By John D. Alexander
In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis likens the doctrines of the Christian faith to maps of reality. That is, they are not to be confused with the realities they represent. If we stand on the beach and look at the Atlantic Ocean, and then look at a map of the Atlantic, we’re turning from something real to something less real: from sand and waves and salt spray to a sheet of colored paper.
But, says Lewis, we must remember two things about the map. First, it’s based on the cumulative experience of hundreds of thousands of people who’ve actually sailed the Atlantic, experiences just as real as ours; only the map fits all those different experiences together into a comprehensive whole.
Second, as soon as we want to go anywhere, the map becomes indispensable. Walking on the beach is more enjoyable than looking at a map. But the map is of more use than walks on the beach if we want to get from England to America
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity can be described as a map charting the Christian journey into the mystery of God. From New Testament times on, as the earliest Christians reflected on their new relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, they gradually formulated the classical Trinitarian doctrine as the only coherent language to account for their experience and to help others recognize and know the triune God for themselves.
Frederick Buechner suggests a helpful way of thinking about the Holy Trinity. From all eternity, God is one God in three Persons, just as the creeds affirm. But from our necessarily limited human perspective, we experience the Father as God-beyond-us; the Son as God-beside-us; and the Holy Spirit as God-within-us.
The Trinitarian doctrine points toward a balanced and healthy relationship with God. For we get into spiritual difficulty when any one aspect of this threefold relationship comes to predominate at the expense of the other two.
Many people seem to focus exclusively on God-beyond-us, the first Person of the Holy Trinity. At its best, such a relationship produces a keen awareness of God’s holiness, righteousness, power, majesty and greatness, which in turn elicits our worship and adoration.
Yet those who relate to God in this way are also tempted to think of him primarily as a demanding lawgiver and stem judge who holds us accountable for every thought, word, and deed. And that is true, so far as it goes. But relating solely to God-beyond-us tends to yield a type of religion that consists mainly in obeying rules. Such a God can be frightening. So often people are held back from growing in their relationship with God because deep down they’re afraid, even terrified, of him.
So we need to know not only God-beyond-us, but also God-beside-us. The good news is that in Christ, God has drawn near to forgive us and reconcile us to the Father. Jesus offers himself to us as our mediator, intercessor, companion, and friend.
But when we focus on our relationship with Jesus to the exclusion of the Father and the Spirit, we get into trouble again. One of my seminary classmates expressed this danger in a shocking way. He remarked to me that for many Christians today, Jesus is like a gerbil. I answered, “A gerbil? What on earth do you mean?” He answered: “Cuddly, cute, warm, fuzzy, and totally non-threatening; there when we need him; makes us feel good about ourselves; and when we’re done with him we can put him back in his cage where he won’t bother us until we need him again.”
Many Christians like to talk about a personal relationship with Jesus. He’s their friend. He accepts and affirms them just as they are. All of which is fine. The only problem is that such a friendship with Jesus all too easily degenerates into a cozy, re-assuring, and comfortable relationship that makes no demands and doesn’t challenge us in any way to change or grow.
So in addition to God-beyond-us and God-beside-us, we also need God-within-us. In classical Christian theology, the Holy Spirit is the divine agent of inner renewal and transformation, working mysteriously within to reform us and to bring us to the perfection for which God has created us.
But again, to focus solely on God-within-us, to the neglect of God-beyond-us and God-beside-us, has disastrous consequences. So much of what passes for spirituality today consists exclusively of a quest for “the God within.” Such spirituality assumes that everything they discover within themselves, including their own disordered drives and impulses, is of divine origin. So they end up worshiping a God made in their own image.
Several years ago, sociologist Robert Bellah wrote of a young woman named Sheila who was being interviewed in a survey on religion in contemporary society. Sheila said to the researcher, “Oh, I don’t belong to any church or organized religion. But I’m very spiritual. I listen to my own inner voice. I don’t know where this voice comes from. Maybe it’s my own voice. Maybe it’s me. Maybe my religion is Sheila-ism.”
That story demonstrates that any spirituality focused solely on the experience of God-within-us becomes totally self-centered and self-absorbed. Indeed, such spirituality ends up mistaking the self for God, which is the ultimate form of the sin of idolatry.
The Trinitarian doctrine helps us avoid all these distortions. At one and the same time, we need to be in relationship with God the Father, who has created us and holds us accountable for obedience to his laws; God the Son, who draws near to call, forgive, reconcile, and befriend us; and God the Holy Spirit, who enters the deepest recesses of our souls to renew, transform, and re-create us from within.
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is thus our roadmap into the fullness of the Christian life. For it charts our necessarily three-fold relationship with the God who has revealed himself as one God in three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The Rev. John D. Alexander is the rector of St. Stephen’s Church, Providence, R.I.