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Yesterday was Pentecost, meaning that this coming Sunday is known as Trinity Sunday.
I used to make fun of Trinity Sunday. Exactly what event are we celebrating? “Of course, that’s the day we read our favorite Trinity story!”
We all know that on Pentecost, you read Acts 2. On Christmas, Luke 2. For Trinity Sunday, what? The three mysterious visitors to Abraham and Sarah at the oaks of Mamre, (Genesis 18), perhaps?
Back then I viewed the Trinity more as divine minutiae, almost an arcane embarrassment, the byproduct of under-worked and overly-imaginative theologians, a topic one could not discuss for more than thirty seconds without falling into some heresy. If I slip into heresy here, please let me know.
Now the Trinity has become for me a delight, an invitation to adoration, a mystery to be celebrated, a divine eccentricity that refuses to be digested by our schemas.
Trinity is the very heart of God, and in turn, informs us profoundly about what it is to be human.
This relishing of the Trinity is not some solo journey, my great personal revelation. Trinity has been a hot topic in theology for a couple of decades, richly mined by all sorts of good folk.
The Trinity tells us that within the one God there is an everlasting and complete community of love. Even if there had never been a universe for God to love, it still would be true to say that “God is love” because in the innermost, mystical heart of God there is love between the three Persons of the Trinity. God would have never been lonely or bored because of the dynamism and relationships within the life of God.
I’m not entirely certain, but I believe it was Karl Barth who once said something like, “The Trinity tells us that before there was time, there was already love and relationships. And when time is no more, there will still be love and relationships.”
When I teach about the Trinity, we often have an exercise of trying to come up with good symbols, metaphors, and analogies for the Trinity, fully realizing that all analogies will fall woefully short. I tell the class that good Trinitarian images need to convey at least three different things: first, threeness and yet oneness; second, love, relationality, and sharing; third, dynamism, motion, and flow.
Let’s start with some classics—
Patrick’s beloved shamrock: good on three-in-one. Not so great on loving relationships.
Triangle: terribly austere and stark. Hard to catch much love or dynamism.
Here are some of the better or more memorable ideas from discussions and classes over the years—
Waltzing, not the dancers themselves, but the dance. Three steps, moving, flowing, sociability, gracious give-and-take.
A beautiful, complex wind ornament: spinning, twisting, rotating in a manner so intricate it is hard to know exactly how it holds together. The parts pulse and move and reflect light at unexpected angles. Good marks for the vitality and mystery. Less so on the three-in-one and love.
Sound effects: Trinity tells us God sounds more like whir, buzz, zip, zing. Not thud, clunk, or plop. We’re trying to convey energy and movement, undoing our impressions of God as a immovable object, glacial force, or a massive monolith.
Prepositions: Trinity tells us that God is a God of prepositions. This came from a discussion of Romans 5:1-5, one of the lectionary passages for this coming Sunday. Someone noted how many prepositions are here.
- By faith
- With God
- Through our Lord Jesus
- In whom
- Access to grace
- In which we stand
- Love poured into our hearts
- Through the Holy Spirit.
Prepositions are words that make a connection, juxtaposition, or combinations between words. They show a relationship between objects. All these prepositions in the Romans passage help us see that God is not so much a stationary sovereign or motionless monarch. God is moving, dynamic, connected, in relationship.
And how do we understand ourselves if God is more like a dance than a boulder? The Trinity tells us that we were created for relationships, to share love just as the three Persons of the Trinity share love. To be Trinitarian people is to be outward looking people, to be connected, curious, involved, giving and receiving people.
If the Trinity tells us that God is a dancing God, then we are to be dancing people, dancing with God, each other, dancing with prairies and planets, dogs and trout and geraniums.
If God is like a shimmering, twisting, wind ornament, then our lives too are to be spinning in mystical coordination with one another and with God.
If God is a God of prepositions, then we should be prepositional people.
- care for
- despite differences
- abide with
- walk along
- aspire to
- enthusiastic about
- among the poor
- beside one another
- in Christ
An earlier version of this blog appeared here on The Twelve in May, 2013.
wondrous. yeah for trinity dancing! love Richard Rohr’s exploration of that dazzling relational awareness. thank you for this piece.
John Calvin supposedly said that he could not explain the Trinity but he could sing it. But I’ve never found the citation. Anybody?
My students also struggle with the concepts of free will and God’s sovereignty/election. I have always told them that our finite minds will never be able to fully understand an infinite God–therefore, there are mysteries we can’t understand–like the Trinity. But I think of it as a dance: our free will dancing with God’s sovereignty, somehow working together to make something beautiful. The dance just expanded and got more beautiful, now thinking of the Trinity as also being a part of the dance!
Thanks, Noreen, for acknowledging that the Trinity, as well as free will/election, can’t be understood. You might as well add the two natures of Jesus (fully God and fully human – one person) to the other things that don’t make sense. There are other things about Christianity that fall short of being reasonable, as well. You can stack these kinds of things up to our finite nature and inability to fully understand spiritual truths, as you apparently have done with your students. And yet, as Steve has pointed out, there have been a multitude of attempts throughout history to explain the Trinity. Even the Bible doesn’t explain the Trinity and only hints that there is such a thing as a Trinity. So I guess we can safely say, no one really understands the Trinity, because, as Steve points out, someone will always come along and pick our analogy/metaphors apart. Those outside of Christian circles acknowledge that the core teachings (as listed above) simply don’t make sense. And seeing as humans are rational and reasonable beings, perhaps Christianity doesn’t make sense either. That’s what we Christians claim when it comes to every other religion that we don’t or can’t understand. Thanks again for your response.
There are a number of claims in this replay with which I do not agree, and which are presented as givens but are only claims, and which are presented as reasonable conclusions although the premises don’t demand those conclusions.
How about a kaleidoscope? That holds possibilities. Each of the three Godheads holds multiple perspectives in themselves, so I see no need to strictly limit to 3. More like 3.1415926, an infinitie sort of pi. And what about the Virgin Mary? In some religions, she seems held in the same deep focus and respect as Jesus, judging from prayers sent to her, images of her adored, her virginity seeming to represent purity and sinlessness, without anyone going so far as to say that. But there are words, and then there is practice and the imaginative mind. Now there’s a hidden heresy!
I loved the wind instrument., dance, and prepositional metaphors, which bring such life to what is often experienced as more dogmatic drudgery. How about a wind chime, to add delightful sound patterns, both ordered and chaotic at the same time?
And what would happen if we experimented with pronouns as well as prepositions? They/ he/we…she? You, thou, y’all….I I I…great possibilities there. As long as it remains a mystery, playing with possibilities might be the best way to enter into the mystery.
JoAnne, this is a week late. Apologize about the slow reply. Hope you see it. Your comment about why limit the Trinity to three, why not 3.1416… or more, struck me. Thanks! I once read a very gentle, sympathetic inquiry from a Jew asking the same sort of thing–why three? My own answer is because three is what the early Christians experienced and proclaimed and I’d even say “was revealed to them.” It is what scripture and tradition and the church have proclaimed. That said, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ well-known phrase is “Christ plays in 10,000 places.” So in saying three Persons, I don’t think the idea has ever been that God’s interactions and encounters and revelations are limited to three ways or channels. The whirling three-piece wind ornament can twist and reflect in countless ways.
This is a classic!
Well thought and well said.