Divine Arithmetic

rublev-trinity-iconFor some people, the irrationality of religion might be rather neatly summed up in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity:  the idea that God is simultaneously One God in Three Persons, traditionally expressed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.   The Trinity involves a piece of theological arithmetic that insists that 1+1+1=1, and that doesn’t exactly seem sensible.  Indeed, over the centuries, our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers have been led by this strange arithmetic to wonder if we really do share the monotheistic tradition born out of Judaism and tightly held to in the Islamic world.  For many, it seems that we have three gods, rather than one God.  Yet, Christians have continued down through these same centuries to insist that it isn’t the case, and that while others might not understand it, to us, it makes sense.

Of course, the truth is, to many Christians this divine arithmetic doesn’t make sense — but that has never been a popular admission to make in front of our religious peers!  When I went to seminary, the Trinity was simply one mystery of our faith among a number of others.   After seminary, the Trinity remained a mystery — but one that was surrounded by a great deal of verbiage!  After all, as one might expect, this particular doctrine of our faith has generated a lot of written material over the years, as various people have attempted to sum up the mystery, or expound its deeper implications, for themselves (and, they hoped, others, as well).

Recently, I preached a sermon in which I suggested that while science regards a mystery as something to be solved, religion explores mystery not with a view to solving it but with a view toward discovering what the mystery means.  And, typically, the religious approach to mystery brings with it a variety of different meanings, depending on the person or community who is doing the exploration.

For me, as I have explored the mystery of the Trinity, I have come to see this exercise in divine arithmetic to be a manifestation of the divine sense of humor.  There is a story in the Hebrew Bible in which Moses, encountering God in the burning bush, asks for God’s name.   And God answers with what in Hebrew is clearly something of a pun:  I am what I am (to use its usual English translation).   The Trinity, I think, functions in a very similar way.  By holding in tension the ideas that God is one and yet three, we point to a mystery that has no rational solution.  None of us can authentically claim to know exactly what this divine arithmetic really means — in the end, we can only guess, and bring forth some meaning for ourselves.   This, then, means that the doctrine of the Trinity functions something like a safeguard, designed to prevent us from ever thinking that we can figure God out, that we can ever know with any sense of completeness the fullness of God.

Theologically, this should be self-evident:  no self-respecting theologian would ever claim to know God fully (even though some theologians sometimes sound as if they do!).   But on the ground, where faith is lived out, there are plenty of examples of people who forget this truth, who talk and act as if they know exactly what God is about, what God wants them to do, and that they have God figured out.   This includes very often people who think that a thorough knowledge of the Bible is the equivalent of a thorough knowledge of God.

The Trinity, which this coming Sunday is dedicated to, reminds us of the depth of our own unknowing.  When we encounter the mystery of the Trinity, we should not attempt to force it to make sense — we should not seek to understand it intellectually.  Rather we should allow it to scramble our brains a bit, and encourage us to simply bow before that mystery in awe and wonder,  knowing that the God it symbolizes is ultimately more than we can ever know or even imagine.

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