Trinity Sunday for Trinitarians
If you want to get technical about it, Christians aren’t really monotheists.
Islam and Judaism, these great religious traditions, are strictly such, because each believe in one God.
Christians do too, of course, but instead, we are probably best understood as Trinitarians: one united God manifested in three expressions.
Now a person could be forgiven if the distinction seems to carry about as much real-life heft as the question about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, let alone that none of it seems to make any sense anyway.
But it does matter, actually, this fundamental Christian claim that God is One in Three and Three in One, and it matters that it is this one whom Christians are called to worship and serve.
My late mentor Walt Bouman even said that the Trinity is what we say if the Gospel is true.
While there’s more than one reason to nuance that take, there’s also more than one reason to take that take and run with it too.
For starters, if we say that we believe in God, we have to have at least some inkling about what we mean when we say ‘God.’
It’s too often that the things we want to say about God are the things we want, or feel compelled, to believe about God.
In his book Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah wrote a now-classic passage about a woman named Sheila Larson, who was asked about her religious faith. She said:
“I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Shielaism. Just my own little voice. It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think He would want us to take care of each other.“ (Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart, 221).
Bellah found Shiela’s response fascinating, not least of all because God turned out to be Shiela ‘magnified.’ What she thought should be the case is what God thought should be the case and oh by the way she had also, so nimbly that even she herself might have missed it, equated herself with God.
This Shiela-god was, fortunately, at least superficially benevolent—we are to “take care of each other.”
But it could have (and does) go the other way: there are those, overtly religious or not, private citizens and people in power, who ascribe to God traits which convieniently are awfully very much in keeping with their way particular way of viewing themselves, their world, and how things should shake out in the end (235).
At least, though, at least Shiela said something about her understanding about God.
God, however we identify God, is meaningless if God has no meaning.
Seems like a truism, but if I believe that God is an old red Toyota pickup (my beloved first car, so forgive me) or my dog Chutzpaw or my favorite tree under which I sit, I have some responsibility to explain why, and what difference it makes.
If I can’t, then although I can point to the thing I say is God, the question is whether God means anything at all if I have no idea who my God is or why my God is what I say that my God is.
So while it is true that it is impossible to comprehend God, something must be said about God, because otherwise God can become both something and nothing at the same time.
Given all that, if Christians say that we believe in the Trinity, traditionally understood as Father, Son, Holy Spirit (*note to self: must write a blog about the troubles, theological and otherwise, of using exclusively male language for God) then we have a responsibility to give it a whirl to say what we mean by that, not to mention spend some time grasping and living out the implications of our belief.
I’m mulling the Trinity because for much of the Christian tradition, today is designated as Trinity Sunday.
Any smart pastor takes the Sunday off.
Bouman joked that when he was in confirmation, he admitted in class that he still didn’t understand the Trinity. His pastor said, “Just shut up and believe!”
The really amusing thing is that his pastor was his father.
Part of the challenge of trying to make anything sensical out of the Trinity, says Bouman, is that we have a long-standing tradition within the Church of thinking about and accessing God primarily from an intellectual standpoint.
We want God to be rationally understandable.
So we come up with all sorts of formulae that substantiate a notion of God that is what we think of when we think of God, perhaps most often coming out as the Omni-God model: Omniscient, Omnipresent, and Omnipotent.
Zeus, really, when you get right down to it.
And so we are left with a God who is inaccessible except by some wild and crazy rational, logical gymnastics, and who is terrifying to boot.
Most of us aren’t theological Olympic gymnasts, however, and those who are might need to actually ground themselves rather than engage in jaw-dropping dogmatic twists.
And no matter how brave we are, if we believe because we are scared out of our skins to believe because if we don’t believe we will meet that Omnigod and we are petrified that will probably not go well, thennnnnn in point of fact our belief might not be that authentic and sincere anyway, because it’s eked out by way of threatened terror instead of invited and welcomed because of abundant love.
Faith stemming from fear runs the risk of coerced false adoration, making the adoration not only potentially false, but also (paradoxically) driven by selfishness: we might be praising God to save ourselves, not to worship with purity of heart.
A narcissistic God wouldn’t care—adoration is adoration and we’ll take it by any means we can get it—but a perceptive (and, a la Exodus 34:14, jealous) God would.
Moreover, it is no coincidence that, à la Shiela, those who have had the closest approximation to omni-anything have projected their notions of ultimacy onto God, and written the course of theological history while they’ve done so (add Omni-tasking to their tendencies).
Their concepts of power and authority are now writ large, as in Divine large, so God becomes not a God of love but of authoritarian capriciousness, enjoying power for power’s sake to those whom He (and it’s always a He) favors…that is, until they are no longer favored, for God knows why.
