Tag Archives: relational ontology

A Brief Summary of the Social Trinity Conversation

My use of social/relational draws most heavily on relational ontology as presented by Zizioulas.[1] To summarize, Zizioulas proposes that humanity, both as particulars and collectively, has the imago dei of the robust Trinity[2] imprinted on/in us ontologically. The image of the relational Trinity is this: God is three-in-one and one-in-three. God is transcendent, immanent, and relational. God’s transcendence is the immanent Trinity that is constituted by relationality. This relational union is wholly other from its creation. God is also immanent in the economic Trinity. The Father is arche, the Son incarnate is the demonstration of God’s love and the great victor over death.[3] The Spirit is the animator and mediator of life and relationality. God is also relationality that constitutes all being and out of which human particularity is formed. Humanity is created in the imago dei. We are homologues of the robust Trinity described above.[4] We are many-and-one and one-and-many. We are individual selves constituted by the relatedness to each other, to nature, and to God, the transcendent other.

Relational ontology connects to the theoretical lens of Robert Kegan’s fifth order of consciousness.[5] The social/relational Trinity is connected, not only to theological language, but to ideas about and formation of the human self-in-relation to the other.[6] Zizioulas proposes that it is not only our eschatological hope that is connected to the social Trinity, but it is our very essence, our ontological essence, that is constituted by the relationality of the persons of the Godhead.[7] The use of communicative action as the research methodology in this project assumes that the congregations might discover the reality of their interdependence with the other, both within the congregation and within the suburban and metropolitan community as a whole.

Footnotes

[1] Zizioulas and McPartlan, Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church.

[2] I have introduced the term robust into the conversation. This is Shults’ term to distinguish the relationality and futurity of God from the transcendent/Immanent Trinity.

[3] I will agree with Volf and not go so far as Zizioulas to warrant patriarchal authority in the church based upon the arche. Volf, bringing Moltmann into conversation with Zizioulas, calls for an egalitarian power structure based upon a flattened perichoretic power structure. Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity, Sacra Doctrina (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998).

[4] I am intentionally hinting at the Augustinian use of “vestiges of God.” A fascinating sub-conversation within the larger Trinitarian conversation is that of Augustine’s culpability for the demise of the Economic Trinity in the modern West. LaCugna blames him for the problem. Barnes disagrees and notes that LaCugna’s argument is built upon a resurgence of de Regnon’s claim in the 19th century, which, Barnes argues, is unfounded. I agree with Barnes and follow Sheldrake’s assessment that Augustine understood relational ontology inherently, since he did not breath the air of Cartesian dualism. Michael R. Barnes, “Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology,” Theological Studies 56, no. 2 (1995); Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality and Theology: Christian Living and the Doctrine of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 75-83.

[5] See chapter two.

[6] Both Groome and Farley emphasize this as essential to the practice of formation in the congregation and in any theological inquiry. Groome names the individual as agent-subjects-in-relationship. Farley names it as being-together in the reciprocity sphere. Groome, Sharing Faith: A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry: The Way of Shared Praxis, 9; Edward Farley, Practicing Gospel: Unconventional Thoughts on the Church’s Ministry, 1st ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 68.

[7] Eschatological hope is central to the historicity/futurity grouping that Grenz noted: Moltmann, Pannenberg, and Jenson. Zizioulas does not deny this dimension, but simply emphasizes the ontological aspect of this Trinitarian conversation. Here, too, I argue that we must abandon substance dualism in light of relationality and entanglement.

Framing the Findings

I will reflect theologically on the DITB project by bringing the three primary themes from the data into conversation with the three types of frames that I mentioned at the beginning of chapter two. I make this move because a key assumption that I brought into this project—and one that has only been deepened as a result of it—is that all knowledge is interpreted knowledge. Human being, as Kegan notes, is the action of constructing meaning from experienced data that is received through one’s filter. As the individual human moves through time and space, in communal relationships, both the individual and society evolves.

Table 8. Intersection of Findings and Frames

Major Findings from DITB Data

Relationships

Reflection

Awareness of Spirit

Types of Frames

Shifting Time

Relationships in Time

Reflection in Time

The Spirit and Time

Shifting Structure

A Shift to Relationality

Transcending One’s Own Frames

The Structure of the Spirit

Shifting Horizon An Expanded Definition of Neighbor Reflecting on the Frame

Expanding the Horizon of the Spiri

I came into this project with my own set of frames, assumptions, and prejudices, as did each individual member of the RT. I placed the social Trinity, spiritual formation, and the suburban context into conversation and then set that conversation as the “great thing” around which the team gathered.[1] We engaged in communicative action around this subject and generated a great amount of qualitative data. I reflected upon these data and determined that the three major themes that were significant for the RT team were relationships, reflection, and an increased awareness of the Holy Spirit.

