Cosmic Solitaire?: Why the Trinity Still Matters


Recall this familiar bit of biblical dialogue:

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they answered him, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  So Jesus asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, ‘For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.  But the godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal…So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God.  And yet they are not three gods, but one God…all three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal. So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.’”

And Jesus responded, “What?”[i]

That’s not the way you remember that passage of Holy Scripture ending, is it?  Well, in case you’d missed it, today is Trinity Sunday.  This is the one Sunday of the year on which we explain the doctrine of the Trinity and extol its virtues.  This is the day in which the junior-most member of the clergy staff is always assigned to preach.  That is, unless the dean fails to pay close attention to the calendar and accidentally assigns himself on Trinity Sunday.  And thus, here we are.

Saint Athanasius, A.D. 296-373

Saint Athanasius, A.D. 296-373

Later in today’s service we will recite the Nicene Creed, as we do each Sunday.  But for centuries there was a tradition that on this day, and on this day only, churches would recite in its place the Athanasian Creed, which is almost as old, and which spends the vast majority of its verbiage explaining the doctrine of the Trinity.  In fact, it is the words of the Athanasian Creed that I placed on the lips of St. Peter at the outset of this post.  For three quarters of Christian history, the Athanasian Creed has been, more or less, the definitive explanation of the Trinity.  But it leaves us unsatisfied.  It describes the “what” of the Trinity—that there are three persons, but one being in God—but it doesn’t explain the “why” of the Trinity.

There is a hilarious YouTube cartoon that church geeks share every Trinity Sunday, in which St. Patrick attempts to explain the Trinity to two Irish peasants.[ii]  Patrick compares the Trinity to ice, liquid, and vapor, three different forms of the same water.  He then compares the Trinity to the three leaves of a clover, each of which is distinct but part of the same flower.  But the peasants, who turn out to be much more learned than they look, quickly debunk each of Patrick’s analogies as heretical.  (I have linked the cartoon to my blog, in case you’re interested in seeing it.)  Finally, St. Patrick himself retreats in frustration to the Athanasian Creed and asserts what I have already quoted to you: “And yet they are not three eternals, but one Eternal…So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God.  And yet they are not three gods, but one God.”

Is that the best we can do?  If so, it may seem to our brothers and sisters in other religions that our claim to the Trinity is little more than a parent’s exasperated argument to her child: “God is Trinity because I say so!”  Worse yet, we may begin to question why we believe it ourselves.  That leads me to wonder whether we’re approaching the question of the Trinity in the best possible way.  Maybe instead of trying to explain it, we should focus on why it matters.  Maybe we should ask, “What difference does it make that God is Trinity?”  Is it so we’ll have some point of reference when we make the sign of the cross?  Is it so we don’t have to end our prayers with a doxology “to whom it may concern?”  I think it’s more than that.  I think it matters.

Less than a decade ago, we were reminded just how much it apparently matters to a lot of people.  In 2007, first-time author William P. Young self-published his novel, The Shack.  As anyone who read The Shack knows, it was a book sorely in need of a good editor, but it also became wildly popular.  In its first year of publication, The Shack sold a million copies.  In its first five years, it sold eighteen million copies.[iii]  Some people loved it, while Megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll hated it and said so publicly.  Regardless, people read it voraciously.  I read it twice.


Do you remember The Shack?  Did you read it?  More than anything else, The Shack was a novel that took seriously the doctrine of the Trinity.   Its sales, I would argue, demonstrated that people are not only not ready to give up the doctrine, but rather hunger for it.

In the novel, the main character has an extended vision in which he finds himself living in the household of the Trinity.  God the Father is portrayed as an old African-American woman.  God the Son is a rugged, L.L. Bean-styled Jesus.  And God the Holy Spirit is a wispy, sprite-like Asian woman.  These portrayals stretch the imagination and led to some of the controversy.  But by emphasizing physical, gender, ethnic, and age distinctions, The Shack also underscores the differences in the three persons who together are the one God.

