The other day a friend wondered why we Christians have three gods, yet have the audacity to claim they’re one. Years ago I was in an ecumenical group that included reform and conservative Jews who knew they could get us going in rhetorical circles by asking the same question. I think they started the merry-go-round for the fun of it, especially if they were on the losing side of another argument.
Christianity is anchored in the Trinity: God known to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We may speak of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but there is only one God, not three. It’s not a concept that fits any rational model most people would accept as valid. God’s trinitarian existence can be inferred from scripture, but it’s not proclaimed in an overt way. Many theologians over many centuries have done their best to explain it. As brilliant as their work has been, circumstantial evidence is the best they’ve come up with. The insurmountable obstacle has always been the impossibility of feeble human minds to dissect the inner workings of God, although that’s exactly what’s been tried time and again.
One might wonder where the concept of Trinity came from in the first place. My take is this: the oneness of God was never in doubt for the first generations of Christians. What they knew for certain was that God was truly and fully present in Jesus, and through him the fullness of God’s intentions for creation were made known. As the faith spread to lands where the god of the Jews, Jewish history and Jewish ways were unknown, the whole thing had to be explained from the beginning making sense to Greek and Roman ways of thinking. And it had to be explained in ways that exposed their pantheons of gods as not only false, but having no existence at all.
That meant explaining who God is and how Jesus is related to God by using terms and reasoning understood by Greek and Roman philosophers, which is more or less what Christianity’s central creed, The Nicene Creed, tries to do. Developed in the 4th century over more than fifty years, it can never be said to anticipate a 21st century audience, but it remains the pivot around which Christian theology rotates. Explaining God and Jesus was not enough. Christians have always been aware that God’s imminent and intimate presence is still with us, even if Jesus isn’t. Drawing from abundant biblical evidence of God’s spirit active in the affairs of humans, the Holy Spirit was included in the Creed.
God’s own self revelation has come to us through prophets, in Jesus, and with the here but not seen power of God for us. For lack of better words, we call them Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It creates a few problems for modern ears. Father, for instance. It does not and cannot mean that God is a male, much less and bearded old man somewhere in the heavens. All the painted images we’re so familiar with are imitations of the Greek Zeus and Roman Jupiter. I’m sorry they ever got used because they implanted a misleading image we can’t seem to get rid of. Jesus called God his father to describe a relationship that today we would call genetic – Jesus is of God. No one else ever was. No one else ever will be. Again, for lack of a better word, he is God’s son. The word doesn’t really work, but it’s the best we’ve got.
He called God father, so we do too, but God is neither male nor female. It’s not God’s problem. Our language isn’t up to the task, and our heritage of relationships dominated by patriarchy doesn’t help. Humans are created in God’s image, male, female and everything between, so there is something about the godly image in us that has nothing to do with sex. What could it be? I think it has to do with our ability to create, to think things never before thought, and bring them into existence: art, literature, scientific theory, inventions, etc. But I digress.
Trying to define the internal life of God, the mechanics of God’s existence as it were, is impossible. It hasn’t stopped generations of theologians from trying, but it’s a fool’s errand. It’s better to accept God as presented, and allow the mystery to be a part of it. As a trinitarian Christian, I’m content to know that God has been made known to us as God, God in Jesus, and God’s Spirit with us. Calling God Father, as Jesus did, helps illuminate God’s generative, loving relationship with creation. God as Holy Spirit acknowledges that God remains actively engaged in the life of this world. And, for me, God as Son is, as John the Evangelist proclaimed, the Word of God made flesh. He is, therefore, not a prophet or sage but the living presence of God in earthly life. As John reports Jesus to have said to Phillip, one of his followers, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14) I’m content with that.