The Dignity of Difference: Trinitarian Images for Reconciliation

[Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Dunbar considers the importance of diversity in her contribution for our series ‘Christian Doctrine and the Arts’. She looks at two Trinitarian depictions of diversity in unity – Andrei Rublev’s Trinity icon and Hilma af Klint’s triptych, The Altarpiece. For more information on this series, see the series introduction.]

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks—former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth—responded to the 9/11 terror attacks by writing The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations. In this book, he offers a Jewish response to certain threats posed by globalisation, religious and political extremism, and the anxieties of life in the 21st century. In his book, Sacks argues for the theological value of difference. He writes, ‘We need, in other words, not only a theology of commonality—of the universals of mankind—but also a theology of difference: why no one civilisation has the right to impose itself on others by force: why God asks us to respect the freedom and dignity of those not like us.’[1] Sacks believes that from the beginning, God created a diverse world and called it good; therefore, rather than attempting to convert others to our perspective, it would be more advantageous for us to accept and celebrate the differences given in creation. In his prologue, Sacks writes, ‘I speak from within the Jewish tradition, but I believe that each of us within our own traditions, religious or secular, must learn to listen.’[2] In this essay, I will attempt to support Sack’s thesis from within my own Catholic tradition by using the image of the Trinitarian God as a model for reconciliation based on his idea of the dignity of difference.

As I believe artists play a central role in the work of reconciliation by creating spaces for conversation and shared experience, I will use two works of art to illustrate an understanding of the dignity of difference by way of the nature of Trinitarian community. Art has a special way of opening us to the universal aspects of human experience without degrading the dignity of difference; thus, the arts offer a powerful ground in which to begin the difficult and rewarding work of reconciliation. For example, loss and love are universal human experiences. This explains why images such as Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph, Migrant Mother, remain powerful and moving experiences for the viewer outside their historical contexts. Art offers us a way to view the world through the lens of another—a skill which is essential to Sack’s view of reconciliation and the dignity of difference.

Sack’s view upholding an attitude of respect for the Other offers us a foundation for reconciliation work between faith and culture groups. In a broad theological sense, we can speak about the reconciliation that happens as a process of the work of salvation; as a result of sin, our relationship to God has been damaged and needs reparation. For Sacks, this healing happens when creation lives in the diverse harmony in which it was originally created and for which it is intended. In Judaism, the belief that Righteous Gentiles who follow the Noahide Laws will be given a place in the world to come provides a basis for respecting diversity and even looking for the good in the Other.[3] While Israel sees itself as the Chosen People, it also recognises that God, our common creator, is Father of all the living; therefore, its relationship with God does not preclude God’s relationship to other peoples. If we are to have hope for living peacefully together, it is in the recognition that we come from the same Source and that there is no need to convert the world to a singular point of view. Sacks writes, ‘What would faith be like? It would be like being secure in one’s home, yet moved by the beauty of foreign places, knowing that they are someone else’s home, not mine, but still part of the glory of the world that is ours….Those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others.’[4]

Sacks argues that we need to let go of an outlook which says that unity will happen when we all return to an original Source and become One in a sense which eventually does away with diversity or individuality.[5] Rather, Sacks believes the unity of God is best reflected in preserving the diversity of creation. God is so big and all-encompassing that it is in holding together variance that we can begin to catch a glimpse of the Divine. To know God is to know all things and realise that we STILL do not know God who is bigger than the summation of all these things. If our goal is to reach peace by dissolving our differences rather than reaching a point of mutual respect, then listening and dialogue can devolve into debate and violence as a means to this end. Reconciliation happens in the context of relationships rooted in mutual respect which reflects God’s intent for creation.

Art has a special way of opening us to the universal aspects of human experience without degrading the dignity of difference; thus, the arts offer a powerful ground in which to begin the difficult and rewarding work of reconciliation.

