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Saturday, 25 May 2013

Quarks, Kissing, and the Trinitarian God


 Readings:        Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31
                        Psalm 8
                        Romans 5.1-5
                        John 16.12-15

I was for a few years a priest in the NSW diocese of Bathurst. Still in many ways a wet-behind-the-ears young priest, I was proud to be under the nurture of three or four senior priests, including the bishop of that diocese.  A few years after leaving, though, I was sadly and deeply stunned when one of the finest of those priests, with whom I was having a nostalgic drink or two, announced with solemnity that if Christianity was to survive in the 21st Century it was going to have to ditch what he called “the nonsense of the Trinity”. He argued – though I was too jaw-dropped to contribute anything but spluttered gasps to the conversation – that this was no more than a fourth century pseudo-doctrine designed to appease a secular emperor and his political support base. I wanted to beg to demur, but my jaw was under the bar stool, and I’ve never been good at arguing anyway.

Yet someplace deep within my spirit (within my wairua) I heard my own voice mumbling “over my dead body”. It was very deep within – I never spoke the words, but they remain with me still. The Christian faith, in my books, stands or falls by the doctrine of the Trinity. Anne had a Muslim friend who used to chide her “if you Christians rid yourselves of the doctrines of the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, and the Trinity, you’d have a great religion.” We would indeed: we’d have either Judaism or Islam. I have great respect for our Muslim and Jewish cousins, but I would passionately argue that Islam and Judaism and Christianity are not one and the same. We may well share a God, but that, believe it or not, is another matter. And it is enough of a different matter to believe that my Bathurst mentor was deeply, deeply misguided. Perhaps that’s when we learn to fly, when our mentors let us down?
Can I explain the Trinity? No. And not “no” in the way I cannot explain quantum physics, either. I cannot explain quantum physics, but there are some who can. I have a friend whose life has been spent measuring the weight of quarks.  I have no idea what he is even talking about, but he is engaging in an activity that is at least in theory humanly possible. I do not believe we can or should ever place the doctrine of the Trinity in the same folder as potentially possible human knowledge.

I too have sat through sermons attempting to describe this mystery of God in terms of ice, steam and water, fleur de lyse, or three leafed clovers, in terms of love, lover and beloved, and a thousand more. They are bound to fail. My favourite will always be Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity: three humanesque figures gathered around the chalice and paten of the eucharist. But such an icon will always fail until we understand that eastern orthodox iconography is never meant to be a representation but a deliberately flawed visual metaphor, a darkened window through which the light of faith can illuminate, teach, but never close a book of factual information.

To speak of the Trinity is to stand on holy ground.  The language I will inadequately use, if I dare to use any, will always ever only be the language of poetry, and will be the language of experience, perhaps even of ecstasy, not the language of description, much less analysis. We should not be afraid of that. The obsession of western society with enlightenment rationality may have its place when building literal bridges, skyscrapers, or balancing balance sheets (all of which are practices at which I am woefully inadequate) but not when we engage in the language of love. And, similarly, the language of love can never be reduced to physics, as those who have read a scientific description of the human art of kissing may recall. “Osculation” sounds so prosaic in any poem!
It is no accident that the words “poem” and “poet” are intrinsically related to ancient languages’ attempts to render the idea of “creator”, related to making, creating and composing. “God, the poet” is not a common idea in western Christianity, yet it is I believe one of our profoundest truths: “in the beginning was the word”, the fourth evangelist tells us. In the beginning was the poet, and we became the poem. Our puny post-enlightenment attempts to reduce the mysteries of God to language that we can understand are bound to fail. But to speak, especially in praise, in the language of poetry, in imagery and metaphor of the mysteries of God is to open ourselves up to God’s healing and redeeming energies: “consubstantial, co-eternal, while unending ages run.”

All in the end I will suggest, and the reason I will stand distinct from my Muslim and Jewish cousins in faith, is that, as the earliest Christians tried to formulate a language of the Trinitarian God, they were driving to the heart of the mysteries of Good Friday and Easter. In the event of the Cross of the Son every moment of pain in all creation is drawn into the heart of God, and every cry of dereliction, every “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is pierced with Easter light. And every moment in time, not just a Friday afternoon in Palestine two thousand years ago, is imbued with resurrection hope and resurrection light. Neither more nor less than that is the doctrine of the Trinity as best as I can stutter it.

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