Every Saturday morning in the late 1970s, my brother Robert and I would wake up at 6:45 a.m. and stumble sleepy-eyed to the big cabinet television set in my dad’s study. We’d turn on one of the three channels we could get in Paragould—ABC out of Jonesboro, CBS out of Memphis, or NBC out of Little Rock—and the screen would be filled with the static we used to call “snow,” because none of the channels began broadcasting on Saturdays until 7 a.m. (Remember that?) We’d sit expectantly in our pajamas, until at the top of the hour the Hall of Justice would appear, and the first Saturday cartoon, Super Friends began. Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman would be followed by Bugs Bunny or Scooby Doo, and Robert and I would sit mesmerized in front of that television until lunchtime, when cartoons were replaced by professional wrestling or an old Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movie.
As much as I loved that weekly dose of cartoons, my favorite part of Saturday mornings happened in-between shows, when the T.V. producers subversively decided to teach us something about grammar, or outer space, or how a bill becomes a law. If you’re near my age, you know that I’m talking about the series of cartoon short films known as Schoolhouse Rock. They included “Conjunction Junction,” “Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here,” “Interplanet Janet,” and “I’m Just a Bill.” But my favorite Schoolhouse Rock episode was different from all the others. Whereas they were upbeat and toe-tapping, it was thoughtful and quiet, as if it were inviting grade school children to plumb deeply into its subject. Its name? “Three is a Magic Number,” and the opening lyrics were, “Three is a magic number. Yes, it is. It’s a magic number.”
That’s as much as I remembered, but as I was preparing today’s sermon, I got on YouTube and listened to it again. To my surprise, the next line of this mass-produced, Saturday morning network cartoon is, “Somewhere in the ancient, mystic Trinity, you get three, there’s a magic number. The past, and the present, and the future; faith, and hope, and charity; the heart, and the brain, and the body give you three.”
Today is Trinity Sunday, when the preacher is tasked to explain in thirteen-and-a-half minutes the Doctrine of the Trinity. (This is generally considered by priests to be the most undesirable preaching date on the calendar.) I’d looked up Schoolhouse Rock because I thought it might give me a nice, gimmicky launching point for today’s homily. But instead, I sat at my computer stupefied for a moment, realizing that way back in 1978 Schoolhouse Rock truly had attempted to teach something of the nature of God. Then I remembered (and this is true) that one of the creators of Schoolhouse Rock is Jay Sidebotham, who later became an Episcopal priest. Wonder of wonders!
How is it that the one God is also three? Why is it important in the contemporary world to maintain such a perplexing doctrine? The other major monotheistic faiths, Judaism and Islam, as well as the Christian offshoot known as Unitarianism, find our Trinitarian notion of God problematic. They say that, deep down, we aren’t monotheists at all, that we’re asserting three Gods in place of one. But it isn’t so. In fact, most of the explanations of the Trinity discarded over the past two millennia have been declared heretical exactly because they skirted to close to polytheism. The Church has always ultimately asserted that whatever we mean by the Trinity, its three persons make up one God. So, how are we to understand that?
The challenge begins, at least in the modern world, because we are thoroughly Enlightenment people. (Don’t doze off!) We are Newtonians, and like good Sir Isaac, we implicitly believe that hard, solid stuff is the most real there is. To our common sense, material substance is the basic building block, right down to those papier mache models of atoms we used to make around the same time we were watching Schoolhouse Rock. It is consequent of that common sense that we have difficulty imagining anything that could be more than one thing while at the same time being only one thing.
When considering the nature of God, the challenge continues because we also use as an implicit analogy our sense of our own human self. I am the one and only me, and that is the surest and perhaps only thing I can know in life. As Descartes said four hundred years ago, “I think therefore I am.” By extension, we want to grant God’s self at least the individual integrity we grant ourselves, and a God that is three in addition to being one seems to compromise that.
But in recent decades, both our science and our social experience have outpaced such old modes of thinking. We now know that those models of atoms were grossly inaccurate, that behind all solid substance is quivering, impossible-to-pin down energy that constantly shifts and moves. And we increasingly know that even the human self is not so singular and monolithic a thing as we used to think. Rather than old philosophical monism, philosophers and psychologists now use images of webs, or even more recently, networks to describe the human self.
Philosopher Kathleen Wallace says, “You are a network. You cannot be reduced to a body, a mind, or a particular social role…It’s not only embodiment and not only memory or consciousness of social relations but the relations themselves that also matter to who the self is.” Wallace argues for a “more relational, less ‘container’ view of the self.”[i]
So, what does that mean? Whereas we used to think of “me” as a singular thing, a “container,” and all my relationships as things that merely touch or ping that container, the newer realization is that there is no unchanging container at all. There is no unalterable “me” in the center of my experience. Rather, my self—if we can even call it that—is the sum total of the network of relationships and identities I experience in my life. I don’t just have a relationship with my spouse, kids, friends, co-workers, you…I am those relationships.
Two illustrations that may help: First, a spider’s web. The center of the web is actually a hole, an empty space. It’s not really a center at all. It’s a void. The “real” parts of the web are the many gossamer strands that connect the web. Or, second, consider an electrical arc. The two solid nodes on either end are not the arc at all. The arc—the “real thing”—is the pulsating, moving electrical current between the nodes.
That’s the network theory of the self. I am not a singular unchanging thing. I am the network of relationships of which my constantly morphing existence in this world consists. This makes perfect sense when we consider what it might be like to go back in time and speak to, for instance, the “me” that sat in front of that television in 1978. To what extent can we say that the two Barkleys are the same person? The social identities and relationships that have pulsed through me and re-created me a thousand times in the past five decades, and that make up my dynamic self, are anything but static, anything but singular. And yet, enduringly, I’m also still me.
And that helps us skirt, at the very least, an understanding of the Trinity. The essence of God, the divine reality at the center of all that is, is not a singular thing, not solid and unchanging like those old atomic models. The essence of God is a network of pulsating, dynamic relationships between what we call the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As in those of us created in the image of God, in Godself these three inform and interpenetrate and flow to and through each other, creating the one God made up of three arcs of flowing, moving, love.
Can you envision it? I know you experience it, the Father who creates you, the Son who redeems you, and the Holy Spirit who enlivens your faith and life. And at the end of the day, that’s what matters more than any thirteen-and-a-half minute explanation. In the end, Schoolhouse Rock said it best: “Somewhere in the ancient, mystic Trinity, you get three, there’s a magic number. The past, and the present, and the future; faith, and hope, and charity…give you three.”