I knew a man who said that he was raised Roman Catholic but now was Jewish because he just couldn't understand the Trinity! I really doubt that was the entire reason for his converting because he could have just as easily become a Muslim to escape the doctrine. Nevertheless, he finds himself among a large number of people, including many Christians, who have trouble understanding the Trinity. However he finds himself among a much smaller number of people who will have nothing to do with things they don't fully comprehend. Imagine how few people would use computers—or their phones, their ATM cards, or even their TVs—if they said they must first understand them and how they work. We all use our brains and yet not even neuroscientists understand how the electro-chemical processes in them give rise to thinking, consciousness or personality.
There is a misunderstanding that anyone actually understands the Trinity, and that includes theologians. The doctrine didn't arise because people thought it was a neat idea. It is the best working hypothesis that makes sense of the data in the Bible and the experience of Christians. This data is best summarized as 4 statements: The Father is God; the Son is God; the Spirit is God; there is one God. The classical statements of the Trinity do not so much try to explain this as they try to retain the paradox of all 4 statements being true. If you read the Athanasian Creed (page 864 of the BCP) you will notice an awful lot of the use of the word “not.” It says over and over again what the situation with the 3 persons of the Trinity is not. And indeed most of the heresies about the Trinity try to simplify the situation to make it more easily comprehensible to human beings. How would people react if you tried to change a scientific fact—such as light being both a particle and a wave, or the theory of relativity—just so people could understand it better? Rejecting the Trinity because it can't be grasped by humans is as silly as rejecting a scientific concept because you just don't get it. In fact, scientists discuss the possibility that one day we may encounter scientific phenomena that are simply beyond the capability of the human brain to comprehend. Why should God be easier to understand than his creation?
So how did it ever occur to people that the essence of God is more complex than is at first apparent?
Let's call the primary awareness of God that of creator. To most people, to practically all children according to scientific studies, the idea of a creator is self-evident. Whereas the idea that the universe, with its complex organization on macro- and microscopic levels and its thoroughgoing coherence, being the result of an unimaginably long and highly improbable series of fortunate accidents is not at all obvious.
But the idea that a God so exalted as to have created everything might also interested in humankind is also not obvious. So the most that philosophy can do is posit a remote creator God, like a watchmaker who has built a timepiece, wound it up and perhaps has walked away.
Mystics, though, perceive that God is closer, perhaps even within us or at least, some of us. This is the second form of awareness of God. Not everyone has this sense of God within him or herself. But often we are aware that some people do seem to have this intimate relationship with the creator. We see this also in the Bible where some persons are filled with God's Spirit, for a special purpose, such as to lead the people as a nation, or to lead them in worship or to address the people in the name of God. God speaks to these kings, priests and prophets who in turn connect the people to God.
So God can be perceived as merely a creator, and a distant one at that, as the deists thought, or as so close as to be in some people and perhaps in creation. The Hebrews spoke of this second way of perceiving the divine as the Spirit of God. It was the power of God active in the world and in people. But there is little evidence in the Old Testament that they saw the Spirit as a separate person from God the creator.
However in Proverbs 8, wisdom is personified and is described as existing before God made the world and as working alongside God in creation. Wisdom is not presented as another god (or goddess) but the idea of wisdom as an extension of God and a person would become important to the early Christians as a way of approaching the Triune nature of God.
The real revolution in the thinking of a group of Jewish monotheists comes with Jesus. The disciples see him heal people, raise the dead, walk on water, miraculously feed the 5000, and become convinced he is God's Messiah. But after his resurrection they must rethink who Jesus is. His claim to be the Son of God has to be taken seriously, indeed, literally. What God begets must be divine. Yet Jesus insists there is one God.
Plus Jesus talks about another Advocate or Encourager, the Holy Spirit, who will replace him in the lives of the disciples. He speaks of the Father and Son coming to make their home with those who obey him. He breathes on the disciples and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit. And then comes Pentecost and they experience firsthand what it means to have the Holy Spirit work through them.
So the disciples, who previously saw God only as creator and lawgiver, who is still “out there,” now realize they have been living with God incarnate and finding God within them as well. Everything they write and say affirms the 4 statements we mentioned earlier: The Father is God; the Son is God; the Spirit is God; there is one God. They don't coin the word Trinity and if you asked them to explain the relationship of the Three, I doubt they would produce something akin to the Athanasian Creed. But the seed is there.
Later as the church articulated its beliefs, especially against attacks by pagan philosophers, it came up with a way of upholding all 4 statements in paradoxical tension. The church was unwilling to take any of the easy ways out—for instance, that Jesus was a lesser created God, or that God wore 3 different masks, so to speak. It chose to maintain the distinctions of the divine Persons and the essential unity of God, both of which were found in the Bible.
But rather than get into the historical theology of the Trinity, I would like to go back the kind of experiences that led to the insight.
Remember when you were a kid. You were outside and you were young enough that you still found wonder in the world. You were looking at a leaf, or a bug or your hand. And you noticed all the detail, the tiny ridges, the way everything fit together, the symmetry. And you thought of how intricate it all was, and how much work went into this thing, one of the smaller parts of the world. And you thought, this was designed. And you felt you were on the verge of discovering some great secret about the world.
