The Sunday after Pentecost Sunday is probably one of the least observed festivals of the Christian year. So you are fully excused if you didn’t know that today is Trinity Sunday. To be honest, I don’t think I’d have realised either, if it hadn’t been for an argument on the subject breaking out amongst some of my theologian friends on Facebook….
And I’m absolutely sure that the reason Trinity Sunday gets so little play in the Christian calendar is that the idea of speaking on the subject of the Trinity sends preachers everywhere into fits of despair.
Because if there is one thing that is absolutely certain about the idea of God as Trinity, one God but three, it is this: we don’t understand it.
And it’s almost impossible to speak about the Trinity without tying yourself in knots of language and logic; and it’s also almost impossible to speak about the Trinity without saying something which is probably, technically, heretical.
But we’re not going to let that stop us…
Because actually, this problem – our inability to articulate the idea of the Trinity with clarity and consistency – really points to what I believe to be the single most important truth of the Trinity: that is, the acknowledgement that when we come to speak of God, when we try to capture the nature of God in words, in language, we find that it cannot be done.
To try to describe God and fail is to admit that to fully name or describe the nature of God is beyond us; that our tools of language and intellect are simply inadequate to the task.
And really, that probably shouldn’t surprise us. As I’ve said before, when it comes to things of God, anyone who is confident that they know the answer probably hasn’t understood the question. A sort theological Dunning-Kruger effect…
And of course, this is not just a limitation when we speak of God. In fact, language seems to fall down when we seek to speak of almost anything really important: when we try to describe the beauty of a scene, or a work of art, or piece of music; when we try to define the love of a parent for a child; even when we try to describe a flavour, or sound.
And faced with these challenges of language, we do two things.
The first is to deconstruct; to try to describe fragments, to capture some aspects of the truth. We study the metre of the poem, the harmonies in the symphony, the frequencies of light in the sunset. And we can do a lot like that – this is the approach that lies at the heart of science, after all, especially in my past field of theoretical physical science.
And some of the more philosophical-theological descriptions of the Trinity try to do just this: to seek at least some rigorous propositions about the nature of God. And so we find ourselves wrestling with consubstantial, coexternal, perichoresis and other, even more technical language. And while I’m glad that there are people who try to think clearly and rigorously about this question, I’m even more glad that I’m not one of them. For it seems clear that for any benefit this approach may bring, it will always also fail to capture the heart of the matter.
And the second approach we take is that of analogy. And this, I’d suggest, is the realm where the language of the trinity most naturally plays.
The very terms we use are clearly intended as analogy: to speak of God the Father and God the Son is not to imply a literal truth, but to describe something of a relationship.
And given that an analogy can only ever illuminate one part of the truth, it’s not surprising that a range of language emerges to describe the trinity:
The traditional, familiar words: God the Father, Son and Spirit;
God the Creator, Liberator, and Sustainer;
God the Lover, Beloved and Love;
God transcendent, God incarnate, God ever present;
God the Source, Word and Spirit;
All language, analogy, seeking to express a fundamental truth: that we encounter God in a variety of ways.
That we encounter God in creation.
That we encounter God in the life of Jesus Christ.
That we encounter God in the unexpected presence of the divine.
That we encounter God in prayer, in meditation, in music, in silence.
That we encounter God in face of a stranger, or the embrace of a friend.
That we meet God in all these ways and many others, and yet, at the same time, it is but one God, the same God, that we meet.
And at the same time, we experience God in different ways, different roles:
We experience God as the one who comforts us in distress.
We experience God as the one who challenges us in complacency.
We experience God as the one who convicts us of our wrongdoing.
We experience God as the one who heals us in our brokenness.
But once again – all the ways we experience God, it is the one, same God.
The language of the Trinity, whether it be formality of technical language or the poetry of analogy, represents our effort to capture this mystery, to hold together three profound truths:
The genius monotheistic insight of Judaism – that there is but one God; that all of God is found in all our encounters with the divine.
And the great mystery of the incarnation: that in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God entered into creation and became like us, to bridge the infinite gulf that lies between creation and creator.
And the mystery of Pentecost: that in the sending of the Holy Spirit, God’s presence has been offered to each of us, not just to specially chosen people at special times in their lives, but to all of us, all the time.
The mystery of God’s action in these different ways is captured in some of Paul words in his letter to the Romans, that we are going to be exploring over the coming weeks, describing the reality and the meaning of the early Church’s experience of God:
When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness that we are children of God, and joint heirs with Christ
We cry out to God, naming God as our parent, claiming an intimacy of relationship with God which would be ludicrous and presumptuous if it were not for assurance that this cry does not come from us alone, but is the Spirit of God within us, echoing the words that Jesus taught us to pray, witnessing that we are indeed children of God, joint heirs with Christ.
This, in the end, is the point of the doctrine of the Trinity: not to confuse us, not define a set of beliefs that separates the true believer from the heretic (though far too often that has been how these words have been applied) – but offer us that assurance – that the spirit within us that prompts us to pray, that spurs us to call out in our weakness for strength that is beyond us: that spirit, that prompting, is God at work – that when we look at the life and teaching and person of Jesus Christ, and seek to live as his people, his followers, his friends: that challenge is God at work – that when we experience the wonder and grandeur and awe of creation, in art or music or science, we are wondering at God at work – that when we see the face of God in other human being, that recognition is God at work.
That our God is not limited to one way of being; or even to three: that the God who we dare to call our Father is also our creator, our saviour, our companion, our conscience, our friend.
The God to whom we cry is the one who has adopted us, and made us God’s family.
One God. An infinity of experiences of the divine.
But one God.