It was inland from Hokitika, 2016, and I was staying with some fishing mates, when the ground shifted.
We were holed up in an old crib, with an outside loo, and an iron roof that rattled when the wind blew. The things one does to catch those wee translucent fish and fry ’em into fritters!
Well, one night that roof iron rattled something wicked, the bed moved, the walls moved, and the light bulb swung. The ground had shifted. Earthquake.
All of my mates had lived in Christchurch when that city changed forever. So, there was no rolling over now and going back to sleep. They all got up, with me in tow, and talked ‘til dawn. Which was a way of processing the fact that one of the things that we consider predictable, reliable, and stable, was now less so.
It’s hard to be rattled. But that’s what happens when the ground shifts.
In 2012 Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions popularized the phrase “paradigm shift”. This is a rare event in science, and also religion, that requires a major switch away from the well-travelled highway of what we consider ‘normal’. It’s a transforming of how we view the world. And Kuhn, somewhat shockingly, added that it has little to do with logic or even evidence, and everything to do with cataclysmic insight and breakthrough.
Our Christian and Jewish scriptures can appear to be a rulebook. ‘Follow the belief and behaviour rules and you’ll be favoured, loved, saved.’ And that’s certainly how some understand the Bible: a stable, unchanging rock in an unstable and changing world.
But actually, the Bible is full of stories about people being rattled as their world changes and is transformed.
Consider Zacchaeus. He’s a tax-collector. He collects taxes for Rome – the foreign occupying power. And, as was the custom, he skims a good percentage off the top. That’s why he’s hated. And if you can’t pay your taxes, he has thugs who will get it from you. That’s why he’s feared. And, as the text says, he was a chief tax-collector. That’s why he’s rich.
But though hated, feared, and rich, he’s not grounded. He’s not part of the community. He is not in ‘right relation’. And, I guess, he’s grown sick and tired of sycophants. There is a part of Zacchaeus that wants it to be different.
So, when Jesus, that unusual rabbi from the backcountry, comes by, Zac goes up a tree, safe up high, but still out on a limb, away from the security he usually has.
You know the rest of the story. It’s all about relationality, whanaungatanga. Jesus knows his name (how did he know that?). Jesus wants to dine with him (break bread, by one with). Zac wants to dine with Jesus too. The pure/impure boundary, so critical in their Jewish culture, is fractured. And out of that fracture comes more relationality – the sort based on justice, reparations, and saying sorry.
The point of this story is not the conversion of Zacchaeus. The point of the story is Jesus’ understanding of whanaungatanga – embracing sinners and saints, the dastardly and the distinguished, the low down and the high up – an understanding which broke the rules carefully delineating society and keeping everyone religiously safe. Jesus acted contrary to Scripture. Jesus acted contrary to culture. His actions were destabilizing of right belief and right behaviour. He rattled their lives.
Consider Peter. Two weeks ago, we had a long reading from Acts 10 about Cornelius’s conversion. Another rattling moment. When the old rules, the way things were always done, was upended, and sent a destabilizing tremor through the early Jesus movement.
The story wasn’t really about Cornelius’ conversion. He and his household were simply Gentiles who sought inclusion in the Jewish Jesus movement. They were knocking on the door seeking entry.
The story was really about Peter’s conversion. Peter, the one with the big but broken heart, now restored, maybe. He was called ‘the rock’. (Sorry Dwayne you’re not in the frame). Peter was the stable one. A pillar. On whom the Rome ekklesia, the Community of the Way, would be built.
To admit Gentiles into the movement without the requirements of circumcision and kosher laws was contrary to the ‘normal’ of every Jew regardless which rabbi you followed. Those requirements marked Jews as Jews. They were about faithfulness to scripture, tradition, and culture.
And Peter struggled, as did most, with the provocative petitions by Paul and others to disobey, to set aside, scripture, tradition, and culture, and to let the impure Gentiles in. For to let the impure in meant you too, you who ate and mingled with them, would no longer be pure. To let the unclean in meant the boundaries that kept everyone safe from impurity no longer applied.
