The Christian idea of the divine trinity is, I think, the most valuable idea in all the world.
I have to give a talk about this idea next weekend. I have been reviewing some of the images of Trinity, in Christian art. These are so insightful.
Yet most people think this idea is just nonsense. And it seems irrelevant.
Many churches teach nothing at all about the life of God as Trinity.
Or what they have to say seems just a sterile idea.
Little wonder that people switch off, or regard it as simply mumbo-jumbo.
The maths don’t even work!
For me, though, this is the one idea that is worth really promoting to all the world, if we could really get a grasp of it.
We need this vision of trinitarian life and love, more than ever before.
This is the vision of a community in which there is genuine difference but without division.
There is mutual relationship, not hierarchy, not subordination, not control, not domination.
Rather, there is love, self-giving and receiving, there is mutual inter-dependence.
Differences don’t have to divide.
This quality of community is also creative: it is not centred on
itself. It creates a world, a community of beings who are also
inter-dependent. This community, the earth and all its creatures, is
related to its creator, God.
The community of creation is invited into life with God, and a life like God.
The idea of God as Trinity emerged in the ongoing story of Christian thinking. That’s important. it is part of the story of faith, for Christians. To understand their experience, they told a story.
From the experience of Jesus as a person in whom God is immediately present with us, yet who was also a real human person like us, and from the experience of God with us as the mysterious spirit, people formulated the idea of God as a community, in which there is both difference and identity.
So we need to think of this doctrine most of all through the category of story: it is the Christian story of God.
I have found the theology of Jürgen Moltmann very helpful here. He sees the doctrine of the trinity as the Christian story of God. It is a story seen in the life of Jesus, and Moltmann explains the idea through various aspects of Jesus’ own experience of and with God (whom he called ‘the Father’).
Moltmann’s theology opens up ideas of how God relates to the whole of human history. He speaks of the trinitarian history of God’s dealings with the world.
Central to these ideas of the trinity is a concept of personhood, developed first by the ancient thinker Gregory of Nazianzus. The crucial element here is the idea that identity is not derived from separateness: I am not a person as an individual, self-subsisting in my separateness. Rather, identity is derived and developed and enjoyed through mutual relationship. I am because I belong.
The ‘persons’ of the divine community do not exist without each other. They are, in relationship. For them, to be is to belong.
This is the Christian understanding of ‘person’, in terms of God, and in terms of human persons.
Over against rampant individualism, in Western culture, this idea is a major challenge.
For sure, let us value individual human personhood. I am not for eroding human rights, for individuals and groups.
But our ‘rights’ do not constitute our lives. Rights are possible only within community.
We need to recover an image of persons in community.
We need this vision of life together, which derives most helpfully from the image of the divine life.
The whole point of the Jesus story is that this communal life of God is an open community, a community that includes us: and Jesus worked hard to show that it includes all kinds, all sorts, and perhaps especially the people who thought that they didn’t fit, that they weren’t God’s people.
This community, the community of God, invites us to be part of the same life, the same community.
One of the oldest images of the trinity pictures the life of God a circular dance, in which the dancers move, swapping roles and sharing parts, and each becomes a part of a much bigger unity, a whole, a life together.
British theologian Paul Fiddes speaks of our life as ‘participating in God’, the title of his wonderful book on a ‘pastoral doctrine of the trinity’.
The cover of his book uses the picture The Dance, by Henri Matisse, (1909).
This is a picture, a story, a dance, worth sharing.
(When I work out how, I want to post some of these images and offer reflections on them!)