Three into One Does Go

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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.

Ancient Irish poem to the Trinity                                                            

The Trinity emerging in historical experience.

For the first generation of Christians, their radical transformation on the Day of Pentecost was a confusing, yet exhilarating experience. They had an experience of God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the Eternal One, creator of heaven and earth, whose dwelling place was far away. The Law had been given by God as a gift of his presence, yet in another way, it also emphasized God’s distance.

For the first Christians, their experience of Jesus posed something of a conundrum in relation to the God of their Fathers. As they had lived through the roller coaster of events and emotions of Holy Week, and Easter, they could not shake off their undeniable gut sense that in the life of Jesus, they had had an experience of God, no longer remote, but God as part of their everyday lives in the world.  Their hearts had been set ablaze by an experience of God face to face: living, breathing, walking, in whose gaze they discovered new selves and a new sense of God.

Then on the Day of Pentecost, a new and unexpected experience crashed in upon them as they encountered the living Spirit of Jesus. No longer Jesus the human person whom they had known as a part of their lives, but the dynamic power of Jesus now fully experienced from within. What really confronted all their hitherto expectations was their direct experience of God, no longer solitary, but dynamic, relational and communal.

The first generations of Christians lived out their new experience of God, it seems without too much controversy. As Luke in Acts reveals, they lived the life of dynamic, energetic, and empowered transformation. Yet, the New Testament nowhere describes God in the language of the Trinity. The first Christians didn’t need to think about the nature of their experience of God because they were too busy living it.

The Trinity solidified in doctrine

The doctrine of the Trinity as we have inherited it today is the result of a need that arose with the passing of time. In the early days of any movement, people just live out their experience of inspiration. But as movements grow up, they morph into institutions. Between the third and fifth centuries, the Church grew from a charismatic movement into a powerful institution, second only to the institution of the Empire, itself.

Institutions need to develop official policies to ensure consistency and conformity. For later generations, the conundrum at the heart of the Christian revelation of God became something less to be reconciled through living and more to be explained, protected, and defended. The Church of the first five centuries needed 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. Was he divine or human?

This question provoked two competing assertions. The first was that Jesus was God masquerading in human form. Being divine, Jesus was not genuinely human in any meaningful way that you and I are human. The second assertion was that Jesus was only a man, although a great man, nevertheless just a human being uniquely attuned with God in the sense of an avatar like Moses, or the Buddha, or the prophet Mohammed.

Yet the conundrum at the heart of the Christian experience was that Jesus was both divine and human, both natures existing simultaneously, yet independently. As an experience that you don’t think about but just live, the notion of Jesus as human and divine is not such a problem. When you begin to need to understand it, to protect and defend it from attack, you need a way to explain what on the face of it, seems absurd.

The doctrine of the Trinity evolves to protect the core mystery of God as experienced by Christians. In Jesus, the divine and the human might lie at polar ends of a continuum, but it is the same continuum. If to be human is to be most like God, then God must first have experienced being fully human.

I don’t think we can imagine the heat of controversy and accompanying violence out of which the doctrine of the Trinity was forged. As the bishops hotly debated the issues in council, their followers roaming the streets in armed bands settled the issues in rivers of blood.

The bishops, steeped in the philosophy of Aristotle applied the best thinking of the day to address the conundrum at the heart of the Christian experience. How can God who is one be also experienced in three distinct ways? The purpose of the Great Councils was never to explain the mystery of God, but to protect the Christian experience of the mystery of God’s divine nature from being reduced to only that which made sense viewed from the perspective of human logic. Good doctrine gives us enough certainty to be going on with while preserving the ultimate unknownness of God from domestication within the limitations of the collective human imagination. 

The Trinity reinterpreted within a contemporary experience

Each generation must interpret the Christian Tradition in ways that maintain continuity with what has gone before while, at the same time, speaks with the particular voice needed in the here and now.  Theology says less about God and more about our current state of awareness of God. Whereas once Aristotelian logic offered a vehicle for theological articulation, today, a psychologically informed understanding of human nature becomes one of our key vehicles for theologically expressing ourselves.

