Today is Trinity Sunday. Do we understand the doctrine of the Trinity? Does it matter if we understand it or not?
Some years ago, freshman at Eagle Rock Junior High won first prize at the Greater Idaho Falls Science Fair. In his project he urged people to sign a petition demanding strict control or total elimination of the chemical dihydrogen monoxide because:
1. It can cause excessive sweating and vomiting.
2. It is a major component of acid rain.
3. It can cause severe burns in its gaseous state.
4. Accidental inhalation can kill you.
5. It contributes to erosion.
6. It decreases the effectiveness of automobile brakes.
He asked 50 people if they supported a ban of this dreaded chemical. 43 said yes, 6 were undecided, and only one knew what the chemical was.
The dangerous chemical in question was water.
We could probably come up with a similar list of dangerous and negative aspects of the idea of the Trinity, and probably get at least 43 out of 50 interviewees to say that we need to nix the whole idea, based on their lack of understanding.
Can we understand it, though? There’s an old story of St. Augustine walking along the beach contemplating the Trinity. Up ahead he saw a little boy digging a hole in the sand. The boy then ran out into the waves, scooped up a bucket of water, and ran back to pour it into the hole. He did this a few times until finally Augustine approached him and asked, “Boy, what are you doing?”
“See that ocean out there?” the boy asked. “I’m going to pour that ocean into this hole.”
“That’s impossible,” said Augustine. “You cannot fit the ocean in that tiny hole.”
The boy looked up at him and replied, “And neither can you, Augustine, fit the Trinity in that tiny little brain.” The story goes on to say that the boy then disappeared, as apparently he was an angel.
We have to be careful when comes to defining the Trinity, or any other doctrine that attempts to describe the nature of God. God is much more than we can ever imagine. Any definition falls short of the mark, because we can't fit the Trinity in our little brains.
But we try just the same, don’t we?
One frequent way to attempt to understand the Trinity is to speak of water (or should I say “dihydrogen monoxide?), steam and ice. That seems helpful, although it would be difficult to have a relationship with an ice cube, wouldn’t it?
Creator, redeemer and sanctifier is popular today. The difficulty I have with that is the inclination to describe God by what God does, rather than by what God is.
I have mentioned before my preferred model of understanding the Trinity; Lover, Beloved and the Flow of Love between them that has constantly flowed before time began. Through the Incarnation, the Beloved came to dwell among us. When we stand in the place of the Beloved, when we accept the offer to become the adopted sons and daughters of God, we also become the Beloved of God, and share in this same Flow of Love.
But, even that way of understanding falls short. The Church teaches us that God is three persons in one nature; that Father, Son and Holy Spirit together are God. Beyond that is nothing more than the speculation of tiny brains.
Even though we may never really understand the Trinity, I feel strongly that we need to hold on to it. The Western mind’s temptation is to look at any concept as a problem, with our job being to solve it, or get rid of it. I see the Trinity much more as a mystery that contains clues about the truth. We solve problems. We stand in awe before mysteries.
What are these clues about the truth the Trinity offers us? Mostly, they are about community. If we say God is love, with whom was God in love before the creation of the world? We teach that the Son was with the Father before creation. This image depicts God being in relationship, part of a community, from the very beginning.
My experience has shown me that being part of a community is essential to my spiritual health. There is no such thing as a solo Christian. We were created to be part of a community, to be a part of the household of God.
Why is community important? We are able to support one another, through the good times, and the bad times. We can pool our knowledge and our wealth, and so offer more resources for our common mission.
But, most importantly, as we intentionally choose to be part of a community, we find ourselves moving beyond our individuality. As we live within a community, we begin to sense our connectedness with other members of the community. We begin to realize that what happens to others matters to me. This sense of connectedness can then begin to grow to embrace all people, and beyond that, all of creation.
The Trinity is the doctrine of inclusiveness. There is no one who is outside the kingdom of God. There is no “us” and “them”. There is only “we.” And we are all connected.
The Trinity embraces diversity. We are not asked to be clones of Jesus. We are asked to offer our unique gifts for the good of the community. We are not asked to all be the same. As the old song goes, “Wouldn’t it be a real drag if we were all the same?”
The Trinity moves us to stand in awe before the mystery of God. We are reminded that we have seen nothing more than the tip of the iceberg. God is much more than we can ever imagine. The mystery informs our discussions of God, and keeps us from the temptation to try and “save” God by insisting on specific doctrines as the only “true” belief.
Community, inclusivity, diversity, and mystery. These are the clues the Trinity offers us into the nature of God. They are only clues, but they seem to dance near to the truth. Let us humbly seek almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so that we might be empowered to proclaim God’s love for all of creation with our every word and our every deed.