Trinity Sunday: Some Reflections on the Relational Nature of Lives of Humans and God
Relationship is such a basic notion to our existences that we completely take it for granted and don’t really think about it. It’s like the air; it’s just there, a given that we don’t think about except when we can’t breathe.
Relationship is basic to who we are as human beings. When I was an undergraduate, my sociology professor asked the class for their opinion about whether human beings were social animals; it was a question in dispute not that long ago. The best proof he could offer for the social nature of the human person was the question of whether you had ever sat on a warm toilet seat.
But advances in science have completely removed any doubt about our social nature. Our ability to look into our brains reveals that our identities as social beings are written into the most basic structures of our beings. As Daniel Siegel, a neuroscientist, noted in 1999:
Relationship experiences have a dominant influence on the brain because the circuits responsible for social perception are the same as or tightly linked to those that integrate the important functions controlling the creation of meaning, the regulation of bodily states, the modulation of emotion, the organization of memory, and the capacity for interpersonal communication. Interpersonal experience thus plays a special organizing role in determining the development of brain structure early in life and ongoing emergence of brain function throughout the lifespan
Some of the most important things to being human are our ability to create meaning, form emotional reactions, organize memory, and communicate, and science has discovered that the most basic wiring of our brains uses relationship systems and structures to do these very basic human things. If you think about the human body, its very design assumes that there is more than just me; the very structures of our bodies assume there are other people. There is no way to perpetuate the species without two human beings. We help each other in innumerable ways. Children depend on relationships with their parents for food, shelter, and clothing. Students depend on relationships with their teachers and tutors for the transfer of knowledge. Companies depend on relationships between team players to get parts of projects finished. As believers, I don’t think it’s any accident that relationship is at the root of what it means to be a human.
Today the Church celebrates Trinity Sunday, a day when we as Church pause in a special way to reflect on the internal life of God. The doctrine of the Trinity in a nutshell is this: God is one and three at the same time and includes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father is not the Son or the Spirit. The Son is not the Father or Spirit. And the Spirit is not the Father and Son. God is Father, Son, and Spirit all at once but only one being. In other words, relationship is the very nature of God.
It is written in Genesis that we are created in the image and likeness of God. Genesis 1:26 says, “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, to be like us.’” (Just as a little aside, note that God refers to Godself with first person plural pronouns.) If we start with the human person, and we acknowledge that relationship is fundamental to who we are, and we believe we are created in God’s image, it ought not to be surprising to us that if we exist in a fundamental way in relationship, our God is fundamentally—at the very root—a relational being.
Today’s gospel takes place in Galilee after the resurrection of the Lord. In it, Jesus tells the disciples to go out and preach the Good News, baptizing people in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This is a remarkable passage, because it so incontrovertibly ancient. Some people deny the Trinity saying it was a relatively late development in the theology of the Church, but that is simply not true. The passage we read today occurs in the most ancient existing manuscript of Matthew’s gospel. The idea that God was somehow a relational being goes back to the most ancient experience of the Christian community.
Today’s gospel is also relevant to Trinity Sunday beyond the mention of the persons of the Trinity. In it, the resurrected Jesus is telling us what we are to do if we are to be Christians. If we to be Christian, we must live in mission. We are charged to live out our Christian life as people who carry the gospel to other people. We are charged to live out our Christian life as people who inaugurate other people into the most basic characteristics of God’s life—God’s Trinitarian nature. In other words, to be a Christian, like to be a human being, requires us to reach out to other people, that is, it requires us to live in relationship with each other, just as God lives in relationship with God’s own self.