I will reflect on each of these themes by bringing them into conversation with the three types of frames that I mentioned in chapter two. The first frame is the motion picture frame, which captures a moment in time. I will take each theme and discuss how these themes changed over the time period of the DITB project. The second type of frame is the internal structure of a building, or the operating system of a computer. Both of these metaphors point to the conceptual structure and prejudices—e.g. personal narrative, socio-economic position, language, etc.—that one brings to any topic that shape the way one perceives new data. I will discuss how each theme was shaped by and impacted the RT’s cognitive frame. The third type of frame is the picture frame in which an artist/photographer chooses which part of the landscape/environment to include in the frame and which part to leave out. I will discuss each theme in light of how the RT’s horizon shifted and/or expanded to include new things, and which things may still be left out of the picture.

shifting frames

Figure 17. Shifting Frames

Finding One: Relationships

The first key theme that emerged from the data was that the RT became increasingly aware of the importance of relationships in spiritual formation. Most people seek to find authentic and mutually beneficial relationships that will “stand the test of time.” The RT entered the project with a mixture of relationships. The members of each congregation had varying levels of relationships with those team members from their own congregation. The Calvary women knew each other well. The Bethlehem men knew each other well. The group from Ascension had varying levels of prior knowledge and comfort with each other. None of the members knew members from the other congregations (with the exception of Sharon and Quaid). Therefore, the RT was comprised of relationships that ranged from stranger to close friend. Analyzing the theme of relationships within the context of each type of frame will reveal different aspects of what the RT learned regarding the importance of relationships in conjunction with spiritual formation in the suburban context.

Frame One: Relationships in Time

The first type of frame is the motion picture frame. It is the analysis of snapshots taken over time. Relationships take time. They require vulnerability and the time and space to demonstrate trust. The RT was only together for nine months, therefore may not have had enough time and interaction to form good relationships. However, the relationships did change over the nine-month period. Initially, many of the team members were drawn to the group in the expectation that inter-congregational relationships could be formed and followed by subsequent partnerships in the community. This did not prove to be the case. The women from Calvary completely withdrew from the group for various reasons. Three men from Bethlehem stayed engaged in the RT meetings until the end, but never connected with the other congregations. Quaid withdrew from the RT, but stayed connected with me personally through emails and coffee meetings throughout the course of the project.

The members from Ascension had varying degrees of relationship development. The S’mores team indicated that they experienced a significant deepening of their friendships with each other and other members of the congregation simply by meeting together weekly throughout the summer to cook s’mores in the church parking lot. John and Mary deepened their relationships with each other and with co-workers by committing to regular participation in Feed My Starving Children. Sharon focused much of her relational energy into the hard work of visiting door-to-door in her political campaign. She reported the value of reaching out to make these relationships as connected to her own spiritual formation. Heather reported that her connection with her sons and with one particular friend evolved over the course of the project in such as way that it revealed deeper insights into the process of spiritual formation.

Frame Two: A Shift to Relationality

The second type of frame is the internal structure of a house, or the operating system of a computer. The RT did not only experience a fairly natural evolution of relationships as a result of the passage of time, but they also indicated a significant shift in their understanding of relationship itself. The RT members each represent the typical white, middle-class suburbanite who has been shaped by the framework of the modern ideal of radical individualism. Relationships, in this framework, are primarily voluntary transactions that take place between autonomous selves. This voluntary type of relationship is also true of one’s connection to God. The typical modern Western Christian imagines a personal, voluntary connection to God as well as to others.

The increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity, through the communicative action of the DITB project, invited the members of the RT to rethink the nature of relationship itself. The more they discussed and contemplated a relational ontology in contrast to substance ontology, the more they indicated an awareness of the essential nature of relationships. They began to see that relationships were not a means to an end, but were constitutive of human being together.

Here I must further nuance the conversation. First, I must acknowledge my own journey in this regard. I am making the movement from conservative evangelicalism into a missional expression of the ELCA. Conservative evangelicalism is thoroughly shaped by modernity and the radical, buffered self. My earliest imagination of relationship with God was one of a personal decision that I had to make in order to bridge the ontological gap caused by sin and be reunited to God through Christ’s work on the cross. My imagination of having a relationship with God was shaped by decisional soteriology. My encounter with the social Trinity and relational ontology was one of the most significant points of impact for my theological shift. I began to imagine the relationality of the persons of the Trinity as constitutive of my own existence, and the relationality of all things as essential to the universe. There is no doubt that I brought that experience as a framework into the DITB project and expected that others would have the same experience. I was surprised to discover that no one had that same type of impact that I did when exposed to the social Trinity.

I believe the main reason the RT did not have the same experience of shift was because the majority of the RT had been raised in an ecumenical tradition rather than an evangelical tradition. The ecumenical tradition has been equally impacted by modernity, resulting in a buffered self, but it has been manifest in different ways than that of evangelicalism. Traditionally, the ecumenical Christian traditions have been more in tune with the connectedness of humanity and the need for social justice, whereas the evangelical tradition has been more focused on the individual relationship with God and personal salvation for the afterlife.

This reversal both surprised me and encouraged my intuition for the importance of this conversation. It surprised me because, as I have already mentioned, it was the exact opposite of my journey. It encouraged me because it reinforces the need to move between the polarized camps of the evangelical and the ecumenical. The conversation around the relational ontology of the social Trinity can bring people into a dynamic shift in how they think about the nature and purpose of relationship itself. [2] This is further reflective of both the constructivist epistemological framework and the communicative action that undergirds the pedagogical framework of Palmer, Brookfield, Hess, and Kegan.

Heather also noted another possible explanation for this shift toward relationality. She said that much of the need for this shift to relational ontology was not because of the decisional theology that was my framework, but because of the masculinist dominance in Western Christianity, both in the evangelical and ecumenical traditions. Women, she said, are more inherently in tune with relationality, almost to the point of becoming lost in their relational identities over against their individual identity. Ironically, many members of the team felt the opposite impact from the discussion of relational ontology than I did. They indicated an increased awareness of a relationship with God and with their own identity in God. In other words, they moved from feeling enmeshed in society, with a vague sense of God’s agency, to feeling a more keen awareness of God’s relational presence in the world.

