As Alice wanders through the forest looking for something to eat that might help her grow back to her normal size, she comes across a mushroom that is “about the same height as herself.” She stands on her tiptoes and discovers a caterpillar “quietly smoking a long hookah.” After staring at each other for some time in silence the caterpillar asks her, “who are you?” This turns out to be a very difficult question for Alice to answer because, as she tells the caterpillar, “I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” The question “who are you?” along with the ancient philosophical command to “know thyself” may be the most important sign posts in existence for an age that is utterly lost when it comes to identity.
There is no shortage of self-help books and Sunday sermons which try to guide an individual into discovering their identity. But many of these books and sermons do a much better job of helping people understand what identities they should avoid rather than what identities they should adopt. In evangelical Christianity the “Identity” sermon series has become an essential component in the minister’s tool box. These messages often describe the dangers of adopting identities that our culture offers, and instead encourage folks to embrace an “identity in Jesus.” But there’s a fatal flaw in this otherwise simple formula for “knowing ourselves.”
The flaw becomes apparent when we begin to ask the question, “who is Jesus?” This problem grows when we inevitably realize that Jesus’ identity is intimately linked to the nature of the Trinity. This is a problem because in our culture fewer and fewer people, including ministers, are taking the time that is necessary to study and contemplate the nature of the Trinity; which is essential to understanding the nature of Jesus and by extension our own identity! I work with young people and it amazes me how few of them know the bible stories that I was taught in Sunday School, and the ones that do know have rarely ever thought about contemplating an idea that is as seemingly abstract as the Trinity.
It is my hope that our culture’s growing need for self-discovery will lead them to rediscover the ancient teachings of the church regarding the nature of Christ and the Trinity. Classic works like On the Incarnation by Athanasius, On God and Christ by Gregory Nazianzus, and On the Unity of Christ by Cyril of Alexandria. It is also my hope that ministers will begin to see that we need to give congregants more than just a list of identities to avoid. We desperately need to give them a vision of Jesus and his place in the Trinity that is deep enough for them to contemplate always and forever. It is this knowledge which Peter says God has given us by his power so that we ourselves may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption of the world (2 Peter 1:3-4).
A classic way of understanding human nature/identity (way of being), the nature of Christ, and the nature of the Trinity goes something like this, mankind’s nature was twisted or bent because of sin. God the Father is eternally good, and He shares every aspect of His divinity (Godness) with the Son by whom all things were created, and the Spirit by whom we see the goodness of the Father in the Son and in creation. The Son voluntarily takes on a human nature, and in that act He perfects (straightens) the human nature. By faith in Christ and through the power of the Spirit we are transformed into the image of Christ and our nature’s are perfected in such a way that we are able to participate in the divine nature as well. This process is salvation or what the church has called theosis.
The Trinity therefore is a mystery, but it is far from being impossible to understand. There are three divine persons, but there is one God the Father almighty who shares His divinity in such a way that He is one with the Son and the Spirit. In the Incarnation (the taking on of a human nature by the Son) Jesus maintains the fullness of his divinity, and the two natures are united without confusion. The incarnation gives us the assurance that what the Son is by nature we become by grace through faith. The scriptures used to come to this understanding, the effect they have on our lives, and the arguments for and against their truthfulness, can be studied for many lifetimes, and it is precisely these realities that we are called to contemplate.