Sunday, June 19, 2011

Numbers Game

Trinitarian Musings

In a remote forest miles from the nearest Guatemalan village, on a windy and downright cold morning in August five years ago, I stood in a group of indigenous people, descendants of the ancient Mayans, curious about the religious rite I was about to witness. They had a great idea on that cold morning during the rainy season, also known as “invierno” or winter there, and that was to build a bonfire. Shivering in my summer clothes, I could hardly wait. Women clad in colorful native cottons, began laying the fire, placing incense discs in a cruciform pattern. They scattered ample grain around the circle that was to be the base of the fire. On top of that they placed the pastel petals of bunches of chrysanthemums. After the wood was gathered and laid on the fire, shamans, including at least one woman, oversaw the burning of various objects—including cigars, beans, coffee, grain, and various liquid drinks, all poured on the sacred fire. Facing in turn the four directions, the assembly invoked the winds and the gods, summoned the spirits of the ancestors, and ultimately had what looked to me like a Christian healing service, the shamans taking persons one at a time and laying on hands over their whole bodies, praying for healing, prosperity, success, wholeness.

It didn’t feel so strange to me, this ceremony with roots more ancient than Christianity. Partly, no doubt, that was because it included any number of elements contributed by Roman Catholicism and various other Christian expressions from the past several centuries. I came away with the distinct feeling that I had worshiped that morning, though the language was one I did not know and various ritual practices were outside my experience. I would not want to do those modern Mayans a disservice by calling their ceremony “Christian,” because it clearly wasn’t. And yet I recognized elements of my own community’s practice, including the building of the New Fire at the Great Vigil of Easter, that bore out the fact that so many religious symbols and practices are the dances that human beings do around One God.

And that brings me to the occasion we are here to celebrate today: Trinity Sunday. Anglican Christians have been rather reserved in celebrating doctrines and dogmas. The Book of Common Prayer makes some provision for celebrating Corpus Christi, for example, but ten to one, half of you don’t miss it or even know what it is about. No reflection on you; that is just par for the Anglican course. Not so with the Trinity. Every year, joining with most liturgical Christians, we celebrate the Blessed Trinity a week after Pentecost Day. Most of the time, in my experience, preachers on Trinity Sunday either try to explain the doctrine of the Trinity or complain that it is so hopelessly complex that there is no earthly use in trying to do so. Both approaches, frankly, irritate me to the point that I usually arrange to take Trinity Sunday off, or, if not, like today, preach on it myself.

I presume to understand what the doctrine of the Trinity is driving at, which is different from saying that I presume to understand the Trinity. But understanding is not my aim today, but rather what I would call encouragement—or perhaps exhortation—or maybe, with luck, even inspiration. I would like to convince you of the value in assuming that God is so great that we cannot possibly understand God in limited rational categories. And, if that is true, then the question I pose today is how come it is “Trinity” Sunday, rather than “Plurality” Sunday? I’m not joking. Why only three ways—primary ways—of thinking about God, as if somehow God can be squeezed into that particular formula? Hold off, all ye who are traditional theologians! Give me a little room here. Let me press my point before the wheels come off your wagon.

As far back as the Priestly document that we read today as Genesis 1, and much farther, the ancient Hebrews were using “Elohim” as one of several words to denote God. The word is plural, no doubt a vestige of an even more ancient past when before “God” our ancestors had a pantheon of gods. But even when Moses molded Hebrew monotheism, there were some aspects of God that couldn’t be quite neatly pressed into the container. They were not other gods, but certainly they were dimensions of the One God that were somehow more than characteristics or descriptors. Take, for example, the Hebrew word “Shekinah,” which in later Hebrew writing is a circumlocution for the holy nearness of God to God’s people. Although we don’t find the word itself in the Bible, we do find the idea. And it comes to have great importance in the New Testament, because it is akin to the belief that God peculiarly dwelt in the person of Jesus.

