Over thirty years ago, Karl Rahner, one of the finest theologians of this century, lamented the fact that most Christians are “mere monotheists.” By this he meant that if the doctrine of the trinity were eliminated from the faith, then the bulk of popular Christian thinking, preaching, writing, and singing, and the mind set it reflects, would not have to be changed much at all. That’s still true. We don’t pay much attention to the Trinity -- to what it says or to what it means. We know we believe in God -- the same God everybody believes in -- and that, pretty much, is that.
But it’s not that simple. We Christians do have a different and distinctive way of understanding God, one that sets us apart from everybody else. And even though the prayers, the creeds, and most of the symbols we use in worship are thoroughly Trinitarian, the bulk of our thinking about God is not.
So, since today is Trinity Sunday, the day we are called upon to pay special attention to the way God has been revealed in the Christian faith, we should consider the Trinity. Of course, God is a whole lot bigger than anything we can say or imagine, so all references to God will be both metaphorical and incomplete. At the same time, this vision of the Trinity of God is true, and it matters, and it makes a difference.
There are two fundamental perspectives we can bring to the Trinity, to the doctrine that one God exists in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. On the one hand, the Trinity describes the way that we, as Christians, experience God. We know God as God is revealed in the person and life of Jesus -- and this revelation happens by and through the Holy Spirit. That is, the Trinity speaks to how we discover and experience who God is. This is the perspective usually offered when talking or preaching about the Trinity.
But there is more. The doctrine of the Trinity also talks about who God is; it talks about what God is really like inside. This is where the mystics and the theologians sort of run together, and speak perhaps with more poetry and awe than precision. But let’s look for just a minute at what they say about God, borrowing some language from the third century.
Once upon a time, way before the beginning of everything -- not at the beginning, but before the beginning -- God the Father, who is love and who therefore must love, God the Father speaks his own name; He says his own word. And God the Son is begotten -- true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father. The Son is the second person of the Trinity. Later, after the beginning, the Son will become incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and will be born as Jesus of Nazareth. The Son is what happens when the Father expresses Himself, when the Father reaches out in His love. Now, the Son loves the Father, for the Son is the Father’s word, the Father’s self. And the Father loves the Son, totally and without reservation, and so the Father and the Son are bound together in love.
This love, which binds together the Father and the Son, is also real. This love is God the Holy Spirit -- the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. And the Son and the Spirit are of the same substance, the same stuff, as the Father; that’s the only stuff there is. In this way the Godhead is complete. Three persons, each distinct, each real, each from before the beginning, each and all are one God. The one-ness of God is discovered precisely in the free act of love by which the three persons of the Trinity choose to give all to each other. This relationship is what makes God who God is. Put another way, God is what happens when the Father loves the Son in the Spirit.
St. Augustine says this about the Trinity: “Now, love is of someone who loves, and something is loved with love. So then there are three: the lover, the beloved, and the love.” This relationship of love, God the Holy Trinity, is the foundation, the bedrock of the universe; it is the heartbeat of all creation. Everything that is begins here, has its purpose and its meaning here, and will find its fulfillment here.
Such is the living center of the Christian understanding of God. We insist that God is not a mean old man with a beard; that God is not some unconscious force out of Star Wars; and that God is not that peculiar little committee -- two guys and a bird -- that we often imagine. Instead, God exists, at His heart, as a relationship of love -- one God in three persons, the well-spring of existence.
That’s a quick look at the Trinity, at our alternative to the “mere monotheism” that Rahner decries. It is a complex, dynamic, and exciting understanding of who God is and what God is like. Like any good theology, it has consequences, and it sets the stage for how we can live.
If you think about it for a minute, it’s no wonder, as we heard the Epistle of Peter say a few weeks ago, that the Church learned very early that they could tell whether they were truly entering the mystery of Christ by how well they were managing to love one another. Remember that? Of course. Relationships of love are what God is all about.
And it is no wonder that the one new commandment that Jesus gives us is the commandment to love one another; which is the commandment to imitate Jesus and his life -- to imitate his life as a human being among us, and at the same time to imitate his life as the only begotten Son.
It is through this command, seen in the light of our notion of God as the Trinity, that we can begin to see what God really wants from us and what God really wants for us. God’s will for us, God’s desire for us, is, first of all and most of all, that we choose to share his life -- that we become more and more deeply a part of that conversation of love, that constant, obedient, and joyful relationship that is the very core of who God is.
After all, we are created in God’s image -- in the image of the Trinity. So, the more our lives are shaped and formed by the life of love we see in the person of Christ and in the life of God, the closer we get to our best and truest selves. The more we become who we really are.
This business of the Trinity is not just abstract theology, it is very immediate, and very personal. In some very important ways, it is about us -- about us here and now; and about us forever.
The heart of creation is love, and we are both created and invited to enter that love, and to share that love. The divine love is our source, our vision, and our final end. That is good news. It is good news about why we exist; and it is good news about our destiny. It is worth paying some attention to.
(The Rev. James Liggett is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma)