The Problematic Trinity
Jesus said, Whom do men say that I am? And his disciples answered and said, Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead; others say Elijah, or other of the old prophets. And Jesus answered and said, But whom do you say that I am? Peter answered and said, “Thou art the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member of the Trinity being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably with and interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple. “And Jesus answering, said, “What?”
Jesus’ response to Peter is a fair summary of how many people feel about the Trinity. In the Western Church, a term that identifies both Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions of Christianity, our engagement with the deeper meaning of the claim that God is both three, and yet one, has been obscured by the preoccupation with theological definition. For Western Christians, the Trinity is a frightfully abstract, head concept. Despite the profusion of churches, especially in our Anglican-Episcopal Tradition dedicated to the name of the Holy Trinity we tend to ignore the triune nature of God, seeing it as an unnecessary complexity. We abandon the most essential of all Christian understandings of God for some vague unitarianism often summed up by: oh I don’t understand this three in one stuff. For me God is Father, or Jesus is friend, or its’ the power of the Spirit, for me. This is not the case in the Orthodox traditions of Christianity in Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, and Coptic Africa, where the conception of the Trinity is received and joyfully celebrated with a full and joyful heart that contrasts sharply with our cool response of cerebral assent.
As the joke above captures, many of us regard the Trinity as a thorny theological and philosophical conundrum, best ignored. However, the important and relatively simple thing to remember is that the Trinity emerges out of the ordinary experience of the first Christians beginning to make sense of their tumultuous experience of God.
The experience of Trinity
The first Christians were Jews who knew God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of their fathers and the Creator of the world who revealed himself to Moses and to the people through the gift of the Law and the preaching of the Prophets. Yet, they also had to make sense of a direct experience of Jesus as a revelation of God within the intimacy of their human relationship. As if this was not complex enough, they were forced to negotiate the further experience of God as Holy Spirit. This was and experience of God as a force of nature that had completely changed everything about the way they understood themselves and the world around them.
For the Early Christians, the three-fold experience of God was not a theological experience, but a deeply human and relational experience that both empowered and bewildered them by turns.
The Church expresses this threefold experience of God through the chronology of the Calendar placing the celebration of the Trinity as the final act bringing the Easter Drama to its completion.
Rehabilitating the Trinity on Fathers Day
This year the celebration of the Trinity coincides with the secular celebration of fatherhood and fathers. This leads me to ponder the question: so who is God for us? I imagine that this question will usually connect us to an association of God as Father. For some this will be a positive and affirming experience, yet not all have comforting associations to fathers. Yet, we often have found creative and affirming experiences of fatherhood in the most unlikely places and in the most unexpected persons. I will come back to fathers and fatherhood further on. Here, I simply affirm that God as father can be a limiting association for some of us, while the association of God with fatherhood can be more creative. On Fathers Day we celebrate the gift of fatherhood, often expressed through the gifted and broken vessels that are our human fathers.
Another way to answer the question: so who is God for us? – is to go back to the Old Testament lesson taken from the first chapter of Genesis. In this first creation narrative, God finally gets around to creating human beings as the penultimate action in a long day marked by intense creative energy. Paying careful attention to the text we notice something, which at first sight seems rather perplexing. Not only is God displaying the first sign of madness, i.e. having a conversation with Godself, but the conversation indicates God’s sense of having several personalities. In a conversation that sounds alarmingly like that of multiple personality syndrome, God uses the pronouns us and our to refer to actions. God does not say let me create humanity in my own image, but says let us make humanity in our own image, male and female let us make them!
We are relational beings, finding fulfilment in both nuclear and extended communities. Relationality is what it means to be human because we are made in the image of a God who is within Godself, relational. Our relationality is not something particular to us and our needs. Relationality, it seems from Genesis, is also particular to God and God’s needs. The Trinity is the way we Christians understand and protect the mystery of the relationality within the heart of God.We see in Genesis 1, God revealing relationality and sharing the joy of relationality in the creation of the cosmos.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: theology of gender implications
For the first Christians, God as a divine community was powerfully experiential. They identified with the Father-creator – lover, Jesus the Son- communicator – beloved, and Holy Spirit empowering presence, love sharer. For them, the relational God comes to full experience in lives of relationship and community.
I have italicized nongendered relational terms and associated them with the traditional identities of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Father equates with lover or source of love. Son equates with beloved or the object of love. Holy Spirit equates with love sharer. My point here is that God is neither male nor female, yet the principles of masculine and feminine are present in God’s nature.
Although Jesus as a human being certainly was male – the Word of God (logos) is not male. The Father – creator, and the Son – communicator, can be viewed through masculine imagery without being defined as male. The Holy Spirit, in Hebrew ruach and Greek pneuma, is correspondingly, feminine. The feminine principle is captured in the notion of the Spirit as generative, fecund energy, bringing life to birth and sharing the divine love everywhere. Traditionally the Holy Spirit was referred to as it, because I guess it was difficult for a patriarchal tradition to refer to an element of God as she. As human beings, made in the image of God, we each contain within us an arrangement of masculine and feminine principles which render us the unique individuals we are.
In our human relationships the divine principles of masculine and feminine are located in gender, though not confined by gender. To pick up on my earlier associations between the celebration of the Trinity and Father’s Day; Fathers are more often male, but not necessarily so, for the function of fatherhood is masculine, not male. In a similar way the function of motherhood is feminine and not simply confined to being female.
God expressed through doctrine
As time passed the first Christians needed to be able to articulate their experience. As the influence of Greek philosophical thought grew among the gentile Christians, it was natural for them to turn to this tradition of learning in search of a way of speaking about their experience. The doctrine of the Trinity is a philosophical theory that gave the growing Christian Church the language to both speak about God and protect the mystery of God.
In Greek thought, the term person could be used to speak about different identities that nevertheless shared one nature. The doctrine of the Trinity, which for us presents God as a conundrum best ignored, like all doctrines functions not to explain or define God, but to protect the essential mystery that is God from being reduced to the simplicities of only that which human beings in each generation can understand!
God expressed through the psychology of relationship
There is a recognized psychological theory for how our individual identities are also the product of our relationships with others. Our individual identity i.e. who I am is constructed out of a complex dynamic of being in relationship with others. Who I think I am is as much a function of how I perceive others viewing me. I catch a glimpse of myself in the face of the other, looking back at me.
Rublev’s famous depiction of the Trinity as three identical persons, lovingly gazing upon one another puts into pictorial form the conversation we hear God having in Genesis. We see not three Gods, but three persons in one God, each reflecting back the image of the other.
Each person has a function. The Father –the lover is the creator source of all things. The Son –the beloved is the communicator of all things – the Logos or Word. The Holy Spirit –love sharer is God in all things. But the main point is not their functions but the way each function emerges out of being in relationship, one with another.
Please go online to http://www.sacredheartpullman.org/Icon explanation.htm Here you will find a further explanation that uses Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity to demonstrate how this can be imagined.