In the Imitation of Christ we read, “I would rather love the Trinity than deﬁne it.” Indeed, the love of God is, with the love of our fellow human beings, our highest and most noble duty, and the main source of happiness. As for “deﬁning” the Trinity, any attempt to do so seems foolish, and reminds me of St. Augustine’s famous insight that he gained on a beach, watching a small boy dig a hole in the sand. As I recall, St. Augustine asked the boy, “What are you doing?”and the child said, “I am digging a hole, and then I will put the ocean into it.” Although the quotation may not be exactly correct, one gets the point, and so did the saintly bishop: Trying to deﬁne God is as foolish as the boy’s attempt to put the ocean into a hole. Indeed, it is more foolish, for the hole can more easily contain the entire ocean than a verbal formulations could “deﬁne God,” or the human mind could comprehend the mystery we call God.
For the past twenty years or so, on the rare occasions when someone has asked me about “the Trinity,” or I must preach on Trinity Sunday, I have referred to certain concrete experiences, which over the centuries provoked theological reﬂection, and by which the dogma of “the Trinity” gradually emerged. For one can discern that the ancient and medieval Trinitarian doctrine of the Orthodox and Catholic churches contains within it a variety of spiritual experiences; these experiences helped to induce some of the Church Fathers to develop the dogma of the “Trinity.” Over the years I have sought to summarize the experiences, trying to help parishioners understand them, but given the lack of response, I doubt that what I said has made much of an impression. I have explained that the earliest Christians, including the Apostle Paul and the evangelists, experienced God as personal and dwelling in them, and they identiﬁed this divine Presence as Christ, as the Risen LORD. And these men had numerous experiences of impersonal divine Presence—of love, joy, peace, forgiveness, communion; of fervent prayer, visions, dreams, gifts of prophesy and of preaching, of speaking in tongues, and so on—and they identiﬁed these spiritual phenomena as “the holy spirit.” At the same time, textual evidence shows that the Apostles and evangelists were aware that there was far more to God than they experienced. In other words, their experiences opened them to divine Presence, rather than close off their minds in self-satisﬁed certainty. In other words, they were spiritualists, but not Gnostics. The faith-awareness of God beyond all experiences of divine Presence—beyond Christ and his pneumatic presence—they called “Father,” presumably borrowing Jesus’ primary symbol for the God with whom he communed, about whom he preached, and whom he embodied in his life and death. Out of these experiences, and similar ones in countless Christians in the ﬁrst several centuries after Christ, intelligent minds coined the term “Trinitas” (Three-One, Trinity) to pull together the rich variety of spiritual experiences at work in disciples of Jesus.
Presently I still think that this account of the meaning of the symbol “Trinity” makes sense, and it is empirically veriﬁable on the basis of our best sources, namely, the earliest writings of Christians: the letters of the Apostle Paul, the four canonical Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and various other letters and documents contained in the body of work known since about the third century as “the New Testament,” that is, “the New Covenant,” grounded as it is in God’s covenant to Moses and the Chosen People. Good sources exist that pull together early reﬂections on these and similar experiences, and one can follow, if one is so inclined, the gradual emergence of the dogma of the Trinity through the writings of the Fathers.
After centuries of using the symbol “Trinity” to speak of God, the symbol achieved perhaps its clearest account by the ﬁnest systematically theological mind of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, as the great teacher discoursed on the Trinity in his major writings. One should note, however, that in his comprehensive Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas ﬁrst explores the reality of God analogically—with his famous “ﬁve ways” that God is known in reality, with his clear presentation of God as “the sheer act of to be,” as “to be subsisting through itself,” with accounts of God’s simplicity, eternity, and so on, before introducing the questions on God as “Trinity.” And so well embedded has the symbol of the Trinity been in Christian consciousness over many centuries, that even the Protestant Reformers—mainly Luther and then Calvin—insisted that their adherents accept the dogma of the Trinity. For although these Reformers rejected Church authority and much of its highly accomplished theological developments, and claimed to base their teachings solely on the Bible (sola scriptura), the post-scriptural dogma of the Trinity was maintained and even vehemently insisted upon, despite the fact that the symbol occurs nowhere in “scripture alone,” but clearly emerged in and through the life of the early Christians outside and beyond the conﬁnes of a book. The point here is that the Trinitarian dogma had been inculcated for centuries, and remained active in the thinking of those who deliberately rejected much of the centuries-old Catholic teaching. For example, despite his claims to be biblically grounded, John Calvin permitted a man, Michael Servetus, to be burned at the stake as a “heretic” for rejecting the Trinitarian dogma. As Calvin wrote, in dealing with such heretics, one must “forget all humanity when ﬁghting for God’s glory.” This attitude no doubt reminds one of other religious fanatics and ideologues, including some active in the world today. And lest one think that I am singling out the Calvinists for persecuting “heretics,” Catholic church authorities were simultaneously seeking the same physician-theologian, Michael Servetus, for persecution for “heresy.” The quality of the man’s thought may have been poor, and his thinking on the Trinity may have been confused and misleading, but one would think that stupidity or foolishness do not justify burning someone alive at the stake.
