Monday, September 15, 2008

Apples, Shamrocks, and Eggs, Oh My!

One of the delightful aspects of my job as a children's director is discussing kids' questions about God. Some recent gems include, "Was Jesus married while He was on earth?", "Why did Jesus have to die?", "How many gods are there?", "Isn't God loving? Why would He give the Israelites power to demolish complete cities?", "Is Jesus married now?", and "What country does God live in?" But of all my students' thought provoking queries, their most common question remains, "How can one God be three people?"

Now there's a whole grab bag of object lessons available to explain the Trinity to kids. Like the apple analogy: Just as an apple is made up of a peel, pulp, and seeds, so God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And if apples aren't your thing, you can do pretty much the same analogy with an egg: Just as an egg is made up of shell, white, and yolk, so God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Or how about the rope example: Just as this rope is made up of three strands, so God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Or the shamrock: Just as this plant has three leaves, so God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Personally, I was raised on the water analogy: Water can exist as steam, liquid, and ice just as God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This made perfect sense to me in elementary school and contrary to fears about the dangers of Trinitarian object lessons, I did not embrace modalism.

Confident that the water analogy was clearly superior to the rest, it became my automatic reponse whenever kids asked me about the Trinity. But a few years ago I began thinking about the implications of using objects lessons to explain this concept. As far as I can tell, the Trinity isn't like anything else in creation and comparing it to an egg or shamrock (or the creative process - yeah, I'm talking to you, Dorothy Sayers!) doesn't begin to do it justice. And while I doubt that most kids will fall into heresy due to an imperfect fruit analogy, I do wonder if telling them that the Trinity is like an apple reduces their view of God's mystery and power.

So here's my current stock answer to the Trinity question: God is one God, but He exists in three persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is like nothing else in all creation. We can't understand it, but that's ok. God is so big and amazing that there are things about Him our minds just can't comprehend right now. Surprisingly (at least to me), the kids don't seem to need any more explanation.

What do you think? Have you come across any good Trinitarian object lessons? For those of you who have (or work with) kids, how do you explain the Trinity to them? I covet your thoughts and ideas.


c.c. said...

it is kind of like a few things in creation - like marriage, and the church body, in the whole plurality-yet-unity concept. but i probably wouldn't go there with a little kid. maybe a high schooler.

one thing that helped me understand the Trinity better (this was just a couple years ago though) was realizing that "three persons" meant "three people." somehow "persons" was not ringing a bell all these years, and "people" suddenly made me think, oh, there are three of them and they are different people, but they are all divine and united in such a way as to be one God.

Mama Sticks said...

Though the method obviously has downfalls, I don't have a huge problem with using an object lesson to describe the trinity. I do think it's important to communicate that nothing we experience in the natural world comes close to the complexity of God's personhood. God's creation testifies to His glory so I don't think it's unimaginable that we can see examples of His truth in nature.

I am curious Jen, how far you went with your water analogy. You may have heard it from me before, but there is such thing as the triple point of water (as there is with most substances). This is the temperature and pressure at which the substance can exist in gas, liquid, and solid form at exactly the same time. In the case of water, that point is reached at .01 degrees Celcius and 0.0060373057 atm (atmospheres). This analogy doesn't lend itself as easily to modalism and is what we used to use in Utah.
~Holly :-)

Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

whoops, posted as Kashelle. What about the dimensions of space as an analogy for the Trinity?

Anonymous said...

Hi Jenny,

I am a former youth pastor, and ran into this as well. Regarding your point here:

"...the Trinity isn't like anything else in creation, and comparing it to an egg or shamrock..doesn't begin to do it justice... I do wonder if telling them that the Trinity is like an apple reduces their view of God's mystery and power."

You have to remember, we aren't trying to do the Trinity justice, we are just trying to communicate something in children-language to children.

What I have found is that the 3 phases of water analogy not only is helpful to kids, but it actually *heightens* their awe of God's mystery and power. It is so tangible for them (ice, liquid water, steam), for them to try and comprehend that God is all three of these simultaneously is awesome.

Obviously the analogy falls short of doing justice, but for what you are describing, I think it is actually quite ingenuitive. And I don't say this to defend some pet love I have for it, only to say that (1) it's for kids, and (2) it actually heightens awe.

I am always quick to add that the analogy is just a small picture and does not do it proper justice or understanding, and I point out the danger of modalism, etc.


pcg said...

While it fails the "three components" test, I use the quantum properties of light as an object lesson. Light is both a particle and a wave, and only manifests as one of those when the observer is looking for one of those. Look for a particle, see a particle. Look for a wave, see a wave.

It's the only thing I've ever heard that truly satisfies the criteria: that the elements of the thing be the thing itself (which excludes the apples example, since the skin of an apple is not an apple in itself) and that the elements simultaneously exist (which excludes the water example, its triple point notwithstanding :-).

Anyway, hope that helps.

Jenny Bruce said...

Wow, great ideas. (Holly, just when I think you couldn't possibly be any smarter - you one up yourself.)

Thanks for your input, everyone!