For many years, when I preached or taught on the Holy Trinity, I always started by saying basically the same thing, something like this:
“I am as unsure as anyone how the doctrine of the Trinity makes sense or is directly relevant to daily life. However, it is a true biblical and Christian belief, and it is important, even if we don’t know exactly why.”
Without meaning to, I was encouraging people to think of the Trinity as a theoretical doctrine that one must subscribe to in order to be orthodox, but one that was not practical.
I found out how unhelpful that approach was when I read the book The Cruelty of Heresy by Bishop Fitzsimmons Allison.
Bishop Fitz rocked my world. Instead of describing orthodox Christian beliefs, including the Trinity, as a sort of “correct” set of beliefs, he revealed passionately how Christian faith is grounded in the salvation and healing of our souls.
Nothing Christians believe is merely theoretical, even if grounded in mystery. Heresy is not merely incorrect, it is ultimately cruel: It cannot cure the soul.
I was also helped along by Paul Zahl in his great book Grace in Practice. Zahl also shows how theology is important for everyday life, particularly a theology of grace. He also affirms that theology should be done “from the ground up.”
This means that when we are understanding theology, we can and should start by our human experience, and then work backwards. This doesn’t mean that our theology is grounded on our experience, but that Christian theology always relates to it, and therefore in explaining it, we can always start with our experience and work back to God.
The Trinity, in this light, came alive to me.
In our human world, we are always caught between union and personality. If a couple or a group of people decide to unite, we always end up squashing the individual personalities of the couple or group in some way. So we react to that, and we declare independence, we celebrate the individual. And then in doing so, we swing to the other side and we damage community.
We don’t have a full experience of full union and community that does not in any way destroy personality and individual existence.
Marriage comes close. In our culture, we consider a married couple to be in union. They share all things, and they work together to craft a life in which their wills seek cooperation and their lives are lived together. And yet we see them as individuals with distinct personalities and lives. That is, we see this in our theory of marriage, not always in practice.
We also see this attempt in our national life. We are “one nation, under God” and yet we have many different groups of people, and of course individual people. We constantly struggle in our nation between radically communal aspects of our American culture, and extreme individualism.
That is our human experience. But, as I went back to Scripture and to the Fathers and theology with this new insight, I saw a beautiful, relevant, and transformative picture.
The Trinity is a very relevant theology to our struggle for a union that does not destroy personality. Our universe was created by a God who is three-personed. One God, three persons. God the Holy Trinity is in perfect and complete union, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And yet we see three distinct personalities—at the same time. Even though we do not have a direct example of that type of perfect union in our experience, we long for it.
The Christian belief in the Trinity is not merely some philosophical or theoretical doctrine. As we learn to focus on, adore, contemplate, and follow the example of the Trinitarian God, we are growing in our understanding of union with personality.
I once attended a Marriage Weekend with my wife. We had a great time and learned a lot. I can’t say enough about how good a job that ministry does in helping marriages succeed.
And yet I noticed that the Trinity was never once mentioned as a fundamental basis of marriage. In fact, the picture of Marriage as a living example of Christ’s union with the Church (which flows from the Trinity) was not mentioned either. It was just assumed that for some reason married couples should try to be more in union, and yet also celebrate each other as individuals. No distinctly Christian reason for trying to do that was mentioned. And yet the Holy Trinity is fundamental to our faith. An amazing, expansive, and inspiring foundation for marriage was just left on the shelf, hidden away.
I think this example demonstrates how we are all trained, as I was, to ignore the Trinity and the Christian belief in union with personality. And yet right there, in front of our eyes, is a compelling and beautiful picture of our past, present,and future with God and each other.
We will live forever as one with God, through Christ, and yet will continue to fully be our unique selves. Lets get this message out to the world!