In her book Circle of Quiet Madeleine L'Engle repeats Dorothy Sayers' story of a Japanese man who's politely listening to a Christian who is trying to explain the concept of the Trinity. The Japanese man is very puzzled.
"Honorable father, very good.
Honorable Son, very good.
Honorable Bird I do not understand at all."
Madeleine observes, "Very few of us understand 'Honorable Bird,' except to acknowledge that without his power and grace nothing would be written, painted, or composed at all. To say anything beyond this about the creative process is like pulling all the petals off a flower in order to analyze it, and ending up having destroyed the flower."
Trinity Sunday is one of those Sundays when the preacher has to be careful not to pull all the petals off the flower while attempting to analyze it. It's a task easier said than done.
After all, this is the only doctrinal feast day to make its way onto the Church's calendar. It's the only feast day which doesn't celebrate a person, like a saint's day...or an event, like Christmas or Easter or Pentecost... in the entire Church Year! No wonder preachers so often get lost in the weeds on this unique Sunday.
This is one of those Sunday's which reminds us that "Some things just have to be believed to be seen."
In my teenage years, I can remember rejecting the simplistic versions of Christianity which had been handed to me as a boy, and the complexities represented in Trinitarian theology was part of what drew me back to the faith.
The Doctrine of the Trinity is a celebration of the triumph of the infinite hues of complexity over a mono-chromatic simplicity. It's the reminder that the central metaphor for God for Christians is a "diversity...encapsulated within a unity...and, as the ancients concluded, 'complete in its numeric simplicity and integrity.'" [i]
Biological diversity is nature's way of preserving and propagating life. But diversity, when it comes to race or class or even sexual orientation, can feel like a threat to our own values and lifestyles.
Sociologists tell us that in early American towns the richest person and the poorest person never lived more than two hundred yards away from one another. They often had to walk by one another's dwellings during the course of a typical day. They were part of the same community and they were connected in a way we can now only try to imagine.
How different it is when rich and poor are separated by miles of real estate and then gated and fenced off from one another?
How different it is when we don't share the same schools or the same hospitals or even the same churches?
When we don't experience diversity of class or race in our day-to-day existence, we start to lose touch with one another, and the social fabric which binds us together begins to unravel at the seams.
But achieving theological diversity can be just as difficult as achieving any other kind of diversity. Perhaps it's even more difficult, because when we're dealing with what we believe to be eternal and sacred "Truth" with a capital T, we're not all that open to alternative approaches.
We want our religious truths to be pure, immutable, crystalline. We want to believe our particular corner on God has no other inhabitants or trespassers.
The Very Reverend Richard Bower writes, "The fear and insecurity that draws people into rigid, propositional statements about God and creation blinds them to the reality that all theological reflection flows from particular histories and contexts that shape how we understand God and the divine work among us."2
For Christians, the Trinity is the primary symbol of community that holds together by containing diversity within itself. The Trinity is an attempt to express an ineffable truth using a symbol, a metaphor for the different aspects and activities of God's Personhood.
It makes for very strange math. "The Cappadocian Theologians, (who included Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa; all theologians writing in the fourth and fifth centuries...) viewed the number 1 as no number at all because it had no diversity. It possessed no discernable strength. Isn't that interesting?
The number 2 was weak as well in that it was only a dualism. At best, it could only be two sides of the same coin.
The number 3, then, was considered the first real 'number' in that it had an innate stability, a complexity; a diversity, if you will, which made it durable and strong."3
And the Trinity is not the only symbol of diversity for Christians. After all, the Bible itself, with its two creation accounts in the Book of Genesis and its four Gospels, each one enriched by its strikingly different approach to telling the story of Jesus and his ministry, symbolizes a unity that is anything but uniform.
These multiple attestations to the truth help us to begin to comprehend the complexity of Jesus and the Mystery of the Incarnate Christ. The Son of the Living God can't be verified by one, lone witness. It requires a diversity of witnesses, a host of people who see that story, who witness that truth through their own individual lenses.
Theologians throughout the centuries have found The Doctrine of the Trinity a pretty rich seam to mine, and some of the most creative theology done in the last fifty years has been done in this "theological neighborhood."
Saint Patrick is said to have explained the Trinity to the Celts by using a shamrock, three individual leaves, yet still one plant. Augustine said the Trinity was best understood as the Lover, the Beloved, and the love which exists between them.
Tertullian, arguably the most curmudgeonly theologian of the Early Church, waxed poetic as he used the metaphor of The Trinity as a plant, with the Father as the deep root, the Son as the shoot that breaks forth into the world, and the Spirit as the force which spreads beauty and fragrance on the earth.
In our day, contemporary Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff helps us understand the Trinity by describing it as a primal community; "just and equal within the reality that is God...and, therefore, a model for human society." 4 In some ways the Trinity is the first community, the model for how we are called to connect with one another, without prejudice, without inequality, without competition, and always with perfect love.
It's not that Trinitarian theology or a Trinitarian God is too complicated to understand; it's finally that a Trinitarian God is too complex to be managed or manipulated by all of us who think we know better than God.
We see all kinds of issues in black and white, but we live our lives in color. The complexity of the Trinity means that Spirit and Flesh live inextricably bound to one another. It means that the human and the divine are connected in an eternal dance.
In fact, the early theologians used the Greek word "perichorasis," "peri" meaning "around" and "chorasis" meaning the infinite dance with the Godhead in which we all join hands in one great circle, and as we all dance to the center of life where God resides, we all move closer and closer to one another.
So does this strange math have any relevance for your life? Just what would it mean to your own faith to see the possibility of God in the greatest possible diversity, which would necessarily include God being present in the most fractured places of your life? Imagine God present in both the high and the low, the good and the bad!
What would it mean to discover God in the abandoned, the forgotten, and the mostly broken places in our lives and realize it's the diversity of God that makes it possible for God to be present in those places as well?
What would it mean for us to discover God in the midst of our mistakes, our pain, our depressions, our illnesses, even our deaths?
Perhaps we would find a God who is close and walking with us instead of a God who feels distant and judgmental.
Augustine once told students who studied the doctrine of the Trinity, "Lest you become discouraged, know that when you love, you know more about who God is than you could ever know with your intellect." I find that comforting.
Trinity Sunday is a traditional day for baptisms in the liturgical church. We pray those who will be baptized on this day will, with all of us, imagine a larger and more complicated God than we have previously imagined.
May those who begin their Christian journey in baptism this day find deep community and true fellowship in the midst of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
And finally, may we all come to love a triune God who loves us and saves us in the ways only a complex and diverse God can.
Now that's the kind of math we can all get behind.
Let us pray. Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your Servant's grace by the confession of a true faith to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity and in the power of your divine majesty, to worship the unity. Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father, who with the Son and the Holy Spirit, live and reign one God forever and ever. Amen.
[i] I am indebted to the Very Reverend Richard Bowers, in an article from Fundacion Christosal, for these observations.