We don’t know what rocked Peter, what cracked the ground he was standing on, that took him over the threshold into this new understanding of relationality and inclusivity. The author of Acts says it was a God-inspired vision. Maybe. Galatians says it was Paul’s confrontative approach. Maybe. All we know is that this heretical shift occurred and the movement was never the same again.
Trinity is about a ground shift. Like the admission of the unclean it was contrary to scripture, tradition, and religious normative thinking. It arose from mystics, three men and one woman. The woman is not often mentioned. They were the 4th century Cappadocians (think Eastern Turkey), who, building on the work of other mystics, worried that the God of their faith, worship, and theology was too hierarchical, too distant, and too small. They worried that God was being reduced to an idol in the image of the Emperor.
The problem being that, then and now, the default setting for God is a Supreme Monarch. What I call the big ‘G’. And as a Supreme Monarch ‘he’ – and the big ‘G’ is always and exclusively a ‘he’ – is living in splendid isolation from Earth and the messiness of our lives. This God is largely a critical spectator.
And as Richard Rohr says, “his followers do their level best to imitate their Creator in this regard”[i]. Those Cappadocian mystics realized that we become what we behold. If God is a distant, hierarchical male who rewards obedience, then we build social, religious, and political systems that favour the advancement of distant, hierarchical men who like obedience.
This Supreme Monarch God is actually a really small god. It’s given a gender. It’s made into a human (albeit with super powers). Many when they pray always refer to God as ‘Father’ or ‘he’. This God is said to reside in heaven, which is not here. This God is said to come and go, and sent Jesus to come and go.
The mystical tradition undermines big ‘G’ thinking. It says things like: ‘there is nowhere where God is not’; ‘the whole universe is the body of God’; ‘God is closer than our very breath’; and ‘we are in God’.
Prayer therefore is not addressing a being out there, but ‘oneing’ (as Julian of Norwich said) with Being itself. Grace is not something dispensed when merited (like with a king giving rewards), but is inherent in life and the universe.
Trinity is a relational metaphor. It says in the beginning was the relation. Marked by mutuality. A dance maybe. It doesn’t say in the beginning were three supreme beings. God is not a being, or three beings. Rather God is relationality. Everything is connected. Everything is one.
So, God is a poem, the words of which are still being dreamed and written.
God is a flow of life, and love, and wellbeing, flowering wherever there is life, love, and wellbeing.
God is radical relatedness; not static, not bounded; a swirling circle without a perimeter.
God is the song of the universe which captures our hearts and is heard from our lips.
And the metaphor of trinity I would suggest was so seismically de-stabilizing, so disruptive, so destructive of the ideological foundations of supreme monarchy and similar systems of rule, that it was made into a nonsense (a three headed God), and the normative ‘power-over-others-type-of-God’ continued on.
Except, in certain places, among the wee, where the extraordinary and ordinary wove together.
Consider the work of Esther de Waal, [ii] based on oral histories collected from Celtic women in the highlands. These women sang the trinity into their daily chores. When they dug in the garden. When they washed the clothes. When they stirred the fire back into life. Mundane ordinary tasks into which they wove the song of trinity, recognizing God not as other but inner. All life was sacramental, God riddled.
So, the woman who kneels on the hard earth floor in her small hut in the Outer Hebrides, chants as she washes her face:
The palmful of the God of Life
The palmful of the Christ of Love
The palmful of the Spirit of Peace
Triune of grace.
Songs, memories, and habits become intertwined. Music is very evocative.
I imagined another song as she dug the garden:
Digging in Trinity,
Moving within, without,
Shifting soil about.
May we too sing the song of the universe which captures our hearts and is heard from our lips.
May we too feel and know the radical relatedness, the swirling circle with no perimeter.
May we flow, grow, and flower with life, and love, and wellbeing – the graces of god.
May we recite the poem, the godding words of which we are dreaming, writing, and living.
[i] Richard Rohr, “The Divine Dance”, p.36.
[ii] Esther de Waal, “Living the Sacramental Principle: Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.”