My old university chaplain used to scoff: Trinity Sunday – ridiculous! How can you celebrate a doctrine as if it’s an event? I remember at the time thinking this was a wise and incisive comment. Now, I just think he missed the point. Did you know that among Anglicans and Episcopalians, in particular, the dedication of Churches to the Holy Trinity far outnumber any other single dedication? This is a hidden indication that for us the concept of the Trinity, at least once upon a time, held a central place in our spiritual culture.
Every Sunday we say together the words of the Nicene Creed, which distill down to four concise statements:
We believe in God, maker of heaven and earth.
We believe in Jesus Christ, eternally begotten of the Father.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
Why does Christianity seem to complicate what for Jews and Muslims, our Abrahamic cousins, seems very straight forward – God is one and God is singular. Except on Trinity Sunday, most of the time I suspect that this is how most Christians also picture God. We still struggle with the appropriate pronoun for God; he or she? Yet, in the earliest chapters of Genesis we read of God self-referring as us and we. I will come back to that in a bit.
The doctrine of the Trinity as we have inherited it today is the result of a need in the Early Church, not so much to explain the nature of God as to protect the nature of Christ from being reduced to one of two simple assertions – divine or human. For the key question arises, if God is God, who and what is Christ?
There were two answers to this question. The first was that Jesus is God masquerading in human form. If he’s divine, Jesus is not genuinely human in any meaningful way that you and I are human. The second asserted that Jesus was only a man, although a great man, something today we refer to as an avatar. The prophet Mohammed, and the Buddha are avatars, great human beings who show the way to God in the case of Mohammed, and the cosmic order in the case of the Buddha.
The Christian experience is that Jesus was both divine and human, both natures existing simultaneously, yet independently. Why assert something that to all the world seemed absurd? The assertion may seem absurd, but it goes to the heart of the experience the Early Christians and Christians since continue to encounter. The divine and the human lie at opposite ends of a continuum. To be human is to be most like God. But this requires God to have experienced being really human, first.
Last week we celebrated the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. For the followers of Jesus, this is the point at which they locate a fundamental shift in their self-understanding and worldview. And so we say in the lines of the creed we believe in the Holy Spirit and the holy catholic and apostolic Church.
An interesting question
It’s interesting to speculate that without the Pentecost experience, would Christians have settled into a belief that Jesus was simply an avatar, a truly divinely inspired human being possessing a unique spiritual access to God? After all, this is what nearly happened.
Those who believed that Jesus was a highly evolved spiritual, human being were known as the Arians, nothing to do with white racial purity, but followers of a bishop called Arius. The joke about heresy is that it’s always more plausible than orthodoxy. The Arians were defeated at the Ecumenical Councils, but the plausibility of their view persists throughout history and today it’s probably true to say that many Christians are actually Arians. In the popularity of the cult of Jesus the really good man and my best buddy, Arianism is alive and kicking in contemporary America.
Yet, the Holy Spirit anointed the Church to become the continuance of Jesus’s ministry in the world. For the early followers of Jesus, this was not just an inspiring memory of Jesus but an inspirited experience of Jesus still being actively and instrumentally present in their live and their world.
The emergence of a doctrine
The doctrine of the Trinity emerges from the early Christian struggle to account for the fact that they experience three distinct modes of encounter with God. Firstly, as Jews, they believe in God the Creator, the God of their ancestors, of Abraham, Jacob, and Moses. Secondly, they experience a life-changing encounter with God in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Thirdly, they encounter a source of empowerment that transforms them into being able to continue the work of the Lord, empowered through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. They experienced three manifestations of something they knew to be the one true God.
The bishops meeting in the Ecumenical Councils came to articulate their experience of these three distinct kinds of encounter with God. They naturally used the philosophy of the day, that of Aristotle and his concepts of person and substance. Applying Aristotle to their experience of God in three contexts led them to understand God as three persons sharing a single, unified substance. So they came to speak of three persons in one God, not three Gods. The crucial point we need to accept is that their purpose was never to explain the mystery of God, but to protect the mystery of God’s divine nature from being reduced to only that which human logic can conceive of, i.e that which seems to be not absurd.
