I know I can come across as an arrogant condescending jerk. So when I commented on twitter and facebook over the weekend that the trinity isn't difficult to explain I naturally got some pushback. Well, okay, what I said was:
The Trinity isn't that hard to explain. Please stop dumbing down the church by acting like our most stimulating ideas are unexplainable. Fake populism and anti-intellectualism are extremely unbecoming in a minister.
I apologize for the aggressive tone. It was uncalled for.
What I mean by this though, is that I think there is an attitude which is unfortunately prevalent in the church, even among ministers, that treats theology as if it were some arcane art form. Ministers sometimes work so hard to be "one of their people" that they give off the impression that all that theology stuff is just too difficult for them. They leave it to seminary professors to try to explain complicated things like atonement, the trinity, and predestination. While I would love to brag that I am a master of the arcane, the truth is that these things aren't at base that complicated. This is not quantum mechanics. We all went to seminary. We presumably study and read and think about this stuff all the time. It is part of our job description that we be able to understand and articulate theological ideas.
To back up my braggadocio, here are 10 ways to explain the Trinity which anyone in your congregation will be able to understand:
#1 - The Clover. St Patrick famously described the trinity to the people of Ireland by using the analogy of the 3-leaved clover. Each leaf on the plant appears whole and independent, but they are indivisibly part of a single stem. Strength: This explanation has the advantage of being historical, includes an effective visual aid, and emphasizes the equality and unity of the persons. Weakness: An inanimate object is in some ways a poor choice of analogy for the dynamic living trinity.
#2 - Dancing. Central to understanding the trinity is the nature of their inter-relatedness (that fancy greek word Perichoresis). Have everyone stand up and form a circle, then do any of the thousands of folk dances in which the parties all move together performing their parts in unison. God is the dance, the energy, the movement at the center of creation and the trinity is our way of saying god does the dance perfectly - all of the dancers are in total harmony. Strength: This explanation will work great for kinesthetic learners. It is dynamic focuses on the relationship of the persons. Weakness: It is abstract and doesn't do a good job of describing the individual persons of the trinity.
#3 - Battery, Wire, Electricity. God is the power source, the battery, the creator. Jesus is the mediator, the wire which conducts God's love to us. The Spirit is the power itself, the love of God which comes to us through Jesus. Strength: Another explanation with a good visual aid. This one has the strength of differentiating the persons and putting them in a relationship which reflects the usual portrayal of their roles. Furthermore, this example can demonstrate our relationship to the trinity - we are the light bulb at the end of the wire which the Spirit turns on. Weakness: The analogy is rigid, and utilizes inanimate objects to explain something which is fundamentally living and dynamic.
#4 - Rublev's Icon. It is a famous work of art depicting three angels sitting at Abraham's table. The angels are at once the figures from the story in Genesis about receiving strangers, and the persons of the trinity in perfect relationship with each other. A notable feature of the painting is that the persons, while at the table clearly in conversation with one another are all turned toward the viewer as though we were a fourth participant in the conversation, thus illustrating the outward moving love of the inward relationship of the triune god. Strength: You can't go wrong with beautiful art for reaching people who might otherwise not grasp the subject. Weakness: It depicts the trinity as three separate persons which will then lead to questions about the unity of the godhead.
#5 - Quantum Physics. Ha! So the trinity is complex! Well, this is really just a very basic observation from a layman's understanding of physics, but for the last century we have gradually discovered that all matter is actually energy vibrating at different speeds. It is a gross exaggeration, but in one sense, you and I are beams of light. The simultaneous duality, or underlying unity of these supposed opposites, energy and matter, is a great entryway to talking about the mystery of how God could be simultaneously three persons in one. Strength: This is an explanation which will appeal to the intellectually curious. Weakness: Speaking outside your field of expertise leads to unwittingly saying ignorant things.
#6 - Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer. One effective way of approaching an explanation of the trinity is in terms of the roles of the persons. This is the approach of many of the confessions, essentially listing what God the father does, what Jesus does, and what the Spirit does. They are all God's work, but in particular ways, at particular times, in particular places. Strength: There is lots of confessional material to rely on here. Weakness: It is easy to fall into cliches and also easy to overly separate the persons.
#7 - Ice, Water, Steam. The different states of matter are an effective illustration of how one thing can take three very different forms with different attributes. Similarly God can appear and act in history in dramatically different ways and remain one God. Strength: Strongly emphasizes the unity of God. Weakness: Fails to differentiate the persons or express how they are all simultaneously God, not modes appearing at different times.
#8 - Optical Illusion. Have you ever seen those Mind's Eye posters where it just looks like a random blur of colors until you squint or blur your focus and then suddenly an image pops out at you? Or the picture of the young lady who is also an old woman? These kinds of images defy our perceptions and categories. They can be an entry into discussing how, when viewed from different perspectives God presents different aspects. As savior and teacher God appears as Jesus. As creator and providential caretaker God appears as a parent. As inward presence, spark and encouragement God appears as the Spirit. Strength: Visual aid possibilities abound and it emphasizes the unity of the persons despite the apparent differences. Weakness: Some might take offense at comparing God to an illusion.
#9 - Three Dimensions of Space. We interact with our surroundings through three dimensions: height, width, and depth. The dimensions are completely distinct and non-interchangeable, yet invariably present simultaneously in the same location. Without one or the other of the dimensions all of existence would be radically altered. They are mutually dependent for intelligibility. Strength: A very close analogy of the uniqueness yet mutuality of the persons of the trinity. Weakness: It's somewhat abstract and static.
#10 - Lover, Beloved, Love. There is a reason that orthodox language for describing the trinity uses "persons" as the basic unit of the godhead. God is alive and active, so the best way to describe God's nature is through a relationship of mutual love. The New Testament continually shows us the relationship between God and Jesus as one of giving and receiving love. Jesus is referred to as "my beloved" by God at several key moments. Significantly at one of these moments, his Baptism, Jesus receives the Holy Spirit. This is a picture of the exchange of love between the persons of the trinity. This is also the story of Good Friday and Easter. Jesus (the Beloved) gives up his Spirit (Love) to God (the Lover). God (the Lover) then restores the Spirit (Love) to Jesus (the Beloved) on Easter morning. Strength: This example is ripe with biblical imagery and applicable to our understanding of human relationships. Weakness: It would be easy to think of the persons as three completely separate individuals with this description.
Ultimately, as is by now apparent, no single explanation is going to be wholly satisfactory. What did you expect we're talking about the godhead?! Some explanations will be prone to the error of making God into three different people, others prone to making God into one person with three faces. But any of these explanations would be a good starting place and from there you can use your well developed theological skills to balance out the weaknesses of a narrow understanding of the trinity into a profound exploration of the richest Christian doctrine.