The following is an excerpt from How to Catch God in a Butterfly Net by Stephen Copeland. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.
Lesson No. 8: Elevate Jesus Over Trinity
“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.”
“We’ve turned faith into a right to certitude when, in fact, this Trinitarian mystery is whispering quite the opposite: we have to live in exquisite, terrible humility before reality…mystery isn’t something that you cannot understand—it is something that you can endlessly understand!”
-Richard Rohr and Mike Morrell, authors of The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation
The eighth thing to do if you want to catch God in a butterfly net is elevate Jesus over the Trinity; and, in doing so, rip the Son out of the Trinity intellectually.
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, the “Father” always felt so “out there,” removed from my experience, floating around somewhere in the cosmos; the “Spirit” was even more confusing, something I thought was 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,” the Incarnate Word, revealed through Jesus, I found the personal connection 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 me; born to live and to die. A real person at a real moment in time, Jesus was incredibly relatable.
The problem, however, occurs when we place Jesus on the throne, which he specifically asked us not to do! Thrones, as history teaches us, often fuel hierarchy and exclusion. Jesus was perhaps the most Trinitarian person of all; probably because he is the only human being to ever understand it fully. He insisted we pray to the Father (Matthew 6:5-14), 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).
In pulling Jesus out of the Trinity and placing him on a throne, therefore turning him into a solution for humanity in God’s cosmic puzzle, all kinds of psychologically-toxic atonement theories were formulated, the most popular being that God was so angry with humanity for their sin, he had to send Jesus to earth and brutally kill him so humanity could have a way back to the Father (see Lesson No. 6). 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. As I’ve mentioned, it was this kind of theology circling around substitutionary atonement that almost made me leave Christianity far behind. My intention here is not to 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 to offer a different theological way rooted in both scripture and tradition.
If I am a sinner at my 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 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, dwelling upon all my failures, just to experience God’s love. It’s no wonder the deeper I went into my Christian faith, the more miserable I became. It’s no wonder I was plagued with shame. I think any psychologist or therapist will tell you: continually thinking about what is lacking in your life doesn’t position you to experience joy or gratitude.
Many former evangelicals denounce substitutionary atonement; but, they are just as atonement-focused in their social disposition, scapegoating entire groups of people who disagree with them. Some, with pride, even call themselves “ex-vangelicals”—the name itself indicating a negative starting place! I admit, there was a time I related to the moniker; but, contemplation quickly revealed I was still scapegoating! In my evangelical days, there was a certain self-righteousness in my judgment of both myself “in my sin” and non-Christians in their unbelief. But then, in my progressive days, there was a self-righteousness in my judgment of others who seemed stuck in their evangelical paradigm. I had merely replaced non-Christians with Christians in order to feel right. It was still dualistic! I had ironically substituted a different atonement theory. In the former I said, “I am the problem, thank goodness for Jesus!” In the latter, I said, “They are the problem!”
In scapegoating, there is a certain hold on a person’s psyche. Peter Rollins talks profoundly about this through much of his work. One of my favorite examples he gives is the progressive passionately tweeting the #LoveTrumpsHate hashtag in reaction to President Donald Trump’s policies or rhetoric. The Freudian interpretation of this, Rollins says, would be that the progressive loves Trump’s hate. Why? Because, on a deep, personal, perhaps subconscious level, Trump’s hate allows the progressive to self-righteously condemn the president, offer his or her own reactionary views, and even gain popularity or influence “taking a stand.” Maybe it’s more about ego. That’s not to say one should never stand up for anything he or she believes in. But, if there is a negative psychological hold, it is certainly worth exploring—introspectively, contemplatively—whether scapegoating is an animating force. Heightened, uncontrolled emotion, reactivity, or desperation might be signs there is a negative psychological hold, or perhaps an existing pain needing worked through.
