[Episcopal News Service] There are few places where community is as rich and energized as on a college campus: Groups of students gather for passionate discussions about Plato and Aristotle, following their professors after class and peppering them with questions. A cappella groups practice until their different voices sound as one, and clusters of undergrads huddle together in the winter, wearing gloves with holes in the thumbs and carrying handmade signs that say, “Free Tibet!”
A college campus is one of those rare places where, at two o’clock in the morning, groups of young people gather in dorm basements, making chocolate chip cookies, eating dough and placing it on baking sheets in equal proportions. Watching that scene—or being part of it—makes one certain that tomorrow will be better than yesterday.
I have the privilege of teaching college students as a lecturer at Yale University, watching them blossom during the semester we spend studying theology together and seeing how they develop relationships in class that can last a lifetime.
And I have the privilege of answering—or trying to answer—their questions.
Case in point: the Trinity.
A couple of months ago, a student raised a hand to ask me about the Trinity, and the inner dialogue in my head went something like this:
CONFIDENT SELF: Just say that it’s three-in-one-and-one-in-three.
DOUBTING SELF: That won’t be sufficient.
CONFIDENT SELF: Won’t it, though?
DOUBTING SELF: No, it won’t.
CONFIDENT SELF: Then I will say it is a mystery.
DOUBTING SELF: If you say that, then that ornery student who sits in the corner making incisive and dangerously true comments will want to know why theologians can’t explain this fundamental concept in Christianity with greater eloquence.
CONFIDENT SELF (now rapidly losing confidence): I fear you are right.
[Pause as CONFIDENT SELF deflates like an unknotted balloon.]
CONFIDENT SELF: God, please help me.
And in one of those moments when God offers exactly what we need, I found an answer to my student’s question, an image to explain this extra-biblical-fundamental-to-our-faith-mystery: The Trinity, I said, is like those chocolate chip cookies you bake at two o’clock in the morning. You take flour, and sugar, and butter, and a whole lot of chocolate chips (preferably two times as many as the recipe calls for) and you blend them together. And then you stick them in the oven, and when they come out, they’re bound as one.
You can’t pull the sugar out.
You can’t separate the flour from the butter.
And the cookie would be something entirely different if you removed the chocolate chips.
Yes, I told my students, the Trinity is very much like a chocolate chip cookie: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — all baked together — all distinct, all necessary, and yet inseparable.
Even though the word ‘Trinity’ appears nowhere in the Bible, Jesus offers glimpses of this chocolate-chip-cookie relationship. He tells Nicodemus, for instance, about how the Father, Son, and Spirit work together on our behalf for our salvation: Each person of three is part of an interwoven mission, each dancing with the other, holding hands, unable to let go, until the dance is complete, until their work on behalf of us is done, which it never seems to be.
And yet, Jesus also seems to acknowledge the mystery of the Trinity. While he tells Nicodemus that we are saved by the Son, that we can experience new life through the Spirit, when pressed, he says that, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Some things about the Trinity, Jesus says, humans will not be able to explain.
But like the wind blowing, like the scent of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven, we will experience it. We will be touched by that dancing, dynamic relationship that exists between the persons of the Trinity, and it will change us. It will change our relationship with God and our relationship with the world.
Because if there’s one thing that doesn’t have to be a mystery about the Trinity, it’s the way in which we can imitate the relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in our lives. Alone, we may be like flour, wholesome, but a little dry. We may be like butter, rich in flavor but greasy in morals. We may be like sugar, sweet but one-dimensional. Or we may be like chocolate chips, big in personality but a little too addictive.
As individuals, we’re all missing something, which is why we need God and each other — to complete ourselves in a way that we can’t alone. It’s why we need the church, because it’s there that we can practice knowing, loving, and serving God together: in our choirs, where different voices with different pitches and timbres and ages blend as one in praise of God; in our mission projects, where we join our hands and minds and hearts to create a world without sorrow or sighing or pain; in the Eucharist, where we share bread and wine so that we become Christ’s body.
In this work together, we see why alone is not good enough. Alone, we’ll just be a flake of flour or a lonely chocolate chip. Together, we become a tasty cookie that can nourish and feed others, that can transform the world into the place God intends it to be.
At the end of my first semester teaching, it was a beautiful spring day, and my students wanted to sit outside. Seated on grass in a courtyard surrounded by Gothic architecture and stained glass windows, I asked them what they’d learned, and at the end of our two hours together, one of my students ducked into her dorm room and emerged with a cake.
“We were up all night making it,” she said. “Some of us went to the grocery store to buy stuff, and a couple of us baked the cake, and others made the frosting. From scratch,” she added, and I could see her pride that even with limited kitchen supplies, they hadn’t resorted to a mix.
We stayed late that day, my students and I, eating that cake with the homemade yellow frosting, laughing, smiling. It wasn’t a chocolate chip cookie, but the principle was the same: Ingredients had been bound together. People had been bound together, inextricably woven, yet still distinct. And intermingled with the sun, I like to believe the persons of the Trinity shone down upon us, rejoicing to see themselves reflected on earth.
– The Rev. Danielle Tumminio lectures at Yale University and is the author of God and Harry Potter at Yale. She currently serves as an interim associate at St. Anne in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Lincoln, Massachusetts.
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