On Trinity Sundays, I am mindful of the fact that trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity usually leads to heresy. So, I dusted my theological books for inspiration – books that have not seen the light of day since last Trinity Sunday – just to ensure that the formulas learned in theological college are repeated correctly and heresy scrupulously avoided. At our minister’s breakfast sometimes, we share ideas about significant church events. The imaginative among us have attempted to baffle our congregations with our theological intellect, while the desperate like me have simply tried to survive Trinity Sunday, hoping against hope that no one will notice that I haven’t a clue what I am talking about.
The instigator of the Reformation, Martin Luther, came to my rescue with his wise words for Trinity Sunday. Martin Luther possessed the theological integrity sufficient to save a preacher from the perils of preaching on Trinity Sunday. He warned that: “To deny the Trinity is to risk our salvation; to try and explain the Trinity is to risk our sanity.”
Bishop Jack Spong said:
“No one can ultimately define God, not even as the Holy Trinity. The height of human arrogance is to suggest otherwise. All, any of us can do is define not God, but our experience with God. There is a vast difference between those two things. The Trinity is a definition of our experience, nothing more. Those that make this definition of our experience the definition of God, and call it the ‘bedrock belief of Christianity’ are not well informed.” (Spong Newsletter, 2008)
On the other hand, there are those who argue that any person, but especially feminist theologians, who want alternative names for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit should be declared enemies of the church, or heretics.
I have harboured a healthy discontent for the traditional doctrine of the Trinity – what is called the Trinitarian Formula: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I remember as a teenager being in church and reciting the Creed over and over again without even a clue as to what I was saying.
The Apostles’ Creed is a Christian creed or “symbol of faith” and to question it would be unthinkable.
It most likely originates in 5th-century. It has been used by mainline churches ever since. I wonder how many churches recite the Apostles Creed today as an affirmation of faith.
The concept of the Trinity is an ancient traditional attempt to make sense of the Mystery that we call God. God is a mystery, and mysteries by definition, are unexplainable.
This morning I am going to approach this topic differently and tell you a story not my own. It’s a story right out of the last chapter of John Shelby Spong’s book “A New Christianity for a New World.” The chapter is entitled: “The Courage to Move into the Future”. In its Spong tells the story of a student he had at Harvard, who was pursuing a Master of Divinity Degree. Kathrine Ford, like many women who have taken on the task of preparing themselves for a career in the church, was struggling with the constraints of a patriarchal institution that the church has become and was wondering if the church, as she had experienced it, would ever be open to the direction she felt compelled to travel.
Spong describes the experience of being in class listening to her preach a sermon like this: “She stood before us quite still, quite silent, then she began. Slowly at first, she painted with words the picture of a town facing a major flood. The rains came with such relentlessness and over such a long period of time that the river rose dangerously. The people formed sandbag brigades to protect the things they valued. The sandbag walls rose, but the floodwaters rose faster. Soon water covered their fields, drowning first the wheat, then the canola, then the onions. The people, seeking safety inside their homes, watched with a sense of helplessness as their livelihoods were destroyed before their eyes. They wanted to flee, but their roots were too deeply planted; they were so totally attached to the values enshrined in their farms and town that they felt they could not leave. Still the river kept rising. It now covered the first floor of their homes. As they watched their family photographs—symbols of their past—curl up and float away on the water, they felt they were losing the very meaning of their lives. Soon their physical sustenance was so endangered: the floodwaters covering their town began to seep into the ground, contaminating their ground-water.
Their homes were becoming unliveable. If they stayed in this place, they would surely die. Yet something powerful and relentless inside themselves continued to urge them to remain where they were. Rationally they knew they had to leave, but emotionally they were immobilised.
Katie Ford described this scene with evocative images that kept her classmates raptly attentive. Yet they had no idea where she was going with the image or this theme, nor did Spong. Then with all of them caught up in her symbolic description of a killing flood, she began to speak the words of the Christian creed, beginning with the phrase, “I believe in God, the Father almighty.” This creed, she said, like that flooded town, “has become for me an unliveable place.” She then described the history of creedal formation. The creeds were “a response to debate,” she said, “designed to tell who was an insider in the Christian faith and who was not. A creed is a border-maker,” she added, fashioning her developing definition.
No Christian creed is “a full statement of faith,” she continued. In creeds “there is no mention of love, no mention of the teachings of Jesus, no mention of the kingdom of God being present in our bodies and souls, no mention of God as the ground of life.”