Frame Three: An Expanded Definition of Neighbor

The third type of frame is the picture frame that selectively includes and excludes elements of the environment. A shift in this type of frame either moves the frame to a different location on the landscape, expands the size of the frame to include more things, or a combination of both of these movements. The RT experienced a shift in their frame regarding relationships. I have already noted that the nature of the relationship shifted from a vertical-personal relationship to a horizontal-communal relationship.[3] This is, indeed, a shift in the framing of the picture. However, another, and equally important shift became evident in the scope of relationships.

The RT experienced a shift in regard to the relationship with the neighbor that is outside the church. Sharon experienced a deep sense of connection as she shared her story and listened to the stories of thousands of people in the community. Her intentionality in framing her political canvasing in the awareness of the DITB project invited her to see the necessity of listening to the neighbor, no matter who they are, or what their religious/political views may be. John journaled extensively about his increased awareness of God’s presence in every person with whom he had contact. This expanded his frame to be able to see God present in the neighborhood, rather than confined in the church or the body of confessing believers. The s’mores team recognized the need to connect with the neighborhood immediately surrounding the church property in order to fully embrace the purpose of their project. Heather connected deeply with a woman from a radically different Christian tradition and racial background and found her framework expanded.

The discussion of neighbor and who is inside the frame came to an acute focus during the Holy Conversations held at Ascension Lutheran.[4] This congregation deliberated over whether same-sex couples should be married in the church. Essentially the congregation was asking whether God sanctioned these unions and if same-sex couples should be considered a neighbor in the same way as every other member of the congregation. When the decision was made to perform same-sex marriages, the relational frame shifted across the horizon. New people were included in the frame, but some people were either left out or chose to step outside of the frame.

The question that I am left with after the DITB project, regarding the shifting frame of relationships, has to do with who is still left out of the frame. The RT was comprised of white, middle-class, middle-aged Christians. Where are the people of color? Where are the poor, the homeless, the physically and mentally challenged? Where are the Millenials?[5] These people live in the same suburbs in which these congregations dwell. Why are they not as represented in the congregations as they are in the community?

I interjected the issue of race into the online conversation in August, 2014. The topic had not come up naturally within the RT, so I exerted my leadership power and placed the question on the table. It sparked a short flurry of conversation, but then the discussion died down. The data from this project does not address the topics of race and social justice regarding socio-economic disparity, so I cannot address them. They are topics, however, that must be included in the frame and should be another “great thing” around which the suburban congregation gathers.

Finding Two: Reflection

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. The RT echoed this idea in that the second major theme that emerged from the data is the necessity of reflection—the discipline of slowing down, taking time, and thinking critically on the actions previously taken. Several members of the RT explicitly indicated that it was the continual prompting to reflect on our action in the project that made a significant impact on their spiritual formation. All of the RT members implicitly indicated that the reflective process inherent in the project methodology impacted his or her thinking in regard to spiritual formation. The RT engaged in a reflective process in the following ways: (1) instructed pauses for written reflection in personal notebooks during the large group sessions; (2) personal journals throughout the entire project; (3) specific questions during the large group questions; (4) the reflective process inherent in Dwelling in the Word.

Frame One: Reflection in Time

The first frame through which we will evaluate the theme of reflection is that of the motion picture frame. Things change over time, and often the changes go unnoticed unless we stop and reflect on them. One simple change that happened during the time of the research project was the changing of seasons. We began in the bitter cold of February, finished Phase One in the emerging warmth of May, engaged in action projects during the summer and ended them as the leaves changed color and fell from the trees. Finally, we met for the last sessions as the first snow of the season fell.

I think it is significant that we moved through all four seasons of the Upper-Midwest region. The changing of the seasons is a huge factor in the white, middle-class, suburban context. Many people in this context take on radically different attitudes toward work and space based upon the season. The cold winter months are the times when people settle into the pressing rhythm of work, school, and civic involvement. This is especially true for those who have children in school. Their lives are dictated by work, school, and church schedules. Much of their time is spent racing from one activity to the next. The winter is bitter, dark, and cold, and the frenetic pace may help alleviate the darkness. Then, when the summer comes and school is out of session, people switch into a different mode where being outside and away from the rigorous schedules takes precedence over everything. The typical suburban congregation experiences a significant drop in weekly worship attendance during the summer because many people spend the weekends at a cabin or on vacation.

The leader who is not in tune with this seasonal rhythm may become discouraged and find herself fighting against a false idea of apathy in the congregation. The acknowledgment of this rhythm and the desire to enter into missional spaces in the suburban lifestyle was the primary impetus behind the s’mores project. Rob, Kelly, and Stephanie saw this weekend pattern, not as a negative, but as a natural part of the suburban summer rhythm and sought ways to engage the community within that rhythm by allowing people to gather on Sunday Evening in a space that lets them come as they are with no judgment. They reported that this experiment enhanced the sense of communal belonging amongst the congregation. This may serve as a clue to the missional leader to continually listen to the normal rhythms of suburban life and seek to meet people in those spaces, rather than expect suburban people to conform to rhythms that may have been carried over from a rural and/or pre-digital time.