The notion of Trinity, on both a theological and sociological level, frees us from atonement and scapegoating, centering us in at-one-ment—the interconnectedness of all things. Trinity can hold differing viewpoints, political affiliations, denominations, and even religions, because Trinity connects us all to creation and one another. Trinity contains the beautiful diversity of the Body of Christ. I once heard Wm. Paul Young explains Trinity as an underlying river of love, weaving its way through all of reality, that we are all floating within, in some way or another. Some people, however, he explained, frantically search for a dock, or obsess over finding a boat. We fool our- selves with our “ego attachments” or projections, so that we can feel as if we are the ones who are in control, right, or saved. Atonement theories and scapegoating allows us to dissect the world into haves and have-nots. But in Trinity, there is continual self-giving and self-emptying, slowly deconstructing the layers of our egos and thus our social compartmentalization.
In Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, a book that informed and inspired this essay, 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 John Duns Scotus. In Trinity, at the ultimate base of things, there is a central outpouring, loving, and relational energy and flow, toward love and selflessness; the river is for us to enter, partner with its flow, and do the same.
The birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus become even more beautiful through the lens of Trinity. Jesus reveals what was true all along: 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 let grace permeate their being—unable to, as Paul Tillich wrote, “accept that you are accepted.” 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 bringing Adam to life, and 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 to obey, and complex formulas to employ to earn God’s graces. Jesus tore the veil. Once and for all. Then we hung the veil back up again, with our shoddy atonement theories, because God dying on a cross just seemed too scandalous of a love and grace to accept in faith. What’s important to see is how Trinity is bursting through the biblical text, especially in Jesus’s teachings, even though he, too, was addressing a performance-focused people group, believing in a three-tiered universe, over-complicating spirituality.
Jesus reveals just how scandalous of a love God’s is, and how dedicated Trinity is to convince us we are 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. Jesus perfected the dance. As Baxter Kruger wrote in his wonderful book about the Trinity, The Great Dance: The Christian Vision Revisited, “To my mind, the central passion of the human heart is to be filled with the great dance, and the chief and maddening riddle of human life is to understand what the dance is and how to live it.”
Parable: Social Experiment In Heaven
One day, whatever that means in a realm beyond space and time, the Holy Trinity—the Father, the Spirit, and the Son—decided to run a social experiment on the souls waiting outside heaven’s pearly gates. When the gates opened, Saint Peter would announce over the heavenly intercom to form three separate single-file lines: one behind the Father, one behind the Spirit, and one behind the Son, for the Trinity was curious who the souls might gravitate towards.
Many of the Muslims and the Jews formed a line behind the Father. They believed in something of transcendence, holding all things together. They were welcomed in.
Many Hindus, Buddhists, mystics, and spiritual-seekers formed a line behind the Spirit. They believed in inner experience and transformation, union with the divine. They were welcomed in.
Nearly all the Christian souls formed a line behind the Son, for they believed in a personal, loving God who became human. Still, there were some Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, mystics, spiritual seekers, and even atheists who were in Jesus’s line, for they lived according to Jesus’s values: loving their neighbors as themselves and gravitating toward the “least of these.”
Jesus was surprised by the large turnout of Christians in his line, and was reported to say aloud, “Why are all these Christians in my line? Didn’t I tell my followers they would have something better than I: the Holy Spirit? And didn’t I direct my followers to the Father in prayer? And why have I heard so many of them mutter to one another how confused they are that there is no line for the Bible?”
No matter. The experiment revealed what he needed to do. Jesus welcomed the Christians into heaven so they could dance for the first time and join the others. Then, he went back down to earth because of them—so he could once again reveal who the Godhead was.
About the Author
Stephen Copeland is a writer and storyteller. He is a former staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum Magazine, a national faith-based sports magazine, and his articles have also been published in Christianity Today. He has co-authored nearly a dozen books and is a Daggy Scholar and member of the International Thomas Merton Society. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in journalism and Bible from Grace College. Stephen resides in Nashville, TN.