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God is... Trinity

Dr Tim Chester, PhD, became a Christian when he was just four years old, praying with his parents that he would be a friend of Jesus. In his teenage years he worried about whether he had been truly rescued from God’s judgment until he heard the promise of Jesus: ‘whoever comes to me I will never drive away’ (John 6:37). He has a doctorate in theology and currently starts new churches with as well as being a writer.

The polarisation of human societies

We are a society of individuals. Personal freedom and choice is everything. The political discourse is all about individual consumer rights. We do not want to take responsibility for others. I am answerable only to myself. But, when others are also answerable only to themselves, the result is fragmentation and isolation.

Sometimes we particularise so much that diversity becomes division. We see this in individualism. Biblical Christianity gives dignity to the individual as a person made in the image of God and, argues Vinoth Ramachandra, “most forms of political liberalism derive from the traditional Protestant belief in the inherent dignity of the individual and the consequent right of individual conscience”. But, he goes on, “by absolutising the individual it turns into a philosophy of individualism: namely, the dogma that I can be myself without my neighbour.” As Peter Lewis puts it: “the centre of the universe is getting rather crowded.”

At the beginning of the film About A Boy, the central character, Will Freeman, says:

In my opinion all men are islands. And what’s more now’s the time to be one. This is an island age. A hundred years ago for instance, you had to depend on other people. No-one had TV or CDs or DVDs or videos or home espresso makers. As a matter of fact they didn’t have anything cool. Whereas now, you see, you can make yourself a little island paradise. With the right supplies and, more importantly, the right attitude you can be sun-drenched, tropical, a magnet for young Swedish tourists. And I like to think that perhaps I’m that kind of island. I like to think I’m pretty cool. I like to think I’m Ibiza.

This is the creed of individualism. As the film progress, however, he learns that it is not true. And the film ends with him celebrating Christmas with a group of disparate people who form a community in which he finds belonging and identity.

In contrast to individualism, sometimes human societies have universalised so that unity becomes uniformity. We see this in totalitarian regimes where the state restricts personal freedoms and constrains individual expression. For both totalitarianism and terrorism, individual human beings are expendable in pursuit of the cause - “the many” are entirely subservient to “the one”. Institutionalism is the same: it cannot accommodate diversity. The concerns of individuals can be suppressed to protect the organisation.

We see it, too, in more subtle imperialisms. We feel lost in a world where each of us must define ourselves for ourselves so ironically the by-product of individualism is often a desire for conformity. We see this in the McDonaldisation of the world – the spread of an homogenous, global culture which destroys or co-opts local cultures. Peter Lewis says: “We are encouraged to express and promote our own self-image, but as everyone else is doing the same it is somehow losing its force, its relevance and even its point. We are losing our uniqueness in the very age that affirms our individuality.” Colin Gunton says: “the pressures of modernity are pressures to homogeneity. We might instance the consumer culture with its imposing of social uniformity in the name of choice – a Coca Cola advertisement in every village throughout the world … Modernity is the realm of paradoxes: an era which has sought freedom, and bred totalitarianism.” This desire for uniformity is at its most sinister when we allow no space for people who are different: whether they be immigrants living in our community or handicapped children who must be aborted.

I would like to suggest that the Trinity provides some clues as to how we might live together and relate well.

Encountering Jesus

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity claims that God is one, but that this one God consists of three persons with one divine being. The Bible presents the following data:
·    there is one God;
·    the Father, the Son and the Spirit are God;
·    the Father is not the Son or the Spirit, nor is the Son the Spirit.

We should not think for a moment that accepting this was straightforward for the first Christians. Imagine you were one of Jesus’ original disciples. You would not just have 20, 30 or 40 years of monotheistic thinking behind you, you would have inherited centuries of faith in one God. Monotheism ran deep in Old Testament religion. Anything else was idolatry. To worship an image of God was forbidden. To worship a human being was unthinkable.

The first Christians encountered Jesus as a man who seemed to be God and a God who seemed to be distinct from God. They witnessed the acts of Jesus – stilling the waves, healing the sick, raising the dead. And they heard the words of Jesus – speaking with authority, claiming divinity. They saw the one who had died as a blasphemer, raised from the dead and vindicated by God. Yet they are also witnesses Jesus praying to his divine Father: both one with God and distinct from God.

In the same way the Spirit of God is identified with both the Father and the Son. Jesus is present with the disciples through the Spirit and he mediates the presence of Christ among his people. Yet he Spirit is also differentiated from the Father and the Son. He is sent by the Father and the Son, and his role is to bring them glory.

God in eternal relationship

From all eternity the Trinity has existed in love. God is not as a solitary individual, but as divine community. God is persons-in-relationship. But the Trinity is more than a close family. The persons of the Trinity share one divine nature. It is a community of being. In John 17:21 Jesus prays that those who will believe in him will be one “just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you”. Again in verse 23 he speaks of “you in me”. Addressing the Father, he prays that his disciples may be one “even as we are one” (v.22). Father, Son and Spirit mutually indwell one another. The Father is in the Son. The Son is in the Father. To see the Son is to see the Father (John 14:9). “I and the Father are one,” says Jesus (John 10:30). The three persons inhabit, as it were, one divine being. Each person of the Trinity shares the life of the other two so in each person the being of the one God is fully manifested. The eternal God-in-himself is a mutually indwelling, loving community.

