Sunday, May 18, 2014
Apologies & More
The last few days have been some of the most hectic of my entire life. Between school and a lock-in and a church service I set up and then a meeting about the search process for a new priest, I am all but running on empty. I apologize for this lull in blogging and promise some interesting stuff tomorrow. In the meantime, here is a test on the Doctrine of God I got a 100% on a few months back. I graduate from the Iona School for Ministry in June, after three long years. Today my church got me an fantastic gift to celebrate.
The Doctrine of God
Essay Question 1:
When I was a child I had a Catholic priest tell me that he took a class on the Trinity in seminary. In that class, every day, his teacher would begin the lesson with this message: “the Trinity is not a doctrine that can be understood with the mind, but which must be accepted and believed in as a matter of faith.” He said that at the end of the year he was told to write an exam on the Trinity. He wrote that one line. And he got an “A”. We must begin any examination of the Trinity with an intellectual humility, realizing that we are trying to put into human words a foundational mystery of God.
Yet it is a mystery we must try to grapple with. The Doctrine of the Trinity is not some kind of also-ran of the Christian tradition…some random absurdity that we must take on faith. It is, rather, an essential part of what it means to be a Christian at all, and expresses some of the most profound and important parts of what we have to say in our witness to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. In Matthew 28:16-20, the essence of Christian discipleship is given as baptizing “all nations” in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In saying this, Jesus set the formula which would eventually become known as the Trinity at the very heart of the community of faith known as Christianity. Paul does something similar in 2 Corinthians 13:13-14, when he ends with a salutation that equates the love of Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
The Doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that there is One God that exists as three persons, is in part a direct outgrowth of our faith in Jesus Christ as both God and man, which we discussed in an earlier class. For the unity of Jesus and God is implied throughout the Gospels, especially the Gospel of John. But what does it mean to say that Jesus is fully God? How could God be fully incarnated in Jesus and yet continue to exist to sustain and maintain the world as a whole?
An additional problem arises when we are confronted with the centrality of the Holy Spirit within the Gospels. The Holy Spirit is a divine actor within the New Testament second only to Jesus Himself. Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into His Disciples in John 20:19-23, and thereby empowers them to continue His work in the world, to exist as a community that literally continues the incarnation. If God is fully present in the Church, then how is God to be understood as beyond or transcendent above the people that make the church up? This problem follows from, and is related to, the first question about the Divinity of Jesus.
In order to answer these questions, the early Church began talking about there being three eternally existing persons that are distinct yet that are all fully God unto themselves. It was the Son that was incarnated in Jesus Christ. This Son was a distinct person yet fully God. It is the Spirit that lives within the Church. This Spirit is a distinct person, yet also fully God. So it can indwell in the church and yet not deny the action of God elsewhere. This was all consequence of the ‘economics of salvation’ as it is presented in the Bible. There is an order and a process of salvation, and through that order and process we discern three ways in which we relate to God in personal ways, distinct ways. Yet behind those distinct personal relationships we discern one united divinity.
The plurality of salvific roles, but the uniting divinity of the persons within the Trinity is evident throughout John Chapters 14 and 15. Jesus equates his living within the Christian community with the indwelling of the ‘Father’ within Him, and talks about His going to the Father preceding the coming of the Spirit which will lead and sustain the disciples (14:15-17), He speaks of going to the Father and sending the Advocate/Spirit (14:25-27), but speaks of His continued existence with His Father and existing as a conduit by which special access to God may be gained (15:12-17). Stop and think about these chapters in detail, and you will see what is meant by the ‘economics of salvation’. Jesus comes from God, and returns to God and in His returning sends the Spirit. God is saving by sending the son, and it is the power of God that is manifested throughout, it is the Son that brings the power of God and makes it something active, that uses God’s power to save us and that power continues to flow as the Spirit. Each part of the action is distinct, we have distinct personalities acting to save, yet it is clear that it is the same God that saves us: there are three saving persons, yet one God who saves through them. If you can grasp the economics of salvation, laid out beautifully in these passages, then you can grasp the problem, the essential tension that led to belief in the Trinity. God saves us in three persons. Thus God exists AS three persons.
So that is the reason for the Doctrine of the Trinity. How does it work? There have been many attempts to take a stab at making the Trinity intelligible. I could not in one class possibly set them all out for you, or even really give you much of a cursory examination. I will instead take a stab at explaining how I think it works, and then help you navigate some of the material out there so you can wrestle with the idea on your own terms.
