Friday, March 13, 2015

the mystery of Trinity

Rublev's icon representing Trinity
This is not a post about a character in The Matrix. Just so we are clear. This is about one of my favourite topics, the theological concept of a triune God, three in one and one in three. At the same time. It can be a difficult concept to comprehend because we are not used to thinking of distinctiveness and unity as occupying the same space. In our world, if we happen to see evidence of several distinct personalities manifested in one person, we suggest that they get some therapy. So when we encounter the idea of three persons acting as one, it mystifies us. And so it should. As Augustine says, "If we can fully grasp it, it is not God." What we can do, however, is get glimpses of Trinity, see Trinity from several perspectives, if you will, and in this way, get some idea of what it means to be in a community of unity.

Just over a hundred years ago, Edwin Abbott Abbott penned a satirical novel called Flatland. The story takes place in a two-dimensional world where one of the inhabitants, a square, encounters a sphere who lives in a world with three dimensions. Because Flatland has no concept of up or down, it is difficult to convince the inhabitants that there is more out there than their present experience. Think about it: if a human being were to step into a two-dimensional world, what would appear? Two foot-shaped, flat geometric shapes, not connected to each other in any way. As the human being passed through (moved down) the two-dimensional world, different sections of the body would be visible at different times, but the overall effect would be extremely puzzling because the shapes would be shifting continuously as would the number of foreign objects to be observed when the legs, torso, arms, and finally just the head passed through the two-dimensional world. If the body were in motion (picture a dancer) when it passed through Flatland, the experience would be quite different than the one I just described. It would be totally understandable if the two-dimensional creatures made no connection between the first, static body passing through their world and the second body in motion. And remember, in two dimensions one cannot see from above, so one would have to "walk around" an object just to get a sense of what shape it is. From a single, static perspective, everything would look like a line.

Perhaps this analogy is helpful when we think about how we encounter God, a being with more dimensions than we can fathom. We can only see partially, from our limited perspective, within our current dimensions. But if we have eyes to see (physical and imaginative and spiritual eyes), we can catch some wondrous glimpses about who this God is: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. I would like to mention two glimpses of Trinity which I find challenging but which, at the same time, inspire deep longing in me.

1. There is no hierarchy. It is hard for us to imagine authority without a governing structure, and a governing structure necessarily puts some people at the top (the decision-makers) and others at the bottom (the workers). This seems basic to human nature. Just watch a group of children play and observe how, in many cases, one child soon emerges as the dominant one, the decision-maker. It is hard for us to fathom total freedom within unity of purpose, but this is what we find in Trinity. There is community and connection without confusion or division or subjugation. Trinity is an understanding of God as a mutually loving, interacting, and sustaining society (Alister E. McGrath). While I cannot totally understand it, I love it. Since we are made in the image of Trinity, generous equality is what we should bring to society. I want to be a person who does not automatically default to a hierarchical model of leadership, be it at work, at play, in my friendships, in my family, and especially in my local expression of church. We are meant to give all of ourselves to each other in trusting love. That is not likely to happen perfectly outside the final consummation of the kingdom of God, but we can nurture pockets of it in our sphere of influence.

2.. There is no isolation. God is not a private deity. We find it easy to group ourselves into "us" and "them." Many times we don't even know we are doing it, but we draw a clear line between ourselves and those who are "the other." But in Trinity, there is perfect, generous love offered to all without prejudice. There is hospitality. Cornelius Plantinga says that Trinity is "a zestful, wondrous community of divine light, love, joy, mutuality, and verve." In Trinity, otherness is celebrated because it brings added dimension to the whole. In the parable of the wedding feast that Jesus tells, we find a host who sends out invitations to the community to come and join in a grand celebration. Unfortunately, many refuse the invitation because of their preoccupation with their private lives. Yesterday in class I asked students what they wanted heaven to include. One student mentioned that she would like there to be some alone-time. I suspect she is a bit of an introvert like me and values her contemplative, private times. There is definitely a time and place for withdrawing from others to be with God or to think and work. Jesus did it all the time. But one would never say that Jesus was isolated, lonely, or a recluse. His purpose was to bring hope to everyone he met, to show them that God was with them, and that the kingdom of heaven was near. His was not a private spirituality; he told his disciples to spread the good news and heal people! Being in communion with God means being in communion with each other.

3. There is no spoon.  I couldn't resist a wee bit of Matrix humour.

One word that is used to describe the interconnection between the members of Trinity is the idea of perichoresis. Most define this theological term as interpenetration or mutual intersection, but one theologian uses the idea of "circle dance" to describe the idea of peri (around) and choresis (step, approach, make room for, contain). I like the dynamic, moving nature of "circle dance" which hints at the idea of shared leadership and joyous good fun with a group of friends. May you enjoy a circle dance with God today and offer it to those around you as well.

If you are interested, here is an animated movie based on the book, Flatland. It was meant as a political critique of hierarchy.

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