I’m not sure you can call yourself a Christian if you haven’t ever had to explain the Trinity to someone.
My first attempt was when I was 22 and working at Barnes & Noble. It was a miserable failure.
My failure was less about my skill or understanding than it is the material one has to work with.
If you play Euchre, it’s like looking at a hand with four suits, few face cards, and a partner saying “I’m gonna be no help on this one.”
The doctrine of the Trinity is a mine field with electrified fences on every side.
It’s like racing to a castle with a dragon breathing down your neck, only to find that a moat surrounds the castle, it’s filled with piranhas, and there’s no drawbridge.
You don’t walk away from this. You’ll either make no sense or you’ll make perfect sense and be a heretic.
Don’t believe me? Just watch this video:
If you didn’t grow up in the church, you’d be forgiven if the Trinity confuses you. It confuses everybody.
The Trinity has 2 big problems.
And they’re both serious.
1. It’s Illogical
It is hard to explain the trinity because it strives for a logical and internal consistency. It attempts to explain the faith with counterintuitive concepts: that two things can be different and the same. And worse, that you can’t define them as different or the same.
- Physically separate without being separate.
- Present here without being absent there (or present in both places at the same time).
- Reflecting individual character while maintaining the character of the whole.
Both 3 and 1. But not 3 or 1. But 3. And 1. But not 3. Or 1. Gaaaahhhh!
2. It’s not from scripture
The doctrine of the Trinity is not born of Scripture, which means it isn’t in the Bible. Elements of it were drawn from Scripture. And many have gone back to Scripture and see it there, but it didn’t come from it.
It came from councils and the Jesus Wars: the many fights over what the real understanding of Jesus was to be. Christians murdered other Christians by the thousands over what we now call heresies and now simply brush off as bad theology. It’s a horrible history and one I personally refuse to defend.
Between the inconsistency and the human struggle to not only understand, but define and maintain this doctrine, why do we still have it?
Much of our doctrine is defined by what we don’t believe.
And the Trinity is no exception.
If you rewatch that video, notice how the icon of St. Patrick tries to give a descriptive understanding of the Trinity. But what is more telling is how the two men respond. They can only define the Trinity by what it’s not.
This is no surprise. The councils intended to determine what was a problem for the faith. Not to name a robust articulation of the faith.
So we named what we didn’t want to be true, carved it out of the pie and called it a heresy.
At the end of the video, Patrick strings together concepts into a challenging assortment of belief. It sounds to anyone paying attention, like a dude, who after having his pie all carved up with many pieces removed, now has to turn the remaining three pieces of pie into
a comprehensive doctrine a whole pie.
This, at least is true of what we call Western Christianity. There is another option.
The Divine Dance.
The Eastern church has developed a different approach to the Trinity. While it survived the Jesus Wars of the First Millennium, it split with the West in the Great Schism, in part, over the Trinity.
Unlike the West, which has been eager to name the contours of the doctrine, the East has favored a different approach. It attempts to name the relationship in positive terms; focusing on what it is rather than what it isn’t.
Here, the Trinity’s three parts (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are not so much conceptual figures but persons in relationship with one another. It is their relationship of equality and mutuality which informs the faith, demonstrating the inherent relationship of God to humanity.
The Eastern view focuses less on philosophically complex ideas about the Godhead and more on what the Trinity can teach us about God. It is less about the physicality of Godly existence and more about how we can have a better relationship with God because of the way we see God.
But do we have to believe a particular way about the Trinity?
We struggle to make doctrine as inclusive as our faith is.
The challenge with both views of the Trinity is that neither manage to deal with their two big flaws.
And yet we’ve made adherence to trinitarian theology necessary for being a Christian. This is a problem.
As a priest, I can’t advocate the rejection of a central doctrine. But I will say that I struggle with it. And I struggle that we have made something so unspecific into a specific boundary.
It’s like taking a poem and making it a law.
And then ostracizing people over it.
The gospel story in our lectionary for Sunday was Luke 17:11-19. The healing of the ten with leprosy. In it, Jesus walks in the borderlands which mark the Jewish and Samaritan territories. He heals these outcasts and returns them to the fold. And Jesus includes a Samaritan in what God is doing.
The contours of doctrine and faith is our borderlands.
The wars fought over what the Godhead is not doesn’t define the experience of God working in these borderlands, with these people.
I see no evidence of Jesus keeping people out because of the messiness of their articulation about the nature of God. I see instead, the image of one helping us find God in glory, rather than philosophical constructs. In the experience with God rather than articulation of the nature of God.
So if you’re looking for God, Jesus is down with you.
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This is from a series on Choices. We have plenty more choices to make!