The relational nature of being

A galactic maelstrom

 {Image: ESA/Hubble & NASA and the LEGUS Team Acknowledgement: R. Gendler. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0}

When late fourth-century Christian theologians intuited a construct of God as multi-faceted and called that construct “trinity,” they had intuited something essential about reality. Trinity is the Christian philosophy of the nature of being, and it is proving more insightful by the decade as physics reveals new insights into the nature of reality. That said, most Christians have either ignored trinity, or trivialized and caricatured the construct, using it clumsily—often as a way to prove something about the nature of Jesus. In my formal theology studies and for a decade after, I entirely avoided talking about God as trinity, avoiding also the theology, as it was discussed in ways that didn’t resonate. Now I know I wasn’t ready for it; I hadn’t encountered the right teachers. Fortunately, several theologians are now sharing deeper understandings of trinity with a wide audience. One such theologian, Cynthia Bourgeault, is a personal favorite.

The time is long overdue for Christians to understand the concept of trinity. The more we recognize the encroaching sickness of division between people and communities, the more we might recognize the constructiveness of our multi-faceted, unified God: a God that does not divide, but includes; a God that does not dominate, but shares; a God that joins others in a dance of inter-relationality, self-emptying, and love that is the nature of being. The symbol that is trinity (“symbol” meaning an idea with practical implications; a “handle” we use to discuss what is otherwise ineffable) points us to a foundational unity and relationality at the core of being. Even God, the symbol says, is relationality, a “circle dance,” as the fourth-century Cappadocians wrote, encompassing parent-offspring-spirit.

This trinitarian conception of God is utterly different from images of God as the white-bearded Father in the sky at the top of a celestial hierarchy, preferencing his one heir, the Son, and leaving us a Holy Spirit that serves as link to the hierarchy when the Son exits stage left. Most early religions conceived of God in such hierarchical terms, in terms of “access,” and many modern-day religions staunchly align with these early conceptions. But spiritual geniuses knew long ago—eons before modern physics, that the nature of reality was relational, circular, non-dominative, and “holonic,” meaning that the tiniest element of the universe reflects the nature of the whole, and that God replicates God’s divine image in the tiniest aspects of creation.

What would it mean to conceive of God as movement, as action, rather than a static divine being? The image came to my mind of a couple deeply connected in a relationship of love—not the newly infatuated still lost in illusions about each other, but a couple who know each other better than anyone, and who accept and support one another as separate entities while still sharing a life as one. Looking at this couple, you see the separate individuals, but on another level, you see something bigger than either of them. You see the “circle dance” that is their common life together. You see their sharing, mutual support, and active, self-giving love. According to trinity, this image of relationship can tell us more about God than any institutional or even familial hierarchy, and more than the old notion of trinity as a way to solve the problem of Jesus’ significance.

The relationship, the dance, that is the triune God, includes God-in-us, God manifest in creation, which is the Pauline concept of Christ. We are all invited into the “body of Christ,” invited to incarnate God among us. Furthermore, the “body of Christ” is not just the followers of Jesus, but God present throughout all creation, wherever God is allowed in. God-in-us. The nature of sin according to early Christian tradition is to “separate ourselves” from God, or shut off from our true God-selves, because we do not re-cognize (“to know again”) our original blessedness. According to the exciting ideas of evolutionary theology, we have not recognized that, all along, creation was the unfolding manifestation of God in multifarious forms.

What destruction has been done by breaking up the trinity, and extricating ourselves from the dance? Incomprehensible destruction, it appears. For example, instead of marveling at the relational beauty of the atom: the dance of proton, neutron, and electron—the “parts of the atom” we were taught in school, we tried to split them apart, in so doing discovering the most destructive force yet known to humanity. The outcome of this splitting should have warned us of the dangers of dividing what is meant to function unitarily. Yet even as we witnessed this destruction, we imagined division to be the most powerful tool we had discovered.

We have mastered division. Could the consequences of splitting the atom be telling us something about the essential unity of being and the consequences of its rending? I have a hard time wrapping my head around quarks and quantum entanglement. But those who do understand such things say our universe is vastly more interconnected than we imagined, more inter-relational, more creative and surprising. The one affects the many and the many affect the one. If God is connection, inter-relationality, and sharing, it seems we best know God by joining that dance—by participating in the essential nature of reality, which is union. It is difficult to understand God’s essential givenness from a place of dividing and categorizing. Trinity says you know God be participating in God’s unity.

This is what is at stake as forces work to divide and exclude: Our very ability to understand God and the nature of being, and to participate in God’s restoration of all things. People on all sides are dividing and excluding, and with each such action, rejecting invitation to participate with God in an authentically Christian way that is mirrored in the teaching of the wise ones in other traditions. Drastically, we see people being divided by ethnicity and religion—to elevate white Christians to greater and greater supremacy; we see people divided by immigration status—to the point authorities are prepared to take children away from their parents and lock them in separate detention facilities; we see people being divided by income levels—with the access to government resources such as tax credits, healthcare, and education taken away from the more marginalized and reallocated to the well-off; we see people being divided by job—with certain industries favored and assisted over others; we see people divided by sexuality—with heterosexuals ensured rights that LGBTQ people simply are not; we see species catastrophically divided—with non-human species poised to suffer tremendously as we eliminate humane protections of our environment and plant and animal neighbors, and to suffer permanently if climate change is not addressed.

Furthermore, we see people opposing these trends by sharply dividing themselves from political opponents in ways that further the nuclear destruction of our union. Name-calling, demonizing, stereotyping, scapegoating, fomenting the same toxic energy of hate. Broad-brushing entire political parties or religions because of the actions of some is the definition of bigotry. Like all of us, many legislators are on a journey of learning, and we can send prayers and energy that they will continue learning—about things like climate change, or the long-term social and economic damage of anti-immigrant policies. So much learning and soul-searching is happening these days that we are not individually aware of, and we can do our best to support the process, not stymie it.

This does not mean silence or complacency about the disastrous policies of the current Administration. But we can oppose and resist without adding to the cloud of hate and division that is choking our common life—and perhaps the livability of this planet. In fact, the more we call out disastrous policies in non-partisan, non-hateful ways, the more we create an environment where it is safe for GOP legislators to stand against the tide of the Trump Administration. The more they see that supporting the policies of the Administration puts their jobs in long-term jeopardy, the more they will incline to scrutiny of those policies.

We are all here to be healers, prophets, incarnations of God. We are invited to join the dance of unity and inter-relationality that is the nature of being. In these deeply challenging political times, we can be especially mindful to resist forces of hate and scapegoating. This means acknowledging our inherent union, our common life, with those who are different from us. Even those who hurt us. As Christians, we can take a second look at the Trinity. What does the nature of God, the nature of being, ask of us in these times?

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6 thoughts on “The relational nature of being

  1. Tricia, I totally agree with you! You have put into words what I’ve been speculating about for a long time! I can’t get enough of your writings!


  2. Tricia, thank you for this. I, too have come to a fresh understanding of the Trinity. A biblical Hebrew student would first learn that Elohim, God, is plural. So I have begun to refer to God as They, Them, and Their. I learned, too, in perichoresis that the Son and the Father are in a circle dance together with the Holy Spirit weaving in and out between them. I have also learned in biblical Hebrew that the Holy Spirit is female, not only in Her name, but also in Her verbs and attributes. I read that the first century Christians in Jerusalem referred to Her as Eme Elohim, Mother God or God the Mother. So my new understanding of the Trinity is that of a family, Father, Mother, and Son.

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