I experienced reflection in time through a very different means. I engaged in a personal action project during the DITB project that may seem insignificant to some, but had deep meaning for me. I have a regular habit of walking at least three times a week along the same path. One leg of my walk takes me along a series of man-made ponds that line the edge of a shopping center. I have been walking along this route for several years and have always noticed that many Canada Geese live in these ponds. When the geese returned in the Spring, during phase one of the project, it struck me how delicately human society and animals live together in the suburban context. I decided to reflect on the geese and began to blog about them on the deepintheburbs.com site under the tag “suburban geese.” I watched the geese pair up and protect their nests. I greeted the first gaggle of goslings as they emerged from the cattails. I watched the goslings grow over the summer and don their sleek coats. Eventually they became indistinguishable from their parents. As the final leaves fell from the trees, I said goodbye to them as they flew away for the winter.

My reflection on the geese did two things for me. First, it marked time in a way that I had not previously done. I felt my own process through the DITB project become enmeshed with the development of these birds. The project matured just as they did. Second, it caused me to reframe my perception of the suburban neighborhood in which I live. No longer was this the asphalt and brick dwelling space owned by humans. I imagined this land long before the European settlers arrived. I imagined the ancestors of these majestic birds flying above the native people as they migrated through the area, living in tune with the land in a way that I could never imagine. My reflection on the geese connected me to time in way that my normal suburban lifestyle seldom affords.

Frame Two: Transcending One’s Own Frames

The second type of frame is that of the building or the operating system. This is the shape of how data is processed and meaning is made. Each member of the RT entered into the DITB project with a unique cognitive framework, or filter, that has been shaped over time. I would argue that the reflective process of the DITB project helped to reshape the cognitive structure of the RT: to give them a “system upgrade” in their theological imagination. To argue this point, I will step up on the balcony[6] and look through the lens of meta-theory to reflect on how the theme of reflection worked in the DITB project.

First, I would argue that the DITB methodology helped the RT reflect upon and become aware of their frames because it was built upon the pedagogical framework of Brookfield, Palmer, and Hess, as well as the cognitive-developmental theory of Kegan. Kegan argues that the typical adult functions in third-order thinking. This is the frame s/he brings to interpret the data of life experience. The key characteristic of the third-order thinking is that the individual is generally blind to the fact that s/he makes meaning through a particular filter. This “filter blindness” creates an immunity to change that can make life difficult in an environment of discontinuous change. “A way of knowing,” Kegan argues, “becomes more complex when it is able to look at what before it could only look through.”[7] Kegan and Lahey suggest that it is possible to help people to become aware of their filters and evolve into fourth and fifth-order consciousness through a series of intentional reflective actions, or praxis. The DITB methodology—PAR, Dwelling in the Word, and action projects—is praxis that helped the RT members to become more aware of their own filters.

Second, I would argue that the DITB methodology helped the RT reflect upon and become aware of their frames because of its connection to and the inherent nature of spirituality/spiritual formation. Schneiders defined spirituality as self-transcendence.[8] I would argue that self-transcendence is congruent with what Kegan calls transcategorical interaction, which is only possible if the self is porous[9] and has the ability to empathize with others, see from another’s perspective (as much as possible), and be open to the unseen, unexplainable, and/or spiritual dimension of the universe. I have noted earlier that Kegan’s argument for transcategorical interaction is also congruent with relational ontology, which is essential to the social Trinity.[10] Therefore, I would argue that PAR methodology—as experienced in the DITB project—is, not only praxis, but is Trinitarian praxis.

Further, I would argue that the DITB methodology helped the RT members become aware of their frames because the data indicate that the Dwelling in the Word exercise helped the RT to engage in reflective action, or Trinitarian praxis. The Dwelling exercise forced the RT to do two forms of reflection that are contrary to the normal suburban lifestyle. First, it invited them to slow down. They were, at first, frustrated with the fact that we dwelt in the same text for three sessions. The modern, suburban mind is used to taking in data in short bursts and then moving on to the next thing. The slow process of dwelling in the same text was foreign to the team. Additionally, the text was read twice during each session. The slowness of the process, according to their reports, opened up pathways of awareness that they had not experienced before. They said that the slowing effects of the exercise allowed them to be more focused on the task of the discussion of the project once we got to that portion of the meeting. Without the discipline of slowing, they said, they may not have been able to get the fullness of the DITB project.

The second thing the Dwelling forced them to do that is contrary to the suburban lifestyle is to listen. The typical white, middle-class, suburbanite is used to being in a place of power and privilege in society. This is true of the RT. Each of them are leaders in their own way, whether it be in work, church, or the fact that they all are parents. People who experience agency in society tend to speak at others and share their own opinion, rather than stop to listen to the other. The Dwelling in the Word exercise invited the RT into the uncomfortable, and unfamiliar space of listening intently to the other. The fact that each person was invited to represent his or her conversation partner’s thoughts and words to the large group compelled the individual to listen in a way that all of them confessed was unnatural for them.

The Trinitarian praxis experienced in the DITB project created spaces in which the RT could reflect. This reflection allowed them to become more aware of the filters (the structural frame or operating system) through which they were previously making sense out of their experiences. The reflective action further allowed them to reframe how they approached the questions that we were asking throughout the project.

Frame Three: Reflecting on the Frame

The third type of frame is the picture frame. The RT indicated that the invitation to reflection was crucial to the expansion of their theological imagination: the frame through which they view God. Reflective action made them aware of their frames and the limited and limiting nature of those frames. I have already mentioned that the RT became more aware of an expanded definition of neighbor. In that section I focused on who is in the frame and who is still left out of the frame of relationships. Here I will focus my attention on the power of reflection to expand one’s frame. Again, Kegan and Lahey argue that it is possible to help people to become aware of their frames, expand them, and, not only take on new perspectives, but actually change the way we make sense out of the world.

