Trinity: A Theology And A Holiday..

Posted: June 6, 2017 in Uncategorized

Trinity A. 2017 Matthew 28:16-20

Trinity: A Theology And A Holiday..

It is Trinity Sunday today and once again we revisit the doctrine and ask what it is, what it’s use is and do we need it. But as always, I have tried to find something new to say and I have to say that it is getting harder every year.

John Robinson, the English 1960s radical bishop of Honest to God fame, said it had become a formula as arid and as unintelligible as E=MC2 that Einstein said was the clue to the physical universe.

Going back even further we find that Hildegard of Bingen, the 11th century theologian and mystic, imaged it in grand metaphorical style: A brightness, a flashing forth, and a fire. And the three are one.

In more recent times we find in an article by Sean Kelly, Professor of Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies, that Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, who are perhaps our most well-known cosmologists, apart from Carl Sagan perhaps, have provided another approach to the idea of Trinity. In his brief overview of the evolution of “the consciousness of the universe and its current crisis as humanity continues to destroy the life-support system of Earth, Kelly claims that, just as the collaborative effort of natural scientists and other researchers have revealed the outlines, at least, of a comprehensive cosmology, we find ourselves plunged into a maelstrom of unparalleled planetary madness. The madness: being a runaway catastrophic climate change, an accelerating mass extinction of species and generalized ecological deterioration, and a brutal, empire-driven regime of planetary apartheid”.

The wisdom of the article is the suggestion that the “Big History” type ‘grand narrative’ is a story that encompasses the mysterious origin in a “primal flaring forth” (popularly referred to as the Big Bang), “a growing, if perhaps never complete, understanding of the main stages of cosmic evolution, the complexities of embodied intelligence, the main thresholds of human history and the varieties of cultural expression, a sense of the lure or telos of the evolutionary adventure, and a prescient sense of growing planetary crisis. Complex yet trinitarian in nature, even if perhaps not traditionally sequential”. To be traditional it would be Father, Son and Holy Spirit = Big Bang, embodied intelligence and adventurous flaring forth. But then we must always remember what Bishop Jack Spong said: in one of his newsletters. “No one can ultimately define God, not even as the Holy Trinity.  The height of human arrogance is to suggest otherwise.  All any of us can do is define not God, but our experience with God. There is a vast difference between those two things. And this is the invitation to explore what our experience actually is. “The Trinity is a definition of our experience, nothing more.  Those that make this definition of our experience the definition of God, and call it the ‘bedrock belief of Christianity’ are not well informed” (Spong Newsletter, 2008).

In response to Spong there are those who argue that any person, who wants alternative names for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, should be declared enemies of the church, or heretics, but I want to see if we can transcend that simplistic, ‘them and us’ approach and to do that I want to spend a bit of time following down the Sean Kelly path with Swimme and Berry.

Kelly starts with what he calls a cosmological wisdom that Swimme and Berry seek in their argument. They argue for a threefold “cosmogenetic principle,” or as he prefers to call it, a trinity of cosmogenetic principles. By cosmogenetic he is referring to the generating beginning, These cosmogenetic principles are —differentiation, autopoiesis, and communion— and they “refer to the governing themes and the basal intentionality of all existence” and can be said to reveal the deep structure of cosmogenesis. They are three mutually implicated dimensions or moments of the emergence, persistence, and evolution of form “throughout time and space and at every level of reality”. Swimme and Berry invoke these principles to help us understand the integral nature of cosmic evolution, from the primal flaring forth (with the mysterious relation between the original singularity—if indeed there was a singularity—and the initial break in symmetry, with its perfect, fine-tuned calibration between gravitation and the forces of expansion or spatiation and also among the four fundamental forces), through the emergence of particles, atoms, galaxies, stars (especially our own Sun), and planets (especially Earth or Gaia), to the emergence of life, human societies, and civilizations.

