Trinity, Pragmatism, and the Self: De Lubac on Catechesis and the Creed

By Alex Fogleman

Many catechists and preachers who teach the Trinity—as will happen in a little over a week on Trinity Sunday—are often met with the response: “What’s the point? What’s the use of it?” 

While pragmatism is an especially besetting vice of North American Christianity, it’s not unique to our context. For hundreds of years, believers and skeptics alike have been asking what good is in it for them.

I’ve usually thought of such pragmatism as a minor irritant, something that many Christians inevitably wrestle with, and mostly for good reason—otherwise it would encourage people like me to sit around and read books all day without ever having to justify it to people in “the real world.”

However, it may be that pragmatism is more problematic. Yes, it does often mean that we force the doctrine of the Trinity to do work that it’s not meant to do. We make it about social action or interpersonal relationships. But pragmatism also has some decidedly disastrous effects on the spiritual life. As the great Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac explains, in a wonderful book introducing the Apostles’ Creed for catechesis, when we avoid questions that only ask about our immediate benefit, we forego the opportunity for anything beyond ourselves to call us out of ourselves. We deprive ourselves of great power and light, remaining stuck with only our best thoughts and ideas. Each of us remains, as the Augustinian-Lutheran tradition would put it, in curvatus in se—“curved-in-on-oneself.” I remain only a “self,” and nothing more.

What is needed instead is a more patient approach to discovering what de Lubac calls “the most pregnant truth”—the bright and shining truth of the triune God revealed in Christ. If it does not reveal all of its splendor at once, we can trust the Tradition that it is still worth encountering for what it is, and not just for its immediate practical applications. In time, it this reality that will be what finally reveals the entire meaning of our lives.

The full passage from de Lubac is worth reading and pondering:  

Above all, this creed teaches us the mystery of the divine Trinity. It is in this light that our faith consists. It is for us both light and life. Nevertheless, it is very necessary for us to recognize that this is not always easy to understand and is not readily apparent to everyone. For a number of Christians, and not just those who retain only a vague, conventionalized version of their faith, this seems to be a sealed mystery.

Is it proper to blame those who have the task of instructing us? It would be more just to take this blame upon ourselves. We do not always know how to embrace the most pregnant truth, which must slowly produce its fruit within us. Impatient as we are, we would like to understand immediately, or rather, in our shortsighted pragmatism, if we are not shown practical applications for it right away, we declare it to be abstract, unassimilable, “unrealistic,” an “empty shell,” a hollow theory with which there would be no point in burdening ourselves.

This is what Faustus Socinus and his disciples thought, as witnessed by their Catechism of Racow (1605): “The dogma of the Trinity is contrary to reason. It is absurd to think that by the will of God, who is reason and who loves his creatures, men must believe something incomprehensible and useless to moral life and therefore to salvation.” This was also the opinion of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, agreeing in this respect with all the Christians of his century seduced by the “lights”: the Trinity, in the judgment of the Savoyard Vicar, was a part of those things that “lead to nothing useful or practical.”

Now we must really be convinced that, when we allow ourselves to indulge in such thoughts, it is we who are thus living superficially, outside of ourselves. The Christian who does not trust the fruitfulness of revealed truth, who consents to interest himself in it only to the degree to which he perceives the benefit in advance, who does not consent to let himself be grasped and modeled by it, such a Christian does not realize of what light and power he has deprived himself.

He does not see that in consenting to hear—if it may be called that—only the voices that promise him a response to his immediate questions, he is himself renouncing the opportunity to grow in self-understanding and depth while shutting himself up within the limits of his own experience. Sometimes he even reaches the point of imagining he can no longer find any meaning in a hackneyed, “out-of-date” concept, when in fact he is dealing with a mystery he has not yet glimpsed.

  • Henri de Lubac, The Christian Faith, 10–12