I would argue that this is a leadership issue. The role of the teacher/leader is to structure and cultivate holding spaces in which individuals can engage in communicative action—or Trinitarian praxis—through which they will have more opportunity to become aware of the frames, and then learn how to shift and expand them. One of the biggest lessons that the RT said they will take away from the DITB project is the need to engage in this process as a regular part of congregational life. That will not happen automatically. It requires the gentle invitation and modeling of congregational leaders to engage the congregation in the necessary Trinitarian praxis of reflection in order for more people to become aware of their frames in order to shift and expand them.

Finding Three: Awareness of the Holy Spirit

The data indicate that the DITB project, and specifically the Dwelling in the Word exercise, heightened the RT’s awareness of the Holy Spirit as an active agent in the world and broadened their horizon as to where and how the Holy Spirit is present. The RT came into the project with a robust awareness of the Holy Spirit, having all been raised in a Christian context with previous exposure to the Creeds. However, many indicated that the Holy Spirit was a confusing, enigmatic idea that seemed confined to doctrinal statements and abstractions. Now, they reported, as a result of the Dwelling in the Word and the DITB project, they are beginning to sense the presence of the Holy Spirit, not just in the church, but also in their daily experiences in the world.

Frame One: The Spirit and Time

The first type of frame is the motion picture frame in which we can compare snapshots over time. I have already indicated the power of reflecting on the passage of time. However, the RT indicated that the experience of the DITB project heightened their awareness that the Holy Spirit is active in the world. This awareness often happens in retrospect. When one’s frame has been altered to be open to the relationality of God in the world, then suddenly the sense-making of reflecting on past events becomes attuned to the activity of God the Spirit as an agent in the process.

This became evident in a few narrative threads that wove their way through the DITB project. One example is Kelly’s testimony of her awareness of God’s presence through the difficult journey of the Holy Conversations at Ascension Lutheran. She journaled extensively as she carried the burden of leadership through these turbulent waters. She confessed that, prior to this project, the Spirit was a nebulous concept. Through Dwelling in the Word exercises and the Trinitarian praxis of this experience she reported a heightened sense of the Spirit’s presence in ordinary things; like the passing by of an eagle, a sense of peace in a particular moment, the spoken word of a friend. She felt the Spirit’s guidance through the decision-making process, where, previously, she would have explained it away as intuition.

Another example of making sense of the Spirit’s agency over time comes through my own narrative and how it interwove with the DITB project. This is true in two ways. First, I have already indicated the power of the narrative as I told my story, both on the website and during session Four, as a means to communicate the social Trinity.[11] The second way my narrative connects has to do with a comment that Sharon made during session One. She introduced herself to the group and indicated that she had been involved in a prayer group at Ascension Lutheran that was praying for God to bring a leader to the church that would help the congregation discern how to move into the future. She was praying at the same time that I felt God call me to leave my home in Las Vegas and move to the Mid-West to pursue a PhD. That journey ultimately led to my joining the staff at Ascension Lutheran, entering the PhD program at Luther Seminary, and transferring my ordination into the ELCA. As we looked back on these snapshots over time, it became apparent that the Spirit of God was active in each of these moments to bring these narratives together.

A third example of an increased awareness of the Spirit’s agency over time is the experience of the DITB project itself. At each moment that the RT stopped to reflect, to look back at where we had come, to bring those experiences into conversation with our theological conversations, it became more apparent to the team that God’s Spirit was at work in and through this process. The Spirit’s work was not only in the reflective action of the team’s interaction, but, more so, through the way the action projects brought the team into the neighborhoods to experience God in the people and experiences in everyday spaces.

Frame Two: The Structure of the Spirit

The second frame is the internal structure of a building or the operating system of a computer. The RT’s increased awareness of the Spirit’s agency is, I would argue, a result of the shifting cognitive structure of the Trinitarian imagination. The increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity, made possible through the multiple pedagogical modalities, created cognitive space for the RT to become aware of God’s agency in the world in ways that, perhaps were less likely prior to this project.

I will reemphasize, at this point, that all the team members indicated a strong belief in the Trinity and the Holy Spirit at the beginning of the project. It is not that their belief in the Holy Spirit increased or changed as a result of the project. Rather, I would argue, the increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity gave the RT new cognitive frames and new language to both be aware of the Spirit’s agency and articulate the Spirit’s agency when it was noticed.

John journaled extensively about his increased awareness of the Holy Spirit present in all people, both inside and outside the church. He had been raised in a Lutheran tradition that taught that the Holy Spirit was confined to the church, through word and sacrament. He now claims that humanity is part of the Trinity in that the Spirit is the animating force that unites us with all things. Mary also felt a heightened sense of God’s presence. She had been raised Roman Catholic and associated the presence of the Holy Spirit with the lit candle in the church sanctuary. Now, she reports that she senses the presence of the Spirit in each of us and it is the gathering of people in the sanctuary that is the presence of the Holy Spirit.

One of the most dramatic examples of a cognitive shift, in my opinion, is evidenced in Phil’s story. He is a retired Lutheran pastor who enjoys the original language of scripture, theological study, and teaching. He expressed a strongly dualistic understanding of the Trinity in our first session. He wondered how the Trinity, “which is up here” he said, holding his hand above his head, “connects to spiritual formation, which is down here,” holding his hand below his waist. I interpreted this to demonstrate the dualistic gap between the Immanent Trinity and our lived experience that I articulated in the animated videos and that his theological imagination was framed in this perspective. He was publicly resistant to my early presentations about the social Trinity. He was not mean-spirited and was a welcomed interlocutor. However, he was verbally resistant in the large group sessions and often engaged with my blog posts through the public comments.

