Three Mysteries for the Price of One
You would think that the Trinity, as a theological doctrine, would be very important to the United Church, given just how many of our churches are named "Trinity United Chruch." I mean, how many of us at one time or another attended a church named "Trinity United"? My white stole is from my home church, Trinity United. One time, I went to Presbytery to say a few words in favour of continuing to support the youth trips to Nicaragua, and I began, as you're supposed to, "My name is David Cooke, from Trinity United." I sat down after and the guy in front of me said, "You can’t be David Cooke from Trinity United; I'm David Cook from Trinity United!" Because there were three Trinity United churches in the presbytery and both "David" and "Cooke" are pretty common names.
And yet, the Trinity is probably the most confusing belief the church has: The Creator is God; Christ is God; the Spirit is God; but the Creator is not Christ is not the Spirit; but there is only one God. It's confusing and I suspect most of us don't think about it a lot of the time. But it is important to the church; one of the United Church's faith statements begins:
God is Holy Mystery,
beyond complete knowledge,
above perfect description.
the one eternal God seeks relationship.
So God creates the universe
and with it the possibility of being and relating.
God tends the universe,
mending the broken and reconciling the estranged.
God enlivens the universe,
guiding all things toward harmony with their Source.
Grateful for God’s loving action,
We cannot keep from singing.
With the Church through the ages,
we speak of God as one and triune:
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We also speak of God as
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer
God, Christ, and Spirit
Mother, Friend, and Comforter
Source of Life, Living Word, and Bond of Love,
and in other ways that speak faithfully of
the One on whom our hearts rely,
the fully shared life at the heart of the universe.
We witness to Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love.
I've talked about this before, but the doctrine of the Trinity is defined nowhere in the Bible. There's a verse from the first letter of John (5:7) that's in some translations, but scholars think it was inserted much later to give justification to the idea of the Trinity and so modern translations remove it. Now, there's definitely the idea that Jesus is the Son of God and identifiable with God, and that the Spirit of God is identifiable with God, but an explicit "three-in-one and one-in-three" formula is not there. Which is why it always a stretch with the scriptures chosen; theologians used to think that because the angels were singing "Holy, holy, holy," that obviously Isaiah must have seen all three persons of the Trinity in his vision. That's . . . a tenuous connection.
This isn't what is called a "revealed" doctrine, in that it didn't come down from heaven; Jesus never stated it. Instead, the church developed the idea of the Trinity over several centuries of theological reflection and debate and you can say that means the whole thing is invalid—which several denominations like the Mormons and the Jehova's Witnesses do—but I think, honestly, that makes it more valid, because it emphasises the mystery of God that can only really be explored over centuries and millennia. God isn't simple, and a faith that can be so set in stone (literally) is not really one I find all that valuable, because if we don't explore God, then we don't really explore ourselves.
Our Song of Faith, which I quoted just now, calls God “Holy Mystery,” something beyond our comprehension. The technical word is "ineffable," as in "the ineffable mystery of God." Asserting the idea of God brings up all sorts of secondary questions that can't be answered: "If God created everything; how then did God come into being?" "What does God look like?" "Could God create a boulder so heavy that even He Himself could not lift it?" Questions that I'm not sure are really worth asking.
And yet we seem to have a lot of trouble with that and seek to reduce God to something understandable: God looks like a white man with a beard. Heaven is a city in the clouds with gates that St. Peter guards.
But bad things happen when we try to make the ineffable more understandable; we get God as a wish-granting genie; we get an image of God that excludes women and people who are not white and we begin to see them as lesser; we get a dogmatic and rigid understanding of religion; we get the faith that is only mere belief; we get answers that seem so simple and straightforward that they must obviously be the right ones and so everyone who doesn't see things the same way we do. We come up with analogy after analogy that all ultimately fall short of the mystery and the majesty of God, and if we read too much into them can even pervert the idea of God.
