The Trinitarian Self: The Key to the Puzzle of Violence

Andrew Suderman

The Conrad Grebel Review 28, no. 3 (Fall 2010)

Charles K. Bellinger. The Trinitarian Self: The Key to the Puzzle of Violence. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2008.

To understand violence is to understand our complicity in it. To overcome it, or to find alternatives, it is important to understand the roots of violence. This is Charles K. Bellinger’s task in The Trinitarian Self: The Key to the Puzzle of Violence. In his attempt to develop a paradigm that helps us understand the roots of violence, Bellinger enlists the help of Søren Kierkegaard, Eric Voegelin, and René Girard. Although it may be a stretch to depict this paradigm as a New Copernican Revolution, which Bellinger does, the paradigm does demonstrate the delicate balance needed in order for peace to reign.

The paradigm mirrors the triune God and consists of three dimensions of existence: the vertical axis, which depicts the hierarchy of being (nature below, God above); (2) the horizontal plane, which encompasses the social; and (3) the temporal trajectory of the self, which represents the life lived in a given time encompassing the past the self comes from to the future the self moves towards. Violence, argues the author, occurs when one of these dimensions outweighs or is given priority over the others. Such is the case in three examples offered: fundamentalism, with its focus on the vertical axis; political utopianism, which is horizontally centred; and individualism, with its focus on the self.

In developing this paradigm, Bellinger uses Kierkegaard to demonstrate the temporal trajectory of the self. Kierkegaard reasons that the self has the ability to turn away from rebellion against God, which exists within human sociality in its corrupted form (“the crowd”), by becoming an individual who through faith in God moves into a positive sociality characterized by love of God, self, and neighbor (20). It is through practice and training (askesis) that one can become an individual and embody true selfhood before God as one models him/herself after the prototype of true selfhood, Christ.

Bellinger uses Voegelin as the representative of the vertical axis. Voegelin suggests there are two forms of theophany through which to learn about God: revelation and philosophy. These two forms provide the means through which humans can learn about the accumulative truth of God; through these forms we become aware of and can learn from the wisdom of the past, interact constructively and ethically with fellow humans, and respond to the “pull of the divine” (34) in order to enter the genuine life of the spirit. Anamnesis (recollection, remembrance, recovery of what was lost) allows us to learn more about the vertical nature of God while we are led towards a renewed experience of God.

Bellinger turns to Girard as the representative of the horizontal plane. Humans have a tendency toward mimetic desire, the propensity to imitate and mimic others, believing they are models, in the pursuit of success and greater fullness of being. Mimetic desire, however, is at the root of our social systems falling away from God as we fail to look at God revealed in Christ as the one whom we should mimic. As we fall away from God, we seek someone or something that will act as society’s scapegoat and draw attention away from the actual problem. The Holy Spirit – the paraclete (parakletos) – is the power that helps overcome mimetic violence and the need for a scapegoat. Through the Holy Spirit’s defense (the principal meaning of parakletos), we are able to live with one another in peace and harmony, knowing that Christ, the one scapegoat that makes all other scapegoats superfluous, has already been sacrificed. Through the continual presence of the Holy Spirit, we are reminded that Christ is the model we should be mimicking.

After creating and explaining the threefold paradigm, Bellinger projects it onto different scenarios to show how it helps us understand violence in different realities. However, the reader is left wanting to know how to engage and respond to the different scenarios in specific ways.

Although the direction and argument are not always clear, and more in-depth analysis into some of the very broad topics would be helpful, Bellinger’s overall argument does help us realize and understand the complexity within violence and how, in order to achieve lasting peace, we must seek balance among the three dimensions of reality.

Andrew Suderman, Director of the Anabaptist Network in South Africa