Personare, or, “Why the Trinity Is Not Like a Circus Clown Car”

Life was predictably mundane at L.W. Baldwin Elementary School in Paragould, Arkansas, until that day in the 3rd grade when a large and mysterious box arrived in the library.  With great show, the librarian opened the package to reveal a gazillionth-scale, table-top model of an atom.  It was awesome.  The protons were red, the neutrons were blue, and the electrons—each in its distinct, planet-like orbit connected by a wire to the center—were green.  After the great unveiling, a science teacher explained to us the parts of the atom.  The talk was, as I recall, all about those distinct parts: the red, blue, and green orbs.  They, clearly, were what was important.

atom model

Well, here were are again on Trinity Sunday, that one Sunday of the year when the preacher is supposed to exposit the doctrine of the Trinity.  I’ve often wondered if this is a fast day on the Unitarians’ liturgical calendar.  (And then I wonder if the Unitarians even have a liturgical calendar.)  Preachers do their best to avoid preaching on Trinity Sunday.  Even for staunch Trinitarian Christians, the doctrine of the Trinity is difficult, if not downright problematic.  On the one hand, we count ourselves as monotheistic first cousins to our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, but on the other hand the three persons of our Trinity appear to leave us particularly vulnerable to the charge of polytheism.  To Jews and Muslims our Christian Trinity is something like a little circus clown car, in which we’ve tried to stuff three gods into too little space.

This problem arises because our conception of God, like our conception of the atom, focuses on the three parts, like distinct entities.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit might as well be proton, neutron, and electron.

Why is that our focus?  Well, to understand that, we have to get a little philosophical, and I mean in the Aristotelian sense, not the pondering dandelions sense.  Stay with me.  It’ll be worth it.

Clown car

We call the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit the three “persons” of the Trinity.  And what is a person?  The early sixth century philosopher Boethius gave us the classic definition.  Boethius says that a person is an “individual substance of a rational nature.”  Given what we see on the news each day about the current political cycle, we might call into question the “rational” part, but otherwise I think this rings true for us.  A person, we think, is an individual substance, a thing, a me or you, individually packaged in flesh and bone.  I am a person, and so are you, and our distinctiveness and separateness from one another is clear and obvious, like a proton and an electron in that elementary school model of the atom.  Even when we think about our parents or our children, people with whom we have a close genetic and emotional connection, we know that we are separate substances from them.  A person is an individual substance of a rational nature.  That’s our definition, and we’re sticking to it.

And that’s why the doctrine of the Trinity is so difficult.  If the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons—heavenly versions of you and me—then regardless of whatever complicated theological speak we use to explain their unity, they still seem an awful lot like three separate gods.

But wait a minute…what if Boethius’ definition of person is wrong?  Actually, it is wrong, or, at least, it’s not the original meaning.  Richard Rohr points out[i] that long before Boethius decided that a person was an individual substance, the idea of “person” originated in Greek and Roman theatre, and specifically with regard to the masks—the personas—the actors wore to depict their characters.  Importantly, those masks weren’t merely or even primarily visual.  They were designed to amplify the actor’s voice like a megaphone.  The actor on the stage spoke through the mask in order to be in relationship with the audience.  Think about the word itself: Per-sonare.  It literally means, “to speak through.”

In other words, originally “person” did not refer an individual substance, separate and apart from all others.  A person—persona, per-sonare—originally understood is one who is spoken through, breathed through, moved through by another.  That’s what the ancient church fathers meant when they first referred to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three persons.  In the Trinity, that’s what the three persons are.  They are not three individuals stuffed into one clown car.  Rather, they are personares, speaking, breathing, moving through one another. They are the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Enlivener—or Father, Word, and Wisdom, as our Old Testament reading calls the Spirit today—who together are God.  The Father and the Son speak through the Spirit.  The Father and the Spirit breathe through the Son.  The Son and Spirit move through the Father.  The Trinity flows, each personare through the others.

Persona masks

“Whoa,” some of you are thinking, “Let’s stick with the concrete and predictable, like the good old solid atom with its protons and neutrons and electrons that make up all hard matter and that can be touched and modeled and understood.”

But wait: It turns out that Baldwin Elementary’s old table-top atomic model also no longer holds and actually hasn’t for a long time.  Physicists like David Wilkinson now begin conversation about the atom by saying that the atom is primarily characterized by “the flow of energy” within it.  What we think of as those crucial parts of the atom, it turns out, are at best nodes for the movement of energy.  The movement, the flow, is primary.  That’s where the action is.   Wilkinson says that even and especially in the quantum, atomic world, “relationality is part of the physicality of the world.”[ii]

I will be quick to say that this already gets me in over my head when it comes to quantum physics, so I won’t venture any farther.  Suffice to say, rather than science leaving theology behind, when it comes to quantum physics, there is ever greater affinity between its discoveries and what the ancient Christian mystics and sages intuited about God, the cosmos, and reality.  In the case of quantum physics, old models are in the process of being replaced by new ones.  In the case of theology, old models are being replaced by older ones, by the revelation that the ancient sages and mystics grasped (in a way that we have lost) that at the very heart of God and God’s world is divine energy, and the relationship between all things.  The ancients attempted to understand that energy with the concept of the Trinity.

Trinity dancing

For those ancients, the Trinity is nothing more or less than the recognition that God is neither a static unity nor three separate substances.  Rather, God is three personares, who flow through Godself dynamically.  It is the very nature of God to be in relationship, to speak and breathe and move through one personare and into another.

At least one ancient sage even included us in this relationship.  Theophilus of Antioch, who was the very first church father to use the term Trinity, wrote in A.D. 170 that “There are three types of the Trinity, of God, of his Word, and of his Wisdom.  And there is a fourth type, man, who needs light, so there may be God, Word, Wisdom, and man.”[iii]  What a tantalizing idea, that God would draw even us into the light, the love, the energy that is the Trinity, into the divine relationship.  Maybe then the personares of God will speak, will breathe, will move through us.  Then the Trinity would make all the difference.


[i] Lecture notes from the Urban-Suburban Clergy Conference with Richard Rohr, Pasadena, CA, April 4-7, 2016.

[ii] and Wilkinson, David, When I Pray What Does God Do?, 154


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s