Keep Christianity Weird: The Trinity, Mermaids, UFOs, and Holy Strangeness

mermaid

Keep it weird.

From Portland and Boulder to Austin and Asheville, “Keep It Weird” has become a rallying cry for local culture in an increasingly mass-produced landscape, a full-throated embrace funky individualism that ironically forges strong community.

Of course, to really find the misfit and funky expressions of humanity, you have to move beyond the bastions of it, outside the centers of its self-conscious curators of weird. You’ve got to get beyond the glory of the self-consciously odd “How Berkeley Can You Be Parade” and go to the middle of nowhere Florida to see the last mermaid show (yes mermaids) in the country. You’ve got to drive down the country backroads of Bowman, South Carolina, where you will find the sagging mishmash of the UFO Welcome Center. I’m not sure which is weirder — that it exists at all or that it exists in a rural Southern town of less than 1,000 people.

In an age of Starbucks on every corner and a culture of conglomeration, many have begun to seek out the oddballs, the remnants of a time when variance and inconsistency were an expected part of the human experience. In an age of science and rational explanations for everything, it is a marvelous relief to encounter something — anything — whose very existence evokes a mystified response, “That is so weird.”

I love weird. It’s what first attracted me to journalism, reading Susan Orlean’s sublime stories about the quirky, the oddballs, and the everyday outliers.

And my love for weirdness is exactly why I love the Trinity.ufo

With the Trinity, Christianity places its weirdest, oddest, most inexplicable idea at the very center of the faith. And that in and of itself is the very homoousios of weirdness. Mysticism within organized religions tends to exist on the margins, not at the center, be it Sufism in Islam or Kabbalah in Judaism. But in the Trinity (and Eucharist for that matter), Christianity centers its most mystical and experiential concept of God at the very core of the tradition.

It’s remarkable, really. Because what the Trinity asserts is that the very center of the Christian faith is not a doctrine but an experience, not a belief but a mystery. We are to be united with God and others in relationship because God’s very essence and nature is loving relationship.

That is both mysticism and a mystery. Now, this notion of mystery and mysticism might well seem like a cop-out to some critics (and I have been one of those critics in the past). The Trinity isn’t even biblical, really. It’s not explicitly mentioned in the Christian Scriptures and it only existed as one of many ideas in early Christianity, which was a confusing mess of theological contradictions and varying beliefs during the first three centuries of Christianity.

And yet, the threefold form of baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can be found in our faith’s most ancient worship text, the Didache. And while the Trinity as a doctrine was eventually used as a theological cudgel, as a concept it seems to have come not from intellectual or religious authority, but from the ground up, not from the powerful but from the prosaic, the every day experience of believers with God.

It began as descriptive more than prescriptive.

As Frederick Borsch, bishop of Los Angeles, apparently said:

There are probably a number of people who imagine that the idea of the Trinity was thought up by ivory-tower theologians who, typically, were making things more complicated than they needed to be and were obscuring the simple faith of regular believers. In fact, it seems that the process worked pretty much the other way around. Practicing believers and worshipers were driven by their experiences of God’s activity to the awareness that God related in several different ways to the creation. … Thus what these believers came to insist upon was that God had to be recognized as being in different forms of relationship with the creation, in ways at least like different persons, and that all these ways were divine, that is, were of God. Yet there could not be three gods. God, to be the biblical God and the only God of all, had to be one God. This complex and profound faith was then handed over for the theologians to try and make more intelligible. They have been trying ever since.

And this is where I think the Church may have erred, in trying to create an intelligible formula for a mystery, in attempting to police the experience of divine union with God, in erecting dogmatic scaffolding around a concept that is meant to be experienced in relationship not enforced by authorities.

Because that is what the Trinity reveals. It reveals that God’s very nature is loving relationship, divine communion. The Trinity should remind us that Christianity, at its heart, isn’t about orthodoxy or belief as much as it is about loving relationship and active communion with God and each other.

How ironic then that Christians have so frequently used the Trinity as a wedge, as a line in the sand to determine who is really in and who is really out. It’s a mystery! By it’s nature, a mystery exists in between hard lines of satisfactory explanation. It’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around the Trinity even when fully affirmed and deeply experienced within the life of faith. Can we really blame folks for their doubts and suspicions about such a slippery concept?

But we have to face historical facts, too. The Trinity, whose revelation is all about loving relationship and divine communion being fundamental to God’s existence, has so often been used to ex-communicate, to divide, and to anathematize. From the very moment it was enthroned as official orthodoxy at the Council of Nicaea, the Trinity for all its mystery has carried with it a fair amount of flesh-and-blood tragedy. It’s a staggering act of self-contradiction. To expel or to excommunicate someone from Christianity based on their beliefs about the Trinity goes against the very idea the Trinity reveals about God’s very nature existing in divine communion, unity through love and relationship even within difference. If we use the Trinity to declare who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, if we use the Trinity to shut others out of the Church, if we use the Trinity to declare heresy and label heretics, we undermine it and actively argue against the validity of the Trinity itself! It borders on the blasphemous.

So before we bicker about the Trinity, I pray we might pause to remember just how very weird it all is.

Because ultimately, the Trinity isn’t meant to be defended, explained, rationalized, or really even believed so much as it is meant to be experienced and entered into. In the Trinity, Christianity places our experience and our relationship with God as the center of the faith, not our ideas, explanations, or defense of God. In the Trinity, Christianity places mysticism not dogmatism at the core of our religion. In the Trinity, Christianity dares to declare that the image of God in which we are made is an image of loving relationship, divine communion, and unity existing within difference.

When I say the Trinity is a mystery, part of what I’m saying is that I don’t really understand it but when I’ve met the trinitarian God in the world that prioritizes loving relationship over dogmatism, I’ve felt my heart warmed, liberated to be loved and to love as the only me ever created.

The Trinity makes room for all of us.

In other words, the Trinity is weird, and in a world bent on dividing us up and pitting us against each other based on our differences, I’m grateful for the Trinity, because it means there’s room for me, you, and all of our differences. It means there is at least of chance of God’s love and unity being made manifest within those differences as long as those differences are held in tension through relationship rather than erased through rigid sameness or forced agreement.

The Trinity reminds us that God’s nature is unity but not homogeneity.

And maybe that’s weirder than any dilapidated UFO Welcome Center in rural South Carolina, weirder than any mermaids off an old highway in Florida, weirder than Berkeley, Portland, Boulder, and Asheville combined.

As Christians, this is our weirdness, our holy strangeness. And perhaps the best explanation of the inexplicable trinitarian God is a lived one: to embrace one another in all of our differences, not in spite of them, celebrate them and learn from them, not deny and erase them.

So, let’s keep Christianity weird.

Because in the Trinity, it appears that God already is.

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It’s come to my attention that I’m certainly not the first one to call on the Church or on Christians to be weird. Folks from Rod Dreher to Rachel Held Evans have made the same call (check out Evans’ video here), though for different reasons and with different emphases. In fact, “keep it weird” probably stuck in brain from reading Evans’ excellent book Searching for Sunday.

Image Credit: UFO by Robin/Flickr CC

Mermaid by Robin Wendell/Flickr C.C.

 

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