Don’t ask me why I am trying this out on you, but maybe because it’s summer, and I think you’ll have time to think it through. Maybe because Christians observe Trinity Sunday this month, and people in the pews scratch their heads about it as much as their Jewish, Muslim and atheist friends. So here goes, a few thoughts on what’s at stake in believing that God is three and one at the same time:
First, Christians agree with Jews and Muslims that God is one. Anything we say about God’s three-ness only qualifies what kind of oneness God is; it doesn’t make one God into three gods. Monotheism means one God. Christians are monotheists. God has no rival. Even Satan is a created being, not a god of darkness competing with the God of light for supremacy.
One, however, can be the loneliest number, as the song says. God is the lone God, but God is not a lonely God. God is relational because God is love. Love requires that a lover have a beloved — an other to love.
When Christians say God is three-in-one, we are saying that God’s love for the other (the world) is grounded in God’s own divine life. Since God is love within God’s self, God’s love for the world is not a necessary love but the overflow of God’s inner love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
God doesn’t need the world in order to be God. God wants the world to experience the joy of the love God shares within the triune life. God wants no one and no thing to be outside of God’s love. God’s love invites everyone and everything to participate in this divine life of love.
The logic of love grows out of the concrete history of salvation in the Bible. God creates the world by making room outside of God for another to exist over against God. God’s love for Israel is God’s drawing near the world by choosing those who have been most oppressed (most other!) in the world. God’s coming to flesh in Jesus continues this movement of love toward the world. God commits the whole divine life to the future of creation. Jesus’ resurrection demonstrates the victory of love over hate, the redeeming by God even of what is opposed to God.
If God was fully present in Jesus and Jesus prayed to God, then God must have been fully present in Jesus without ceasing to be other to him. So also when Jesus died on the cross, it was a death in God, not the death of God. The Son suffered death by dying; the Father suffered his death by grieving; and the Spirit held God together even in death by keeping them bound in suffering love.
OK, so that’s a lot to take in. Christians have come up with some analogies to help. Most don’t help much, but here’s one from music that might. Imagine sitting at a piano and playing a note. That one note fills your entire hearing space by itself. Now strike another key at the same time as you strike the first one. The second note has its own integrity, filling your whole hearing space at the same time as the first. But because they are struck together, the sound of each note penetrates the sound of the other also, making it something more than two individual sounds. It becomes one sound. Now do it with three and the effect continues.
No analogy is perfect. This one has no three-note limitation on the chord of divine love. But at the end of all our reasoning, we are left with a mystery to be embraced more than a riddle to be solved.
What the French physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal said of faith applies also to the nature of God: “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.”
George Mason is pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church. The Worship section is a regular feature underwritten by Advocate Publishing and by the neighborhood business people and churches listed on these pages. For information about helping support the Worship section, call 214.560.4202.