Embracing Christian community as social agency
There is nothing new about the societal conflict which forms the backdrop for those attempting to be and do church in the inaugural years of the twenty-first century. What is new is its volume and intensity. Some social analysts go so far as to describe it as ubiquitous. This level of conflict may or may not be the result of what Charles Taylor distinguishes as the “politics of difference,” but it no doubt explains the resurgence of tribalism that, in part, defines the postmodern situation.
Such a situation has all the more serious implications when people of faith, particularly Christian faith, like to think of themselves as a “community.” In the midst of conflicting tribal loyalties, can the church truly be a community that adequately addresses the longings of people for personal and cultural identity? Can it honor cultural contexts, sustain individual distinctiveness, and promote unified goals and objectives all at the same time? I want to suggest that it can if it can tap into the power of the embrace that is inherently its own when it conceives of itself as a fully social agency. In the end it is, once again, an ecclesial question that looms largest when faith and practice are taken seriously.
Various ecclesial models are not infrequently proposed as more conducive to the holistic concerns of authentic community. Feminist interpreters, for example, have recently argued against the patriarchal tendency to highlight “rule,” opting instead for the wholesomeness of a “household where everyone gathers around the common table to break bread and share table talk and hospitality.” Other limiting factors aside, it seems to me that such a proposal plays into the very gender-biased stereotypes it seeks to eradicate. There is much more at stake on the social field than the pastoral image of home (soothing as it is) can account for.
Perhaps more encouraging is the renewed interest in trinitarian formulations as the basis of ecclesial communities of all shades and varieties. New queries into the communal implications of the doctrine of God have been prompted by Jurgen Moltmann’s seminal work, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, though it is inordinately occupied with issues of hierarchy and equality. What is of greater importance is how sociability in broader terms is demonstrated within trinitarian distinctives.
Social analogies between the Trinity and the church have a longstanding history in the tradition of the Eastern church with its emphasis on triplicity. Though not at odds with, it is certainly a healthy counter-balance to the priority of psychological analogies which seem to be the preference of the West. If nothing else, it might explain the exaggerated focus on therapeutic concerns that flow out of European and American ecclesial bodies that cannot help but promote a notable level of narcissism. Triplicity, on the other hand, is more concerned with the social arrangements within the Godhead and so gives primary attention to issues of person, role, partnership and relationship, among others.
Scripture itself, it must be said, suggests as much. The high-priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17 is as didactic as it is personal and daringly invites us (verse 21) into the very social fabric of trinitarian relationships. Jesus’ concern with “oneness” is at once ontological and eschatological and humanly communal if we treat the opening hina clause with any degree of seriousness. The final hina clause adds a compelling missional component as well. The correspondence between the Trinity and ecclesial communion is more than implied; it is direct, and suggests that “the relations between the many in the church must reflect the mutual love of the divine persons” if theological consistency is of more than casual interest to us.
A trinitarian model of sociability, therefore, impacts key ecclesial notions in a number of ways. Defining and validating personhood is perhaps the most basic. It must be understood that “person” and “communion” in the ecclesial realm can only aspire to the analogous in their reference to the Trinity. This sets definite limits to what Gordon Prestige has defined as “perichoresis,” or reciprical interiority in which mutual internal abiding and interpenetration is affirmed. At the same time, however, it does commend the complementary nature of persons in communion and is perhaps most visible in the acts of giving and receiving modeled in the Trinity. Moltmann offers that the “reciprical self-surrender to one another within the Trinity is manifested in Christ’s self-surrender in a world which is in contradiction to God; and this self-giving draws all those who believe in him into the eternal life of the divine love.” In the simple acts of complementary giving and receiving the church confirms itself as the community where deindividualization and personalization can best occur.
Implications for issues revolving around questions of the one and the many grow out of the radical nature of giving and receiving when they are honestly entertained. Hence, a serious political theology also falls within the purview of trinitarian discussions. Dominance of the one over the many is precluded when relations within the Godhead are deliberately modeled. (See Philippians 2:9, I Corinthians 15:28, and John 16:14 for examples of trinitarian non-dominance.) Since the one God is a communion of the divine persons, unity and multiplicity must be the preferred objective in a communal environment that prizes freedom and equality. Inferences for dismantling strong distinctions between clergy and laity naturally follow, and while some would maintain that they ought to be retained for purely organizational reasons, I would suggest that even these are biblically suspect.
