For the background of my thoughts on several subjects referenced here, please see some of my previous essays, such as “On Dual Nature,” “On the Meaning of Life Personified,” “On How I Got Here part III,” “On Being Israel” and others.
This is not the first essay of mine triggered by somebody’s question about why I am a Christian – as opposed to Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Voudou, Pagan, or a member of a multitude of other movements and groups and religions that connect communally to the Divine, punctuate their lives with ritual, immerse themselves in sacred art, formulate ethical guidelines, and reflect on the nature of existence. I’ve approached this topic before from different angles – how Christianity is different for me from others and how it is not different, and why I am this, now.
I’ve talked about falling in love with a man who walked the earth two millennia ago but whom I found alive and most intimately warm in the world and in my heart. Who would have thought? I talked about Christianity’s refusal to choose between transcendence and immanence of God but embracing and melding both in a weaving of a delicate, semi-porous conceptual line. I talked about the heritage of Israel, my Jewish history – the Christian covenant of Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. Most recently, the question came again, and this time, in the context of conversation, the heart of the answer was: the Trinity.
The Trinity (the Christian formulation of the triune God as Father, Son, and Spirit) is a difference in understanding the nature of God between Judaism and Islam on one side and Christianity on the other. It is a profound difference and yet, in my mind, it is not. The self-contradictory sound of this statement, unfortunately, is the truest part of it and what matters most. Because, in essence, Christianity discovers complexity in God and God-World relationship that bothers the others but that’s inherent in their understanding, too. This complexity helps Christians illuminate the mystery and deepen our understanding of it – helps us make our theology more complete (as incomplete as it ever will be). Our Abrahamic family finds that complexity carries a danger of infringing upon unity, and unity of God’s nature in any monotheism is paramount. The gravest and oldest of sins is idolatry, and as much as we interpret and reinterpret the term, in the end, the temptation to take our eyes off the ONE that matters is constantly there. We are an easily distracted species, after all. It’s the temptation to look out the window during math class. It’s the temptation to talk to the crucifix instead of the one whose image it carries. It’s the temptation to reduce mystery to analogy, and Judaism and Islam are properly worried of the danger – but the danger lies not in the Trinitarian understanding but in misunderstanding.
In contrast to its sister traditions, Christianity discovered that simplicity in perception interfered with the discovery of mystery. A daughter of Judaism, Christianity is as phobic of idolatry as the rest of the Near East, but it was born from historical events and subsequent debates that led to the formulation of the doctrines of the Trinity. It was born from the search for words that could better explain what they – the early Christians – lived as their relationship with God. From what they recognized when they felt touched by God. From the mystery they encountered.
It’s not a different mystery. It’s just a different way of verbalizing it and, perhaps, a different context. I personally find it a marvelous and fundamentally true way, but then, I am biased.
Now, the first Person of the Trinity – the Father – is rarely in dispute because this is God as Source, the Creator and Law-giver, that which Christianity started out with because this is the God of Judaism. And it is the God of Islam. This aspect of God the whole Abrahamic family gets from the same set of scriptures: the Tanakh.
The third Person of the Trinity – the Spirit – is perhaps the most abstract and difficult to formulate. As the least imaginable, the least sensorily represented, the ineffable, it is also the least discussed in the interreligious circles. The Spirit, though intended to be the most present among humanity in the here and now as inspiration and consolation, ironically is the least understood, but quietly so.
The hottest debate tends to concern the second Person, the Son. The Co-creator and Savior of the world. God who walked among us fully human.
The greatest stumbling blocks for Muslims and Jews seem to be the Christian assertions that God is “in three Persons” and that Christ Jesus is the “Son of God.” On their faces, these statements appear to suggest that God is somehow divisible, but this is not so. Christian theology has never meant to say that. I believe that it is only an insurmountable challenge if one understands sonship too narrowly and “persons” too rigidly. The Persons of the Trinity are aspects of God, ways of God’s self-revelation, and our terms for them are just as limited and their nature is just as unfathomable as Islam’s “attributes” of God. Our attempts at circumscribing the uncircumscribable. Our ways of defining God are real and true, but they are never complete.
