There’s this video (Youtube video: Lutheran Satire: Teach the Faith by Making Fun of Stuff, “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies” by Hans Fiene & Matthew Carver) that the Bible Study group watched on Tuesday that presented the conundrum of trying to describe the Trinity. In the video St. Patrick was asked to explain the Trinity in a way that was easy to understand by regular people who don’t have all the fancy education of theology school.
He begins with describing the Trinity like water. It comes in three forms: solid, liquid, and vapor. The people St. Patrick is speaking to interrupt him to call out that explanation as modalism. Modalism is a heresy from the year 381. It argues that God is not 3 distinct persons, but merely reveals himself in three different forms, similar to the way water reveals itself in three different forms but is not really distinct.
St. Patrick tries again. This time he describes the Trinity like the sun. The sun is a star, and it gives off light, and heat also. Arianism! The listeners interject. Heat & light are not the star, but creations of the star. In the 4th century, a guy named Arius tried to argue that Christ and the Holy Spirit are creations of the Father & not one in nature with him. Long story short: things didn’t go well for Arius.
St. Patrick is undaunted and tries one last time to describe the nature of the Holy Trinity. He says it’s like a three-leaf clover. You know the classic St. Patrick image, right? Well, this explanation – sentimental though it may be – qualifies as yet another heresy: Partialism. Patrick’s listeners are very quick to jump on this one. In Partialism, the heresy states that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not distinct persons of the Godhead, but are different parts of God, and each only comprises 1/3 of the divine.
Poor St. Patrick. He tried really hard to illustrate the nature of the Trinity, and all his efforts failed. Finally, out of frustration he blurts out an abbreviated version of the very academically rigorous Athanasian Creed:
[read fast] “The Trinity is a mystery that cannot be comprehended by human reason, but only through faith as confessed in the words of the Athanasian Creed; which states that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons, nor dividing the Substance; that we are compelled by the Christian truths that each distinct person is God and Lord, and that the deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory, co-equal in majesty.”
It’s crystal clear now, right? That is pure orthodoxy, sisters and brothers. You just rattle that little gem off to anyone who asks, and you can’t go wrong. That Athanasius sure did have the Trinity buttoned down, didn’t he? Full disclosure, the Athanasian Creed also includes the following statement: “There are not three incomprehensibles, but one incomprehensible.” Nice safety clause Athanasius. You see what he just did there? Did you see that? That’s a 6th century version of this [shrug]. So now, 15 centuries later, I and all my colleagues are standing in our pulpits going… uh, the Trinity is like a… a three-leaf clov– no. Uh… it’s like a… [shrug]
I think, if we really did understand the Holy Trinity of God, it would be like living in a life-sized spoiler. We’d already know the outcomes of everything. What would be the point of doing anything? It would put us in an existential crisis, wouldn’t it? We would find ourselves in the dicey position of having too much power. With the confidence of divine justification, we could do whatever, whenever, to whomever, with no need to consider what collateral damage our actions might create for others.
There’s a saying from the author Anne Lamott that goes, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” If we completely understood God, it would be too easy to confuse our personal preferences with God’s will. [repeat] That would be a dangerous place to find ourselves in. History shows us time and again what humankind is capable of doing when it believes that God is on our side. As it is, we already do a thorough enough job of executing judgment on ourselves and others without the certainty of knowing if it’s exactly what God would do.
The mystery of the Holy Trinity lets God be God, and do what God does, as God wills, without our meddling. We get to worry about how we ought to live the life that God gave us. And that’s quite enough. So in the words of Athanasius… [shrug & nod].
That said, we are still left with the original conundrum of the Trinity. We confess our faith each Sunday using the Nicene Creed, which is a statement on the Trinity, so this mystery is part of who we are, our purpose for being, and is a central tenet of our faith system. Certainly we ought to be able to say something intelligent about it.