A psychologically informed view of being human reveals how our individual identities emerge through the processes of being in relationship with others. Identity is constructed relationally because who I think I am is to a very great degree shaped by my perception of the ways others experience me.

Being able to contemplate others as separate from our own thoughts is a crucial milestone in human development. As we behold another, we catch a glimpse of ourselves in the face of the other looking back at us. All of this is rooted in our earliest experience as infants. Increasing brain development during infancy allows us to gradually build up a sense of separate selfhood as we discover ourselves in our mother’s face. We catch from our mother her sense of us, communicated through her touch, the sound of her voice, and principally through her gazing back at us.

il_570xN.1058233088_2e9sAndrei Rublev’s archetypal depiction of the Trinity, from 1410, shows the Trinity as three identical persons sharing the same loving gaze.  His depiction shows God not as a singular entity but as a relational community. The figures are identical, reflecting the oneness of God, yet at the same time, each figure represents the separate and distinct ways in which Christian’s experience God.

Rublev shows God the creator on the left gazing at God the Son in the center and at God the Holy Spirit on the right. Son and Spirit each encounter themselves in the reflection of the Creator’s face as they mirror God’s gaze. For the identity of the Son and the Spirit are inseparable from the identity of the Creator. What the Councils of the early Church referred to as three persons being of one substance, we might rephrase as three expressions sharing one identity. 

Today, any serious exploration of the Trinity cannot be separated from the debate about gender. The Tradition of the Trinity ascribed masculine identities to the relational elements as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Despite the feminine noun for spirit in both Hebrew and Greek, even the Holy Spirit has been referred to as he. As 21st century Christians, we hear God’s voice more clearly in nongendered ways. The traditional ascription of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is simply a by-product of patriarchal language and culture. Today we need to be sensitive to the fact that although Tradition has spoken in male terminology, the theological emphasis lies not in the gendered but in the relational nature of the names.

Understanding the relational nature of the patriarchal names, it then becomes possible to avoid the gendered terms and still retain the relational emphasis that binds the members of the Trinity into a unity. It’s common to hear Father, Son, and Holy Spirit referred to as creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. However, creator, redeemer, and sanctifier denote economy of function, not unity in relationship. I prefer to refer to God as Lover, Beloved, and Love-Sharer, thus emphasizing the relational quality within the community of God that commends itself so powerfully to us in a world where the presence or absence of being in relationship is the significant measure of meaning and a key indicator of our quality of life.

The Trinity as devotion

Can we recapture in our own time and place a devotional approach to the Trinity?History turns full circle. As it was for the first followers of Jesus living in a pre-Christendom world, so for us living in a post-post Christendom world. Like them, our faith is less and less about conforming to right belief and more and more about living lives of right practice.

At the center of my daily devotional practice sits an icon of the Trinity written in the style of Rublev by Laura Smith, an accomplished icon writer, living and working in Phoenix, Arizona. This icon was a farewell gift to me from Laura and the congregation of Trinity Cathedral. When I gaze at each identical figure seated around the three sides of a table, I observe their mutual gaze of intimate love. This intimation of loving intimacy evokes in me my yearning for God. I too, long to catch a glimpse of my greater-truer self as I  gaze upon and sit before the gaze of the members of the divine community.

Sitting before the icon of the Trinity I am reminded that my identity is constructed within me through the interplay of my relationships around me. I experience myself shaped and reshaped continually through the way I experience others looking back at me.

Participating in the mutual gaze of Rublev’s representation of the Holy Trinity invites me to reaffirm my personhood as the image of God. I am reminded that I belong to a community that is, albeit and imperfect one, nevertheless a reflection of the Divine Community. Fashioned to be a relational being, I discover my individual identity as a fruit of being in divine community.

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.                                                                  


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