One commenter mentioned the issue of essentially believing the Nicene Creed as opposed to a more simple statement of belief in God, the divine, the supernatural, or another similar concept. I want to make even clearer that my own leap of faith was not to the Nicene Creed, but rather to a simple belief in a “ground of all being” underlying and beyond existence. Now the same theologian who coined the phrase “ground of all being”, Paul Tillich, also noted that all language referring to God was by nature symbolic, which is one of a number of substantial contributions he has made to theological discourse. I could wish that I had been less concentrated on pure Biblical studies, and a little more open to theological reflection, as a seminary student. Had I read Tillich in seminary I might have saved myself much needless confusion.
I believe that our theological language tends to begin in spiritual experience. That is not to say that all theologians are somehow mystics and relate their own experiences, but rather that theology starts with people who hear voices, see visions, or dream dreams that they regard as meaningful. I have a certain amount of the mystic in me, as I have related recently, and thus I can state the first of two points from personal experience: When you put a spiritual experience into words it immediately loses something. When I feel the presence of God I cannot completely relate that story in words. Words are limited. Words are, by nature, intended to describe things. We even find them a bit inadequate dealing with emotions.
Thus the validity of what I say about spiritual experience is automatically subject to question. When I take a step further, and start generalizing doctrines, such as the doctrine of the trinity, I have taken several steps beyond that, as I use symbolic language to describe generalized, common spiritual experience. There is a big difference in my mind between saying, “I believe in God,” and saying “I believe in the trinity.” If nothing else, the first is part of the “leap of faith” I described previously, while the second is something derived from that, and form the experience and teaching of others.
Some of my orthodox brethren may get pretty uncomfortable with this, but while I regard myself as a trinitarian Christian, because I find the language of the trinity most useful in talking about God, I have serious doubts about how accurately that doctrine, or any other doctrine of God, actually describes God. I find that the language of trinitarian theology combines quite well the mystery and the experience of God as I encounter it. The language of the trinity works perfectly well for me. But I have no basis for jumping on people who cannot accept it. While I have said that I no longer can imagine not believing in God–I’ve tried to disbelieve and failed–I could easily imagine a set of circumstances that might cause me to quit believing in the trinity. Just provide me with a better set of symbols to use in talking about the divine, tie them into the tradition (long-term experience) of my community, and I’ll take a look.
One argument that will not convince me that the trinity is false (or not useful), however, is the argument that it doesn’t make sense. It does, and it doesn’t. In my view it describes our experience of God quite well, and it points me toward God effectively. At the same time it has the truly endearing quality of refusing to let me feel that I have fully grasped it. In a similar way, I think that if I think I have grasped God fully, that is the best indication that I’m off the track. I think it’s going to be hard to invent a doctrine that works better (for me) as a symbol for God than the trinity, but I leave open the door to such trials.
In conclusion I just want to say that I find tinkering with theological concepts great fun. It is unfortunate that there has been so much judgment applied to the process, and that people have been put to death over mysterious doctrines such as the trinity. Considering our infinite ignorance of God (at least I regard myself as infinitely ignorant of an infinite being), it seems awesomely arrogant to burn other people at the stake over disagreements between our various forms of ignorance–or to condemn or ostracize them.