God in the Pond

A Theology Thursday post.

Yesterday when I went to check on my next Moodle assignment for my Systematic Theology class, I was genuinely overjoyed to find that this was it:

Your church has asked you to teach a Bible instruction class to a group of 7th and 8th graders.  When you come to the doctrine of the Trinity, how will you approach the subject?  What will you say?  What will you not say?  What analogies will you use, if any, to clarify the doctrine?

Cover detail from A Priest's Tale by Lindsey Llewellyn

Cover detail from A Priest’s Tale by Lindsey Llewellyn

I know. I’m ridiculous. I mean, my heart actually leapt. Then, even though the post due date isn’t until next Wednesday, I went ahead and posted something today. Yeah, it was the first post up. What are you implying?

Look. It’s not like I think I figured out the secret of the Trinity and can now expound it in such a way that even the most skeptical skeptic will fall down in worship (of the Trinity! not me!), although I wish I had and could. It’s just that I’ve had a lot of time to mull it over, and talking about it seems to be what I do. Second theology class I took as an undergrad, I had a group assignment which was essentially, “Figure out how you would explain the Trinity to a Muslim,” and it’s been all Trinity all the time ever since. Three years after that I spent a big chunk of time trying in earnest to explain the Trinity to real Muslims. Then I tried my hand explaining it to atheists (which is trickier, because if you can’t even get past the existence of God issue, it’s hard to make sense of anything else), and now I work for a church and teach a confirmation class of–usually–eighth graders. So, maybe I don’t entirely know how to explain the Trinity, but I’ve sure had a lot of practice trying. I use different analogies for different audiences, but this (with some edits because I’m already blabbing on and on) is how I answered my assignment.

Trinity by Jeronimo Cosida

Or . . . you could look at it this way, I guess?

I get the idea that most of the youth of my church have absorbed some sort of impression that Jesus and God are different entities, even though ostensibly it is a Trinitarian church. So when I talk to them about the Trinity, my main goal is to get them to see how Jesus is one with God. Another relevant detail is that our church has a camp property in [Boondocks, New England]. It’s on a pond. This is what I usually say:

“How many of you have been to Camp? You know [Boondocks] Pond, then. You’ve been boating on it and swimming in it and stuff. Did you know that, in order for you to be able to do those things, someone has to take a water sample to a water testing plant so they can make sure the water’s safe?

“When the testing facility tests the little cup of water, they can tell everything they need to know about [Boondocks] Pond–even though it’s just a cup of water! When Jesus came to earth He was like [Boondocks] Pond in a cup. Everything that was true about God was true about Him. It’s why when, right before Jesus was going to die, and His disciple Philip said, ‘Jesus, show us the Father,’ Jesus was like, ‘Hello? See me? You’ve seen the Father.’ Jesus is God just as much as the Father is God. Jesus showed people everything they needed to know about God.

“Now, what about at camp in the mornings? You know how the mist rises off the pond? That’s still [Boondocks] Pond, too. That [Boondocks] Pond is a little like the Holy Spirit, because you breathe it in and it gets inside you. The Holy Spirit can live inside you, too. He isn’t you (sorry–no matter what you may think, you’re not God), just like the vaporised water of the pond isn’t you, but He can be in you.”

I prefer this analogy to the traditional ice-water-vapor analogy because all three “manifestations” of [Boondocks] Pond can exist simultaneously. I recognise, however, that there are some drawbacks. The analogy of the Holy Spirit is a little weak, in particular, I feel. (The Holy Spirit actually empowers us to live God’s way, where as inhaling water vapor is just sort of–passive on the part of both the vapor and the one inhaling it.)

I’m also aware that the personal element gets lost in this analogy. For seventh and eigth graders, however, I’m sort of okay with that. I think, given where most kids are intellectually at that stage, their hang-ups with Trinitarian ideas are going to be more spacially conceived than personally conceived. Although I haven’t tried this, I have a hunch it would work better to say, “Now, imagine [Boondocks] Pond has a personality . . . ” and “sci-fi-ing” it up from there, than to start talking about remembering God, knowing God and loving God (Augustine’s idea). Frankly, I’m not sure I even really understand that one–it sounds more like the progression of a relationship than “three persons” to me. Once I tried using CS Lewis’ construct about dimensions: we live in a spacially three-dimensional world but have “one-dimensional” personalities, whereas God, being more than we are, has a three-dimensional personality. But when I said that, some kid said, “So God’s got multiple personalities?”

I’m curious to see which forum gets the most dialogue going. What did I miss? Skeptical Skeptics? Describe your skepticism. True Believers? How would you explain the Trinity?

photo by Donna Dunn 2012

One way or another, reveling in the grandeur of God

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21 thoughts on “God in the Pond

  1. I love the pond analogy. I firmly believe that people build up a sort-of relationship with places that they love. Though a pond is certainly not personal, so you do lose that a little bit, the thing that’s great is you are mentioning some land that most of the kids probably love, so you get a little of that back.

  2. Oh I typically refer to that whole water, ice, paper analogy. I do agree that it’s certainly not latent with all kinds of personality. I like the fact that you’re using something that the kids can relate to, and that I think, makes it more viable and more easily applicable for them.