Gretta Vosper calls belief in a “Trinitarian, interventionist God” her definition of “fundamentalism,” but to me, it’s almost the opposite. The Trinity has to stand in contrast to fundamentalism, because belief in the Trinity requires us to be okay with a Holy Mystery, how God can be three and yet one.
What I like about the Trinity is that its very confusing mystery provides an antidote to "simple faith." Have you ever had someone say that having "a simple faith" is a virtue? "God said it; I believe it; that settles it;" that sort of thing?
I really don't think "simple faith" is a virtue. Maybe this is just me—I’m over-educated—but I really don't think it's a gift to be simple. Or, at least in the way I find most people think "simple" means. To me, a “simple” faith wants everything concrete, clear, and understandable. Fundamental. God is really only the creator who is above us; or, God is really only Jesus who saves us; or, God is really only the Spirit around us and within us. An over-simplistic reduction of the very complex and ineffable concept that is God; to me, that’s what fundamentalism is. That’s why fundamentalism is the way it is, because such a simple and clear-cut way of looking at things has to be right, right?
Now, a “simple” faith that says, “God, you are what I am not and therefore cannot understand,” and revels in the mystery, thinks about it every so often but is okay with not coming to answers; if that’s what we mean by “simple” faith, that that’s okay.
Calvin said that how we think about God ultimately reflects how we think about ourselves. If we're so unwilling to deal with uncertainty and mystery around God—if we can't have faith in God that allows doubt and uncertainty—how can we have faith in ourselves? If we can't allow for a God who is full of multiplicity, of wonder, of mystery, exploration, and discovery, who always has something new to show us, what does that mean for our own lives? That there is no wonder, mystery, and discovery?
If God cannot be all three of Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; three persons yet one, what does that mean for our common humanity? That we share nothing in common with our brother and sister, because we are not the same person? If God cannot be both male and female, what does that mean for gender equity? If God does not have depth to being, is just the man with the white beard in heaven, then does that make us just as shallow? We know our inner lives are deeper and wider than that, and God is deeper and wider beyond our comprehension.
So, to me, that is why the doctrine of the Trinity is important; it is just one of many, many ways to try and comprehend the incomprehensible nature of God,
Christian theology takes the mystery of God and tries to express it in three ways, which we call the Trinity. We understand God as creator, above us, who desires justice and loves unconditionally; but the mystery is why. Why create? Why love? We understand God as a saviour, with us, because we know that we are not perfect and need saving from ourselves, but the mystery is how. How does one man dying mean anything, much less salvation? And we understand God as Spirit, within us, because we are so aware of the presence in ways we can't really explain, but the mystery is what. What is God doing?
Being okay with holy mystery, even celebrating it and worshipping it, means we can have a deeper faith. It means we can be more accepting of the ambivalence and multiplicity of the world, including the multiplicity of peoples, races, religions, gender identities, and sexualities. It means we can be more accepting of the contradictions within ourselves, of our human failings when we don't think in all-or-nothing terms and are okay with a little or even a lot of grey. It's how we can be more forgiving of ourselves and of others. We are made in the image of God, and if God is holy mystery, then so are we.
So, if you’re wondering why I’m spending so much time on this doctrine—ew, what a bad word, right?—it’s because I do think it’s important. God as triune, as three mysteries in one, to me, means a deeper faith than God as the bearded white guy in the sky. Catholics think of the Trinity as relational; a model for human relationships, and also reflected in the Holy Family; Joseph as Father, Jesus as . . . well, Jesus, and Mary as the Holy Spirit. We see the mutuality of a common nature that we need to see in our brother and sister, to recognize that we are made of the same stuff as them. There’s also the awareness of what God has done as Creator and as Jesus, and what she still does as the Holy Spirit. God is not distant; he’s not up in the sky; he’s here with us now. By acknowledging all of these, being okay with the Holy Mystery, not reducing everything to “simple” faith, we open up ourselves more fully to the wonder of God’s creation. A living, mysterious faith in the living, mysterious, triune God. Amen.