While the presence of God is connected with various places, and above all with the Ark of the Covenant that goes before Israel in battle symbolically representing the presence of Yahweh, God in the Old Testament frequently appears as “the Angel of the Lord.” In a number of stories, it is clear that “the Angel of the Lord” is a way of talking about God, as is the case, for example, when Jacob wrestles with the angel. It really is God that Jacobs wrestles with, as Jacob himself says, “I have seen the face of God and lived.” In fact, the “face of God,” while clearly a metaphor, is another way of talking about the divine presence, in perhaps a stronger, more intimate way. And a third way is to speak about the glory of God. Ultimately, that is what “shekinah” comes to mean perhaps most directly.

Now, to be sure, these don’t come close to being rival gods, or different beings. But there is still another term in Hebrew literature that becomes the focus for a whole body of literature in itself. That is wisdom. You have encountered that notion. In fact, it played a part in the Great Vigil of Easter. The books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and Wisdom depict Wisdom as a helpmate to God in fashioning the world. Wisdom is clearly God, even possibly an aspect of God, but at the same time she can be spoken of as a separate person. She is the one who fashions the works of God. One can see similarities between the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit and Wisdom, as well as similarities between Wisdom and the Word of God, which becomes incarnate in Jesus.

And this is just the beginning. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all have traditions of Names of God. And in each of the monotheistic religions there is a tradition of disclaiming that any one of them is absolutely definitive or descriptive. We are heavily agreed—certainly Judaism and Islam are—that there is but one God, no matter how many names that God can wear. Christianity is slightly different because we talk of God in three persons, while insisting that all the persons are expressions of a oneness that we call—guess what?—God.

Human beings are remarkably united in the belief that there is a “higher power” or some “higher powers” in the universe. When it comes right down to it, is there any difference between the Mayan ceremony out in the woods of Sacatepequez and us who are singing “Holy, holy, holy” today? Is there any difference between the 99 Names of God in the Quran and the various names we give Jesus and the Holy Spirit, not to mention God the Father, in Christian tradition? Have we simply taken the old pantheon of divinities (such as the Greek gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus) and rolled them all into one? Is our monotheism functionally different from, say, the Hindu understanding of Atman, Brahman, and Vishnu, and all the many avatars that Vishnu, for example, can assume?

Maybe it really does not make much difference at all what we take God to be. But I have a slightly different take on it. And here is where my exhortation comes in. It is possible that the worst disservice we can do to God, or at least to the idea of God, is to assume that God is small enough for the human mind to contain God. That may be far worse than our getting mixed up and thinking the wrong things about the Trinity or getting confused about what is an aspect or what is an avatar or what is a persona of God. God is not much on being domesticated, trained like a pet or controlled like a not-too-bright friend, always doing our bidding. To live in God, far more than merely believing that there is a God, involves opening oneself to mystery, to the power of story, to the presence of paradox in life. In other words, there is no way we can get it all down to the very simple so that we can move on to the next thing. God is far more than we can sketch out with textbook definitions.

And here is what inspires me and what I hope inspires you. There is no part of life, no experience, no feeling or thought, no problem or challenge that somehow doesn’t involve God. This marvelous and messy life we are living is a process where everything and everybody is caught up in things like light and shadow, good and evil, struggle and peace, giving and taking, failing and succeeding, dying and living. God is involved in all of it in one way or another. God’s business, so to say, is not just with the nice, polite and tame parts of life, the kinds of things your grandmother thought you ought to be preoccupied with when you come to church. God is also down and dirty, in the grit and grime, in the tick bite and poison ivy, in the untamed sexual expression and the hideous birth defect. There is no place that God is not, and no part of life where God is somehow above showing up. But the Good News is that in all these things, the nature of God is community. The crucible for discovering community is relatedness. And the goal of human relationships is to express love.

And before you know it, we are back from a list of a thousand things and from a list of 99 Names to a very short list of basics. Three, in fact. There is the undifferentiated creation and the God who is present in it all. There is the marvel of community, made possible when Love emerges in human flesh. And there is energy that keeps forming human community mirroring that Love we keep striving for and which, though it eludes us, still drives us onward.

And when you give a name to those three things, they are not a proposition to be debated but a way of life in a community of utter belovedness. You can call them Creator, Savior, and Life-giver. Or you can call them by the ancient names of Abba, Son, and Holy Spirit. Put aside words and labels, and draw closer to the Fire. It is the Truth that warms and changes you until you become aflame with love itself.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011

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