What Is The Trinity?

What is the Trinity? Excerpts from my forthcoming memoir, Sealed, attempt to describe the indescribable.

One question I get quite a bit from Mormons and post-Mormons alike is how I make sense of the Trinity. It’s a metaphysical construction that is quite different from the Heavenly Father of flesh and bones that appears in Mormon teaching, and as such feels inaccessible for many Mormons (and, to be fair, non-Mormons as well).

In my forthcoming memoir, Sealed: My Unexpected Journey into the Heart of Grace, there are two sections that, combined, comprise my journey from Mormon orthodoxy to Christian orthodoxy with regard to the nature of God. The first describes a period of theological wrestling, in which I came to reject the notion of an embodied Heavenly Father. The second talks about how I reconstructed my theology of God during my first systematic theology course in seminary. It’s worth noting that this happened over a long period of time—the first scene I describe took place about five or six years before the second, and I wrestled with my concept of God all throughout. (The upshot: spiritual reconstruction is a long process, be gentle with yourself.)

I thought I’d excerpt it here, in case others find it helpful.

* * *

I was restless in spite of myself. I read books from across the Christian landscape, largely unaware of the theological disputations the authors would have had with one another. What struck me most were the congruities. They all used similar langauge about God: God was transcendent and ineffable, invisible and omnipresent, holy and merciful, and—most baffling of all—deeply invested in being known and loved by humanity, even though he was incomprehensible.

The embodied Heavenly Father of Mormonism was much more concrete. He was the same “species” as humanity, with a physical body like ours and a physical dwelling place within our universe, who spent his time caring for his spouse and spirit children, the same as we did here. This, I thought, was a God you could get your arms around, a God you could relate to, a God you picture in your mind when you called him Father.

Yet there was something about the Christian writers’ boundless God, unencumbered by eternities of other gods’ expectations, that drew me. Maybe you’re not supposed to be able to picture God, I found myself arguing back, maybe God is bigger and more spectacular than the human imagination can hold. I took a walk one evening and watched the sun set over golden wheat fields, and wondered if God was there, somehow, really present, in the way an embodied being who occupied physical space could never be. Something in me stirred: awe; dare I say it—even worship. The Mormon God had never so compelled me. I tried to resist the feeling, but it was impossible to disregard once I’d sensed it rise within me, a kind of weightless and buoyant wonder, like being carried on a gentle wave.

In this framework, Jesus was especially confounding. According to Mormonism, Jesus was like us, a pre-existent spirit who needed to be born into a human body so that he could be exalted according to the plan; in Christianity, he was the boundless transcendence who took on human flesh. The notion of such a limitless Being stooping down to walk among us was so outrageous as to be absurd, yet it resonated deeply. I had already recognized a quality of the absurd in my experience of grace, when the meritocracy that had once controlled my every thought was exposed as an impotent trick. It was as if this God had enacted a comedy of reversals, like a medieval play where the king reveals himself to be a fool—except God had reversed the reversal. Instead of power revealing itself as weakness, weakness revealed itself as God. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The Mormon construct of God-As-Posthuman-On-Planet disintegrated, and I blew it away like sand.

* * *

I otherwise struggled to make sense of Christian theology, rooted as it was in a metaphysical framework completely foreign to the one in which I’d been raised. Professor Malcolm used that word again and again—Trinity—and my classmates nodded as if they understood what it meant, while I felt like I was drowning. Three-Persons-in-One-God, substances, filioques, grounds-of-being, it all sounded like a complex algebraic equation that had no discernible connection to reality. I approached Professor Malcolm after class one evening, explained my predicament, asked her if she had any “remedial reading on the Trinity” she could point me to. She suggested Moltmann, who I quickly discovered was anything but remedial.

The work for her class consumed me, and I paced while reading and writing, exclaiming out loud, “This doesn’t make sense!” and “No, that’s not it either!” But slowly, one painstaking word at a time, the pieces began to fall into place. I found inspiration from Annie Dillard, one of my favorite writers, who in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek encourages readers to “go up into the gaps…where the creeks and winds pour down,” to “stalk the gaps…if you can find them.” It was an invitation to notice, so that is where I began.

What I discovered delighted me.

The gaps weren’t sterile but teeming with life. Everywhere I looked, there was energy and interaction, give and take. There it was, in the complex functions of membranes, cytoplasm, proteins, and nucleic acid that formed our cells; there again in the symbiotic relationships between living organisms that populated every ecosystem across the globe; there still in the cosmic phenomena that pushed the edges of the universe farther and deeper into infinity. From the micro level to the macro level to whatever lay beyond, the gaps crackled and sparked.

Perhaps it was a leap of logic, but it occurred to me that this must be a crude analogy for God: that if God is creator, God’s essence must permeate the entire creation, just as any created work reflects the hand of its master. And within God’s creation, there was space. Space for distance and space for closeness, space for chaos and space for order, space for life and space for death—space enough for a dynamic interplay of radically diverse components, surging and stirring, to forge a unity more spectacular than the sum of its parts.

This, I thought, must be what love was: a dance of infinite space and infinite connection, where all things were made whole and complete in each other. It simultaneously stretched in every direction, came intimately close, and felt deeply particular—this force that formed the very fabric of the universe.

And, apparently, it had a name: Trinity.

It struck me that in the Mormon pantheon, where Heavenly Father was but one of many gods, and the path to godhood was obedience to the plan of salvation, the most appropriate parallel to this fundamental reality, this source of ultimate power, was not Heavenly Father at all, but the plan itself. The plan made gods, so the plan was God, a stern, unbending regulation, impersonal and mechanistic. Of course there was no grace in this cosmos, any more than a computer, however powerful, was capable of feeling. A plan is not alive. It is a system, not a Being.

At last I saw the beauty of the Trinity. It wasn’t a math problem or tortured theological gobbledygook, but a description, however inadequate, of the mystery at the center of everything. God was a community of love, in which each aspect of this mystery, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, were fully separate, yet wholly One, loving and being beloved by one another. In such a reality, not only was grace possible, it was inevitable, the only imaginable outcome of the power that governed all things intermixing and making space for each other and everyone, a dynamism so potent it couldn’t help but overflow and form all that is.

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