One of the most frustrating characteristics of the human mind is our desire – maybe our need – to describe in rational terms and explain logically anything that we think is important. We’re always trying to turn the complex and difficult into dogma, whether the dogma is religious, social, political, or scientific. But the greatest ideas and perceptions of human beings go far beyond that mental tool logic, far deeper and wider than any dogma. We want concrete, reasonable, logical reality and truth. What God gives us is a universe full of mystery. We’re capable of living in that mystery, if we don’t focus exclusively on our desire for logical explanation.
The doctrine of the Trinity is a good example of dogma at its most frustrating. Like the Ptolemaic description of the solar system with its crystalline spheres holding the planets and circling the earth, the doctrine of the Trinity was an attempt to explain logically what could be perceived but not tested with the instruments available. We’ve left the Ptolemaic explanation of the solar system behind as we’ve gathered more data with more advanced instruments, but we’re still assuming we can eventually understand everything there is to know about the universe. What if we can’t? We haven’t left the doctrine of the Trinity behind – perhaps because we have no new instruments to measure its accuracy, or perhaps because it provides us with a comprehensible explanation of the inexplicable. Or perhaps, just perhaps, because it reaches us on a deeper level of understanding beyond logic.
The doctrine of the Trinity was developed in the 4th century as a refutation of the Arian heresy, which held that Jesus was not co-eternal with God. The Nicene Creed, which was the original statement of the doctrine, was an attempt to explain logically the mystery of the divinity of Jesus that is hinted at in the New Testament. It rapidly became accepted dogma, expressing the foundational beliefs of Christianity. The Nicene Creed in its various versions and the similar Apostles’ Creed are recited in worship (in one form or another) in virtually all Christian churches today.
The doctrine of the Trinity is also one of the main reasons many people reject Christianity. To us today, it is about as logical and realistic as the Ptolemaic description of the solar system. I tend to think of it as a 4th-century political tool used by the early bishops to maintain orthodoxy. My main difficulty with it is that it tries to sound concrete and logical. It tries to explain.
And yet I find the doctrine beautiful and meaningful, even while I struggle with it as a rational description of who and what God is. It speaks to me in profound ways of our yearning to know God and of the complex and wonderful ways in which we encounter God. It reflects, in its flawed and human way, some of the sacred and profound ways in which God reveals Godself to us. The Eastern Orthodox image of the members of the Trinity joined in a dance is a compelling symbol of the nature of our relationship in and to God, with all its complexity, individuality, and unity.
If I recite the Apostles’ Creed (the doctrinal statement most often used in my own church) as a concrete, logical statement of what I believe, I have to insert mental reservations here and there – I believe in God the Father Almighty (well, God the Father/Mother/lover/lord/power almighty) . . . . his only begotten son (wait a minute, what about that bit of God that lives in each of us and in everything that is?) . . . . the resurrection of the body (well, at least I believe the chemical elements of my body will get reused by the ecosystem) . . . . But if I recite the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed as a description of the wonderful and mysterious ways in which we encounter God, it can lift me up into worship and delight. God is my creator, my lifelong companion, the being who inspires me and comforts me in suffering, who teaches me love and justice and peace and acceptance. God is my joy, and my rock.