A reflection on Rublev's icon of the Trinity

Show atheists the Trinity

Michael Paul Gallagher

So often the Christian faith which atheists reject is impoverished. A fuller version depends on a recovery of the sense of the Trinity as the model for all Christian life. An Irish Jesuit who teaches fundamental theology at the Gregorian University in Rome would take Marx, Freud, Nietzsche and Russell to see the Rublev icon. Imagine any influential atheist gazing at the most famous icon in the world. Readers can supply their own unbelieving candidates but I like to think of Marx, Freud, Nietzsche and Russell gathered round the Rublev version of the Trinity. Inspired by the story in Genesis 18 of three visitors who came to Abraham, this masterpiece unites a serene circle of three angels with the symbol of suffering love – the chalice at the centre of the table, towards which the hands of all three gesture. There is a fourth place at the front of the table, because an icon is not simply for the detached spectator but an art form that draws the viewer inwards. Rublev calls the viewer into a sacred space, to encounter the Trinity as both stillness and energy, to sit down with this community of love.

If my quartet of atheists could pause and let such an image speak, they might find themselves tuning in to a very different wavelength of faith from the one they rejected. For they would then be searching from within an experience, not from the impersonal position of an outside observer. Contemplating that work of art would carry them beyond merely arguing about divine existence and towards an intuition of what it might mean actually to have a relationship with the divine.

Which God do atheists usually reject? Often a solitary and unrelating potentate – a Christian Zeus, as the Benedictine theologian Sebastian Moore once put it. Seldom the God whose three persons relate to each other in love. Seldom a Trinitarian participation in the Cross – symbolised by all three in Rublev’s icon pointing towards the chalice. Seldom the Three-in-One who invite us to join them and to enjoy their creating and healing of life.

Exactly those aspects suggested by the Rublev icon are being explored in theology today. It is retrieving a prayable sense of God as Three and linking this with a theology of the Cross. It is recovering a feeling for the beauty of the Trinity as a communion of flowing relationships – inward and outward.

And there is another surprise to be mentioned. Trinity for atheists translates the title of a recent book by the Italian theologian Bruno Forte, where he enters into spiritual dialogue with unbelievers on the theme of God as Trinity. Of course Forte is not alone in his insistence that Christians have fallen into the temptation of defending a sub-Trinitarian God. As far back as 1970 Karl Rahner quipped that most Christians were mere monotheists in their spirituality and that if the doctrine of the Trinity were dropped it would make little difference to them – in spite of the fact that official Christian prayer is so Trinitarian in shape: with Christ, in the Spirit, to the Father.

In the early Eighties the German theologian Walter Kasper argued in his book The God of Jesus Christ that if the Trinity represents the grammar of a specifically Christian faith, most atheists have never known the grammar of the language they find impossible to speak. According to Bishop Kasper, a renewal of the Trinitarian vision could be the right road towards the Christian answer to the challenge of modern atheism. It would liberate believers from defending the merely theistic God of the philosophers. For both believers and unbelievers, only this long-needed appreciation of the Trinity can do justice to the surprising God revealed through the experience recounted in the New Testament.

Among Protestant theologians Jürgen Moltmann and Eberhard Jüngel have developed a similar line of thinking, both of them proposing that the Trinity, as the specifically Christian vision of God, is much more credible than the God denied by atheism. Without this Trinitarian perspective, they argue, it is easy to reject Christianity in premature and immature fashion.

For Moltmann a God who cannot suffer powerlessness is poorer than a human being. Therefore he invites us to see how the crucified Christ expresses the protest and the involvement of the Trinity within history. For Jüngel the Spirit, who is the mystery of the world, is the One who continues to come in the present tense. As an eternal artist of love, the Spirit rewrites the drama of Christ in everyone, so that the story of each life and death is embraced by the Father.

Bruno Forte’s book takes the discussion to a more poetic level. Somewhat in the spirit of the public dialogues that Cardinal Martini, Archbishop of Milan, has been having with unbelievers since 1987, Trinità per atei aims to forge a new language for Trinitarian faith. Besides being in the form of an imaginary dialogue, it includes responses from distinguished unbelievers, for instance, Massimo Cacciari, the philosopher and recently re-elected mayor of Venice. Just as Forte’s approach is exploratory, Cacciari’s is more like a fellow questioner than an opponent. His tone could not be more different from Marx, Freud and Company.

Like his German colleagues, Forte highlights that a deepened sense of the Trinity allows us to recognise God’s sharing in the pain of the world and of the Crucifixion, as against the God of Hegel who cannot suffer. He also explores the interplay between Silence and Word in how we experience a tripersonal God. There is the Silence of the Father as origin, the eloquent Word of the Son as saviour, and and intimate Silence of the Spirit, guiding us towards our end in love.

To speak of the Trinity in this way is not simply a matter of correcting false images of God. It confronts both believers and unbelievers with a challenging surprise – provided they can go beyond jaded concepts. They will discover, as the late Catherine LaCugna put it, that divine life is therefore also our life: the Trinity is not about the nature of God in isolation from everything other than God, but a teaching about God’s life with us and our life with each other.

But there remains another face of unbelief, probably the most widespread one today. God is missing but not missed runs the pithy summary of our situation by Josep Vives, a Catalan theologian. If this is true, instead of the aggressive quartet we envisaged in front of the icon, much of the West is living through a period when people are bored and feel numbed by religious faith. One diagnosis is that the culture has induced a state of cultural desolation, characterised by instant everything, even instant spiritual journeys. Can the Trinity cast light on this blank indifference that seems so far from Christian faith?

David Schindler, editor of the theological quarterly Communio, would answer with a definite yes. He offers an aggressive diagnosis of the anti-Christian elements lurking within (his own) American culture, and which is becoming omnipresent and even omnipotent around the world. In his view, the values of American liberalism are highly ambiguous, risking a fall into an individualism enclosed in itself; from this it could be rescued by a Trinitarian sense of relationships. To the typical self-made and extroverted individual, the communion of the three persons of the Trinity offers a different logic of intimacy, for in the Trinity identity and meaning are found only from the relationship of each to each: only in an interplay of receiving and giving.

Thus the queues to contemplate the Rublev icon should grow even longer. Not only the old-style atheism but new-style dearth of desire can hope for healing through revisiting the Trinity with some depth and wonder. The Spirit is the artist of desire, the transformation of you so that you can listen to Jesus, in the words of the Canadian theologian Bernard Lonergan. The Son embodies (literally) a new love here within the tragedies of history. The unseen Father promises another fullness and vision for hereafter. Together they invite us to that fourth place at the table. Such a different picture of God can happily challenge both believers and unbelievers. At its simplest it is a way of making real – because relational – the central Christian claim that God is love.

From The Tablet 24/01/1998 (link off this site)
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