This feast of the Most Holy Trinity is given to us either to confound the preacher or distress the listener. What can be said about the Most Holy Trinity? Quite a lot can be said, actually, but to how much of it can we bear to listen? Just for fun, let’s try to wade through some of the historical and theological conversation about the Trinity.
The classical approach to trinitarian theology in the western church is the “psychological model.” In contemporary usage, the word “psychology” refers to the study, diagnosis and treatment of emotional pathologies. In medieval theology, however, the word “psychology” referred to a set of abstractions that described how the human mind works. This is the meaning of the word “psychological” in the various psychological models of the Trinity. These theological models from late antiquity and the middle ages tried to explain the structure of the Trinity based on an explanation of the structure of the human mind. Augustine identified three distinct functions of the human mind: memory, will and understanding. Thomas opted for just two: reason and will. In these psychological models the coordinated interaction of the various activities of the human mind were used as a metaphor for the unity of the One God who is three Divine Persons.
The eastern church approaches the theology of the Trinity in a slightly different fashion. Eastern (the Oriental Uniate Rites and the Orthodox churches), theology uses “social models” of the Trinity. Again, the terminology is not drawn from contemporary usage, but from ancient usage. Social models of the Trinity begin with the distinctness of the three Divine Hypostases, and reason toward substantial unity based on a metaphor drawn from human relationships. The central metaphor here is not the internal working of the human mind, but external relationships between human persons. The various social models compare the community that is created between human persons by the act of love with the unity of the Trinity; in these models the love of the three Divine Hypostases binds them together substantially and eternally.
These are by no means the only styles of theology that has been done about the Trinity. A popular style of trinitarian theology dating to the very beginnings of Christianity is via negativa. Via negativa theology tries to afford an understanding of the Trinity by describing what the Trinity is not. For example, some small grasp of the nature of the Trinity can be gained by saying that the Trinity is not created or physical or mutable. Another approach to the Trinity developed in the Twentieth Century; it was briefly popular to describe the Trinity from the point of view of “process” thought. This style of theology depicted God as having evolved historically into a trinity as a result of internal necessity and external interaction with the created universe. This, and other recent innovations, share too much in common with Trinitarian, Christological and Pneumatological heresies to be of any real value.
Outside of the realm of professional theology, thought about the Trinity becomes even more off-putting than the above. In general, believers today fall into one of three categories. There are those who see no real or practical distinction between the Divine Persons. For these folks, the Father, Son and Spirit are interchangeable parts which all have the same functions and external relations. The second group, much smaller in number than the first, are tri-theists. For them, the Trinity is three gods which have separate existences, natures and activities. The third, and most popular group, are those who see no real distinction between the Trinity and themselves. For these, the Trinity exists to serve human needs and respond to human demands. While the various heterodox views of God are offensive, they are much less so than this last image of the Trinity as an omnipotent concierge.
There are two failings shared by all of the above Trinitarian theologies; one is obvious, and the other is not so obvious. First, and most apparent, is the fact that all of this above is tragically boring. Some of it is anachronistic, some is overly subjective and all of it is pure speculation. The history of Trinitarian theology is integral to the Church’s life; I’m not suggesting otherwise. In fact, if you’re interested in gaining a better understanding of Trinitarian theology there are some very good books that can help with this. William Hill’s The Three-Personed God is an excellent survey of the history of Trinitarian theology. However, as good a book as it is, it will do nothing to build your faith in the Trinity. This brings me to the second flaw that affects all Trinitarian theology.
We live at a time when thought and society have regressed. It used to be trendy in theological discussions to talk about the “Copernican revolution” that occurred in Twentieth Century theology. Twentieth Century theology was said to have undergone a “Copernican revolution” when it tried to shed the naive realism and dogmatic fundamentalism of neo-scholastic thought. Nicholas Copernicus was a Renaissance astronomer who demonstrated that, contrary to popular belief, the earth revolved around the Sun, and not the converse. Eventually, of course, Copernicus’ heliocenctric model of the universe proved to be just as naive as its predecessor, Ptolemy’s theory that the earth was the center of the universe.
