Lately, I've been doing some reading and thinking about the Holy Trinity.
Yes, now you get to see my theological nerdiness emerge. Despite all those perceptions of me as this regular guy, who just happens to now be a bishop, truth be told I'm a closet religion scholar. But, shhhhh, don't tell anyone. What follows is a blog post, a personal reflection, a moment in my life, a dear diary if you will.
I will qualify this qualification with a qualifying statement. I'm not interested in religious scholarly scholarship for its own sake. Rather, I'm intrigued with how the way we think about, in this case the Holy Trinity, connects with how we live our lives, shop, raise families, act for justice, drive our cars, work, play, eat and love.
The Christian explanation of God as Holy Trinity has confused people from the earliest moments in which it was first articulated around the 2nd century. It has also been a source of much confusion and even conflict within Christian Muslim conversations, because of the misunderstanding that three in one is a denial of the one God of monotheism. It has also created great confusion among many pastors and people over the years.
Recently, while in conversation with a person in our synod who is considering entering into seminary, I heard this refrain: "Well, in then there is the trinity. But, who can explain the trinity? I mean, dude, that's the most weird and confusing thing I've ever heard." While I did not have an audio recorder, I believe I've recalled the statement accurately, including the "dude" reference.
Where is Jeff Bridges when you need him?
Traditionally the church has explained our understanding of God as Holy Trinity using such symbols as the one below. God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
While clever, and perhaps helpful for some, I have always found these images to be lacking. Now, any effort to describe God is going to be lacking. That is just a basic truth we need to understand. God cannot be fully explained, and even the three letters G O D acts as a symbolic language to articulate something that we cannot fully grasp, much less explain. But, we are human beings who desire to catch a glimpse of the divine, so we make these attempts anyway.
The origins of the trinity go back to a period about a hundred or so years after the time of Jesus. In fact, if you were to walk in on an early house church in the first century and ask a group of Christians if they believed in the Holy Trinity, they would have no idea what you were talking about. The Trinity was not a theological concept until later, though there are hints of it throughout the scriptures.
So where did this attempt to explain the nature of God originate. While I've heard and read many discuss this, I find the best explanation has little to do with theology, philosophy or history. Rather, the idea of the Trinity emerges out of language. In the western languages, a complete thought is articulate with a subject, a verb and an object. I love you. This triune way of communication is deeply embedded in our subconscious minds. Therefore, if western thinkers are to attempt to articulate our understanding of God, we would naturally formulate it in a triune modality. Right about now, there is a linguistics professor at Harvard, who is reading this and preparing a thorough response to endorse, dissuade or qualify what I have written. Excellent. If I am wrong, I welcome the correction.
Let me be clear. I'm still a confessional and creedal Christian. I'm not arguing that we do away with the Trinity. Rather, I'm attempting to share my own struggles to embrace it and integrate it into my Christian identity. I'm asking myself these questions: Does Father, Son and Holy Spirit mean that God is male? or simply language that communicates maleness, but that's not the purpose? If I use Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier instead does that help or complicate the matter? If I assume there is some deeper truth in the language of the Holy Trinity (and I do), what is that truth? Can the Trinity be a relevant way of understanding God in the 21st, 22nd and 23rd century?
Several years ago, I came across this image of the Holy Trinity.
It is a painting of the Holy Trinity from the year 1410 by Andrei Rublev. Originally called the Old Testament Trinity because of references to the three angels that appeared to Abraham as recorded in Genesis. But, as is often the case with these things, over time it has become a symbolic work in the understanding of the Holy Trinity. If you are interested in the full scholarly work, which also is helpful to those interested in the spirituality of icons and prayer, you'll want to check out this book. For a more accessible read on icons and prayer, I suggest Henri Nouwen's work, Praying the Icons.
I believe it was Ann Ulanov, who pointed out to me the relational and circular nature of the Trinity in this icon. While keeping each of the three persons distinct, they are held together in a relationship. That relationship seems to center around the sacrament. There is much to comment on here, but I'll let you and your God given imagination circle around this icon.
This leads me to my latest reading and thinking. (Sorry for the long post on this subject, but if you are bored, feel free to bow out and return when there is a video of me dancing at Hammonasset) In recent years, a number of people have been reaching back in church history to recover an understanding of the Trinity that has been kept alive in the Orthodox church, as in the Russian, Greek and Eastern Orthodox traditions. These are the people who look like this priest and have cool church buildings.
The orthodox tradition has used the term perichoresis to attempt to capture our understand of God as Trinity. Peri means around, and choresis is the root of dance, as in choreography. Its origins are in the 8th century when the Greek theologian John Damascene used the term to highlight the dynamic and interactive character of the Trinity. Karl Barth, Milos Volv and Jurgen Moltman seem to be some of the 2oth century scholars in the western tradition who have recovered it, but I think it was in 1973, when a woman named Catherine LaCugna wrote an extraordinary book that is most helpful. God for Us is the title. Leave it to a woman to recover God as Dancer.
Right about now, I've got that scene from the film Birdcage, in which Robin Williams is attempting to get his rather stiff dancers to unleash themselves on the dance floor.
Ok, where were we?
Perichoresis, Relation, community, dynamic. This is a much livelier view of the Holy Trinity, than the static and overly rational one we have inherited. This is all suggesting a God of movement, imagine as Eugene Peterson articulates, a folk dance, a round dance, a ballet of three partners holding hands as the music begins, then they let go, turn, spin, rejoin, then two join , then the other two, all the while the other one is still a part of the dance, and then the three together, moving in a dynamic interactive choreography that is both structured yet spontaneous. Eugene's book "Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places" has been the most helpful in my learnings. But, I'm also feasting on Brian McLaren's work, and his interpretations of the work of Kyriacos Markides.
So how to wrap this up. For me it's not wrapped up. I'm in a time of deep exploration. Now in my early 50's, I'm attempting to ask how these historically intriguing and challenging doctrines of the christian tradition can find their way into my heart, my life and my work. I'm not interested in the old model of "just believe it cause they said it." Nor does the "dismiss it as old an irrelevant appeal to me" either. Since I came into the Christian faith from the outside (i.e. I wasn't born into the faith but was grasped by it in my early 20's) I do feel a certain freedom. For years, I wondered if I was the only one in the church asking questions of how to integrate the old into the now. But, I've got a hunch that I am not alone.
So, what to do next? How does God as Trinity as Dance, as relationship, as dynamic divine community impact my daily life? That sounds like a future post. For now, I'm being helped by a book I purchsed 30 years ago, but never read. I saw the title on the shelf at the seminary bookstore in 1985, and knew it was for me. Beginning to Pray is a book about prayer that is unlike any other book on prayer I've encountered. It's an Ancient-Future way of prayer, hard for us westerners to grasp, less rational, less wordy, more poetic. I recently discovered it, buried in a box like a seed planted, waiting for the right time to germinate. Anthony Bloom wrote this in 1970. I wish I'd read it years ago, when I first picked it off the shelf. But, maybe I wasn't ready to take that step onto the dance floor. I am now.