Lee Review of Boff Holy Trinity Perfect Community

Boff, Leonardo. Holy Trinity, Perfect Community. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000. Pages, xvii + 125. Paper, $16.00. ISBN: 1570753326

Reviewed by: Michael E. Lee

In 1988, two years after he published his great work on the Trinity and the same year that its English translation, Trinity and Society, appeared, Leonardo Boff composed a condensed version of his text entitled Santíssima Trindade é a melhor communidade. Twelve years later, Boff’s attempt to present his trinitarian reflections in less technical language appears in its own English translation. Although delayed in its appearance, Holy Trinity. Perfect Community offers a timely reminder of the central importance of the Trinity to Christians and the role that this doctrine can play in the social project of liberation.

In his turn to the Trinity, Boff can be counted among many theologians who have spurred the recent revival of interest in thinking and naming God. Like others, who range across the theological spectrum from John Milbank to Jürgen Moltmann, Boff articulates dissatisfaction with the too-clear definitions of doctrinal language and metaphysical speculation that dominate modem theology. To that end, this text may be viewed as a corrective to three tendencies in post-Enlightenment Trinitarian theology: (1) the hegemony of rationalistic discourse; (2) the hyper-individualism attendant with the modern concept of person, and; (3) ignorance of the massive poverty and suffering that still haunts the modem promise of liberty and freedom.

In enunciating this essentially 'post-modern' critique in his liberation text, Boff signals that Latin American liberation theologians still possess a vibrant and relevant voice to add to contemporary theological discussion. What sets this text apart from most of the other contemporary works on the Trinity is its clear, often poetic, language that offers much to the non-specialized reader. In contrast to a deepening or furthering of the project laid out in Trinity and Society, this book should be seen as a popularizing work done in a pastorally reflective, rather than academically argumentative key.

Holy Trinity. Perfect Community functions on a simple premise; namely, the holy Trinity, properly understood, can strengthen the social project of liberation by serving as a model that humans should strive to imitate. Unfortunately, the majority of today's Christians live an 'a-trinitarian' monotheism that views the Trinity as an irrelevant doctrine, and the effects of this neglect reveal themselves in the ills of our society. Thus, Boff structures his book to address the difficulties he diagnoses as stemming from ignorance of good Trinitarian doctrine.

The first and most significant problem diagnosed is that of contemporary individualism. Instead of viewing God as the perfect community, as the title implies, Christians view God as a solitary ruler. This individualistic conception of God can then shape and justify political, ecclesial, and social structures that are authoritarian and non-participative. As an antidote to this view, the text leans heavily on explicating the Greek term, perichoresis. This term, arising from Orthodox theology, signifies a mutual interrelationship, an indwelling, within God. It allows Boff to move beyond the image of a solitary God and speak of a radically equal and self-giving relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit without positing tritheism.

Human reason and language have great difficulty with the assertion of the Three-in-One. While Boff briefly summarizes the terminology that has evolved over the course of the Christian tradition to grapple with this difficulty, he stresses that it is the neglected language of prayer that may be the most important. For by placing a premium on the language of language of rational propositions, modern theology has neglected the language of doxology and praise that often better captures the ultimately mysterious nature of the Trinity. The vibrancy of Trinitarian doctrine relies on our readiness to employ imagination and accept symbolic language to express the truth which has tended to be limited to rational statements.

The second half of Boff’s text explores this symbolic truth by focusing separate chapters on each 'person' of the Trinity and indicating how the vision of the perfect community can be used to counter exclusionary political, religious, and social practices, particularly economic and gender-based inequality. He goes to considerable lengths to emphasize the 'feminine' side of God revealed in the Trinity, and widens his view to speak of creation and history within a Trinitarian framework. He concludes the book with seventeen key theses that summarize Trinitarian doctrine, and then he adds a glossary of technical theological terminology used in discussion of the Trinity.

Leonardo Boff has done a great service by providing a text for the lay reader interested in reflecting on the Trinity. His prose remains clear, and though he gestures to some rather complex material, Boff never loses the reader in overly-technical formulation. He can be commended for his positive reception of the historical Christian tradition. Too often, other theologians have been tempted to place the blame for contemporary neglect of the Trinity on some figure in history (e.g. Augustine or Aquinas). Boff accepts the tradition and locates the problem as a modern one.

Criticism of the text may come from two different sets of readers. The first may be those who disagree with Boff’s fundamental premise that the Trinity can serve as a model for human beings. They might challenge Boff to reflect more on the doctrine of the Trinity that stems from first asserting the radical distinction between human and divine existence. Though Boff does assert the transcendence of God, his text focuses exclusively on an analogical, participative model of the relationship between God and humans.

The other set of critics might be those who do not see Boff carrying his project far enough. For example, his gestures to feminism often fail as simple and dubious attributions of stereotypical “feminine characteristics” to God. Those who expect the perspective of the poor to saturate a text from a Latin American liberation theologian will not be satisfied with the few broad appeals to social justice that occur in the text. Certainly, this text often reads as if it could have been produced by any theologian in the first world.

Yet, this is a valuable book for those who desire to reflect on the Trinity. Although formally divided into ten chapters, the book is subdivided into fifty-six small sections, each concluding with a brief quote or reflection. This structure gives the book a meditative feel suitable for retreats, church adult education, or private devotional reading. Though not written in a style suitable for classroom instruction, Boff’s ambitious text covers a vast array of problems in an economic fashion. His appeal to a communitarian view of Trinity should resonate especially with Latino/as for whom family and community are of fundamental importance. For its simple, poetic style, this text may well be fulfilling the ultimate hope for a liberation text on the Trinity: to bring the doctrine of the Trinity to the ordinary ones who make up the people of God.