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INTERFAITH THEOLOGY AND THE TRINITY

Introduction
You may not be into popular television, but many people watched the recent “Britain’s Got Talent” competition. Although Susan Boyle eventually came second and she has needed some psychiatric help, the fascination with her was interesting. Perhaps it was the combination of someone who looked very ordinary and obscure but whose looks hid an extraordinary singing voice.

Trinity Sunday perhaps also suffers from the Susan Boyle syndrome. It looks obscure but may have a hidden richness! Let me explain. We worry about trying to understand a central Christian doctrine which we know is important but which we’d rather avoid. It could be, however, that this is a treasure in our tradition which could prove valuable in thinking about how the different religions relate to each other. The Belgian Jesuit theologian Jacques Dupuis who died in 2004 has done some work on this, as has also Rowan Williams amongst others.

The Problem
The Christian attitude towards other religions has, in the past, fallen into three kinds. They can be briefly described as exclusive, inclusive and pluralist. An exclusive attitude holds that only Christ is the true saviour and all other religions ultimately fail to bring salvation. The inclusive attitude says that though Christ is central to salvation, other religions may show traces or forms of Christ that lie hidden. The pluralist attitude says that all religions are more or less about the same thing and eventually lead to God.

There are problems with all three paradigms which would take considerable time to explain in detail. The challenge of our current society is how we are to be both loyal to our own faith in Christ, but genuinely open to the other faiths. It is a tension which may be hard to maintain, but if held, can be creative. The doctrine of the Trinity is a treasure which can be unpacked in a way that enriches our thinking through these issues.
The Trinity
The doctrine of the Trinity is itself a way of holding disparate things in tension. We believe in one God but who is three persons. There is at the same time a unity in the Godhead and a community of loving relationship between Father, Son and Spirit. This dynamic of three distinct persons who are all part of the one Godhead can be helpful in interfaith theology. God the Father is not replaced by the Son when he comes to earth in the incarnation. The Son existed before the incarnation, but as man, we see that he is separate from the God the Father. Similarly, the Spirit existed before Pentecost, being involved with creation and inspiring not just the development of faith in pre-Christian Jewish tradition, but in other pre-Christian traditions, too.

Separateness
If we understand the separateness or rather, the distinctiveness of each person of the Trinity in this way, it is possible to say that other religions move towards God (whom we called God the Father) and can be inspired by the Spirit. In the same way that Christ, the Son, does not “replace” the Father when he comes to earth, so we are not at liberty to “replace” the God of other religions with Christ by saying that Christ is the only way. If the Spirit that descended on Christ was already at work in the world at large without reference to Christ, then we can accept the Spirit’s inspiration in other religions before and after Christ’s time on earth.

Unity
In a similar way, we can also apply our belief in the unity of the Godhead to a continuity of religions, or rather, a continuity of revelation. This is not to say that all religions are ultimately “the same”, nor that they are all, in some way, “equal”. But if we can combine the distinctiveness of each person of the Trinity with the unity of the Godhead, then we can hold in tension, both the distinctiveness of each religion, and the conviction that they must be connected in some way. On the one hand this helps us to remain loyal to Christ and not fall into the error of syncretism. On the other hand, it helps us to take the various religions seriously and not be secretly thinking to ourselves all along that they are either fundamentally flawed or really Christian all along without them realising it!

I have perhaps oversimplified a complex subject and not done justice to the profound theologies of Jacques Dupuis and Rowan Williams. But I hope to have provided a taster to show that the Trinity may in fact be something to value and explore which is relevant to our concerns today rather than an obscure part of our faith that we’d rather ignore. And I hope I have not taken the name of Susan Boyle in vain either!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith

 

   


 
 

Holy God,
faithful and unchanging:
enlarge our minds with the knowledge of your truth,
and draw us more deeply into the mystery of your love,
that we may truly worship you,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Amen


 

 



Acknowledgements