Thinking About the Human Brain and Divine Mystery on Trinity Sunday

Thinking About the Human Brain and Divine Mystery on Trinity Sunday May 30, 2021

Rembrandt, “Christ Healing Peter’s Mother-in-Law,” circa 1650-1660; Wikimedia {{US-PD-expired}}

There is so much about the brain that remains a mystery. There is so little we know, including with my son Christopher’s traumatic brain injury (TBI). Even a neurosurgeon acknowledged the vast unknown in speaking with us a few months ago. There is really no way of knowing at this point what’s going on deep down inside Christopher’s brain where hopefully neurons are firing and rewiring. We may not see any change on the surface much of the time, but still healing may be occurring deep down below. Only time will tell. To this point, we have experienced what appears to be some signs of healing on a fundamental level, as noted in prior posts.

I know all this, but still, there are times when I can easily forget. Like last night after visiting with Christopher and heading home. There are occasions where the ambiguities and precarious nature of Christopher’s condition hit me square in the face and sometimes on the blindside of my head. All the unknowns. All the uncertainties. The seemingly constant ups and downs. The persistent need to check Christopher’s lungs and suction him, as well as to check his vitals. The steady need to check the state of his skin and pressure wounds. The recurring need to reposition him every two hours. Need, need, need. Check, check, check. Fear, fear, fear. Thank God there are others far more able than I who are tending to him and who are tasked with making sure my son remains as stable as possible.

The same neurosurgeon told us a few months back that he is more worried about all the things that could do Christopher in as a result of TBI than he is about the TBI itself—an infection such as pneumonia, pressure wounds, fevers, seizures, and more… So, resilience, patience, and diligence are key. So, too, is perspective.

Obviously, I can’t see whether healing is taking place at the level of neurons. Neurons that fire and rewire in TBI cases are beyond my perceptive and cognitive reach. While we cannot see what is going on deep down inside, healing may be taking place, which is where it has to take place for Christopher. Putting ointment and a bandage on his brain-damaged head won’t get it done, though it can sure help with pressure wounds. Time will tell if and when healing patterns manifest themselves on the surface in various ways.

The mystery of the brain and the kind of healing we pray is occurring deep down inside got me thinking about Trinity Sunday, which is today. The Western church tradition always celebrates Trinity Sunday the week after Pentecost. Just as the brain is the greatest mystery of the human body, the Trinity is the greatest mystery of the Christian Faith. There are so many mysteries to faith, just like the body, so to deal with the greatest mystery of the human body and of the Christian faith in any one essay proves quite challenging, let alone daily life. But just as we can see evidence of firing and rewiring of neurons in how brain-damaged people’s bodies respond to treatment and therapy over time, so we can see evidence of the Trinity’s operations through healing patterns in the community of faith as the body of Christ in history. I understand the mystery of the Trinity more readily when I trace the divine persons’ movements on the surface level where I live in time and space. So I should consider how the Father and Spirit operate in relation to Jesus.

There’s a lot we don’t know about the brain or the Trinity, but that doesn’t mean they are unimportant or irrelevant. Often that which is most mysterious is most important. As a human and as a Christian, I ignore and disregard the brain and Trinity to my peril. So I try to grow in my understanding.

Let me pause to thank those who don’t share my views about God and who read these posts regarding my son out of concern for my family and me. I am grateful for the friendships with many profound people of various faith traditions and philosophies of life who dialogue with me. While they do not resonate with my beliefs, they resonate relationally with me and are empathically interested in knowing how I process my faith and bring it to bear on our family’s present struggles. To all those who read these posts with care, thank you so very much. You have gifted my family and me with your hearts and minds.

Regarding the Trinity, I like very much how Pastor Avery Stafford presents the workings of the three divine persons who are the one God: the Father is for us; the Son is with us; and the Spirit is in us. In addition to helping my theology students try to fathom what in the world I am saying about the Trinity much of the time, this vantage point helped me in coping with being blindsided last night as I considered my son’s delicate state. Just when I start thinking God is not there or is complacent and aloof, I kick in and think about Jesus as “God with us—Immanuel”—here in history and in our personal life struggles. Like the Rembrandt image above, where he heals Peter’s mother-in-law and helps her to his feet, Jesus heals and lifts us up. Just as Jesus is with us, the Father is for us in giving us his Son. The Spirit is in us, doing depth dimension healing through extending Jesus’ incarnate life in our midst. We might not see the healing take place in dramatic fashion all at once. As with TBI, spiritual healing often takes place slowly and at the micro-level. Only time will tell how we are responding to the triune God’s operations and the hope of healing embrace.

A philosophical theologian once told me that “The Trinity is the greatest mystery of the Christian Faith. Leave the doctrine alone.” I’m glad I didn’t leave the doctrine alone last night or this morning. I’m also grateful this same God doesn’t leave us alone.

Here’s how I think about the Trinity at the surface level in time and space in hospitals and rehabilitative care facilities. As I walked down the hall to see Christopher Friday afternoon last week, I got to thinking of an interview and a book on how the early church didn’t operate according to superstition in caring for people. They focused on humans as created in the triune God’s image rather than fixate on demons. The church developed the first health care system and hospitals in the Roman Empire, according to an interview with Oregon State University historian Gary Ferngren. The interview includes these lines:

“Early Christian philanthropy was informed by the theological concept of the imago Dei, that humans were created in the image of God.”

This led not only to a belief in the responsibility to aid others and the inherent worth of every human being, but also to a belief in the sacredness of the body itself. “It was to save the body that Christ took on flesh in the Incarnation. Not only the soul, which in traditional pagan thought was eternal, but the composite of body and soul, which constituted man, was to be resurrected.”

The interview states that whereas the Roman authorities deserted the sick and diseased to die and rot during the Plague of Cyprian, God in Christ did not desert them. The early church got involved and cared for the victims, even though some of the Christians died as a result of providing holistic care. No doubt, their confident assurance that God would raise them bodily from the dead freed them from fear in order to care for the sick and dying (In addition to the interview from which I quoted above, see also Ferngren’s book Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity, John Hopkins University Press, 2009).

On Trinity Sunday, as I prepare to go see Christopher again today, I think about how the triune God came to earth to enter into our struggle and messiness of life and heal us completely in body and soul. God is for the patients and their caregivers and walks the halls of the rehabilitative care facility where my son rests and receives therapy. God sits in Christopher’s room with him. God breathes life into my son, whether he is breathing room air, like last night, or drawing on supplemental oxygen, as he was at times the past few weeks. God, speak life to Christopher deep within his soul. God, heal and energize him, and everyone else who resides in these rooms, walks these halls, and cares for patients.

It’s amazing what a night’s sleep can do to one’s state of mind. Refreshed. Another day. Another Sunday. Another Trinity Sunday. Three in one. Can’t beat that.

The brain is the greatest mystery of human life. We shouldn’t leave it alone, but do everything possible to help Christopher’s brain rest, and others who are in a similar state, while repositioning and doing therapy for him and them so that hopefully he and they can heal. The Trinity is the greatest mystery of the Christian Faith. I shouldn’t leave it alone. I should do everything possible to take it to heart in the exercise of my faith so that my soul can rest and hopefully heal.

About Paul Louis Metzger
Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology & Culture, Multnomah University & Seminary; Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins; and Author of numerous works, including Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths (Thomas Nelson, 2012) and Setting the Spiritual Clock: Sacred Time Breaking Through the Secular Eclipse (Cascade, 2020). You can read more about the author here.

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