By Jeremy Ogunba
In many ways, our American culture is built upon dualistic thinking. We are more and more polarized than ever before. This polarization and dualism have unfortunately found their way into the hearts of most western Christians, and within the doctrine and practice of most American churches. More than we care to admit, culture tends to supersede theology. When we look at the primary concerns and practices of most American Christians, our worldviews and frames of reference reveal a belief system that is influenced more by an individualistic western culture than by Christian theology. This is not hard to see when we juxtapose the doctrine of the Trinity next to our dualistic thinking.
Dualism defined by Webster’s Dictionary:
(a) theory that considers reality to consist of two irreducible elements or modes.
(b) a doctrine that the universe is under the dominion of two opposing principles, one of which is good and the other evil.
Many religious people incorrectly believe that there are two equal and opposing spiritual forces in the universe: one is the devil and the other is God. This puts God in a tug-of-war match with Satan—but the doctrine of the Trinity says that at the core of the universe there is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This idea that God is one, and also three, means that relationship is at the foundation of the cosmos. Although most Christians around the world can find unity in this doctrine, at the same time I think we need to re-engage and explore how a Trinitarian worldview helps us see that we have more than just two options. How would Christians on opposing sides of the aisle treat each other if we rebuked this polarized mindset of “us vs. them,” and instead reminded ourselves that the family of Christ is meant to be in relationship for eternity?
Trinity defined by Webster’s Dictionary:
(a) the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three persons in one Godhead, according to Christian dogma
(b) not capitalized: a group of three closely related persons or things
In Genesis, the word “God” shows up as the fourth word of our English translations of the Bible. In verse two, the Spirit of God hovers over the waters, and in verse three, God spoke the Word to bring creation into existence. The first chapter of John’s Gospel helps us see that Jesus is this Word that was spoken. So we see the Trinity represented at the very beginning of Scripture, pictured as an intimate relationship between God, the Christ, and Holy Spirit.
This idea that God is three is profound. If God is only one, then God would be the ultimate authority figure, master, and king. Our relationship with him would be solely based on one’s obedience to the master. This type of relationship is not life-giving and is not how God wants to be understood.
If God were two, humanity would gravitate towards one part of God, loving one aspect and despising the other. Our human tendency to pick sides would lead us to essentially split God in half and choose one side over the other—settling for half of a relationship with God.
A trinitarian theology does not allow us to be dualistic, but so many of us have a faith that is dualistic at its core. This mindset takes so much pride in being right. In this kind of thinking, things are either right or wrong; black or white; you are either a good Christian or bad Christian. By extension, one of the lies this subconscious perspective perpetrates is believing that you make your way towards God by doing what is right, avoiding what is wrong, and by knowing and believing “the correct” doctrine. It is not hard to see how this dualism has contributed to the divisiveness and judgmental attitudes in today’s church affairs.
But when God is three, we see the Father, Son, and Spirit self-emptying as they glorify one another and pour into each other (John 16 & 17). We see a flow of humility, sacrifice, and honor being shared among the Godhead community. The smallest form of matter, an atom, is made up of three parts (protons, neutrons, and electrons) that constantly orbit around each other, and yet maintain a stable balance. Likewise, any carpenter can tell you that a three-sided shape is the strongest of all shapes. Just as water is able to go from a solid, to a liquid, to a gas, the Bible also teaches us to see ourselves as complex beings made up of spirit, soul, and body.
So a trinitarian doctrine should call us to community in greater ways, asking us to reject the polarization of our culture as we look for a third way of human interaction. This option usually includes a little from both ends of the spectrum and yet transcends them both. A trinitarian worldview rejects simplistic categories of black and white, and begins to see the many colors that actually exist in all of God’s creations; it rejects the idea of good people and bad people and understands that we all carry the capacity for both good and bad. The squeaky-clean person that we praise in public has a secret sin that nobody knows about, and the thief actually has a heart.
The third way also invites us to understand human conflict on a deeper level. So many times we want to get rid of the evil, the pain, and the hurt of this world. In the dualistic worldview, people believe that evil comes from the other side, and therefore they are tempted to fight for control at all costs. It is the other tribe that will bring danger and destruction, they believe, and so we must rally around our tribe instead. But Jesus shows us that when he went to the cross, the pain and suffering was a part of the process. And he faced that agony not only on behalf of our own tribe, but for all tribes everywhere. God uses suffering to help us transcend our pains, to face our fears and our confusion, and experience new life. If we die with Christ, if we die to our agendas and our tribalism, we too will be raised with Christ to see the world as God intended.
Include and Transcend
The Bible invites us to accept failure, sin, and brokenness as realities in the process of life and growth. Without our utter brokenness we wouldn’t need grace, but along with the gift of grace, God even wipes away our very consciousness of that sin (Hebrews 10:3-4).
Every year, nature dies in the fall and patiently awaits its resurrection in the spring. All of creation has found out a way to include death, accept death, and experience new life; it’s our turn. Let’s not create a culture where we shame people for their sin and where no one shares their shortcomings and where vulnerability is hard to find. That kind of culture puts an overemphasis on being a “good” Christian, on doing things the “right” way in order to keep life going just the way “we” like it. We need more radical, trinitarian relationships—relationships that honor and lift up the other by sacrificing the self. This third way will allow people to really open up and experience genuine biblical transformation in their communities.