Can We Do Without the Trinity?

June 16, 2019
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Romans 8:12-17; John 17:20-26

The downtown interfaith clergy met earlier this week to discuss the idea of inviting a widely diverse group to try to create a shared moral vision for the city. We’re working with a group called the Twin Cities Social Cohesion Initiative, funded in part by our Faith in Action Council here at Westminster.

The Twin Cities Social Cohesion team led the downtown clergy in a retreat last fall and the moral vision project grew out of a lively exploration of what holds a community together – and what was missing in our own city, let alone across the country. With the Social Cohesion group’s help, we want to design a process that will model how disparate parts of one city can come together and find common ground.

In the course of our conversation this week among the clergy I mentioned that Trinity Sunday was coming. I was eager to talk about the Trinity as a Christian theological corollary to social cohesion. The room went silent, which is understandable for the Jews, Muslims, and Unitarians. But the idea didn’t even resonate with the other Christian clergy.

I admit it’s complicated. In fact, few pieces of the Christian theological puzzle cause more consternation than the doctrine of the Trinity. As we sang in our opening hymn: “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.”

Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, in the old language. Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, in more modern form. In the 4th century of our era, Augustine of Hippo, sounding positively post-modern, used “Love, Lover, and Beloved.”

Whatever language we employ to name the mystery – and you’ll hear some of that language when we gather at the font to baptize this morning – lay people and even pastors, don’t like to talk much about the Trinity. We hope no one asks us to explain it. And we do wonder from time to time…could we do without it? You know, go on about our lives as believers, following Jesus as best we can, seeking justice and pursuing peace, loving our neighbors and doing good in the world? What difference does the Trinity really make? How important is it to our understanding of God?

Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff writes, “To say that God is ‘one substance and three Persons’ is…a human endeavor to fit the revelation of God within the limitations of reason.” (

Boff is right. The Trinity is a human construct trying to make sense of a divine reality – and that is not easy. If only the writers of scripture had spelled it out for us. Instead, what they give us are hints and tidbits and suggestions of a God more complex than the Hebrew God of old.

In Romans, as we just heard, Paul mentions in the space of just a few lines uses language that sounds Trinitarian: the Spirit, and the Father – and at the end of the same chapter waxes eloquent about the love of God in Jesus Christ. There they are, the component parts of the Three Persons, just waiting to be assembled – but no instructions come with them.

Nowhere does Paul – or anyone else in the Bible – lay out a clear Trinitarian explanation, because they didn’t have it. They were still working out who Jesus was, especially in light of the Hebrew insistence on one God. Things got even more complicated with Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. It took the Church several hundred years to codify the Trinity in the great creeds of the 4th century.

Part of our problem with the Trinity is the use of the word “persons” to describe God’s Threeness. It sounds good in a 19th century hymn, but what does it mean to believers today? Our concept of personhood is inherently tied to an isolated individual’s psychological and physical self – the uniqueness of one individual, as distinct from anyone else. Personhood is private and “owned” by one individual as a definition of their very being.

This is especially true in the American context, where all things private trump anything communal. Here everything revolves around the individual, as if there were no broader social setting that might give us meaning, or have value or purpose. Persons are singular, private, individuals, isolated from others as a single unit by definition. So trying to explain the Trinity as one God in three “persons” rubs our American selves the wrong way. How can three be one?

The answer to that theological conundrum, I wanted to propose to my clergy colleagues earlier this week – at least for the Christians in the room – might hold a key to the repair of our social fabric. How can we be one community while at the same time assert our individual identities?

The language of persons unnecessarily confuses the Trinity for 21st century ears. God is no mere mortal, and we should be cautious in trying to describe divinity in anthropomorphic terms. Maybe three essences, or manifestations, or forms, or experiences of God would be better. Ultimately, our language is simply inadequate when faced with the task of naming the divine – which begs the question: can we do without the Trinity?

The answer is a resounding No. The Trinity is fundamental to our understanding of the nature of God; take away the Trinity and we Christians lose our God. Take away the Trinity and what are we left with? A lonely Jesus appearing out of nowhere, disconnected to the any pre-existing divine being; a Creator without a creation or a creature that bears the creator’s image; and, a Holy Spirit flailing away all by herself. No Trinity, no uniquely Christian faith.

Ironically, the work of a 20th century Jewish philosopher named Martin Buber helps Christians grasp the basic relational character of God, what he calls, in his well-known work, the “I-Thou,” or “I-and-You.” Human relationships reflect the divine desire, Buber argues, when they’re based on the mutuality of I-and-You, just as the Creator’s own self approaches the human creature as I-and-You.

When relationships are distorted into what Buber calls “I-It” interactions, they no longer reflect the divine hope for humankind. Nor do they mirror God’s own reaching out to humankind. The result is injustice and disparity and racism of the sort Buber witnessed in Europe in the 1930s, and which we can see around us in our time. Our society is fractured. There is little social cohesion. We live in an I-It relationship with the world, trying to gain as much as possible for ourselves and those of our closed-circle, often at the expense of others.

