Basically all known social structures have rules regarding who gets in and who doesn’t. These are perhaps never more clear, than when we are in high school. Some people had what might be considered the luxury of going to a high school where there was at least a consortium of groups that one could be a part of or conversely excluded from: jocks, retros, artists, punks, nerds, goths, etc. Such was not the case with my high school. My high school was like a much less impressive episode of Project Runway—either you were in, or you were out.
There was no hierarchy of society at WSR High. There were no sub-groups to join if you couldn’t make it into the most exclusive ones. Sure the popular girls sat at one table, but that was HALF the girls. The football players sat at one table, but that was 80% of the guys.
And while my high school life had its unique nuances, it wasn’t all that different from everyone’s: a study in class, exclusion and the insular dynamics of absolute power. Sure that sounds dramatic, but remember back. In the confines of the gymnasium on a Friday night, was any one more powerful than the head cheerleader? In those three and a half minutes between classes was anyone more in control of his surroundings than the bullying captain of the football team? Within the confines of those hallowed halls, we learned very clear lessons about sociology. We learned that in rare occasions power can be used for good, or at least it can if your popular protagonist is Freddie Prinze, Jr. We learned that no one can get themselves included in the most wanted circles, you had to be invited. And sometimes the invitations showed no rhyme or reason.
As trite as it might sound, those rules and the ways that continued to play out in our lives (have you ever paid attention at the company cocktail party?) have been painted with broad strokes onto our ideas about God. Seriously, who could be more popular, more capable of centripetal force than God? And who could be more wily, more bathed in mystique about who gets and who doesn’t, than the tyrannical lord of the universe? This has been the great question of religion, has it not? With God as the kingpin of the popular table, rows of angels cowtowing and offering him their lunch money... how does this God decide who gets to sit with him at his forever table and who doesn’t? What arbitrary whim destines one person to eternal fame at the head cheerleader’s hand and another to the spit-ball-laden, over-heated, teeth gnashing horrors of the infinite rejects table?
No wonder the modern caricature of God is so abhorrent to so many. It’s high school all over again! And sadly, no wonder so many of those who have converted to modern religion’s system of popularity hold their power out with such a clinched fist. After years of bottom-dwelling the social ladder, what could be more gratifying than being at the Eternal Cool Kids Table?
Religion, as I have suggested, has come up with no shortage of answers as to how God arbitrates this sorting hat of goodness and badness. For most it is some hierarchy of moral superiority, some inner Zen-ness that causes some to follow the rules more adeptly than others. For many religions there are grades, do-overs, retakes on the great test of eternal popularity, and a ladder to climb from suffering to purgation to bliss that has clear and methodological steps.
But strangely, modern day cultural Christianity is a lot like my high school.
There are no secondary groups to join or intermediary stops before you make the leap to the popular table. You don’t get to try out the Preppies before you go full Jock or give the Girls Basketball team a go before you try out for cheerleading. In today’s Christianity, there is only one cool-kids table and you better be clear on knowing how to get there.
In the old evangelism training I learned years ago, there was only one question that mattered: “If you died tonight, do you know for certain that God would let you into heaven?” Translation: “If God’s popularity final was today, would you know for sure that you’d get invited to the right table?” Some would argue that this is a cynics way of looking at an important tool to help people make a decision about Christ. I would argue that only a cynic would water down the beauty of God into a litmus test between some static heaven or hell. Only a cynic would take the diverse, lyrical, intense in depth and breadth goodness of God and transverse it into a pass/fail exam where the only question is answered by a 30-second prayer that a Kindergartner could pray. For the first 25 years of my life I always felt like I was a better Christian because I had “prayed the prayer” the summer before I went to Kindergarten. I was a quick study, I thought. I found comfort for years in knowing that I was so far ahead of the game on God’s popularity quiz. What was wrong with people that weren’t catching on? Seriously, if you’re talking flaming spit balls versus eternal accolades in the halls of the infinite high school — which one would you pick?
Can you see the cynicism?
Can you see the dark and twisted logic that turns God into a blonde-haired, muscle-bound arbiter of fame that let’s some people into his Senior Party, while others get unexplainedly left at the door to eternal conscious punishment? The strains of many (one I saw on Twitter recently) who must contort all kinds of theological twists and turns to make it obvious to everyone that Ghandi must be burning in hell. Ghandi just simply wasn’t in with the cool kids. Now way he’s getting in.
What I learned in time is that such a transactional world, such a tit-for-tat religious playing field has no place for God at all. It has no place for the complexities and the richness of an eternal being, subsisting in three dynamic and inter-related persons. What I learned is that the religious transactions of my youth had God’s name all over them, but so very little God inside. They were Fun-Size candies - lots of packaging, not much to eat once you reveal what’s within.
This high-fructose, low substance religion is the exact opposite of God. God is low on packaging. God appears in hay bins and desert dreams and transforms through mud-spit elixirs and mystical fishing trips. But God is high on content. God is the eternal one, the infinite being, the inter-relation of three perfectly co-existant persons, dancing in a harmonious heterogenity that is love its purest form.
God is the Trinitarian Life.
And the Trinity is not a line item on God’s list of too-cool-for-school skills. The Trinity is the Life of God thrown open to creation. The Trinity is the open door to the field of infinite love. Without the Trinitarian essence of God’s divine being, there would be no God and we would have nothing more than imaginary referee deciding who insidiously burns and who plays on eternal harps on wisps of cloud.
But these are dangerous claims. Dangerous mostly to the most cynical among us. The cynically powerful who have successfully—if not intentionally—transformed the beautiful and open life of God into a transaction from the destitution of geek-dom to the chosenness of the popular crowd. We are wise to consider the tantalizing and challenging words of Jürgen Moltmann:
What Moltmann alludes to here is the inherent difficulty of adding the Trinity on to an already challenging package of religion. What he describes in the remainder of his book Trinity and the Kingdom is a theology that begins with the Trinity and subjects all other doctrines to it. Imagine a Trinitarian view of the cross, of the end of the world, of creation.
