Have you ever wondered what God was up to before getting around to creating the universe and us in it? Meditating, like Rodin’s “Thinker”? Contemplating, like some great cosmic mystic, the beatific vision of himself? On one hand, attempting to answer such a question seems presumptuous. On the other hand, what we imagine God to be like in eternity affects how we imagine God to be present in our own lives and in all creation.
All metaphors are inexact, but I suggest answering the question by imagining God dancing. More than dancing – before and beyond and within all creation God is a dance, God is a friendship dance. From all eternity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit dance the dance of love and truth and joy. God is a dynamic dance of mutual giving and receiving and delighting. As they sought language to point toward an understanding of God as Trinity, the early Christian theologians used the Greek word, perichoresis, which means something like “to dance around together.”
Out of this Trinitarian friendship dance, God creates. All of creation (and each of us in it) is an expression of God’s love and truth and exuberant joy. We are created to participate in the dance of God’s own life.
Jesus came dancing. He is the perfect image of God – the perfect image, if you will, of the dance. Jesus proclaimed God’s love and truth and joy. But he didn’t just proclaim it, he embodied it. Wherever Jesus was, there was the friendship dance. Jesus comes to us as God’s personal invitation to the dance, inviting us to participate in the dance at the very heart of it all. In his death and resurrection, Jesus broke the power of sin and death, making it possible for us to dance again.
If Jesus is the invitation to the dance, the Holy Spirit is the power of God moving in us to RSVP. The Holy Spirit choreographs our participation in the dance. Wherever the Spirit of Jesus is, there is the friendship dance.
The triune nature of God is one of the central mysteries of Christianity. But mystery is not the same as conundrum. Nor is it the result of a presumptuous desire to explain more than can be explained. Quite the opposite. Historically, the impetus to clarify some understanding arose in reaction to those who, like Eunomius, claimed to define the essence of God. Theologians like Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa (Basil and the latter Gregory, under the influence of their sister, Macrina) reacted against such presumption. Collectively known as the Cappadocians, they argued that all we can really know of God is what God has revealed in Jesus and the Holy Spirit. What God is beyond that is unknowable. We do not use trinitarian language for God out of presumption. It is just that, as Rowan Williams has said, “It is the least worst language for God we have.”
The doctrine of the Trinity is the result of Christians living and praying with the reality of Jesus Christ breaking in on their lives, inviting them to participate in God’s life. It is the result of Christians experiencing the reality of the Holy Spirit empowering and enabling their participation in God’s life. The doctrine of the Trinity springs from the experience of Christians who knew from the revelation to Israel that God was one, but who, in the invitation of Jesus Christ and the experience of the power of the Spirit, came to understand that it was not that simple. God turns out to be more complex. God is love, dynamic love within God’s self – a friendship dance.
This is good news because it means that who God is cannot be separated from what God does. God has done something in the sending of the Son, Jesus Christ. God does something in the giving of the Holy Spirit. In that sending and giving we know God. But we are not just given some information about God. Rather, in sending the Son and giving the Spirit, God sends and gives God’s very self. No doubt there is more to God than we can hope to understand. But what Christians claim is that when God reveals himself, God reveals himself truly. Whatever more there is to God, it will not contradict what we know of God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
The doctrine of the Trinity means that at the heart of it all is relationship. Descartes got it wrong when he said, “I think, therefore I am.” It is truer to say, “I am related, therefore I am.” Or, better yet, “I am loved, therefore I am.” When Jesus summarized the law as loving God and loving neighbor, he was simply saying that this is the way it is at the heart of it all. Love – mutual giving, sharing and receiving – is at the heart of it all. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist through relationship with one another. Because that relationship is at the heart of it all, the quality of our relationships matters. Love matters. Relatedness matters. Community and communion matter. Connectedness is woven into the very fabric of things.
The doctrine of the Trinity is also good news because it means there is room for otherness. If there is “space” within God for the Son to be other than the Father, and the Spirit to be other than the Father and the Son, then there is space for us to be other than God. God makes space for creation and for us in it. Understanding God as Trinity means understanding God as involved in, but not overwhelming, everything. There is room for real freedom. We can celebrate our unity and diversity, not as a contemporary cliché, but as a reflection of what it means to be created in the image of God. God is one, but one in whom there is intimate otherness.