Importantly, The Shack doesn’t ask how it is that God is Trinity so much as why God is so.  The Shack is all about why the Trinity matters.  It is worth noting that author William Young understands his orthodoxy.  From the mouth of God the Father, Young says, “We are not three gods, and we are not talking about one god with three attitudes, like a man who is husband, father, and worker.  I am one God and I am three persons, and each of the three is fully and entirely the one.”  Young knows the doctrine, in other words.  But beyond that, Young has God say, “If I were simply One God and only One Person, then you would find yourself in this Creation without something wonderful, without something essential even: love and relationship.  All love and relationship is possible for you only because it already exists within Me, within God myself.”[iv]

Trinity quote from The Shack

That’s key.  Don’t miss it.  Throughout The Shack, the main character witnesses the ways in which the three persons of the Trinity are, in fact, in relationship with one another.  He witnesses the Father, Son, and Spirit interact, laugh, listen, and cry.  This is not the Deist God, detached and alone.  These are not three stone faces, impassive aspects of an impassive God.  They are three persons in relationship.  They are active in their care.  The three persons of God love one another.

Another older and even more famous depiction of the Trinity is Andrei Rublev’s fifteenth century Russian Orthodox icon.  It renders the story from Genesis 18, in which three angels visit Abraham and Sarah.  They are three, but they speak as one, and throughout Christian history these three angels of the Lord have been interpreted as a vision of the Trinity.  Bishop of Chicago Jeffrey Lee describes Rublev’s icon this way:

“They are pictured seated at the table provided by the hospitality of Sarah and Abraham.  The figures appear lovingly inclined toward one another.  They seem to be peacefully attentive to one another, distinct persons in a dynamic communion of love, engaged in a holy communion that is radically open…We [the viewers] are [thus] invited into a transforming relationship with God and one another.  Ultimately we call this eternal life.”[v]

Andrei Rublev's Trinity Icon

Andrei Rublev’s Trinity Icon

You see, love is not a static thing.  It’s not something that can be captured and displayed like a moth on a corkboard.  Love is like energy.  It is dynamic.  It is a thing that, by its nature, always moves and flows.  And thus, for us to say that God is love means that, within God, love must move and flow.  God cannot be love, and therefore God cannot be love for us, unless within God there is a “dynamic communion of love.”  It is from the relationships within God that love spirals and emanates out to create us, and it is from those relationships that we find our own models for how we can and should love one another.  Bishop Lee goes on to say, “There is no healing [in our souls] apart from…the self-giving required to be in relationship with other persons.”[vi]

The main character in The Shack has had his life upended by a horrific tragedy, and he has retreated from his relationships.  He has become an emotional recluse, withdrawing from those who might share his pain and their joy.  He has become the one detached and impassive, cut off from the flowing energy of love around him.  And that is why he is granted a vision of the Trinity, not to explain it to him or convince him of its truth, but to reveal that in God’s very self there is dynamic communion: connections; relationships; the giving and receiving of the love from which all things are created, healed, and redeemed.  In God’s self there are three persons conjoined in love.  His vision of the Trinity reveals why it so desperately matters.  God is in relationship within God, which is how and why the love that is God flows so freely in heaven and on earth.  It flows among us, even here and now in this place, and it is the power that heals our deepest hurts.  That is why God is Trinity.  “Love and relationship,” God says in The Shack, “All love and relationship is possible for you only because it already exists within Me.”  Living into and sharing that love, as Bishop Lee says, is what eternal life is.  It is the gift that precedes all gifts, and for it, thanks be to God.


[i] I’ve adapted this from a joke found on the internet.



[iv] Young, William P.  The Shack, 101.

[v] Lee, Jeffrey, “Toward a Theology of Wellness,” in All Shall Be Well: An Approach to Wellness, edited by William S. Craddock, 20-21.

[vi] Ibid., 21.


God in the Storm

Dear Cathedral Family and Friends,

These past several days have been trying, as torrential rains and flooding have interrupted our livelihoods and upended our lives. In such times, it does us good to remember the love of God that passes all understanding and provides peace of heart even when the world outside roils. Perhaps providentially, the psalm appointed for this Sunday is Psalm 29, sometimes given the title “The Voice of God in a Great Storm.” The psalmist reminds us that, though God’s presence in the natural order is often mysterious, God is nevertheless here, with us, in the midst of storm, wind, and all other assaults we may face.

As you know, The Beacon provides food, showers, and laundry services to those who live on the margins of our society. In the wake of this week’s storms, The Beacon’s role has never been more important. If you are able to volunteer at any time over the next few days, please call The Beacon and offer your time. If you or your family has pastoral need during this time, please don’t hesitate to contact the pastoral care office at the Cathedral.

We will, of course, gather at the Cathedral on Sunday for Holy Eucharist, to offer praise and thanksgiving to the God of love for all the blessings in our lives, including safety in the storm. I look forward to seeing you then, and in the meantime you are in my prayers.

