Politics of the Day
We celebrated Trinity Sunday at my small neighborhood Episcopal church this morning. At the beginning of her sermon, the rector confessed that many clergy try to avoid preaching on Trinity Sunday, or pass the duty off to lower priests. Apparently it’s considered a complex subject.
It’s also a beautiful and fascinating subject and one which, in many ways, contributed directly to my acceptance of Christianity as a viable faith.
Most Christian concepts were supposedly revealed to prophets and apostles in the form of revelations and visions, then handed down verbally for a few generations before being written in the books that became the Bible. The Holy Trinity emerged through a different path. It was first defined in detail in the Nicene Creed, the result of political bickering at the Council of Nicea. Think Constitutional Convention. I imagine that there were “Father” people there, and “Son” people there, and “Holy Spirit” people there each advocating that their explanation of God should take primacy in the church’s creed. In my version of the council (and who’s to say I’m wrong, there are so few records of the event), late in the night, in the spirit of compromise, the participants agreed to define God as “three in one” in the name of unity and inclusiveness. Sort of like how the USA ended up with the Senate and the House – not necessarily holy or divine, just a product of the politics of the day.
But step back a minute, and the idea of the Holy Trinity is one of the most thoughtful, inspirational, and divine concepts in Christianity if you think about what each “person” therein represents.
I have no education in religious history, and know very little about the Council of Nicea. I can only interpret the Nicene Creed in a way that makes sense to me in my life, and I hope my interpretation is useful or interesting to other seekers and believers who are trying to make sense of this bewildering concept.
I think of the “Father” as representing the traditional idea of “god” as inherited from polytheistic religions. God The Father is outside of us. He is mighty storms, the stars and the moon, the mountains and the oceans. He covers all the forces and powers in the universe that are not within human control, and of which we, as humans, have only a meager understanding. Back in Christ’s day, long before there was much science to speak of, people needed an explanation for all those forces. The Greeks and the Mayans had their pantheons of deities to represent them — a practical outlook, if you consider that the universe’s behavior doesn’t always seem internally consistent. But Abraham gave us the idea of only one God The Father, which really is much easier to pray to, and leaves us pondering His mysteries late at night — which is the point, really.
If we can get past the gender specificity, the parent metaphor is brilliant. To a very young child, parents seem to control everything that is not them. Parents can make the world light or dark. Parents can take away sickness, or make you hurt. Parents know everything. Today we like to think that we can explain the forces of the universe using quantum physics and thousands of other interrelated scientific disciplines. It’s bullshit. We really have no clue. We know as much about the universe and are as vulnerable to its whims as an infant is to its parents. Let’s face it. An earthquake could hit LA this instant and kill me. Your friend with cancer could suddenly and inexplicably start recovering. That’s God the Father at work.
I really believe that, about 2000 years ago, there was an itinerant preacher, the source of the Jesus mythology, traveling and preaching throughout Judea and Galilee. I believe that he went to the places that the Gospel says he went. I believe that he had disciples, and that people followed him around, and that he talked in profound fables and stories. And I think a lot of the stories probably got transformed and changed before they were written down, so I have a hard time accepting every word of the Gospel as unquestionable truth.
But let’s face it, Jesus’ message was one of love. Love your God with all your heart and all your soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. Lots of people throughout history have said stuff like that. But something about the way Jesus of Nazareth talked about love was so incredibly powerful — so completely life-changing to those who heard it — so utterly and amazingly PERFECT that we are still discussing him 2,000 years later. He must have really been someone special.
Whether or not you think Jesus Christ was the “only Son of God”; whether or not you believe he touched people and healed them; whether or not you believe he “died on the cross to save us from our sins” and whether or not you believe he appears to people in visions; you really can’t deny that he had a profound and powerful message.
But to me, the “Son” in the Holy Trinity is about much more than the person Jesus of Nazareth and goes beyond any questions about his unique divinity. When contemplating Jesus Christ and His role in my life, I always think back to the phrase at the end of the Eucharist, which says, “You have accepted us as living members of your son our savior Jesus Christ.” The Eucharist symbolizes “membership” in what is often termed the “Body of Christ”. This is a really important concept to me.
