Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Third Time's a Charm*: Thoughts on the Trinity

Sunday is Trinity Sunday, a time when the Christian church gives un-divided (pun intended), albeit brief, attention to a doctrine whose unpopularity is rivaled only by the Seventh Commandment. There are two reasons, chiefly. It’s a difficult idea to contemplate. Most of us want our religion, like our instruction manuals, simple. And that leads to the second reason the Trinity is not a very popular doctrine among Christians; namely, it’s just not regarded as being very “practical.” It fails the “so what?” test for most people.

With regard to the first of those (it’s complex), about the only help I can give you is: “Get over it.” We’re talking Trinity here. If you want simple, join the “Flat Earth Society.”

Now, I admit that most of the “helpful analogies” I’ve heard to “explain” the Trinity aren’t really very helpful. For example, you’ve heard the one about water being solid, liquid, and gas, and yet still H2O. True, but not at the same time! And therein lies the most common misconception about the Christian doctrine of the Trinity – modalism, the belief that God cannot exist in more than one “mode” at a time. This error smuggles in the notion that because you and I live in time, God does too.

C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity (“Time and Beyond Time”) does the best job of which I know at dispelling the notion of modalism when thinking about the Trinity.

Most people fall prey to this idea because, he writes, they are “…assuming that Christ’s life as God was in time, and that His life as the man Jesus in Palestine was a shorter period taken out of that time – just as my service in the army was a shorter period taken out of my total life. And that is how most of us perhaps tend to think about it. We picture God living through a period when His human life was still in the future: then coming to a period when it was present: then going on to a period when He could look back on it as something in the past. But probably these ideas correspond to nothing in the actual facts. You cannot fit Christ’s earthly life in Palestine into any time-relations with His life as God beyond all space and time. It is really, I suggest, a timeless truth about God that human nature, and the human experience of weakness and sleep and ignorance, are somehow included in His whole divine life. This human life in God is from our point of view a particular period in the history of our world (from the year AD one till the Crucifixion). We therefore imagine it is also a period in the history of God’s own existence. But God has no history. He is too completely and utterly real to have one. For, of course, to have a history means losing part of your reality (because it has already slipped away into the past) and not yet having another part (because it is still in the future): in fact having nothing but the tiny little present, which has gone before you can speak about it. God forbid we should think God was like that. Even we may hope not to be always rationed in that way.”

But perhaps the most compelling reason the Trinity has fallen on hard times in the Christian church is due to the fact that it’s simply not regarded as being very “relevant” anymore. My friend, Tom Long, documents the shift from modernity to post-modernity in terms of the central question on the minds of most listeners when they come to hear a sermon. In modernity, the listener came with one central question for the preacher: “Is it true?” Today, the question has changed. Nobody today wants to know whether or not what the preacher says is true; rather, what they want to know is, “Does it work?” Relevance has replaced truth – utility has replaced veracity – as the central value of life and the supreme subject of the sermon. In such a culture and context, Trinity seems like so much “playing in theological sandboxes.”

But let me say a word about it. At the heart of the Christian idea of Trinity is the notion that diversity is better than uniformity. C. S. Lewis says: “Even within the Holy One Himself, it is not sufficient that the Word should be God, it must also be with God…deity introduces distinction within itself so that the union of reciprocal loves may transcend mere arithmetical unity or self identity.” There is a “Holy Community” within God that expresses itself not in spartan singularity but in rich complexity. There is something about this Creator that values diversity over uniformity. Indeed, nothing in Creation ever happens “again.” Everything is, in its own way and from the Creator’s perspective, unique.

And that may be the best portal we have into the nature of the Trinity – this quality or characteristic of the Divine that prefers complexity over simplicity, diversity over singularity. Rather than the H2O analogy, Lewis suggests this one. When you move in just one dimension, the simplest reality is a single straight line. It has length but neither width nor depth. But when you add the second dimension, the simplest reality is not, as we might have expected, two lines. Rather, it is four lines – a square or rectangle. Add a third dimension and the simplest reality becomes - wait for it! – six squares – a cube. That is, the deeper you move into reality, the more complex it becomes, and the complexity increases geometrically and exponentially, not just arithmetically. Logic dictates, assuming that creation reflects something of the character and nature of the Creator, that the same must be true of God. The deeper you move into the reality of God, the more complex He becomes. On one level, He is Creator. Move deeper and you will find that He is both Creator and creature (God the Son). Move deeper still and you will discover that He is not only outside His creation but inside it as well (God the Spirit). Trinity – God the Father, Son, and Spirit.

And in a world where the forces of conformity and “group think” and coercion (both from the Right and the Left) are working night and day to turn the marvelous uniqueness that is you and I into mindless, cookie-cutter automata, I can’t think of a more important doctrine for the Christian preacher to preach this Sunday than the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. As Lewis says, “Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently?”

One thing more. Does Trinity exhaust the complexity and diversity of God? If we could move deeper still into the Reality that is God, would we yet find infinitely more richness and complexity? God only knows.

*The origin of the phrase is, as they say, "shrouded in obscurity;" however, at least some linguistic etiologists suggest that its origins may lie in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

1 comment:

Charles Martin Freeman said...

just a note to let you know that i'm on board and that i read every stacy entry. please do not stop. i appreciate your view and wisdom. thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.