Finally, it becomes all the more apparent how trinitarian theology can (and must) infuse the local community of faith with an eschatological edginess. Relationships within the differing styles of local faith communities should correspond (as far as possible) to the Trinity because they anticipate an eschatological community that more fully approximates the community that is God himself. This demands an honesty and vulnerability that are graciously pushy and are demonstrated in a sociability that is far more significant and potent than that which merely empowers human beings to get along. Rather, its eschatological embrace is nothing less than a new creation in which the wolf dwells with the lamb (Is.11.6), and swords are hammered into plowshares (Mic.4.3), and every knee bows at the name of Jesus (Phil.2.10).
Producing Social Agents
Although it is extremely helpful to consider the way in which social arrangements play themselves out in a trinitarian context, something more overt is needed when we are bounded in a communal context by the restraints of human limitations. Tinkering with social structures (although involvement in existing structures is noteworthy) is simply not enough when: 1) the postmodern option of radical autonomy is producing what Volf calls “wayward and erratic vagabonds, ambivalent and fragmented, always on the move and never doing much more than making moves;” and 2) the historical tendency of such tinkering results in separatistic styles of community which increasingly distance themselves from the naked public square and so end up offering nothing worthwhile in terms of social structure anyway.
What is needed is communities of faith that empower individuals and groupings of individuals to become social agents capable of infusing light and salt into dark and tasteless environments. Nicholas Wolterstorff, for example, has argued persuasively for theological communities to envision themselves primarily as helpmates, whose purpose is to encourage economists and philosophers and scientists and artists and educators and homemakers and all the varied service providers, with all the theological resources at their disposal. One critical role of faith communities of this kind, therefore, is to inspire and release a creative energy that is sparked in a trinitarian context. They become, in effect, social agencies that allow social agents to thrive.
At the heart of communities of this sort is a deep reverence for the level of solidarity that is divinely represented in the Cross. It is the extreme example of self-donation in the midst of not only violence, but rejection as well, and so is aptly termed in the gospels a “scandal.” But the scandal, as Moltmann has rightly emphasized, is not in the selfless self-donation of Jesus, nor even in his solidarity with suffering, but it is in the resulting abandonment; “abandoned by those who trusted him and by the God in whom he trusted.” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15.34). The implications for Christian community, of course, are staggering. To become the kind of social agencies described above, we must not only be willing to identify with the abandoned, but to entertain abandonment ourselves. Our communities of faith must be willing, in other words, to become cruciform.
Further, the Cross has obvious bearing on the communal form in which Christian faith can be authentically received and effectively transmitted. That is to say, it directly implies a vibrant missional aspect that identifies, sustains, and expands the community in the interest of the eschatological objectives that belie its role as a social agency and apart from which the Christ-event as a whole is biblically meaningless. It cannot be a community, in other words, that is apologetic about the manner in which eschatology informs mission. But it must be so humbly, honestly receptive to what Paul Tillich called “reverse prophetism,” in which those around us are encouraged to inform our views, share our experiences, and call us to live up to the very ideals we ourselves espouse. Those ideals are themselves informed, once again, by trinitarian doctrine, and so minimally include the validating of personhood, a political theology of unity and multiplicity, and the making of disciples in the fulfillment of Jesus’ own commission (Mt.28.19).
Examining an Embrace
The question remains, how can Christian community best adhere to trinitarian concepts in a socially and eschatologically productive way? A metaphor has recently been proposed that, in my opinion, brings the demonstration of sociability and the production of social agents together in just such a desirable symmetry: the metaphor of embrace. It is an embrace that is so intimate and yet so large as to encompass both the inner-communion of the Trinity and the socially-provocative embrace that extends through the faith community to the world. It personifies a word of “welcome” that deliberately seeks truth, and justice, and beauty in others and for others.
