‘A Curious Trinity’

Posted: May 26, 2018 in Uncategorized

John 3:1-17

‘A Curious Trinity’

Gretta Vosper reminds us that “Church history, like most history, is generally told from the perspective of the victors, those who made the rules and reinforce them.  Those who dissented from the accepted beliefs of their time – often risking infamy, isolation, academic shunning, ridicule, or death – are depicted as heretics and traitors to the faith. History is told to discourage us from finding affinity with them.”

I want to make a suggestion about what I think might be our experience of history discouraging us from discovering a new way of being religious, or a new way of articulating the value of Jesus for the future.

Some time back I suggested that Gordon Kaufmann might be on to something here when he sought to use the word creativity instead of God as a means of understanding God in today’s context. He added the word serendipitous when he wrote his book ‘In the Face of Mystery, A Constructive Theology”. He had come to the conclusion that all theological ideas-including the idea of God-could best be understood as products of the human imagination, when employed by men and women seeking to orient themselves in life. This freed him to experiment with a variety of ways of thinking of God, humanity, and the world more congenial to modern/postmodern consciousness about these matters than were the more traditional formulations. It was in the publication of his book In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Kaufman 1993a) that he was able to set out in some detail the major problems he had with traditional Christian thinking about these matters, together with his own constructive proposals addressing these problems. Three terms he found useful in his constructive work were: bio-historical beings; widespread serendipitous creativity; and cosmic, evolutionary and historical trajectories or directional movements. The first; humans as bio-historical beings means conceiving the human as being deeply embedded in the web of life on planet earth at the same time as attending to the significance of our radical distinctiveness as a form of life. Being human is distinctive within the whole of what life is. The second; the widespread serendipitous creativity manifest in the cosmos as conceived today. This provides a promising way of thinking of God. The suggestion here is that the concept of serendipitous creativity is that force or energy which is manifest throughout our evolutionary universe. One might say that serendipitous creativity is that which powers the universe. This also presents creation as ongoing processes or events rather than a once off event in time. And three; in the notion of cosmic, we acknowledge evolutionary, and historical trajectories or directional movements that have emerged spontaneously in the universe at large and on planet Earth in particular. These trajectories or movements have made visible to us humans, the consequences of the divine creative activity in the world. This places religion within our current understanding of cosmic, biological and historical-cultural processes. It enables us to interrelate and interpret the enormous expansion and complexification of the physical universe from the Big Bang onward. As well as the evolution of life on earth including the gradual emergence of human historical existence.

Last week I suggested we might start to paint a new picture with the beginning of John’s gospel and reinterpret the word God as serendipitous creativity.

In the beginning was serendipitous creativity and serendipitous creativity was with God, and serendipitous creativity was God. All things came into being through Serendipitous Creativity and without it not one thing came into being. What has come into being in serendipitous creativity was life,* and the life was the light of all people.

“In the beginning was serendipitous creativity, and … [this] serendipitous creativity was God”? There are two quite different interpretations that come to mind in this. In the ordinary understanding of John’s Gospel, it is usually assumed that to say the Word was God” (1:1) is a declaration that the Word (which a few verses later will be identified with Jesus) is fully divine. John goes on to emphasize this point immediately by stating; All things came into being through” this Word (1:3); this is what created the heavens and the earth. Were we to follow this pattern of interpretation, our paraphrase would be redundant, simply asserting that the serendipitous creativity” that brought all things into being is nothing other than the activity of the creator-and we would be left with our familiar and recent traditional ideas about both God and creativity.

The other interpretation of the paraphrase, however, turns this all around and asserts that the phrase “serendipitous creativity was [or is] God” is not redundant at all but rather a claim about what our word” God” designates: it is serendipitous creativity that is God; when we use the word “God,” it is the profound mystery of serendipitous creativity to which we are referring. Our anthropomorphic or personalistic images and ideas of God should not get in the way of our recognizing the significance of this point. The common point is the mystery that will always exist. The words “serendipitous creativity,” as we have been noting, leave the question of how or why the new comes into being completely open, and (in this second interpretation) the word” God” is the religious name for this mystery that goes beyond human understanding. This interpretation implies that we should beware of unconsciously importing any images or ideas -personalistic or other -into our thinking about God, for that would be refusing to acknowledge the ultimacy of God’s (serendipitous creativity’s) profound mystery, instead of facing up to what that mystery means for us.

It would be claiming we know something that we cannot possibly know, why and how there is something and not nothing. In the Genesis 1 story, although the created realities spoken of there -like the sun and moon, plants and animals and humans -are all things that we know perfectly well. Just what the creator God is, or how and why God is able to bring these sorts of things into being, remains completely unexplained. It is interesting to note that the modern story of the Big Bang, the subsequent coming into being of the cosmos, and the eventual evolution of life has similar limitations: all that we actually see or can understand here is that new realities have emerged in the course of time. In this account, like in the biblical account, the how and why of creation remain profound mysteries. So here again is the challenge to not allow ancient religious assumptions and beliefs to lead us into thinking we know or understand what happens in events or processes of this kind.

God, of course, has always been understood to be a profound mystery, but the way in which God has been talked about has often involved fudging this point and proceeding as though we knew that God is really a personal being, one of enormous power who can create at will things that previously did not exist. A supernatural. Interventionist God.