We’ve come to the conclusion that God exists as three persons, but we don’t worship a pantheon. It’s perfectly reasonable for non-Christians to ask us what we mean when we talk about God in terms of Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit. Now, no one likes to be put on the spot with such questions. Just look what happened to poor St. Patrick! We would feel much better if there was a nice tidy explanation that we could rattle off that was clear, concise, and reasonable. But the truth of the matter is: there isn’t. Better minds than ours have wrestled with the concept of the Trinity for two thousand years, and the best of the best of them ended up defaulting to the incomprehensibility of it.
If we have to describe the Holy Trinity, it’s easier to say what God *is not* than it is to say what God *is*. It’s probably more accurate too. God is not a forest. God is not a mountain. All the things we might hold up to say that God is not, may in fact contain a sliver of resemblance to the nature of what God is. God is not forest, but… Like an ancient rainforest, God the creator, stands in silent witness to the activities of humanity. God provides for our needs just as forests provide for our needs. Trees provide material resources for a variety of things. Forests are places where we can go to get away from it all and still our frantic minds. God is like this, but God is not a forest. Insert some other thing in place of forest and try to work this out for yourself. It’s a fun exercise.
God is not Plutonium. Plutonium provides a virtually endless supply of energy in the form of radiation. We can’t see this radiation, but we can feel it. We can observe its effects on other things. Its power is vast, and we like to think that we can control it. Left to its own devices however, Plutonium is out of our control. God however, is not Plutonium. This exercise is called “negative theology.”
I personally get more out of discerning God with negative theology than trying to struggle to remember positive theology. The heresies are like landmines out there. You need a good map to avoid stepping the wrong way! Ahhh… perhaps a map is a better way to understand the Trinity. A graphic illustration is worth a thousand than words. On the cover of your service bulletin I‘ve put the classic trinity symbol. You’ve probably seen this before. The Trinity may be most clearly illustrated as a triangle. A triangle is a good way to illustrate the three persons of God. God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all there. They all have equal size. They’re interrelated, but distinct. They don’t contradict each other. It’s hard to contradict, when the contradictions are part of the explanation! The Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father, but the Father is God and the Son is God. Nope. No contradictions there. The irony of this is that the act of trying to understand God in a triangle graphic will have us going in circles.
But here’s the thing… This is what gets us off the hook for Trinitarian theology. There is beauty in mystery. There’s grace – even in the incomprehensibility. You see, if God were understandable, comprehensible, there’d be no need for God. If we can figure out and succinctly explain the creator of all things seen and unseen, then there’s nothing left to know; nothing more to learn. There would be no more adventures; no curiosity. Human experience ends precisely where it begins, and life would be just a matter of running out the clock of existence. Salvation would be superfluous. Grace would be incidental. And the hope of faith could be so well-calculated that it would be rendered powerless. Life would be reduced to a dull procession of inevitables.
In this divine relationship we have with God, moments of grace are experienced as surprises in our lives. We feel the hand of God when we’re not looking for it. There’s a playfulness in God’s relationship with us. There’s an exchange of joy. It doesn’t matter how it happens. The inner workings of grace and forgiveness, of salvation and redemption don’t matter. All that matters is that those things are there, and they come to us when God knows we need them the most, when we’re open to receiving them. God gives us good things from God’s own self.
All of our deciphering of the mystery of God doesn’t make God love us more, or elevates us higher than everything else. If anything, the backflips that Trinitarian theology requires probably gives God a good chuckle… in whatever way God does that. All the while we’re tripping over ourselves to describe and explain the Holy Trinity, I’m sure God is laughing and laughing. I bet we provide great entertainment for God. Perhaps Trinitarian theologians could be best described as the Keystone Cops of Christian theology: everything works out in the end, but we sure do complicate things on the way there. Perhaps the most important purpose for Trinitarian theology in the divine-human relationship, is to keep joy flowing from God to people, and back again.
Sisters and brothers, if you must explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and if you know nothing else about it, know this: God is love. God is good all the time. God speaks to each of us in whatever way it takes to get the message across. We don’t have to complicate the relationship for it to work. We might not understand God perfectly, but we don’t have to. And ultimately, we are all saved by the workings of some beautiful unknowable grace. And that’s the good news.