Perhaps we can begin a more serious reflection on the Trinity with a little Irish humor from Donal and Conal.
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.
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?
Is Jesus a man, a great man, an avatar like Moses or the Buddha, or Mohammed showing us a fuller revelation of God or the cosmic order in the case of the Buddha? Or is Jesus a divine being who like the God’s of Olympus dons the trappings of human appearance.
The Christian experience is that Jesus was both divine and human, both natures existing simultaneously, yet independently. But this seems to assert something that to all the world seemed and still seems absurd? Yet, the assertion of both human and divine goes to the heart of the experience of the Early Christians and Christians ever since.
The Christian experience makes sense in that to be human is to be most like God. But this requires God to have first experienced being really human. The doctrine of the Trinity emerges from the early Christian struggle to articulate an experience of God who is the God of creation, the intimate participant within creation, and the ongoing transformer of our experience within the creation.
Perspective from the 21st Century
The Holy Trinity forms a central plank in my own spiritual life. I have some sympathy for St Patrick when under the withering barrage from Donal and Conal he retreats into the impenetrable incomprehensibility of the Athanasian Creed. In his creed, St Athanasius puts it like this:
The Catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the Substance.
Another way to approach this is to recognize that God is both unknowable and also knowable; mysterious and yet intimate; far off and yet close by. The Trinity echoes the first chapter of Genesis where God exclaims: Let us make humanity in our own image, male and female let us create them. Who is the us here?
The us is God who self-identifies as communal, not solitary. The Trinity reveals God as a divine community within which God manifests in three distinct ways. These have been traditionally referred to as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Today, we can get caught up in rejecting the gendered nature of these terms and miss that the main point lies not in their gendered but in their relational nature. When I become sensitive to the exclusive impression male-gendered terms communicate I translate them as God the lover, the beloved, and the love sharer. Gendered terms can be avoided if the essence of the relationship between equals is maintained.
Relationships require more than one person. Within the context of relationships, you cant speak of one member without reference to the others. Husband as no meaning with the concept of a wife, mother without daughter, father without son, sister without brother and so forth. Each term implies the existence of the other. Each identity is inseparable from its existence within a relationship.
Psychologically, we are object seeking. Our identity is most fully discovered and named in relationship with others. One Christian is no Christian because to be Christian is by definition to be a member of a community that bears this name. In the relational separations between persons on the divine community, we find our true identity as persons fulfilled and made complete through our seeking connection with others in relationship.
Being human is a reflection of the relational nature of the divine image, thus as the reflection is relational so must be the image it reflects.
From doctrine to worship
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.
I don’t only believe in the Trinity as a doctrine, but I worship God through the Trinity. When I gaze at each identical figure seated around the three sides of a table, I notice how 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.
I began with Irish humor, let me end with Irish wisdom.
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.