Adding the setting of a drama, Miroslav Volf describes four structural elements in what he calls the “movement of embrace” that are helpful in understanding the power in both the physical and metaphysical use of the metaphor. Opening the arms is a gesture of the body reaching for another with a sense of welcome and openness. It indicates that I have created space for more than myself alone. Waiting for a response from the other recognizes that reciprocity cannot be forced, but simply hoped for and possibly anticipated. It shows respect for the integrity of the other. The goal of the embrace is the closing of the arms. Gurevitch suggests that we envision how “each is both holding and being held by the other, both active and passive.” It requires gentleness in which free and mutual giving and receiving take place. Finally, the opening of the arms again speaks of the transforming power of relationship and the release of that power in order to benefit the surrounding community. The other must be let go so that boundary-making does not preclude the embrace of yet others.
The metaphor of embrace, of course, seeks to confront the ugly reality of exclusion that is the more frequent experience of many. Anne Lamott reminds us that faulty theology is behind most forms of exclusion when she writes, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image, when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Weak theology, in fact, can often account for what Volf understands as the two critical transgressions that erupt in exclusion: 1) “Cutting the bonds that connect, taking oneself out of the pattern of interdependence and placing oneself in a position of sovereign independence;” and 2) “Erasure of separation, not recognizing the other as someone who in his or her otherness belongs to the pattern of interdependence.” A clear example is the biblical narrative of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4), in which Cain’s violent act is essentially anti-communal as it calls into question God’s intended design that human community reflect the trinitarian community by sharing a common social space and taking responsibility for the other.
The theology of embrace more fully requires a Hebraic hermeneutic (as opposed to Western readings that are situated in dominance) that naturally and happily reads the texts of Scripture from below rather than above. It is, moreover, only this approach to biblical texts that ensures an honest appraisal of the ugly dynamics of exclusion and generates a deep appreciation for the experiences of embrace. Latent within readings of texts in this manner is a strong current of grace that offers a new embrace to those who have been excluded and a forgiving embrace to those who guilty of excluding, so that mimetic violence need not be perpetuated. It is the same grace that gives the Cross its power, not only to draw in the innocent, but even to embrace the wrongdoer. As Volf concludes, it is the emblem of the Cross, in fact, that is center stage in the welcoming drama of embrace, for in it is depicted the mutuality of self-giving love in the Trinity (the doctrine of God), and the outstretched arms of the Savior (the doctrine of Christ), and the open arms of the father receiving the prodigal (the doctrine of salvation).
It is only faith communities empowered by the Spirit that have the potential to so mirror the Trinity that they can become purveyors of sociability and agents of social welfare in the same context. Only then can the church be conceived of as a social agency in the fullest sense of the terms I have been using here to describe it. But in order for that to happen, we are invited, first, to embrace the embrace that is the welcoming of God into the community that he is in himself. We could argue that the successful transmission of faith depends upon it, for the entire tone of the community’s mission changes when it is pictured as an embrace. It is by nature welcoming. The arms open, they wait for a response, they encircle the other, and release them, transformed, to embrace another.
 See, for example, Donald L. Horowitz, Ethnic Groups in Conflict (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 5.
 Charles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition,” in Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, edited by Amy Gutmann (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 25-73, discusses a political emphasis on equal dignity as opposed to that which focuses on individual distinctiveness. Michael Walzer suggests that the latter inevitably leads to an unhealthy form of tribal identity in the postmodern situation. See his, Thick and Thin: Moral Arguments at Home and Abroad (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 81.
 Derrida reflects on personal identity that is shaped by cultural identity by being fully “a part,” but not “in every part” of its own culture. See, Jacques Derrida, The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe, trans. P.A. Brault and M.B. Naas (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 82.
 Ongoing debate about the ecclesial question continues to proceed out of the well-known dictum of Cyprian: “Regardless of where one begins, one always gets back to the church.” Quoted in G.L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (London: S.P.C.K, 1956), 34.
 Letty M. Russell, Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1993), 42.
 Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God: The Doctrine of God (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), 200. Direct questions of sociability are better addressed in Pannenberg in which the correspondence between the Trinity and the church are overt. See, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol.1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991-97), 259-336.
 For a good examination of this history, see Soriu Dumitrescu, Dimineti and Staniloae (Budapest: Anastasi Press, 1992), 186 ff. It should be said that some Roman Catholic theologians have more recently been suggesting that faith is communally oriented because its object is the Triune God and therefore involves entering the “divine community.” See Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 176.
