Holy Trinity, Pordenone, c. 1530, via Wikimedia Commons

We at Modern Church sometimes get asked what our line is on a particular religious topic. Recently we have been asked about the Trinity.

We usually avoid having a line on specific religious doctrines. The whole point of liberal theology (at least, our version of it) is that we encourage people to think for themselves, and not accept a religious doctrine just because someone in authority tells us to.

Paddy Lewin, one of our members who died earlier this year, used to teach Theology, and had a policy of beginning with each class by saying ‘Do not believe a word I say just because I say it.’

This does not mean ‘anything goes’. It is not that you may as well believe whatever you like. That would imply that nothing matters. If nothing matters, there is no point in believing anything.

Instead, we encourage original and creative thought because this is how individuals and communities reflect on what might be true, and important.

In every tradition of study, not just religion, the people who engage in it inherit ideas from the past and make what they can of them.

Traditions change. Some bits get rejected, some get forgotten, some new bits get added. This is as it should be.

In the case of the Trinity the story goes something like this. For its first five centuries Christianity debated like fury how Jesus could be divine while still maintaining that there is only one god. After the invasions these debates declined, and were not revived until the eleventh century. Some theologians attempted to prove the truth of the Trinity by logic. This failed.

However it proved helpful to think of God as being one, but at the same time having three ‘persons’, or being describable in three very different ways.

This may seem contradictory, but we should not be surprised. Just as theoretical physicists keep discovering processes which do not make sense to us, and can only be described in terms of complicated mathematical equations, so also when we talk about God we use a variety of different images.

The most common understanding of this is that (following Aquinas) we use analogical language: in other words, to say that God is love means that God’s ‘loving’ is something like our loving.

So theologians today describe the Trinity in different ways – for example the Economic Trinity and the Social Trinity. The reason for the variety is that they do not define God, so they supplement each other. God is beyond human understanding and therefore cannot be defined.

The language of the Trinity has proved helpful for some purposes, but it does not explain what God is. It cannot. God is beyond all human explanations. Nor is there only one ‘correct’ account of what Trinity means.

Some find this too wishy-washy. But simple black and white distinctions can polarise debate and even lead to hostility. It is easy to fall into the trap of trying to reduce God to something we can understand and define, but God is always greater than anything we can define.

So why talk about God at all, whether trinity or not? Because in order to make the most of our lives we need to reflect on our context. Who made us, and for what purpose? How can we live well? What have we been designed for? Different societies have produced countless different answers. Beliefs about gods give direction to our lives.