2 Lack of interest in the “Trinity”
Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant teaching on the Trinity is commonly accepted Christian dogma; the “Trinity” is not en empirically veriﬁable truth. I dare say that no one can experience God as “the Trinity,” although, as noted above, Christ as the risen LORD was experienced by disciples; a rich variety of religious experiences were reﬂectively ascribed to the “holy spirit;” and the early Christians sought to preserve their awareness of God beyond what could be experienced personally or impersonally by the use of the symbol “Father.” Employing the logical part of reason, Church Fathers deduced that “the Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God, and yet there are not three gods, but One God,” as stated in the so-called “Athanasian Creed.” Although the Trinity as such is not known through experience, there have been some occasions in history—quite rare, as far as I know—in which someone claimed to have “seen the Trinity,” or had some special communication with Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. A relatively well-known example of this claim is that of the child, Joseph Smith. As he wrote about an experience in his childhood, three men, identiﬁed as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, appeared in Joseph’s bedroom, standing around his bed. Such an encounter, real or imagined, would more ﬁttingly be term “tri-theism,” or a belief in three distinct gods or divine beings, than remotely compare to the meaning of “Trinity” in Catholic teaching. The notion of three separate beings (however divine) is distinctly not part of the dogma of the Trinity. Young Joseph Smith’s “experience” illustrates, if nothing else, the way popular imagination, including that of a child, can misunderstand the Christian symbol of “Trinity.” Based on years of pastoral ministry, I can say that it is not only children in the churches who misunderstand Trinitarian teaching as Tri-Theism, with three separate “persons” (more or less human in every sense) called “God.”Frankly, it can be embarrassing, more than illuminating, to hear ways in which “the faithful” can misunderstand the dogma of the Trinity. But then, the symbol seems to lend itself to misunderstanding, unless one has undergone considerable philosophical and theological education. Few of the faithful with whom I have spoken over the years, however, has expressed a desire to ground himself or herself in philosophy and theology, let alone engage in a study on “the Trinity.” Trinitarian symbology fails to ignite interest.
Given the difﬁculties in communicating to the faithful a reasonable understanding of the meaning of the dogma of the Trinity, it may well be the better part of prudence not to speak about it. Then again, the ancient Creeds often recited in Catholic and many Protestant churches employ distinctly Trinitarian language, as derived from the fourth and ﬁfth century Church Councils at Nicaea and later Ephesus. In the Creed, Christ is unmistakably identiﬁed as “God from God, light from light, true God from true God,” and the Spirit is identiﬁed as “proceeding from the Father” in the original and Orthodox Creed, or “proceeding from the Father and the Son” in the western Christian creeds (Catholic and Protestant). As noted, rarely have I heard a Christian ask, “What is meant by the term `Trinity,’ or why did the dogma develop originally? Given the lack of questioning—nay, the silence of boredom—perhaps one ought not to try to throw light on that which does not attract intellectual or spiritual interest. Even more broadly, we wonder: Is not a lack of questioning about the things of God a common characteristic of life in the churches in recent decades? Do not many Christians display more interest in entertainment, sports, and making money than in seeking God? Perhaps we fail to engage the minds of the faithful in ways that truly inspire them to “seek God and live.” We in the churches have done a good job, it seems, of making God boring.
3 Experiencing God as present and beyond
Although one cannot experience God as Trinity directly, one can experience God. And a man or woman can surely have experiences similar to those of the earliest disciples of Jesus: One can discover by faith the presence of the living God in Jesus; one can feel uncaused peace and joy, and ascribe such experiences to “the Holy Spirit;” and one can have sufﬁcient humility to realize that beyond anything experienced of God’s Presence—however good and beautiful—there remains far more to love and to know in the God beyond all experience, and one can call this transcendent reality “Father,” employing the term sanctiﬁed by the use given it by Jesus himself.
And a man or woman who is open to the reality of God, and not content with mere credal beliefs, dogmatic teachings, ritualistic worship—and far more deadening, contemporary forms of self-absorption—may have diverse experiences of God. And these experiences, if they are genuine and not spurious, should lead one to wonder and to seek, to gain ﬂashing insights, and to love the unseen One called “God.” There are, I submit, two primary tests of genuine experiences of God: that one becomes more open to loving God and to seeking more avidly the truth about God; and that one is inspired to love one’s fellow human beings, and indeed, all creatures, as sharers in the One Divinity. If further seeking of God and genuine charity do not result from one’s “spiritual experiences,” I submit that they are not truly of God, but egophanies—manifestations of the self. Jesus gave us the simple test of truth: “By their fruits you will know them.” A human being who does not seek God actively reveals a soul that is spiritually dull, more or less anesthetized; self-imprisoned; and one who does not live a life of genuine love to one’s fellow beings “does not know God, for God is love,” as the evangelist John tells us in his ﬁrst epistle.
