In the late spring of my sixth grade year, on a June morning much like this one, half of our class was taken up to the middle school for a tour of the space where we would be students the following year. The rest of us, for one reason or another, were already familiar with the school and didn’t need the introduction. But it made it challenging for our classroom teacher. He couldn’t really do a lesson plan for just half of us, but he also didn’t want to leave a bunch of eleven-year-olds to their own devices for three hours. So instead, he handed us each a piece of plain white paper and instructed us to take out our pencils and our rulers. We were going to have a drawing lesson.
What he taught us changed the way I looked at the world. Literally.
Because he taught us about perspective drawing. We drew a rectangle near the lower left quadrant of our paper. Then we chose a point somewhere in the upper right quadrant, and drew lines from it to each corner of the rectangle. We turned the rectangle into a building using the lines to shape the sides in perspective. We drew in trees, shorter and shorter to indicate distance from the place where we were ‘standing.’
When I left our classroom that afternoon, I began to really notice this perspective thing. Keep in mind that I had bad eyesight from a very young age, so I had not learned to really look at things in a distance. I only looked at things up close. (Maybe it was also just a matter of my youth. Perhaps no child ever really notices perspective until someone else pointed it out.) I went home that night and spent hours with paper, pencil and ruler, drawing what I saw, now that I really saw it. I was fascinated with the whole concept of perspective. Nearly 40 years later, I still am, to be honest.
I’m telling you this story on Trinity Sunday, because I think there is a parallel in our faith tradition.
One of the important characteristics of Judaism, as different from the other religions around them, is that they developed the concept of monotheism—the idea that there is just ONE divine being, known to them as YHWH, God. It was an important distinction, especially as first the Greeks and then the Romans came into political power. The Greeks and Romans had multiple gods. Roman emperors even began to claim divine status for themselves. So these one-god Jews were seen as a little peculiar. How could there be one God who covers everything—home, hearth, health, wealth, the oceans and the skies? But the Romans let them practice their peculiar religion, mostly because it was so ancient. It had existed before the Roman Empire itself and Rome respected that.
Then the Incarnation happened—what someone once referred to as “That Jesus Thing.” Then Pentecost, and the descent and permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit in those who believed that Jesus was the Son of God and were willing to follow the Way of Christ. These followers began to wrestle with how it could be possible to balance the belief in ONE God with the belief that Jesus was (and is) the Son of God and that the Spirit that dwells in each of Jesus’ followers is also of the same substance as that one God.
Suddenly, God became a lot more difficult to draw.
And the truth is, since the 3rd century, people have been trying and failing to draw an accurate picture of this God we know as both Three and One. Millions of words have been used to try to describe something that is, ultimately, indescribable.
And that brings me back to that sixth-grade drawing lesson.
In trying to draw what you see, you have to distort things. The sides of the building are really rectangles, but to draw them to perspective, you have to turn them into rhombuses. The actual trees don’t really get smaller and smaller, the road doesn’t really get narrower and narrower. It’s just the limitations of being a human who can only exist in one place at any one time. It’s not possible to portray what you see without some distortion of what really is.
The gift of that drawing lesson is that it helped me see things in a new and different way. It pushed me to look—really look—at things I had never really noticed before. But how many things would I have missed, if I stood in just one spot and looked only toward the horizon? I might have missed the perfect markings of blue inside the tiny flower that grows at the top of certain grasses. I might not have noticed that if I walked around to the other side of the barn, the dimensions flip—the part that looked smaller before is now bigger. The tree that seemed short is now the tallest of them all.
The doctrine of the Trinity was developed as a way to help us understand God more fully—to see God ‘in perspective’. But in the intervening years, it very often became more of a hindrance than a help. Words can only go so far. Every attempt to capture the mystery with words will ultimately be a distortion. None of us stands in the right place to see God as God really is.
Because you know what that single point where all the lines meet is called?
The infinity point. Only the Infinite One, God, can see things as they really are.
I think the most important thing to understand about the doctrine of the Trinity is that it means that God is fundamentally relational. And that is the image in which we are created—one of relationship, not isolation. God interacts with God’s own self. (I am going to use that the next time someone gives me a hard time for talking to myself, “I’m created in the image of God, and God talks to God’s own self, so why shouldn’t I?!”)
Relationship is what is key. The word “relationship” means so much more than romantic involvement, a la Facebook. (And can’t you just see the Trinity’s relationship status as “it’s complicated”?!) Relationship, in God’s sense, is being in communion or community with others. With all of creation, really. If we really believe that we are created in the image of God, then we have to accept that we are never fully independent. We are interdependent, woven into the fabric of creation and in relationship with it. This is why care of the environment and concern about global climate change is a theological issue, not just a scientific one. That first reading, from Genesis, doesn’t need to be factually accurate and provable to be fundamentally true. Because the point of that story is not the how, it’s the why. God created because creation is good and God wants to be in relationship with it. With us.
That creation story became a treasured part of our Scriptures at a time when the people of God felt fractured and separated from God, one another, and all of creation. So God gave them a story in which God declared, over and over, that God created simply for the goodness of it all. The diversity of creation is part of its goodness—because each part becomes part of a greater whole by being in relationship.
So that’s really the point of this whole Trinity thing. Not that we get the math right, but that we understand the underlying purpose for it. That we need our God to be three-in-one in order to see more clearly the purpose for which we are created—to love God and our neighbor with our whole heart and mind and strength. The debate over the particulars may be interesting for a few of us who get excited about theology. For the rest, perhaps this quotation from Steven P. Eason’s entry in Feasting on the Word says it best:
This is Trinity Sunday, but people who have cancer probably do not care. This is Trinity Sunday, but those young couples who cannot get pregnant probably do not care either. “But, this is Trinity Sunday,” proclaims the worship committee. Even so, the family dealing with the wayward teenager, the couple headed for divorce, the person who has lost a job, they do not care. Does it really matter to them that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? They just want to know that God is God and that God somehow knows who they are, where they are, what they are doing, and what they need…We are immersed (or sprinkled) into the whole being of God, whether we understand it or not. We are not powerless in the world; we are not disconnected from the omnipotent God as Creator, or from the redeeming work of God in human flesh, or from the very presence of that same God in the Holy Spirit, who dwells within us and among us and sometimes outside of us. That is a tremendous gift to celebrate for people who are sitting in the pew feeling detached, isolated, alone, angry, deserted, depressed, grieving, hopeless, fearful, anxious, wounded, ashamed, and tired…Maybe Trinity Sunday ought to be a bigger deal. It silently sits there on the liturgical calendar, offering us the entire being of God in a relationship that we do not deserve but can celebrate having. It is a day to celebrate the One to whom we belong.”