Trinitarian doctrine, like other key Christian doctrines, was hammered out, not in sterile study, but rather in the midst of lived spirituality, prayer, and the worship life of the church.[i]
Andrei Rublev, The Holy Trinity (1425)
– Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen
The Trinity has to do with the lives of each of us, our daily experiences, our struggles to follow our conscience, our love and our joy, our bearing the sufferings of the world and the tragedies of human existence; it also has to do with the struggle against social injustice, with efforts at building a more human form of society, with the sacrifices and martyrdom that these endeavors so often bring. If we fail to include the Trinity in our personal and social odyssey, we shall have failed to show the saving mystery …[ii]
– Leonardo Boff
Part 2: You can’t make this stuff up
Early in the twelfth century, a German monk named Rupert of Deutz went into a church where mass was being said by a white-haired bishop. At the offertory procession he experienced a vision of the Holy Trinity:
On the right at the edge of the altar stood three persons of such revered bearing and dignity that no tongue could describe them. Two were quite old, that is, with very white hair; the third was a beautiful youth of royal dignity …[iii]
A century later, Hadewijch of Antwerp, one of those remarkable women mystics who flourished in the late middle ages, also had a vision of the Trinity. But instead of three white males, what she saw was a dark whirlpool, which she described as “divine fruition in its hidden storms.” Hovering over this whirlpool was a spinning disc, on which sat a figure wearing the countenance of God – the face of God – on whose breast were written the words, “The Most Loved of All Beloveds.”
We may find Hadewijch’s vision more congenial: it is genderless, and less crudely specific than Rupert’s. And the tempestuous whirlpool, a flood of energy ceaselessly flowing through the universe, conveys a dynamic image of divinity that resembles the postmodern cosmologies of process theology and quantum physics. It’s probably easier for most of us to believe in a divine whirlpool than in three white guys.
But the crucial difference between Rupert and Hadewijch is not in the relative resonance of their imagery, but rather in what happens next. Rupert remains an observer, one who stands apart and sees God as an object. But Hadewijch does not remain separate from what she sees:
Then I saw myself received in union by the One who sat there in the whirlpool upon the circling disc, and there I became one with him in the certainty of union… In that depth I saw myself swallowed up. Then I received the certainty of being received, in this form, in my Beloved, and my Beloved also in me.
Rupert’s knowledge of God remained conceptual. Hadewijch’s knowledge of God became experiential. She was gathered into the circulating current of divinity. She became part of its flow, and that divine flow became part of her.
The language she uses for this experience is not mathematical or philosophical. Her language is the language of the heart. She describes being “swallowed up… in my Beloved, and my Beloved also in me.”[iv] Love, she discovered, is the way the soul knows. Love is the way the soul sees.
I begin this reflection with a mystic’s personal testimony because Trinitarian theology was not forged by inventive theorists, but by faithful Christians trying to make sense of the concrete, experiential data of salvation, beginning with the biblical narrative and continuing in the ongoing history of believing communities. Based on our collective and personal experience of being “saved” (or, if you prefer: healed, forgiven, reborn, renewed, resurrected, empowered), what can we say about the God who has done this? Trinitarian reflection began within an ancient community deeply grounded in the monotheism of Judaism, which had, over the centuries, found ultimate reality to be not a plurality of disconnected or contradictory energies but a coherent unity. But once the early Christians began to attribute divinity to both Jesus and the Holy Spirit, a simple self-contained oneness was no longer sufficient to describe the Reality.
Without losing the unity of God, how could they account for the divine diversity revealed in the saving activities of Christ and the Spirit? Once they began to call Jesus “Lord” (Kyrios), which happened very early in their worship and their storytelling, traditional monotheism was radically destabilized. The growing perception of the Holy Spirit as a guiding and empowering presence of deity in their communities only compounded the problem.
There were various attempts to solve the problem by downgrading Jesus and Spirit to subordinate, derivative, or semi-divine realities, by no means equal to the eternal and uncreated God. Such “heresies” were popular with those who wanted to keep God simple. But “orthodoxy” was unwilling to deny the fullness of divinity to either Christ or the Spirit. Only God can save us. Christ and Spirit, in the biblical revelation and Christian experience, are integral and essential to salvation. Therefore, they must be equally integral to the Holy One who is the Creator and Redeemer of all things.
