(and why the answer to that affects all other answers)
My Dear One,
Some questions have more than one answer. There is usually a simple answer and one or more complex answers.
Question: Where do our loved ones go when they die?
Simple answer: They go to heaven.
Complex answer: The Bible doesn’t give a clear, simple answer to this question and perhaps the most biblical answer is simply that they are asleep until the resurrection but that’s not a very comforting answer to someone at a funeral and furthermore doesn’t align with my own personal experience that the dead are not asleep but are present and continue to live in some form or fashion in the full love and care of the God who created them whether you want to call that heaven or something else and just what is heaven anyway?
Question: Daddy, where do babies come from?
Simple answer: A stork brings them.
Complex answer: Well, you see, when a mommy and daddy love each other very much they, well, they decide to have a baby and so they well, they do … they … wait for the stork to bring one. (No, that’s not right.) Son, they come from mommies’ tummies. It’s magic.
Question: Is God One or more than One?
Simple answer: Yes, God is One.
Complex answer: And also yes, God is more than One.
You would think there would be a simple yes or no answer to this question. But there is not, even for the faith traditions that believe there is one God (which is essentially the answer of all major religions, even Hinduism). But the complex answers usually fall somewhere on the spectrum between yes, God is one, and also, yes, God is more than one.
Does the answer to this question even matter? It actually matters more than anything because the way we think about God affects the way we think about everything else. I will get to this point more later, but our answer to this question affects our answer to absolutely every other question. What you think about God will ultimately determine who you think about yourself and every other person.
Let us begin with looking at the idea that …
Simple answer: God is One
Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the three Abrahamic faiths (all claiming descent from one man, Abram/Abraham/Ibrahim born around 1800 B.C.E.), all affirm at the most essential level that God is indeed One. They are monotheistic, which means belief in one God. Each of their foundational faith statements all begin with an affirmation in this one God:
The Jewish Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One…”
The Christian (Nicene) Creed: “I believe in one God, …”
The Muslim Shahadah: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.”
But many other religions also affirm the unity of God in important ways.
Hinduism, often thought of as a polytheistic religion (belief in multiple deities), ultimately affirms the unity of one God, Brahman, and all the other gods are expressions of this one God.
Buddhism, often thought of as a monism (not just the unity of God but the unity of All), may not emphasize the existence of God but many Buddhists will speak of this in a multitude of nuanced ways.
The spirituality of many native North, Central and South American tribes affirm belief in one Great Spirit, creator of all.
So then it would seem that most signs point to thinking of God as One.
Not so quick.
Even among the monotheistic religions, there is also a recurring sense of or reference to multiple gods. For example:
In Judaism: Psalm 96:4 says, "For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods.”
In Christianity: 1 Corinthians 8:4-6a says, “4 Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that 'no idol in the world really exists,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ 5 Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— 6 yet for us there is one God,”
And in Islam, which very much affirms a belief in one God, there are still the 99 Beautiful Names of Allah, each of which opens the mind to a deeper understanding of the nature of God.
God is a singularity best described in a multiplicity of ways.
Complex answer: God is Three
For much, but not all, of Christianity the Church has understood and talked about God in predominantly Trinitarian ways. Though there is no clear trinitarian view of God taught in the Bible, there are the basics for the formulation of the Trinity that the early Church theologians drew from as they formulated the doctrine of the Trinity, which is the understanding of God as One in Three and Three in One: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Here are the two most concrete verses where we find reference to God in each of these three ways:
14 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. 2 Corinthians 3:14
19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Matthew 28:19
This tripartite understanding of God is beautiful and effective in that it points to the fact that God exists in a state of dynamic relationship. God is One, but God is not alone. From the earliest places in scripture we hear of God speaking of God-self in the plural:
“Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;”
But as with any language about something as indescribable and mysterious as God, the Trinity points the way towards the truth but is not and cannot be the full truth about God. It captures an aspect of God, but not the totality of God. Ultimately all language fails to fully express the reality of God.
Christianity, furthermore, is not the only religion with trinitarian understandings of God. The three primary gods of Hinduism are Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver), and Shiva (destroyer), each manifestations of the one Brahman, but with their own unique roles to play. This is not so very different that the concept of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer in Christian theology. So there are multiple ways to think of God as Three, but still One.
See? It’s complicated.
But wait, there’s more. Much more.
The boundary-pushing answer: God is Four
Not that I think the Trinity is not a valid concept for God, but you can contain three inside of every four and I’m inclined to think we ought to explore the idea that God is Four.
