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Trinity: A Mystery to Endlessly Understand

Monday, September 12, 2016

Trinity: Week 1

Trinity: MIA
Monday September 12, 2016

In his classic study, The Trinity, Karl Rahner said, “Christians are, in their practical life, almost mere ‘monotheists.’ We must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.” [1]

Until quite recently, I would admit Rahner was largely correct. Now the sciences of quantum physics and cosmology are affirming the Trinitarian intuition that the foundational nature of reality is relational; everything is in relationship with everything! There is a growing interest in and appreciation for the Trinity. It’s almost as if we finally have the software to understand it. [2] For the first time since fourth-century Cappadocia, the Trinity has actually become a topic of conversation for lay people, not only theologians. I am so glad, as the Trinity has the potential to change our relationships, our culture, and our politics for the better!

This mystery is embedded as the code in everything that exists. If there is only one God and if there is one pattern to this God, then we can expect to find this same pattern everywhere else too. But why was Trinity missing in action for so many centuries? Could this absence help us understand how we might still be in the infancy stage of Christianity? Could it help explain the ineffectiveness and lack of transformation we witness in so much of the Christian world? When you are off at the center, the whole edifice is quite shaky and unsure of itself.

The “Blessed Trinity” is supposed to be the central—even the paramount—doctrine of the Christian belief system. And yet we’re told, at least I was told as a young boy in Kansas, that we shouldn’t try to understand it because it’s a “mystery.”

But I believe mystery isn’t something that you cannot understand; rather, it is something that you can endlessly understand. There is no point at which you can say, “I’ve got it.” Always and forever, mystery gets you! In the same way, we don’t hold God in our pocket; rather God holds us and knows our internal shape and deepest identity.

When we describe God, we can only use similes, analogies, and metaphors. All theological language is an approximation, offered tentatively in holy awe. That’s the best human language can achieve. We can say, “It’s like . . .” or “It’s similar to . . .”; but we can never say with absolute certainty, “It is . . .” because we are in the realm of beyond, of transcendence, of mystery. We absolutely must maintain a fundamental humility before the Great Mystery; otherwise, religion worships itself and its formulations instead of God.

The very mystical Cappadocian Fathers of fourth-century eastern Turkey (Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen, and Basil of Caeserea) eventually developed some highly sophisticated thinking on what we soon called the Trinity. It took three centuries of reflection on the Gospels to have the courage to say it, but they circled around to the best metaphor they could find, and the Greek word they daringly came up with was perichoresis, or circle dance.

Whatever is going on in God is a flow, a radical relatedness, a perfect communion between Three—a circle dance of love. God is Absolute Friendship.

God is not just a dancer; God is the dance itself.

Gateway to Silence:
Come, sit at the table.

[1] Karl Rahner, The Trinity (Crossroad Publishing Company: 1999), 10-11.
[2] For example, see Cynthia Bourgeault, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three (Shambhala: 2013); and William Paul Young, The Shack (Windblown Media: 2007).

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Shape of God: Deepening the Mystery of the Trinity (CAC: 2004), disc 1 (DVD, CD, MP3 download); and
Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation (Whitaker House: 2016), 26-27.

Image Credit: The Hospitality of Abraham, also known as The Trinity, (detail) by Andrei Rublev, 1411 or 1425-27.
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