The Holy Trinity and American Politics

Masaccio, The Holy Trinity, Santa Maria Novella, Florence (1425-27)

When you are praying, do not fancy the Divinity like some image formed within yourself. Avoid also allowing your spirit to be impressed with the seal of some particular shape.

– Evagrius[i]

The Trinity reminded Christians not to think about God as a simple personality and that what we call “God” was inaccessible to rational analysis.

– Karen Armstrong[ii]

 

Trinity Sunday (June 11 this year) originated in the 10th century as a kind of epilogue to the Christian year’s Incarnation narrative from Advent to Pentecost. The coming of Christ, his life among us, his death and resurrection, and the sending of the Holy Spirit all spring from a single Source: the God whose triune nature became manifest in the interwoven processes of creation, redemption and sanctification. Trinity Sunday is a doxology to the Trinitarian template shaping salvation history since time began.

Some preachers dread the Trinity sermon as a doomed exercise in higher mathematics or abstract philosophy or a futile attempt to cram some theology into the minds of the congregation before they take off for summer vacation. But recent decades have seen a tremendous revival of Trinitarian thought as foundational for Christian faith and practice. Two years ago I wrote three posts about the Trinitarian mystery. Here are the links if you want to have a look:

Three Things You Should Know about the Trinity

Part 1: God is relational

Part 2: You can’t make this stuff up

Part 3: God is a dance we do

This year I have been thinking about the Trinity in relation to American politics. In a commencement speech at a Christian college last month, popular-vote-loser Trump said, “In American we do not worship government; we worship God.” Since “God” is a generic term which may apply to any object of worship, Trump is certainly free to apply it to whatever conjured projection of his own monstrous attributes he pleases. But no one should mistake it for the God whose essence is not the narcissistic solitude of monarchical power but the self-diffusive relationality of loving communion.

Trump’s dis-ease in relation to the underlying reality of divine communion is but an extremely grotesque example of modernity’s critical error about the nature of human be-ing. As I said in my “God is relational” post:

“We tend to think of a person as defined by his or her separateness. I’m me and you’re you! We may interact and even form deep connections, but my identity does not depend upon you. I am a self-contained unit. You can’t live in my skin and I can’t live in yours. That’s the cultural assumption, which goes back at least as far as Descartes in the seventeenth century, and continues today in such debased forms as rampant consumerism, where my needs and my desires take precedence over any wider sense of interdependence, community, or ecology.”

Pretty much everything the White House and the Congressional majorities are trying to do now is a grievous offense against the Divine Trinity whose very being is communion. Attacking immigrants, inflaming racism and violence, abusing women, starving the elderly, sentencing tens of thousands to early death by taking away their health care so the rich can get richer, poisoning the wells of public life, telling the planet to go to hell––the list of injuries to God’s desire grows daily.

I get it. Evil has been prowling around like a ravenous lion ever since the Fall. America is no exception in this regard, and we should be dismayed but not surprised by those who want to make America hate again. But I wish they would at least purge “God” from their rhetoric. I know it’s a generic, non-descriptive term when severed from liturgical or theological context. They’re not talking about any God I know. Still, their implicit claim of reference to the biblical God is blasphemous and tiresome.

How does God’s love abide in anyone rich in worldly goods who sees the needs of his brothers and sisters and acts heartlessly toward them? (I John 3:17)

Whoever fails to love does not know God, because God is love. (I John 4:8)

I couldn’t help noting that on the Thursday closest to Trinity Sunday, 2017, James Comey and Sen. Angus King, in a Congressional hearing watched by millions, both cited the medieval martyrdom of Thomas Becket at the altar in Canterbury Cathedral. Becket, who spoke truth to power in the name of the Trinitarian God, was consecrated on the Feast of the Holy Trinity, 1162.

KING: “[W]hen a president of the United States in the Oval Office says something like, ‘I hope’ or ‘I suggest’ or ‘would you’, do you take that as a directive?”