The Body of Christ. It actually resonates with Zen and Buddhist theology. We are all one. Our lives are intertwined. Plus, it’s consistent with science. We all poop, pee, and die. We all share some DNA. We are all part of one species, one race, one “Body”.
“God the Son” represents us. People. Our bodies, our minds, our thoughts, our emotions. It represents the forces which bind us together: family, love, empathy, and art. And most of all it represents the divinity that is within each and every one of us.
The Nicene Creed says, “He will come again to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end”. Most people interpret that phrase in terms of waiting for a second coming. One day, Jesus will return and you’d better be ready. I read it very differently.
To me, the idea that “He will come again” means that he might have already come again. He might be walking among us — and we might not even know who He is. Remember, Jesus was just a humble carpenter. Think about that the next time you look into the eyes of the cashier at Target or the homeless guy who asks you for some change. Do you know for certain that person is not Jesus, coming again to judge the living and the dead? You don’t know. You have no clue.
I believe that every single human being on this planet is capable of being a saint, a prophet, and a messiah. We all have it in us. Jesus of Nazareth may have actually achieved that status and most of us will never come close. But “he will come again” is not about some guy with a beard and a white robe and a shining glow in the air behind him. It’s about us. You, and me, and everyone we encounter every day. The Body Of Christ. The Son is within each and every one of us, it’s the internal God.
The Holy Spirit
The Father represents everything that is not human, and the Son represents everything that is human, leaving the Holy Spirit in need of some explanation. Let’s return to the Nicene Creed, which says, “He has spoken through the prophets.” Every single example of a prophet or a saint from Abraham up through Mother Theresa reports receiving a vision of some kind. They had a direct divine experience. They were completely, 100% aware of God’s presence in their life for at least a moment, with no doubts at all, and the message that God delivered to them was crystal clear in that moment. When you and I pray, if we pray for a very long time, and listen very closely to the quiet moment at the end of our prayer, we might also get a little hint of divine inspiration. If you pray or meditate, you know what I’m talking about. It usually only lasts for a moment, then it’s gone. But it is possible to really experience God sometimes.
Early 20th century success literature called it the “subconscious mind”. The Secret calls it “energy waves”. The Nicene Creed calls it the Holy Spirit. We have to call it something, because enough of us know that it’s real, and we really don’t understand it. Our rector, in this morning’s sermon, talked about the “mystery” of the Holy Spirit. It truly is the most mysterious part of the Trinity. But here’s the amazing part: as near as I can tell, the Holy Spirit is 100% consistent. Seriously. If you look at prophesies from thousands of years ago, and compare them to visions by modern mystics, the commonalities are stunning. Virtually every serious religion in the world, at the core, contains visions that say the same things: love each other, respect the forces that we can’t control, and meditate or pray a lot. There really is a Holy Spirit. It’s the messenger that ties all of God the Father and God the Son together. Without the Holy Spirit, we would never know God.
The Unitary Trinity
To me, the great meaning in the Holy Trinity is not that it has three parts. It’s power lies in the fact that they are all one. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all tied together in one unified package. The earthquake may come (the Father), but we still have prayer (the Holy Spirit). We may have enemies on Earth (the Son) but they could get sick (the Father). And when I’m not sure what to do with my life, I may receive some ideas as the result of my prayers and meditations (the Holy Spirit). You can’t get one without the other two. Christianity is a sophisticated religion because it respects and includes all these aspects of the universe in which we live and our own experiences in it.
The 300 or so bishops who gathered in Nicea way back in the 4th century definitely did not think of the Holy Trinity in the same way I do. They were concerned with whether the Son was the same “substance” as the Father, and came up with the word that was later translated as “begotten” to describe their relationship. But they left us with a truly powerful and incredible idea, one which has stood the test of time, and one which is completely relevant in the world today. The Trinity is not a concept to be avoided. It’s one to be pondered, discussed, and embraced for it contains one of the truly magical, unique, and beautiful ideas in all of Christianity.