An Expansive God

The very short gospel reading assigned for today comes at the very end of Matthew. Jesus resurrected, utters the Trinitarian formula when he sends his disciples on the Great Commission. We know the words by heart, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” When we hear them, we feel that we belong to something bigger than we are. It’s the formula we use to bless ourselves and others as we do at baptisms and other sacraments. When we sign ourselves, we feel protected, full of grace, and blessed. We church folk invoke the Trinity often, but we don’t like to talk about it.

When Trinity Sunday comes around, preachers don’t particularly like it because many feel that the Three-in-One God is an archaic notion that doesn’t need to be revisited anymore. But if we try, we can always find a way to look at the Trinity with fresh eyes.

So let’s start with a trio of theologians from the 4th century,  because nothing says fresh and new like looking to the past! The Cappadocian Fathers, Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus were the first to use the expression divine dance to explain the fluidity and movement of the triune God. The word in Greek is perichoresis, a term that means to move in circles; It has the same root as the word choreography. They understood God as a dynamic dance between the source of being, the incarnate divinity, and the indwelling presence; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

They also taught that contemplation was the way to experience the presence of God within us. They explained that as he or she enters into contemplation and meditates on the Holy Trinity, the contemplative becomes part of the holy dance and is able to fully participate in the life of God. Meditating on the Trinity was a way not to think of God as a person or personality because God was and always will be inaccessible to rational analysis. 

As Karen Armstrong writes in her book, The Case for God, “Trinity [for the Cappadocians] was not unlike a mandala, the icon of concentric symbols that Buddhists visualize in meditation to find within themselves an ineffable “center” that pulls the scattered aspects of their being into harmony. Trinity was an activity rather than an abstract metaphysical doctrine.” 

When the Church eventually split between East and West, all the ideas about a dynamic God as developed by the Cappadocians stayed in the East. The Western Church, alas, continued to agonize over the “mystery” of the Trinity. They persisted in trying to develop a rational way to think about God, which is absurd because it is irrational to think of God in human terms.

The relationships between the persons of the Trinity; the nature of Jesus–whether he was only human or only divine or both, were treated in the Western Church as a conundrum to be solved and not an experience to be felt. The problem persists to this day, and it makes for some really bad theology: such as worshiping Jesus as God or using terms like “the Man Upstairs” to refer to a personal God who watches your every move.

As Karen Armstrong further explains, “When we speak of Father, Son, and Spirit being One God, we’re not saying, ‘one plus one plus one plus one equals three’ but ‘Unknown infinity plus unknown plus unknown infinity plus unknown infinity equals unknown infinity.’” 

Armstrong goes on to say that In our human realm, we think of the beings we know as single items or collections of different items, [but] “God is not like that. Again, the absolute ineffability of the divine was the key to understanding the Trinity. The reason the Trinity is not a logical or numerical absurdity is because God is not a being that can be restricted to such human categories as number.”

While God should not be restricted to human categories, we humans still need numbers and categories to communicate with each other.

Let’s take a look, for example, at the picture in today’s bulletin. It is an icon created by Russian painter Andrei Rublev in the 15th century, called “The Trinity” or “Abraham’s Hospitality.” It represents the three strangers, three Angels of God, as it turns out, who came to Abraham bearing good news. They are seated at the table, sharing the meal proffered by Abraham and his wife, Sarah. When you look at the icon in contemplation, you have the profound realization that you are the fourth guest, that you are in a relationship with this triune God. It comes to you as a flash of enlightenment: you are one with the Trinity!!

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So, very much like the Three Musketeers, who were really Four, or the three Cappadocians, who were also four if you count Basil’s sister Macrina, who was their teacher(!), it turns out that the Trinity is not a triad but a tetrad– a Quaternity!

Now, I would love to claim that I’m the first person to think of this, but, alas, others have gone there before, most notably Hildegard von Bingen, the amazing writer, artist, musician, theologian, and doctor of the Church who lived in the 12th century. 

In one of her illuminations, Hildegard draws the Trinity as Quaternity by adding a female element, a fourth dimension that expands the unity in God. Theologian Avis Clendenen has written extensively about Hildegard and her use of symbolism when approaching God. In her article, “Hildegard, Jung, and the Dark Side of God,” Clendenen describes Hildegard’s painting as an image filled with stars. It includes the knowledge and Wisdom of God, which is Christ Incarnate. It has a “flaming brilliance that signifies the mystery of God’s eternal counsel, which extends its gaze to the four corners of the earth […] and clearly sees all, good and evil. From the center of the Godhead, the Mystery of the Trinity, a golden cord flows into the egg-shaped image below it. Like an umbilical cord, it connects God’s transcendence to the womb of the woman pregnant with child.”

I am delighted to learn that Hildegard included a pregnant woman in her depiction of God! What a wondrous, unforgettable image, not only because including the feminine dimension of God is essential for balance, not only because mentioning the presence of evil within the gaze of God is unheard of, but mostly because she was, in her time, a respected voice in the Church, a woman who corresponded with bishops and even the Pope; not someone living on the fringes or a heretic! 

This amplification of God reunites humanity and divinity, as Clendenen contends. “Divinity is aimed at humanity; humanity is connected to divinity. The divine motherhood, the womb of the Word made flesh, is no less consequential than the divine fatherhood of God. Father and mother reunited.” 

The illumination also has three panels on the right, which depict the journey of the soul who seeks to dwell in the peace of the Holy Presence, as well as “the soul’s engagement with the forces of evil, [which] are inherent in the journey to wholeness.” 

During our centering prayer sessions, we have been discussing the problem of evil and how it is usually excluded from any theological discourse because of the idea that God is all goodness and, therefore, there is no room for evil in God.

However, it is clear that Hildegard had a different view. For her, God included everything, women, the body, and even the devil.

I think it is of utmost importance that our image of God continues to expand and that it be spacious enough to include everything. In the patriarchal society where the theology of the Trinity was developed, there was no room for femaleness, for the body, or for evil, that is, for the dark side. And that is dangerous because if you don’t deal directly with the dark side if you try to quash it, it will grow and fester and will come out to bite you when you least expect it.

We, humans, have within us the potential for good and evil, and it is essential that we are aware of it because that way, we can gradually begin to integrate all our parts, both good and bad, in our journey toward further unity with the divine.

Remember: the Trinity is not a mystery to ponder, it’s not a puzzle to figure out; it’s a mandala to contemplate, an illumination where there is room for everything. God—non-binary trinity, quaternity, they, them, continues to be incomprehensible, ineffable. It is an eternal dynamic relationship that we can never fully apprehend. And that’s okay. In matters of faith, it’s good to live in the tension; it’s good to live in a place of unknowing.

The resurrected Jesus meets his disciples one last time and sends them into the world to make disciples of all nations, to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. I hope that henceforth, whenever you think of the Trinity, whenever you cross yourselves, you will remember that God is not a trio of persons but an inherent, living part of who we are, as close to us as our own breath.