 COMEY: “Yes. It rings in my ears as, well, ‘will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’”

 KING: “I was just going to quote that, in 1179, December 27th, Henry II said, ‘Who will rid me of the meddlesome priest?’ and the next day, [Becket] was killed. Exactly the same situation.”[iii]

At that moment, church history nerds across America sprang from their couches to applaud the survival of learned discourse. And I suspect that God, who holds evil tyrants “in derision” (Psalm 2:4), found the Trinity coincidence amusing.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer, trans. John Eudes Bamberger OCSO (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1981), 66

[ii] Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 115

[iii] Transcript of James Comey testimony before United States Senate Intelligence Committee (June 8, 2017):  http://www.politico.com/story/2017/06/08/full-text-james-comey-trump-russia-testimony-239295

Three things you should know about the Trinity (Part 2)

Andrei Rublev, The Holy Trinity (1425)

Andrei Rublev, The Holy Trinity (1425)

Trinitarian doctrine, like other key Christian doctrines, was hammered out, not in sterile study, but rather in the midst of lived spirituality, prayer, and the worship life of the church.[i]

                                                                        – Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen

The Trinity has to do with the lives of each of us, our daily experiences, our struggles to follow our conscience, our love and our joy, our bearing the sufferings of the world and the tragedies of human existence; it also has to do with the struggle against social injustice, with efforts at building a more human form of society, with the sacrifices and martyrdom that these endeavors so often bring. If we fail to include the Trinity in our personal and social odyssey, we shall have failed to show the saving mystery[ii]

– Leonardo Boff

Part 2: You can’t make this stuff up

Early in the twelfth century, a German monk named Rupert of Deutz went into a church where mass was being said by a white-haired bishop. At the offertory procession he experienced a vision of the Holy Trinity:

On the right at the edge of the altar stood three persons of such revered bearing and dignity that no tongue could describe them. Two were quite old, that is, with very white hair; the third was a beautiful youth of royal dignity …[iii]

A century later, Hadewijch of Antwerp, one of those remarkable women mystics who flourished in the late middle ages, also had a vision of the Trinity. But instead of three white males, what she saw was a dark whirlpool, which she described as “divine fruition in its hidden storms.” Hovering over this whirlpool was a spinning disc, on which sat a figure wearing the countenance of God – the face of God – on whose breast were written the words, “The Most Loved of All Beloveds.”

We may find Hadewijch’s vision more congenial: it is genderless, and less crudely specific than Rupert’s. And the tempestuous whirlpool, a flood of energy ceaselessly flowing through the universe, conveys a dynamic image of divinity that resembles the postmodern cosmologies of process theology and quantum physics. It’s probably easier for most of us to believe in a divine whirlpool than in three white guys.

But the crucial difference between Rupert and Hadewijch is not in the relative resonance of their imagery, but rather in what happens next. Rupert remains an observer, one who stands apart and sees God as an object. But Hadewijch does not remain separate from what she sees:

Then I saw myself received in union by the One who sat there in the whirlpool upon the circling disc, and there I became one with him in the certainty of union… In that depth I saw myself swallowed up. Then I received the certainty of being received, in this form, in my Beloved, and my Beloved also in me.

Rupert’s knowledge of God remained conceptual. Hadewijch’s knowledge of God became experiential. She was gathered into the circulating current of divinity. She became part of its flow, and that divine flow became part of her.

The language she uses for this experience is not mathematical or philosophical. Her language is the language of the heart. She describes being “swallowed up… in my Beloved, and my Beloved also in me.”[iv] Love, she discovered, is the way the soul knows. Love is the way the soul sees.

I begin this reflection with a mystic’s personal testimony because Trinitarian theology was not forged by inventive theorists, but by faithful Christians trying to make sense of the concrete, experiential data of salvation, beginning with the biblical narrative and continuing in the ongoing history of believing communities. Based on our collective and personal experience of being “saved” (or, if you prefer: healed, forgiven, reborn, renewed, resurrected, empowered), what can we say about the God who has done this? Trinitarian reflection began within an ancient community deeply grounded in the monotheism of Judaism, which had, over the centuries, found ultimate reality to be not a plurality of disconnected or contradictory energies but a coherent unity. But once the early Christians began to attribute divinity to both Jesus and the Holy Spirit, a simple self-contained oneness was no longer sufficient to describe the Reality.

Without losing the unity of God, how could they account for the divine diversity revealed in the saving activities of Christ and the Spirit? Once they began to call Jesus “Lord” (Kyrios), which happened very early in their worship and their storytelling, traditional monotheism was radically destabilized. The growing perception of the Holy Spirit as a guiding and empowering presence of deity in their communities only compounded the problem.

There were various attempts to solve the problem by downgrading Jesus and Spirit to subordinate, derivative, or semi-divine realities, by no means equal to the eternal and uncreated God. Such “heresies” were popular with those who wanted to keep God simple. But “orthodoxy” was unwilling to deny the fullness of divinity to either Christ or the Spirit. Only God can save us. Christ and Spirit, in the biblical revelation and Christian experience, are integral and essential to salvation. Therefore, they must be equally integral to the Holy One who is the Creator and Redeemer of all things.