I encouraged Phil to continue our personal dialogue via the blog comments and emails. My own research regarding the social Trinity continued during the course of the project. I had originally framed the question using the label “social Trinity” but quickly expanded that language to include the term relational Trinity as well.[12] However, I discovered a new set of metaphors borrowed from Quantum Physics that provide a model for the Trinity that speak of God as The Entangled Trinity.[13] Simmons specifically speaks of “Entangled Panentheistic Trinitarianism.”[14] As I blogged about the authors who proposed the entangled Trinity, Phil latched onto that language.[15] Given his particular bent toward science and mathematics, this model connected for him in a way that the previous language did not. He did not fully embrace any of the models that I had proposed, but the introduction of the third model, or language set, expanded his structural framework to a point that he became excited about the implications for a new imagination of the Trinity and its implications for the local church. He became a prolific author and inundated my email inbox with revision after revision of a plan to structure an entire adult educational curriculum around the Trinity.

Phil’s new language opened new frames of imagination for him to articulate the agency of the Holy Spirit in the world. Again, it is not that he suddenly believed that the Spirit was active where he did not before. He clearly believed in the Spirit’s agency as he reflected on his previous ministry experience in the early phases of the project. However, the conversation regarding new models afforded him new cognitive space and freedom. I believe that this type of expansion and reframing may not have happened had we not had the holding space in which communicative action could take place.

I will press the metaphor and suggest that every member of the RT experienced having at least one “wall of their house” torn down and a new room added to their frame, and one “upgrade to their operating system” installed as a result of the DITB project. It will be interesting to observe how these new cognitive spaces will allow each team member to make sense out of their stories as they move forward from here and are aware of the Spirit’s agency.

Frame Three: Expanding the Horizon of the Spirit

The final type of frame is the picture frame that encompasses one part of the environment and leaves the rest out. The data indicate that the RT entered the DITB project with fairly typical frames around the nature and movement of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was either “up there” with the other members of the Trinity, or, at best “in here” within the believer, enhancing the personal relationship with God. The Trinitarian praxis of the DITB project, I would argue, transformed the RT’s frame from a standard portrait configuration of a vertical nature to a full 360 theatre-in-the-round where the Holy Spirit is active on every side and in unexpected ways.

Reframing the Frames

I must pause to acknowledge an important aspect of the previous discussion. It, in itself, was a framework in which I appropriated the data from the DITB project and reflected upon it theologically. The simple fact that I chose to pass the three findings through the lens of these three frames impacted the way in which I thought about the findings. The simple, yet profoundly complex and perplexing, point that I make is this: It is impossible to communicate without frames. The missional leader must always keep this in mind. Our job is not to convince people of particular doctrines, but to cultivate holding spaces in which individuals can come together to engage in communicative action—what I would argue, through my frame, is Trinitarian praxis—to experience a mutual reframing that will bring about a preferred future for the community. This is a leadership issue and leads me to my next and final reflection.

Footnotes

[1] See my discussion of Palmer and Hess in chapter two.

[2] Coakley notes this distinction by naming Ernst Troelsch’s three types of Christian congregation: church, sect, and mystic. The church is the ecumenical type that is focused on institutional structures that hold society together. The sect is the type that is focused on doctrinal distinctives, the purification of society, and eschatology. Coakley argues that the mystic type might provide a third way that is suggestive of the Holy Spirit’s movement in and between these two types. See Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay ‘on the Trinity’ (2013).

[3] See chapter five.

[4] See an explanation of the Holy Conversations under Phase 1.3 in chapter five.

[5] I wrote a large section regarding the aging suburbs and the age gap within congregations in an early draft of this paper. I removed it from the final draft because it no longer fit with the flow of the argument. However, I believe it is a vital issue for the missional congregation in the suburbs, so I have preserved it as Appendix E.

[6] Heifetz suggests that a leader needs to step onto the balcony to get a larger perspective of the organizational “dance floor.” I, as the leader of the RT, need to take this perspective to make sense out of the project from my own perspective. See Ronald A. Heifetz and Martin Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2002).

[7] Kegan and Lahey, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, 51.

[8] See chapter two.

[9] Here I am borrowing language from Charles Taylor. See chapter 1n84.

[10] See my argument for this in chapter three.

[11] See chapter five under the heading Phase 1.2.

[12] See my commentary in chapter three.

[13] See Polkinghorne, The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology.

[14] Simmons, The Entangled Trinity: Quantum Physics and Theology.

[15] I mention the entangled Trinity model, not to offer a new argument for my thesis regarding the Trinity, but to illustrate the communicative nature of shifting our structural frames that happened in my dialogue with Phil.

Book | The Social God and the Relational Self by Stanley Grenz

The Social God and the Relational SelfGrenz, Stanley J. The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei. 1st ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

AuthorStanley Grenz

Grenz traces the historical backdrop of the concept of self in the West in order to warrant his proposal of the ecclesial self as the best response to the postmodern deconstruction of self.

The following sketch attempts to follow his logic.

William James to George Herbert Mead to Pannenberg.
William James to George Herbert Mead to Pannenberg.

