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September 19, 2012

Is the Trinity critically important to dialogue in the ME context?

By Caleb Hutcherson

Often when I am talking to my Muslim friends, it seems like the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is one of the first obstacles to any dialogue between us. And truthfully, the understanding of God’s nature has been a source of contention and conflict since the beginning of the dialogue about God between Christians and Muslims. To insist that such a contentious doctrine is extremely important in dialogue with Muslims seems to be either ignorant of that history, or idiotic in its dogmatism.

Why would I assert, then, that the Trinity is essential to our theology of family, Church, and society in the MENA region?

The Christian faith asserts that friendship, family and social order take on profound meaning when we understand people as created in the communitarian image of the Triune God (Genesis 1:26).  Contrary to Descartes’ dictum “I think, therefore I am”, the Christian faith proclaims a fundamental aspect of our ontology is relationship. Just last night, I was watching the film “I Am Legend” and was reminded of the fact that this truth is the underlying “rule” or need in nearly every story in the movies.  Every person needs and yearns for social relationships, and the substitutes we come up with to supply those relationships (“Wilson” the volleyball in Castaway) make for powerful storytelling.  Christian faith suggests that without the tri-personal God of the Bible, human society lacks an adequate foundation to our understanding of the very being of humanity as family and society.

Humanity is dependent on interpersonal activity for even the most rudimentary elements of human development.  Human thought itself is dependent on language, which develops and is acquired in social contexts (quick tip for anyone trying to learn a second language: you can’t learn to speak a language without actually speaking the language in community…go talk to someone!). Relationship is a fundamental aspect of human ontology, and the Christian faith proclaims that this is because humanity was created in the image of the Triune God.

Rich and profound implications and applications can be drawn from divine diversity in unity. Since the earliest church fathers, the eternal relational reality of the Triune God has been used as a model for family, the Church, and society. Of particular significance today is the Trinity as a model of political and social structure, imago civilis. [1]  The understanding of God as Trinity means that absolute hierarchy models of political and ecclesial structures that lead to dictatorships are as far removed from Trinitarian belief as are anarchist type models where all authority is rejected. The Trinity guides us to acknowledge the absolute equality of every member of society regardless of gender, nationality, race or socio-economic class.  At the same time, the Trinity calls us to mutual self-submission that establishes order in a variety of social settings. Just as the perfect attributes of God comprise his unity and his unity comprises his perfect attributes, so perfect social order and peace will be realized when we practice the attributes of God in society. [2]

Does a faith that advocates for the complete equality of each and every person in society have something to say to politics in this region, where racism, sexism, and classism limit where my Palestinian friend George can work?  Does a faith that calls for mutual self-submission for the sake of the other in family and society have something to say about the role Christians should take in Syria today?  How might we act differently if we looked to the interests of our “other” first, and gave of ourselves for the benefit of our “other” just as God has done eternally?  One God eternally existing in trinity is a model that is desperately needed in world-turned-upside-down context of the Middle East today.

By avoiding difficult issues like doctrine and theology in dialogue with Muslims, we fail to truly dialogue. If our faith truly is the foundation for our practice, then instead of abandoning the historic tenets of Christian faith to foster dialogue about how society should be, I believe we need to return to those tenets as foundational points for dialogue with Muslims.  Theology that stems from an understanding of God’s diversity in unity has far-reaching ramifications for how we ought to relate to each other in society.

In real life, actually doing what I am advocating is difficult. So my close is a question: How do you dialogue with Muslim friends about societal “oughts” that draw from the social model of the Triune God?

[1] J. Scott Horrell traces this discussion in his article:  “In the Name of the Father Son and Holy Spirit: Constructing a Trinitarian Worldview,” on http://bible.org/article/name-father-son-and-holy-spirit-constructing-trinitarian-worldview  (accessed September 7, 2012).

[2] Imad Shehadeh’s text further develops the argument that eternal diversity-in-unity is necessary for the eternality of the attributes:   “ الآب والابن والروح القدس: ضرورة التعدّدية في الوحدانية الإلهية ” – trans. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit: The Necessity of Diversity/Plurality in the Divine Unity (Beirut: Dar Manhal al-Hayat, 2009),  p.210.


  1. Kenn Iskov says:

    Truly thought provoking, Caleb, and a message that needs to heard in Western political and economic spheres, where authoritarian and dictatorial power relationships are rife.

  2. ronfurg says:

    I’m not a theologian. This article greatly expands my understanding of the value of the Trinity and enhances my worldview. Thanks.

  3. Mark Fryer says:

    Enjoyed your article, Caleb. You are still thinking! Love seeing snippets of what you and your family are up to in Lebanon. Hi from New Zealand. Mark

  4. JohnnyDoubleU says:

    I appreciate your article, Caleb; it is both theoretically eloquent and practically compelling.

    I agree that true dialog does not circumvent controversial topics. Within a context of mutual respect and openness, discussing points of difference (rather than merely affirming points of agreement) can often lead to the greatest growth in thinking—for all parties.

  5. […] following content was originally posted on the blog of the Institute for Middle East Studies, one of the departments at the Arab Baptist […]

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