~ Genesis 1:1-5, 26-27/Matthew 28:16-20/2 Corinthians 13:11-14 ~
Talk of God is a real problem for many people today. Belief in God for many harkens back to an authoritarian mindset that limits human freedom and liberty. For many, belief in God just continues to perpetrate injustice and oppression. And for others, belief in God raises profound questions of ever-present evil in the world, such as our country’s tortuous history of Black slavery and for which we are seeing the out-workings of that history in recent days. For many, God represents an absolutist and coercive power just too incompatible with a modern understanding of the world. And, last but certainly not least, is the perspective of feminist theology which says that God is just too bound up with patriarchal attitudes and structures based on domination, in which men lord if over women, white people lord it over people of color, and humans lord it over nature. And, I suppose, the list could go on and on.
And then we bring all that to this Sunday, Trinity Sunday, the only Sunday in the church calendar that focuses on doctrine and not an event. In our Christian tradition the concept of a triune God is part and partial of the faith. Our scripture readings chosen for this Trinity Sunday suggest some of the trinitarian themes in the bible. In Matthew, Jesus tells the disciples to make more disciples, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In Second Corinthians, Paul concludes his letter with the oft used trinitarian benediction, “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” And then the reading from Genesis with the intriguing notion that even there God as Trinity is suggested when it uses the plural pronoun: “let us make humankind in our image.” Of course, Hebrew scholarship rejects such a trinitarian interpretation instead saying that the use of the plural pronoun speaks to the plurality of majesty of God. All this to say, as Christians we confess God as triune. It is who we are. As a confession we somehow affirm that God’s unfathomable love was incarnate in Jesus Christ and is experienced and celebrated in the community of faith through the Spirit.
But even as we might confess that, explaining it is an entirely different matter. Our verbiage will always be most inadequate; our symbols and images poor representations. Indeed, some of the art on our worship slides today show the various ways artists have tried to depict the Trinity through the ages. The typical approach is two long-haired white guys and a dove. And one is three white guys!
But doesn’t this just show how preposterous it is to focus on the doctrine of the Trinity to figure out who God is today? In fact, isn’t that the very problem? Don’t scholastic speculations about the nature of God just feed into the notion that we have to sacrifice reason and blindly submit to arbitrary church authority. Doesn’t trying to figure out the Trinity detract from dealing with the real issues of the day? And, on top of all that, doesn’t the very language of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” simply prove that the Christian faith is inescapably and irreformably sexist? Maybe we should just chuck it all? When it’s all said and done, does how we think about God really matter?
Before I became a Presbyterian minister, all of the theology books I’d studied – called ‘systematic theology’ – had, as their starting point, a definition of God. And they all tried to describe God before and outside of creation. God was described with attributes that were absolute and non-relational. Big theological words, like omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, immutable, eternal and, a good one, aseity which means self-sufficient. God didn’t need anything. And then, at some point in endless time, when God decided to create the world and, well, us, other attributes came into play, such as love, grace, and mercy. It’s almost as if God, after having created the world, said, “Well, I guess I need to invent love.”
But then, in training to become a Presbyterian minister twenty years ago, I met Daniel Migliore of Princeton Seminary in his book of theology, Faith Seeking Understanding. And to my great joy, he just turned hundreds of years of scholastic theology on its head. It doesn’t do much good to speculate about God ‘out there’. Instead we really only know God in relationship. The biblical record is all about God’s relationship to us humans. And, the best way to think of the Trinity is not to try to figure out what each one does but to focus on their relationship. In other words, the Trinity is a community. He suggests using different language, what he calls ‘depth grammar’. He suggests that we think of God as a “wondrous divine love that freely gives of itself to others and creates community, mutuality, and shared life.” God’s person is a life in personal relationship. In all eternity God lives and loves as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In God’s person, there is movement, life, personal relationship, and giving and receiving of love. God exists in community. And out of the community of love, the life of God is essentially self-giving love.
Thus, because of this eternal divine love, God is able to vulnerably interact with the world, even to the point of becoming a man, experiencing deprivation, suffering and death. Because of who God is, in community, we can describe God as shared life and love rather than as domineering power. God loves in freedom, lives in community, and wills or desires creatures to live in community as well.
I do believe words matter. I do believe that how we think about God matters. And this, especially, in light of what we are going through with the two viruses: COVID-19 and the insidious virus of racism. If we, as people of faith, want to have any impact on the issues with which we engage culturally, politically, and economically, how we talk about God is crucial. If our verbiage about God is a disconnect with how we actually live out our faith we lose credibility. So we need to match up our God-talk with our practice. If we are going to really live out a faith that is non-patriarchal, non-sexist, non-domineering, racially reconciling, and other affirming, our language about God needs to match up. It really does matter.
One of the ways we can do that is in our hymns. The hymn we are about to listen to/sing along with/or just follow along while others sing is a good example. The author of the hymn, Ruth Duck, who believes that Trinitarian theology provides a model for the life of community, mixes metaphors, old and new, to express faith and praise to God, as Source, Word, and Spirit. As we sing Womb of Life, and Source of Being pay attention to the wonderful way she describes God.