I am pleased to share this guest post by my daughter, Katie Laurence, a second-year seminary student at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California. I am pleased to share this not just because it is written by my daughter, but because I found it to be a thought-provoking reflection on the nature of God, and a very engaging invitation to think of God as more than Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thank you, Katie, for giving me permission to share this here.
We speak so often of the Trinity – “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” falling naturally from our lips with no hesitation – that I think we often forget how strange and earth-shaking this way of thinking and talking about God is. We tend to categorize religions as monotheistic (such as Judaism and Islam) or as polytheistic (such as Hinduism or the Roman Empire’s religion in Jesus’s time), and we usually put Christianity under that first category. However, in seminary I’ve encountered for the first time the idea that our Christian understanding of God as Trinity – as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – sits somewhere in between those two categories, unable to be defined as precisely one God or many Gods, but as three-in-one and one-in-three God.
Once we start to un-accustom ourselves to our rote ways of talking about the Trinity, it’s really confusing! There’s a reason you’ve probably heard your pastor make jokes about heresy on Trinity Sunday some years. The early church spent a lot of time trying to figure out how on earth to talk about a Trinitarian God, and they gifted us with some ways (like the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the creeds we say on Sunday mornings) but did not provide a final and complete answer, which is a blessing! Why do I say that?
Well, about 1600 years ago, St. Augustine wrote that “if you understand something, it’s not God.” In other words, we humans cannot capture God in our words and metaphors for God; God is more complex, mysterious, and wonderful and full of wonder than we can ever understand, and that is beautiful! It means that we don’t have to worry too much about grasping who God is, because God is always reaching out to us, and any attempt we make at speaking about God or thinking about God brings us closer to God. It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey: A lifelong relationship with God, not a perfect, unchanging description of God.
As one way to deepen our relationship with God, I want to share with y’all a few ways of thinking and talking about the Trinity that I’ve encountered in my time at seminary. To begin with, Christians usually use “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” which is a beautiful way of encountering God! We can also switch it up from time to time and say “Mother” or “Parent” instead of “Father” as a reminder that God can’t be boxed into one gender. In Genesis 1:27, “God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.” Men and women are both in the image of God, which means if we label God as exclusively male, to use St. Augustine’s words, “it’s not God.” Also, if you have a difficult relationship with your father but have a strong relationship with your mother, speaking of God the Mother sometimes instead of God the Father can help you connect with God in a new and deeper way! Try experimenting sometime with praying to God the Mother, God the Grandfather, God the Grandmother, God the Parent.
Another way of experimenting with the familiar formula of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is to say “Creator” instead of “Father” as a reminder of the amazing love that poured out of the Trinitarian God to form all of creation, including us humans and every other living and non-living thing. This loving Creator saw all of us and continues to see us as “very good” (Genesis 1:31). What an important reminder!
Speaking of God’s love for us, 1 John 4:8 tells us that “God is love.” If we take this claim seriously, if God really is love, then God is not some far-off, single individual or some old white guy with a beard sitting in the clouds. If God is love, then the very core of who God is must be relationship. Love does not exist in a vacuum, it depends on relationship! This makes sense, since we talk about God as Trinity, as three-in-one and one-in-three, rather than as a single, isolated being. For St. Augustine, the idea of God as love prompted a beautiful way of thinking about the Trinity: as the Lover, the Loved, and the Love.
We can meditate on this in many ways: the Love that binds the Lover and the Loved together is a way to think about the Holy Spirit, which is part of God, and also connects us to God in our daily lives in this world. We can think about Jesus as the Loved, the Beloved Son of God, but also of how we are all the Beloved of God. We are all children of God; God’s love is so great that it pulls us into God the Trinity in a way. God is Love, and we are all wrapped up in that Love.
As we continue this joyful wrestling with how to talk about our Trinitarian God, let’s move to one more image we can use: Trinity as the Earth, or the Earth as Trinity. Ivone Gebara talks about the Trinity and the words “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” as a secret code that needs to be interpreted; as a starting place in interpreting this secret code, she looks at a few ways to understand Trinity from our own human experiences. We can’t speak of God apart from speaking of ourselves and our own experiences, and she embraces this reality in order to think about new, helpful ways of understanding the Trinity.
To me, one of the most helpful aspects of the metaphor of Trinity as Earth is that the Earth, God’s creation, has both creative and destructive elements, and these elements are not “good” or “evil.” We wouldn’t call a hurricane evil, but it is destructive. We might not call rain “good,” but it is creative; it brings life to grass, trees, and animals. Some parts of creation are both destructive and creative: a thunderstorm might nourish some trees while knocking down others with its strong wind. Thinking of God the Trinity as the Earth gets at the idea of God being complex and more than just a single entity, and also at the familiar language of both loving and fearing God. God and the Earth contain beauty, joy, and wonder, and we also fear them as powerful, beyond our control or total understanding. We can see and touch the Earth in a way that we cannot see and touch God (at least right now), and meditating on the Earth can help us encounter God in a new and different way.
All-knowing and all-loving Trinitarian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Mother, Grandfather, Grandmother, Parent and Creator God, three-in-one and one-in-three God, God who is Lover, Beloved, and Love itself, God who created the Earth and also can be encountered through the Earth, God who creates and destroys, who is more complex than language and metaphors can ever describe, yet whom we yearn to understand and describe: Thank you. We praise you for creating us and every living and non-living thing out of your overflowing Love. We rejoice that you are beyond our understanding and yet are always present when we try to understand you, that you are in every metaphor and image we use to get closer to you and yet cannot be limited to those metaphors and images. Inspire us to always seek to know you better so that we may never falsely assume we understand you in your fullness and complexity. Come near to us and our yearnings for relationship with you. In confidence that you are present with us, we ask this in the name of your Beloved child, Jesus. Amen.