Before we begin we need to look out for some theological errors, or heresies, that must be avoided if we are to stay true to the Christian message as we think about these issues. We have a Scylla and Charibdis that we have to steer clear of as we navigate these deep theological waters. On the one side we need to avoid modalism, the view that there is one God who exists ‘merely’ in three modes of being. Any belief that denies the real and separate personhood of the three sides of the Trinity fails to do proper justice to the Christian witness. We also must seek to avoid Tritheism, the idea that there are three separate and independent gods. The goal is to try to understand God as One God, yet three persons. That is the challenge, and the promise.
The best way I can help you understand what the Trinity is all about is to try to pull an analogy from modern physics. Modern physics tells us that energy and matter are interchangeable. In our own minds, we think in terms of things being acted upon by forces. You have a ball, and then you throw the ball. It remains the same ball. Not so, the physicist tells us. Since energy and matter interchange, a thrown ball has a different mass than a ball at rest, and indeed even a wavelength and a frequency. A particle in motion is a different reality than a ball at rest. Yet it remains a distinct, and individual, ball that can be named and identified. Action and being are one.
God the Father is the Creator. He acts and moves in the universe. When God acts, God is revealed. This activity of revelation, this act of moving, is something we can relate to in a personal way. This God revealed, this God beside us, is the Son. The Son is the revelation of God. In the Old Testament we saw this as God’s ‘Word’, in the New Testament, this Revelation is fully on display in Christ Jesus. In Jesus, the Son, God revealed, became a human being. God revealed was revealed in a particular human being. When we see Jesus, when we respond to a revelation of God, we are inspired and moved by the Holy Spirit. God empowers and inspires us, and lives within us. Our ability to know God comes from God. God is acting differently, not beside us but within us. This action within, this inspiration, is the Holy Spirit. The Father is God over us, the Son is God with us, and the Spirit is God within us. Yet these are not merely ‘modes of being’ but ongoing activities that are essential to God, they are personal actions, distinct and yet eternal, that remain yet the same Divine movement.
If we see a person in need, a person hurting, for us in that moment they are God revealed. They are Christ to us. If we respond in service, if we are moved to love and compassion, that response is God within us, ie, the Holy Spirit. Yet from their perspective, our act of service is God revealed as well, we become Christ FOR THEM. They relationships are distinct and personal, the action remains divine. Modalism is avoided, because we recognize the distinctness of each personal activity, of each person. Tritheism is avoided, for all these actions are part of the same divine movement…it is one God who acts in these three personal ways.
Paul makes this point in 2 Corinthians 3:12-18, as Jesus does in John 14:15-17. Both men tell their followers that God’s presence can only be recognized without, if one has the Holy Spirit within. We need God to recognize God. What we see here is again the economics of salvation, and the role the various persons play in that economics. We see God, we respond with knowing and action, yet that very knowing and action is God fully present within us. Yet surely, the fact that God dwells in us cannot mean that God no longer acts without. There is diversity of action, diversity of relationship, yet unity of purpose, of being.
I hope that these reflections have helped you gain some clearer insight into the Trinity. You can hopefully see now the scriptural and logical reasons why the church began to talk in a Trinitarian way, and have some grasp of how one may be able to have some picture of how you can have one God, who is yet three persons. In the end, though, when we have made our attempts, when we have said our peace about doctrines like the Trinity, we must end with Job’s confession, “I have uttered things too wonderful for myself, that I understood not, and wherefore I abhor myself and repent in dust, and ashes.”
Essay Question 2
There has been a recent turn among some theologians to adopt a different model of Trinitarian language than the traditional “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. Instead they speak of “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.” This new form of Trinitarian speech has both strengths and weaknesses.
Feminist theologians have long struggled with the fact that God is spoken of using masculine pronouns in both worship and scripture. This tendency to speak of God in a masculine way threatens to make it look like one gender is closer to God than the other, and tends to privilege one human experience of the divine over and above another equally human, but different, experience of the divine, that of women. To speak of God as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, removes the inherently male-centric pattern discerned within the Trinity, especially when one is naming God ‘Father and Son’. By focusing on the actions of the Trinity, one removes any possible paternalistic pattern that exists in the classical rendering of the Trinitarian formula.
But this strength brings up an immediate weakness. For we threaten to completely depersonalize the Trinity when we speak of God this way. The truth is there is no way for human beings to speak of God in a personal way without including some gendered language. Personhood as we understand and experience it is irreducibly gendered. Of course God in Himself is beyond gender, but if we remove gendered speech from our language, we threaten to make God impersonal, and thus in no way love or the God with whom we have a personal relationship. God could become an ‘it’ rather than a ‘thou’ on this model.
