“Unless we are able to view things in terms of how they originate, how they are to return to their end, and how God shines forth in them, we will not be able to understand.”
-St. Bonaventure The fifth thing to do if you want to kill the butterfly you have caught in your net is to elevate Jesus over the Trinity, and, in doing so, rip the Son out of the Trinity. Most believers, in fact, are not Christians. They are Jesus-tians. This is understandable. Most people, including myself, came to faith compelled by the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Using Trinitarian language here, the “Father” always felt so “out there” to me, removed from my experience, floating around somewhere in the cosmos; and the “Spirit” was even more confusing to me, something that I thought was more reserved for Pentecostals or charismatic Christians who hooted and hollered and had seizures at the altar, far too intense for a boy with a solemn Catholic background. But in learning about the “Son,” revealed through Jesus, I found the personal connection that I desired. I guess you could say I fell in love. Jesus was someone I could begin to understand. He was a human being just like myself, born to live and to die. A real person at a real moment in time, Jesus was incredibly relatable. This is a good thing. The problem, however, occurs whenever we place Jesus on the throne, which he specifically asked us not to do! Jesus was perhaps the most Trinitarian person of all, probably because he is the only human being to ever understand it fully. He insisted that we pray to the Father (Matthew 6), that the Father is greater than him (John 14:28), and that his followers would do greater works than him through the mystery of the Holy Spirit (John 14:12). But in pulling Jesus out of the Trinity and placing him on a throne and therefore turning him into a solution for humanity in God’s cosmic puzzle, all kinds of psychologically-toxic atonement theories had to be formulated, the most popular being that God was so angry with humanity for their sin that He had to send Jesus to earth and brutally kill him so that humanity could have a way back to the Father. I’m sure many reading this have seen the popular evangelistic diagram of a mighty chasm with God on one side, humanity on the other, and the cross bent over the chasm as a bridge to reunite humanity with God. Frankly, it was the kind of theology circling around substitutionary atonement that made me almost leave Christianity far behind. By the way, my intention here is not to point the finger or ridicule beliefs rooted in penal substitution (some of the best and smartest people I know believe in this) but to instead show how many Christians feel about this confusing theology and offer a different theological way rooted in both scripture and tradition.
If I was sinner at the core, where is the hope in that? And why would God damn me from the start? If God was wrathful at the core, why would I want to be reunited with Him, even if Jesus was loving? My whole spiritual foundation was rooted in the negative: with God being angry…and with me being a sinner. I remember hearing many times that the only way to know God’s grace and the freedom of the gospel is to be deeply in touch with your sin—not a good starting place! This isn’t healthy psychologically, and it’s not an enjoyable way to live. There's a difference between introspection and shame. I was beating myself up and dwelling upon all my failures, just to experience God’s love. It’s no wonder that the deeper I went into my Christian faith, the more miserable I became. It’s no wonder I was plagued with shame. Any psychologist or therapist will tell you that continually thinking about what is lacking in your life doesn’t position you to experience joy or gratitude. In Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, a book that has informed and inspired this post, Richard Rohr writes: “Most of Christian history has not been Trinitarian except in name, I am sad to report; it has largely been a worship of Jesus who was extracted from the Trinity—and thus Jesus apart from the eternal Christ, who then became more a harsh judge of humanity than a shining exemplar of humanity ‘holding all things in unity.’” Offering another way of seeing before the Reformation—a truly Trinitarian way of seeing—were Franciscan thinkers like St. Bonaventure and Jon Duns Scotus (see Chapters 11 and 12 in Eager to Love). But it involves putting the Son back into the Trinity, where there is a central loving, relational, energy moving the Godhead in one direction: toward humanity, in relentless pursuit of the object of Their affection, Their creation, Their prize, us, the beloved sons and daughters of God. Rohr continues, “Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.” I no longer believe that Jesus was some backup plan that God drew up because we screwed up and sinned in the Garden of Eden. Christian scripture, in fact, tells a much different story. As Paul says in Ephesians 1:4, we were chosen in Christ before the very foundation of the world, billions of years before Jesus of Nazareth stepped foot on this earth. John says something similar at the start of his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” In other words, to quote Rohr once more, the “outpouring of love is the inherent shape of the universe”—this is a Christ-centered theology. The birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus becomes even more beautiful through the lens of Trinity. Jesus simply reveals what was true all along: that the core truth for each of us is not that God was angry at us until a sacrifice was paid but rather that we are deeply loved and united with God. It seems too good to be true, too scandalous of a divine love, and that’s why we as humans keep coming up with formulas and atonement theories, in an attempt to explain why Jesus “had” to do what he did. He didn’t have to do anything, which is what makes the cross even more beautiful! The cross is just how dedicated God was to show how deeply loved we are. We’re not alone in struggling to accept this reality. Humans from the beginning of time have been unable to accept their own acceptance. Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites struggled to accept that God was truly with them and for them. Despite a Genesis story where it was God’s spirit that brought Adam to life and a God who walked through the garden with Adam and Eve, or an Exodus story where it was a God who sided with the marginalized and worked wondrous miracles to liberate them from oppression, we still constructed hundreds of laws that had to be obeyed and complex formulas for the temple that had to be employed in order to get into God’s good graces. Jesus tore the curtain. Once and for all. And then we hung the curtain back up again with our shoddy atonement theories because God dying on a cross just seemed like too scandalous of a love and grace to accept in faith. So, you might wonder, what about all of the atonement-focused scriptures? That goes back to the formulas, laws, and temple practices (involving animal sacrifice) that were understood dogma when Jesus came onto the scene. It would be impossible not to write out of that state of mind and religious understanding. What’s important to see is how Trinity is bursting through the text throughout the biblical narrative, and especially in Jesus’s teachings, even though he, too, was addressing a performance-focused people group who believed in a three-tiered universe and had over-complicated spirituality. Jesus reveals just how scandalous of a love God’s kind of love really is and how dedicated Trinity was to convince us that we were loved and united with the divine, filled with the Spirit, the life-force of the universe, the Christ. Jesus lived every moment out of his inherent Belovedness, the core truth of his existence, and entered fully into the Trinitarian flow of self-giving love, the core truth of reality, inspiring us all to do the same.
By Stephen Copeland
This post was first published on www.copelandwrites.com.