In her article “Perichoresis and Projection: Problems with Social Doctrines of the Trinity,” Karen Kilby argues against the “new orthodoxy” formulations of social theories of the Trinity, arguing that the latter are products of contextual projection by theorists seeking to make the Trinity relevant for immanent social life. Opting instead for a referential or “grammatical… second order… rule” perspective, Kilby concludes the article thusly:
If not the social doctrine, what then? The beginnings of an alternative are present already in what was said above. I suggested that problems arise when one looks for a particular insight into God of which the doctrine of the Trinity is the bearer. My own proposal, then, is not that one should move from the social back to, say, a psychological approach to the Trinity—this would simply be to look for a different insight—but rather that one should renounce the very idea that the point of the doctrine is to give insight into God.
The doctrine of the Trinity, I want to suggest, does not need to be seen as a descriptive, first order teaching—there is no need to assume that its main function must be to provide a picture of the divine, a deep understanding of the way God really is. It can instead be taken as grammatical, as a second order proposition, a rule, or perhaps a set of rules, for how to read the Biblical stories, how to speak about some of the characters we come across in these stories, how to think and talk about the experience of prayer, how to deploy the “vocabulary” of Christianity in an appropriate way. The doctrine on this account can still be seen as vitally important, but important as a kind of structuring principle of Christianity rather than as its central focus: if the doctrine is fundamental to Christianity, this is not because it gives a picture of what God is like in se from which all else emanates, but rather because it specifies how various aspects of the Christian faith hang together.
But surely, one might respond, if I am told that God must be spoken of as three persons and one substance, I will inevitably try to make sense of this. If God must be spoken of in this way, what does that mean about how God really is? The question, perhaps, is inevitable, and the history of theology is littered with (conflicting) attempts to answer it. What I am suggesting, however, is that it is nevertheless a secondary question—affirming a doctrine of the Trinity does not depend on being able to answer it, nor does establishing the relevance of the doctrine depend on finding the “right” answer to it.
Theologians are of course free to speculate about social or any other kind of analogies to the Trinity. But they should not, on the view I am proposing, claim for their speculations the authority that the doctrine carries within the Christian tradition, nor should they use the doctrine as a pretext for claiming such an insight into the inner nature of God that they can use it to promote social, political or ecclesiastical regimes.
I’m still thinking through all the implications of her thesis. But the first thing that strikes me is the (perhaps forced?) similarity between her concept of the Trinity and (certain readings) of the virtual in Deleuze and Bergson. For example, arguing against traditional “virtualist” readings of Deleuze, John Mullarkey argues that
‘The virtual’ exists only virtually within a virtual ontology, and by that I mean that it is a performative concept, it is produced from our point of view or frame of reference as an ‘image’ (another crucial term for Bergson): one can virtualise without anything existing other than what we call and see as ‘the virtual’. It is a frame or system of reference for ‘seeing as’, for taking up the actual world [emphasis mine] (Post-Continental Philosophy, 28).
While I have NO desire to theologize the work of Deleuze, I do think there could be an interesting insight here for Christian Trinitarianism in light of Kilby’s thesis above: namely, much like the role of the virtual (as preservation/persistence of the past), the Trinity may well be viewed as the theological deposit box that retains the totality of the Christian tradition to date. In other words, it is the ever expanding conceptual reservoir into which Christian praxis and theology flow, which then in turn sets the parameters of future Christian discourse and praxis. Of course, according to this logic the Trinity is not indefinite, as is the virtual, because it is only one object domain (i.e. an ontic monism á la Markus Gabriel) and because of its self-limiting historical presence as (primarily) Western. But as the structuring principle of Christianity, the “system of reference for ‘seeing as’, for taking up the actual world,” it might just be the reflection of actual Christian life (cumulative tradition) and also the reflecting image that creates the conditions from which future Christianities emerge, thereby becoming a transcendental of sorts.