In a 1990 British film “Nuns on the Run,” Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane play a pair of gangsters on the run who at one point pass themselves off as nuns. And are pretty clueless about Catholic theology. And so these two characters, Brian Hope (Idle) and Charlie McManus (Coltrane) have this exchange.
Brian Hope: Explain the Trinity.
Charlie McManus: Hmmm… well, it’s a bit of a bugger [sic].
Charlie McManus: You’ve got the Father, the Son and the holy ghost. But the three are one – like a shamrock, my old priest used to say. “Three leaves, but one leaf.” Now, the father sent down the son, who was love, and then when he went away, he sent down the holy spirit, who came down in the form of a…
Brian Hope: You told me already – a ghost.
Charlie McManus: No, a dove.
Brian Hope: The dove was a ghost?
Charlie McManus: No, the ghost was a dove.
Brian Hope: Let me try and summarize this: God is his son. And son is his God. But his son moonlights as a holy ghost, a holy spirit, and a dove. And they all send each other, even though they’re all one and the same thing.
Charlie McManus: Got it.
Brian Hope: What?
Charlie McManus: You really could be a nun!
That isn’t so far off for most of the world, even the Christian world. Without getting too theological, and this topic screams for it, how did we get here and why does it matter? Scripture itself is not very clear about who Jesus was in relationship to his Father. It was clear that Jesus was his Father’s son, but God created everything, so what did that mean? And Jesus was on a mission for his Father that had to do with the Old Covenant and the Laws of Moses and of Abraham, and of all the ups and downs between God and Israel throughout the Jewish Scriptures. And that Jesus was an obedient Son, praying to hear his Father’s voice and imbued with his Father’s Spirit. Just like half a dozen other Old Testament prophets. But Jesus said that he was bringing something new.
Jesus was different. He was recognized, even in his own life here with us, as the Messiah, the Christ. What did that mean? For many it was a liberator from Rome and the growing power and oppression of the Temple priesthood and elite. The sword and the law, and both levied taxes and didn’t give back much. The early Church had little to go on except the letters of Paul and the memory of the Apostles and first disciples, and the practice of the Eucharist and Baptism by water and the Holy Spirit. For that first Church it probably didn’t matter so much how they saw the Incarnate One. They worshiped the one Holy One in Jesus’ name as instructed, practiced charity as instructed, and developed methods of creating social and religious bonds amongst each other by praying together and eating together. In other words, your typical Sunday Go To Meeting Church.
The divinity of Jesus was a stumbling block, and still is for many. It sets Christianity apart from other people of the book as well as other religions and secular humanists. And Scripture doesn’t help much. And so, in step the theologians. And trouble. I was taught that a heresy isn’t necessarily all wrong, just not entirely the fullness of Truth. In some ways it would have been less trouble if Arius has won the day. Arius was a fourth century cleric and theologian, and his name got pinned to just about every early heresy concerning just who Jesus was. Even the Council of Nicaea in 325 and the first formula for the Creed that we say every Sunday didn’t settle it, nor did the energetic efforts of St. Athanasius, who heard the Spirit and got it right. The question was is the Son of the same substance as the Father, and God, or of a similar substance, and created by God, Arius’ position? Every year around Trinity Sunday we all try to explain this. But why should it matter? If the Arian heresy had won, as it did in Germania and Gaul until around the seventh century, would we still have Christianity? And what makes this heresy and its failure so important to us?
If One God, three coequal Persons are there from the beginning, that is, if each name, each persona, is not one third of God, but is fully God, then we have a handle on diversity without difference. So Jane can be LGBTQ+ and Joan can be cis, or Harry can be black/brown and Harriet white, but they are all the same, certainly in the eyes of God, but expressing their personal uniqueness differently, as Jesus did, as the Spirit does, as the Father does. And since the Son is not subordinate to the Father, but a way of seeing God in us, and more so since the descent of the Holy Spirit binding us together as one people, each unique but not different, we have a basis in doctrine for forgiveness, understanding, reconciliation. Love, mutuality, companionship, compassion are built into the universe by a God who is both one and a community. As we are a community. That’s why Jesus revealed as divine is different. Prophets bring laws. God brings cosmic change. Christ mandates us to forgive, love enemies, strangers, everybody. Because Jesus, incarnate or risen, loves us all.
Frankly, we, very incarnate, complex, and broken humans, find it much easier to pray to a loving Abba, a suffering, compassionate, healing brother Jesus, and that good feeling from the Spirit when we are doing God’s will. We love the stories. We relate to them. But it isn’t just convenience, or lack of philosophical imagination. Our God, one God, is in dialogue, conversation with God’s own self. Jesus wasn’t just a super prophet. He was human in his self discovery, pain, compassion, but God in his experience as one of us. We know him as human. We know ourselves as his Body in the Church, one body, many persons. We draw on his words and actions to form ourselves not just as good people, but as people in a unique relationship to God, the same God who made universes, and redwood trees, and blue whales for the sport of it, and the cat that is currently trying to inch up onto my keyboard.
A subordinate Jesus is okay, sort of. It makes for an interesting religion. But it isn’t the fullness of the Christ event, that gift to us from God. And once you know, in your heart, not in your head, that Jesus is the Christ, openness to the Spirit becomes possible. Because we have seen God in person, and in Jesus we now can see, feel, and hear God in the Spirit, all the time, not just on special occasions as it was for the prophets like Jeremiah or Ezekiel. And so we have One God, Three Persons, a Trinity of infinite complexity expressing a love so profound, so metaphysical as to be incomprehensible, and so close to us that it comforts us, uplifts us, protects us on a daily basis. The doctrine of the Church in the wording of the Baptismal covenant and the Creeds isn’t just archaic and superstitious nonsense. It is the gate through which we learn to comprehend God, even if just a little. And that is enough theology for one day. Happy Trinity.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.