COLIN GUNTON



Remembering and Forgetting

‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right arm forget her cunning.’ The psalmist was making a fairly extreme promise or request, for, disabling injury and great age apart, right hands do not forget their cunning. A musical skill once mastered is never forgotten, even though practice may be needed to restore it after periods of neglect. Something truly learned becomes part of us, and never, in one respect, forgotten. But it can be forgotten in other respects, in the sense that it can be crowded out of our conscious minds by other preoccupations and concerns. The title, The Forgotten Trinity, was chosen by the British Council of Churches’ Study Commission largely for reasons of what now, and probably then, would be called marketing: a way of attracting public attention so that the reports were read—or at least, bought.2 But, unlike many marketing ploys, it contained a good deal of truth. In what way?
My allusion to the impossibility of forgetting a skill was designed to make the point that there are different ways of forgetting. We may never forget the skill of choosing, writing and posting greeting cards, but may need to enter little Mary’s birthday on a calendar if we are to remember to employ that skill when it is needed. So it is that the Western Church has each year a Sunday devoted to the Trinity, lest we forget. The Eastern Orthodox Churches do not, because their worship and thought is so steeped in trinitarian categories that they do not need to be reminded. Have we in the West of Christendom effectively forgotten the Trinity, so that we need to be reminded? Or is the trinitarian teaching like a skill, which is there but needs to be revived from time to time? Or—worse—does the difference between East and West suggest that we never really acquired it, and put the thing on a calendar once a year to awaken otherwise forgetful preachers into the realization that on this one Sunday in the year at least they must try to make sense of a sleeping dog they would rather leave alone? For Eastern Orthodoxy, I think it is true to say that their trinitarian belief is like the skill of a musician. It so permeates their being that they worship and think trinitarianly without, so to speak, having to think about it—rather in the way that musicians don’t think about what their hands are doing; their skills are so written into their bodies that they need only concentrate on the music and what it means. The point underlying the illustration is this. Theological teaching is not an end in itself, but a means of ensuring that it is the real God we worship, the real God before whom we live. That is the point of the doctrine of the Trinity above all, as we shall see.
What of the West? Here the story becomes complicated. On the face of it, we once had the same way of living in the Trinity, but have lost it, through a number of influences. Our hymns and blessings are steeped in trinitarian imagery: ‘Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit …’—that ascription of glory to God wonderfully described by Nathaniel Micklem as the triumph song of the redeemed. Go to the National Gallery in London, or to places like Florence, and you will see that once upon a time we were a deeply trinitarian culture: a long tradition of representations of the triune God shows at least that. But partly as the result of rationalist criticism, that has come under attack. When the doctrines of the Church came under fire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was the Trinity that was most savagely attacked as the most absurd and pointless of the many apparently untenable beliefs of the Christian tradition. Reason, so it was claimed, taught that there was only one God; any elaboration on that was simply priestcraft and superstition. That is surely one reason why we have tended to forget, or have become rather embarrassed by the whole thing. Something of those attacks has entered the bloodstream of even the orthodox believer, so that we feel that there must be something in the critiques.
Yet there is a case to be made that things have never been as they ought, that the West never had its piety and worship deeply enough embedded in trinitarian categories. The Study Commission was often given reason to wonder whether, although trinitarian confession has always been a yardstick of authentic Christian belief, the Church had ever really attained the crucial grade 5 at which things are supposed to stick. A number of theologians have commented on various aspects of the problem. Karl Rahner asserted that in Roman Catholic manuals of dogmatics interest was effectively so concentrated on the one God that everything we need to know about God seems to have been decided before the reader comes to the Son and the Spirit. For practical piety, he said, the Trinity had become irrelevant. One test is this: Do you think that you know to all intents and purposes who and what kind of being God is, quite independently of what you learn in trinitarian teaching? In many cases, that seems to be the case, particularly in the deeply entrenched tendency to begin with philosophical definitions of God. The threeness seems somehow additional, merely a Christian addition to a generally accepted doctrine of God.3
But this is not simply a matter of theological teaching, important though that is. The worship of the Church is first of all praise of the God who has created and redeems us; but it is also the way we learn a kind of skill, the art of living. And the same question can be asked again. Is the worship of the Church truly informed by trinitarian categories? Do we think it matters? The Study Commission was taught some interesting truths here, particularly by the inestimable privilege of having some fine Eastern Orthodox theologians sharing in our thinking. They enabled us to notice that the Alternative Service Book rarely finds a place for the Holy Spirit in the wording of its prayers, while in the collects of its great predecessor, the Book of Common Prayer, that handbook of so much English piety, the Holy Spirit scarcely makes an appearance. Similarly, Western orders for the Lord’s Supper have usually omitted the epiclesis, the prayer to the Spirit asking him to bless the bread and wine and the people. If the Spirit is absent from the structuring of the worship, can a rite be truly trinitarian? Is the reason that the Trinity has been effectively forgotten that it has never really entered the bloodstream of the Church, so that there is too little to remember? And does this make a difference to that most important of all human skills, the art of living before God, with our neighbour and in the created world?
The suggestion behind all this is that a truly trinitarian framework for our worship and life has rarely been found in the life of the Western Christian Church; that we have forgotten because we never really remembered. The result is that on the face if it—and it is the suspicion of so many Christians, professional and lay alike—the doctrine of the Trinity is a piece of abstract theorizing, perhaps necessary as a test of Christian belief, but of little further interest. All that stuff about three in one and one in three tends to leave us cold. Does it not turn God into a mathematical conundrum? All those dreary attempts to show that three can really be one, all those unconvincing illustrations from the natural world or the workings of the mind: do they really contribute to the learning of that skill in living that is promised for those who follow the crucified Lord? Can we not get on quite adequately without this piece of theoretical baggage? That defines our problem: the relation between theology and life.

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