Glynn Cardy 12th June 2022
The first time someone threatened to bring charges of heresy against me it was on account of the trinity. Which is somewhat ironic given that the strict line of orthodox belief in this matter of God is very thin indeed. I would guess on any given Trinity Sunday more than three quarters of Christian preachers would stray from that thin, strict line, if they broach the subject at all.
And its thin because it’s complicated, owing more to Greek thought than to Jesus and Hebraic thought. Not that I’m going to explain the complications of that orthodox line – the whole credal thing of ‘God from God, Light from Light, Begotten not made…’ and ‘proceedeth from the Father and the Son’ – will give you some idea. Read the Athanasian Creed if you want the full monty. And bear in mind they didn’t think they were speculating, or writing poetry, but making statements of fact to which one swore allegiance to, or else.
Of course, the convergence of creed writing and the Church’s fraught marriage with the Empire is not accidental or insignificant. The Roman Empire liked order, it liked men in charge (‘family values’), and it liked a class system where people knew their place. Many of the Jesus groups, particularly those that would be labelled heretics or, later, Gnostics, did not do what the Empire liked. So, creeds were used to try to bring them into line. Creeds were instruments to label outliers as outsiders and then to punish them. Creeds, like the Athanasian, included anathemas (excluding you from the Church if you disagreed).
But when it comes to talking about the nature of God, and how Jesus fits with God, and what on earth is the Holy Spirit, you are not in the world of verifiable facts but theological conjecture, not in the world of right and wrong but poetry to expand the mind and heart. Unfortunately, though, creeds and other mechanisations were introduced and maintained by those Christians uncomfortable with diversity, ambiguity, and difference.
As a member of our General Assembly once said, “Let’s just vote on this matter (same-sex marriage) and settle it once and for all”. When it comes to God, and many other issues, there is no settling it once and for all, but rather learning to live with differences and finding the means to hear each other.
Of course, in my book, talking about God is something of a red herring. It can distract us from doing God. Yes, for me, God is not so much a noun to contemplate, adore, or petition, but a verb, a movement, a ‘love-something/give-something’ that we can do. Like the quote from Karen Armstrong in our liturgy today, the Cappadocians – those 4th century creative theologians: Basil, Gregory, their sister Macrina, and their friend Gregory – understood trinity not as something to be believed but something to be translated into action. Like, for example, trinity can be understood as a pattern of giving to others, for us then to adapt and replicate.
Thinking of God not as a noun (like Father) but as a verb (like giving) is a paradigm shift that is hard to get our heads around. The novelist Ursula Le Guin has a story about a group studying the language of penguins, and comparing penguin with other sea mammal languages like dolphin or seal. The group weren’t getting very far until someone suggested that should study other comparative bird languages. The paradigm shift was from categorizing penguins as sea mammals to categorizing penguins, though flightless, as birds.
Similarly, I would suggest God is better thought of as verb (bird) than noun (mammal), though in God’s case a moving poetic interplay between noun, verb, adverb, and adjective might be more fitting. And indeed, that is why I like the notion of trinity because it is a motion, a moving interplay that defies description and categorization.
The lectionary readings set for Trinity Sunday try to do the impossible: make the Bible talk about or least support the orthodoxy of trinity. Whereas the biblical texts, pre and post Jesus, are fundamentally Jewish and monotheistic.
The first reading is from the Book of Proverbs and talks about wisdom, personified as a woman, being part of the creative energy of God, making and delighting. And, if you read the whole of Proverbs 8, it is obviously a poem, and like I said, the poet’s purpose (theo-poetics) is to beguile us into thinking of, or rather opening our hearts to, a different broader understanding of God. Like for example here in Proverbs as a woman in partnership, a co-worker in creating, and delighting together with God.
The opening prayers I wrote for today similarly venture into theo-poetics: “Three in one, and all in me, what is this riddle, in trinity we see? Is it three objects all in a row, or the love between which flows, sweeping us in its flood, a moving, swirling, cascading god?”
Even in traditional formulations of the trinity it has always been the betweenness – that which is between Father and Son, or between Spirit and Son, or between the three – that counts. It is the betweenness that speaks of mutuality, generous giving, serving – all the values that are foundational for community. So, scholars in the last century, have talked about God being a community – not a literal and reductionist three-person community (a Tom, Dick, and Sue community) – but godness known by a plurality, a mutuality, a reciprocity, an inclusion, a friendship.
Our prayers today include some of the metaphors of trinity that have a betweenness in them – like lover, beloved, and (the betweenness) of loving; and the literally metaphor of logos (words, logic), letters, and the spaces between. Plus, there are sprinkles of other trinity takes – ocean, river, & rain, and maiden, mother, & crone. No metaphor is adequate, though some are better than others. Each simply tries to stretch our imaginations into the wonder and mystery of this movement called divinity, trinity. When a metaphor gets solidified into a belief into a creed, we’re in trouble.
The second reading is from one of St Paul’s authentic letters written in the 50s and for lovers of rhetoric here we have anadiplosis. As says Yoda of Star Wars fame, “Fear leads to anger, anger to hatred, hatred to suffering”, which is on the gloomy downward spiral, though a good example of anadiplosis. Paul however is on the up, optimistic: “Suffering produces endurance, endurance character, character hope”. Which is one reason I like Master Paul more than Master Yoda. Which has nothing to do with trinity save for the triptych patterning. Which makes the passage. Just saying.
As for why the lectionary gnomes included it for Trinity Sunday, I guess because the anadiplosis is sandwiched between ‘peace with God through our Lord Jesus’ and ‘God’s love poured into our heart through the Holy Spirit’. So, through and through all three trinity personae get a mention, though without any substance you could stick in a creed.
And then, for the lectionary finale, there is a piece from the 4th Gospel, written some 60 years after Paul, with a Jesus talking about the spirit of truth coming, guiding, and glorifying God (as in Father God). And when you think that that spirit is also called the spirit of Jesus, the idea of it guiding Rabbi Jesus’ students after his death is not surprising, or particularly revelatory, or something you’d stick in a creed.
Again, the author, call him John, is writing in a theo-poetic style. This is not Jesus recorded on a device. This is Jesus filtered through the mystical imagination of someone who never met him, re-presenting him to the community the author was a part of. And it is nothing like the language that would later show up in creeds.
All of which I find very hopeful. I want to affirm theological dreaming, poetry, and deep thought that is beyond the constraints of the Bible and its cultures. God is not restricted to the Bible. A new thought doesn’t have to align with what the Bible thinks. Old doctrines, biblically sound, might be past their use by date. The doctrine of creation in an evolutionary world might be one. As might heaven and hell. As might redemptive suffering.
Certainly, in a number of areas of morality, we have moved on from the biblical norm. We don’t do slavery. We don’t condemn divorce. We do condemn murdering people who commit homosexual acts. We don’t curse people who are naked. We don’t do polygamy. All of which is different from the Bible. Thank God.
So, to think about God differently from the cultures and times of the Bible is okay. Indeed, better than ok, its to be encouraged. Think widely, broadly, upside-downly. Like the Cappadocians did in their day. But let’s not solidify any of these thoughts into creeds to hit others over the head with, or to use as the grounds and means of exclusion. Instead let’s take doctrines of old and play with them. Like a child who on being given something new, and not told or shown what it’s for, uses her or his imagination to create a new purpose and use for it. Similarly let us turn these doctrines, like trinity, sideways and around, finding a godness in community, friendship, mutuality, and giving.