Thinking of God as serendipitous creativity (rather than as “the Creator”) forces us to take the profundity of God’s mystery to a deeper level. For serendipitous creativity” is simply a name with which we identify this profound mystery of new realities coming into being; it is in no way an explanation of it. What has come into being is the whole vast cosmos -with all its multifarious contents -the wide context of our human lives. Within this developing cosmos, after billions of years of further serendipitous creativity,’ life emerged on planet Earth and gradually evolved along many different lines. On one of these trajectories, after further billions of years of creativity, mammals, primates, and finally humans came into being. This particular development represents, of course, only one line of the creativity manifest in our universe, but it is the one that -in its serendipitous superabundance -brought humans into being and thus is of special meaning and importance to us. To become aware of this awe-inspiring mystery of serendipitous creativity is to come out of the dark unconsciousness of these matters. Most of life, and of human history as well, lives and has existed. It lives and has existed into the paradoxical consciousness and knowledge of the profound mystery within which we humans live. It is this mystery of serendipitous creativity, that Kaufmann and I am suggesting, that we today should think of as God.’

But what has this to do with Trinity? Can this 14th century doctrine be of any value in talking about this serendipitous creativity as God? Well, to recap; I think it can. When reminding ourselves of some key points in this claim we see that Serendipitous Creativity is a name of God and it is a way of speaking about God. Trinity is a metaphor that expresses the individuation of God and by individuation, I mean the completion of God, in other words an evolutionary God is always almost here, all around us and almost here. Trinity suggests that God is understood through the triune relationship, the dynamic of relationship between the cosmic, life and human flourishing. God the father, the cosmic creation, God the Son, the life creation and God the Holy Spirit, the human flourishing.

When we examine these three significantly different modalities of serendipitous creativity, each of them is involved in mystery in its own distinctive way; putting this point theologically, one can say that serendipitous creativity (God’s activity) will be considered here in connection with three different contexts, and thus in three different forms. The first of these modalities -which we might call serendipitous creativity is the initial coming into the ongoing coming into being of trajectories of increasingly complex novel realities. In this mode creation is not thought of as simply and straightforwardly from nothing; it is, rather, creation in the context of other realities that already exist. The second mode is about the kind of complex processes that today are believed to have produced, in the course of some billions of years, humans (as well as many other creatures). This mode provides (among other things) a link between Serendipitous Creativity 1 and serendipitous creativity 3. There are, doubtless, other ways of thinking about the concept of creativity, but this trinitarian, three-fold division enables us to view it from three distinctly different angles. The ideas of the Big Bang and the subsequent evolution of the world and of life have become commonplace features of a very comprehensive way of thinking that some commentators believe is increasingly bringing the sciences back into relation with each other as they now proceed with their work. After some years of vigorous debate, a widespread consensus appears to be developing among cosmologists about the basic facts of the universe -how old it is, how large it is, the various stages through which it developed, and so on.’ It is believed that the universe is very large and perhaps consisting of many billions of galaxies, each of which, on average, Scientist Stephen Hawking said `At the big bang itself, the universe is thought to have had zero size, and … to have been infinitely hot” (Hawking 1988,117). Though this may be plausible mathematically, it is very difficult to imagine or think just what is being said here about an actual state of affairs: what could it mean to describe this whatever-it-is as being, of zero size”, and how could anything of that sort be articulated clearly in our ordinary speech.

The Big Bang, its effects or what follows it are cumulative and long-lasting but probably not unending as new structures and patterns gradually emerge in the universe that is coming into being. There is of course more to say about what could be called ongoing serendipitous creativity or more creativity but for today I want to leave that discussion for later. Suffice to say that this further creative activity also cumulates and develops and brings more new forms of order into being through long and increasingly complex creative evolutionary processes. The earlier experiences of serendipitous creativity or God’s activity produced the material and vital orders of the world in which we live, and this latter serendipitous creativity- appearing in and through the activities of our human minds, our spirits, produces the whole mental /spiritual world as an emergent outcome of those prior modalities of serendipitous creativity. This argues that serendipitous creativity should not be thought of as a static reality, always and everywhere the same, but rather as itself modulating and developing in ways appropriate to the increasing complexity of the realities it is producing and within which it appears.

So, back to the trinity. For a piece of theology which was supposed to bring unity in the church amid political intrigue and a host of opposing theological opinions, of ‘suspected heretics’ and ‘dissidents’, we have to say it failed! Yet when listening to Marjorie Suchocki, professor emerita of Claremont School of Theology and executive director of ‘Process & Faith’ we have to think again. She said that: “despite (its) divisive history, the doctrine of the Trinity is more important today than ever, and for two very practical reasons: the first is that the doctrine can keep us from the idolatry of thinking God is just a human being, only bigger and better than the rest of us. We know that taking away a theistic God and a divine Jesus we are apt to feel that we have lost our faith or destroyed Christianity and Suchocki’s claim is that the doctrine argues against that as well as telling us that the very deepest form of unity is one that includes irreducible diversity.” (Process & Faith web site 2006)

In closing we are invited to hear Nicodemus again. To hear him as a member of the religious institution of his day take the risk of changing his view. He was a mover of theological boundaries. He was willing to risk leaving behind the so-called ‘truth’ as he and his colleagues had known it, in order to explore something new. Nicodemus as for us, must be allowed to respond to ‘the new’ or ‘the different’ in a variety of ways rather than prescribing a single mode. Otherwise how else can he and we discover that our lives and our thinking might be different? Nicodemus, Patron saint of the curious.  And for many of us, our patron saint. May he protect the curious in each of us. Amen.

Lowry, E. L. “Strangers in the Night” in W. B. Robinson (ed) Journeys Toward Narrative Preaching. New York. The Pilgrim Press, 1990.
Robinson, J. A. T. But That I Can’t Believe! London. Fontana Press, 1967.
Vosper, G. Amen. What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief . Toronto: HarperCollins, 2012

Kaufman G. D. In The Beginning Creativity. Fortress press 2004

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