Despite the long-standing Geneseo tradition of the MacVittie Lecture, the event has lost prominence in recent years. Thus, President Christopher Dahl spoke with enthusiasm in his introduction of this year's lecturer, Wabash College professor of philosophy and religion William Placher, and also in announcing that next year's lecture was already in the books.
"This is an important college community lecture that we are reviving," Dahl said. The MacVittie lecture was created by a fellowship of churches in Livingston County, in honor of the late Robert MacVittie when he retired after years as Geneseo's president. According to Dahl, he emphasized and represented a "commitment to what goodness and spirituality meant to the college campus." The lecture, which annually hosts a prominent theologian to speak at Geneseo, "is a tribute to the MacVitties' relationship to the college," Dahl said, acknowledging the attendance of Peggy MacVittie, Robert MacVittie's widow.
Professor William Cook met Placher during their undergraduate years at Wabash College in Indiana and has sustained the friendship throughout their respective careers. Placher returned to Wabash as distinguished professor in the humanities, and has published 13 books on theology. Cook seemed to be as excited as Dahl to bring his old friend to the stage. Following the introduction, "Feels like the lecture is bound to be anticlimactic," were Placher's first words to the audience.
The lecture followed this air of light-heartedness. Placher didn't take himself too seriously as he discussed his topic, "Who Cares About the Trinity?" with ease. It became clear that he could bring together in-depth research of theology as an academic field with personal insight and reflection on a more spiritual level.
Placher's expressed concern that the trinity was both at the core of both Christian faith and Christian confusion. He said it's "hard enough to believe in one God, and when you get that done, you have to believe in a three-in-one." Placher set out in his lecture and in his most recent book, The Triune God, to make sense of and give meaning to this seemingly ambiguous doctrine.
He first discussed the Bible as the source of his faith. "I find myself believing in the stories and the pictures they render," he said. While a fictional novel, according to Placher, "fits into the pattern of the world I know in my life," the Bible has the reverse appeal. "I make sense of my experience through the patterns of the Bible," he said. He sees this pull to faith as the Holy Spirit.
The stories that have captivated him most are those of Jesus, especially with respect to his relationship with God, who he referred to as "father." The connection between the "father, son and Holy Spirit" is, according to Placher, Christian doctrine coming together as one, rather than one God coming apart as three. According to Placher, "God is a verb for the united operation of these three."
Finally Placher explained where he finds the importance of the trinity. First, "the doctrine of the trinity reminds us that persons are essentially in relation," he said. "Relation is not an add-on; it is as the core of who we are." Second, "their glory lies in the way they glorify each other. At the beginning and ending of all things, there is a community of mutual love." Placher closed with the idea that the trinity presents God to our understanding in a way that is both human and spiritual, while still greatly mysterious.