Thursday, May 23, 2013


I am not that impressed when people say they believe in God.
I don’t even know if their belief is a good thing
         until I know who this God is that they believe in.
Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, said:
         “If you have a false idea of God,
the more religious you are
                        the worse it is for you
 – it were better for you to be an atheist.”

So we need to clarify what mean by “God.”
We must use the word carefully – dare I say reverently.
In Christianity, God means the Holy Trinity.
The Trinity is a way of imagining God
that the Eastern Orthodox
         understand, enjoy, and delight in.
But most Western Christians either distort it or ignore it.
I was reading in the student lounge of Harvard Divinity School
when I overheard a conversation at the next table.
Two young women on the verge of graduation
were discussing their futures.
The first wanted to be a Congregationalist minister,
but she didn’t think the ministerial board would approve her.
They would, she feared, expect her to believe in the Trinity
– and she was not going to say that, no way, no how.

The other agreed that it was unjust and oppressive to expect her
to affirm something like the Trinity.
The first shook her head at the waste of her theological education
and the cutting short of her ministry.
The second then mused, “It’s so seductive though, isn’t it?”

 “What do you mean ‘seductive’?” the first asked.
“Well,” the second said, “the way Prof. Coakley explains the Trinity,
it’s just so beautiful.
It’s about relationship as the heart of everything instead of power.
It’s really beautiful and so good, so moral.”

The first student nodded and sighed,
“Yes,” she said, “it is, and when you read St. Basil and St. Gregory,
and St. Thomas Aquinas, it just makes so much sense.
It really seems true.”
There was a pause in the conversation.
Then the first student continued.
“It’s hard to sacrifice all I’ve worked for on principle.
But there’s no way I’m going to say I believe in the Trinity.”

“Of course not,” the second student said.
“It would be corrupt and absurd.”

These are bright people in their third year at Harvard Divinity.
They know full well that God is infinitely beyond any doctrine,
that all doctrines are just metaphors reaching out into the dark,
grazing the face of mystery
with our fingertips of language. 

So why is this particular language about God such a taboo
that they recoil against it no matter
how beautiful, how good, and even how true it seems?

The reason we resist the Trinity is all there in dear old Sigmund Freud.
He explained how we get a primitive image of God stuck in our heads.
It comes out of early childhood experiences of dependency.
The God image we get in the crib is of God the patriarch,
God the monarch, the supreme boss, the dominator-god.
We all have that God stuck in our heads.

But it is not the Christian God because it is not the Trinity.
If our parents were benign,
we will feel safer with this dominator God.
If our parents were frightening or neglectful,
our attitude may be less positive.
But either way,
the universal condition of children is dependent and subservient.
So we all get the image of God the dominator.

To think of God as Trinity is to reject that primitive image.
The Trinity does not represent God as an individual lording it over creation.
The Divine Nature is too complex, too relational, to loving
to be represented by a big guy in the sky.
So our image of God is an interpersonal relationship.

This is out of our ordinary box. So let me clarify.
The Trinity is not 3 Gods.
The Trinity is not one God with 3 jobs.
The Godness of God, the Divine Nature,
            is a relationship among three persons.
Their relationship is what makes them Divine.
The network is the essence of God.

If God is the Trinity,
then God is not a powerful individual dominating creation.
Rather, God is a web of relationship,
and this web does not dominate anything.
It loves creation into being.
It does not decree. It begets and gives birth.

I am not making this up.
It is ancient as the faith itself.
Let me offer two descriptions of the Trinity from the Early Church.
St. Gregory of Nazianzen and St. John of Damascus
called the Trinity a perichoresis.

Peri means “around” as in perimeter or perambulate.
Choresis means “a dance” as in choreograph.
The Trinity means God is
 like a Native American or  Middle Eastern circle dance.
T. S. Eliot wrote in his poem, Burnt Norton:
                                    At the still point of the turning world . . .
                                    at the still point, there the dance is. . .
                                    Except for the point, the still point,
                                    There would be no dance,
                                    And there is only the dance.

Hindus describe the divine nature as a cosmic dance;
and here it is in the Trinity.
Reality is, at its heart, a dance -- a community, a striving for relationship.
Feminist theologians say this cosmic circle dance
signifies the ultimate value of relationship among equals.
It is the foundation of everything beautiful in creation.

The second image of the Trinity is from St. Augustine.
He said the Trinity is a symbol of love.
 The first person of the Trinity is the Lover.
In order for the Lover to be the Lover, there must be an object of his love.
The second person of the Trinity is therefore the Beloved.
The Lover makes the Beloved “Beloved” through actively loving.
The Beloved makes the Lover “Lover” through being loved.

The spontaneous response to such love is to return it.
The Beloved becomes the Lover;
and the Lover becomes the Beloved.
Between them flows the love,
and that love is the third person of the Trinity.

Now you may ask what difference this makes?
And I answer: everything depends on it.
Our image of God determines what we value, what we do,
and ultimately who we become.
 The word “God” contains our most deeply held value.
God represents what we believe to be the highest good,
the truest truth, the most beautiful beauty.
God is the North Star that orients all our values,
and indeed our whole life.
We become like God as we define God. 
If we worship the dominator God of primitive theism,
            we will worship power
            and spend our lives either cringing before it
                        or trying to become dominators ourselves.
But if we worship the Trinity,
            which is the cosmic circle dance of love,
            then we will strive to become dancers and lovers.
We will practice friendship as a spiritual discipline.

And how will we go about being the Church?
If God is the ultimate dominator,
            then the Church should be a top down hierarchy.
But if God is Trinity,
            we are equals in relationship – not competitors.
Neither hierarchy nor anarchy looks like God.

An orderly, disciplined practice of compassion
            and mutual submission,
            patience,kindness, and even humility --
                        these things look like God.
Being what Wes Frensdorff called “a ministering community”
            a family of servants,
this is how the Church shows God to the world.

I will close with a bit about the Bible.
We have mostly cobbled together our Trinitarian image of God
            from a bit of Scripture here and a bit there.
The only clear reference to the Trinity as a unified picture of God
            in the whole Bible is today’s Gospel lesson.
It is where Jesus gives us the words of Baptism.
We baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

We are not baptized to make us docile
before oppressive powers either human or divine.
We are not baptized to be dominators of our brothers and sisters,
            or to be free range maverick rebels doing it “our way.”
We are baptized into the dance,
baptized into the sacred pattern of mutual delight,
            baptized into the joy of serving each other in love.