A New Look at the Old Trinity

Trinity Sunday             May 30, 2021

Vector,Illustration,Of,A,Background,For,Trinity,Sunday.

Back in 2015, I was a workshop presenter at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City. It was called: What Does It  Mean to Be a Christian in an Interfaith World? And it was based on the book I was writing. I was scheduled for Monday afternoon and on Sunday night I discovered – to my horror – that somehow my workshop had disappeared from the schedule. You see, there were hundreds of workshops and presentations throughout the five days of the Parliament, attended by almost 10,000 people from 73 countries. Schedule changes were constant, which is why there was an app that you needed just to keep up. So I knew how and why my workshop had gotten lost; I just didn’t know how to fix it. 

The Parliament had offices in the convention center, so off I went to get help. Only problem: it was Sunday evening and no one was there (I think many people had gone offsite for a concert by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir). Thankfully, there were still some volunteers roaming around and one of them obviously saw my distress and asked if he could help. I explained the problem and he started making calls. Finally, he said that he’d left a message for someone who could help, but we needed to wait for a callback. 

So we waited. The young man explained that most of the volunteers were local college students. He was a religion major, studying Christianity that semester. He himself was Hindu and said he welcomed the opportunity to ask about my religious tradition. “Sure,” I said, certain I could field any biblical or theological questions. Now – look at the name of this day on the church calendar. You can see it coming, can’t you? “Would you explain the Trinity to me?” 

Troitsky,Cathedral,,Saint,Petersburg,,Russia-circa,July,,2016:,Holy,Icon
Troitsky Cathedral Saint Petersburg

Oh boy! The Trinity has become a bit of a conundrum for contemporary Christians who have been striving to place one’s relationship with the Divine above belief in doctrines and dogma. And Trinity Sunday is the only day of the entire church year that is dedicated to a doctrine – and one not even in the Bible. In fact, the eminent 20th century theologian Karl Rahner claimed that if the Trinity were to quietly disappear from Christian theology, never to be mentioned again, most of Christendom wouldn’t even notice its absence.

I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know most churches have progressed far past the days when we’d read the Athanasian Creed on this day. You can find it at the end of this post. It’s a reminder of our history, of what was  important to early Christians as they established the Church, and how they made sense of (or at least tried to make sense of the relationship of Jesus to God and how the Holy Spirit fit into the picture. The doctrine of God as three-in-one is how they explained it. It’s like St. Anselm of Canterbury’s famous motto: “faith seeking understanding,” which is what the early Christians were trying to do. They were asking: how can we understand our experience of Jesus the Christ; how can we comprehend our experience of the Holy Spirit?

Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in the 4th century, was the strongest defender of the doctrine of the Trinity. The creed attributed to him expands on the Nicene Creed, which had been developed (to put it in a positive way) as a statement that would unify the key beliefs of Christianity, and (to put it in a more critical light) to condemn as heretics all those who disagreed with it. You can see how seriously they took this by the last line of the Athanasian Creed: “One cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully.” 

Added to that, it’s the scholastic theology of the 11th-13th centuries that has dominated our approach to the Trinity. The goal of scholasticism was knowledge, understanding, rationality, and the demonstration of the reasonableness of Christian faith – hence doctrine.

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But times have changed. Adherence to creeds and doctrines and dogma have become more of a source of division than of unity. Still, we are a trinitarian church. We use trinitarian language in our liturgies, hymns, and prayers. Some Christians who have given up on the Trinity have asked me why I have not. To answer that, let me tell you a story that was told to Cynthia Bourgeault, author of The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three by her friend, the Abkhazian Sufi elder Murat Yagan:

“In the years following World War II, Murat had spent time in a remote corner of eastern Turkey, where he became friends with an elderly couple, with whom he frequently shared a meal. Life had been good to them, but their one sadness was that they missed their only son, who had left some years before to seek work in Istanbul. And although he’d become a successful businessman, they had  infrequent  contact  with him  and missed him greatly. One day when Murat appeared on their doorstep, the old couple were bursting with pride to show him the new tea cupboard that their son had just sent them from Istanbul. It was indeed a  handsome piece of furniture, and the woman had proudly arranged her best tea set on its upper shelf. Murat was polite but curious. Why would their son go to such expense to send them a tea cupboard? And why, for a piece of furniture whose ostensible purpose was storage, was there such a noticeable absence of drawers  and cabinets? ‘Are you sure it’s a tea cupboard?’ Murat asked them. They were sure.

