A few weeks ago the brilliant yet troubled mathematician John Nash died. Nash and his wife Alicia were returning from Norway, where Nash received yet another award for his groundbreaking proofs. Their taxi driver lost control of his vehicle and they died in the subsequent accident. A tragic end to an amazing life.
The coverage of John Nash’s life prompted a conversation with a friend. My friend is very good at math. When I want to play around with numbers, I do a sudoku. When my friend plays, he does things like make his own calculations of the mass of the universe based on its velocity. At least that’s how I think he did it. Honestly I just tried to look like I knew what he was talking about.
My friend decided to read John Nash’s 1951 Princeton dissertation on non-cooperative games, a 27 page paper Nash wrote when he was 21. In the dissertation, Nash articulated a mathematical tool for understanding competitive situations, popularly known as game theory or the prisoner’s dilemma. Nash’s proof demonstrated a point of equilibrium between two or more parties. If you’ve ever tried to find a win-win solution then you’ve implicitly worked towards Nash’s equilibrium. A 27 page dissertation doesn’t sound daunting but my friend only made it to page 4 before getting confused; I only made it to page 2.
John Nash’s proof is widely accepted by scholars but remained mathematically incomprehensible to me. Basically, I was called into ministry because “I was told there would be no math.”
I thought of Nash’s equilibrium this week as I prepared for Trinity Sunday. Like Nash’s great insight, it’s true but often incomprehensible; a sound basis for life but mysterious. While I can’t explain Nash’s dissertation beyond a few quotes pinched from Kahn Academy, I want to try to explain why the Trinity matters, why this mystery remains foundations for me.
We don’t talk much about doctrine and dogma here; we normally focus on the practice of Christianity, on what we do instead of what we think. But still the idea of the Trinity comes up in our worship, especially whenever we celebrate a baptism, because it’s the core of our affirmation of faith: we believe in God, the mother and father us all; we believe in God, known to us as Jesus Christ; we believe in God, present to us as the Holy Spirit. The Trinity is the strange idea that God is simultaneously one and at the same time three.
3 and 1, 1 and 3: we ought to be honest about the logical impossibility of it all. And yet this “Ménage à God” idea matters to me because of the ways it helps me to best imagine what it means to be divine and what it means to be human.
The best argument against the idea of the Trinity isn’t its intellectual awkwardness but rather its very political formation. We can trace the history of it through time, from the very sparse references to it in scripture, of which our reading from the Gospel of Matthew is one of the best examples, to it’s full articulation 300 years after the death of Jesus.
The concept of the Trinity emerged out of one particularly formative event. Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor, ruled a Roman Empire divided by the many factions of Christians. These factions argued about the nature of God, often turned from words to violence, as rival monks and nuns led mobs with sticks and stones. Constantine “invited” the bishops of rival factions to one of his summer palaces, a place called Nicaea. As the totalitarian ruler, his invitation could not be refused. The bishops gathered at the palace, “protected” by Constantine’s soldiers. Ironically the vast majority of the soldiers were pagans and the emperor had yet to even be baptized. The various factions lobbied the emperor - bribes were paid, promises made, favors given; skulduggery that would have made a Tammany Hall politician blush. And all of it - the pagan soldiers, the house arrest, the bribes - resulted in the Nicene Creed and its foundational concept, the Trinity.
Someone once said that if you ask a committee to design a horse, you’ll end up with a camel. It’s tempting to dismiss the Trinity as a theological camel, especially given its very political genesis.
Yet that same history is one of the reasons I find it compelling. Instead of dismissing it as an accident of politics, I see the Trinity as God working through the brokenness of human life, God speaking through the deplorability of guards and dictators, the scandal of bribes, the necessity of compromise. And that matters to me because if God could speak through rough-and-tumble politics once, then God can still speak through politics today.
We often want to separate the political and the spiritual, to divide these two, to keep earth and heaven apart. But the very political genesis of our core spiritual idea reminds me that these are inseparable; God speaks through moments of brazen politics, is known in compromises crafted in back rooms, and through the protest and debate of controversy. The Spirit of God works even in broken and difficult moments to bring forth and sustain the truth.
The core idea of the Trinity concerned the relationship between three unique manifestations of God; both united as one and still distinct. The balance of unity and uniqueness challenges our idea of what’s possible. We live in a world of privilege and hierarchy, of haves and have-nots, of winners and losers.
The inequality of our world can make it impossible to imagine the egalitarian equality of the Trinity. Often we try to fit the Trinity into our view of the world, turning the unity of the Trinity into a corporate flowchart: the Chairman of the Board, the CEO, and VP of HR. Classic Christian art does the same: showing a Father in heaven, the Son on the cross, and the Spirit a bird wafting out of the scene.
I’m sure Emperor Constantine missed the revolutionary implications of Divine Equality. Perhaps the bishops missed the dangerous implications too. But through the Creed they discerned three divine powers, united and unique, not constrained by a hierarchal relationship but instead linked by love as equals.
In the first creation account, in which God made the heavens and the earth in six days and rested on the seventh, includes a beautiful thought about humanity. God says, “Let us make humankind in our image.” Often in the history of debate about the Trinity people focused on God’s plural voice, “let us make…” But I’ve always been more interested in the second half of the phrase, “in our image.”
The idea of the Trinity describes the divine as combining unity and uniqueness. That’s the image we’re created it. And so we are truest to our nature when we balance unity and uniqueness. Which suggests that inequality is not just an affront to our morality but a challenge to our very humanity.
Our Holy God created us. We’re made in the image of a relational God, made in the image of divine equality, made in the image of balanced community.
Life never is fully what God created it to be. And so God works to redeem life, to restore us to right relationships, and to renew the image of the divine, the image of our egalitarian God, inside of us.
I think we experience something of the Trinity in those moments when life becomes more fair, when animosities are overcome, when relationships heal.
As amazingly intelligent as John Nash was, I’m more impressed by his wife Alicia. John Nash was always a strong combination of the brilliant and the bizarre. His intelligence came through at a young age; as a child “he whistled entire Bach melodies.” But he also had odd habits: pacing to and fro or wandering off in the midst of talking to someone.
As a young adult John Nash produced a number of startling papers which continue to be read and used. During this phase of his life he met and married Alicia. But soon into their marriage, the balance of the brilliant and bizarre began to shift in John. As one biographer said, “His brilliance turned malignant, leading him into a landscape of paranoia and delusion.” A long series of hospitalizations for schizophrenia began; and between them, John took to roaming his old campus, a homeless man muttering formulas outside the buildings where his work was still studied.
Alicia divorced John just four years after their marriage. But she continued to care for him, even taking him back into her home, supporting him on his long journey toward health. John’s mental health improved in the 1990’s and the couple remarried in 2001.
Alicia’s love for John seems like a glimpse of the inner life of God, a moment when we saw what it means to be made in the image of a relational God.
I treasure the idea of the Trinity because it reminds me God’s spirit can sustain the truth in every moment, that God created us for community, and God redeems our lives so that we can live more relationally. For our cooperative, communal, relational God I say, Alleluia and Amen.
“John Nash: A Beautiful Mind Subject and Nobel Winner Dies at 86,” New York Times, May 24, 2015.