In all cases they underline how the three principles “are themselves features of each other.” In fact, as they say, if were there no differentiation, “the universe would collapse into a homogenous smudge; were there no subjectivity [which Swimme and Berry associate with autopoiesis], the universe would collapse into inert, dead extension; were there no communion, the universe would collapse into isolated singularities of being” Here I suggest they might just be talking about the doctrine of the Trinity the need for the distinctive threesome that reveals the interdependence of the three in the one or the need for a relational reality. To be relational one needs the differentiation.

Swimme and Berry state that their understanding of the triadic principle is based on the manifest cosmos rather than on some a priori metaphysical (whether philosophical or theological) concept or doctrine. At the same time, however, it must be conceded that this principle is remarkably coherent with expressions of the nature of wisdom in triadic form found in the world’s great metaphysical traditions (see Kelly, 2010). We know that, before turning to scientific cosmology, Berry had undertaken a deep study of Asian traditions, particularly Neo-Confucianism. This study discerned a tripartite patterning or principle that culminated in a state of harmony or balance.

We note here that the Confucianism was influenced by the earlier “original enlightenment” school of Buddhism, where we find the notion of the “threefold contemplation in one mind” that is, the integral nature of the three truths of – emptiness, conventional existence, and the middle. The forms of all things exerting their functions and arising in dependence upon conditions, is, without transformation, the threefold contemplation in its totality. (Stone, 178)

Kelly is not suggesting that the three cosmogenetic principles of autopoiesis, differentiation, and communion are identical with the Neo-Confucian triad but rather that all three triads participate in the same archetypal complex, or “cultural invariant”, to use Raimon Panikkar’s term, which he calls the “radical Trinity.” “I may also use a consecrated name:” he writes, “advaita [“not twoness”], which is the equivalent of the radical Trinity. Everything is related to everything but without monistic identity or dualistic separation.” (Panikkar, 2010, 404) The most encompassing expression of the radical Trinity is the integral or non-dual “theanthropocosmic” intuition of “Reality comprising the Divine, the Human, and the Cosmic in thoroughgoing relationality.” (xviii) “We are together with other Men,” Pannikkar observes, “on a common Earth, under the same Sky, and enveloped by the Unknown.” (268) These three terms remind us of the traditional Chinese triad of Heaven, Humanity, and Earth. In Panikkar’s case, however, though deeply informed by both the non-dualism of Hindu advaita vedanta and the Buddhist notion of dependent co-arising, which he translates as “interindependence”), the deeper source is speculative Christian Trinitarian theology (with which Berry was obviously also familiar, despite his lack of formal training in theology and his self-designation as a “geologian”). The key insight here is the “perichoretic”, or mutually generating, relation among the three “persons” of the Trinity.

Right about now you might be asking what the heck I am talking about and you could be right in asking that because it sounds to me like an argument for the doctrine that seems to be swallowed up in technical concepts and clever language. It seems like I am advocating for the Trinity and if that’s what it sounds like it probably is, so I shall try to round it off by accepting the trinitarian approach as a structure, is helpful in that it is consistent with not fully knowing, consistent with a subjective truth and inexhaustibly generative, from which arises form and determination, “being” in the sense of what can be concretely perceived and engaged with; that form itself is never exhausted, never limited by this or that specific realization, but is constantly being realized in the flux of active life that equally springs out from the source of all. Between form, “logos”, and life, “spirit”, there is an unceasing interaction. The Source of all does not and cannot exhaust itself simply in producing shape and structure; it also produces that which dissolves and re-forms all structures in endless and undetermined movement, in such a way that all form itself is not absolutized but always turned back toward the primal reality of the Source. (xviii)

Echoing Swimme and Berry’s statement quoted above regarding the mutual implication of the three cosmogenetic principles, Pannikar states: “God without Man is nothing, literally ‘no-thing’. Man without God is exclusively a ‘thing’ not a person, not a really human being, while the World, the Cosmos, without Man and God is ‘any-thing without consistency and being; it is sheer non existing chaos. The three are constitutively connected.’” (Panikkar, 1979, quoted in Sabetta) Like Panikkar’s “cosmotheanthropic” vision, Swimme and Berry see their cosmogenetic principles active throughout the entire universe story. It is in our middle realm of Earth however, that we see the principles in action most clearly and consequentially.

