The Trinity deciphered. Well, maybe.
Let's start with a statement of the obvious: there is no Trinity in the Old Testament. Of course not you say, the 'Son' had not yet come on the scene (or he was always there ... the fun of theology). But there also wasn't a "two in one" in the Old Testament, either. So the Trinity came in with the New Testament, right? Wrong. There is no mention of the Trinity in the New Testament, or more pertinently anywhere in Jesus' teachings.
The Trinity is an invention of the early church -- the same early theologians of the type who later when on to argue endlessly about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. This whole topic began with their struggling to work out who or what the person of Jesus was. Was he a man? Was he a God? Was he a hybrid mixture of the two? They quickly decided -- since they actually had no clue who Jesus really was -- that all of these options were unacceptable. So they decided that God could be in three modes: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Then -- and this is the really neat trick -- having used this modalism to create the concept of The Trinity they then (drum roll) banned modalism and made it a heresy. Hardened 'expert' theologians will argue this isn't true, but witness the contortions they get into trying to prove it isn't true.
So what did Jesus actually teach? First regarding God the Father: he taught that the goal of his teaching curriculum (which was known as "The Way") is to become one with God in heaven. And he further taught that heaven is within you and that to achieve this oneness with God you need to have a spiritual awakening -- something he called 'metanoia' or going beyond thinking. That everyone is a Son and Daughter of God (not just Jesus) but this truth is generally obscured because we are too much in our heads, believing God to be 'out there' (or more often 'up there'). So there is his teaching on God the Father/God the Son/Daughter. You are human and you are divine, and the goal is awakening to this basic Truth. Two in one? Maybe. But as Zen teaches, not two not one.
By the way, a quick aside: in the New Testament it can be confusing since Jesus uses two similar but quite distinct terms, 'children of God' and 'Child of God.' the former just means part of Gods creation. The latter -- becoming a Child of God, a Son or Daughter of God -- is about realizing your oneness with God. When you make your will and God's will one, then you become a Son (or Daughter) of God. Which is probably one of his most misunderstood teachings.
So what about the Holy Ghost (Holy Spirit) in the New Testament? Pneuma -- the Greek word for spirit -- appears some 105 times in the gospels, 161 times in Paul's letters and 69 times in Acts. But mentions of "Holy Spirit" are very few in the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke), and even then mainly in the Paul-influenced Luke.
Anyone who has read my prior blogs, posts or any of my books will know that I will not include the Gospel of John in the discussion. I rely on the Jesus Seminar guide as to what Jesus probably said, may have said, and almost certainly did not say -- and John being written so much later contains both the most words attributed to Jesus as well as the least words we believe Jesus actually spoke. The extensive use of Holy Spirit by Paul along with its presence in Luke and Acts (heavily influenced by Paul) supports the view that to a large extent the idea of the Holy Spirit as a member of a trinity is a Pauline invention.
How many times does Jesus mention the Holy Spirit? Very, very few. Twice and perhaps three times. Ever.
Mentions in Mark, just 4. Basically just two of which are attributed to Jesus himself: one that is an admonishment not to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, and one to not worry what you will say because it will be the Holy Spirit speaking through you.
Mentions in Mathew, just 5. Again only two attributed to Jesus. One again that says you can blaspheme against the Son of Man and it will be forgiven, but speak against the Holy Spirit and that is never forgiven. Which hardly fits with the idea of a Trinity as God in 3 persons.
Mentions in Luke, a whopping 13. And only three attributions to Jesus himself: the same two about not blaspheming the Holy Spirit and don't worry about what to say because the Holy Spirit will speak through you. The third, unique to Luke, is that if you who are evil know how to give gifts to your children, then imagine how much more your Father in heaven will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.
Thus what Jesus himself said about the Holy Spirit is that it is God speaking through you -- your will and God's will being aligned, and it is a gift from God. No mention whatsoever of it being a third person of God, or even an implication it should be seen as part of a Trinity. So we can't even say Jesus was a modalist. In fact, Jesus' mentions of the Holy Spirit relate more to what we tend to call a moment of grace: a moment when you do or say something that is just right in the moment and does not seem to come from you but rather God acting through you. You experiencing a moment of oneness with God, your will and God's will momentarily aligned.