But the question continued to nag at Murat. Finally, just as he was taking his leave, he said, ‘Do you mind if I have a closer look at this tea cupboard?’ With their permission, he turned it around and unscrewed a couple of packing boards. A set of cabinet doors swung open to reveal inside a fully operative ham radio set. That ‘tea cupboard,’ of course, was intended to connect them to their son. But unaware of its real contents, they were simply using it to display their china.

Cynthia Bourgeault says: “To my mind, that is an apt analogy for how we Christians have been using the   Holy Trinity. It’s our theological tea cupboard, upon which we display our finest doctrinal china, our prized assertion that Jesus, a human being, is fully divine. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just as it was not a  bad thing for the woman to set forth her prettiest teacups on the new piece of furniture. But what if, unbeknownst to nearly everyone, inside it is concealed a powerful communications tool that could connect us to the rest of the worlds (visible and invisible), allow us to navigate our way through many of the doctrinal and ethical logjams of our time, and place the teachings of Jesus in a dynamic metaphysical framework that would truly unlock their power? It’s simply a matter of turning the tea cabinet around and learning how to look inside.”

I love this story! And I believe we are finally beginning to look inside our tea cabinet, where we discover there have been other ways of understanding Trinity all along. Like so many other Christian concepts and symbols there is something archetypal about it. As Carl Jung discovered:

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Triads of gods appear very early, at the primitive level.
Arrangement in triads is an archetype in the history of religion,
which in all probability formed  the basis of the Christian Trinity.

So while we’ve traditionally explained the development of the doctrine of the Trinity as the need to give divine status to Jesus and the Holy Spirit while remaining monotheistic, it’s likely that from a psychological perspective it’s the other way round. Our unconscious disposition was already trinitarian, which then required a theological explanation. Three is often considered to be the perfect number, the unifier of dualities. And it appears, not only in Christianity, but across cultures, religions, and time.

Franciscan Richard Rohr, author of The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See writes:

Trinitarian theology was almost made to order to humiliate the logical mind.
If actually encountered and meditated on,
God as trinity breaks down the binary system of the mind.
For a Christian who lives in a trinitarian spirituality,
it makes either-or thinking totally useless.
Perhaps, in addition to everything else, the trinity is blessing,
to make us patient before Mystery and to humble our dualistic minds.

Medieval mystics, such as Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart and Julian of Norwich got it. For them, understanding the Trinity was possible only through experience, not through reason. Hildegard, who’d had a vision of the Trinity, wrote,

No one can comprehend the extent of Its glory and the limits of Its power
as It shines with the immense sweetness and the brightness of Divinity.

But it’s Julian of Norwich who really delves into the 3-ness of it all. When Julian was 30 years old, she had several visions and then spent the next 20 years reflecting on these visions and writing down what she’d learned from them. She concluded,

For all our life consists of three: In the first we have our being,
and in the second we have our increasing,
and in the third we have our fulfillment.
The first is nature, the second is mercy and the third is grace.

But probably the most famous of Julian’s visions was this one. And from this comes the portrayal we often see of her holding a hazelnut. She wrote: 

julian-of-norwich-cat-hazelnut

“In this he showed me a little thing, no bigger than a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and I thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for its littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God. In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it. But what is this to me? Truly, the Creator, the Keeper, the Lover. For until I am substantially “oned” to God, I may never have full rest nor true bliss. That is to say, until I be so fastened to God that there is nothing that is made between my God and me.”