In the final analysis, then, the imago dei is not merely relational; it is not simply the I-Thou relationship of two persons standing face-to-face. Instead, it is ultimately communal. It is the eschatological destiny of the new humanity as the representation of God within creation. The character of the triune God comes to expression through humans in community. Wherever community emerges, human sexuality understood in its foundational sense–the incompleteness endemic to embodied existence, together with the quest for completeness that draws humans out of isolation into bonded relationships–is at work. This sexuality gives rise to the primal male-female relationship–marriage. Yet more important is the role of sexuality in bringing humans into community with Christ and with his disciples in the fellowship of his church. This community forms the context for all humans, male and female, to come together in harmonious creative relationships of various types. But more important, it is this connection that will eternally draw humankind into participation in the very life of the triune God, as the Spirit molds humans into one great chorus of praise to the Father through the Son, which in turn will mark the Father’s eternal glorification of the new humanity in the son. (303)

The image of God does not lie in the individual person but in the relationality of persons in community. The relational life of the God who is triune comes to representation in the communal fellowship of the participants in the new humanity. This assertion calls for a relational ontology that can bring the divine prototype and the human antitype together. The conceptual context for such an engagement is the philosophical idea of the social self, which, in turn, can be understood theologically as the ecclesial self. (305)

The Trinity Frame

Entangled Trinity-04Deep in the Burbs is a story of the Triune God. The research question asks “How might an increased awareness of the social Trinity impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations?” It might be easy to think of this as if the social Trinity was a chunk of knowledge that could be presented to the Research Team for objective evaluation and ultimate acceptance or rejection. This idea is (a) not congruent with my pedagogy, ((I will posit a communicative pedagogy in the Spiritual Formation Frame.)) and (b) contrary to the nature of the Triune God. The research was conducted in the understanding that God is not an object that can be studied or a concept to be considered, but that God is the ground of being itself from which all life springs forth. ((David Kelsey posits that all knowledge of God is secondary knowledge, and that, to understand God truly, the researcher must observe the activities of the local congregation in its specific context. Thus, the participatory action research methodology used in this research is, in itself, a theological inquiry into the mystery of the Triune God.)) All human speech about God is, at best, an analogy, metaphor, or simile. All theology is a human construction of symbols—models—that point to the unknowable God, but can never define or explain God. ((William C. Placher, The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 40-41.; see Peters on symbol. Ted Peters, God–the World’s Future : Systematic Theology for a New Era, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).and Grenz on the use of model.Grenz and Olson, Who Needs Theology? : An Invitation to the Study of God.)) Therefore, this is a question that wonders (a) whether the models of the Triune God that we have inherited from our Western Theological predecessors are adequate and helpful for the current context in which the church finds itself, ((Here I am referring to the much rehearsed history of Athanasius’ victory over Arius at the Council of Nicea in which he demonstrated that God is three in person, but one in essence. His Immanent model of God as three-in-one within Godself has been reduced, over time, to monarchial modalism, at best, in Western, modern theology. The Immanent trinity, then, is the transcendent God of divine substance that is separated from the material world in the tradition of Platonic dualism.)) and (b) if an alternate model of the Trinity might provide more space for a missional imagination of spiritual formation in the local congregation.

Reframing the Model

What then, is the alternate model that I proposed to the research team? I named this model the social Trinity in the research question. It was my attempt to present a model that was true to the contemporary conversation about the Trinity. Western theologians have wrestled with the Trinity question throughout the twentieth century. Stanley Grenz offers a helpful schematic to help us map out the landscape of this conversation. He articulates three major types of Trinitarian thought in the twentieth century: (1) those emphasizing the historicity and futurity of God—Moltmann, Pannenberg, Jenson; (2) those emphasizing the relationality of God—Boff, LaCugna, Zizioulas; and, (3) those emphasizing the transcendence, or otherness of God—Johnson, Urs von Balthasar, Torrance. ((Stanley J. Grenz, Rediscovering the Triune God: The Trinity in Contemporary Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).))

Each of these theologians contribute important aspects to the conversation. The term social Trinity, however, is most readily associated with Moltmann and Volf. I must confess that my language has changed since the initial crafting of this research question. I no longer find the term social to be the most helpful label for this model of the Trinity. This became apparent to me early on in the research project. The first indication came when I had the initial meetings with my pastoral contacts in the congregations. Whenever I got to the term social Trinity I could tell that there was pensive hesitation. They shuffled in theirs seats, and eventually asked the awkward question, “What do you mean by social Trinity?” This was a helpful experience for two reasons. First, it affirmed my assumption that the terminology was not commonplace, even among clergy. Second, upon further conversation, I realized that the term social was a trigger associated with one of two prejudices. One prejudice was the immediate association with the term social Gospel that harkens back to the liberal/fundamentalist schism of the early twentieth century. The other prejudice was the immediate association with the issue of social justice which signals work projects and activist movements.

I found myself immediately using the terms relational and relationships in order to explain the meaning of the social Trinity. One pastor suggested that I simply change the question to read “the relational Trinity.” This was a valid suggestion, but I opted to leave the language as it is because it is associated with a certain body of theological literature, whereas the term relational Trinity is not as widely used. My language has expanded through the course of my research and I have found another term that is, perhaps equally foreign, but slightly more provocative and interesting. The term is entangled and is borrowed from Quantum Physics. ((see Simmons.; Polkinghorne.))

I would like to append the question to read, “how might an increased awareness of the social, relational, entangled Trinity impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations?”

