What has the Trinity got to do with everyday life?

Today is Trinity Sunday, when the Church remembers that God is “one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”. Three in one, one in three. If that has always confused and perplexed you, then welcome to the club! It’s no coincidence that many priests make sure their curate is on the rota to preach on this particular Sunday! But just because it is a complex doctrine, it is far from an outdated or pointless belief. In fact, as much as any other Christian belief, the Trinity gets to the heart of what God is all about and what he expects of us. There are, after all, two important things we can say about the Trinity.

Firstly, the Trinity is a mystery. However much thought goes into it, however much we study, we’ll never fully understand the Trinity. I used to ask my students to think of analogies of what “three in one” could mean – some would follow St Patrick in suggesting shamrocks (three leaves in one sprig), others would suggest water, one element that can be three forms: liquid, steam or ice. And I even remember one group being particularly inventive by suggesting the theology of a creme egg – one sweet in three parts: the chocolate, the sickly sweet white part, and the smooth yellow centre. All this, of course, is not particularly helpful to understanding what is essentially a great mystery about God. And perhaps understanding this mystery is less important than asking why our faith teaches this mystery – what does it mean to us that God is three in one?

Well, that is where we come to second point and this turns everything else about the doctrine upside down. The philosopher Martin Buber wrote: “In the beginning was relationship”. And that little word is at the heart of what the Trinity means – “relationship”. The early church theologians described the Trinity as a dynamic dance of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. After all, love can’t exist in isolation, it can’t exist by itself. So, yes, the Trinity is a mystery. It is, though, a mystery that discloses something very simple about God. It reveals that God, in the very depths of his being, is relationship; God is love.

This has huge implications in our world of suffering, illness, grief, oppression, prejudice, violence, and inequality. It is when we step out of our isolated, selfish selves, it is when we enter into caring, peaceful, and compassionate relationships with each other, with nature, with our environment, that God is revealed to the world. The Christian philosopher Gabriel Marcel talks about “absolute availability”. Because God is relationship, love is not an optional extra for Christians and that has, in our local and global world, far-reaching expectations of each of us. The doctrine of the Trinity demands that availability, responsibility, relationship, care, compassion, and love permeates all that we are and all that we do, whether in person or online, in our thoughts, in our words, or in our actions, in how we spend our money or how we spend our time.

In other words, the Trinity demands that we are “absolutely available” to others, to be a loving and life-enhancing gift to them – to stand alongside them in their pain, to weep with them in their grief, to rejoice with them in their good news, to stand up against oppressive systems that dehumanise them, to shine the light of justice on those who misuse power, to call to account those who blindly ignore our groaning earth, to expose those who pedal lies and falsehoods, to speak up for those whose voices are silenced. After all, it is because God is the Trinity, because God is relationship, that Martin Luther King stated that life’s most persistent question, life’s most urgent and important question, is: “What are you doing for others?” So, I challenge you to reflect on your life and ask yourself that little question – “What are you doing for others?”

A prayer
Father God,
Through the Power of your Spirit,
And the Grace of your Son,
Help us to each to play our part in turning the world upside down
Through your compassion, care, peace, hope, and love.
Amen.

Zombies and Thomas Merton: Waking from a dream of separateness

I’m writing this blog post from deep in the Bavarian countryside. I love visiting my wife’s family here in Germany – the weather is as warm as the welcome, the food is delicious, and I get to write this blog while looking out at deer grazing in a beautiful garden. Despite all this, I still feel rather disconnected with those around me, as I speak almost no German and many people in this small village speak almost no English. Last night I even found myself speaking Welsh to my mother-in-law, thinking that would get me understood better. It didn’t work, of course!

Quadrophenia Who

In reality, of course, disconnection with the world around us is something with which we all struggle at different times of our lives. We do speak the same language as our family, friends and neighbours, but whether they truly understand us is another question. “Can you see the real me?” screamed Roger Daltry at his doctor, mother, and priest on The Who’s 1973 Quadrophenia album.


Warm BodiesQuadrophenia, later made into a successful film, is a rock opera about a disenchanted young person. Teenagers, of course, often feel misunderstood and alone, as they try to make a connection with an often unforgiving world. The film Warm Bodies [2012] recently became a huge hit with young people. On the surface, it is surprising that a film about zombies would prove so popular with teenagers. In the first 100 words of the film, though, the film-makers make an immediate connection with twenty-first century teenagers through the narration of a teenage zombie, named “R” (played by Nicholas Hoult), who is himself one of the ‘undead’:

“What am I doing with my life? I’m so pale. I should get out more. I should eat better. My posture is terrible. I should stand up straighter. People would respect me more if I stood up straighter. What’s wrong with me? I just want to connect. Why can’t I connect with people? Oh, right, it’s because I’m dead. I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. I mean, we’re all dead.”

science connectednessThis is not a condition that is unique to teenagers, of course. This sense of disconnect with each other and with the world around us is something we all feel at different times in our lives. In my book The Compassion Quest I argue that, while disconnection is a frequent feeling for us humans, freedom and redemption can be found in recognising that we are all, in fact, intimately related to each other and to the world around us. Even scientists are moving from a paradigm that sees the universe as a mechanical system, made up of a disconnected collection of parts, to a paradigm that regards the world as an integrated whole. With approaches such as systems thinking and quantum theory, contemporary science offers a shift from an emphasis on ‘objects’ to the recognition that ‘relationship’ is integral to the world around us.

Likewise, Christian theology teaches that relationship is also what God is really about. God is relationship in his very core, which is what the complicated doctrine of the Trinity is all about, and he wants us to enter relationship too – with him, with each other, and with the natural world around us.

Warm Bodies LoveBoth our faith and contemporary science, then, suggest that relationship and oneness are at the heart of the created order; by ignoring this we miss not only the reality of existence but also the richness of life. In the film Warm Bodies, the teenage zombie “R” is brought to life, quite literally, when he makes a deep-seated connection with a human being. Love brings him out of his sleepy, lifeless cocoon. For Christians, love is also integral to rebirth and new life – God’s love for us, the love shown to us by others, and the love with which we bless others.

Thomas Merton“Why can’t we connect with people? Oh, right, it’s because we’re dead. We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves, though. I mean, we’re all dead”. The next time we feel that way, we need to remind ourselves that our alienation from God’s world and from the people around us is something from which we can break free. By doing so, we are born again – viewing the world and everything in it with fresh eyes. As Thomas Merton wrote, when he himself came to this liberating realisation as he walked down a street in Louisville, Kentucky: “I was suddenly overwhelmed by the realisation that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another, even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.”