The Holy TrinityJun 20th, 2012 | By Severus_Snape | Category: Columns, Contributors, Madison Community of Faith
[Editor's Note: This month we are starting a new column which deals with religion. If you're wondering why, see our reasoning here.]
Many years ago, when I was just beginning my theological studies I was asked one afternoon to come to the Registrar’s office as soon as I could. When I arrived, I found the Registrar’s Assistant needing an interpreter, for she was struggling to converse with a an agitated visitor.
The visitor claimed that he was a mathematician. He was trying to convince the Registrar’s Assistant to sign him up for the Doctrine of God course free of charge; in exchange he promised to provide a mathematical formula to solve the mystery of the Three in One. He claimed that he has mathematically figured out how the Trinity works, and he asked for an ecclesiastical sponsorship to publicize his discovery.
I felt sorry for the guy. Then again, who knows, maybe he was indeed a misunderstood genius, who, using the most concrete, precise, logical, and infallible of all sciences, finally figured out the most mysterious, illogical, and self-contradictory article of the Christian faith. Because we have gently persuaded him to go away, we have missed the opportunity to find out.
Yet, it is well-known that many theologians throughout Christian history spilled oceans of ink explaining how the Trinity works, what are the exact relationships of the Persons of the Trinity, how the Three are One, and why the One is Three. Ultimately all of them agree that in spite of all scriptural revelations and religious experience of the church commonly called tradition or deposit of faith, the Trinity is a supreme mystery, and all attempts to figure it out are futile, like spooning out the ocean.
The Orthodox Christian Church has three statements of faith concerning God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are called creeds, from Latin credo, meaning “I believe.” The most ancient one is the Apostolic Creed, which we use in the rite of baptism; it is the creed of the early church, no later than of the second century A.D. The other two are the fourth century creeds put together by the Imperial Church to define the trinitarian orthodoxy: one is the so-called the Creed of St. Athanasius (it is more of a catechetical instruction that a liturgical prayer and, as such, a superb, non-habit forming sleeping pill); the other is the Nicene Creed which we use every Sunday. All of them deal with the mystery of God as revealed in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures: God the Creator (the Father), God the Word (the Son, Logos, Wisdom, the Christ, God’s Incarnate Word-Jesus of Nazareth, fully divine and fully human), and God the Spirit (the Breath, Wind, and Life).
The poetic story of creation can be interpreted as revelation of the Triune God: God creates the universe by saying the creative Word “Let there be,” and God’s Breath sweeps over creation. God, Word, Breath – Father, Son, Spirit. It is pure poetry; and a different kind of truth is revealed through beauty and poetry than through mathematical formulas explaining the nitty-gritty.
One of the troubles with our contemporary world is that we are trapped in the political deadlock of Science vs. Religion, Fact vs. Belief, Reality vs. Metaphor, Objective vs. Subjective, Reason vs. Faith. I am convinced that for each religious fundamentalist trapped in her/his narrow world view of static, unchangeable Truth, Infallible Dogma, and Golden Age, there is a scientific fundamentalist trapped in his/her inability to appreciate metaphor, to value myth, and to even consider the notion of the unknowable. Ultimately, both religious and scientific fundamentalists are incapable of living with unanswered questions, of entertaining doubt, and of letting the mystery be. What a contrast are they to Albert Einstein, who said: “The most beautiful experience we can have is mysterious.”
This is why I love the creeds. They unfold before us the poetic beauty of the mysterious. All that we say about the Trinity, — the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, the only-begotten uncreated Son, the Holy Spirit, proceeding, giver of life,– all this is, essentially, open-ended. To say that God is One in Three is as open-ended as to say that a human being as God’s image and likeness is a trinitarian being: body, mind, and spirit. And, of course, it is an analogy, and like all analogies, it limps on both legs.
And yet, I experience myself as a real, three-dimensional, trinitarian person: body, mind, and spirit. These three are not my mere attributes, these three are me. I would not be me without my body, or my mind, or my spirit. This is the image and likeness of the Trinity in a human being, so intimate and close, that we grew dull recognizing and appreciating it. Oddly enough, we are more likely to ponder our trinitarian mystery when something is wrong and one of our personal dimensions is thrown out of balance. When we see an old friend suffering from a dementia and observe his mind change or deteriorate, we say: “Wow, the Dude is no longer himself” or when a high-spirited, brave, and optimistic family member caves in and gives up, we might say: “Wait a minute, this is not like you!” Or when one’s appearance is radically altered, we say in disbelief: “Is it you? What happened?”
I will conclude with a question. I believe that the open-ended mystery of the Trinity invites not as much a question “how” or “why,” but the most important question: “So what?
God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: OK. So what? What difference does it make to you in your life of faith? And if all of a sudden the Church redefined the Holy Trinity, what would change in your life of faith?