So between Jung’s archetypes and Julian’s mystical experiences, we have an entry into a much bigger, much richer way of approaching the mystery of the Trinity. It makes sense that we’d use three to break our concepts of God into three parts to better understand this person, this being, this presence, this reality – this ‘this’ we call God – knowing that we’ll always be limited by the smallness of our imaginations and capacity for wonder, yet knowing also that there have been those who have seen the totality, the unity of the three. And have seen also our place within it. What the mystics have described is the communal nature of God, the inherent relationality of the Trinity. The Creator, the Keeper and the Lover are not self-contained, self-sufficient entities in a pantheon of gods. Rather, the Trinity is a dance of Love, with us dancing in the midst of the circle as well. It is a dance of communion and of community.

Not just in Xianity. Even in Judaism, there are those who see precursors in the mystical teachings of The Kabbalah, which says that the three original emanations from Ein Sof, the Kabbalistic concept of God as “The Endless One” or “All That Is,” are Nothingness, Wisdom and Understanding. These three emanations are the basis upon which all other existence upon the Tree of Life was formed and the essence of which followers were urged never to try to understand.

Elaine Pagels wrote in The Gnostic Gospels that early Christian concepts of the Trinity were molded from traditional Judaic terminology. Of course, Judaism  – like Islam – rejects the Trinity based on their belief that giving Jesus divinity at all was blasphemous. Nonetheless, “three” is present in both and is perhaps a way through the interfaith roadblocks caused by the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

Trinities appear in eastern traditions as well. The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes the “Three Bodies of Buddhahood” as three levels of existence: the ordinary body, which becomes the Emanation Body; speech, which is the Beatific Body; and the mind, which is the Truth Body. The three Buddha Bodies correlate with body, mind and spirit. There are also trinities in The Tao Te Ching in the “Three Jewels” or “Three Treasures,” which are the Buddha, the Dharma (teaching) and the Sangha (community). The Jains recognize the trinity of samyag-darsana (correct insight), samyag-jnana (correct knowledge), and samyag-caritra (correct conduct). In The Bhagavad-Gita, there is the threefold nature  of  the Self, as told to Arjuna by the Hindu God Krishna: “Threefold is the faith of the embodied, which is inherent in their nature: Sattvic (pure), Rajasic (passionate) and Tamasic (darkness).”

And Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh had no difficulty seeing the correlation between Western and Eastern concepts of the Trinity. After a meeting with Christian clergy, he said, “all of us have the seed of the Holy Spirit in us, the capacity of healing, transforming, and loving. When we touch that seed, we are able to touch God the Father and God the Son.” He presents Trinity as a process of direct knowing of the Divine that transcends all religious labels and names.

So, if we go back before all the controversies of early Christianity, the hurling of anathemas at theologians  who disagreed with the winning side at the Council of Nicea . . . and back before epic battles, such as whether to say “We believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father” or “ We believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son” – which was a  huge deal back in the day and one of the reasons for  the split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern  Orthodox Church . . . and back before our modern attempts at explaining the Trinity with shamrocks, triangles, interlocking rings, and science project displays of water, ice, and gas . . .  we find that our ancient ancestors understood the  triune  nature  of existence on the deepest level of the subconscious, which then translated into symbols and archetypes found in our origin stories, myths and fairy tales, like The Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks and the Three Bears and children’s songs like Three Blind Mice. And in religious texts.

As we move further into the Age of the Spirit (which I talked about last week), as we become more adept at using our right brains to re-imagine – as best we are even capable of doing – what God is like, we will see Trinity (this number three), not as a literal, limiting number, but as a process of union with the completeness and perfection of All That Is whether you call that: Father/Son/Holy Spirit, Creator/Redeemer/Sanctifier, Creator/Creating/Creation, or (as St. Augustine suggested) Lover/Beloved/Love Itself.

