God in three persons, blessed Trinity!
So goes the hymn with a trinitarian style title, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” We sing it multiple times during the year, it’s a congregation favorite. But outside of this inspiring hymn, how often do you really think about the Trinity? Did you think about it – er, them – I mean, Him? – uh, they? – today? It’s a word we’re very familiar with, and one we think we can define easily: Father, Son and Holy Spirit all wrapped up together. There: done. What’s all the fuss about?
In a way this lack of definition, and examination, may be a good thing. The Trinity is familiar, we don’t really have to worry about it. Its paradoxical nature has disturbed theologians for centuries, but perhaps, in this era of quantum physics where something can be two places at once or, like Schrodinger’s cat, can be alive and dead at the same time, the Trinity doesn’t seem so daunting anymore.
And the Trinity is not, strictly speaking, a Biblical concept. The Duality between Christ and God is explicit: Jesus mentions it several times in the Gospel, proclaiming that he and the Father are one. “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:11) But where does the Holy Spirit come in? There is no explicit relationship outlined in the Gospels. Although early Christians had a sense of a Trinity, it wasn’t until the Nicene Creed was accepted in 381 – in Constantinople, not Nicaea – that the Trinity became a formal part of the church’s doctrine. And even then, the relationship was unclear.
The last section of the Nicene Creed originally read: “We believe in the Holy Spirit; the Lord, giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.” But in the late 6th century, the church in Rome added the word filioque to this sentence, so that it read “who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” This infuriated the Christians in the east and was one of the main causes (that, and the dating of Easter) of the famous schism between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1054.
Ah, now maybe we’re seeing where this paradox gets tricky. How can one thing (the Spirit) proceed from two things (the Father and the Son)? It’s one thing when we give a static description, like “one diamond with three facets,” but it is quite different when we add action, movement and “proceeding.” C.S. Lewis has an interesting static description, using the construction of a cube as a metaphor. The cube is made up of lines – one-dimensional – and rectangles – two-dimensional – to make a three-dimensional cube. But do the rectangles proceed from the lines? The cube from the rectangles?
Another vision of the Trinity uses an idea called perichoresis, which means to “come around” or “dance around.” Take a look at this symbol, called a triskelion.
This is used in many cultures, and has been specifically adopted by Christians as a symbol of the Trinity. Everything’s connected; the three shapes dance around each other, there is a sense of motion within the circle. Sometimes these are drawn with dots within each shape – a sort of Trinitarian yin and yang. A group of early church fathers called the Cappadocian Fathers, interested in getting a grasp on the Trinity, adopted this idea of perichoresis. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit dancing around each other, energizing the universe. Here are two more images where the idea of a triskelion emerges as perichoresis.
It is interesting that in order to really grasp the Trinity we’ve had to use images and metaphors. But does that mean the Trinity is itself a metaphor? The Bible is very clear about the three persons of the Trinity, although the relationship of the Holy Spirit seems a bit more contentious. Taken individually most Christians would say they are real. Often the Trinity is expressed as God the Creator, Son the Savior and Holy Spirit the Inspirer. Three functions, if you will, of one thing. The Trinity isn’t so much a metaphor as it is a way to express the inexpressible. How, really, can we define God? By seeing a Trinitarian God we are like a person looking at statue in a museum. We can’t see the whole thing at once. Only by walking around it – perichoresis! – can we absorb its totality.
Not all Christians believe that God can be expressed as a Trinity. It certainly has been hard enough over the centuries to nail down this idea. But because the Trinity reminds us that God is both transcendent and imminent, simultaneously, it has formed an anchor point for most Christian believers. Even if we’re a little squishy on the details, we are gratified and awed by God’s all-encompassing nature, and live in confidence of God’s universal presence. On a practical level, Christians who live thousands of miles apart can communicate their faith through common Trinitarian concepts. At a deeper level, it tells us of God’s commitment to God’s people, as the Trinity dances around constantly not for its own benefit, but for ours. We don’t really need to know all the details: we can simply be grateful for the perichoresis, and perhaps dance a little ourselves.