The question wasn’t only metaphysical (What is the relation between the one and the many or the finite and the infinite?) or logical (How can One be Three and Three be One?). Trinitarian reflection was also a deep engagement with the question of suffering. If God incarnate in Christ chose to share the human condition, to live and die as one of us, does that mean that vulnerability and suffering have become part of God’s own history? And if these human elements have been added to the divine life through specific temporal events, has time itself disturbed the perfect calm of eternity? If God has been affected and changed by events in time and history, what can we then say about the consistency and transcendence of the divine nature? How can God be decisively linked to the history of the world without losing freedom or transcendence? Can a changeless God weep? Can we be saved by a God without weapons?

In his comprehensive survey of contemporary Trinitarian thought, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen argues that “the assumption of humanity by God, the Son, means that human capacity to suffer is not foreign to the being of God. How else could one speak of God as love? … It is more biblical to think of God as passionate love, the Father who chooses to engage the suffering of the world, than as a Transcendent One whose separation from the world’s suffering guards his freedom.”[v] Robert Jenson, a foremost North American authority on the Trinity, rejects the notion of divine detachment from creation in dramatically succinct terms: “God … is what happens with Jesus… God is what will come of Jesus and us, together.”[vi]

The problems and paradoxes that arise from such far-reaching assertions have been debated and puzzled over throughout Christian history, and the recent profusion of Trinitarian theology has become an incredibly rich conversation. There is, of course, no final version of God awaiting discovery, no definitive outcome to all this reflection, only an endless attentiveness to the Mystery which may consent to dance with language, but always outruns it in the end.

So why presume to talk about the Trinity at all? Why can’t we simply say and think and pray to “God” and leave it at that? We can’t do that because Christians don’t belong to a theoretical God, a reasonable and logical divine construct worked up by professional philosophers. We belong to the self-revealing but complicated God of the Bible who has, in the form and activity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, rescued us from our own folly and gathered us into the communion that is the very life of God. And no matter what diverse strategies of insight and understanding we may employ, what we can actually say about the Trinity is always grounded in experience, both the experience of our ancestors encoded in Scripture and tradition and the contemporary revelations of communal and personal life.

Trinitarian thought isn’t made out of thin air or abstract speculation. It is produced and nourished by the concrete, tangible history of Christian experience. However each day manifests for us “the means of grace” and “the hope of glory,” whatever the myriad ways by which we love and serve and witness, we need the threefold name to account for the diversity of God’s relations with us. Anything less would impoverish our prayer and considerably reduce the scope of our attention.

For most theologians, our experience of God as threefold also reflects a Trinitarian life within God’s own self. Since God’s inner life is beyond our sight, this can only be an assumption. But it is a crucial one. If God is trustworthy and self-revealing, it must be that when we meet God as Trinity, we get the real thing. God isn’t just pretending to be Three for us; God’s own inner life is constituted by relationality and communion.

Finally, how shall we address or invoke this Mystery, which a Japanese theologian intriguingly calls “Three Betweennesses in One Concord?”[vii] The traditional “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” despite its authoritative pedigree, is distractingly masculine for many, and various substitutes have arisen, each with their own impediments. “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier,” for example, is a bit impersonal, and risks reducing the three Persons to job descriptions. Likewise, “Source, Word, Spirit,” “Creator, Liberator, Comforter,” “Parent, Child, Paraclete,” “Mother, Daughter, Spirit,” and “Mother, Lover, Friend” all have their particular assets and liabilities. My own current preference, since I suspect that God is more verb than noun, is “Love who loves us[viii], Word who saves us, Spirit who revives us.”

I leave the last word to 16th century reformer Philip Melanchthon, who said, “We adore the mysteries of the Godhead. That is better than to investigate them.”[ix]

[This is the second of three reflections on the Trinity. The first, on the essential relationality of God, may be found here.]

[i] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, The Trinity: Global Perspectives (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 35

[ii] ibid., xv-xvi

[iii] Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism: Gregory the Great Through the 12th Century (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1994), 330

[iv] ibid., The Flowering of Mysticism (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998), 212-16

[v] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 99

[vi] Robert W. Jenson, The Triune Identity: God According to the Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 22-3

[vii] Nozumu Miyahira, in Kärkkäinen, 314

[viii] I take this resonant phrase from Terrence Malick’s transcendent film, To the Wonder.

[ix] Kärkkäinen, xvi

Three things you should know about the Trinity (Part 1)

The Trinity is hard to visualize, as this late Gothic painting from the Louvre demonstrates.

The Trinity is hard to visualize, as this late Gothic painting from the Louvre demonstrates.

