A Trinitarian Trace?

Fifty-eight-year old Luis recalled his grandfather, Ignacio, as being so domineering that he could command others with his eyes. “If we were doing something [wrong]…he talked to you with his eyes. With his eyes, he told you no.  And with his eyes, he told you to go outside.  His eyes would tell you to be quiet. And that’s all we had to do was just look at him (89).

The recollection is from Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down Across Generations (2013). It’s a report from the largest-ever sociological study of religion and family across generations. For four decades, Professor Vern Bengtson and his colleagues, Norella Putney and Susan Harris, have followed 350 families, composed of more than 3,500 persons, whose lives span more than a century. The oldest was born in 1881; the youngest, in 1988. 

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Think of the wars, the depressions and social upheavals represented in these generations. Or think only of the changes in church attendance of the last four decades. Yet the findings are rather surprising. To begin, even today, religious families are surprisingly successful at transmitting their faith. Six out of ten do so. And this rate has not declined since the 1970s, despite all of the societal upheaval. 

The second surprise is the single largest factor for successful transmission. It’s parental warmth, and—here’s the freebie for anyone preaching on Father’s Day—the parent who matters most in this regard is the father: 

[F]or religious transmission, having a close bond with one’s father matters even more than a close relationship with the mother. Clearly the quality of the child’s relationship with his or her father is important for the internalization of the parent’s religious tradition, beliefs, and practices. Emotional closeness with mothers remains important for religious inheritance but not to the same degree as it is for fathers (76).

That’s why the opening recollection is so telling. The Garcia family has maintained it Catholicism, first, because its women bore the brunt of sharing the faith and, secondly, because Luis has made a conscious decision to parent differently than either his grandfather or his father. “My dad was stern. He was hard. So I don’t want that for my kids, his sternness”(90). This year, does Trinity Sunday falling on Father’s Day offer a new slant for an ancient doctrine? Maybe it does. 

Trinity is the mystery standing in the middle of it all. Yet the doctrine isn’t a conclusion coming from either nature or logic. It’s a consequence of our history. The Trinity isn’t deduced from empirical study of the universe. Nor is it an innate demand of reason itself. It was revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of the Christ, so perhaps it’s sensible that this feast follows the conclusion of the paired pascal seasons of Lent and Easter. 

In the light of Easter’s empty tomb, the very concept of God had to be radically refigured. Here’s the situation the first disciples faced. As the Greek philosophers had already discovered, monotheism is a demand of reason itself. How can there be more than one ultimate explanation for the universe, which is what we mean by the word “God”? But what does it mean, after the resurrection, to acclaim Christ as God when we know that, while he lived, he spoke to God as his Father? Was God talking to himself? And how could the disciples insist that, after Easter, God had radically entered them and yet remained distinct from them, without realizing that Christ’s promise of another advocate had been fulfilled in the gift of the Holy Spirit? Though the word does not appear in the scriptures, the notion of God as “Trinity” is an inevitable conclusion of Gospel witness.

It’s our history that compels Christians to profess a concept of God that every age has rejected in favor of something more sensible, yet, 2,000 years later, we do not jettison the truth simply because it exceeds our capacity to understand. But doesn’t the doctrine of the Trinity mean at least this? God stands at the heart of the universe as its ultimate explanation. God is the source of its being, the reason that illumines it, and the power by which all things happen. 

Yet the God we profess is a not a crystalline, isolated point of power. God is a dance and drama of effusive love. The Father pours himself out into the Son. The Son is the very effulgence of the Father. He so fully receives the Father’s being that anything ascribed to the Father can be ascribed to the Son, save the name itself, which designates the source. And the love they share is so full, so fecund, that it too must be recognized by another name, because it is other than their selves, yet lacks nothing that is theirs. 

It’s strange, isn’t it? A strong father has small hope of passing on the Christian faith, unless he learns to love warmly and effusively. Is that one more Trinitarian trace, woven into the very weave of our humanity?

Exodus 34: 4B-6, 8-9   2 Corinthians 13: 11-13   John 3: 16-18

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