The question wasn’t only metaphysical (What is the relation between the one and the many or the finite and the infinite?) or logical (How can One be Three and Three be One?). Trinitarian reflection was also a deep engagement with the question of suffering. If God incarnate in Christ chose to share the human condition, to live and die as one of us, does that mean that vulnerability and suffering have become part of God’s own history? And if these human elements have been added to the divine life through specific temporal events, has time itself disturbed the perfect calm of eternity? If God has been affected and changed by events in time and history, what can we then say about the consistency and transcendence of the divine nature? How can God be decisively linked to the history of the world without losing freedom or transcendence? Can a changeless God weep? Can we be saved by a God without weapons?
In his comprehensive survey of contemporary Trinitarian thought, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen argues that “the assumption of humanity by God, the Son, means that human capacity to suffer is not foreign to the being of God. How else could one speak of God as love? … It is more biblical to think of God as passionate love, the Father who chooses to engage the suffering of the world, than as a Transcendent One whose separation from the world’s suffering guards his freedom.”[v] Robert Jenson, a foremost North American authority on the Trinity, rejects the notion of divine detachment from creation in dramatically succinct terms: “God … is what happens with Jesus… God is what will come of Jesus and us, together.”[vi]
The problems and paradoxes that arise from such far-reaching assertions have been debated and puzzled over throughout Christian history, and the recent profusion of Trinitarian theology has become an incredibly rich conversation. There is, of course, no final version of God awaiting discovery, no definitive outcome to all this reflection, only an endless attentiveness to the Mystery which may consent to dance with language, but always outruns it in the end.
So why presume to talk about the Trinity at all? Why can’t we simply say and think and pray to “God” and leave it at that? We can’t do that because Christians don’t belong to a theoretical God, a reasonable and logical divine construct worked up by professional philosophers. We belong to the self-revealing but complicated God of the Bible who has, in the form and activity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, rescued us from our own folly and gathered us into the communion that is the very life of God. And no matter what diverse strategies of insight and understanding we may employ, what we can actually say about the Trinity is always grounded in experience, both the experience of our ancestors encoded in Scripture and tradition and the contemporary revelations of communal and personal life.
Trinitarian thought isn’t made out of thin air or abstract speculation. It is produced and nourished by the concrete, tangible history of Christian experience. However each day manifests for us “the means of grace” and “the hope of glory,” whatever the myriad ways by which we love and serve and witness, we need the threefold name to account for the diversity of God’s relations with us. Anything less would impoverish our prayer and considerably reduce the scope of our attention.
For most theologians, our experience of God as threefold also reflects a Trinitarian life within God’s own self. Since God’s inner life is beyond our sight, this can only be an assumption. But it is a crucial one. If God is trustworthy and self-revealing, it must be that when we meet God as Trinity, we get the real thing. God isn’t just pretending to be Three for us; God’s own inner life is constituted by relationality and communion.
Finally, how shall we address or invoke this Mystery, which a Japanese theologian intriguingly calls “Three Betweennesses in One Concord?”[vii] The traditional “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” despite its authoritative pedigree, is distractingly masculine for many, and various substitutes have arisen, each with their own impediments. “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier,” for example, is a bit impersonal, and risks reducing the three Persons to job descriptions. Likewise, “Source, Word, Spirit,” “Creator, Liberator, Comforter,” “Parent, Child, Paraclete,” “Mother, Daughter, Spirit,” and “Mother, Lover, Friend” all have their particular assets and liabilities. My own current preference, since I suspect that God is more verb than noun, is “Love who loves us[viii], Word who saves us, Spirit who revives us.”
I leave the last word to 16th century reformer Philip Melanchthon, who said, “We adore the mysteries of the Godhead. That is better than to investigate them.”[ix]
[This is the second of three reflections on the Trinity. The first, on the essential relationality of God, may be found here.]
[i] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, The Trinity: Global Perspectives (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 35
[ii] ibid., xv-xvi
[iii] Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism: Gregory the Great Through the 12th Century (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1994), 330
[iv] ibid., The Flowering of Mysticism (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998), 212-16
[v] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 99
[vi] Robert W. Jenson, The Triune Identity: God According to the Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 22-3
[vii] Nozumu Miyahira, in Kärkkäinen, 314
[viii] I take this resonant phrase from Terrence Malick’s transcendent film, To the Wonder.
[ix] Kärkkäinen, xvi