What Difference Does the Trinity Make? - Joseph Wood

"It is odd that we cannot define these things without making them obscure; 
we talk about them all the time." --Blaise Pascal, Pensées

  There are moments in every clergyperson's life, whether preacher or otherwise, when we are brought up short. Usually, these abrupt pauses are brought on by the topography of human existence, by those moments in our individual and collective lives when words fail us--Memorial Day, for instance, or weddings. Joyous or somber, the sudden silence can still be overwhelming. As the Greek philosopher Aristotle named us long, long ago, we are social animals, and to find ourselves at such a loss can be hard for many of us

  Well, I found myself coming up against just such a moment again and again in trying to write this week's meditation; however, it's doctrine, not emotion, that has brought me up short this time. The Trinity can be very difficult to speak about. Paradoxically, our liturgies and related language are rife with references to it. We only consider baptisms valid if they've been done "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." We bless in the name of the Triune God, and we invoke the three persons of the Trinity again and again throughout our services--including our most commonly used opening acclamation and the conclusion of our Eucharistic prayers. The creeds are fundamentally Trinitarian documents, separated into our communal and/or dogmatic elucidation of each of its members. It would not be a stretch, in short, to describe the Christian life as one that is Trinity-shaped. So, as we prepare once more for Trinity Sunday: why do we find this doctrine, one we talk about all the time, so obscure? Why are all of us, clergy included, at such a loss to explain what it actually means?

  Perhaps the heart of the problem is that we know it's incomprehensible, ultimately. During the first Urbanites discussion I led, we were talking about different ways that we name God, and I eventually pointed out to the group that no one had offered up the names "Jesus" or "Christ" yet. Someone immediately responded: "Well, Jesus is like God--but different." While I was a little chagrined at the time, perhaps there was more wisdom in that observation than I gave it credit. After all, that person recognized that there is some kind of Divine diversity in our experience, not to mention the Biblical witness that grounds it. Yet they were also aware enough to admit the paucity of their language before that diversity. Thus we would be offering the Trinity as a signifier for a much greater whole, revealing that even our understandings of unity pale in comparison to the fullness of God's glory. And we could insert in any number of different attributes for "unity" in that understanding! The Trinity would be shorthand for the dimness of our mirror in this world of parts, for refractions of said glory that are beyond our measure.

   We could also say that the doctrine is ultimately about relationship. Not only does our tradition speak to the Lord's repeated attempts to come into "impossibly intimate relationship" with Creation--and, particularly, humanity--but it also speaks to the very foundation of God's own life being somehow relational, even communal. Such a perspective would mean that our own attempts at relationship, our own attempts to live in community, would be the crux of holiness. Whatever the life hereafter may hold, the bonds that we establish in this life would be fundamentally Divine. We would accordingly have to add a gloss to the Gospel of Luke (Lk 17:21): the Kingdom of God is not only within us, it is between us. We participate in salvation through the bonds we form with all those around us, including God. We might even go so far as to agree with the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig that love is the only attribute of God that we can achieve.

  Now, neither of the above explanations clarify quite why our Trinitarian doctrine relies upon Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the definitive names--and, perhaps, that's for the best. We should never, ever do away with tradition without a great deal of intention, but we should also always be mindful of the dynamic quality of our faith. Does our Triune language still adequately express the wholeness of God? Can we again recognize our neighbor, our enemy, and even ourselves in the creedal persons? May those questions bring you up short too, and may we eventually (and with love) live into the answers together.