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How My Atheist Father Helps Me Understand The Trinity

I vividly remember one of the few times I saw my dad cry.

I don’t remember the details or the reason, but I remember the impression it left upon me.

We were sitting in the car, and he was softly singing Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.” And his voice choked on the lyrics, and tears started rolling down his cheeks.

Maybe something was going on in the family, though if so I couldn’t guess what it was. Or, maybe the drums were beating for the Bush Senior’s war in Iraq, the original that paved the way for the endless sequel. Maybe some combination of home and world events pierced his emotions until they could no longer be contained. Music has a way of reaching in and pulling the deepest longings from his heart right up to the surface. He’s a sensitive soul, my father.

He’s always been one of the kindest, most tender-hearted people I know. I mean, of course he is to me; he’s my daddy. But his compassion reaches far beyond his family. He has always yearned for a better world, a world of equity and justice, a world without war or hatred. A child of the 60s, he was bold and vocal in his support for integration, missing his high school graduation to join a walk-out with African American students.  He registered as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. His strives to hold his country accountable to its own professed standards of “liberty and justice for all,” and he strives to hold himself accountable to those standards as well. He and my mother taught me my values of kindness, respect, and peacemaking, and I have always been proud to have him as my role model.

And the fact that he is an atheist has played a pivotal role in my faith journey.

To this day, whenever I hear, “Unless you become like children, you will never inherit the kingdom,” I feel a disconnect. I heard about “having the faith of a child” throughout my lifetime, and it secretly frustrated me, because as a child I often felt more doubt than faith. How could it be otherwise, when the man I most admired rejected the whole idea of God? And it wasn’t for lack of exposure; he is the son of a former minister. He had gone to Sunday School and read at least some of the Bible. Yet he rejected it. So naturally, I also questioned the scripture and traditions of my faith community.

I loved my church. My mother (also the child of a minister) brought me weekly, and I made my dearest childhood friends there – both children my own age and adults with whom I made instant and lasting connections. And I loved the liturgy; I felt an overwhelming sense of grown-upness participating in worship; pride in memorizing the creeds and confessions and genuine joy in singing the hymns. Nevertheless, my doubt lingered. I wanted to believe in a God of Love; I wanted to believe that an all-powerful yet all merciful Being who cared for me and my loved ones held the universe together.

The Trinity… is God’s all-embracing Love. And I see that love so beautifully reflected in my father.

Yet I learned early on that the God so many of my friends and family worship is a God my father denies in large part because so much of scripture looks nothing like love. My father rejects miracles in a scientific world and has an eye for the contradictions that litter the pages of the Bible, but his intellectual rejection of religion is interwoven with a moral imperative to shun the violence of a God who would kill first-born sons of Egypt, lead genocidal conquests, or destroy the entire world in a flood. He rejects the violent soteriology that claims that God withholds mercy unless there is sacrifice, that shames followers into submission by claiming that Jesus’s gruesome death was payment for our sins. He refuses to assent to a faith that has been weaponized to shame and condemn and kill, and he resists the exclusivism that can be wielded by any religion and is certainly wielded in the name of Christianity. I know these words do not encompass all the reasons my father or anyone else embraces atheism, but they encompass my early childhood understanding of why my father does.

And I, who learned so much of love from my father and saw so much love in my church, felt competing pangs of longing and fear for a faith whose people showed such love but whose scripture and traditions inspired so much violence (yes, along with much good) in the world. When Jesus’s life and teachings show active compassion for the most marginalized and yet even many kindhearted Christians believe in a God who would violently condemn all humanity for disbelief or incorrect belief, what was I to understand? It was an intellectual and moral, well… crisis of my childhood into my young adulthood. That sounds like hyperbole when I was always safe and always loved, but I knew the stakes were potentially infinite, and my heart, mind and soul often felt pulled to bursting.

And the Trinity – the very essence of God – was one of my biggest intellectual and moral conundrums as I tried to navigate my faith. What could it possibly mean, for God to be three-in-one? Of course my father, not just an atheist but also a math teacher, rejected it! But the Trinity was much more than faulty math. Like floating zoos or virgin births, it seemed to defy scientific rationality. I saw it as a litmus test for faith that I was amazed anyone could pass. And, when taken in connection with a penal substitutionary perspective on atonement and a looming fear of eternal torment in hell for nonbelievers, well, the Trinity sometimes seemed to me like the cruel joke of a petty and vindictive God who may or may not exist. First God demands a gruesome death as payment for our sins, then God denies heaven to those who don’t believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and to top it all off, the faith required for heaven was a kind of moral and intellectual gymnastics in which I had to recognize that the same Jesus whose death God required was God’s son and God’s self, but God was not 2, but 1, but within that 1 there is a third, the Holy Spirit. Why did I even struggle to believe in that God at all?

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Well, there was fear, but there was also love. Not only was my journey a search for love in the midst of confusion and doubt, but Love’s Own Self pushed me forward in pursuit of finding answers to questions that my father planted in my brain and my heart. Love led me to study scripture and theology to try to understand the juxtaposition of the loving God that my mother and church confessed with the violence committed in God’s name.

Along the way, I found some answers and began to feel more at peace, but it wasn’t until I became acquainted with René Girard’s Mimetic Theory that I discovered a comprehensive lens for understanding the violence in scripture and in life. Essentially, I learned that humanity is formed in relationship, that our interconnection is integral to who we are. Violence is born as much of our similarities as our differences as we compete for our desires. And we are prone to forming identities over and against others. Violence can feel transcendent, and God can be confused with violence, because we often feel a sense of “right” in opposition to a sense of “wrong.” A Girardian perspective on scripture helps me to understand the Bible as the story of humanity’s relationship with God and as our journey out of violence and into harmonious relationship with one another. The attribution of violence to God comes from humanity’s confusion of violence and divinity, and Jesus’s relationship of Love with God models a new way for us to recognize God and live in relationship with each other.

For to be made in God’s image is to be made in loving relationship. That is how I have come to understand the Trinity. We are formed in relationship to one another because God’s own self is perfect relationship – not isolated entity but ever-flowing Love. God the Father and God the Son are ever giving and receiving of Love, and the Holy Spirit is the Love that flows between them and pulls us into the infinite dance of Love as well. The Trinity is not poor math or the litmus test of a petty God; it is God’s all-embracing Love.

And I see that love so beautifully reflected in my father. A loving relationship in which we are formed, which changes us for the better and reaches beyond us to the world… that’s the Triune shape of Love we are born to reflect. My father’s love makes me who I am; I know my love for him has shaped him just as my own children shape me, and thus our relationship with all others is more because of who we are to each other. It’s the same, of course, for any close relationship: friendship, marriage, etc. So it’s not just that my father’s rejection of the violence in scripture and religion catalyzed my search for a deeper understanding of God’s love. It’s not just that, thanks in large part to my dad, I fully reject any understanding of God that pollutes love with violence. And it’s not just the fact that my dad’s commitment to peace and justice has shaped my own passion for the same, or that my own struggle with scripture through the questions that he planted in my brain sparked my desire to disarm scripture and help others to use it as a plowshare rather than a sword. Beyond all of this, my father, the atheist math teacher, helps me to understand and appreciate the Trinity because he lives so fully into the call we all receive whatever our beliefs may be, the call to be an instrument of peace and relate to the world in love.

Thank you, Dad. I love you!

Top Image: 123rf.com
Lower Image: Mohamed Awwam on Unsplash