June 08, 2004
Fall afresh on me

Sunday was Trinity Sunday, I guess because after Pentecost we've rounded up all three Persons in the narrative. Jennifer remarks that many American churches don't teach the triune nature of God the way they ought to, apparently fearing that the language of "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" is sexist. Richard Hall and Father Jim Tucker also have Trinitarian reflections.

Their discussions reminded me of my post about Bishop Spong's rejection of the Trinity a while back, and how it undermines the idea he seemed to be insinuating that the traditional Christian understanding of God is somehow primitive and simple-minded. The Trinity is mysterious and difficult to grasp, and it was no easier for the ancients, given the amount of controversy there was about it. The Athanasian Creed, which my church recited in place of the usual Apostle's Creed, is as long as it is largely because it's trying to convey such an abstruse idea.

Recently, Telford asked me to tell him what, spiritually speaking, I believe -- not what I hope or wonder or intellectually entertain, but what I believe. My answer, we both noticed, was basically Holy Spirit language. I can't commit to an unqualified belief in the Father or the Son, but the existence of some Spirit that has drawn me along all this way I can't really deny. Telford, of course, would have preferred that I went farther, but said that was OK, as traditional churches don't tend to use enough Spirit language as it is.

A Pentecostal would say that, of course, because the whole point of Pentecostalism was to bring the Spirit back with a vengeance. But if the survey data that Tripp quotes in Jennifer's comments is to be believed, a lot of American Christians don't exactly believe in the Holy Spirit. Surprisingly, this includes some 52% of born-again Christians.

Why does it seem that the hardest Person for Christians to believe in is the easiest one for me? The Spirit is the most undefinable Person, I think; the most immanent, unpredictable, and hard to put in a bottle. He also compromises the modern understanding of individual autonomy, as he is both a separate person and something that dwells within us and directs our actions.

I think something is seriously missing without the immanence of God. Recently at church, a woman used a phrase that always gets my back up: "They took God out of school." By which she means, of course, organized prayer and other public practices of religion. This drives me up the wall not just because of the politics, but because you can't take God out of anywhere, dammit. It's a figure of speech, I know, but it reveals a lot about the Christian-right way of conceiving of God, I think. It's as if he were a tribal possession that some enemy tribe could come along and steal or break. I remember during the controversy over the Ten Commandments monument in Alabama last year, a protestor at its removal actually said something like, "Keep your hands off our God!"

I grew up on the opposite side of the culture war from those folks, and actually, I think that made me more receptive to Spirit thinking. The environment I grew up in was sort of New Agey and influenced by Eastern mysticism, especially for me since my mother and I were interested in the latter. The idea of a God who is ineffable, immanent and permeating the boundaries of self sits rather comfortably with Eastern thinking. Long ago in China, Lao-tzu wrote:

There is a being, wonderful, perfect; it existed before heaven and earth. ... All life comes from it. It wraps everything with its love as in a garment, and yet it claims no honor; it does not demand to be Lord. I do not know its name, and so I call it the Way, and I rejoice in its power.

It does not seem impossible to me that Lao-tzu's Way and Christians' Holy Spirit are the same thing. The Father is the God of Abraham and Jacob, and the Son was a Jewish guy who lived in the first century, but where has the Spirit been all this time? Where hasn't it been?

But I think another reason why the Spirit is easier for me to believe in than the Father and the Son is that while the Spirit is described as a person, he is the least personlike of the Trinity. And it's hard for me to believe that God is that much like a human being.

This brings me back to Spong again, because that seemed to be his problem too. What he called "theism," and rejected, seemed to be the idea that God could look, think, feel or act in any way that is recognizably human. He cannot incarnate himself, converse with people, or act deliberately on the material world. We are left with immanence, and virtually nothing else. Marcus Borg also seems to look at it that way adopting a version of pantheism, in which Jesus isn't so much an incarnation of God as a channel -- a "Spirit person", just as Lao-tzu and Buddha and various other religious leaders were Spirit people.

Why is this inhuman God so much easier for modern Western liberals (including me) to accept? I think science is a big influence here, actually. The close study of the physical universe revealed not only the fact that we aren't in the middle of it, but its great otherness. The universe is unimaginably huge, and most of it seems to be nothing like us. And so, the world goes from being a backdrop for human drama to a cosmic machine in which our dramas are an infinitesimal speck.

This difference between the Christian worldview and the modern materialist-scientific one is the chasm I have the hardest time bridging. Partly because I don't really know a Christian who seems to understand how it looks from the other side. When I brought this up with Telford long ago, he said hey, read Job, the whole idea of humans being puny runts in a cruel cosmos is nothing new. But it seems to me that the plot of Job itself undermines this. God may respond to Job's laments by making grandiose statements about himself as the builder and ruler of the cosmos, but whoever wrote Job gave God the pettiest of human reasons for putting the man through all this. It's as if even a junior-high-school-level motive like being called out by Satan is better to the writers than a motive that we simply don't know, or can't understand.

And let's be fair here, modern atheist critics are right that the idea that humans were made in God's image, and meant to reign with him in heaven, is an idea of stunning audacity. Who are we to think we're like the creator of the universe? I still can't answer that question, which I suppose is why the other two Persons of the Trinity still elude me.

Posted by Camassia at June 08, 2004 05:55 AM | TrackBack

Have you ever read Dorothy Sayers's The Mind of the Maker? She uses the process of creating art as an analogy for the Trinity; a lot of the book rang very true to me.

Posted by: Castiron on June 9, 2004 12:29 PM

When I found my way back to Christianity, via Quakerism, in college, it was with a similar sense of finding it easiest to believe in the Holy Spirit. Spirit language gave me, at one and the same time, a God who didn't require me to believe in odd supernatural things that I'd never seen, and a God who was really present and acting in the world, in ways I could observe - through the people who respond to the Spirit.

Posted by: Lynn on June 11, 2004 08:27 AM

On way to envision the Trinity that originates from Augustine is to consider the one characteristic about God that most would agree with; God is love. That would mean that before the creative act, God had to be in some kind of relationship; some form of community, or there would not be an object of love. The Lover (Father) loves the Beloved (Son). The Flow of Love between them would be the Holy Spirit. In the Incarnation, the Beloved dwelt among us, extending that same Flow of Love to us. To the degree that we stand in the place of Christ as the adopted sons and daughters of God, we have access to this same Flow of Love, and we become what we were always intended to be, the Beloved of God.

Regarding Bishop Spong, keep in mind he is kind of like the carnival barker. His whole point is to shock us and get our attention. Marcus Borg does a much better job of saying what Spong said with lots of attitude. Borg's problem is not with theism, but with "supernatural theism," the idea that there is some divine being who is somewhere else, who occasional drops in and intervenes in our affairs. What Borg suggests is a better model is panentheism, which is described by Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey as "the God who rolls through all things" (he does a good job of bridging the spiritual with the material as well, I think):

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

Posted by: Jake on June 11, 2004 09:12 PM
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