Jesus on water

Making music videos with Eliza

Usually this blog consists of theological musings.  Rarely, though, its about making music videos with my eleven year old daughter.  I chose Loudon Wainwright’s “The Days that We Die.”  (Though the sentiments of the song certainly don’t pertain to our relationship.  She’s a daddy’s girl through and through!)  She chose as her song Christina Perri.  I’m sensing a generation gap…  Her video isn’t perfect yet, and she won’t let me post it until it is.  I, myself, gave up perfection long ago in favor of grace.

Let go and let God?

A couple of weeks ago, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao clashed in the boxing ring with no less than four welterweight boxing titles on the line.  By many, the match was titled the “Fight of the Century.”  It turned out to be a real snoozer, decided after a full twelve rounds, with lock-ups and defensive work as the order of the day.  Anyone who called Mayweather-Pacquiao the fight of the century surely never saw Sugar Ray Leonard go toe-to-toe with Marvelous Marvin Hagler thirty years ago, or Mike Tyson fight anyone in the 1980s, or Ali-Frazer, or Joe Louis batter Max Schmelling.  Those were fights.  And not a one of them could lay a candle to the battle I’ll call the “Fight of the Millennium.”  That’s the first millennium, to be exact.  And the battle didn’t take place in a boxing ring.  Rather, it occurred at a church council in A.D. 418.

Fight of the Century?

Fight of the Century?

In one corner was Pelagius, a monk from Britain who was as big as an ox and just as imposing.  Pelagius was already 3-0.  He’d beaten two heresy charges in the year 415, and the very next year Pelagius’ opponents called for yet another rematch, this time in Rome with the Pope himself as referee and judge.  Again, Pelagius kept his opponents on the ropes and emerged victorious.

In the other corner was Augustine, who was himself formidable.  Originally from North Africa, Augustine had a checkered early life.  He caroused; he engaged in petty theft and other mischief; he’d practiced some unorthodox theological punching styles.  But when he finally found some discipline with the right trainer in Saint Ambrose, Augustine became a powerhouse.  He challenged one opponent after another, and each time the fight ended in a theological knockout.  He pummeled the Manicheans.  He vanquished the Donatists.

Pelagius vs. Augustine

And then, in North Africa in the year 418, the fight we might call “Carnage in Carthage” took place: Augustine vs. Pelagius, mano a mano.  But what, you may ask, was the fight about?  There were no title belts on the line.  Pelagius had not insulted Augustine’s mother, so far as we know.  (Although, given Augustine’s relationship with his mom, that actually might have led to a fistfight!)  The Carnage in Carthage was all about human will and the will of God.

We’ll come back to that epic battle, but first, let’s switch gears and consider what our friends the eleven disciples are up to in the Acts reading today.  I say “eleven” disciples, because at this point Judas, who betrayed Jesus, has hanged himself in despair and died.  The eleven remaining disciples are seeking Judas’ replacement.  Ultimately, they put names in a hat and cast lots to see who will take on the role of the twelfth.  In other words, they let God decide.

Most often when this passage is preached, the punch line is some bumper sticker theology such as, “Let go and let God,” meaning a radical acknowledgement that God is in control, and that we should give all things over to him, to move us through the world according to his purposes.  Sometimes this idea is coupled with the passage from Matthew 6, where Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear…Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”

“Hagerty popped the pills, and she soon felt a lot better.”

Our brothers and sisters in the Christian Science movement follow this idea to the extreme, when they disavow medical care in favor of prayer and the will of God whenever they are ill.  Former NPR correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty tells her own story of finally giving up her theology of “giving it all over to God.”  She says:

“[Once] I was sick—sick with stomach flu, a fever and chills…I had been raised a Christian Scientist, and at the age of thirty-four…I had never visited the doctor, never taken a vitamin, never popped an aspirin, much less flu medicine.  At that moment [though], what flashed through my mind’s eye like a blinking neon sign was Tylenol, Tylenol, Tylenol.”  Hagerty popped the pills, and she soon felt a lot better.[i]

We understand her impulse.  Everything in our being rebels against the notion of turning things over to God, of failing to prepare, or remedy, or strive by sheer effort to keep life on an even keel.  These things feel like giving up.  A “picking ourselves up by our own bootstraps” approach is our preferred way in the world.  Consequently, we are unlikely to recognize that this approach to life can be just as radically dangerous as the Christian Scientist foregoing Tylenol when she has the flu.

