We all know that God is not defined by our western culture, but it seems we look at the world when applying religion through that lens. This gives us a narrow view of who God is and keeps us from understanding the richness and diversity of God. When we see how God shows up in diverse cultures we see the profound, open-ended diversity of God. The Trinity is one way we can see how God transcends culture and enlightens life through the gospel.
We know that even as missionaries going to “save the savages” that we do not take God to them. This world was created by God, as Genesis 1 says, God created everything through speaking it into existence as God’s breath moved over the face of the creation. (Gen 1:1-3). But how do we see God in every culture and know that the Good News is available to everyone as they are without fitting into the western culture dichotomy of Christianity?
One way to see this is through the missionary work to China. When Matteo Ricci went as a missionary to China he concluded, “that it was unnecessary to quote and interpret the Bible when discussing Deus with the Chinese (especially the monks or literati), because the authority of the Bible was meaningless for those who had different beliefs.” Meaning that to try and say that the Bible is an authority in their lives until we actually see how God is already acting in and through their lives would not allow God to be present with them before Ricci got there. Ricci introduced the idea of Deus through cosmology and ontology showing a basis of a moral philosophy which was the understanding Confucian classics taught. In this way Ricci was showing that God was a part of the Chinese culture in a way western Christianity may not see or understand. As Zi Wang continued, “these Western missionaries did not distinguish between the text and the meaning of the text, which makes the interpretation and use of Scriptures appear arbitrary.” When we try to apply the scripture through our hermeneutic on a culture we do not understand our meaning of the text will not fit and will cause issues. We need to take a step back and see how God is already present. How the text may have meaning in this context so we will all be enriched. As Ernest M. Conradie and Teddy C. Sakupapa said, “Idowu for instance, who was one of the earliest African theologians to ponder the question whether the God known in ATR is the same God as the God of the whole universe, rejected any claim that God has revealed himself ultimately in a single religion.” God has not revealed Godself completely in any single religion meaning that when we look at other cultures and “religions” through the lens of our hermeneutic and western culture we will miss the way that God is revealing parts of God to us through the differing culture and religious understanding.
However, Conradie and Sakupapa continued the look at the God of the African Traditional Religion and questioned, “whether it is “possible to have a revelation of God outside Jesus Christ or even the Judeo-Christian tradition”. Jesus and the Spirit show us that God is communal and community as Godself. God does not need another to be in community as the Trinity is already a community and shows that we are all made to be a part of community. In ATR, God is one and is not a Trinity and so there is a weakness when trying to talk about the God of Christianity, the Trinity in ATR. Therefore, there is a wonder about a revelation of God apart from Jesus, and in my addition the Spirit. But “Some African theologians have recently begun to explore this through a retrieval of some African notions such as ancestor and vital force.” There is an inherent community in ATR and seeing this in the ancestors and vital force, which can be linked to the Spirit, is a way of seeing Trinity in ATR. It is not forcing those who practice ATR to accept a Christian Trinity but shows that the Trinity is present in a way that they already celebrate and worship. Nigerian theologian Okechukwu Ogbonnaya worked to show Tertullian’s understanding of Trinity was helpful to ATR. “Describing Tertullian’s theology of the Trinity as divine community, Ogbonnaya posits a link between community and Trinity: ‘Communality is the essence of the gods’ He contends that the concept of divine communality is both logical and necessary for the African context, given the communal and relational orientation of African communities. This leads him to a nuanced critique of dominant concepts of the monotheistic nature of the Supreme Being in ATR, arguing that the ‘One in African thought should be understood in terms of communal oneness’”. Here Ogbonnaya shows that the God of ATR is communal and that is a logical step to seeing the Christian God as Trinity in ATR. Because the One in African thought is communal oneness. And another African theologian Oduyoye “interprets the symbol of the Trinity as a model for society.” The Community of the Trinity, even if the concept of a Trinitarian God doesn’t fit other religious understandings, transcends culture, and shows how God is a part of all of creation. God as Trinity is a model for how we should all live in community together.