These are imaginations that are deeply Biblical, rich in possibility and evocative of the kind of longing that only the real God can draw out. The Trinity must be where we begin to talk about God because it is God’s fundamental essence. It is the way in which God exhibits all of the God-like characteristics of grace, mercy, holiness, glory... not to mention the omnis: -presence, -potence, and -science. All of these are static descriptors of a static God in the absence of the tapestry of the Trinity: the fabric through which all of the beautiful attributes of God interweave.
But this concept is so foreign to us, so unnatural to our thinking, both humanly and religiously that most people avoid it all together. Much like Melancthon’s cynicism, we are prone to acknowledging even revering the idea of a Father God, Son and Holy Spirit, but totally disengaged from actually considering what that would mean for our real lives.
Before traversing on a journey of the three persons, we must first address their oneness. “The Lord our God, the Lord is One,” says that Judeo-Christian tradition upon which the Trinity stands. And this is a true statement. We are not in search of a tri-theistic religion, but neither are we interested in the stoic monotheism upon which the one-ness of God normally stands.
This is why the Trinity is incapturable by a list of descriptions, a thorough rendering of attributes, or a philosophical descriptor that compares its substance to all the other substances in the world. What makes the Trinity the essential feature of the Godhead is the fact that it defies all these man-made controls. Unable to fashion God into an idol of stone, we have, in our modern world, attempted to fashion God into an idol of words and attributes, so as to stand Him up comparatively to all the other ‘gods’ that might oppose Him.It was the unique draw of the first Western Christians to this comparative religion, that first undermined the beauty of Trinitarian faith. As Justo Gonzales writes in his brief Christian history:
How shocked many modern day church-goers would be to discover that their notions of God have more to do with ancient pagan philosophy than Biblical Christianity.
The institutional church of the first centuries (primarily in conjunction with Emperor Constantine) tried to pour the infinite fluidity of the Trinitarian God into the stoic stone container of the Greek’s god in the sky. And as time has passed, to most card-carrying Christians, the container is all they now remember.
To go into the reasons and wherefores of how this came to be is a discussion for another time, but one key point is germane: there is a direct correlation between historical figures who had a robust concept of the Trinity and their alignment with the person of Jesus. It might be so bold to say that it is impossible to fully participate in becoming like Jesus without acknowledging and swimming in the sea that was Christ’s defining identity—His relation within the Godhead. The Trinity is the defining relation. It was the Christian (nonpagan) philosophers of the patristic period that made clear the most revolutionary concept—it was not some distant God in the sky, some immutable light from which all things flowed, it was the dynamic Christian concept of a divinity in motion, three persons in relation that defined all of reality. This is what John the Apostle means when he says, “God is love.” John does not mean that God has love or exhibits love or shows love. Had he wanted to say those things, there were no shortage of Greek attributional words to allow him to do so. John makes a statement about God’s essence. God is not an actor among a world of actors, God is an infinite relation among three subsisting persons. It is into this relation that we are drawn by the Jesus the Son.
We are not drawn into a militaristic peace corps for Jesus, nor are we called into a eternal show choir/hymn sing. We are drawn into an infinitely engaged relationship that is the definition of what we know as love. God is the existence of that relationship and anything we know of it is a product of our share of the Trinitarian Life.
This is what we mean when we say that the Trinity is the foundational essence of God. This is what we mean when we say that to define God with the Trinity as a footnote is to have a God that is dynamically unChristian. This psuedo-Trinitarian God is the Lord of invading Crusaders, the self-justifying king of the Spanish Inquisition, the moralistic champion of cowards who bomb abortion clinics. In the absence of robust Trinity we are left with exactly what we aimed for: a god in the model of all other gods, just louder, better, and occasionally nicer, as long as you are on his side.
It is the Trinity, the love-in-motion, the inter-relation of three distinct yet interconnected persons that is the defining meaning and access point of the infinite God. It is by way of the Trinity, through the humanness of Jesus and the procession of the Spirit that we have access to the life of God. We are offered the opportunity to face the Father as Jesus did: in perfect embrace, to face the world as the Spirit does, with the perfect movement of breath on the wind.
The cross is only meaningful in the context of the Trinity, and it is the Trinity that opens the doors to the divine life, accessing the inner workings of the infinite, tasting the endless flavors of the love shared among Father, Son and Spirit. It is the Trinity that breaks open the gates of God that have been barred closed by too much religion and too much heresy. It is the Trinity that throws open the possibility of a life with
God without the stringent requirements and arbitrary selection of a high school prom queen. The Trinitarian God is no fickle maven of eternal popularity, but an infinite reservoir of vitality, disclosure and leadership, sourcing all that we have known as life and resourcing all the forthcoming possibility that we can withstand. It will not be until we know this Trinity in its Truth, Goodness, and Beauty that we will find God. We will, in most instances, be appalled by this God's openness, this God's glorious liberality, this God's ability to turn all the darkness in the world into light, even and particularly that darkness most present in our enemies.
This God is only found in Trinity, as an open relation whose face is that of the stunningly indiscriminate Jesus.
We will find remnants of Him other places, no doubt, for the Infinite infuses anything that rings of Goodness and Truth. We will even find the spark of God’s motion in the lifeless halls of religion, because love knows no boundaries. But if our interest, our deep heart cry is to find God, to drink deep of infinite beauty and life, that we will never be satisfied with sparks and intuitions, we will follow the trail, see that the door we have spent our lives searching for has only appeared locked, and in our searching, we have the very key.