And so this sort of mathematical theologizing left most of us with either no way of accessing God, because God was left with no way of accessing us other than warnings and smitings, or because we can’t love a non-sensical formula (Three in One and One in Three), and we can’t love a threatening non-sensical formula, as those of us with mathphobia know in our very bones (though, to be fair, “non-sensical” and “math formula” go hand-in-hand for some of us. Ahem.)
But to the rescue is this truth: God acts in history, and therefore is relational.
That right there is a basic claim of the Jewish tradition, and, lest we forget, Jesus was a Jew, and all that he did occurred in the very center of the Jewish matrix.
Jesus was God in accessible time.
Jewish faith, and now Christian faith, believe that God is whoever acts in history with active presence and with finality.
That’s critical, because if we can pay attention to the revelation of God in history, and the way God reveals Godself in history, we have a better sense of who God is—that is, not a reflection of ourselves but a revelation of God—and how we are to act in history, if we follow God.
Christians believe that Jesus is the revealed God.
We believe that in Jesus, we see God’s agenda for the world: healing, feeding, welcoming, loving, forgiving, teaching, inviting, and rejecting the base claims and actions of those who amass power, wealth, and privilege for themselves at the expense of others.
In Jesus we then look back, and via his promises look forward, to see God’s inherent bent to create, and God’s perpetual deep love of creation, and God’s continual affirmation of its creatures, and extended invitation to enjoy it as gift.
The world is wanted by God, was intentionally created by God, is loved by God, and therefore is to be celebrated and cherished by God’s creatures.
We also believe that in Jesus’ death and resurrection we see that God is in the midst and mix of suffering, not causing it but redeeming it, and that out of it God brings new possibilities—including the new possibilities that forgiveness creates.
And we believe that the Holy Spirit is the “downpayment on the eschaton…the Spirit of authentic freedom for the world, not from the world. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of love and laughter, of peace and joy, of hope and possibility.” (à la Bouman notes).
So if we aren’t monotheists, but are Trinitarians, why, what with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, is it that we aren’t Tritheists?
That Christianity comes out of the Jewish matrix is a fundamental piece of it: the word ‘Christ’ is the Greek translation of the Jewish word ‘Messiah.’
Christians believe that Christ is God made manifest in history, and that the Holy Spirit is the perpetual presence of God, surrounding, calling, luring, stirring us into participating in the ever new and renewing creation.
The Trinity is relational, three expressions of the one Creator God, none of which is subservient to the other, all of which interplay with the others, and invite creation to join the dance too.
There are heaps of models for the Trinity from which to choose, and most of them not great.
There’s the hot dog, bun, ketchup metaphor, one I’ve heard more than I wish, but that doesn’t work so fantastically: each part is independent of the other, and can stand on its own (though, granted, ketchup alone is blech, unless you ask my son Karl).
Water in the forms of ice, vapor, and liquid is another: at least they are the same substance, namely water, but water can’t be ice and vapor and liquid simultaneously.
I’ve gotten to wonder if another metaphor might be this: I am me, but I wouldn’t be me if I were not daughter, mama, and sister.
Each of these relationships shapes me.
I express my unified self in unique ways when I am relating with my daughter, my father, and my sister.
I love each of these parts of me, and each of these parts of me make the rest of me more me, and without any one of them I would not be me.
But left in a static way, those designations would mean nothing: it’s the relationship that makes them matter. That is, I am distinctly me in relationship as mama to daughter, daughter to father, sister to sister.
Too, how I relate to daughter/father/sister reveals something of who I am to those who watch.
And it is possible that how I am in these relationships might affect others too.
The analogy might be strained in the latter sense, but I mention it to say that Christians and the Christian church are called to be expressions of God in the world, a proleptic community—the word ‘prolepsis’ meaning ‘to take beforehand.’
We see in the Trinity an interrelationship emanating from and sustained by deep love and joy for each element of the Trinity, and we see within the Trinity a desire to vulnerably love and delight in creatures and creation, and we see in the Trinity an invitation to humanity to delight in creation and creating, to trust with freedom not least of all freedom from fear, and to act in ways that bend toward God’s presence and promises in every moment, knowing that all of these impulses are bound together by divine love.
All of these are elements of the revealed God in history and in relationship.
I’ve heard it said, often as of late, if people tell you who they are, believe them.
I think that the same can be true of the Trinity and those who worship the Trinitarian God.
If God tells you who God is, believe God.
If God acts in a certain way, believe God.
If God through word and deed God reveals Godself, and you call that one God, go and do likewise.
(Also, I’m pretty sure that God does not eat ketchup as a standalone, but in this case, you do you.)
In the name of the Trinitarian God, Amen.
P.S. Much of the thinking behind this blog can be gleaned in Walt Bouman’s compiled lectures, found here: