Picture it, a social studies classroom in a small new England town, a philosophy class is reading A Confession by Leo Tolstoy. By the end of the piece Tolstoy has revealed that it was his faith in God that allowed him to find meaning in life. He sought meaning because he found life to be quite depressing and felt that without meaning there was no reason to exist. The students had no trouble understanding everything the 19th century author was saying, but they struggled with how faith or spirituality could be a remedy for depression and knowing that their teacher may know a little bit about faith and spirituality they asked him to explain, but alas the bell rang, which was perfect because their teacher needed time to think. That teacher was me and their question was really one that even the greatest of all theologians have struggled to answer. How can believing in something that is unseen, all-powerful, all-knowing give meaning to human existence? What does that look like? What does it feel like?
In many ways I think that all the answers to these questions will inevitably be as confusing as any attempt to explain the Doctrine of the Trinity, but at the same time I also think that the Doctrine of the Trinity is key to understanding Christian spirituality. Let me explain.
The trinity, by which we mean the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit or as I prefer God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier is our attempt to understand the nature of God. God the creator gave the gift of creation, which includes us and our ability to have free thought. God the redeemer, namely Jesus, shows us that it is possible to make amends for our poor treatment of creation by repenting, or changing our thinking. God the sanctifier, namely the Holy Spirit, sets us apart from the rest of creation and marks us as God’s chosen; they mark us as the part of creation that was given the task of caring for creation and maintaining creation’s relationship with God.
The trinity, like Christian spirituality, can best be described as a relationship. It is an attempt to explain the connection between the three manifestations of God and it is at its core entirely about the love that is shared between them. Spirituality, specifically Christian Spirituality, typically focusses on the relationship between the individual and God, but I would add that we need to include all of creation in the equation because if humanity was created to care for creation, of which we are a part, then we need to change how we think about our relationship to God and creation because like the trinity it is a three-way relationship.
God created everything known to us in the universe, as well as everything unknown to us, and as a part of it also created us for two purposes. The first is to maintain creation and ensure that all is well. This task, this charge, goes far beyond protecting endangered species and making sure that the air is clean; it means that we are obligated to care for all parts of creation, including other people. The second purpose for the creation of humanity is for us to embody the love of God and be the primary tool through which God’s vision of the universe can be maintained. The problem is that we tend to think that creation is our playground and thus we abuse it. We make the choice to extinguish entire species of plants and animals, we make the choice to pollute the oceans, we make the choice to care more about ourselves and what makes us happy. We were built to be beacons of love, but were also given the gift of free thought, because if we did not have the ability to choose then love would have no meaning, our relationship to God would have no meaning, our existence would have no meaning. None of these things would have meaning because we would not know that a different option existed.
It is our rejection of God’s original purpose for us that constitutes sin. Humanity, in general, cares more about our own comfort than anything else, including other people, but there is hope for redemption, there is hope that through God the redeemer, we will change our ways and return to a life that focusses on both God and creation. Everything we need to return to God, everything we need to change our focus is provided by God, through the life and teachings of Jesus; but since we are likely to lose focus again and again, there is also God the Sanctifier.
The Holy Spirit sanctifies each and everyone of us as having a unique relationship and direct connection with God. The Holy Spirit constantly urges us to tend to both creation and our relationship with God, but it does not is force us to do anything because again if we were not free to make the choice then the relationship would have no meaning.
Humanity is unique in that we are social creatures, and I don’t mean that we stick together for protection like many animals do; we thrive on and desire social interaction, we like to know that we are needed and appreciated, we like to know that we are loved. When we don’t feel needed or appreciated, we sulk, we hide, we become angry, we become depressed, and it is only through social interaction that we are able to come out of our emotional funk. To me this points to the purpose of our existence, which is to be in relationship with both God and creation. When we separate ourselves, when we allow our self-interests, our desires to control our thoughts and our actions we are denying our very reason for existing, we are forgetting our purpose; we are committing a sin. The Doctrine of the Trinity is not only an attempt to understand the nature of God but is also a model for how a loving relationship works; with every co-equal participant acting both separately and in concert with one another, striving to comfort, support, and protect one another.
Tolstoy likely found meaning from his faith because he realized the true purpose of his existence was to abide in the love, mercy, and grace of the triune God, who creates, redeems, and sanctifies us all. We can realize the same thing, but it takes work, it requires that we change our thinking, that we focus our thoughts and efforts on restoring creation and accepting that our existence is not about us. Amen