Saturday, June 23, 2012

Three: A reflection on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity

The Shield of the Trinity

I have made no secret of my belief in a creator God. Moreover, I am a Christian. Not to put too fine a point on it, but within all Christendom I align with the United Church of Christ (UCC). I have an open mind about other religious traditions. I am beyond tolerant of agnostics and atheists--in fact, I count many among my closest friends. So this post is not a dogmatic piece, but more of a commentary on the Christian concept of the Trinity: God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Among the monotheistic religions of the world, only Christianity entertains the notion of God actually having three distinct, yet unified, personalities, as illustrated in the diagram above. Muslims and Jews both reject this concept. Jews do recognize Jesus as an historical figure, and Muslims further acknowledge Him as a prophet, like Moses and Mohammed. Only Christians view Christ as God in human form. This concept of the Trinity is based in part on Jesus' claim that he was One with the Father--that He was in the Father, and the Father was in Him.

I believe (there's that word!) everyone should be able to explain their choices. Of course, not everyone is inclined to be as rational as I am, and not everyone would appreciate my willingness to publicly and continually submit my beliefs to scrutiny. To each his or her own.... That's the point! Don't force me into your beliefs, and I will not attempt to force you into mine. However, a good, rational discussion is always welcome!

Then there is Quinn G. Caldwell, a UCC pastor who opines that nobody gets the Trinity, and that's OK, because if the Trinity were comprehensible, it wouldn't be God. 

"Some things are meant to be understood in terms of Facts, while others are meant to be experienced as articles of Faith. Is there anybody else out there who doesn't get the Trinity? Is there anybody else out there for whom 3 = 1 just doesn't compute? Anybody who fears they're the only one in church that doesn't have the triune God figured out? 

If Rev. Caldwell's approach is appealing to you, here’s good news: you can affirm the validity of the mysteries too big to sort out HERE. On the other hand, if you are interested in coming to grips with this puzzling doctrine, read on. I suppose if a person really wanted to delve into the unknowable they could study Perichoresis. Even I have my limits!

Faith and Facts

Throughout human history, Faith has been used to answer phenomenon that cannot be explained by available Facts. Picture a three-column ledger, with a list of phenomena on the left side of a vertical dividing line, a list of articles of Faith which explained these phenomena in the middle, and a list of indisputable Facts on the right side. No one need resort to Faith to explain generally accepted Facts. We don't need Apollo to carry the Sun across the sky for us anymore. Move the heliocentric model of the solar system over to the Facts column.

I think we have figured out how to explain many things that were mysterious to our forefathers: the movement of the sun across the sky, violent weather storms, volcanoes, birth and death, gravity, optics, fluid dynamics, particle physics, etc.

As time has rolled forward, there are fewer and fewer unsolved mysteries. Or maybe the quantity hasn't changed, but the quality of the remaining mysteries has certainly changed becoming more specific and intericate. We still know very little about the human brain, or whether life of any kind exists elsewhere in the vast universe. We know very little about what happens to whatever it is that animates our bodies after mortal death. We can be pretty sure of the age of the universe and how it is moving outward from some Big Bang moment, but we know very little about the original source of the materials present at that moment, or of the force behind the explosion that launched everything outward.

Mysteries can be explained by Faith until Facts are available. The Mystery of the Trinity is no different. What inexplicable  phenomenon does the Trinity explain? Why is Christianity the only faith that has this doctrine? Jews and Muslims believe in the same God as do Christians, but some go so far as to say that Christians are not true monotheists since we worship God as Father, Son, and Spirit.

Here is my take. The God of the Old Testament, the part of the Bible common to all three Abrahamic faiths, is somewhat remote and detached. In the New Testament, we are introduced to a very different vision of God, less remote and detached, and more desirous of a relationship. The doctrine of the Trinity helps explain this difference. God the Father wants a relationship with His creation. God  provided His Spirit and His Son as the means for fostering that relationship with the Father. His Son was an example and a sacrifice. His Spirit is a present guide and companion. While dispatching Son and Spirit for Father, God simultaneously retains the properties of omnipotence and omni-presence.

Through the doctrine of Trinity, and only through the doctrine of Trinity, Jesus is more than a mortal prophet. He is actually God in human form. The Holy Spirit is not a figment of our imagination. He is alive and real, an indwelling presence. Finally, God's love is like a Father's love, a metaphor I can relate to. I have no need to believe that the Ultimate Being is actually a male. I prefer to think of God as beyond gender. (That's based on Faith, not Fact!) But I simply cannot imagine a Mother watching the crucifixion of her Son and not intervening. As a career soldier I understand the value of life and the meaning of sacrifice. I know some soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and I at least understand the idea of sacrifice for a greater good. Why didn't God the Father rescue His only begotten Son? Why didn't God the Son call down 10,000 angels to set Him free? Why is the Holy Spirit filling me with these questions?  The answer to all three questions is the same. Without the Father's love, the Son's obedience, and the Spirit's assurance, I could not possibly have a personal relationship with God.  

For me, the bottom line is simple: When Faith and Fact conflict, go with Fact. That said, Facts have been known to change, so keep an open mind and remain skeptical. Look for ulterior motives that drive people to reach out to Faith or latch on to Facts. What problems do these purported answers solve? How do these answers aid or hinder our quest to become one with the Divine? Many false doctrines have been created by religious institutions to manipulate people. This is sad but true.

I do not understand the Trinity. I do not have to understand the Trinity to accept and believe in it. If this Christian article of Faith is ever proven Factual, I will have been on the right side of destiny. If it is false, I will at least have done no harm to myself or others.  In the meantime, what I gain from the Trinity is well worth the risk, and well worth contemplating and sharing.

God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit: Three in One.