E. Bevan Stanley
June 7, 2020
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
From Genesis: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. In the name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
Okay. I guess I really should say something about the Trinity. This after all Trinity Sunday.
For many people the idea of the Trinity just seems like unnecessary gobbledy-gook. And then to be expected to say you believe it is off-putting. In this time of COVID19 and the response to the killing of George Floyd, it may seem irrelevant to be focusing on the arcane doctrine of the Trinity. Is that not merely a flight from the difficult issues of the day? Or might thinking about the Trinity provide a context or lens through which we might see our current context more clearly?
As a definition or description of God, the Trinity is confusing. As a statement of belief, it is such an oversimplification that it is incredible. The problem is that it is often presented or perceived as a doctrine that one has to believe to be a Christian. If you can’t believe some part of it you may feel excluded or as lacking in integrity if you participate in Christian worship. Part of the problem is that the Trinity is often seen as deductive or top-down theology. In 1901 and 1902 William James gave the Gifford lectures, and these became his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. In that book he describes a lot of, you guessed it, varieties of religious experience. It was the first major effort to think about religion inductively, from the bottom up. Let’s collect a lot of stories about how people experience God and then see what that might tell us about religion or religious human beings.
I think the Trinity is better understood as the result of such an inductive process. Here is what I make of the Trinity:
People have all sorts of different experiences of God or of the divine or of the realm of the Spirit. Many people think of a Creator who made all things. This may also be a law giver or not, but at the very least this is an Originator, as Source. Maybe a parent.
Then people have experiences of being nudged by an unseen force. New ideas come into their minds that are not the result of the person’s own mental processes. Courage or energy or wisdom come to them far beyond their own capacities. Despite being self-centered, they suddenly are able to love. Despite an instinct for self-protection, they become brave. George Lucas captured this intuition in the idea of the Force in the Star Wars movies. This is the unseen breath of God, the Holy Spirit. By the way, in the Bible in both Hebrew and Greek the word for spirit is also the word for breath, and in Hebrew also “wind.” Furthermore, in Hebrew the word for God can also just mean “really big.” This means that the phrase “the Spirit of God” can also be translated:
The Wind of God
The Breath of God
A really big wind
A really big Breath
A really big Spirit.
Then there is Jesus. People who knew Jesus during his earthly ministry experienced him as a truly exceptional human being. When asked who the disciples thought he was, Peter blurted out that he was the Son of God. He didn’t know what that meant then, but he was right. And after the Resurrection there was even more of a sense that when you are with Jesus, you are with God.
When you pile up all these different ways of experiencing God and you want to say there is only one God, then you find yourself saying that God is Source and Spirit and Jesus, and they are all one. In the culture and time when this summation occurred, the language that was natural was Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Nowadays, many find that overly patriarchal. But all language about God is metaphorical, so any other names we may use will also be inadequate.
Christians also want to be clear that these are not merely aspects of God or different ways God seems to us. There are within God exchanges of love that are part of God’s essence. We want to avoid saying they are parts of God, or that there are three divine beings. We need to hold onto the idea that God is one, and yet God is complex. God is not a monad but a community, or better, a communion. In an effort to avoid saying all the things we don’t want to say we can tie ourselves up in theological knots.
Although the author of the first chapter of Genesis was certainly not a trinitarian Christian, we who are can discern in the very first verses of the Bible these different dimensions of the divine. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth . . Here is the god who creates all that is. This is the transcendent origin and maker of the universe. “ . . . the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This is the Holy Spirit, the power of God operating inside the universe. “Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.” Here we have the Word of God, the expression of God, the mediation of God to the earth. Later, this Word that goes forth from God will take human form in Jesus of Nazareth. As the Gospel of John puts it, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God . . . The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Of course it took Christians over three hundred years to actually nail this down to a teaching in the Nicene Creed, and even then not all Christian signed on. Again this is not a requirement to be a Christian. It is just a short hand summary of all our different experiences of God and the affirmation that in all these differing experiences of the divine it is the same single unite God loving us and inviting us into a relationship.
In our current situation of COVID19 and concerns about racist abuse of power, we believe that all this world is the creation of God and it is good. We believe that the courage of people working in essential jobs, caring for the sick, and fighting for justice is evidence of the Spirit of God, the Wind of God, and the Breath of God moving human beings to risk themselves for others. And we understand that in Jesus, who lived among us and experience human life first hand and human mortality, God shared our suffering, our fear, our hopes, and our uncertainty. God is with us in our humanity. And it is all the same one, holy, and undivided Trinity to whom we give glory, honor, and praise every day.