I take Sack’s image of the holy diversity of creation a step further by bringing it into a Christian context. For Christians, the image of a Trinitarian God gives further credence to the dignity of difference; the variance of creation reflects the diversity of a Triune God while also maintaining the unity of all things which have their source in that One God. Christians believe that the Triune God is revealed by Jesus Christ, Incarnate Son of God who reconciles us to the Father, and through the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us. Each person of the Trinity is distinctly known to us in their role as revealed by Christ: Father, Son, and Spirit. These roles, though, do not exhaust what we can (and cannot) say about God. Throughout the Scriptures we see God characterised in many ways: as mother, as potter, as builder, as bridegroom, as shepherd, as breath, as fire, as presence, etc… The Divine is revealed to us in many ways, but always in the context of relationship. This reflects the idea of perichoresis, coming from the Greek for ‘rotation,’ which characterises the kinetic and kenotic relationship of the three persons of the Trinity. While each person of the Trinity is clearly defined in their personhood (we understand this in relation to their ‘role,’ such as Son or Father), they are absolutely united in substance (each person is fully God); each person of the Trinity fully pours into the others in this eternal movement of love freely given. None of their roles diminish the others; they are in perfect harmony, relationship, and unity. If we truly believe we are created in the image and likeness of God, then we can begin to see the dignity of difference in a created world which reflects its Creator. Further, we are called to imitate the movements of love characterising the Trinitarian life, in which we profoundly recognise and respect the dignity of others.

To apply what I am proposing, I will discuss two works of art from different spiritual and cultural backgrounds to illustrate a dignity of difference as evidenced in the Trinitarian life: the 15th century Russian Orthodox icon, Troitsa, by Andrei Rublev and a 20th century triptych from Swedish Lutheran-Occultist painter, Hilma af Klint.


Case Study 1 – The Trinity Icon

In the Rublev icon, we see a Trinitarian group seated around a table. This image evokes the meeting in Genesis between Abraham and three strangers, typically viewed as angels in Rabbinic tradition. Sacks uses this story to highlight the Biblical command to welcome the stranger thereby solidifying the theological value of the dignity of difference.[6] Abraham invites the travellers into his home, bathing their feet, offering them rest under a shady tree, as well as a feast of bread, curds, and a slaughtered calf.[7] For his generosity in welcoming these strangers, God blesses Abraham and Sarah with a child despite their old age. In light of the New Testament revelation, many Christians view the three strangers as a prefiguring type of the Trinity. Andrei Rublev, a 15th century Russian Orthodox monk and iconographer, reflects this Trinitarian treatment of the story. While the faces of the three figures appear very similar in characteristics, they clearly remain three separate persons. The two on the right bow their heads to the one on the left who looks back at the other two in a movement of mutual communion and reverence. None is larger or taller than the rest, signifying that none holds a higher place than the others. In the centre of the table is a chalice; if one looks closely, a paschal lamb rests in the vessel. This is a Eucharistic meal which is being shared not only with the members at the table, but with the viewer who takes the place of Abraham in the story. The Trinity welcomes us just as we, likewise, are to welcome others to this shared meal and space for dialogue. Thus, we are offered a seat at the table to contemplate the mystery of the Trinity and to participate in the Divine Life. The work of reconciliation is a participation in the life of God who commands us to welcome the stranger.


Case Study 2- The Altarpiece

Hilma af Klint was a Christian mystic who, in her pursuit of Truth, sought answers in the sciences and in popular occult practices connected to Theosophical beliefs. In the context of a seance, a spirit commissioned her to paint a monumental series which would offer spiritual truths to those who viewed it. Hilma understood this as her life’s work and enthusiastically took on the task; over a period of nine years, she created The Paintings for the Temple under the direction of divine spirits. While Hilma never abandoned her Lutheran roots, her Christian beliefs were entwined with Eastern and occult spirituality and practice. Thus, her theology can be interpreted widely: both in a Christian capacity and in a way which stands outside Christian belief.

This triptych, aptly named The Altarpiece, was to be the culmination of the visual pilgrimage she was commissioned to create. She writes in one of her notebooks, ‘These three images…are a summary of the whole work.’[8] In this abstract series, Hilma grapples with the paradox of division and unity in her use of triangles, circles, spirals, and colour. In a Christian viewing of the work, her use of the triptych form can be read in a Trinitarian capacity; while the work is divided into three different tableaux, it remains one cohesive piece. To remove one canvas would change the meaning of the work as a whole; each piece holds equal importance even though they reveal different aspects of what the artist conveys. On the left and right, we see a golden circle with an ascending and a descending triangle emanating from it, which denote the kenotic movements of creation and the incarnation as well as our ascent to the Divine through the salvific works of God. In the middle panel, the large golden circle now dominates the canvas and the triangle motif is now found in the centre of the circle as three interlocking triangles encased in three circles; here is an image of the Divine from whom creation flows and to whom it returns. Thus, triangles and circles become images of the Trinitarian God who exists apart from the created world. The paradoxical unity and diversity of God is reflected in the created world and its connection to its Source. While creation is separate from God, it reflects and is sustained by its Creator who can be known through the material world.

