Trinity and Ubuntu

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.  — Archbishop Desmond Tutu

In western culture, there has long been a tendency to exult the individual.  We value individuality, and we think it important to help people to grow into individuated individuals.  A positive aspect of this tendency is that it enables us to value uniqueness, and to affirm that each person, in and of him-/herself, is a being worthy of love and respect.  The fact that we value individuality positions us to be able to value individuals.  And, that’s certainly a good thing.  But there is a downside to this exultation of the individual:  that we lost sight of the importance of community, of our connection to other human beings.  We can, indeed, end up promoting a selfish sort of “me, first” ethic that allows each individual to dwell at the center of his or her own universe, and then these universes easily begin to collide with one another.

Desmond Tutu’s quote with which I began shares a piece of African wisdom encapsulated in the word, “ubuntu”.  It is difficult to translate, but as Archbishop Tutu points out, “ubuntu” seeks to point us to the truth that no person ever becomes a person in isolation.  We become people through other people – we become human by being a part of a human community.  Even when we pride ourselves on our individualism, even when we think of ourselves as self-reliant, we remain dependent on the larger human community for so much.   We are, in essence, relational beings, born out of relationship, developed through relationship, and dwelling always in a network of relationship.

This Sunday is, among western Christians, known traditionally as Trinity Sunday.  It always comes on the Sunday right after Pentecost, and is a somewhat odd celebration in that it is perhaps the only “feast” on the Christian calendar that celebrates a doctrine:  the doctrine of God as Trinity.  It is a doctrine that has been called Christianity’s most unique contribution to the human notion of God:  that God is both singular and plural all at the same time.

Preachers often groan at the thought of having to say something intelligent on Trinity Sunday, since doctrinal discussions have a tendency to put most people into a stupor.  But I think much of the “problem” preachers have with Trinity Sunday is a function of living in a too literal culture.  Having lost an appreciation for the truth of poetry and metaphor, we tend to look at things like the Trinity and assume that we have to explain it.  Yet the Trinity is not meant to be an explanation.  Rather, it is meant to point us to a profound truth.

Just as the word “ubuntu” is difficult to translate, so is the Trinity.  And yet, like “ubuntu”, the Trinity points us to the mystery of a God whom Christians apprehend as having a communal quality.  The doctrine of the Trinity does not seek to explain God so much as it serves to declare that, in some mysterious way, the very being of God is rooted in a communion of love.  God’s very being is, somehow, an eternal, everlasting, unending embrace.  In other words, God is relationship.

We will never understand that intellectually.  However, we can understand it emotionally, psychologically, and in the heart.  For we know ourselves to also be relationship, to be “ubuntu”.  The Judeo-Christian tradition declares that we are made in the image of God, meaning that we are made in the image of relationship.  If we think about this, we might recognize how profoundly meaningful that truth is.  We are each one, a unique person, an individual.  But we are also not simply one – we are who we are because we are caught up from the moment of our birth in a web of relationships with other people and with God.

So, whether you will be a preacher or a listener this Sunday, don’t dread the Trinity.  And don’t try to explain it.  Rather, recognize the Trinity as a platform for diving deeply into the mystery of being, both human and divine.  We are one and many at the same time.  We are relationship.  We are always embracing and being embraced.  It is what makes us who we are.

One thought on “Trinity and Ubuntu

  1. I really appreciate all of these thoughts.  It’s helpful to know that the Trinity is not a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be drawn into. Rene Girard has also helped me see how our identity and desires are always formed in relation to others, and that this is right at the core of what it means to be human.  I think this implies that the Christian life can be understood as growing into the image of God instead of the image of others, although this still happens in relationship with others. I don’t fully understand all of this but it seems profoundly important.  I look forward to exploring it more and more at Holy Trinity. 

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