John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.
The Trinity and relationships
Do you live your lives ‘as if people matter’? It sounds like a strange question, because I’m sure most people would answer yes. Or would want to answer yes.
But as soon as we begin to think about this, we might want to start qualifying our answer.
Well, of course I do, we might say. But if I’m honest some people matter more than others, and some people don’t really seem to matter at all.
There’s just too many people to be able to live as if everyone matters.
Others might be honest and say that there are things which sometimes seem to matter more than people, moments when we are aware that work – for instance – has taken on too high a profile. And this can happen even to people whose work is about people!
For some of us people can be pretty exhausting; and even those who are energised by being and working with people can feel that they are be too much of a good thing at times.
I guess that people exhausting us is a better place to be than people being pushed into second place. This is something we can do without acknowledging it. Indeed, every time we treat someone as a means rather than an end, we are behaving as if people don’t matter. This is a hard truth. But we can all recognize the sort of person who only cultivates friendship or acquaintance for what they can get out of it. It happens even in the church. I’ve watched those who had their eye on a good parish, or a senior position, sucking up to those they thought could bring them advantage, rather than treating them as if they were people.
And what if God were to take that attitude? Where would we be?
It is a glorious truth of the Christian understanding of the Trinity that God is not like that, that God always acts as if people matter.
Firstly, the truth is that each of what traditional theological language speaks of as a person of the Trinity is fundamentally relationship oriented. It might help to use less personal language to get this across, and talk about God as the Source of All Being, as the Eternal Word, and as the Sustainer and Lifegiver. For God is all of these.
In recognising God as Source of all Being, we’re doing more than acknowledging a master craftsman who has designed a wonderful universe. We’re acknowledging that the conditions of creation are as they are because people matter: the earth’s system is such that human life is not just possible but necessary and inevitable.
Fascinatingly, Antony Flew, once thought of as one of the world’s leading atheist philosopher (I wonder whether the fact that his father was a famous theologian had anything to do with that?) a few years ago scandalised his followers and fellow philosophers by announcing that though he can’t call it God, he has come to accept that there is an intelligent design (this is not to be confused with the fundamentalist creationist arguments for intelligent design which are based on pseudoscientific cliams rather than philosophical argumentation), even an intelligent designer, behind the universe. In short, he has become a theist.
And what Flew describes thus, we know as much more. We believe this God is also the Source of all Being. God is not just the fountain of creation; God is the source of your being, your existence, and mine. For all that we have despoiled it, for all that it’s a risky environment – as people the world over are constantly finding out as what we still call natural disasters affect them – this is a creation given life by the Source of Being, the source of personal being, the one whose creation is a creation in which people matter.
Of course, there’s the little matter of the fact that we can’t always cope. The story of Cain and Abel is exactly a story of someone acting as if people don’t matter. It’s the next step on from thinking we know better than God (which is what the story of the Garden is trying to tell us).
But to show that people do matter, God came to us as one of us. The Eternal Word – God’s way of expressing Godself in this created order – took on the particularities of those for whom the creation was ordered. And not just that. He took onto himself all our hostility and negativity and violence, and died on the cross. Because God always acts as if people matter, and God has to do God’s utmost to demonstrate this (without taking away the fundamental freedom God has given us), Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, comes as one of us to show us that in God’s eyes, people matter.
But that’s not the end of it. It’s not just all a bit of history. The Trinity-God reaches out to us now in the form of the Sustainer and Lifegiver. Jesus was limited in his human form to a particular time and place. But the Spirit is universal – not another Comforter as in different, but another as in of the same sort, like the last one – that is, like Jesus, sustaining us, giving us life, showing that we matter.
The Spirit does this in many ways – praying within us with sighs too deep for our understanding, especially at times when we find praying hard ourselves; distributing gifts among us so that each of us is given something to do that shows who God is in a way that nobody can avoid and from which everyone benefits. But most of all the Spirit animates us, forming, re-forming, transforming us in and into the likeness of Christ, making our lives a perfect offering in God’s sight.
But the Trinity – for all its strangeness to our contemporary conceptualizing – says far more to us than just the engagement with people of each of the persons. The Trinity is a model for us of how to live, how to live like Christ, how to live as if people matter.
Now we mustn’t fall into the trap of seeing Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three individuals as distinct as any three people we know. That would be to have shifted into tri-theism. But these three recognizable (sorry about this word) instantiations of God live, love and belong together because each is fundamentally important and necessary to the other.
Instead we should think of God as being a unity in which the distinct entities or persons dance a mutual dance of recognition, necessity and love. They each matter to the other. None is complete without the other.
And in being like that, God is saying that we can’t be complete without each other, that we, like God, must live every day and in every way as if people matter.
Of course we won’t find it easy – at least not as easy as I believe God finds the mutual life giving dance of the Trinity to be. But being together, gathered round a table, week by week, is designed in part to help us grow a little more like God day by day. This is where in bread and wine the whole Trinity comes to the whole individual and begins the life- and people- enhancing dance again and afresh.
And when we don’t succeed – which we don’t always – then, because God always acts as if people matter, God picks us up again, says ‘Look at my hands and feet and side’, and puts us back into our dance, which mirrors God’s dance, of mutual recognition, love and necessity.
And so may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of us.