Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. – John 3:1-17
Well this is kind of a double-whammy for preaching in the church calendar. Last week, we had to try to understand what exactly was going on at Pentecost, and now, just one week later, it’s Trinity Sunday and I guess we’re supposed to clear up the mystery of the Trinity. The idea of the Trinity, that in some indescribably way, God is simultaneously one, and three – the exclusive one, indivisible, eternal “Being,” or Essence, of God; while simultaneously the three distinct “Persons”, or Identities, or whatever. We heard this particular gospel text today because it’s one of the few places we find where these three aspects of the Trinity are referred to so closely together. The problem, of course, with this indescribable mystery is that it can’t be left indescribable. In order to explain what it is you’re trying to say about God, and in order to teach people in the faith what it means, you have to try to describe it. You have to find some kind of parallel or illustration to explain it. You’ve probably heard some of these illustrations: The Trinity is like water, which is one thing that can exist in three different states of solid, liquid, and gas. Or another one is that God is like a single actor who plays three different parts in a play, who steps onto stage in one of three different costumes and one of three different masks, at different times in the production. Or, God is like salad dressing: take some oil, some vinegar, and some water; shake them all up together, and you’ve got a single tasty thing.
You could go on listing illustrations like this all day long that people have used to try to explain the Trinity, but every single one of them ends up misrepresenting some theological concept that the doctrine of the Trinity is trying to affirm, or deny, about God’s nature. Every one of them will either overemphasize the “Threeness” of God over the “Oneness,” or vice versa; or it will violate some other theological concept about God. The early church fathers looked at what the scriptures said about God’s oneness, and what they perceived about Jesus. They saw Jesus praying to a God he called Father, and yet when asked about seeing and knowing this Father, Jesus told people if they’ve seen him, they’ve seen the Father. They looked at what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit, and they came up with this doctrine of the Trinity to explain it. In doing so, they created a doctrine where you have to believe two things that contradict each other both exist simultaneously. You have to believe that X, and the opposite of X, are simultaneously true. If you saw this week’s Westminstergram, you saw that it included a funny picture about the preacher’s dilemma every Trinity Sunday. It’s impossible to try to explain the Trinity without falling into one misrepresentation, one heresy, or another. So as the picture suggested, maybe the best thing a preacher could do is to not even try – to just throw up their hands, keep their mouths shut, and just distract the congregation by showing pictures of cats doing cute things.
If pushed to explain the Trinity, most Christians would describe an arrangement where God the Father is the President and CEO of Eternity Incorporated, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are God’s two Executive Vice Presidents. But that’s heresy according to orthodox belief, which says they’re all equal. In theological terms, most professing Christians are actually functional Unitarians. And we might as well be honest with ourselves and admit that a lot of Christians, whether they admit it or not, have chucked the whole idea of the Trinity, saying it’s just an outmoded way that ancient people tried to explain God that wasn’t even very adequate from the start; that if a concept is so impossible to really explain, then that’s a pretty big clue that the theory is wrong and that you need to go back to the theological drawing board. There are many modern Christians, and many people who have rejected the Christian faith specifically because of the doctrine of the Trinity, who say that God gave us brains and intellect for a reason, and that God-given reason points pretty strongly to the conclusion that the whole idea of the Trinity is nonsense. Two things that are by definition opposites can’t simultaneously be true. Something just can’t simultaneously be two opposite things, the way the Trinity requires.
And yet… that same God-given intellect has given us the science of quantum physics – the study of matter and energy at their smallest, even subatomic level that began in the early 20th century which has shown that at this smallest scale, objects don’t function according to the same set of rules of classical physics. One of the things that quantum physics pointed to was that, in fact, some completely contradictory things were able to be simultaneously true. Quantum physics suggested that matter could somehow move from point A to point B without ever having moved through the space between them. It also predicted that subatomic particles could actually, literally, be in two places at the same time. Understanding the world through the lens of quantum physics, everything seems less real and solid, and things become a series of probabilities, something that goes against the way we’d always thought reality works. When all this was first proposed back in the early 20th century, the noted physicist Erwin Schrödinger thought at least part of the idea was ridiculous, and he formulated a thought experiment to illustrate his objection. Now bear with me, this is going to get a bit tricky…Take a hypothetical cat and place it in a hypothetical sealed box, he said, along with a vial of poison gas, a Geiger counter, and a single atom of a radioactive material that had a half-life of one hour – in other words, in one hour the subatomic particles of the atom would be expected to decay under the laws of conventional physics. When the atom decayed, the Geiger counter would register it, and it would trigger a hammer mechanism that would break the vial of poison and kill the cat. But according to quantum physics – and I’m skipping over a whole lot of detail here – because it’s impossible to say how the subatomic particle will react – whether it will or will not decay at the one-hour mark. This is what the quantum physicists call subatomic indeterminancy. That would mean that at the one hour point, the atom would have to be said to both have decayed and not decayed. And if you extended that same logic to the larger things, Schrödinger argued, it would be just as logical to say that you couldn’t know if the vial had been broken or not, so it existed in a state of simultaneously being broken and unbroken, and ultimately, that while it was still sealed up in the box, unobserved, the cat was simultaneously dead and alive.
It was a ridiculous idea, to be sure. And yet, since Schrödinger’s day, scientists have proven that at least at the atomic and subatomic levels, matter and energy really do behave that way – things that are opposites actually can be simultaneously true; something can move from point A to point B without actually transporting through the space between; something actually can be in more than one place, I more than one way of existing, at the same time.
And if the laws governing existence at the smallest levels can be different from the way we exist in our visible world, why couldn’t the way God exists violate the laws that apply on our own level? Why couldn’t the God who created a cosmos where quantum physics in in force in the micro level exist under similar parameters in the macro level of divine being? Maybe in the doctrine of the Trinity, the ancient church fathers accidentally got closer to the truth of God’s existence than they could have ever known.
Whatever your own understanding about the Trinity might be, personally, I think it comes down to this: If you can conceive and believe in a God who is the ground and source of all creation, who has acted to be in loving relationship and reconciliation with that creation; and who continues to penetrate into and dwell within, and guide, and inspire, and comfort the beings in that creation; and that this God has eternally, constantly been doing all those things simultaneously; then I think you believe the theological underpinning that the early church was trying to convey in the doctrine of the Trinity.
In the end, that’s the best explanation I can offer. That’s the best I can do. If that isn’t good enough, and I have to resort to distracting you all with pictures of a cat, I guess it will have to be Schrödinger’s – now, all I have to do is figure out whether the darned thing is dead or alive.
Thanks be to God.