A Brief Summary of the social/relational/entangled Trinity

The social/relational dimension

My use of social/relational draws most heavily on relational ontology as presented by Zizioulas. ((Zizioulas and McPartlan.)) To summarize, Zizioulas proposes that humanity, both as particulars and collectively, has the imago dei of the robust Trinity ((I have introduced the term robust into the conversation. This is Shults’ term to distinguish the relationality and futurity of God from the transcendent/Immanent Trinity.)) imprinted on/in us ontologically. The image of the relational Trinity is this: God is three-in-one and one-in-three. God is transcendent, immanent, and relationality. God’s transcendence is the immanent Trinity that is constituted by relationality. This relational union is wholly other from its creation. God is also immanent in the economic Trinity. The Father is arche, the Son incarnate is the demonstration of God’s love and the great victor over death. ((I will agree with Volf and not go so far as Zizioulas to warrant patriarchal authority in the church based upon the arche. Volf, bringing Moltmann into conversation with Zizioulas, calls for an egalitarian power structure based upon a flattened perichoretic power structure. Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity.)) The Spirit is the animator and mediator of life and relationality. God is also relationality that constitutes all being and out of which human particularity is formed. Humanity is created in the imago dei. We are homologues of the robust Trinity described above. ((I am intentionally hinting at the Augustinian use of “vestiges of God.” A fascinating sub-conversation within the larger Trinitarian conversation is that of Augustine’s culpability for the demise of the Economic Trinity in the modern West. LaCugna, et alia, blames him for the problem. Barnes disagrees and notes that LaCugna’s argument is built upon a resurgence of de Regnon’s claim in the 19th century, which, Barnes argues, is unfounded. I agree with Barnes and follow Sheldrake’s assessment that Augustine understood relational ontology inherently, since he did not breath the air of Cartesian dualism. Michael R. Barnes, “Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology,” Theological Studies 56, no. 2 (1995).Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality and Theology: Christian Living and the Doctrine of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 75-83.)) We are many-and-one and one-and-many. We are individual selves constituted by the relatedness to each other, to nature, and to God, the transcendent other.

Relational ontology connects to the theoretical lens of Robert Kegan’s fifth order of consciousness, as mentioned in the Spiritual Formation Frame. Here it is enough to mention how the social/relational Trinity is connected, not only to theological language, but to ideas about and formation of the human self-in-relation to the other. ((both Groome and Farley emphasize this as essential to the practice of formation in the congregation and in any theological inquiry. Groome names the individual as “Agent-Subjects-in-Relationship.” Farley names it as “being-together” in the reciprocity sphere. Groome, Sharing Faith: A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry: The Way of Shared Praxis.Edward Farley, Practicing Gospel: Unconventional Thoughts on the Church’s Ministry, 1st ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003).)) Zizioulas proposes that it is not only our eschatological hope that is connected to the social Trinity, ((Eschatological hope is central to the “historicity/futurity” grouping that Grenz noted: Moltmann, Pannenberg, and Jenson. Zizioulas does not deny this dimension, but simply emphasizes the ontological aspect of this Trinitarian conversation. Here, to, I argue that we must abandon substance dualism in light of relationality and entanglement.)) but it is our very essence, our ontological essence, that is constituted by the relationality of the persons of the Godhead. The use of communicative action as the research methodology in this project assumes that the congregations might discover the reality of their interdependence with the other, both within the congregation and within the suburban and metropolitan community as a whole.

Entangled Trinitarian Panentheism

I have added the term entangled to my Trinitarian model based upon a growing body of research that explores the interface of Theology with Quantum Physics. ((Polkinghorne.)) Simmons provides a helpful metaphor with his proposal of Entangled Trinitarian Panentheism. He borrows the term entanglement from Quantum Physics and attaches it to the ancient Greek term perichoresis. ((This term was used by the Greek Fathers to describe the relationships between the three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It means to move in and out of each other, or to dance around. It brings with it the image of a mutual, equal interpenetration and indwelling of all three persons. It, however, existed within Godself, thus was not helpful for how God related to the world.)) He finds this helpful for discussing the apparent dualisms in the theological debates about the Trinity, namely (1) is God one or three persons, and (2) is God the Immanent Trinity or the Economic Trinity? ((the debate made famous by Karl Barth and Karl Rahner.)) Simmons proposes that “perichoresis entanglement can be understood as the energy of the divine Trinity through which the creation is expressed. The immanent Trinity exists in superposition with the economic Trinity and evolves within the entangled life of God with the creation, thus supporting a panentheistic model of God.”⁠ ((Simmons, 144.))

Simmons claims that his proposal of Entangled Trinitarian Panentheism may:

  1. Through phase entanglement and non-local relational holism provide metaphors for the perichoretic activity of the Trinity immanently and economically in sustaining and sanctifying the creation from within a scientifically consistent panentheism;
  2. Through quantum indeterminacy, affirm the freedom and openness of the creation in relation to divine self-limitation and the problem of suffering;
  3. Provide a conceptual bridge between creation and the Trinitarian character of the divine life;
  4. Contribute to the mutual understanding and interaction of theology and science;
  5. Assist interested persons in deepening their understanding and appreciation for the divine mystery of the Trinity; and
  6. Help provide a basis for interfaith dialog and cooperation as we collectively address the global issues of our time.”⁠ ((Ibid., 187-188.))

The Trinity and the Research Team

It is the assumption of this research that the suburban, ELCA congregation is the product of the dominant Western, immanent Trinitarian view mentioned above, and that its ideation and praxis of spiritual formation has been heavily influenced by it. The introduction of the social/relational/entangled Trinity, to the congregations through participatory action research methodologies will both expose the congregations to a, presumably, new way of thinking about God, and will allow them to experience the relationality of God through the communicative action inherent in the process itself.