Wednesday, May 4, 2016

New Meaning in the Cross

“Don’t you believe in the Trinity?” a friend asked last week, after I reacted negatively to a stranger saying that Jesus is God. I admit, I overreacted a bit, calling the latter belief idolatry, though discretely not to the person who asserted it. The person declaring Jesus their God did not affirm this in the context of Trinity: Jesus apparently stood as “Lord” all by himself in this man’s view.

I believe Jesus would be horrified. As a good Jew, he might at best have believed himself part of a chosen people, the children of God, and as a uniquely called prophet. To the person who asked about the Trinity, I rather lamely replied that I believed Jesus awakened us to the understanding that we are all beloved children of God. I added that the Trinity wasn’t devised until centuries after Jesus lived.

If I had had my wits about me, I would’ve explained further that the Trinity as three separate persons is not how I understand God. Previously on this blog I implied that early Eastern Orthodox mystics’ Trinitarian thinking was more about God’s activities than essence or personhood. To the extent we “see” the face of God, it is by God’s activities in the world. This was also the understanding of some Judaic and Islamic philosophers and mystics.

I believe we may see God in creation, compassion, and inspiration—the actions corresponding to what is designated Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. And the writer of 1 John saw God as love, and I see God there too.

The Romans thought of the first Christians as atheists because they didn’t believe in the many gods that filled up their pantheon and the many cultures they ruled. The Christian “pantheon” came to be populated in popular imagination by Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

But to me, this limits our experience of God. Every time I write about God, I realize how much I limit God. God has more than three “faces,” as evidenced by the wide variety of religions and faiths there are on our planet alone.

Remembering that in religion “myth” is—in the words of a child—“a story that is true on the inside,” the cross may be seen as a story of how “the powers that be” seek to diminish God’s activity in the world. The resurrection may be viewed as a story of how God’s activity in the world is renewed and refreshed. And Pentecost may be understood as a story of how transforming God’s presence can be, making us able to speak in the languages of strangers, share our possessions, and proclaim God’s love to the world.

Over the past year or so I’ve experienced a series of physical “issues” that remind me I am not always going to be this body. Not going anywhere soon, mind you, but I decided finally to read Sherwin B. Nuland’s 1993 book, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, which has sat on my bookshelves unopened since a friend left it to me.

I like Nuland’s frank admission that, though society and the medical profession like to assign “causes of death,” sometimes we simply die of old age. The body was not designed to last forever. It wears out!

And I was fascinated to read a quote from Michael Helpern, the former Chief Medical Examiner of New York City: “Death may be due to a wide variety of diseases and disorders, but in every case the underlying physiological cause is a breakdown in the body’s oxygen cycle.”

This brought new meaning to the myth of the cross, that God incarnate suffered and died. Crucifixion, as is commonly known, achieves its end by suffocation: as the body weakens and sags, air flow is cut off, and the crucified dies by asphyxiation.

Many Christians have believed that Jesus or God suffered for us or in our place, which to me diminishes the fact that we too suffer and we too will die. Others of us have seen Jesus’ death on the cross as God’s suffering with us, the literal meaning of “compassion”= “to suffer with.”

Now to know that lack of oxygen is the cause of every death is to see the cross in every death—to believe that, in compassion, God is with us as we part this world.

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Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  


  1. Thanks, Chris. I know what you said here will be helpful to many who contemplate it.

  2. You have quite misunderstanding of Orthodox Trinitarianism. All Orthodox theologians have always seen the Trinity as three Persons. But how they are distinct is about their actions. If you're not familiar with the term perichoresis, you might want to look it up. :-)

    1. Thank you, Matt, for this correction and addition. My thinking on this came from chapters 4 & 6 of Karen Armstrong's 1993 book The History of God. Her contention is that the distinct persons of the Trinity was more pronounced in Western Christianity, while Eastern Christianity was more content with its mystery. Perichoresis (which is not discussed in her book)may be a subsequent emphasis in Eastern thought. Gregory of Nazianzus first used a version of the term to describe the co-mingling of the human and divine in Jesus. For readers interested in more, please go to: Thanks again, Matt!

  3. A reader wrote this to me, and I want to share his insights, though I am unable to include the photo he sent:

    You bring out so many good points here.....especially regarding the mystery of the Trinity.

    I have always had an impression of it as a co-mingled sort of thing.....I remember the first time I saw this picture....a friend of mine lives in Geneva, Switzerland and I was looking at pictures of the area and was so taken with this one that I saved it.

    This shows where the Rhone and Arne come together, each bringing their own color and composition, the beautiful clear blue and the muddy yellow.... some parts immediately mixing to produce the gorgeous emerald green.

    To me, the Trinity is somewhat like very clearly separate, one so clear you think you can see right through it, the other muddy, appearing to be one thing, but you are unsure what might lie below...but look at the emerald! It's not merely the mixing of the two, it clearly has its own identity, bursting with new life.

    I know this sounds simplistic, but when I saw the three colors, the Trinity became much clearer to me, with Christ as the emerald....a beautiful living color, green being the hue of life and hope...much like F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby as he saw the green light across the bay on Daisy's dock....tantalizingly close, and yet somehow out of reach, separated by a body of water.

    Sometimes that's how I feel...sometimes swimming and immersing myself in the emerald, at other times it merely beckons from across the bay, as I struggle.

    One other thought....asphyxiation. The head finally slumps forward, cutting off air. When we feel shame, don't we do the same thing? Lower our heads, eventually cutting off our own air, asphyxiating ourselves, figuratively rather than literally? When I read in the news that here in my own country so many "leaders" are enacting legislation to legally discriminate against me that after a while I get so weary with it...watching the overgrown bullies from my youth doing the same thing, only on a broader scale, sometimes it makes me hang my head from exhaustion. But then something good and godly happens and I perk on Friday when Roy Moore here in Montgomery was suspended. We shouldn't take total, delicious delight in other's misfortunes, we should be better than that. We really should be. I am having a struggle with that one.

    Enough! You always make me think Chris, and I thank you for that.

    1. Thank you for making me think too, as always!

  4. Here's another reader response, quoting Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite writers;

    Hi Chris,
    Your reflection on the Trinity invited me to share this with you, in case you haven't yet seen it. It speaks to me. Omne trinum est Divinum.
    All the best and have a great weekend and HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY to God, too! LOL


    THE MUCH-MALIGNED doctrine of the Trinity is an assertion that, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, there is only one God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mean that the mystery beyond us, the mystery among us, and the mystery within us are all the same mystery. Thus the Trinity is a way of saying something about us and the way we experience God. The Trinity is also a way of saying something about God and the way he is within himself, i.e., God does not need the Creation in order to have something to love because within himself love happens. In other words, the love God is love not as a noun but as a verb. This verb is reflexive as well as transitive. If the idea of God as both Three and One seems far-fetched and obfuscating, look in the mirror someday.

    There is (a) the interior life known only to yourself and those you choose to communicate it to (the Father). There is (b) the visible face which in some measure reflects that inner life (the Son). And there is (c) the invisible power you have in order to communicate that interior life in such a way that others do not merely know about it, but know it in the sense of its becoming part of who they are (the Holy Spirit). Yet what you are looking at in the mirror is clearly and indivisibly the one and only You.

    - Originally published in Wishful Thinking
    Frederick Buechner