God comes as and when God wills. In early Christian terms, this coming of God is called His Parousia, meaning God’s Presence. Among more fundamentalistic Christians, the Parousia was thrown out into an imagined future, sometimes imagined as the “Second Coming of Christ.” Even the Apostle Paul dabbled in this apocalyptic conception according to his earliest extant letters. But as one sees from Romans, II Corinthians, and Philippians (not to mention evidence from still later “Pauline” texts, such as Colossians and Ephesians), the Apostle’s earlier expectation of the Parousia of Christ in the future was strongly toned down, even replaced, by his expectation to die and “be with the LORD” before the End. More importantly by far, Paul and the writers of the four canonical Gospels clearly experienced Christ’s Presence, his Parousia, in their own souls, and in brothers and sisters “in Christ Jesus.” St. Paul’s letters are replete with evidence of his experiences of God’s Presence in him, which he often symbolizes or interprets as Christ: “God was pleased to reveal His Son in me” (Galatians 1); “Am I not an Apostle? Have I not seen the LORD?” (I Corinthians 15). And in a fuller passage: “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the LORD, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; [this comes] from the LORD, the Spirit” (II Corinthians 3. God shines into Paul’s soul in the person of the Risen Christ. The experiences of “God’s spirit,” or “the holy spirit,” are sprinkled throughout the New Testament documents, with frequent appearances in the letters of Paul, the writings of Luke (Gospel and Acts), and the Johannine writings. To give but one clear example: “No one can say `Jesus is LORD,’ writes St. Paul, "except by the holy spirit.” In even more familiar words from St. John’s Gospel, “The ﬂesh is useless; the spirit gives life,” and “Those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.”
God appears as and when God wills. Our task is to behold the glory of the LORD, as it is revealed to us. And the recipient of such experiences of divine grace must not to forget what one is given, but think about the experiences “with thanksgiving.”
It was early April of 1979, I believe, when I was summoned to the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., to interview for a position teaching political philosophy in the university’s Department of Politics. Early one morning I was walking on the campus, in a large open area between several buildings and the immense and imposing Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the west side of campus. I had been in the church, and found it quite impersonal and unappealing. Although a Christian, I was not a Catholic at the time, and perhaps was unable to appreciate the kind of authoritarian Jesus portrayed in a huge mosaic inside the dome of the upper church. Inside the cold stone church I felt enclosed and humanly diminished, and so it was with a sense of release and quiet joy that I escaped from the tomb into the land of the living outdoors. The air was misty, as a light rain had been falling. A dim light ﬁltered through the heavy air. I was vaguely, probably nervously, thinking about my upcoming presentation on my doctoral dissertation. I had written on “The Experiential Foundation of Christian Political Philosophy,” and was unsure of the kind of reception to expect. From the moment on the previous day when I ﬁrst saw the campus of Catholic University, I felt heartsick, as I found the place so utterly unappealing, standing as it does in the midst of a busy, run-down, and quite ugly American city. Coming from Santa Barbara, California, “the nation’s capital” looked and felt all the more unnatural, congested, run down, and just plain ugly. With the monumental and authoritarian Shrine behind me, I walked slowly through the lush, green grass, admiring as I walked several magnolia trees, which at the time were blossoming. It has been many years since I have seen a magnolia, but as I recall, the leaves had not yet appeared, but only the white blossoms, or so I remember them.
One blossom caught my attention, and I wanted to see it more closely. Slowly I approached the tree, and looked at the ﬂower, which was just below my eye level. With my poor vision, I drew near to the blossom, and looked at it. What happened in this one moment came to mean more to me than anything else that happened during the visit to Washington—including getting offered the teaching position. Positions come and go. But what I experienced was worth far more than any job, or a church building, or everything I have ever seen in institutional religion. I looked at the ﬂower, and thought, “It is beautiful!” All at once, in a sudden burst of insight, I glimpsed the Beautiful itself. In this moment, I saw not just the beautiful ﬂower, but in and through the single beauty, I beheld with my intellect Beauty Itself, which I recognized or interpreted as God. Divine Beauty was incarnated in that magnolia blossom. In its openness, purity, simplicity, that single blossom at once contained and pointed to the Beautiful, or what by long tradition we call “God.”
I was ﬁlled with awe and joy. In that moment, my spirit was opened up, and I beheld the glory of God as if I had seen Christ himself. “Everything transitory is but a likeness,” as Goethe declares at the end of Faust. The ﬂower was transitory—and not transitory. In the visionary moment, it was eternal, beyond change and the ravages of time. In the moment, the blossom was eternal, and a door of vision into the living and true God. What I did not ﬁnd or feel in the churches, I saw and felt in the eternal beauty of the one lone magnolia blossom.
