the trinity metaphor for god

the trinity metaphor for god

Glynn Cardy

Sun 07 Jun

Trinity Sunday is a time to contemplate God together, to try to find some language to express such contemplation, and to try to find hints as to how a contemplative community (like a church) might aid in healing the world.  

Not that this is how Trinity Sunday has been in the past.   In the past, and you may recall sermons from those times, we were told what God was and what we were to believe.  We were told God was Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: one God but three coeternal, consubstantial persons or hypostases.  This was presented as fact; obscure but supposedly true. 

Recently Jonathan Steingard, the lead singer of the Christian rock band Hawk Nelson, made headlines by posting that he no longer believed in God.  He wrote:

‘After growing up in a Christian home, being a pastor’s kid, playing and singing in a Christian band, and having the word “Christian” in front of most of the things in my life — I am now finding that I no longer believe in God.’ 

‘If God is all loving and all powerful, why is there evil in the world?  Can (God) not do anything about it?  Does (God) choose not to?  Is the evil in the world a result of (God’s) desire to give us free will?  Ok then, what about famine and disease and floods and all the suffering that isn’t caused by humans and our free will?  If God is loving, why does (God) send people to hell?

He went on to say that when sharing this with trusted friends he was shocked to find they thought similarly. Toward the end of his post Steingard said:

‘I’m open to the idea that God is there. I’d prefer if (God) was.  I suspect if (God) is there, (God) is very different than what I was taught.’

You won’t find the word ‘Trinity’ in the Bible, and even the phrase ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’ is a rarity – the first reading from Matthew 28 today being the only mention in the gospels.  As Yoda might say, “One verse does not a doctrine make”.

The verse from Matthew 28, often called The Great Commission, and unlikely to be the words of the historical Jesus, is not trying to make a statement about the nature of God.  Rather it is simply telling Jesus’ followers (long after they were already doing it) to share the messages and practices of Jesus beyond the barriers of culture, race, and political constraints, rather than hold up a doctrine or bible as emblematic of authority (as we saw last week in Washington DC). 

You may also have wondered as you listened to our second reading today, the lovely story from Robert Fulghum about hide-and-seek, what this too has to do with the doctrine of God.

If you start the God quest from the place of our connections with each other (and note that’s precisely where the authentic Jesus parables start – think Prodigal Son, Good Samaritan) then the goal is to be found and to find one another.  The goal is not to hide so well, put up barriers/borders, so that you never have the joy of piling on top of each other like sardines.  The goal is community and connectivity – and in this, as Fulghum suggests at the end of his story, god is to be found.

So by truly seeing one another, without the structural barriers and borders of race, class, gender, etcetera, and without the personal barriers of fear, discrimination, and bias, we may find who are we and who we belong among and with.  And in that seeing, that finding of those strands that connect us we might name the multiplicity and interrelationship of that life-giving web as God.

Many of us in the Christian progressive movement have experienced something similar to Jonathan Steingard.  Much of the old ways of talking about God, the old language and metaphors, not only don’t make sense but can be quite destructive.  To give just one example: picturing God, Father and/or Jesus, as a white man has the power to convey an understanding of white maleness as normative, and therefore fuels both racism and sexism.

Christian Progressives though want to say to pilgrims like Jonathan there remain things definitive about Jesus as a ‘window’ through which to contemplate God.  Jesus in his compassion, his inclusion, and his story-telling points us towards an alternate understanding of divinity – not a God over us, but a god alongside us; not a God directing us, but a god liberating us; not a God known in the great court of kings, but in the homes of the least.

And there remains the challenge and the joy of trying to live Jesus’ spirit (aka holy spirit), not just individually but importantly in our communal life.  This is captured in the proclamation: “We are the Body of Christ”.  Jesus, Jesus’ spirit, lives on in us, in our being and doing together, in our open empowering hospitality, in our dismantling of privileged power, in our celebration of diversity and giftedness.

And there remains the mystery of what divinity might be, the inadequacy of language (particularly the language of hierarchy so often used in the past), and yet the need to say something, to find words and metaphors to express that which is ultimately inexpressible, but also for many surprisingly life-enhancing.  So theo-poetics comes to the fore, rather than theo-pedantries; theo-crafts rather than theo-creeds; theo-laughter rather than theo-logic.

And where we look for these things, these pointers to God – these poems, crafts, and humour – is not just in worship, in learned books, or inspiring sermons, but in the world around with all its beauty and chaos, with all its possibilities and pain, and in the context of our lives, our fears and loves.

Something of God is seen in the one suffering and the one trying to alleviate suffering, seen in our suffering and our attempts to alleviate it, seen in you and me.  Something of God is seen in the struggle to transform our world, to leaven it with justice and hope, to dismantle discrimination and all that undergirds it, and to weep when the very opposite seems to prevail.  Something of God is seen in the spontaneous smile of a child, the smile of a relieved parent, the smile of love, our smile.

Theo-poetics is simply an arrangement of words that has the possibility of connecting us with something we have found, or might find, that hints at this divinity.  So the sentences I am about to share with you are not facts or truths, but hints, whispers, experiences…  They are saying something, without saying nothing, about that which is something, nothing, and everything.

God is an awakening in us.

God is the still point.

God is a movement in which we participate.

God is more verb than noun.

God does not exist, god insists.[i]

God is an energy best known as love.

To love is to god.

The best name for God is compassion.[ii]

The way Jesus loved is a window into God.

Those who are kind are God’s face.

God is a river, on which we float.

God is the ocean in which we are.

The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.[iii]

God is a luminous web.[iv]

God is the power of mutual relation.[v]

God is a song the notes of which are being written even as we sing.

For the suffering, god is any act of support or solidarity.

God is the gap between words, or actions, that allows time to mend or reconsider.

God is the activity of knitters, sewers, and repairers of the rips in the fabric of life.

God is the dawn of goodness that builds, supports, and creates.

Or from apophatic theology:

God is not a Lord, a Father, or a King.

God is not a supreme being, or any being.

God is not violent.  Never.  And never justifies it or condones it.

God does not rescue or save some people while others suffer or perish.

God is not male, white, or heterosexual. (If god is to be pictured in any human form, race, class, gender, or sexuality it would be in the form of the ones who are the most marginal, least powerful, in that society.)

In conclusion then, the metaphor of trinity points us towards the paradox of an understanding of God that is beyond understanding.  God can’t be contained by reason, like theological belief systems.  And our current world has a lot of investment in understanding and reason.

Trinity suggests that God isn’t singular.  God is more plurality than singularity.  God isn’t binary either.  One right way, one right (chosen) people, one right text (Bible) is not of the nature of this kind of godness.  God is always more.

God is more than supreme being/s or communion between beings.  Both the beyondness and nearness of god are difficult to describe within the constraints of language.  The best language is often the most paradoxical – like ‘the eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me’.

Indeed it is difficult to know what god is.  Some have found it easier to talk about what god is not (apophatic theology).  I resonate with the notion that trinity suggests god is a movement, a relationality/connectivity of difference and movement, not a fixed point, always more than our best metaphors or imaginings.  Or, put much more simply with Fulghum, ‘God is a Sardine player’.

[i] John Caputo

[ii] Meister Eckhart

[iii] Meister Eckhart

[iv] Robin Meyers

[v] Carter Heyward