It’s a mystery.
In the church, that’s the classic answer to “what is the Trinity?” It won’t get you very far as the answer to a game show question, but it’s the beginning of trying to understand something that has puzzled people for a long time.
June 11 this year is Trinity Sunday on the church calendar, one of the few times that calendar observes an idea, rather than an event. The idea of the one God as being a “trinity” (meaning three, or a triad) has challenged people since the church “clarified” it at the Council of Nicea in 325. But maybe that’s the important part - not the clarification, but the challenge of it.
The term “trinity” doesn’t appear in the bible at all, but is a part of the church doctrine (teaching) that has become dogma (teaching that the church considers to have been divinely revealed in the Word and therefore becomes part of faith). There’s lots of both, but the Trinity is the concept that God is three persons, classically represented as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and this concept is revealed in scripture. Therefore, it becomes part of our faith.
Seems simple enough. So is our God one or three? Yes.
The real answer, I think, isn’t in the definition of the concept, but the language we use to describe it. This is also why I think it’s a very relevant way to describe God - and a forever contemporary one, too.
When we say that the Trinity is a “mystery,” it doesn’t mean a riddle or a who-done-it. Rather, it means something to wonder about, something that we come to understand and sense through worship, symbol, and faith, to experience and struggle with, rather than intellectually comprehend. An ancient proverb describes this kind of mystery as being not a wall to run up against, but an ocean in which to swim.
When we say that God is three “persons,” it means the ancient understanding of personhood that reflects both the individual and the sense of that individual existing in the context of community. Individual, but not separate; unique, but not alone; separate, but of the same essence. The three “persons” exist with each other, but are not each other. Traditionally, the Trinity has been Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but we have developed other descriptions, too, such as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer or Parent, Friend and Comforter or God-in-the-world, God-among-us and God-within-us or Lover, Beloved and Love Between and others. A new one that I just discovered thanks to a colleague writing in the resource magazine ‘Gathering’ is God the Unknown, God the Known, God the Worker of Miracles. I’m really liking that one.
I’m really liking it because it reminds me that the Trinity invites us to see God in all the amazing ways in which God can be present in our lives: the wonder which is all creation, the universe and all time; the stories of Jesus, God incarnate, Emmanuel (Matt. 1:23) which means “God with us”; and the action in which live that experience, the inspiration, strength and refreshment in which we experience our relationship with God.
The Trinity is constantly active relationship. That’s a powerful way to understand God: in the world, in relationship and in action. And that’s where the mystery challenges us, to try and live in relationship with God who is the very model of relationship, to live in community with God who is the very model of community, and to live out that love, not alone, but with the world around us.
That’s not a mystery, it’s a wonder.