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TRINITY: A THEOLOGY AND A BBQ
Hildegard of Bingen, the 11th century theologian and mystic, imaged it in grand metaphorical style:
A brightness, a flashing forth, and a fire. And the three are one.
John Robinson, the English 1960s radical bishop of Honest to God fame,
said it had become a formula as arid and as unintelligible as
E=MC2 that Einstein said was the clue to the physical universe.
While in one of his weekly eMail newsletters, 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.
What am I and they all talking about?
The traditional doctrine of the Trinity. A doctrine for which
I personally have always harboured a healthy discontent.
And while this rather serious debate continues, seriously,
other stories about the doctrine also abound.
Especially in the context of those culturally bound arguments called creeds.
And during BBQs!
One of my Catholic colleagues from theological student days,
said he remembered the first time he became aware
of just how difficult and obscure the doctrine of the Trinity can be.
‘I remember as a teenager being in church and reciting the Athanasian Creed. We got to the bit which reads, The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.
‘The man sitting next to me muttered, too loudly for comfort: The whole damn thing incomprehensible!'
Well, I can’t vouch for the authenticity of his story
as I have now heard it and read of it in several publications since.
But it does express a general feeling among many folk - church goer and ‘exile’.
‘Trinity’ is incomprehensible indeed!
At best irrelevant, and perhaps at worst, nonsensical.
Well, during the time I was preparing this sermon I was also re-reading
bits of Marcus Borg’s book The God We Never Knew,
as well as Val Webb’s latest, Like Catching Water in a Net.
Both Webb and Borg 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 refers to the mask
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.
Now it is my honest belief that if more sermons were shaped by
progressive theological thinking about the Trinity, then:
• most lay people would welcome such honesty from their ministers,
• most lay people would be enriched by such theological honesty and freedom,
• the literalness which often binds this doctrine, and used by some as a kind of definition of God,
would be answered in a creative and imaginative way, and
• the original experienced to which the doctrine points could be given new life,
with the dead outer shell of the doctrine discarded to the rubbish tip.
Because the way we imagine or understand God makes a difference.
And anyway, in the words of Irish priest and theologian, Diarmuid O’Murchur:
“How precisely the relatedness of Jesus differs from that of the Father and Spirit may well be one of the most meaningless questions ever asked” (O’Murchur 2005:52).
I guess that’s enough of all this heavy stuff!
So what’s with the BBQs?
When Dylis (my wife) and I were in America (in Dayton, Ohio) in 1993,
friends were celebrating the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
And we went to an American BBQ (very different to an Aussie BBQ!).
A few years ago I also recall Trinity Sunday fell on or around the Memorial Day weekend.
And I remember thinking: lucky sods. Why?
If we in Australia could bring just some of the enjoyment associated
with picnics and BBQs into our theology, while at the same time
recognising the ever presentness of God or the sacred
in all of our ordinary living, then maybe
thinking about God would suddenly become a whole lot more fun.
What a challenge!
To weave together these seemingly unrelated and in some ways, perhaps contradictory events...
Trinity Sunday and a holiday weekend.
The Trinity being for many people, one of the more complicated of doctrines...
And oh, so serious.
And a three day holiday weekend with its footy and picnics and BBQs, being just the opposite...
Down to earth.
And so much fun!
Having a holiday weekend with Trinity Sunday in the middle,
would allow us to emphasise certain aspects of God's nature we are likely to ignore
when we take our creed-driven neo-orthodox theologies so seriously!
Having a holiday at this time of the year could remind us that
simply getting together as a family for BBQs and picnics
and taking delight in each other and in the world around us...
These echo and reflect something of the spirit of God
in which we ‘live and move and have our being’.
That there is wisdom to be found in merely being playful.
And we are expressing something of God's own nature.
The mystery of the livingness of God in a wondrous community...
a creative energy beyond,
a compassionate traveller with, and
an empowering friendship within, connecting ‘all creation’ together.
Maybe... just maybe, this is really what the storyteller Matthew is on about.
That the essence of God is to be in mutual relation...
A mystery of dynamic communion of connectedness.
A dancing and celebrating emmanuel... at a BBQ.
Rather than the literal and liturgical interests of the ‘church fathers’
who set this lectionary story for this Sunday
with its tenuous links to the so-called doctrine of the Trinity.
Borg, M. J. 1997. The God We Never Knew. Beyond dogmatic religion to a more authentic contemporary faith. NY: New York. HarperCollins.
O'Murchu, D. 2005. Catching Up With Jesus. A gospel story for our time. NY: New York. Crossroad Publishing.
Webb, V. 2007. Like Catching Water in a Net. Human attempts to define the divine. NY: New York. Continuum Press.