For several years now theologians have had the intuition, if not suspicion, that the Holy Spirit is the least understood person of the Godhead. Other than observing Pentecost, a very minor observance in most Protestant circles, we pay very little attention to the Holy Spirit. Add to that the fact that most preachers take four to six weeks vacation during the season of Pentecost and you can begin to see why churches hear so little about the Holy Spirit.
But the neglect of the Holy Spirit is nothing compared with the deafening silence about the Trinity. We do conclude most services with a benediction that includes a Trinitarian formula and we baptize people in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but seldom, if ever, dare to preach about this most important part of our Christian faith.
The Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung was the son of a Protestant pastor and he recalls in his memoirs that his own father neglected the section on the Trinity in the training he was giving to those who were to be confirmed in the church. The incident is reported by Christopher Bryant in his book Jung and the Christian Way. Bryant writes: Jung tells us of an incident causing him acute disappointment when his father was preparing him for confirmation. His father's instructions were based on a catechism. The young Carl looking ahead at the syllabus waited patiently for the time when they would reach the section dealing with the doctrine of the Trinity, which fascinated him. When at last the point was reached, his father said, "We will pass over this section; it is not important, and I can make nothing of it myself." We should not be too harsh and rush to judgment since this attitude is far too prevalent in all church circles.
The other way in which we tend to avoid dealing with the doctrine of the Trinity is by lumping it under the rubric of "mystery." While it is true that there is much in religion which must be approached with care, the relegation of doctrines to mystery is an insult to the God who created us and to the ancestors of the faith who struggled so valiantly to leave us these teachings as a legacy to be cherished, studied, revised and, in some instances, respectfully shelved or rejected.
The first thing we must remember about the doctrine of the Trinity is that it was the courageous attempt to cling tenaciously to monotheism, the belief in only one God. It was only natural that as the new religion began to spread among those who were used to a variety of deities, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit would be understood as three different gods. But the Jewish cradle of Christianity was far too strong to admit any polytheism, belief in many gods. So even though the term does not appear in Scripture and the formula Father, Son and Holy Spirit occurs rarely in the Bible, the term Trinity was created to establish a creative tension between the One and only God and the three ways in which that One God was perceived by those who had received the revelation of God's love through Jesus Christ.
Throughout the centuries many theologians have addressed the doctrine of the Trinity and have attempted to make it understandable for those who practice the faith. In their efforts to explain the doctrine, many have actually made the doctrine more mysterious and less intelligible. I would like to suggest that sometimes more light can come from older and simpler ways to talk about the Trinity. On the surface these earlier attempts seem to be more difficult because the language is more obscure for us, but once we pierce through the difficult terms, the solutions seem to me more applicable and understandable.
The Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff wrote a marvelous treatise on the Trinity entitled "Trinity and Society." Boff reviews and summarizes the positions of several theologians on the Trinity and then offers his own perspective on the subject. Much of the confusion in dealing with the doctrine of the Trinity springs from the fact that the word person in English, and in most languages influenced by Latin, means an individual entity. But this is not what old theologians meant. The original word they used was not in Latin but in Greek. It was the word prosopon which was the mask which actors used in the theatre. The best translation of prosopon to English would be the Latin based word persona which would mean the roll we take under certain circumnstances whether we are actors or not.
I find it fascinating that the early "Fathers" of the church used the language of the performing arts and not the language of philosophy to communicate the way in which God acts in the world. This way our ancestors preserved monotheism--there is only one Actor and three roles, the role of Creator, the role of Redeemer and the role of Comforter or, more traditionally, the roles of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. A popular formula picks up some of the wisdom of the past when we talk about God for us, (Father or Creator) God with us (Emmanuel, Christ, Son) and God within us, the Holy Spirit. But this formula is incomplete and it was declared a heresy by the church in the early stages. It was called modalism or Sabellianism after Sabellius, the man who proposed this formula. But just because the church decrees that a certain idea is heretical, it does not mean that the idea dies or disappears and modalism, I believe, is probably the most popular way of dealing with the Trinity.