I’m far from the first to suggest this. In his examinations of the concept of God as Trinity, psychologist Carl Jung understood that the Trinity would eventually need to be expanded if humans were to come to understand God more fully.
It makes an enormous practical difference whether your dominant idea of totality is three or four. In the former case, all good comes from God, all evil from man. The man is the devil. In the latter case man has a chance to be saved … With the quaternity [God is four] the powers of evil, so much greater than man’s, are restored to the divine wholeness, whence they originated, even according to Genesis. The serpent was not created by man.
-C.G. Jung, Collected Works, vol 18, par 1610.
In his writings, Jung imagined that the “fourth person” of the Trinity would either be the incorporation of the feminine (in the form of the Virgin Mary?), or the devil/power of destruction, into our understanding of the Godhead. I can see why he might have imagined these options as each would expand our concept of God in radical ways.
Reclaiming the femininity of God is a necessary correction to a faith that for far too long has overly associated the divine with the masculine. Both men and women are created in the image of God, says the beginning of the Bible. For us to neglect the feminine elements of God is to close ourselves off from vital understandings of who God is and how God acts. The Bible itself does not do this. Why have we?
The incorporation of the notion of destruction, disintegration, or even evil into our concept of God might seem to have a balancing effect to notions of God as all good, which leaves many questions about the presence of evil and pain in our world. In fact most religious traditions have historically been more open the destructive power of the divine, whether it be Shiva in Hinduism or much of the destructive tendencies of Yahweh in the Hebrew Scriptures.
But, how could we continue to say that God is good if God is also the source of evil?
In the Quaternity, God does incorporate something less than perfect, but I do not believe it is necessarily evil. What God encompasses in God’s wholeness is not evil, but us: you, me, and all the rest of the creation which emanated from God. We exist within God, not as something separate from God, but as something deeply of and in God.
Which brings us back to our point from last week, the spiritual growth found in the dissolution of the distinction between what we perceive as the self and what we perceive as the non-self.
Loving God with all our Mind trains us to see things in this radically different way. Jesus himself invites us to let go of the self vs. non-self paradigm by inviting us all into the God-self paradigm when he prays to God:
that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Jesus (in John 17:21b-23)
This prayer for unity between self, non-self and God-self is Jesus’ greatest desire for humanity. It is a prayer not only for unity between peoples but also unity between humanity and God. Jesus is offering his own self as the bridge that has the power to bind it all together. This has deep implications not only for our understanding of who we are but also who God is.
In the traditional Trinitarian understanding of God, we see God as a self-contained triangle.
But the fundamental limitation of this understanding of God is that in the Trinity God is a closed system. There is no entryway.
In a more radical Quaternarian understanding of God, which is what Jesus is suggesting to God in his prayer in John 17, what we have is a more dynamic, inclusive vision of the God-self:
In this model, which of course is itself limiting in its own ways, we at least have a vision of God that is not closed but rather open to the inclusion of the rest of creation, with an open invitation to enter and participate in the God-self. It also takes the form of a womb in which the Sustainer (Holy Spirit) exists not so much as a separate “person” of God but more properly understood as the dynamic force of LOVE between Creator (Father) and Redeemer (Son) which is then extended out to Creation which emanates from the LOVE of God.
Again, why does any of this matter? Because, it matters a great deal if we see ourselves as separate from God or included in God. If we are separate, it is only logical to perceive of God as “other” and think God perceives of us as “other.” It is no far jump from there to thinking of humanity as evil and fallen, which we did and then preached to the ends of the earth. It leads to the idea of the Original Sin of humanity, which only takes into account the story after Eden, rather than claiming the initial state of relationship in which we were created by God within Eden, one of Original Blessing and union.
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27
Jesus came to show us that humanity and divinity can co-exist with one human being, that these were not two separate and irreconcilable states but can and should be understood as parts of a whole. He intended to reveal this to be true not only for him, but for us all.
And thus we find our place within the God-self, as made possible by Jesus Christ. God is now four and we have finally found our true place, reconciled to God.
God is Four.
God is Three.
God is One.
Finally, here is a poem I wrote some time ago to try to capture some of the essence of this thought:
by Rich Nelson
The Silent Source calls out to me
Breaks through in ancient melody
Prickling my skin with gentlest breath
Inhaling life, exhaling death
The Simple Savior comes in flesh
As grace makes room for all the rest
Incarnate force appears divine
Now walks a path as plain as mine
The Soul’s Sustainer drifts along
What once was Word now sings as Song
Beckons me to follow forth
East turns West as South does North
Infusing Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength
From briefest bit to longest length
And then makes room for yet one more