Karl Rahner once commented that “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 unchanged.” Now, Rahner believed passionately in the Trinity, indeed he recognized it as fundamental to Christian belief, but what he was acknowledging and lamenting here, was that for the most part – in day to day Christian life - people don’t ‘get’ the Trinity and behave as if God was either One or Three but not Three and One.
|Tardis - Wikimedia Commons (aussiegall 2015)|
How can God be three and one at the same time? Admittedly if we try to get our heads around it we struggle, but this doesn’t mean we cannot say some important things about the Holy Trinity. The Holy Trinity is God and God is so far above our understanding that we only ever really glimpse fragments of the mystery – but these fragments are enough for us. There are, however, certain pointers in nature and in our world that help us to understand something of the vast mystery of the Holy Trinity. When we think of water, for example, the same substance, H2O can be a liquid: water, a gas: steam and a solid: ice. This is not exactly like the Trinity, because we are not saying that God changes into different forms. If we could somehow have the same molecules of water, molecules of steam, and molecules of ice together at the same place at the same time this would be a better image for us. When we are talking about the Holy Trinity sometimes it is helpful for us to say what it isn’t:
- The Holy Trinity is not One God who appears as different beings. So it’s not like God wears different hats when he is doing different things. He doesn’t wear the Father hat when he is fatherly and creating, the Son hat when he is being obedient and serving and the Spirit hat when he is loving. This is a wrong understanding of the Holy Trinity.
- The Father and Son and Holy Spirit are not parts of God. They are all fully God, fully perfect, and fully individual.
Sometimes when we are trying to think about things that are outside our everyday experience, it can be helpful to draw on stories and analogy. Modern science fiction and fantasy can often give us a language and a way of talking about the eternal mysteries of God. Understanding the Holy Trinity poses us with a fundamental problem: how can the same being be different persons?
The longest-running science fiction program Doctor Who can perhaps help us to think about the Holy Trinity. Whether you have watched the show or not you will probably know that the main character is an alien, a ‘Timelord’ called the Doctor who has been played by several actors. He is particularly fond of earth and saves our planet and the universe on numerous occasions. Timelords are an interesting race of people. Although they look human and reproduce sexually as humans do, they have very long lives. They can regenerate. A Timelord normally can regenerate twelve times. This means that when a body is old, injured, or dying, every cell in the body regenerates and the Timelord becomes a different person. The same being, the same Timelord, with the same memories and the same history, but with a completely different body, mannerisms, temperament, voice: a new person. So how does this help us? Well, the character of the Doctor remains the same being, the same Timelord throughout the close to sixty years that the show has been on air, but he becomes literally a different person.
You could say that this is very similar to our ‘One God with three hats scenario’ which I said was wrong and you’d be correct. So we need to go further than this. There are times when for complex and not always clear reasons the laws of time are suspended and the Doctor meets up with other incarnations of himself to face off some evil together. On these rare occasions we get a glimpse of a fantasy world which can help us to think about the Holy Trinity. Most recently in the Fiftieth anniversary special ‘The Day of the Doctor’ the actors Matt Smith, David Tennant and John Hurt all played different doctors in the same adventure. These men were all the Doctor, they were the same Timelord. They had the same memories, a shared history and identity. But they were of course very different from each other. They existed in relationship to each other; they could talk, hug, cry and argue with each other. What is more, David Tennant’s Doctor was not anymore the Doctor than Matt Smith’s and John Hurt’s Doctor, and their Doctors were no more the Doctor than David Tennant. In that particular episode we saw one being, and three persons, and all were very much the Doctor!
Although this might seem to some (who are not Dr Who fans) a little silly, I think it is a useful illustration of how the Holy Trinity can be both three persons and One God. For the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are of the same being, the same substance, but they are three different persons at the same time. The Dr Who image is not perfect, it is just an image to help us to try and think about things that are beyond our normal experience. It is important not to get confused and think that the persons of the Holy Trinity are like avatars or incarnations, they are not different versions of God! Rather, each person of the Holy Trinity is unique, perfect, and complete. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have always existed - there was not a time when they did not exist!
Now all of this might seem all well and good, but we may be tempted to ask: what does it mean to me? What difference does the abstract and inner life of God make to my life? The answer: Everything! To believe in the Trinity is to believe in a God of love and to believe in God who exists in a relationship. Because we are made in the image of a loving and relational God, we can have a relationship with him. Through baptism we regenerate! We become new creations and we share the very life of the Triune God. The God who comes to live in us and with us is the God who dances in an eternal dance of love. As Christians, we are invited into the dance of love. We are to learn the movements of the Spirit, to partner with God and share in the dance of love for Eternity.
To dance with God for eternity – that’s what the Trinity means for us, and that is everything!