I’ve heard a lot of clergy say they hate to preach on Trinity Sunday. It seems too abstract, too complex, too heady a topic for a Sunday congregation, especially in a culture where thinking theologically is not a widely practiced art. It’s like trying to explain quantum physics to non-scientists. It took centuries for the ancient church to shape the doctrine of the Trinity. How can anyone explain it in 15 minutes? Besides, people look to the preacher for inspiration, not explanation. They want a sermon to make sense of things, not to make their heads explode.

Even Gregory of Nyssa, who thought a lot about the Trinity in the 4th century, found it a daunting subject:

You tell me first what is the unbegottenness of the Father, and I will then explain to you the physiology of the generation of the Son, and the procession of the Spirit, and we shall both of us be stricken with madness for prying into the mystery of God.[i]

I actually enjoy preaching the Trinity. I like it so well I even preached when Trinity Sunday fell on the day between my wedding and my honeymoon. It’s an inexhaustible subject – the Christian theory of everything – but over my next three posts, let me (humbly) suggest three things which I believe to be foundational for trinitarian faith.

Part 1: God is relational

We tend to think of a person as defined by his or her separateness. I’m me and you’re you! We may interact and even form deep connections, but my identity does not depend upon you. I am a self-contained unit. You can’t live in my skin and I can’t live in yours. That’s the cultural assumption, which goes back at least as far as Descartes in the seventeenth century, and continues today in such debased forms as rampant consumerism, where my needs and my desires take precedence over any wider sense of interdependence, community, or ecology.

But what we say about the Persons of the Trinity is quite different. Each Person is not an individual, separate subject who perceives the other Persons as objects. The Trinitarian persons experience one another not from the outside, but from the inside. They indwell each other in a mutual interiority.

John Lennon expressed the Trinitarian spirit when he sang, “I am he as you are she as you are me and we are all together.” And a French mystic put it this way: “it’s a case of un ‘je’ sans moi” (an “I” without a me).

But if the divine Persons are all inside each other, commingled, “of one being,” as the Creed says, what makes each Person distinct? To put it succinctly: the Persons are distinct because they are in relation with one another.

As Martin Buber observed, we are persons because we can say “Thou” to someone else. To be a person is to experience the difference – and the connection – that forms the space between two separate subjects. My consciousness is not alone in the universe. There are other centers of consciousness: Thou, I… Thou, I… The fact that you are not I is what creates self-consciousness, the awareness of my own difference from what is outside myself.

If we apply this to the Trinity, we say that there are Three Persons because there is relation within God, relation between the Source who begets, the Word who is begotten, and the Spirit who binds the two together and moves them outward in ever widening circles.

These relations are not occasional or accidental. They are eternal. There is an eternal sending within God, an eternal self-giving within God, an eternal exchange by which God is both Giver and Receiver simultaneously.

Trinitarian faith describes a God who is not solitary and alone, a God who is not an object which we can stand apart from and observe. The Trinity is an event of relationships: not three separate entities in isolation and independence from one another, but a union of subjects who are eternally interweaving and interpenetrating.

The early Church had a word for this: perechoresis. It means that each Person penetrates the others, each contains the other, and is contained by them. Each fills the space of the other, each is the subject, not the object of each other. As Jesus says in the Fourth Gospel: I am in the Father and the Father is in me.

This divine relationality is not something which an originally solitary God decided to take up at some point. God is eternally relational. Before there was an external creation to relate to, God’s own essential self was and is an event of perpetual relation. There was never simply being, but always being-with, being-for, being-in. To be and to be in relation are eternally identical.

When the Bible says, “God is love” (I John 4:16), it means that love is not just something God has or God does; love is what God is. As Orthodox theologian John D. Zizoulas says in his influential text, Being as Communion, “Love as God’s mode of existence … constitutes [divine] being.”[ii] Feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson echoes this in her book, She Who Is: “There is no divine nature as a fourth thing that grounds divine unity in difference apart from relationality. Rather, being in communion constitutes God’s very essence.”[iii]

In other words, God is Love giving itself away – self-emptying, self-diffusing, self-surrendering – and in so doing finds itself, receives itself, becomes itself.

For those of us made in God’s image, who God is matters deeply, both for our own self-understanding and for our engagement with the world. The Trinity isn’t just a doctrine or an idea. It’s a practice, a way of life, the shape of every story.

To be continued … 

[i] Sermons of Gregory of Nyssa, Orat. xxxi, 8

[ii] John D. Zizoulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), 46

[iii] Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (NY: Crossroad, 1993), 227