The look at Chinese Confucianism and African Traditional Religion shows that a western understanding and hermeneutic doesn’t fit their religious understanding, but when you take the step back and see how God is already working in the through them, as a moral philosophy or as a relationship that speaks to all of community and understanding we then see how God transcends our understanding of God and all cultures and how the gospel is included in all cultures in ways we would never imagine through our lens. “According to (The Nigerian theologian) Orobator, the symbol of Obirinmeta expresses the idea of ‘a woman who combines the strength, character, personality, and beauty of three women … She is a multifunctional woman of unmatched density and unbounded substance’. Obirin meta, Orobator argues, ‘symbolises the abundant and radical open-endedness of God in God’s self and in our encounters of God’. Here Orbator shows that God reveals Godself in different ways as we encounter God. This understanding in ATR was a way to say the Trinity exists without saying the One was three. I feel like we all struggle with the 3 in 1 ness of God. Yet people from all religious backgrounds will say that we experience God in varied and different ways. We as Christians choose to say this is Trinity and label those ways, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Which causes issue with other religions that claim there is one God. But we do not disagree with that, and yet our understanding of Trinity gets in the way.
As The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams said in a lecture at the al-Azhar al-Sharif Institute in Cairo:
they said that the name ‘God’ is not the name of a person like a human person, a limited being with a father and mother and a place that they inhabit within the world. ‘God’ is the name of a kind of life – eternal and self-sufficient life, always active, needing nothing. And that life is lived eternally in three ways which are made known to us in the history of God’s revelation to the Hebrew people and in the life of Jesus. There is a source of life, an expression of life and a sharing of life. In human language we say, ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’, but we do not mean one God with two beings alongside him, or three gods of limited power. Just as we say, ‘Here is my hand, and these are the actions my one hand performs’, but it is not different from the actions of my five fingers, so with God: this is God, the One, the Living and Self-subsistent, but what God does is not different from the life which is eternally at the same time a source and an expression and a sharing of life. Since God’s life is always an intelligent and purposeful life, each of these dimensions of divine life can be thought of as a centre of mind and love; but this does not mean that God ‘contains’ three different individuals, separate from each other as human individuals are.
When we try and put our hermeneutic and lens on other cultures and religions to make God fit we do not allow the richness of God to be present in all of our lives. Our understanding shows us a way in which God interacts with us and by looking through Confucianism and ATR we see a different view of the vastness and wonderfulness of God. God is present in and through all of creation and when we try to make God fit in a box we are really only cheating ourselves. We can easily see when we drop our western lens that God is present in diverse cultures and transcends our understandings. If we step back from our power and privilege and see the world through a different lens, all of life will be better and see that we are truly a community in community with the community of the Trinity, which transcends culture and is immanent to all life.
God does not fit in a box and when we try to make God fit in a box and try to make other cultures give up themselves, we are not allowing creation to be free or live in truth of creation. Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32, my paraphrase). The truth is God transcends culture and time and the gospel is immanently relevant to every culture and people and by us stepping back and seeing that and living in that we will not only be free ourselves but will allow all people and creation to be free and to live in the community that is always in community with the truest community of the Trinity.
Through a cross-cultural biblical hermeneutics we have seen that what Paul criticized was precisely the kind of absolute universality that suppresses everything particular by its own standard. What Paul preached is not a mighty God aloof from all, but a mighty God who provides salvation for humanity through grace and whose power is for every creature. The distinction between Jews and Gentiles in Jewish law, or the discrimination against slaves, women, the uneducated, and those of low status under Roman law, cannot be used to identify Christians: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male (and) female, for you all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3:28). It means that being Christian does not involve fostering an identity over others: ‘Glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does good: first the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism’ (Rom. 2:10-11).
Only when we see that God truly transcends and is immanent in all cultures and context will we truly understand God and Trinity. God shows no partiality. God does not believe any one is better than or greater than anyone else. Through the communal aspects of Trinity all cultures are included in the communal aspects of God. Only when we see this and learn this will we really see or understand God and the love that freely flows from God’s throne.
 The Trinity among the Nations : The Doctrine of God in the Majority World, edited by Gene L. Green, et al., William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015. P118
 The Trinity among the Nations P121-122
 “Decolonising the Doctrine of the Trinity” or “The Decolonising Doctrine of the Trinity”?, Ernst M. Conradie and Teddy C. Sakupapa P42
 “Decolonising the Doctrine of the Trinity” P42
 “Decolonising the Doctrine of the Trinity” P42
 “Decolonising the Doctrine of the Trinity” P46
 The Trinity in African Christian theology: An overview of contemporary approaches, Sakupapa, Teddy C. P5
 The Trinity in African Christian theology: P5
 The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams address at al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo, Saturday 11th September 2004
 The Trinity among the Nations P129