The creeds have fallen on us, she asserted, like the rain over the centuries. They have been repeated endlessly, shaping our minds and our souls to the point where we cannot think of God outside the forms they affirm, or the boxes they create. They have permeated our land, shaped our values and yes, even entered the intimate assumptions of our living space. “Drop by Drop,” she said, our religion, as it come to be embodied in our creeds, has given us “a profoundly dangerous doctrine of God.” It has covered our fields, she said, and destroyed the very crops that Christians are supposed to harvest as their livelihood. It has contaminated our groundwater. “This creed,” she argued, “has, like that flood, rendered our traditional religious dwelling places no longer habitable.”
Yet this creed, and the definitions that arise from it, are so powerfully present in our emotions that even when we judge it to be a destructive document that is killing our very souls, still it whispers, “You cannot leave. You will be lost if you wander. You must stay where you are.” But we cannot stay. The price is too high. These creeds have given us a God, she said, “Who caused the death of his son, the damnation of disbelievers, the subordination of women, the bloody massacre of the crusades, the terror of judgment, the wrath toward homosexuals, the justification of slavery.”
The real issue, she continued, “is that God is not a person. God is not a being. God is Being itself.” There was stunned silence in the room as Katie drove her conclusion home. This God, who is “Being itself, is not the father of life,” she countered. “This God is life.” Our creeds, she concluded, have now made it impossible for us Christians to continue to live in the place to which these creeds have taken us.”
This story mirrors my own dilemma in the past and now when I hear stories of marginalisation, oppression, prejudice and alienation based on the creeds of the church.
These are exciting times in which to live in the church. I believe that we are living smack dab in the middle of a reformation. Reformations may be exciting but they are not the most comfortable places to be.
The God we tried to capture in the creeds with the doctrine of the Trinity is too small. God is not a person. God is not a being. God is Being itself. This God is life. This God who is life, is reflected by a rainbow in the sky; a rainbow that shines forth even as the rains continue to fall. A rainbow that promises that there is nothing in life that can separate us from God; not even our carefully crafted, tightly held and routinely recited creeds.
At our best, we Christians are a resurrection people who are more resilient than our institutions. We can confront our questions and doubts and live.
Loving God and loving our neighbours. This is the creed that Jesus taught and lived. Not the Apostles’ Creed, not the Nicene Creed, and certainly not the Athanasian Creed.
Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and love your neighbours as you love yourself. LOVE, is Jesus’ creed. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth we see that God is LOVE. Not a person: LOVE.
You and I, we experience the LOVE that is God in many and various ways. As for this church of ours: it may indeed be like a ship cast adrift in a storm. But there is indeed a rainbow on the horizon. I hope that we can see in the colours of that rainbow the beauty that lies at the very heart of reality, the beauty of the LOVE that IS.
The church may indeed be like a leaky ship cast adrift upon troubled waters, the church may even be about to sink, but any skilled mariner will tell you that if you see a ship that is sinking, you do whatever it takes to save the ship; especially if there are any hands-on deck. This ship (Aldersgate and all that sailed before her) may be old, and she may have more than one or two leaks, but she is sound, and she’s brought us a long way, I think she’s up to the task of sailing beyond the boundaries of our safe harbour, out there into the vast unknown, where there are such wonders waiting to be discovered.
Marcus Borg’s book, “The God We Never Knew”, suggest the Latin and Greek words translated as ‘person’ do not mean what person most commonly means in English. For us, ‘person’ means separate being. But ‘person’ in the ancient texts is more like ‘persona’, referring to the masks worn by actors in Greek and Roman theatres.
And then these words from Borg caught my imagination:
“To speak of one God and three persons is to say that God in known to us wearing three different ‘masks’… in three different roles.” (Borg 1997:98)
A multifaceted sacredness
creating, indwelling, sustaining, resisting,
recreating, challenging, guiding, liberating, completing.
Cumulatively speaking, Borg suggests that when we step away from a literalist understanding, ‘Trinity’ shows that:
God is not a distant being but is near at hand.
God is not primarily a lawgiver and judge but the compassionate one.
And the religious life is not about requirements, but about relationship.
Because the way we imagine or understand God makes a difference. (O’Murchu, 2005:52)
Borg, M. J. The God We Never Knew. Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith. New York. HarperCollins, 1997.
O’Murchu, D. Catching Up With Jesus. A Gospel Story for our Time. New York. Crossroad Publishing, 2005.
Webb, V. Like Catching Water in a Net. Human Attempts to Define the Divine. New York. Continuum Press, 2007.