The problem of the Trinity
TRINITY SUNDAY 2017 | 2 Cor 13:11-13; Mat 28:16-20
Baruch Spinoza was one of the greatest thinkers in Western history. He was also Jewish, born into the small Jewish community in Amsterdam in the 17th century. He was widely regarded as a profound and original thinker in his own day, and at a young age he was offered the post of professor at Heidelberg University. He turned down that job offer because, he said, he was afraid it would interfere with his intellectual freedom.
Instead, he supported himself by becoming a tradesman. He ground lenses and made glasses to help people see more clearly. And at night, he wrote like a furious madman to help people think more clearly.
And people DID think he was mad. He was a little paranoid about this exact fact, and never published anything under his real name for the whole of his life. Unfortunately, his efforts were unsuccessful and his writings and eccentric ideas finally caught up with him. Turns out he was right to be afraid, because in 1656 he was excommunicated from the Synagogue—cut off from the inheritance of Israel and from his people.
The irony is that Spinoza is remembered as one of the most important philosophical geniuses of all time and the people who excommunicated him are only remembered for their act of excommunication. He is a giant, and they are a footnote affixed to his story. (Revenge is sweet.)
Why did they despise his writings so much? Well, for one thing, Spinoza was a bit of a pantheist—which was not a popular position in the 17th century, at least not in the West. But he challenged how we see God in other ways, too, positing that much of what we think we know about God is only our own projections ONTO God, and not really having much to do with God at all. We think of God in personal terms because WE are personal beings. But it could be that, since God is very different from human beings, God might bear little resemblance to the images we project.
In one of his most famous quotes he said, “If a triangle could speak, it would say…that God is eminently triangular, while a circle would say that the divine nature is eminently circular. …Each would ascribe to God its own attributes, would assume itself to be like God, and look on everything else as ill-shaped” (Letter to Hugo Boxel, 1674).
I don’t think we’re much different from the 17th century Jewish community in Amsterdam, really. Christians have been pretty locked into how we define and present God for a long time, and God had better not step out of the neat and tidy box we have constructed!
That box is the doctrine of the Trinity. Now, the Trinity is found nowhere in scripture, and one of the big controversies of the early reformation was whether or not to jettison it for that very reason! Although it is not found in scripture, it is strongly hinted at in scripture—specifically in our texts today from 2 Corinthians and the Gospel According to Matthew. And while fundamentalists hold to it for dear life, it has been a bit of an albatross around the neck of more liberal theologians for quite a while.
Many folks, myself included, believe that we ought to see the doctrine of the Trinity as descriptive rather that proscriptive. What I mean by this is that the Trinity is descriptive when it describes how the early church experienced God in these three forms. But it becomes proscriptive when we PROSCRIBE how God can or cannot show up in the world. Just between you and me, God is going to show up in the world however God wants, and does, and we can make doctrines until we’re blue in the face and it’s not going to make a bit of difference.
But lately there has been some new and very creative thinking happening in theology geek circles around the Trinity, thinking that I think is exciting and important—especially for the field of interfaith dialogue.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, how can the doctrine of the Trinity be anything but an obstacle to interfaith dialogue? And for most of the history of interfaith dialogue, it certainly has been.
But a new stream of thought is emerging that suggests that the Trinity tells us not so much about God, and certainly not how God is limited, but instead it describes three broad ways that human beings relate to God.
First, there are religions of the Father. These are traditions that relate to God as sovereign of the universe, transcendent and omnipotent. Judaism, Islam, Shaivite Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism all understand God and relate to God in this way.
Second, there are religions of the Son. These are traditions that relate to God as incarnate deity, such as Christianity or Vaishnava Hinduism.
Third, there are religions of the Spirit. These are traditions that relate to God as a personal or impersonal pervasive or imminent presence, such as Sikhism, animism, Taoism in the form of the Tao, and Mahayana Buddhism in the form of Buddha nature.
I like to say that God comes to us Christians in three forms, and as long as you’re on speaking terms with one of them, then you’re good to go. Why should it be any different for people of other religions?
One criticism of such attempts at a unifying theology is that it is a form of religious imperialism disguising as inclusivism, as it neatly folds all other religions into our own. But I don’t think that’s a fair critique. Every tradition should use the resources it has at hand in order to attempt to fathom how God relates across diversities that we are unable or unwilling to bridge ourselves.
I would take no offense if a Hindu embraces Jesus as an incarnation of Vishnu—for in doing so she is doing precisely the same thing—using the theological resources of her tradition to understand how Vishnu might also be loving and saving me.
I think this kind of theology is exciting and important not because it redeems other faiths for those of us who follow Jesus, but it also redeems for us liberal Christians the doctrine of the Trinity itself. It allows God out of the box, for instead of using the doctrine to hem God in it becomes a tool for understanding the myriad and uncountable ways that God shows up in the universe—in faiths wildly divergent from our own, and in the diverse experiences of our own daily lives.
For God, like the Spirit at Pentecost, blows wherever she will. We can’t control her. The best we can hope to do is to understand, just a little bit, in our own feeble way, what marvelous, healing, good things she is up to.
One of the dangers in celebrating and preaching about a doctrine is that it isn’t very personal or relational, it’s pretty heady stuff. The relational magick, I think, is in the doors that it might open for us to our neighbors—to the people of the Father and the people of the Spirit, whom we people of the Son can embrace as friends and brothers and sisters in faith.
Because we know God as supreme being, we can understand and celebrate with those who also relate to God as supreme being. Because we know the divine presence as Spirit, we can understand and celebrate with those who also relate to the divine presence as Spirit.
The Trinity has separated us and hemmed us in and embarrassed us for long enough. Perhaps it’s time for us to make the doctrine actually work FOR us, to build bridges rather than making us an island. Let us celebrate the Trinity today as three ways that people all over the world relate to divine Mystery, even as the divine Mystery relates to us in ways that we cannot hope to catalogue or count.
Let us pray…
God, you come to us in a million ways every day
And we usually do not see you.
Instead we have used our ingenuity to create luxurious boxes to stuff you in
Without bothering to ask whether it pleases you
or helps you or has, really, anything to do with you.
As we celebrate the ways that you showed up for our ancestors
Help us to think creatively about ways to create community with other people of faith
All over the world.
For though they call you by many names, you are their God, too
And you love them just as you love us.
For we ask this in the name of your Son, who called you Abba, Daddy. Amen.
(Huge, grateful nods to S. Mark Heim, whose theology influenced this sermon.)