It was, in fact, Judas’ approach.  In all things, he took matters into his own hands, planning with meticulous care, aligning everything according to the neat columns in the ledger of his mind.  One suspects that, from the moment he met Jesus (if not before), Judas had a clear idea of where this Messiah-thing should go.  As evidence, Judas alone among the twelve criticized Jesus’ actions to his face.[ii]  And when Judas finally decided that Jesus was headed down the wrong path, he really took things into his own hands.  Judas hijacked the whole affair.  He colluded with the Jewish authorities and betrayed his teacher.

Judas took things into his own hands and betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.

Judas took things into his own hands and betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.

We see how that turned out for Judas.  Even if we want to grant Judas the best intentions; even if we are willing to concede that Judas wanted to free Israel from Roman domination in his own way; Judas’ management of things, his taking things into his own hands, was a disaster for him.

What, then, to do?  Do we micromanage our lives, trusting in ourselves to make good and right choices, or do we simply allow life to happen to and around us in hope that God will direct things from on high?  It seems that neither “I’ll handle it” nor “Let go and let God” are very helpful mantras for living.

This brings us back to the epic battle between Pelagius and Augustine.  To some extent, this distinction was at the crux of their theological sparring match about our will and God’s will.  History has passed their fight down to us with the caricature that Pelagius espoused the “I’ll handle it” mentality, while Augustine wanted to “Let go and let God.”  Pelagius worried that Augustine’s “let go” view would lead to moral complacency, to slothful and passive Christians who take no responsibility for what happens in the world.  At the same time, Augustine feared that Pelagius’ “bootstraps” view would mask the self-serving and corruption that always lurk in the background of human effort.

Matthias chosen

We might say that the disciples cooperate with God’s grace.

Today’s story from Acts, though, provides a more nuanced insight.  Considered closely, the remaining eleven disciples don’t merely “let go and let God.”  First, they confer; they consider qualifications; they narrow down the pool of candidates, selecting the two names that will be placed in nomination to be the new twelfth disciple.  They strive, always in prayer and faith, and only then do the eleven turn things over to God, acknowledging that they have done all they can do and must ultimately rely on God for the best outcome.  We might say that the disciples cooperate with God’s grace.

Does any of this matter?  Well, yes.  It matters at each and every moment of our lives.  Whether we’re facing health issues of our own or with those we love; whether we’re talking about international conflict and humanitarian aid or race relations and policing power in the inner city; whether we are building a spirituality center or feeding the homeless at the Beacon; the way in which we understand the cooperation of our own will with God’s will is crucial.  To an extent, both Pelagius and Augustine were right.  If we merely “Let go and let God,” we will lapse into complacency and passivity at the need and injustice we see around us.  And to be sure, if we falsely believe that we can accomplish good and transformative change through our own effort apart from God, we will lapse into despair when human actions invariably disappoint us and our efforts inevitably fail.

Cooperating with Grace quote

Understanding how we cooperate with God’s grace requires further reflection upon Jesus’ words about the birds of the air in Matthew.  The worry about worldly things against which Jesus counsels in this passage does not mean we shouldn’t care about our wellbeing, and it certainly doesn’t mean we should be passive in the world in hopes that God will swoop in and make all things well.  It refers, rather, to the character of our care.  Jesus counsels the practice, known in Christian faith as well as in all others, of worldly detachment.  It is a letting go of the anxiety that stems from our clinging to the things of this life.  We continue to labor for justice; we avail ourselves of advanced medical care when we are ill; we work for the betterment of this world (including our own lives); but we do all of these things remembering that it is not our world.  Nothing in it—including ourselves—belongs to us.  It is all God’s, including even our own prayerful striving for the good.  Yes, it is to be tended by us fiercely and with love, but also in the knowledge that we will always, inevitably reach the end of our ability and energy, at which time we must, like the disciples, release our efforts to the God of love, in faith that God will complete what we, in this life, cannot.

Today the disciples pray, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.”  I would add to that prayer, “Instill in our hearts passion for justice, strength for the fight, and courage to strive with might for all good things.  And finally, grant us the grace to know when to release our cares to you, the maker and redeemer of all.”


[i] Hagerty, Barbara Bradley.  Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality, pp. 1-2.

[ii] See John 12:1-8.