Personhood in the Trinity is not defined in opposition to others, but through relationship with others. “The persons do not simply enter into relations with one another, but are constituted by one another in the relations.” The Father is the Father because he has a Son and so on. The Father, Son and Spirit are not persons because they operate independently of one another. They are persons in their relationships with one another. God is persons-in-relationship.

The Trinity and humanity

In the Trinity the one and the many are perfectly integrated. Unity and diversity are perfectly realised. The unity of God does not compromise the diversity of the persons and the diversity of the persons does not compromise the unity of God. And this is how it should be in human society. Humanity is modelled on the triune community. The one and the many should be integrated. God is diverse and we, too, are diverse persons with our own individuality. Yet God is also one and we, too, have communal identities. Human society is neither a unified whole in which the community matters more than individuals, nor loosely connected individuals. Neither a collectivist vision of society, nor an individualist vision reflects our true humanity. Trinitarian Christianity offers a way of being human together that integrates unity and diversity. We are people in community without losing our own personal identities.

The key to integrating the one and the many is found in a Trinitarian understanding of personhood. Because humanity is made in the image of the Trinity (Genesis 1:26-27), we become truly human the more we image the Trinity. Personhood in the Trinity is not defined in opposition to others, but through relationship with others.  Human personality can only be analogous to divine personality. But, made in the image of the Trinity as we are, human personhood is realised through relationships just as divine personhood is. The doctrine of the Trinity shows us that relationships are essential for personhood. A “person” is like a “mother” or a “son”. It has no meaning apart from relationships with other people. You cannot be a childless mother, a parentless son or a “relationless” person. What defines a mother is the fact that she had children. What defines a person is the fact they have relationships with other people.

This is the opposite of individualism. Individualism defines individuality as difference. When asked who we are we often answer in terms of our difference from other people. If I dyed my hair red to be different people might say I was “expressing my individuality”. Identity is defined by difference. But true identity is found in relationships. I find my identity as the husband of my wife, the father of my two daughters, a member of a Christian community, a child of God.

This means that when we act in a way to diminish those relationships we dehumanise ourselves. “We need others in order to know who we are and it is from others that we receive our value. When we become a law unto to ourselves, when we boast of our self -sufficiency and give ourselves up to a gross and swollen individualism, when we become self-determining, making up our own ethic and stands, careless of what others thing of us or expect from is, then it is what we begin to lose ourselves.” If we pursue fulfilment in our career to detriment of our children we do not realise our individuality, we dehumanise ourselves. If I choose to divorce because my marriage is not fulfilling my needs as an individual I dehumanise myself. “This loss of ‘independence’ [in marriage] is not an impoverishment,” says Donald Macleod. “It is an enrichment as we enter upon a life of mutual love and service.” If a society organises itself around individual consumer rights alone or diminishes mutual obligations then it impoverishes its members.

Back in the sixth century the philosopher, Boethius, formed what proved an influential definition of a person as “an individual substance of rational nature”. This tradition comes to fruition in René Descartes’ declaration that “I think therefore I am”. A person is a solitary, rational individual. But if what makes me human is my rationality or my rights or any other supposedly universal characteristic of humanity then it is difficult to say what makes me unique. “If you are real and important … as the bearer of some general characteristics, what makes you distinctively you becomes irrelevant.” I am lost in the mass of humanity. But if relationships define my humanity then it is a different story. The matrix of relationships of which I am part are unique to me. Only I am the father of Helen, father of my two daughters, member of my Christian community. The role I play within this these relationships defines my distinctiveness. “Everything … is what it uniquely is by virtue of its relation to everything else.” But, because I am defined by relationships, this uniqueness does not lead to a solitary, fragmented existence. We find ourselves by being related to others, not by distancing ourselves from them. We find ourselves in giving and receiving. We are neither wholly the active subject of individualism nor the passive object of collectivism. “The heart of human being and action is a relationality whose dynamic is that of gift and reception.”

When marriages and parenthood are deficient in love and its generous self-expression and self-giving, and when our old, sick, handicapped, poor or disadvantaged are ignored and unhelped, then the life of the triune God is not reflected in our humanity as it should be; then personhood itself is wounded and reduced. Where recognition of others, where kindness, gratitude and care are lacking, the person who has left these behind, however successful in others respects, has shrunk not grown in terms of their true personhood. They are diminished, not greatened, in their self-sufficiency.

Yesterday I spoke on the phone to an old friend who is leaving his wife so he can find himself. The doctrine of the Trinity is directly relevant to him. The persons of the Trinity are defined by their relationships. They exist in a perfect community of love – neither absorbed into one nor separate from each other. Human beings, made in the image of the triune God, likewise find their identity in relationship with others. We do not ‘find ourselves’ by separating ourselves, but in relationship. And so the doctrine of the Trinity speaks to my friend who is leaving his wife. And it speaks to the young student who thinks he can be a Christian without going to church. It speaks to parents who leave their children in nursery all day so they can find fulfilment in their careers. It speaks to the teenage girl who feels trapped by her family. It speaks to the church leader who will not let others take responsibility in the church for fear of losing his authority. It speaks to the family who are only together around the television. It speaks to the young man who will not commit to marriage because he fears losing his freedom.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not a stick with which to beat such people. The words it speaks are words of good news – the good news that we can find our humanity in relationship with other people and ultimately in relationship with the relational God.

© Tim Chester 2008
Source: Taken and adapted from Tim Chester, Delighting in the Trinity, Monarch/Kregal, (2005). No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the prior permission of the author.