While I do not like the idea of heresy, I must, however, agree that the ancient teachers of the church were right in demanding that the belief in only one God be harmonized with the idea of the three actions of the Godhead. When God was acting as creator, there were the two other persons or actors there. All three roles had to be played at the same time with one of the three persons more dominant than the other two. The Greeks had another word for that--perichoresis. The term, however, was translated into Latin as circuminsessio a word that tried to preserve the idea that the three roles acted as One, either as Creator, Redeemer or Comforter.
Leonardo Boff finds the Latin term less clear and prefers to keep the Greek term without translating it. I think he made a mistake. The term perichoresis like the term prosopon, comes from the world of the performing arts. If you think a little bit, you will realize that you have come across other words in English that use peri and choresis in some combination or in a simple alliteration. Peri is found as a prefix in words like perimeter, pericardium, peritonitis, etc. It means around, or surround. Perimeter is the surrounding part of a given surface as in the perimeter of a triangle. Pericardium is the tissue surrounding or enveloping the heart and peritonitis is something we better never get, the inflammation of the tissue surrounding parts of our digestive organs, as the appendix for example. Choresis is a term that you have heard many times inside nouns like choreography and choreographer and in the verb choreograph. It has to do with dancing. So perichoresis means to dance around. The three persons or roles of the Trinity act as One as they dance around.
Several years ago I tried to explain to children how the Trinity works by painting three faces into a pinwheel and then blowing air into the pinwheel so the personae, the faces, could dance around and be seen as only One. Our ancient teachers were right, as far as I am concerned, in using terms from the performing arts instead of the world of philosophy to explain to the masses how the Trinity is perfectly understandable and not as mysterious as more recent theologians and philosophers have made it.
However we choose to deal with the Trinity, the most important thing is that we not ignore this doctrine. In a letter written in 1945 at the age of seventy, Carl Jung stated that it is of the highest importance that the educated and "enlightened" should know religious truths as a thing living in the human soul and not as an abstruse and unreasonable relic of the past. More importantly, it is of absolute importance that we connect theological formulas with behavior that communicates to others the love which God is. Augustine managed to summarize all that can be said about the Trinity in a short aphorism "Vides Trinitatem si vides caritatem"--you see the Trinity when you see love, or as Boff interprets it, "It is the practice of love that opens up true access to the mystery of the Trinity."
The important idea here is that love is the only integration that makes the proper fulfillment of human potentiality. It is in relationships to love in action that human life can find dignity and meaning, beauty and ordering.
But this Love that God is must be made real in the context of the society in which we live. Leonardo Boff only sees approximations of that in this life and hopes for a future where the Trinity will be made visible by the sons and daughters of the God who is One but who dances like three. Even though he missed the translation of perichoresis as dancing around, he ends his book on the Trinity with the equivalent of a Brazilian festival which would surpass any Carnival in Rio. Women and men will be united to the divine Three in love and tenderness so as to be united in tenderness and love to all created beings. The universe in the triune God will be the body of the Trinity showing forth, in the limited form of creation, the full possibility of the communion of the divine Three.
This is the festival of the redeemed. It is the celestial dance of the freed, the banquet of sons and daughters in the homeland and household of the Trinity, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In trinitized creation, we shall leap and sing, praise and love the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And we shall be loved by them, praised by them, invited to dance and sing, sing and dance, dance and love, forever and ever. Amen.
Gracious God, Creator, Word, and Holy Spirit, we thank you for inspiring our ancestors in the faith to wrestle with your nature. You are One, You are Holy, and You have been revealed to us a Giver of Life, Loving Redeemer, and Constant Companion. Help us to have the same willingness that our forebears had to struggle with who you really are and, more importantly, to follow you wherever you go. Amen