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Trinity is the very nature of God, and this God is a circle dance, a centrifugal force flowing outward, and  then drawing all things into the dance centripetally. If this God names himself/herself in creation and in reality then there must be a ‘family resemblance’ between everything else and the nature of the heart of God.

I personally appreciate the imagery of Trinity as the Divine Dance. As Richard Rohr has described:

Process, dance, circle, heart of God. This is not the Trinity of doctrine and dogma and creeds – although some do find meaning there. I would not exclude anyone’s preferred access to Divinity. As long as we don’t mistake a ham radio set for a tea cupboard. 

Following from all of this, we, on this Trinity Sunday, might ask ourselves what it means to be a Trinitarian congregation. David Lose, former president of the Lutheran Seminary at Philadelphia, defines a Trinitarian congregation as one that sees itself as called and sent by the Holy Spirit to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed for the sake of the world God created and loves so much. Not a bad mission statement at all! Therefore, may we remove the china cups and knickknacks from our spiritual shelves and discover the treasures that are inside. In the name of Lover, Beloved, and Love Itself. Amen

Trinity Knot

The Athanasian Creed 

Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic* faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally. And the catholic* faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance. For the Father is one person, the Son is another, and the Holy Spirit is another. But the Godhead of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. As the Father is, so is the Son, and so is the Holy Spirit: the Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, the Holy Spirit uncreated; the Father infinite, the Son infinite, the Holy Spirit infinite; the Father eternal, the Son eternal, the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet there are not three Eternals, but one Eternal, just as there are not three Uncreated or three Infinites, but one Uncreated and one Infinite. In the same way, the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, the Spirit almighty; and yet there are not three Almighties but one Almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God; and yet there are not three Gods, but one God. So the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, the Holy Spirit is Lord; and yet there are not three Lords, but one Lord. Just as we are compelled by the Christian truth to acknowledge each distinct person as God and Lord, so also are we prohibited by the catholic* religion to say that there are three Gods or Lords. 

The Father is not made nor created nor begotten by anyone. The Son is neither made nor created, but begotten of the Father alone. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son, neither made nor created nor begotten but proceeding. Thus, there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits. 

And in this Trinity none is before or after another; none is greater or less than another; but the whole three persons are coeternal with each other and coequal so that in all things, as has been stated above, the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity is to be worshiped. Therefore, whoever desires to be saved must think thus about the Trinity. 

But it is also necessary for everlasting salvation that one faithfully believe the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is the right faith that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is at the same time both God and man. He is God, begotten from the substance of the Father before all ages; and He is man, born from the substance of His mother in this age: perfect God and perfect man, composed of a rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father with respect to His divinity, less than the Father with respect to His humanity. Although He is God and man, He is not two, but one Christ: one, however, not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh but by the assumption of the humanity into God; one altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person. For as the rational soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ, who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again on the third day from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, from whence He will come to judge the living and the dead. At His coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire. 

This is the catholic* faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved. 

* catholic = universal 11 

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smstrouse

I've been the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Burlingame, CA since February, 2020. I am a “proud member of the religious left” and an unapologetic progressive Christian. While I have been criticized by some as no longer being Christian and as a pastor for whom “anything goes,” I firmly reject those characterizations. I am most assuredly a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, as well as a seeker of the Cosmic Christ.  My preaching, teaching and worship leadership is based on sound theology and careful study. I would call myself a devotee of process theology with a Lutheran flavor. For two years I also served as the interim executive director of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio in San Francisco (http://interfaith-presidio.org) and served on the board for many years before that.  In 2005 I received my Doctorate in Ministry from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley in interfaith relationships. My book is The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters? I enjoy leading workshops and retreats on interfaith matters, as well as teaching seminarians how to think about pastoring in a multi-faith environment. I suppose I’m not everyone’s idea of the perfect Christian. But if you’re interested in exploring the questions of faith in the 21st century, drop me a line.

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