Of course, talk of God as ‘Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer’ is theologically illuminating. It helps people recognize more diversity within the Trinity, a diversity of action. We are not just giving God three random names, we are recognizing a diversity in the economics of salvation, a diversity the Trinity was invented to help account for. A person who doesn’t really know why we speak of the Trinity, who has lived with the doctrine as an unquestioned assumption, would learn much about the background behind the belief if they inquired into the reason for talking of God in this newer Trinitarian way. Though the entire Trinity is involved in the actions of each part, it is ‘appropriate’ to speak of each side of the Trinity playing these distinct roles. A person could learn something from this kind of formula.
There is, though, a danger of modalism. The formula may lead one to believe that one God has three ‘modes of action’, rather than three persons, as the older formula clearly shows (speaking of Father and Son implies a strict distinction of person.) Yet this final challenge is probably easily met, once one makes an attempt to clarify relational verses substance ontology. For modes of action can be equivalent to personhoods, if we understand the way in which changes in relations actually make substantive changes in the reality (though not necessarily the underlying being) of some particular ‘thing’.
In the end, then, one has to decide where one wants to lay their money down. Is it more important to emphasize true personhood, and risk gender inequality in one’s speech, or is it more important to be inclusive and to enlighten people as to the underlying reasoning for the doctrine. That is a personal theological choice, and not one any writer can make for you. Hopefully, however, an essay like this helps you make that decision more reflectively.
Essay Question 4
I believe I have a personal relationship with God. In fact, the most personal relationship I have in my life is with God. It is common to talk of having a personal relationship with God among Christian nowadays. But what does this mean? And what problems does it raise? Can these problems be answered? And what kind of relationship is this? I will attempt to answer these questions and more in this essay.
One problem with defining what a personal relationship with God might look like or what those words mean is the gulf between God and man. We don’t want to anthropomorphize. God is not one human being, or one being at all. Any theology that reduces God from the grandeur of being-itself to one particular human-like creature is a poor theology indeed, and little more than idolatry. Here is a being that is the ground of all that is, that is both a being and yet being-itself. And yet we claim to personally relate to it. It is absurd. It is like an ant contemplating the universe.
Yet God cannot be ‘less than a person’. A God that cannot feel, and intend, and act in the world in a way at least analogous to us is something less than us, and therefore cannot be in any way God. Therefore there must be ‘some way’ in which God can think, feel, desire and intend, and indeed focus those desires and intents upon particular human beings. For me, a personal relationship with God must include the encounter of being led, of being called and responding to that call. I have found great value in Alfred N Whitehead’s account of how reality works. Whitehead believed that in each moment the entirety of the universe is presented with an ideal image, an image of the best it can be given the facts of the universe as they are in this moment. The entirety of the past is presented to the world in a new way, an ideal way, as an image of the best it could be. This ideal image of the universe, this ‘initial aim’ is what makes new creation, and indeed temporal passage, possible. And within this image is an image of each individual thing, of what each epochal occasion could be at its best.
The world responds to this image. Each thing gets closer to, or further from, the best possible image of what it could be. God then forms a new image in the next moment, a new ideal that contains within it the best for each individual “thing” (the scare quotes are deliberate), and that brings up new possibilities for a new future.
An example: a friend of mine needs a kidney. God calls me to give my own. But fear presents me from doing this, and my friend dies. God’s will has been frustrating. The ideal image presented to me: that image of sacrifice and love for my friend, is lost forever. God is limited by what has happened in the past, He cannot now ask me to give my kidney to a friend who no longer exists. Yet God uses the new situation to give a new call: perhaps to tell my story, or to be an organ donor, or any other number of things. And I respond, for better or worse, to the new image based on the new reality.
God’s relationship with me is in His power to inspire and move me, to guide me towards this image. To relate to God there must be back and forth, God must be able to speak to me in various ways, and I must be able to send some message back. On this model, God can speak to me in any number of ways, from a sense of the right thing to do to visions and voices to scripture and other people. My communication back is in my action. God sees and responds with a new call. This back and forth is relationship, like others, but also unique and unto itself.
The beauty of this kind of relationship is that it is inclusive of all other relationships. Since God can call through my connection to other beings, God is at various times all the other relationships, I have, and yet so much more. God is father, brother, sister, mother, friend, judge, leader, and on and on. Any particular relationship that has the potential to hold within it the call of God is thus a sacrament of that Ultimate Relationship, that is like all others and no others, my relationship with my God, and indeed my Lord, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.