One objection of the other Abrahamic traditions against the sonship of Jesus and the divinity of Christ stems from their absolute monotheism and their care for the line of transcendence between God and the world. Basically, God cannot have a son. God is God. Humans are humans. But Christianity does not abolish the transcendent God, and the flow of divine nature into human form does not dilute its monotheism, for the Three are not three – they are One and the same. One essence, One God, inseparable and indivisible. Father, Son, and Spirit are the Source, the Human Face, and the all-permeating Love which are the Divine Reality, and each is the other. The Human Face is Love; Love is the Source; the Source is the Human Face. Encountering one, we encounter all Three.
There is in this theology a wonderful intimacy between Creator and Creation, which Christianity inherited and developed from the Hebrew scriptures. Turn to Genesis, where the Word born of God causes the things of the world into existence, much like a writer’s word his imagined universe. Turn to the Proverbs, where the Wisdom of God is the co-creator of all things good and right – the moral and rational order of the universe, personified. Paul calls Jesus the wisdom of God. Eastern traditions and mystics of all persuasions have perceived this uninterrupted flow of God’s nature through everything we know – for “God” is the word for the Love that holds us all together, for animating force, for the source of life through time.
A conceptually thinking Jew or Muslim might agree that not only can God have a son but God must – did – does have sons a plenty if sonship is understood as “issue.” The living breath of God in human form is humanity, after all. Creation. To a great degree, we all are children of God even in the minds of those who take quite literally any of the Abrahamic scriptures. We all have natures human and divine – dual natures.
There is, of course, a difference still. Christians look to Jesus of Nazareth as qualitatively different than the rest of us: the Son not just a son of God. The One in whom God is apparent and Savior. But even that is a difference temporal not principal, if one thinks about Jesus as Divinity Personified in Fulfilled Humanity – something Jews and Muslims are essentially still looking forward to, in a bright if apocalyptic future of the end-world. For Christians, Jesus is a preview, a glimpse of the Kingdom itself, of the Human and Divine natures harmonious together as they were ever intended to be, of the state of being for which we long. By being here he shows us what perfect love is. By being what he is, he gives us hope. That’s how he triumphs over death. That’s how he saves the world.
There are metaphors of Jesus as the one who connects, brings humanity back to God from the abyss of sin. In one, he is a bridge that allows us to walk over the chasm. In another, he is a sowing needle that comes through both sides of a tear in a fabric of reality – the chasm between God and Humanity – and pulls behind it a thread, bringing the sides together, closing the gap. Comes through and pulls everyone behind. Comes through and shows the way. Of course, both of these images make him a foreign body to both rather than one with both, but every metaphor has its limitations. I’ve started recently to think in a direction of a wound being healed – new flesh forming between two sides of a tear, living flesh connected to both, one with both, leaving no gap and no death but forming new connections and letting the blood run.
I think that Christianity’s talk of sonship should not trouble the other monotheistic traditions so much: the Christ is not a fracturing of Divinity; he is a, sort of, condensation of It. A group of Jews in the first century met and loved and lost a man, and in their love and loss, in their grief and guilt and enlightenment, they realized they encountered God. And they searched for words to tell the world about what they now knew – because this is what we do, and because what they knew was God. And their successors kept doing the same in the words and circumstances that suited their knowledge and their questions and their search. This Christ, this Human Face of God, is the Divine that understands human suffering, human joy, and human weakness. He is the Divine that touches, loves, and holds. He is how God is With Us, recognized by some of us by name.
As for this very high Christology of Christ Jesus, the King of Kings, the walking deity with foreknowledge and might over nature, that is so unpalatable to non-Christians – Christianity itself has not mastered it. It teeters always on the brink of teachings the Church has battled against and called heresies, that paint him as a god wrapped in human body, or as the two coexisting in one. The Church rejected these and piled more and more precision-making amendments upon its doctrines. Christians have always been better at saying what God is not than at saying what God is. And not just Christians, either.
This is all right. The unfathomable will remain unfathomable. Such is the nature of Ultimate Reality. And we will continue to try to fathom it – to our own frustration and ecstasy, and to annoyance and outrage of our neighbors. This is all right. Such is the nature of humanity.
Still, I wonder what the landscape of inter-religious dialogue would be like if some of you – many of you – out there agreed with me that the Trinity is a profound difference between Christianity and Judaism and Islam, but really, it’s not.