4 Some further reﬂections on the Magnolia Blossom
As written, I have recalled the experience of seeing divine Beauty in one beautiful blossom, in one “thing” that was more than a “thing,” a divine creature, ﬁlled with grace—that is, divine Presence—and leading the beholder to glimpse eternal Beauty. In this recall, I have already allowed some reﬂections to emerge, because the context of the experience may have been signiﬁcant: that as I had not felt anything of God in the lifeless stone ediﬁce, the overbearing Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, I immediately and unmistakably beheld divine glory in the simple ﬂower. The contrast is signiﬁcant, I believe. We often look for God in the wrong places. Perhaps to some, God will appear even in the lifeless church. Indeed, some months later, while serving as an assistant professor at Catholic University, I would enter into the basement of the Shrine, and pray in a small chapel with several icons—one of the Virgin, one of St. John the Baptist. And I felt “the peace of God that surpassing all understanding” in this small, seemingly insigniﬁcant chapel. (I never experienced anything but poor acoustics and annoyance at the muscle-bound, Fascistic conception of Jesus in the huge upper church. De gustibus non disputandem. “Matters of taste ought not be disputed.”) To this day, I am grateful for the vision of God granted me in that April morning—God’s incarnating Presence in that single magnolia blossom. The softly white, delicate blossom, was as pure and lovely as Mary, and accomplished for me here and now what the Virgin has done for millions of human beings through the ages: bringing forth Christ to a longing, loving soul. The God seen is the God that becomes incarnate in the man or woman gracefully sharing in the divinely-given vision.
What do such experiences teach about God, and about symbols such as “the Trinity”? For one thing, the experience of God’s Beauty is humbling, and awe-inspiring, and reminds one how little and weak our human understanding is. The vision of Beauty opens up the heart, and in time, leads one to reﬂect with some gentle sorrow on the transitory quality of beauty in this world. But the vision also ﬁlls one with awe towards the never-fading Beauty whose vision is eternal life.
Comparing the doctrine of the Trinity (at least as presently heard in the churches) with the vision of Beauty, one can tentatively say: What human beings construct intellectually, with elaborate and complicated doctrines, can be communicated more effectively and immediately by the sheer gift of God’s Presence breaking in right now, in a single moment, “in the twinkling of an eye,” even in a ﬂower. Human beings develop the doctrines. Natural processes bring forth the ﬂower. But God gives the vision in which the blossom or ﬂower is not only what it is in space and time—a “thing,”a lovely creature—but also simultaneously a bearer of the eternal, undying God. How such experiences can be rationally linked with the symbol of the Trinity, I do not know for certain. One could piously say that “the Holy Spirit moved me to see the ﬂower, and to behold God,” and that may well be true. I would say: God revealed God to me in and through the magnolia blossom. Or perhaps more precisely: God revealed God’s eternal Beauty to me in and through the magnolia blossom. This is equally important, and to be borne in mind: In revealing divine Beauty present in and through the blossom, I had no doubt that the beauty of the ﬂower was only an incarnation, an instant, of the unbounded sea of divine Beauty. The Unbounded was present in the seemingly bounded. Nothing contains or holds God in a deﬁnite way. Nothing holds God unchangingly: not a blossom, not a dogma. The Beauty and the Mystery of divine reality is boundless. And this vast sea of divinity is forever beyond human grasp or control; one may behold lovingly, but not contain or arrest. God ﬂows on.
Each soul must long for the vision of God, and prepare for it, if preparation is indeed possible. Perhaps the best preparation is a longing to love and to know God as God is, and not allow one’s conception of God to be conﬁned to a book, to a dogma, or even to a God-given vision in a blossom. Hence, I suggest that to the symbol of the Tri-une God, one must add many and various experiences of divinity realized in time. Many human beings have glimpsed the divine reality somewhere—in something, in a quiet grove, on a mountain, in their soul, in a gardener. The world is indeed full of divinity, of the God who is at once both present and ever beyond our boundaries. “Quick now, here now, always—a condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything)…”
To the God beyond all formulations, beyond all beliefs, beyond all that can be known or conceived or felt, I give heartfelt thanks. For allowing me to have such experiences of divine Presence, as I was granted on this one day in April, while looking at a Magnolia Blossom, I feel humbled and truly grateful. And to this prayer of thanks I add words I heard perhaps a year or so before this vision was granted: “Your life-work is to have such experiences, and to seek to understand them.” This is the life of philosophy, so well embodied in Socrates and Plato; and
this is also the life of the Benedictine, St. Anselm, with his ﬁdes quaerens intellectum—“faith seeking understanding.” Would that each of us had the faith to seek the One seeking us.