Hilma grapples with the paradox of division and unity in her use of triangles, circles, spirals, and colour.

In this work, Hilma moves beyond a type of unity that would flatten the reality of diversity. In fact, her work seems to preserve the dignity of difference in the way it highlights the reality of boundaries as essential signifiers. For Hilma, the journey does not need to diminish the diversity of creation. Contrasting colours, shapes, and ways of movement find a harmonious balance in The Altarpiece. In fact, for her, it is in recognising that wondrous diversity that enlightenment is possible. Her methods and ideas about transcendence and consciousness may be heretical in a Catholic mindset, but I believe there is also wisdom in the images with which she leaves us, and it is not impossible to find common ground, and even gain something from these images. Although her personal beliefs contradict ‘conciliar’ Trinitarian orthodoxy, one cannot help but read her works as Trinitarian.[9] Our end goal of unity in the work of reconciliation can leave room for the reality of diversity—a diversity which reflects the very image of our Trinitarian Creator and which can be united in the love of proper relationship. This love does not leave room for fear of the Other.



Whether it is through the relationship of the Trinity or the covenantal relationship of God to a historical people, what is revealed to us is the ultimate centrality of relationship to our human experience. Martin Buber famously writes, ‘Through the Thou, a person becomes I.’[10] It is our relationships that shape who we are and what we are becoming. None of us lives in isolation and it is by not only recognising the innate dignity of those furthest from our reality, but actively listening to their stories that we are made whole as a human family. It is in affirming the validity of our differences that love is most free and fully lived; this is the witness of Christ’s human life and the perichoretic relationship of Trinitarian life which is revealed to us as Christians. And so, to seek peace by affirming the dignity of those different from us is to participate in the divine life, for it is in recognising the unique and necessary functions of each part that the body becomes whole. As St. Paul says (REB):

A body is not a single organ, but many. Suppose the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it belongs to the body none the less. Suppose the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it still belongs to the body. If the body were all eye, how could it hear? If the body were all ear, how could it smell? But, in fact, God appointed each limb and organ to its own place in the body as he chose. (1 Corinthians 12:14-18)

Unity will come when we realise the sacredness of our differences, and their ability to enlarge us and ever more closely conform us to the Divine image.


Image Credits

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Andrei Rublev, The Trinity (detail), 1425-1427.

Hilma af Klint, Altarpiece (Altarbild) Group X, No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, 1915.  Oil and metal leaf on canvas.  The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm.  Photo of No. 1 (featured image): Albin Dahlstrom, the Moderna Museet, Stockholm.



[1] Sacks, 21.

[2] Sacks, 23.

[3] For further discussion on this, see Sacks, 52-66. ‘The God of the Israelites is the God of all mankind, but the demandes (sic) made of the Israelites are not asked of all mankind’, 52 (emphasis Sacks).

[4] Sacks, 65-66.

[5] He refers to this as ‘exorcising Plato’s ghost.’ Sacks, 19 and for a fuller discussion see Chapter 3, “The Dignity of Difference: Exorcizing Plato’s Ghost,” 45-66.

[6] Sacks, 59.

[7] Genesis 18:1-15.

[8] Hilma af Klint, 1180, Inv. 187-189, reproduced in Hilma af Klint: Notes and Methods.

[9] In addition to the triptych in which the triangle and circle become symbols for God’s eternal being from which creation emanates, dove and cross motifs also populate her work (Paintings for the Temple) as a whole.

[10] Buber, 28.



  • Elizabeth is currently completing her MLitt in Theology and the Arts at the University of St Andrews. Her work is heavily informed by the experience of growing up with exposure to different faith communities: Evangelical Christianity, Roman Catholicism, and Judaism. Wading through questions of identity as a young adult, she found that the experience of art was a beneficial place for dialogue and unity. This idea was further solidified in her work as a preschool teacher, where she saw firsthand the natural impulses to play and create that inform human experience and communication. She is interested in art as a space for building community and shared understanding, and brings her experience as an educator and background as an art historian to this work.

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