One night when you were away from the city lights, perhaps camping, and you looked up and noticed way more stars than you had ever seen before. And you tried counting them but there were just too many. And some were big and bright and some were tiny and faint. Someone had shown you the constellations and you tried to pick out the easy ones. And maybe you read or heard that those stars were so far away that it took thousands of years for their light to get to earth. Some of them may even have burned out in the meantime and so you were seeing the light of stars that didn't exist anymore. And that thought was so big you felt like you had to expand somehow to contain it and you stood there silently looking into the endless depths of the night sky.
You may or may not have connected this with God. But the seeds of belief in a creator were planted. You realized that you were part of something much larger and that there was a force bigger than you that shaped the cosmos.
Now remember another time. You have just come out of a discussion in high school, or a college lecture or just stopped in the middle of reading a book. A big thought has hit you. It is unfolding in your mind. It is not so much a series of logical steps as a number of facts coming together on their own and making connections. Or you are suddenly viewing things from a perspective from which they appear to come in line with each other. It is happening in your head and yet it does not seem to come from you. It feels like a lifting of the curtain, an unveiling of a hidden truth. You feel as if you are on the edge of grasping the key to understanding the universe or our existence. You are in such a reverie that when you come out of it you find you were almost holding your breath. Afterward you feel you must write it down or share it with a friend.
Now remember a time when you saw an injustice. You just knew it was wrong. You had every reason to keep quiet—it was your friends doing it or it was a bully who would turn on you if you intervened, or you would be ridiculed by those watching. You wanted to ignore or forget it but you just couldn't. Something within you compelled you to speak up, to do something, despite fear, despite the risk of being unpopular. You were shaking, either from indignation or fear or both. Somehow what you said or did was the right thing to do. Afterward you wondered what had gotten into you.
These may not have had anything to do with the Spirit. But they might have. And what was happening to the early Christians—the insights, the courage, the unbidden words—did not seem to be coming from them but arrived as revelations and signs and prophetic utterances. God was not just out there but within. And it blew their minds.
I don't know when you first connected with Jesus. Perhaps you don't either because you just grew up with him as a major part of your family life and church. Maybe you were searching and picked up and really read the gospel for the first time. Perhaps you met someone whose face and manner and words just radiated the love of Christ. And you took Jesus seriously for the first time. To you he became more than just a noble person or great teacher; he was a window on God's forgiveness, a conduit of his grace, the very image of the God of love incarnate.
Now imagine what it was like to meet him in the flesh, to come to him for healing or to hear him preach. Imagine what it was like to travel with him, to wake up and pray with him, to eat with him, to hear his thoughts as you walk from town to town, to see him at work with people who need him, to listen to him as you sit around a campfire at night.
This is how it was with the first Christians. They already knew God as creator. After his resurrection, they looked back upon their time with Jesus and concluded that he must be divine. And then after he ascends, they find that, as he said, God's Spirit is in them, revealing truths, impelling them to help others, giving them the power to heal and to proclaim the good news to those who never met Jesus. Each divine person speaks of the others in the third person. And yet Jesus and the Spirit never talk of there being more than one God. How can this be?
I think it was John, the deepest thinker of the early church, who ties it all together when he says in 1 John 4:8 that God is love. He doesn't say that God is loving or like love. He says God is love. If that is literally true, there must be more than one person in the Godhead. If God is the original, eternal act of love, God must contain at least the Lover and the Beloved. And to be perfect love, there must be an absolute unity of the persons who love each other. And I think we can deduce one more thing. 2 people in love can be so focused on each other that they exclude others. Think of a new couple. But if there are more than 2, then the focus must keep moving between the persons, as in a family.
God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, loving each other in perfect unity, one in thought and will. And because God is not a single person but a love relationship, humans, who were made in that image, most closely resemble God when we are acting together with others in love. It can be romantic love, familial love, friendship, or a loving community.
And out of this love comes all the attributes of God. Justice, as any parent knows, becomes a necessity when you love more than one person, if you want to keep the peace. Mercy is also important because human beings are not perfect. Grace, showing goodwill to those who haven't earned it, is a characteristic of true love. Trustworthiness and faithfulness are vital to any relationship. Even holiness, which means being set apart from common things, applies for our most intimate relationships as opposed to our relationships with everyone else.
Intellectually, the Trinity is a tough concept to understand. But we experience God in each of the ways we've discussed. You could not find a much better place to experience God as creator than the Keys. The beauty, variety and complex relationships between flora and fauna, environment and climate, life and the elements are on constant display. And Big Pine is one of the few places where you can step out into your backyard almost any night and see the whole panoply of stars and galaxies laid before you.
When we quiet our babbling thoughts and focus our rambling minds on the Spirit, we can feel the divine within, giving both calm and reflection, unfolding spiritual and moral truths and then stirring us up to act in love towards others to restore justice and peace.
When we hear the good news, renew our baptismal vows, come together to share the body and blood of Christ, and go forth to display his love, we experience Jesus, God's unique Son, at work, teaching and healing, forgiving and reconciling, strengthening and sending us out.
I don't really know how my smartphone works, not in any adequately scientific way. But I know that it works and I rely on it. Even with all the theology I've read and pondered, I really couldn't say that I understand how God is three persons and yet one. But I know that I see God's work in creation and I see God working in Jesus Christ and I feel God working in me and I rely on him. And that's enough. It's enough for me to get through this life and look forward to the next, when we will be more intimately included into the original love that gave us existence and that makes our existence more than merely that, that gives us God's own life in all its beauty and mystery and abundance.