by Edith M. Humphrey. Eerdmans, 2006. ISBN 0-8028-3147-8. Pb., 295 pp. $21.
This is an exciting book. It links the doctrine of the Trinity with the spirituality of ordinary Christians. Humphrey, who teaches New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, organized her book around three triads: love, light and life. In keeping with the Trinitarian motif, each triad has three sections.
The heart of Humphrey’s work is her understanding of the Triune God and how this God relates to believers. For her, the Trinity is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit living in a perfect community of love and sharing. The Triune God is not self-contained but stands outside the divine self. This is the meaning of ecstasy. The purpose of this ecstasy or standing outside of the divine self is to have an intimate relationship with men and women. This is the “holy tryst” that Humphrey defines as “a holy meeting in which God, through his very own love, brings humanity (spirit, soul, body) to himself” (p. 17). This occurs especially through the action of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, for Humphrey, Christian spirituality is “the study of what happens when the Holy Spirit meets the human spirit” (p. 17).
God faces a challenge: overcoming the separation that fallen men and women have created between themselves and God. In the current day, rampant individualism is a sign of this separation, since God calls people to community with the Triune God, and with one another. Indeed, the importance of communal living is a point to which Humphrey returns often. God’s extravagant love for humanity will not be denied. In Jesus Christ, God acts to overcome the separation, and to call people into a deep community with the Divine. “Here is the grand paradox: God is God and will not give his glory to another; God, through Christ the Son, imparts his glory to his adopted and beloved human sons and daughters” (pp.90-91).
Humphrey uses the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on Mount Tabor to describe the transformation that Christ and the Trinity effect in the lives of the faithful. In addition, discussing II Corinthians 2:14-4:18, Humphrey argues that Paul teaches that the gift of the Holy Spirit to believers is such that all of life becomes holy and a place to meet God. This openness to holiness is encouraged by worship, prayer (which can be understood as attentiveness to the presence of God), Bible study, and the reading of the great spiritual practitioners of the past.
One of Humphrey’s strongest sub-triads is titled “The Flame of Love — The Witness of Our Older Siblings in the Faith.” Here she deals with a wide range of folks, from Gregory of Nyssa to Evelyn Underhill. These portraits are all well done. It is in the midst of such remembrance that the author gives an excellent account of how we can have union with God without being fused with God and crossing a boundary that we cannot cross. She argues that by God’s grace we are transfigured to see the energies of God not God’s essence, which remains God’s alone (p. 130). It is a beautiful description, well worth reading.
Of course each reader will find areas where they choose to quibble about the strength of an argument or the accuracy of a presentation. For example, one could well conclude that Humphrey’s description of the work of Marcus Borg shows him to be less orthodox than others believe him to be. There are also reflections, suggestions for further reading and questions for discussion at the end of every section.
This is not airport reading. It is not easy to read, not because it is poorly written, but because it is so often deep and thought-provoking. It would be most useful for those who have a fair degree of theological understanding as well as an awareness of the history of Christian spirituality. What Humphrey does do with great skill is to tell the Christian story. It is a story based on the reality of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, whose love for each other cannot be contained but reaches out to transform a fallen humanity into a new community, a transformed community, a community that meets God in the ordinariness of every- day life. Here is where the importance of Humphrey’s work lies as she demonstrates that a vital Christian spirituality must be based on the life of the Triune God.
This is a work worth the time to read.
Gerald A. “Rusty” Butler is a spiritual director and pastor of the Pisgah Church in Somerset, Ky.