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12/02/2016

Rediscovering the Trinity


I used to hate the Trinity. It seems strange to hate a creed but I would go as far as saying ‘hate’ because I blamed it for separating me from the church.

I grew up a Christian, attending the local church with my mother and siblings (whatever that local church might be denominationally-speaking). As a toddler, it was an Anglican church – the church I was baptised in – and from there, after we moved house, our local church was Methodist (a church which you could write a dark sitcom about, due to the personalities that ran the place). In my later teens I found myself back at an Anglican church, where my best friend’s father was vicar and my other best friend's father - Alan, a police officer who recently passed on - served as a great mentor to us somewhat wayward young men.  At no point in this upbringing was I educated on the Trinity, at least not knowingly.

My own father was also seemingly a Christian, though he steadfastly refused to go to church. I never quite worked out his position as a youngster because he spoke a great deal about the moral teachings of Jesus but was very dogged – to the point of appearing rude - in his determination not to set foot in a church. He never attended any of the baptisms of my younger siblings, for example. He in fact only relented when the first of his children got married, and has since attended for other such occasions.

It was only as I got to my late teens I found out my father’s estranged brother was a paid-up member of the Jehovah’s Witness and that my grandfather was also well acquainted with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, having attended their mass gatherings on returning home from the Second World War as a disillusioned young man.

At the age of twenty, then at university and moving into a shared house, I bought myself a Bible. The Bible had written on the front of it, in gold ornate lettering, ‘Holy Trinity Bible’. I had not paid it much attention at first until in passing I asked my Irish Catholic housemate what it meant. The explanation of ‘One in Three’ and ‘Jesus is God’ rocked me – it seemed totally out of keeping with my understanding. And from there, I doubted whether I could be a Christian.

I felt genuinely cheated by the Trinity on the one hand, and perplexed on the other that this strange doctrine could have stood for so long. Why did nobody tell me about this? Why couldn’t the church realise they were wrong?!

The long story in a nutshell, after that, was spending the next decade in on-off acquaintance with the Unitarians. The Unitarian church promised much, as a non-trinitarian church, though I soon realised they were striding towards becoming a non-Christian movement.  But the affinity continued, nonetheless, for I had nowhere to go until around five or six years ago I found the Quakers.

The Quakers are in fact also a non-trinitarian church, at least in the UK, but strangely enough, it was through them that I began to reconcile myself with Trinitarian language. With the Quakers I sat in prayer for an hour each week, for three years - something I had probably never done and certainly never did much as a fledgling Unitarian. As a Unitarian, my early years saw me lean towards books and rational argument – and I suppose, for me at least, what amounted to endless reading and rumination. Ultimately I have always been a pragmatic, analytical and lateral thinker – this mindset served me well in my academic studies and has propelled my career, but I came to realise theological questions cannot be solved with the same approach, as much as I tried.

But, through that precious hour of silence kept each week - sat alongside ‘Weighty Friends’ - I quite suddenly started having a real sense of the God's presence. No longer a matter of abstract speculation, ‘faith’ became something more tangible. 

These encounters were twofold – sharp, intense ‘rushes’ on occasion during Meeting for Worship (what George Fox called 'openings') alongside what might be described as ‘background hum’ that emerged in-between that treasured weekly hour. A lasting memory of Meeting for Worship was sitting there and having this sense of being physically shrunken, this deep sense of awe at sitting here – still for a moment - on a planet circling the sun, which in turn was part of some much bigger unfathomable system we called the universe. 

And yet, all the while, there was also an acute awareness of the other human beings next to me, their breaths, their sniffles, the powerful words they uttered from time to time. Their sheer warmth. 

I came to recognise there was something powerful and relational underpinning it all – God ‘out there, over us’, God ‘down here, around us’, God ‘in them, in me’. So I found my perspective shift, not immediately, but irretrievably - no longer ‘El-Echad’, the One God governing us from afar, but ‘Immanuel’, the God travelling with us. As that well-known verse goes:

Three folds of the cloth, yet only one napkin is there,
Three joints in the finger, but still only one finger fair,
Three leaves of the shamrock, yet no more than one shamrock to wear,
Frost, snow-flakes and ice, all in water their origin share,
Three Persons in God: to one God alone we make our prayer.

I cannot claim to have reconciled fully with the Trinity – it remains something that is hard to grasp, hard to nail down concretely for my rationally-inclined mind. Yet I have also come to feel the Trinity somehow, feel it in my sense of being – it has a mysterious, gentle, poetic quality – and it seems to point to a reality.

So have I become a capital ‘T’ Trinitarian rather than a capital ‘U’ Unitarian? I would in fact say ‘probably not’ to both labels now, but maintain that I am simply a liberal Christian, a follower of Jesus who tries to be searching of and responsive to God's presence, trying to make my way as a better person than I was the day before. This is sufficient for me.

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Here is a poem I have found which points, for me, to the relational nature of the Trinity:

There they sit eternally,trinity
Encircling the table, the angelic three.
And yet not angels – Holy Trinity.

Here I stand in time, aware
Of love inviting me to join them there
And in their circling fellowship to share.

Entering, I hear them say:
“I am the end of journeying, the way;
Where, now arrived, you shall forever stay.”

Love again then speaks his word:
“This joy grows deeper as the bliss is shared.”
At that I turn and beckon to my paired.

Now she joins the ring of grace
And, side by side, we share the Three’s embrace;
Until we welcome others to this place.

Widening still, the circle grows,
As each brings others to the love that flows
And, in the bringing, true belonging knows.

“Limitless,” declares the Three,
“Love’s spreading circle has no boundary.
And in its compass one day all will be.

(A poem based on Rublev's Icon, by Neil D Booth - please see visit website here).

1 comment:

Bob Pounder said...

Hi Matt,
The Trinity makes perfect sense when we look at the world as it is, in a state of flux, and see the dialectic as a state of constant change. The Trinity, I think is a process that we can observe in nature. An example of that is where heat, fuel and oxygen combine to give the energy of fire. It's known as 'the triangle of fire'. I think that this universal dynamic in some way has been observed and then transformed into a static model, a theological construct, the Trinity, a dogma, an instrument of clerical control that is required to be acknowledged and worshipped. But it is only an abstraction, again a theological construct or model. The Trinity is not God no more than the wind or the rain. Rather, all these observable things are a manifestation of His presence in the universe. As Jesus told us, 'God is one' and we are also told that, 'God is love' (1 John 4). This God (love) is the divine energy at the centre of the universe, bringing all things into being. So we worship God in spirit and in truth.
Bob
(Unitarian Minister)