Another important topic my Doctrine of God class looks at, not surprisingly, is the Trinity. This has gotten me thinking again. And, again no surprise, I am re-posting an article I wrote back in 2007. I think it has merit to it and may be helpful.
Who’s afraid of the Trinity?
Because the Trinity is strange. And it’s one of the most overlooked of the central teachings of our faith. As the famous 20th century theologian Karl Rahner once remarked, if we woke up tomorrow morning and the newspapers informed us that the doctrine of the Trinity had proven to be a false teaching, there wouldn’t be much protest. Nor would much be altered in the way people understand their faith.
After all, this is a doctrine that most believe is only to be contemplated by the highly educated of the church and academy. Or at least those with way too much time on their hands to worry about real problems like paying rent and sending their kids to school.
But that’s not quite true. This doctrine is important and is not primarily for the over-educated or the over-leisured. Truly, this is one of our fundamental images of God. It’s at the heart of our faith. And, as such, it shapes the way that we view everything else. Because, like it or not, our images of God matter. They mold, question and legitimate what we believe about ourselves, each other and our world.
Now the Mystery of the Trinity has been the subject of entire books, not to mention some of the major councils of Christian history. So it is almost impossible to do it justice in the span of a 900-word column. But it’s a doctrine of enough importance to try to scratch the surface.
The heart of the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t the question “how can God be both one and three?” After all, we’re not doing math here. And it’s not a question of a triangle vs. a shamrock.
Instead, the teaching on the Trinity helps us to understand who God is and who God is not. Even though it’s often easier to agree about who God is not, there is one thing about who God is that many Christians are beginning to embrace: Our one God is a God-in-community.
That sounds simple enough. Maybe a little too simple. But when understood properly in our own context here in the United States, that’s a radical statement. Because we in the U.S. tend to glorify the individual. Just like there’s one God, there’s one individual who is the master of his or her own life.
But the doctrine of the Trinity challenges this a bit. The Trinity reminds us that even within the One God there are radical relationships of egalitarian, self-sacrificial love. The Father, Son and Spirit (or Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, if you prefer) are “persons” of the one God who are tied to one another for all eternity as One.
And as we think about this, we must remember that all of our speech is analogy. For God isn’t literally like any of this. But because of God’s free-choosing to self-reveal in human history, we can humbly start to stutter these basic ideas. And the basic starting point for understanding the Trinity today is being amazed that the One Living God is also a Communitarian God. That is, God in God’s self is a community in relationship.
This gives us an image of the Trinity that is concrete and biblically sound: a divine community of radical equality and love. As theologian Catherine Mowry LaCugna has argued, “Indeed, Trinitarian doctrine articulates a vision of God in which there is neither hierarchy nor inequality, only relationships based on love, mutuality, self-giving and self-receiving, freedom and communion.”
Or, as theologian Elizabeth Johnson describes it in terms of experiencing God: “There is a sense in which we have to be touched first by a love that is not hostile (the “third” person), before we are moved to inquire after a definitive historical manifestation of this love (the “second” person), or point from there toward the mystery of the primordial source of all (the “first” person).”
The fact that our God is One yet also exists as a community reminds us yet again that we can’t be Christians by ourselves. For there is no “individual” Christianity. Which means that even though our own personal relationships with the God of Jesus Christ are important, our faith is about “We” the people of God more than “I” the disciple of Christ. Obviously, a Christian life requires both. But if one must be stressed over the other, it’s the communal over the individual.
Now this way of discussing the Trinity is more inductive than deductive. That is, it’s more spiritual than mathematical. So we understand a tiny bit more by living into God’s call, and by doing so we become more aware of how we should act.
Thinking about the doctrine in this way invites others to enter into this Trinitarian Mystery. It teaches us that we can never master the divine but we can enter into a relationship with the divine. We are humbled by a loving God who self-reveals as a beautiful Trinity who burns for life, justice and peace.
So maybe it’s strange. But life is strange. And the Trinity can remind us that God loves us and that God asks us to give life to others.
And it reminds us that God is God and we are not. Now that’s a strange idea.