In my book, "Christ Way, Buddha Way," I write of the parallels between The Trinity and the Buddhist Three Treasures: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. There's still merit in the parallel of Buddha as Truth, the absolute (what we may call God but not saying Buddha is God), Dharma being the teachings (or the Word, another name for Jesus The Christ and his teachings), and Sangha being the community as a parallel in Christian terms to God acting in community, acting in our lives.
But this new more detailed look above at how Jesus used the terms Father, Son and Holy Spirit leads to a better parallel with Buddhism or more specifically with Zen. Namely that the terms relate to your Self (with a big S), your self (with a small s) and moments of kensho of glimpses of awakening. Here then is an almost perfect one-on-one mapping of the three as Jesus taught them, and the three as we are taught in Zen.
God/Father -- Self (big S), true self, who you really are, the absolute
Son/Daughter of God -- self (small s), your human reality, concrete, the relative
Holy Spirit/moments of grace -- kensho, flashes of realization, momentary glimpses of awakening
AN ADDENDUM – That one time that Jesus did mention a trinity... And it’s a trinity that is radically different from the version invented by the early church.
In writing my last post I handicapped myself by deciding not to include anything from John. And yet the one mention attributed to Jesus of a trinity is in John 3:5 “Truly no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they first are born again of water and the Spirit. Flesh is born of Flesh, but spirit is born of the Spirit.”
Here then is Jesus once again teaching about metanoia but using different language that his audience would be familiar with—especially a Jewish audience. He presents a vision of awakening to your true self as being like being born again spiritually, but not in the Evangelical Christian sense. Here it is a rebirth of the male aspect of God (the Father depicted by water) and the female aspect, God the Mother in the form of the Spirit, or Sophia, Wisdom. All Jews familiar with the Jewish Wisdom teachings would have been familiar with the central role of fire, Sophia, wisdom, as the feminine aspect of God. It may be tempting here to think of the water as implying baptism, but to the Jewish audience of that time it would have invoked the Pool of Siloam – the pool at the outskirts of Jerusalem where pilgrims would ritually wash to cleanse their sprit before entering the city to go to the Temple. This is referenced in one of Jesus’ parables, so we know he used this imagery in his teachings.
Here, then, is the trinity Jesus saw: a metaphorical transformation – a spiritual rebirth – in which you awaken to your true self by being born again of the male and female aspects of God, as is entirely proper for a spiritual rebirth in contrast to a biological one. Here is the Father he speaks of – not an actual Father in the biological sense – but a Father as a spiritual Father who ‘begets’ with the spiritual Mother, wisdom (prajna).
Despite its source being in John, this teaching fits with the teachings he is described giving in the synoptic Gospels. Teaching that we are all able to be reborn spiritually, undergo metanoia, awakening. No mention of God only being his Father, or him being the only Son, or the Spirit (wisdom) being a third leg of a trinity stool as invented by the early church. Rather, a metaphorical trinity that is simply another way to talk about metanoia, awakening to who you truly are.
For those tempted to refer to another famous quote in John, I would just caution again that John needs to be read selectively and trusted only to the degree that what he states aligns with the Jesus we learn about in the synoptic Gospels, and the teaching we find there once any post-death Pauline amendments have been removed. Thus, yes, you may want to mention that in John 3:16 he has Jesus being described as the only begotten Son of God. But this does not agree with the teachings we know Jesus gave that we are all equal, all Sons and Daughters of God. He taught ‘Our Father” not “My Father.”
As I discuss in my book “Christ Way, Buddha Way,” Jesus clearly drew heavily on the works of Philo – a Jewish Greek scholar who was a contemporary of Christ and who is known for his syncretic merger of Greek and Jewish philosophy. He wrote that your true self is “the only begotten son of God.” He actually wrote this, and Jesus had to be aware of this writing. But Philo didn’t mean that some one human being – a messiah – would be known as the only begotten son of God, rather he taught that for everyone your true self is the only begotten son of God. It is a pity that like so many he was constrained by the male centered speech of his day, since in his writing he is clearly also referring to women, too, when he says their true selves are also the only begotten son of God. In my own teachings I take the liberty of saying Only Begotten Daughter of God for those who identify with a female gender, since to refer to everyone as an only begotten son seems decidedly odd in this day and age.