    • “Water, ice, paper”? Were you multitasking, JT? 😉

      The typical theological objection to the water/ice/vapor analogy is that water can’t exist in all three states together at once. You can have water and vapor, but no ice, or water and ice, but no vapor. Whereas all the Trinity always exists all the time. On the other hand, the typical audience is probably not going to parse it down that far . . . 🙂

      • Lol, actually I have a new phone and it has a really cool feature that I have developed a love/hate relationship with. I can speak into it and it converts my speech into a text or e-mail. This is great because I can do hands free stuff ! However… it has this exasperating habit of reminding me that I have not enunciated clearly enough by placing words I did not intend into the body of the message, sometimes these words can be so far away from the topic that it changes the entire content of my message and if I do not proof read…. which often I don’t because I am driving at the time, hence the need for hands (ahem and eyes) free capabilities, I end up sending the, if you’ll forgive the pun, wrong message. 🙂

        • Gives a whole new meaning (or the same meaning with a different slant) to the game of “Telephone.”

          My Paul has that function, too. He loves it. I can’t stand using voice-dictation apps. It makes me feel self-conscious. I’m a WRITER, not a TALKER. 🙂

  3. Well, you certainly explained the concept to a Hindu! We have a complicated overlapping world of deities. I am not sure but we may have millions of gods, goddesses, fathers and sons and the hierarchy is at times beyond the priests! Yet, on a saner plane, we have a simplified dual layered system of ‘atma’ (common soul )and the ‘paramatma’ (the ultimate soul) and eventually the former melds into the latter that symbolises God. The millions of ‘avatars’ are faces of the same force. This is the concept of ‘Nirvana’ (the salvation). Asimov was pretty close to it when he propounded the concept of ‘Gaya’ at the end of the Foundation series. So, I’ll become the Pond and the mist and the sunlight that vapourises it all.

    I wish you luck with Muslims.

    • Haha! Thanks. Unfortunately, I left all my Muslim friends behind in London. I miss them, though–and our conversations.

      Thanks for your (really, really brief) explanation of Hinduism. I’m mildly familiar with that, too (I went to India once, remember–and I had some Hindu friends in London, too 🙂 ) I’m always grateful for your contribution to the dialogue.

  4. I think your analogy is perfect for the target audience (let me immediately admit that I have way less experience with eight graders than you, so it’s really not that big of a compliment, but more of a gut feeling), tying together a heavy subject with their world and experiences they can relate to. I came up with a problem, but as I typed it out,I realized I had thought of an answer faster than I could type it out. Nevertheless, because I wonder what your answer might be: if God and Jesus are one, how is Jesus carrying the burden of being isolated by God on the cross?
    Also, I saw how your blog has no place for skeptic believers 😉

    • I guess I didn’t mention Skeptical Believers because it would have been self-evident that they are welcome. 🙂 I’m glad you felt free to comment anyway! (I would class myself thus, vacillating often between more skeptical and more believing.)

      Can you ask your question again? I’d like to mull it over, but I’m not too clear what you’re asking.

      • Both the water-ice-vapor analogy and your own assume three manifestations of one holy entity, thus one ‘person’ (deity) in three appearances. However, the gospel teaches us that Jesus took the ultimate punishment by being cut off from God (‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’), as that punishment was first established in Genesis 15, or Genesis 3 even (the resolvement in Genesis 15). My question is as follows, if the trinity forms one person, how can one appearance be cut off from the other, so that they are actually hurt? If they’re merely manifestations of one deity, why is abandonment still an issue?

        Feel free to challenge my premises, too.

      • I’m going to challenge your premises. 🙂 The Trinity is three Persons of one Essence. In the analogy, water is the essence. The different expressions (pond, cupped and mist) all share the same essence, but they are still distinct from each other. The things that happen to the pond water when it gets tested don’t happen to the pond. The things that happened to Jesus here on earth didn’t happen to the Father–except as they were so united that the Father suffered when the Son did.

        A pond is just a pond, so it’s not going to care when the cup of water that came from it gets tested, but God is personal (tri-personal!), so He IS going to care/feel the “testing”–but the different persons are going to experience the pain in different ways, even as the Godhead (the whole Trinity) experiences it in all ways. The Son is going to feel the pain of abandonment, the Father is going to feel the pain of turning away and . . . I have no idea what the Spirit’s doing during all this.

        Apparently there are some theologians who don’t believe God feels pain, but I think that’s antithetical to the Gospel and the Biblical record.

        Anyway. Does that make sense?

  5. Though I do like the analogy, you’ve not succeeded in swaying this here atheist from thinking it has just as much relevance to reality as umashankar’s ‘complicated overlapping world of deities’.

    The image you offer is interesting, too, though I think you need to be drunk to fully appreciate it. Hmm…Speaking of which, I wonder if Douglas Adams had an idea you might consider running with:

    “What’s so unpleasant about being drunk? You ask a glass of water”.

    PS Typo alert:
    “For seventh and eigtheighth graders…”
    “..are going to be more spaciallyspatially conceived …”

    • Sheesh.

      Yeah, I can never get “eighth” right. I should probably just stick with 8th. As for “spacially”–I reserve the right to make up my own spelling on that one. 🙂 No particular reason. Except for maybe an objection to the “t”–why is that there? It’s not in the root word!

      Regarding the relevance of the Trinity–I’ve had friends who’ve hurled the “drunk” and “high” charges at me before over my beliefs–and I can see why it would seem irrelevant when you’re not the one with the same beliefs. We were talking in class this week about how (or whether) it’s humanly impossible even to begin to understand this stuff unless God does something in your head (or heart, or whatever it is that is open to these things) first, to enable you to. I realise the implications of such an idea may be somewhat offensive, but . . . it’s one way to look at it, I guess.

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