Advancements in science and technology eventually revealed that our planet is one among many; it is situated near the outer edge of a single galaxy in a universe containing many galaxies. For a while, science made us feel very small and insignificant. This wasn’t necessarily a bad state of affairs. Jesus spoke often about the virtues of humility. Curiously, we were taught a good lesson in humility by our own scientific discoveries. Sadly, the impact of those discoveries was short-lived. The smallness and humility of being residents of one tiny planet among millions of planets was more than our egos could bear. We have not only regressed, but degenerated. We live at a time when “Copernican revolutions” have been emasculated by rampant narcissism. We are no longer generous enough even to make the earth the center of the universe; now, each individual is the center of her or his own universe. In the words of Leibniz, we have recast ourselves as “windowless monads.”
The last thing that our society needs is a psychological or social model of the Trinity. To use the structure or activity of the human person as a metaphor with which to understand the nature of the Trinity runs the risk today of portraying God as having been created in our own image. Nor am I convinced that via negativa theology fares any better. It is still possible to describe what God is not, but does our society have the attention span to grasp such a line of reasoning?
Many years ago I was stationed at a parish with a parochial school. During one academic year the Fifth Grade classroom teacher came to me; she had reached a state of utter exhaustion from dealing with the Fifth Grade boys. The girls in the Fifth Grade were no angels, but the boys were a real problem. Their behavior was uniformly inappropriate and offensive. I had just seen a book review in the paper; the book was addressed to the sort of children that would fatigue a veteran teacher. The title of the book was What is a Man? It was a very clever book, and I suggested that the teacher read it to the boys in the class.
The book was a narrative of the adventures of a lone raccoon who had heard of the existence of a creature called “man,” but had never seen one. The little raccoon wandered the forest and jungle, asking every animal it encountered, “What is a man?” The raccoon met an elephant; the elephant described a man as having a short trunk that was not useful for drinking out of a river. The giraffe described a man as having a neck too short to eat leaves from a tree. The crocodile described a man as having smooth scales. The bird described a man as having fine feathers, but only on its head. The sloth described a man as having only two legs that were put on upside down. The frog described a man as having long arms that weren’t any good for jumping.
Near the end of the story, the raccoon had formed a mental picture of a man that was comically ridiculous: a short elephant trunk, frizzy hair, rangy limbs and odd proportions. Finally, the raccoon met a man who adopted the raccoon, and took it home to care for it. At the end of the story the raccoon came to the conclusion, “A man is someone who loves.”
As far as I could determine, the moral of the story was lost on those Fifth Graders. They spent the rest of their academic careers being just as vulgar and anti-social as they were before their teacher read them the story. The story didn’t have the socializing effect for which I had hoped, but it does offer a helpful way to approach the Trinity.
There are many descriptions of the Trinity available to us. The practical effect of all of these is that we end up with an image of God much like the image of human beings that the raccoon in the story drew from the various descriptions offered by the other animals. God is one, but also three. God is unchanging, but also involved in human history. God transcendent, but also immanent. God reveals God’s self, but God is mystery. God created the universe, but God is uncreated. God is all-powerful, but God doesn’t interfere with human freedom. If we collate all the various descriptions of the Trinity, we end with a mash-up of contradictions. We don’t live in a society that does a lot of thinking; offering this image of God to the world is like offering culinary school scholarships to people who have no food.
I’d be the last person in the world to suggest that theological knowledge is not useful or necessary. Today, however, the Trinity is over-thought and under-known. Perhaps what the Church and the world need are people who try to know the Trinity rather than people who try to understand the Trinity. The people whom I love the most are often the people whom I understand the least. Why should I expect my relationships with the Trinity to be any different?
Let’s try this: let’s not spend time thinking pious and profound thoughts about the mystery of the Trinity – as if the Trinity was some sort of ancient treasure on display in a museum. Instead, let’s give our full attention to the ways in which the Trinity touches our lives. God’s power is manifest in the beauty of the created world, and in the longing within each of us for more than the world can offer. God is revealed in the teachings of Jesus, and in the experience of repentance that is elicited in us by that teaching. In the Sacraments, God comes near to us just as God passed near Moses on Sinai. Both God’s will and our human nature are revealed to us in the Scriptures and the commandments.
What is the Trinity? The Trinity is the God who is waiting to be known, but knowing the Triune God requires that first we look beyond ourselves and the tiny, restricted worlds that we create for our own comfort and vanity.