I like to think of myself as a scientific sort of guy. I find science fascinating, especially physics and astronomy. And I like to think I have a passing understanding in most of the sciences, and well I should have, since I had to teach science to a bunch of children year after year, (over 600 of them in the nearly 30 years I taught, I reckon). But I will confess one thing. I don’t begin to understand television. I understand electricity. Electrons moving make perfect sense to me. I have no problem with that. But then, when I think of taking a picture, moving or otherwise, and converting that picture into electrical impulses, and then sending those impulses over the ether from a transmitter to a receiver and that receiver being able to decode those impulses and produce the same picture, well, that leaves me a little dumbfounded.
Truth be told, I don’t understand computers. I mean, I know how to use them. I know how to set them up, more or less. I know how to use software. I can even understand writing software in various languages, not that I’ve done any of that except for some simple programs in BASIC when personal home computers first entered the marketplace. But what I don’t really understand is how computers take a bunch of 1s and 0s and turn them into word processing, or a web page, or a computer game. I know that’s what they do, but don’t ask me how they do it. I just don’t understand it. And that’s okay with me. I don’t have to understand it to use it. I can accept that it works.
Anything we don’t understand is magic…or religion. Aztecs believed that the Spanish soldiers riding horses were some kind of strange creatures since they had never seen a horse before, and had certainly never seen anyone riding one. And to me, television and computers are more or less magic. So are the telephone and the tape recorder as far as that goes. Cars, I understand. Light bulbs, I understand. Radio…well, I accept it, but it makes no sense to me. I know why it works, but I don’t understand how it works. And, as I say, that’s okay with me. I don’t have to understand everything. But, at the same time, even though I do not understand it, I acknowledge its existence. You won’t ever catch me saying there is no such thing as television simply because I don’t understand how it works.
And this, being Sunday and all, leads me directly to the Trinity. Today is Trinity Sunday in the Roman Catholic Church, and being Trinity Sunday, I should devote a little space and time to trying to explain just what that means, no little feat. People have been arguing about that for the past 2000 years. In fact, back in the 4th century, Christians were killing each other over the nature of the trinity. Just what is the trinity? To any non-Christian, the whole idea of the Trinity must sound like polytheism, or just a bunch of words. And imagine that a lot of people who are a-religious have no idea what I’m talking about.
The Holy Trinity can be summarized quite easily. It’s easy to say what it is. It’s hard to understand it. The concept of the Holy Trinity is that God is one deity with three separate persons. There is God the father, God the son (namely, Jesus), and God, the Holy Spirit. Three persons, one God. Pretty simple. Saint Patrick used the shamrock to describe the trinity to the pagan Celts, three leaves on one stem. Under the concept of the Trinity, God is God, but so is Jesus, and so is the Holy Spirit, all equal, all aspects of the single godhead (just for you Santina). This was all made clear at the council of Nicea in 325 CE.
Not all Christian churches acknowledge the Trinity, however. The Jehovah’s Witnesses do not. The Latter Day Saints have their own view of the father, son and holy spirit, as three personalities but not identical. The American Society of Friends, the Unitarians, and other protestant churches are ambivalent towards the idea of the trinity. Muslims accept Jesus, as a prophet, but do not accept the concept of a triune God. And the truth is that you can read the bible cover to cover, and never see any mention of a trinity. So from where does this idea spring?
In the Gospel of Matthew, the disciples are commanded by Jesus to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (they used to read Holy Ghost, but Ghost has been replaced by spirit in recent times to dislodge images of Caspar). That doesn’t make a trinity, however. All early Christian documents, however, going as far back as early Christian documents go, refer to Jesus as Lord using the word Kyrios, which the ancient Greeks used to denote divinity. The disciple Thomas, moreover, refers to Jesus as “My Lord and my God.” Of course, he had just seen him risen from the dead and felt the nail wounds in his hands and feet so he might have been a little impressed at the moment.
Getting away from Christian sources, Pliny the Younger, governor of Pontus from 111-113 CE wrote of the Christians, “They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.” This shows that the Romans were aware that the Christians were worshipping Jesus as a God, or divine being, and wanted to squash this superstition. So this would seem to prove that the early Christians believed that Jesus was God.
Yet Jesus refers to God as a separate entity. He refers to God as father. So if Jesus is God, and God is God, there’s a duality there. Moreover, the Old Testament does have God refer to Himself/Herself as a plurality. God says, “Let US make man in OUR image.” Some may suggest God is referring to the angels here, but angels are not creative spirits. Only God can create. A little later in the text of Genesis God says, “Behold, man has become like one of us.” (Gen. 3:22) So God is clearly using the plural. And Jesus also said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” And the Gospel of John asserts that “In the beginning was the word. And the word was with God. And the word WAS God.” So early church fathers reasoned that God was both God the father, and Jesus. But what of the Holy Spirit?
Well other references indicate that the Holy Spirit is also an aspect of God. Peter says in The Book of Acts, ” ‘Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have LIED TO THE HOLY SPIRIT and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? YOU HAVE NOT LIED TO ME, BUT TO GOD.’” And Saint Paul says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
These are just a few of the biblical references. Certainly the whole idea of a holy trinity is church tradition. And it can easily be argued that the whole concept came from early church leaders trying to make sense out of all the various teachings long after Jesus had left this world. On the other hand, it is almost certain that not everything Jesus taught was set down in the gospels. Jesus himself tells his close followers that he tells them things that he doesn’t tell the masses. Some of his teachings may have been passed down from one “apostle” to another, each disciple teaching his students the secret teachings. The bottom line is this: it just doesn’t really matter.
None of this is absolutely central to having faith. What is God like? Who knows? Who can say? Like children, we look to these matters and try to find some explanation we can understand, but most of the time we understand nothing. It’s like trying to tell a child that sex is fun. It doesn’t sound like fun to them. It just sounds icky. I don’t begin to think that I have any understanding of God at all. I listen to people try to explain the divine and I think of the Zen masters who know that there are some things that cannot be understood, and some answers we will never have. I know we don’t like that. We like to think we can understand everything. But we can’t. But just because I don’t understand God, doesn’t mean that God, or the creative power, or the Pranja, or the Tao, or whatever you want to call it, or him, or her, doesn’t exist.
There are aspects to quantum physics that would seem to make no sense at all. According to modern physicists, you CAN be in two places at once, and you change matter simply by the act of observing it. Travel through time is possible, and there are an infinite number of universes. All of that sounds pretty weird, if you ask me. But I’m not saying it isn’t true.
In the end, it’s all like television. I know that television exists. I don’t have to understand it to believe in it. And I don’t have to understand the Holy Trinity, or God, for that matter, to believe that something exists. And if, it turns out that the whole idea of the Holy Trinity is some grand error, I won’t be upset. I do believe in a Holy Trinity, but it is not central to my core belief. It has nothing to do with the message of Jesus. What does Jesus say? He says (in John 16), “For the Father himself loves you…” God loves you. Saint Paul, in his letter to the Romans, said, “the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” That is the message of Jesus. We are all one spirit; we are all divine. We are all children of God, loved, and connected by one spirit. And that spirit is love. And is there anything holier than that?