It is good that we can have a healthy discontent with the doctrine of the Trinity because what is important is as Marcus Borg’s book reminds us, it is The God We Never Knew, or a Catching Water in a Net that Val Webb writes about that keeps us human. This tension between one and three is a healthy response because as both Webb and Borg suggest the Latin and Greek words translated as ‘person’ do not mean what ‘person’ most commonly means in English. For us, ‘person’ means separate being. But ‘person’ in the ancient texts refers to the mask worn by actors in Greek and Roman theatres. “To speak of one God and three persons is to say that God in known to us wearing three different ‘masks’… in three different roles” (Borg 1997:98). The Trinity not as doctrine but as creative concept and inviting of imagination is a welcome idea.

Here we have the image of a multifaceted sacredness creating, indwelling, sustaining, resisting, recreating, challenging, guiding, liberating, completing. Cumulatively speaking, Borg suggests that when we step away from a literalist understanding, ‘Trinity’ shows that: God is not a distant being but is near at hand. God is not primarily a lawgiver and judge but the compassionate one. And the religious life is not about requirements, but about relationship. Relationship between all things.

So, why have I given you the struggle with language and concepts of cosmology? Why have I tried to place the Trinity in the Big Picture? Well, I think it is because I believe that the more we can think progressively theologically then the more we can welcome honesty, be enriched by theological freedom, and spend less time on articulating literalistic doctrines that keep us focused on defining rules that limit God as opposed to exploring in a creative and imaginative way, seeking what a new human life can be. The way we imagine or understand God makes a difference. And anyway, in the words of Irish priest and theologian, Diarmuid O’Murchur: “How precisely the relatedness of Jesus differs from that of the Father and Spirit may well be one of the most meaningless questions ever asked” (O’Murchur 2005:52).

To finish off then, what’s with the holiday? Well its simply that all this Trinity stuff is not about defining God or Jesus or The Holy Spirit but rather about recognising the ever present-ness of God or the sacred, in all of our ordinary living. Then maybe thinking about God can suddenly become a whole lot more fun. Trinity Sunday and a holiday weekend perhaps. Maybe we could weave together these seemingly unrelated and in some ways, perhaps contradictory events…. After all the Trinity has for many people, become one of the more complicated of doctrines… Obscure. Abstract. And far too serious. Maybe a three-day holiday weekend with football or rugby and meals together, might just help. Having a holiday weekend with Trinity Sunday in the middle, could allow us to emphasize certain aspects of God’s nature we are likely to ignore when we take our creed-driven neo-orthodox theologies so seriously! Having a holiday at this time of the year could remind us that simply getting together as a family for dinners and family gatherings and taking delight in each other and in the world around us…

These suggestions, echo and reflect something of the spirit of God in which we ‘live and move and have our being’. That there is wisdom to be found in merely being playful. Having a mid-winter party, or barn dance or whatever. And we are expressing something of God’s own nature. The mystery of the livingness of God in a wondrous community…a creative energy beyond, a compassionate traveler with, and an empowering friendship within, connecting ‘all creation’ together.

Maybe… just maybe, this is really what the storyteller Matthew is on about. That the essence of God is to be in mutual relation… A mystery of dynamic communion of connectedness. A dancing and celebrating emmanuel at a party. Rather than the literal and liturgical interests of the ‘church fathers’ who set this lectionary story for this Sunday with its tenuous links to the so-called doctrine of the Trinity.

Notes: Borg, M. J. The God We Never Knew. Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith. New York. HarperCollins, 1997. O’Murchu, D. Catching Up With Jesus. A Gospel Story for our Time. New York. Crossroad Publishing, 2005. Webb, V. Like Catching Water in a Net. Human Attempts to Define the Divine. New York. Continuum Press, 2007.

Kelly Sean Cosmological Wisdom and Planetary Madness



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