I was at a social evening in the Foresters Arms last week when someone said to me, ‘I have problems with the concept of God.’ My response was, ‘You are not alone.’ There’s a widespread, possibly increasing aura of disbelief in God. The Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins published his book ‘The God Delusion’ over ten years ago, and it’s now quite respectable to call oneself an atheist. GCSE and A level students of Religious Studies are now adept at debating the merits of the classical philosophical arguments for God’s existence, and may well come to the conclusion that whoever God might be, he probably doesn’t exist. And we are all aware that those who claim to have no religion in this country now outnumber those who claim to be people of faith. And here we are on Trinity Sunday.
Traditionally, our Christian belief in God the Holy Trinity has been thought of as complex, not to say confusing or even incoherent: ‘three in one and one in three’ is scarcely self-explanatory. It has been an aspect of Christian doctrine so puzzling that it was always the curate’s job to preach on Trinity Sunday. But when we look at the New Testament, what we find is that the doctrine of the Trinity emerges from experience rather than philosophy. All the New Testament writers were nurtured in the Jewish faith with its strong and uncompromising monotheism: ‘the Lord your God is one Lord’. But when they reflected upon the experience of living with and learning from Jesus, and thought about his life and death and resurrection, they became sure that what they believed of God they could see in him. As Bishop John Robinson memorably put it, Jesus was for them ‘the human face of God’.
And when Christian believers across the Mediterranean world experienced the spiritual exaltation of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, they knew that this too was truly the real, divine presence: this was God as Spirit, as life-giving wind and breath. So how to explain this multiple experience of the reality of God? God as creator of all; God in the person of Jesus; and God as living presence. Before the end of the New Testamant era, right in the heart of the earliest Christian theology and philosophy, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity was emerging. Matthew’s gospel ends with the dominical command to baptise all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The great but very different NT theologians St Paul and St John – chalk and cheese – both assume and commend the Trinitarian formula ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’; St Paul’s prayer has become a universal Christian prayer, ‘The Grace’: ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, evermore. Amen.’
So is this puzzling? Not really; it only becomes so when it is removed from the realm of religious experience and taken into the world of philosophy, where everything has to be cut and dried and defined, so that we eventually got saddled with ‘Three persons in one God’, which is admittedly puzzling. Analogy – comparison – may be helpful here; St Patrick taught the Trinity through the three-leaved clover; my grandson’s twiddling spinner has the same potential. But at the level of experience, the Holy Trinity is simply God as we know and experience God. Someone said to me yesterday ‘I see God in every blade of grass’. Wonderful. That is a sense of the immanence, the closeness of God in the divine creation we might all aspire to realise: ‘the world is charged with the grandeur of God’, said the poet G M Hopkins; ‘there lives the dearest freshness deep down things’. And Hopkins goes on in the same poem – God’s Grandeur’, to imagine God the Holy Spirit as a dove ‘brooding over the bent world’ and bringing the new dawn.
God the Holy Trinity: God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Or, if you want feminist gender-neutral terms: God as Creator, Restorer and Sustainer. Or another way of putting it, God in Creation, God in Jesus Christ, God in the depth of our being. We may have problems with the concept of God. But few of us are without experience of God; ‘in him we live and move and have our being’.