 For example, John D. Zizioulas has suggested that God as father “is not constituted relationally; rather his fatherhood is necessarily expressed and confirmed relationally.” Thus, Zizioulas considers that human community is only effective as it draws on the Trinitarian personal communion. See his, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), 42.
 Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 195. Volf offers further that “because churches, in the power of the Holy Spirit, already form a communion with the triune God, ecclesial correspondence to the Trinity can become an object of hope and thus also a task for human beings.”
 G.L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought, 296. The Greek idea of perichoresis suggests “co-inherence in one another without any coalescence or commixture.” The limits of perichoresis in human terms can been seen, as Volf suggests, when “even a relation as close a pregnancy does not involve the phenomenon of personal interiority. Although the child is a person (in the theological sense), it has as yet no subjectivity, and exists not in the self of the mother, but rather in her body (which she admittedly not only possesses, but rather is as well).” See Volf, After Our Likeness, 211.
 Stephen Webb goes so far as to suggest that economies of exchange and excess can find their impetus in the giving modeled in the Trinity. See his, The Gifting God: A Trinitarian Ethics of Excess (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
 Copleston engages in a good discussion of how theology is made destitute whenever it attempts to be non-political. See Frederick Copleston, Religion and the One: Philosophies East and West (New York: Crossroad, 1982), 13.
 Various studies have demonstrated the correlation between the rapid spread of Christianity and particular communions that extol the dynamics of freedom and equality. One of the better of these is Hatch’s examination of populism and Christian teaching. See, Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).
 The German sociologist, Niklas Luhmann, argues for the ongoing need of clear clergy/laity divisions in the interest of social order and harmony. See his, The Function of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 234.
 The subjunctive grammar here is intentional because we are still dealing in the realm of human limitations. Stephen Brachlow, for example, highlights the necessity of obedience within effective Christian communities, and reminds us that obedience is straightforwardly subjunctive. See his, The Communion of the Saints: Radical Puritan and Separatist Ecclesiology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 21.
 The compelling relationship between ecclesiology and eschatology is masterfully treated by Jurgen Moltmann in The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology (New York: Harper & Row, 1977).
 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 20.
 Wolterstorff goes on to suggest that when Christian communities fulfill this kind of mandate they are not simply adding a social component to an emasculated gospel, but they are emancipating the spark of creativity that is likewise at the heart of trinitarian concerns. Communities that appreciate the Trinity are exuberant about displays of creativity. See, Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Public Theology or Christian Learning,” Unpublished paper, 1996.
 Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 101.
 Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University if Chicago Press, 1967), vol.3, 214.
 The use of the picture of “embrace” was possibly first offered by Z.D. Gurevitch as a purely sociological metaphor in his article, “The Embrace: On the Element of Non-Distance in Human Relations.” The Sociological Quarterly 31 (2 1990). Charles Taylor alludes to it in “The Politics of Recognition.” In Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, ed. Amy Gutmann, 25-73. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. However, the most extensive and helpful, and more than likely the only one to approach embrace as a theological metaphor, is Miroslav Volf’s, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996).
 Ibid., 140-145,
 Z.D. Gurevitch, “The Embrace: On the Element of Non-Distance in Human Relations,” 194.
 Anne Lamott, interview in World Magazine, September 20, 2003, page 28. Lamott offers insightful, and sometimes scathing criticisms of Christian community in her two best known books, Traveling Mercies and Blue Shoe.
 Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 67 (emphasis mine).
 Renee Girard discusses how God’s mark upon Cain is obviously a gracious gift to protect him from copy-cat violence and to potentially break the cycle of violence. See his, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Trans. S. Bann and M. Metteer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 146.
 Thiselton maintains that the self-giving love as modeled in the Trinity is particularly brought into focus on the Cross. He suggests that it is necessarily projected into relations between the human self and the other. See, Anthony C. Thiselton, Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 153. Elaine Pagels argues that the Christian tradition is largely about the struggle between “otherness” as evil and Jesus’ example of divine reconciliation for all. While it is weak Christologically, it is worth considering on the social level. See her, The Origin of Satan (New York: Random House, 1995), 184.
 Exclusion and Embrace, 29.