Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017
Genesis 1:1-2:4a Today is Trinity Sunday. It is the Sunday when we celebrate the Christian theological doctrine expressing our belief in One God who is at the same time Three Persons, traditionally named: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is a unique celebration in our church calendar because it is the only Festival that celebrates church doctrine, as opposed to the biblical story of Jesus and the beginnings of the church. Christmas, Epiphany, Transfiguration, the Passion narrative, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost all mark important moments in the core story of our faith and they all have biblical stories associated with them. Today is different. Today we celebrate a doctrine that was worked out over the first few centuries of the church through a series of councils.
The Trinity is, at its core, a mystery, and because of that, as modernity took hold in the 18th century and our scientific and technical knowledge grew exponentially, it fell on harder and harder times. As a “formula”, 1+1+1=1 simply doesn’t make sense in any objective or mathematical sense. That didn’t, however, stop theologians from trying. In her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris describes: “Trinity… has generated some of the most obtuse, mind-boggling writing in all of Christian theology.” (287) The interminable conflict is that if we hold to modern ways of thinking, we either have to be able to explain the doctrine in an intellectually satisfying way or we have to bracket it out of our rational minds, saying something like: “It doesn’t make sense, but you just have to have faith. You just have to believe. It is a mystery.”
Those are not, however, the only options. As the 20th century gave way to the 21st, modern ways of thinking and being, the modern approach to life and faith and belief, has itself fallen on hard times. We have discovered limits to the capacity of science and technology to explain everything and solve all of humanity’s problems. This doesn’t mean that we toss all rational thinking. Indeed, we’re seeing some of the problems of that approach these days. Rather, we can recognize the limits of our intellectual knowledge and begin to value, engage and appreciate differing ways of knowing.
This is the approach Kathleen Norris takes in contemplating the Trinity. “… Working with fourth-graders in a classroom in North Dakota,” she writes, she “asked them if anyone could think of a way that poetry and science were alike. One little girl spoke up: ‘They both tell good stories.’” “In considering both art and science as a form of wonder, questioning, and contemplation…” Norris goes on to quote Albert Einstein as having once said: “If we trace out what we behold and experience through the language of logic, we are doing science; if we show it in forms whose interrelationships are not accessible to our conscious thought but are instinctively recognized as meaningful, we are doing art. Common to both is the devotion to something beyond the personal, removed from the arbitrary.” Norris concludes that: “Both science and poetry reveal the mysterious connections that undergird our lives, and the religious sensibility knows it as truth.” (288) It is this kind of recognition of different modes of knowing and varying ways of accessing truth that can break-down the modern religion vs. science debate. Taking another look at our long first reading, an account of the creation of the world, will demonstrate the point.
As our first passage was read this morning, I drew a picture of the worldview that is depicted in the first chapter of Genesis. It is, in its own way, scientific. It describes how ancient people understood the world… there is a fundamental watery chaos to which God the Creator brought order. First God created light and then a dome, sometimes translated as a “firmament,” to separate the waters. It is this firmament or dome that creates space for humanity and the rest of creation to be. God then gathers the waters under the dome to create dry land and seas, both in their proper place, and then plants can grow on the land. Day and night, light and darkness, are then differentiated by 2 different lights in the sky: sun and moon. Next God created birds to fly and fish to swim, filling up the oceans and the skies. Land animals come next and then humanity: “Let us make humankind in our image… male and female he created them.” Finally, with the work of creation complete in humanity, God rests and blesses the day of rest as the concluding act of creation.
If our only mode of understanding is through the lens of science or technology, then we know this account of creation is wrong. There is clearly no understanding of a round earth or a solar system. We know that there is no such dome or firmament holding back a watery chaos beyond the sky. We can work really, really hard to reconcile our modern scientific knowledge of the universe and the beginnings of life on earth with this account… heaven knows many people have tried. But I have been to the Creation Science Museum in Big Valley, AB – twice – and I can tell you that the scientific explanations are not intellectually satisfying. It’s interesting but doesn’t hold up given everything else we know. We could also just bracket out all the questions and tell ourselves that the biblical account must be scientifically true, we just don’t know how. It’s a mystery. The problem with this modern approach that reads everything through a lens of objective, factual, scientific reality is that it tries to fit round pegs into square holes, so to speak. To mix metaphors, if you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
But what if we read differently? Let’s take a moment to identify all the instances of repetition in this account: “And God said…”; “And there was evening and there was morning, the ___ day”; “And it was so”; “And God saw that it was good.” Repetition is a literary technique more comfortable in poetry than in science. It’s more rhetorical than rational. More… if you go home and read very carefully… you’ll see all the moments of repetition AND the ways the carefully constructed pattern changes. This account of creation IS based on a scientific understanding… the ancient worldview of the time… but it is written as poetry. This should tell us something about the ancient writers were trying to communicate. If they had been trying to convince us of the science, they would have written it differently. Poetry is not a good medium for expressing technical knowledge. Just as importantly, if they wanted to convince us of the science, they wouldn’t have kept the second story of creation that follows in chapters 2 and 3 that tells a very different account. The point is, that if we read Genesis 1 as poetry and pay attention to the literary details, instead of being “wrong,” it opens up in all kinds of meaningful ways.
The same can be said of the Holy Trinity, for the wonder of it is as a symbol beyond or other than the scientific or rational. We can only begin to comprehend it from the realm of the artistic, spiritual or religious. This can be hard when we repeat things like the historic creeds as propositional truth and it’s why we have experimented with replacing the word “believe” with other, more heart-felt expressions of commitment for the Latin “credo.” It’s not that we want to leave our brains behind for the sake of faith but rather that we seek a more integrated approach to Christian life and indeed to all of life. When we are open to a variety of ways of knowing, we can more realistically and more honestly evaluate what we can know intellectually and what we cannot. We can bring the best of our knowledge and study to seek understanding of the bible and the historical tenets of our faith and we can recognize the limits of that knowledge. When we let go of needing to fit everything into our boxes of logic or objectivity, then we can be free to discover more about the God who is beyond all our conceptions, images, ideas and understanding.
To the fourth-grade reflection that science and art are just different ways of telling good stories, maybe we could add “spirit” or “religion,” and discover a trinity of meaning. However it works, the core of the mystery of the Holy Trinity is that it describes an interplay of unity and diversity in community. The conception of God worked out by our ancient ancestors is at its heart a community of Three, unified by its diversity. We can’t nail God down to any one thing in particular… God is not just Creator of all, the supreme ruler of the universe. God is not just a humble preacher, teacher and healer who get crucified by worldly forces of power and control. God is not just a Spirit who dwells within people and who we know in wind and fire. God is not just any one of these things, but rather the Trinity teaches us that God is the creative force found in the tension between the real difference that all these ideas, stories and realities represent. It is diversity that holds God together, and that is the basis of God’s unity and power.
As we seek to grow in the Spirit of God in these next months, may we seek God at the intersection of prayer, thought and practice. May we bring the best of our intellect, creativity and spirit to bear in developing our understanding of God’s ways. And in the differences between science, poetry and religion, may we discover the glory of God shining throughout our lives.