by Tricia Gates Brown
Mathew 22:31-32: “Have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? [God] is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
When late fourth-century Christian theologians intuited a construct of God as multi-faceted and called that construct “trinity,” they had intuited something essential about reality. Trinity is the Christian philosophy of the nature of being, and it is proving more insightful by the decade as physics reveals new insights into the nature of reality. That said, most Christians have either ignored trinity, or trivialized and caricatured the construct, using it clumsily—often as a way to prove something about the nature of Jesus. In my formal theology studies and for a decade after, I entirely avoided talking about God as trinity, avoiding also the theology, as it was discussed in ways that didn’t resonate. Now I know I wasn’t ready for it; I hadn’t encountered the right teachers. Fortunately, several theologians are now sharing deeper understandings of trinity with a wide audience. One such theologian, Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault, is a personal favorite.
The time is long overdue for Christians to understand the concept of trinity. The more we recognize the encroaching sickness of division between people and communities, the more we might recognize the constructiveness of our multi-faceted, unified God: a God that does not divide, but includes; a God that does not dominate, but shares; a God that joins others in a dance of inter-relationality, self-emptying, and love that is the nature of being. The symbol that is trinity (“symbol” meaning an idea with practical implications; a “handle” we use to discuss what is otherwise ineffable) points us to a foundational unity and relationality at the core of being. Even God, the symbol says, is relationality, a “circle dance,” as the fourth-century Cappadocians wrote, encompassing parent-offspring-spirit.
This trinitarian conception of God is utterly different from images of God as the white-bearded Father in the sky at the top of a celestial hierarchy, preferencing his one heir, the Son, and leaving us a Holy Spirit that serves as link to the hierarchy when the Son exits stage left. Most early religions conceived of God in such hierarchical terms, in terms of “access,” and many modern-day religions staunchly align with these early conceptions. But spiritual geniuses knew long ago—eons before modern physics, that the nature of reality was relational, circular, non-dominative, and “holonic,” meaning that the tiniest element of the universe reflects the nature of the whole, and that God replicates God’s divine image in the tiniest aspects of creation.
What would it mean to conceive of God as movement, as action, rather than a static divine being? The image came to my mind of a couple deeply connected in a relationship of love—not the newly infatuated still lost in illusions about each other, but a couple who know each other better than anyone, and who accept and support one another as separate entities while still sharing a life as one. Looking at this couple, you see the separate individuals, but on another level, you see something bigger than either of them. You see the “circle dance” that is their common life together. You see their sharing, mutual support, and active, self-giving love. According to trinity, this image of relationship can tell us more about God than any institutional or even familial hierarchy, and more than the old notion of trinity as a way to solve the problem of Jesus’ significance.
The relationship, the dance, that is the triune God, includes God-in-us, God manifest in creation, which is the Pauline concept of Christ. We are all invited into the “body of Christ,” invited to incarnate God among us. Furthermore, the “body of Christ” is not just the followers of Jesus, but God present throughout all creation, wherever God is allowed in. God-in-us. The nature of sin according to early Christian tradition is to “separate ourselves” from God, or shut off from our true God-selves, because we do not re-cognize (“to know again”) our original blessedness. According to the exciting ideas of evolutionary theology, we have not recognized that, all along, creation was the unfolding manifestation of God in multifarious forms.
What destruction has been wrought by breaking up the trinity, and extricating ourselves from the dance? Incomprehensible destruction, it appears. For example, instead of marveling at the relational beauty of the atom: the dance of proton, neutron, and electron—the “parts of the atom” we were taught in school, we tried to split them apart, in so doing discovering the most destructive force yet known to humanity. The outcome of this splitting should have warned us of the dangers of dividing what is meant to function unitarily. Yet even as we witnessed this destruction, we imagined division to be the most powerful tool we had discovered.
We have mastered division. Could the consequences of splitting the atom be telling us something about the essential unity of being and the consequences of its rending? I have a hard time wrapping my head around quarks and quantum entanglement. But those who do understand such things say our universe is vastly more interconnected than we imagined, more inter-relational, more creative and surprising. The one affects the many and the many affect the one. If God is connection, inter-relationality, and sharing, it seems we best know God by joining that dance—by participating in the essential nature of reality, which is union. It is difficult to understand God’s essential givenness from a place of dividing and categorizing. Trinity says you know God be participating in God’s unity.
We are all here to be healers, prophets, incarnations of God. We are invited to join the dance of unity and inter-relationality that is the nature of being. In these deeply challenging political times, we can be especially mindful to resist forces of hate and scapegoating. This means acknowledging our inherent union, our common life, with those who are different from us. Even those who hurt us. As Christians, we can take a second look at the Trinity. What does the nature of God, the nature of being, ask of us in these times?
Tricia Gates Brown works as a writer, garden designer, and emotional wellness coach in Nehalem, Oregon. She holds a PhD from the University of St. Andrews. In 2015 she completed her first novel and the essay collection Season of Wonder, and is currently at work on her second novel. For more, see: triciagatesbrown.net
Image: A Galactic Maelstrom