From Buber we learn that God longs so completely for right-relationships in community that God’s own being is defined by relationship. The Christian God is more than a solitary being. Our one God, it turns out, is a community of co-equals. God is not static, not single, not fixed, not rigid, not alone, but, instead, dynamic, active, engaged, mutual, and reciprocating. Each part of the oneness of God is essential to the unity of the whole.

The Trinity is what divine social cohesion looks like.

Recent studies of human response to climate-related catastrophe reveal the power and importance of social cohesion. When disparate parts work together, communities survive. A study of a deadly heat wave in Chicago in 1995 points to social cohesion as being key to a community’s endurance. In that heat wave 739 people died in Chicago in the space of two weeks. This is happening now in India and will increasingly happen across the globe. It’s critically important to understand how to survive these climate-induced natural disasters. Scientists have looked for patterns that may explain differing mortality rates across the city.

Two of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, Englewood and Auburn Gresham, show startling differences. The neighborhoods have similar demographics, similar rates of violent crime, unemployment, and poverty. They’re very much alike. Yet Englewood residents died during the heat wave at a rate ten times that of the residents of Auburn Gresham, the adjacent neighborhood. In fact, Auburn Gresham residents had one of the lowest death rates during the heat wave of any neighborhood in Chicago, including affluent areas in other parts of the city.

The studies point to the high degree of social cohesion in Auburn Gresham. Neighbors knew each other, shared the sidewalks and parks and diners and stores and schools and beauty parlors and barber shops and houses of worship. They were a community. They hung together. They looked out for one another, with a special concern for the elderly who lived by themselves.

In contrast, right next door, in Englewood the institutions and traditions and relationships that build community had long since departed. Stores and churches were shuttered and parks abandoned. People were afraid and disconnected. They did not come out onto the sidewalks and streets together. There were few common areas where they gathered. Residents, especially older folks, were isolated and alone. Individuals were on their own during the heat wave, and many more died – at a rate ten times higher than in Auburn Gresham the adjacent neighborhood. (Adaptation: How can cities be “climate-proofed”? by Eric Klinenberg, in The New Yorker, December 30, 2012)

Social cohesion made the difference. “I in them and you in me,” Jesus says,

“That they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23)

Here Jesus uses language that seeks to understand and share the implications of the Trinity: we belong to one another.

If we look carefully, the Trinity is tucked into the words of Holy Scripture right from the start: in Genesis we read that God the Creator is there before all time, and in the opening words of John’s gospel – “In the beginning was the Word” – we hear that Jesus was also present at Creation, there with the Spirit that was “brooding over the watery chaos.” Creator, Christ, and Spirit – all three.

The point of the Trinity is to do away with the tyranny of one – to do away with the tyranny of one in both the realm of the divine and among the human family. Our American culture today is aching for such a release. We’re trapped in hyper-individualism that drains our democracy of its vitality. We’ve succumbed to single-minded groupings that tear apart the fabric of our communities. We’ve withdrawn into ourselves and are afraid of one another and have given up on relationships that would otherwise help our society cohere and thrive.

We’ve become socially isolated, and we need to rediscover the power of Trinitarian life, where “I-and-You-and-Us-Together” becomes the framework that defines human life. I-and-you-and- all of us together becomes the norm for how we interact with one another. We belong to each other. Our three-in-one, socially-connected God models for us the hope for human community.

“I ask not only on behalf of these,” Jesus says,

“But also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” (John 17:20-21a)

Jesus is speaking here of a way of living that is highly relational and Trinitarian: in the end, we cannot survive on our own, isolated from one another, without being part of a larger whole. We exist and thrive and find hope and health and resilience and love and justice within community, not alone.

A moral vision for our city begins with the affirmation we Christians find in the Trinity: we are, each of us, unique and diverse individuals, but at the same time, by virtue of being siblings in the human family, we are also bound together in one community.

Thanks be to God.


Pastoral Prayer

David Shinn

Let us pray: God, you made your good creation and you hold it in your majestic care. From each starry constellation to each forest, tiny creatures, mountain splendor, rivers lakes and ocean floors, you have made your love, kindness, and tenderness known to every part of your creation.

Yet, O God, he earth is crying, times are changing, storms are strong. Now the coral reefs are dying, floods are raging, and droughts are persisting. Our insatiable desires to have and consume more than we need are threatening your people and your creatures. The once glorious earth is in distress, and those that are vulnerable are the first to suffer from our greed and selfishness.

Forgive us, renew us, and unit us beyond our division, blindness, and brokenness. Send your Spirit who have adopted us to your divine family, move and soften our hearts once more. May we care for all you’ve given till the whole creation is restored.

As we gather now, we pray for all who are near us this day.

Walk with all who are anticipating upcoming procedures, and recovering from surgery. Abide especially this day with all who are in hospice care. May your peace surround them and may you comfort their loved ones.

For all who are facing transitions and changes, be with all who are seeking employment and housing changes.

In this month, we celebrate the diversity and equity of sexuality and gender. Send your Spirit and all allies to protect all who are vulnerable from intolerance, bigotry, and unkind spirits. May we celebrate and stand in solidarity of love.

And now, abide with us, our Triune God abides in this community. Lead us forward to be a community that holds and upholds one another. Let us pray the prayer from our Lord Jesus, Our Father…

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