Perspective from the 21st Century
The demand in each generation is to interpret the Christian Tradition handed on to us from previous generations so that it empowers us to engage with life as it is lived, not as it was lived in an imagined previous golden age. For the Christians of the first four centuries, the currency of intellectual thought was Aristotle’s logic. Now the reality today is that few of us use Aristotelian logic to navigate our way through the complexities of life and faith in action. I know of some who regret this, but it is as it is. In the contemporary mindset, Aristotelian philosophy has been replaced by a psychological understanding of human nature. Whereas once Aristotelian logic offered a vehicle for theological articulation, today, depth and transpersonal psychology offering us new vehicles by which we can express ourselves, theologically.
There is a recognized psychological theory for how our individual identities emerge from our relationships with others. Our individual identity i.e. who I am – is constructed from our experience of intimate relationship with others. The person I experience myself being emerges from how I perceive others viewing me. I catch a glimpse of myself in the face of the other looking back at me.
From doctrine to experience
Despite the popularity among Episcopalians to name our churches after the Holy Trinity, the Trinity in the catholic and protestant West has been largely reduced to a theological doctrine. The orthodox East provides an interesting counterpoint. In orthodox Christianity, the Trinity is a devotional focus. This can be most graphically demonstrated by Andrei Rublev’s archetypal depiction of the Trinity, written (icons are written not painted) in 1410. The Trinity is shown as three identical persons lovingly gazing upon one another. Rublev clearly has in his mind’s eye the visit to Abraham of the three angels at the Oak of Mamre. Yet, in the striking aspect of Rublev’s depiction of God the Holy Trinity, we catch the echo of the conversation we hear God having in Genesis, let us make humanity in our own image. God is not a singular entity, but a relational community.
When we put together the ancient echo in the Genesis record of God’s internal conversation with our current psychologically shaped experience of the fluidity of identity, we arrive at the theological realization that for us, in our period of history, God’s nature takes on a poignantly, relational quality.
Today, any serious exploration of the Trinity requires us to address the debate about gender. The Tradition of the Trinity ascribed masculine identities to the relational elements Father, Son, and even the Holy Spirit is referred to as he. In our own period, it’s important to know that God is not gendered. The importance of the traditional male ascriptions to God lies not in their gendered but in their relational nature.
I have found a way to avoid the gendered terms and still retain the relational elements is to refer to God as Lover, Beloved, and Love-Sharer. It’s common to hear Father, Son, and Holy Spirit referred to as creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. However, the problem here is that these terms denote function, not relationship. It is the relational quality within the community of God that commends itself so powerfully to people living increasingly in a world where relationship, its presence or absence, is the measure of meaning and a key indicator of quality of life.
I don’t only believe in the Trinity as a doctrine, but I adore the Trinity as a focus for meaningful devotion. When I left Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix, I was given a precious gift, a new icon of the Trinity in the style of Rublev, written by Laura Smith, an accomplished icon writer and faithful member of Trinity’s congregation. When I gaze at each identical figure seated around the three sides of a table, I notice the way they are looking at one another. They gaze upon one another with expressions of intimate love.
Sitting before the icon of the Trinity I am reminded that my identity as a person is not constructed by me in isolation. I experience my identity as the result of the way I see others looking back at me. My identity is constructed through the interplay of my relationships. As I gaze upon the three figures of the Trinity, I am invited into a reaffirmation that I am a child of God because I belong to a community that reflects a relational God. I am a relational being and my health lies in my desire to seek my identity within relational connections with others. Only when we are fully in community together can we become an image of the unseen God, whom in the visibility of the Trinity we discover is not a solitary entity, but a relational community of love.
Three folds of the cloth yet only one napkin is there,
Three joints in the finger, but still only one finger fair,
Three leaves of the shamrock, yet no more than one shamrock to wear,
Frost, snowflakes, and ice, all in water their origin share,
Three Persons in God: to one God alone we make our prayer. An Irish Celtic prayer to the Trinity.