of tradition. When we are seeking alternatives to what we have, we must first explore the why before the what. Is our change meant to correct “years of wrong” by substituting one set-in stone decision for another? Are we looking for how the Spirit may lead us to a deeper understanding of God in our midst or are we looking for a more tightly defined orthodoxy? The unexamined life may not be worth living, but unexamined faith is worth even less; it has the potential to harm the image of God for our neighbors.
Revisiting Paul Tillich’s thoughts on Trinitarian symbolism, the signs and names we attribute to the Holy, Holy, Holy help us comprehend how God is in community with us. Without that variety, the symbols lose their potency and, with that loss, their effectiveness in answering our ultimate concerns. Rosemary Radford Ruether argues once Christianity becomes the dominant cultural voice, the more the nuanced language of the New Testament loses its tension and, correspondingly, the more we need to look for the deeper metaphors that are present in our biblical tradition. Ruether specifically points to feminine imagery in the gospel of Luke and the comparisons of God to a woman adding yeast to flour (creating) or searching for a lost coin (redeeming). For Ruether, the rise of Christian belief and, thus, organization led to the weakening in understanding of the Father God, whom Jesus called, “Abba.”
Yet, does simply stirring in new God-as-mother imagery really solve the problem that is, at its root, a creation of God our in our image, instead of considering in Whose image we were made? In order to address my ultimate concerns (Tillich), God must be different from me. “Why am I here and what will happen to me after here?” are not questions that I can satisfactorily answer from within myself, for myself. I need to look at the communion of the Trinity and the community around me to have those questions answered. Abrupt changes due to cultural alterations disrupt my understanding and re-stir the anxiety of those questions within me.
Simply alternating pronouns for God creates a binary trap, away from which even Paul tries to move believers. Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (NRSV) When there is no longer male and female, it is God’s undoing of what humans set in place in the Garden of Eden. The separation from one another that also separated us from God is undone through the righteousness and power of Jesus Christ. Our redemption and unity in creation must be considered anew daily, along with our baptisms, as a way of recognizing the death of the old Adam (and Eve).
The figures of the Trinity release us, through faith, from the binary trap of our world of sin. In loving relationship to one another, the one God reminds and shows us how to move together and how we think of the Three affects our ability to understand that reminder. If only “female” part of the Trinity is the Spirit, sent out from the first two members with a pat on the head, we risk projecting our cultural experiences onto the Spirit. That perspective risks the understanding the Spirit as not quite on the same level as the other Two Persons, just as women are somewhat perceived to be not on the same level as men. If the Mothering God is the one who suffers with us and is present in our pain, this is a subliminal way of portraying the lot of women as suffering. Finally, naming Jesus as a “Daughter” in an ultra-feminist Trinitarian formula runs up against the heresy of not recognizing the fully human, historical person of Jesus who, in human form, was a man.
To come back to my original thoughts, caution is needed in alternative Trinitarian formulas, but avoiding them or uncritically embracing them makes an idol of words and masks the depth of God in three persons. The variety of symbols for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit expresses some of the richness of God’s ability to exceed our needs, desires and expectations. We know we cannot save ourselves, but it is interesting that many of our attempts at linguistic change are approached from the idea of “redeeming” the history of the church.
If I refer to God as “She” when I preach, I do not undo the Crusades. I do not make God more palatable for someone who struggles with the word “Father” because of past experience. I do not make up for clergy abuse or undo hypocrisy on the church council. And if I think I do anything of those or similar things, I am making an idol of myself. However, if I listen to the Word with an open heart and believe that it is alive among us, the Spirit can guide me, and others, to new ways to express God, Three in One.
The first commandment is the easiest to break because we are always looking to affirm what we know to be true. If we ponder more deeply what we believe to be true, we may be still enough to look for how God, Living Word, Water and Wind, is graciously working in, through and for us and expanding our understanding and our faith.
As the Gentile Christian movement began to stream from the Jewish establishment that was its original riverbed, the triangle formed between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit began to look confusing to those who believed in the monotheistic base of the faith. The intensity of the struggle to defend the core monotheistic values is difficult to describe. By the time of Justin Martyr (100-165), there was an emphasis on the three, but not as much on the one. Grant quotes Justin’s apology, “we confess the most true God, the Father of righteousness and chastity and the other virtues, untouched by wickedness… we honor and worship him and the Son who came from him and us these things… and the prophetic Spirit.”
Not, in its entirety, the most stalwart of Trinitarian formulas (Justin does put an “army of angels” before the Spirit), the phrase is nonetheless recognizable even to Christians today as part of what we believe. Within Justin’s basic formulation, one can see what will form the fodder for various heresies and struggles to come. Are all three the same in essence? How do the Son and the Spirit come from the Father? Is there a hierarchy? It also became important to establish Jesus as both coming from and being God and having been fully human. Between the efforts of the Cappadocian fathers, Irenaeus, the councils at Chalcedon and Nicea, and countless others, the relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to one another and to the world was hammered out- both in positive and negative theology (what is and what is not).
The need to define the roles and relationship within and without the Trinity is also rooted in our need (as human beings) to understand the relationship of the Three and the One to ourselves. Beyond theological and historical need, the Trinity must be clarified for our own spiritual and psychological needs. Paul Tillich describes these needs as part of our ultimate concerns. It is enough of a struggle to accept the gifts of grace and faith and understanding the bonds of love between the members of the Trinity, united in one another, can help us understand the love of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for us. We use specific symbols for the members of the Trinity, which stir in us remembrance, appreciation and comprehension of their actions in, through and for us. Tillich says:
The questions arising out of man’s finitude are answered by the doctrine of God and the symbols used in it. The questions arising out of man’s estrangement are answered by the doctrine of Christ and the symbols applied to it. The questions arising out of the ambiguities of life are answered by the doctrine of the Spirit and its symbols. Each of these answers expresses that which is a matter of ultimate concern in symbols derived from particular revelatory experiences. Their truth lies in their power to express the ultimacy of the ultimate in all directions. The history of the Trinitarian doctrine is a continuous fight against formulations which endanger this power.
Understanding God as Creator, Father or Life-Giver illuminates what we are not able to do for ourselves: bring ourselves into our fullest being, create from nothing and parent with an all-encompassing love. Seeing Jesus in a lamb, an empty cross or footprints stirs in us the recognition of reconciliation beyond what we could do ourselves or even know to ask for. Thinking about the Spirit as a wind blowing through the world, a feeling rising within or an anointing being poured over helps us grasp, in some small way, the reality of the continued action of the Holy in the world.
Though we can recognize them individually with their symbols (that meet our ultimate concerns), together the members of the Trinity also meet our need to understand relationships and mutual love. God sent Jesus, as part of God’s self, to show the way to welcoming arms of a Parent who never forsakes. The Spirit proceeds from them as a promise and a sign that we are not in the world without God. The relationship of the three to one another reminds us God, as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is in the same kind of loving, sending, divided and united relationship with us. The doctrine of the Trinity helps us, as believers, to understand the three notes that make up the chord of God. Our faith is not divided among three distinct deities, but enriched by the mystery of a God who is so self-giving that there is no limit, except that of our minds to conceive, to how God can act in, through and for all of creation.
 Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology, Vol. 3. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1963.